The great thing about the internet is that it opens up infinite and infinitely varied worlds for us all to explore. Like the human animal himself, many of those worlds aren’t worth exploring, but those that are more than make up for the bad, and like the human animal, there is always far more good than bad.
Case in point: I received a very intelligent, very literate, very thoughtful and insightful letter from a Muslim gentleman who wished to correct some of my statements and conclusions about Islam and the Koran (“Howard Dean, Islamic Scholar,” January 8th, 2014.) He has asked to remain anonymous, with the exception that I may state he is a Specialist in the US Army, currently in the Modern Standard Arabic course at the Defense Language Institute. His letter is well worth reproducing by itself, and I have done so below. (The only change I made to the original was the addition of the letter “s” he inadvertently dropped from the end of a word.) He also included a link to an open letter (explained within his own letter) and that too is well worth reading. I have attached that link at the bottom of his letter.
I still have four issues:
The first is that there is clearly, for at least a small percentage of misguided Muslims, a disconnect between the words of the Koran and the Hadith and the interpretation of both of those. It is only that small percentage that dominates the news with its outrages and atrocities, but the fact remains that there is something in both the Koran and Hadith that allows for that kind of misinterpretation.
Second, for whatever reason, there are far too few people like my correspondent who have the brains, eloquence, intellectual understanding, and willingness to express this side of Islam, and for that or some other reason, this side is almost never voiced. Is it that the media are drawn to the shock value of wild-eyed, hate-filled imams ranting about Jewish conspiracies or American conspiracies or both, and calling for the destruction of Western civilization? Is it because of fear on the part of moderate Muslims? Is because the voice of moderation will always be drowned out by the strident voice of extremism? I don’t know.
Third, my criticism of Howard Dean and, by extension, President Obama and his entire administration, still stands; they all appear paralyzed by political correctness. The adage, “know your enemy” is as old as war itself. If you are unwilling or unable to identify your enemy, how do you know who to fight? Whether it is Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Shabaab, or any other groups of thugs, they are radical Islamic extremists—or, if you prefer, radical Islamic terrorists—and their actions cannot be palmed off on workplace violence. Not identifying them as a lunatic fringe, not making a point of separating the loonies from the real thing, allows all of Islam to be tarred with the same brush.
Finally, I stand by my reference to Islam as a religion of the sword, although I am perfectly prepared to admit that particular phrase may now be considered antiquated by modern Islamic scholars. The history from which I learned the phrase was written around the time of World War Two and came from much older sources, so while it may now be antiquated or even inaccurate for mainstream Islam, it certainly was not so for the first 1200 or 1300 years. I sincerely hope that Mr. ___________ is right and that it is now as valid as the hair shirt and lice-ridden filth that were once the hallmarks of the truly devout Christian.
Dear Mr. Parker,
I want to begin by offering you a bit of information about myself. I am a Specialist in the US Army, currently enrolled in the Modern Standard Arabic course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I read your blog occasionally, and agree with you more often than not, but I felt obligated to write you and correct some of the errors in the post you titled “Howard Dean, Islamic Scholar”.
I am writing as someone who is not only studying Arabic in the best domestic program our government has for language training but who has also undertaken considerable study (over eight years formally, and at least four before that) of Muslim and Arab culture as well as of the Qur’an. After I leave DLI I will attach to a Special Forces group and provide intelligence for their missions. I am working toward what the Army would term “subject matter expertise”, with hope for a long career defending our nation against terrorism. I want to begin by saying that I would not call myself an Islamic Scholar, much less a scholar of the Qur’an, but I’m still quite certain that Mr. Dean hits much closer to the mark than you.
First, let me begin with the Quranic definition of Muslim, one that I’ve heard and seen used by Islamic scholars as recently as last year (Hamza Yusuf, a signatory of the letter explained and attached below, and Muhammad al-Jamal, a former Judge and Jurist in Jerusalem and teacher at Masjid al-Aqsa) and as far back as the turn of the twentieth century