Muslim Scholars
Increasingly Debate Unholy War

[COMMENT:  The movement referred to below must be encouraged by all Christians, reaching out to Muslims.  It's success will entail a deep reworking of the attitude toward the Koran.  It is not clear to me that the Koran can survive such a reworking.

The deeper issue is epistemology - how we know what we know, and, built on that, the authority of the holy book.  Christians have wrestled with the same issues, but from a fundamentally different historical and epistemological background. 

The Koran will be hard to free from the "infallibility trap" because of the way it was allegedly written.  Claims of infallibility lead to a one-way cycle downhill, and always lead to an authoritarian mentality rather than to open, honest discussion, as in, "Come, let us reason together...."   (Is. 1:18)   See The Authority of the Bible in a Scientific Age

The Bible makes no claims to being infallible, and, in fact works against any such claim.  But the Koran can hardly get along without that claim because it has no rootage in history.  The Koran is an untestable document, and therefore the only claim for its authority will be an arbitrary one.   The Bible is testable, and indeed has been tested for most of the last several centuries more than any other book in history.  Yet is still stands on its own two feet. 

At any rate, the scholars below are calling for a much needed reassessment.  We must gracefully assist them.  And gracefully suggest the Bible as a satisfactory alternative to the Koran, and Jesus as an alternative to Mohammed.  The fact that they are taking on the issue is the best sign I have ever seen concerning Islam.  And the new possibility (given the success, so far, of the elections in Iraq) of an emerging government by the people will greatly encourage such helpful discussions as those below.    E. Fox] 


December 10, 2004

CAIRO, Dec. 9 - Muhammad Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively 
about Islam, sits in his engineering office in Damascus, Syria, arguing 
that Muslims will untangle their faith from the increasingly gory 
violence committed in its name only by reappraising their sacred texts.

First, Mr. Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth 
chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by 
the Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian Peninsula. He 
believes that as the source of most of the verses used to validate 
extremist attacks, with lines like "slay the pagans where you find 
them," the chapter should be isolated to its original context.

"The state which he built died, but his message is still alive," says 
Mr. Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer with 
thinning gray hair. "So we have to differentiate between the religion 
and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only 
killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war, 
but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just."

Mr. Shahrour and a dozen or so like-minded intellectuals from across 
the Arab and Islamic worlds provoked bedlam when they presented their 
call for a reinterpretation of holy texts after a Cairo seminar 
entitled "Islam and Reform" earlier this fall.

"Liars! Liars!" someone screamed at a news conference infiltrated by 
Islamic scholars and others from the hard-core faithful who shouted and 
lunged at the panelists to a degree that no journalist could ask a 
question. "You are all Zionists! You are all infidels!"

The long-simmering internal debate over political violence in Islamic 
cultures is swelling, with seminars like that one and a raft of 
newspaper columns breaking previous taboos by suggesting that the 
problem lies in the way Islam is being interpreted. On Saturday in 
Morocco, a major conference, attended by Secretary of State Colin L. 
Powell, will focus on increasing democracy and liberal principles in 
the Muslim world.

On one side of the discussion sit mostly secular intellectuals 
horrified by the gore joined by those ordinary Muslims dismayed by the 
ever more bloody image of Islam around the world. They are determined 
to find a way to wrestle the faith back from extremists. Basically the 
liberals seek to dilute what they criticize as the clerical monopoly on 
disseminating interpretations of the sacred texts.

Arrayed against them are powerful religious institutions like Al Azhar 
University, prominent clerics and a whole different class of scholars 
who argue that Islam is under assault by the West. Fighting back with 
any means possible is the sole defense available to a weaker victim, 
they say.

The debate, which can be heard in the Middle East, North Africa and 
South Asia, is driven primarily by carnage in Iraq. The hellish stream 
of images of American soldiers attacking mosques and other targets are 
juxtaposed with those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading civilian 
victims on his home videos as a Koranic verse including the line "Smite 
at their necks" scrolls underneath.

When the mayhem in Iraq slows, events like the slaying in September of 
more than 300 people at a Russian school - half of them children - or 
some other attack in the Netherlands, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia or Spain 
labeled jihad by its perpetrators serves to fuel discussions on 
satellite television, in newspapers and around the dinner tables of 
ordinary Muslims.

"Resistance was never like this - to kidnap someone and decapitate him 
in front of everyone," said Ibrahim Said, delivering pastry in the 
Cairo neighborhood of Nasser City recently.

"This is haram," he went on, using the Arabic word for something 
forbidden or shameful, and then quotes the Koran on his own. " 'Verily 
never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it 
themselves.' That means nothing will change unless we change ourselves 

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, director of the Dubai-based satellite network 
Al Arabiya and a well-known Saudi journalist, created a ruckus this 
fall with a newspaper column saying Muslims must confront the fact that 
most terrorist acts are perpetrated by Muslims.

"The danger specifically comes from the ideas and the preaching of 
violence in the name of religion," he said, adding, "I am more 
convinced there is a problem with the culture, the modern culture of 
radicalism, which people have to admit. Without recognizing that as 
fact number one, that statistically speaking most terrorists are 
Muslims, we won't be able to solve it."

Mr. Rashed senses there is a movement in the Arab world, if perhaps not 
yet a consensus, that understands that Muslims have to start reining in 
their own rather than constantly complaining about injustice and 
unfairness. The violence has not only reduced sympathy for just causes 
like ending the Israeli occupation, he says, but set off resentment 
against Muslims wherever they live.

On the other side is Abdel Sabour Shahin, a linguistics professor at 
Cairo University and a talk show stalwart, who says the Muslim world 
must defend itself and most foreigners in Iraq are fair game. In the 
new middle-class suburbs stretching into the desert beyond the 
Pyramids, Professor Shahin greets visitors inside a small gated 
compound of high white walls that includes his own mosque where he 
preaches each Friday.

"There is a large group of people who wear civilian clothes but serve 
the occupying forces," he said. "So how can we demand from someone who 
is resisting the occupation to ask first if the person is a civilian or 

When asked what he thinks of those who chop off heads, he responds: 
"When a missile hits a house it decapitates 30 or 40 residents and 
turns them to ash. Isn't there a need to compare the behavior of a 
person under siege and angry with those who are managing the 
instruments of war?"

His remarks echo those of Sheik Yousef Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born, now 
Qatari cleric whose program "Islamic Law and Life" on Al Jazeera 
satellite television makes him about the most influential cleric among 
mainstream Sunni Muslims, the majority sect.

Last August Sheik Qaradawi seemed to imply that all Americans in Iraq 
could be targets. Asked whether that included civilians, the sheik 
responded with a question, "Are there civilians in Iraq?" In the 
ensuing uproar across the region he issued a clarification, suggesting 
that he meant only those who abetted the occupation, and pointed out 
that he had previously condemned beheadings.

Yet late last month, right after the renewed United States assault on 
Falluja, the sheik again put the Islamic seal of approval on anyone 
fighting back.

"Resistance is a legitimate matter - even more, it is a duty," he said 
on television.

While few Muslims argue with the right to resist a military occupation, 
the problem is that such sweeping, ill-defined statements are 
interpreted as a mandate to undertake any violence, no matter how 

"You condemn the beheading and then on a different question you say 
anybody who supports the occupation is worth fighting," said Jamal 
Khashoggi, a Saudi expert on Islamic movements. "So the message does 
not sink in."

In November, 26 prominent Saudi clerics signed a petition supporting 
the "defensive jihad" in Iraq. Although their statement ruled out 
attacking relief workers or other uninvolved parties, it was 
interpreted as a signal for Saudis to volunteer. Osama bin Laden and 
his followers emerged from a similar call 25 years ago to fight in 
Afghanistan, a fight that they subsequently spread around the globe.

The discussion on the reinterpretation of Islam remains largely 
confined to an intellectual elite, but even raising the topic erodes 
the taboo that the religion and those schooled in it are somehow 
infallible. There are no opinion polls on the subject, but in talking 
to people on the streets, one gets the sense that they are grappling 
with these issues within their own understanding of their faith.

Some utterly reject any criticism and immediately identify Prime 
Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush as those bearing the most 
responsibility for the butchery. They inevitably also mention the abuse 
of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as needing to be avenged.

But others exhibit a certain introspection.

One sense of the growing public dismay in the Arab world is the muted 
reaction to the Falluja assault last month compared with the one six 
months ago. This has been partly attributed to the atrocities committed 
by the insurgents, including suicide attacks killing many Iraqis.

The wide public sympathy enjoyed by those fighting the American or 
Israeli soldiers, however, makes it difficult to mount any campaign 
against violence and terrorism, advocates of a change say.

Proponents of jihad argue that it is only natural for Iraqis and 
Palestinians to fight back, and point to what they call American 

Sheik Khalil al-Mais, the mufti of Zahle and the Bekaa region in 
Lebanon, compares the treatment of two despots, Saddam Hussein and 
Muammar el-Qaddafi, both with a long history of abusing dissidents and 
other ills. One did not yield to the West, while the other abandoned 
his unconventional weapons programs.

"Qaddafi bought his way out, but Qaddafi is still Qaddafi," the sheik 
said, donning his carefully wrapped white turban before leaving to 
deliver a Friday Prayer sermon. "Why did they put Saddam in jail and 
leave Qaddafi in power? America should not talk about principles."

Asked about those who say the problem lies deep within restrictive 
interpretations of Islam itself, Sheik Mais grimaced and exclaimed, 
"Take refuge in God!" summing up the viewpoint of most Islamic 

You cannot divide Islam into pieces, he says. You have to take it as a 

But whose whole, the would-be reformists respond, lamenting what one 
Saudi writer calls "fatwa chaos." A important difficulty under Sunni 
Islam, as opposed to, say, the Shiite branch predominant in Iran or the 
Catholic Church, is that there is no central authority to issue 
ultimate rulings on doctrinal questions.

Those in the liberal trend believe that Islam, now entering its 15th 
century, needs to undergo a wholesale re-examination of its basic 
principles. Toward that end, the Cairo conference this fall recommended 
reviewing the roots of Islamic heritage, especially the Prophet's 
sayings, ending the monopoly that certain religious institutions hold 
over interpreting such texts and confronting all extremist religious 

Those taking part were harshly accused of dabbling in a realm that 
belongs solely to the clergy, with the grand sheik of Al Azhar, 
Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Egypt's most senior religious scholar, labeling 
them a "group of outcasts."

But Mr. Shahrour says he and an increasing number of intellectuals 
cannot be deterred by clerical opposition.

[COMMENT: The next time someone tells you that "that is merely intellectual" or "just a head trip", help him to understand that "ideas have consequences".  Our intellects help build our roadmaps to reality.  It makes a huge difference whether the map to reality is accurate or not.  Our intellects help clear up the errors, ambiguities, and fog. 

The notion of the infallibility of the Koran has enormous consequences because it makes the Koran an untestable document.  We need to challenge Muslims to make an honest testing of their holy books.  Pray that the intellectuals among the Muslims will stand firm for truth, righteousness, love.   E. Fox] 

He describes as ridiculously archaic some Hadith, or sayings, 
attributed to Muhammad - all assembled in nine bulky volumes some 100 
years after his death and now the last word on how the faithful should 

"It is like this now because for centuries Muslims have been told that 
Islam was spread by the sword, that all Arab countries and even Spain 
were captured by the sword and we are proud of that," he said. "In the 
minds of ordinary people, people on the street, the religion of Islam 
is the religion of the sword. This is the culture, and we have to 
change it."

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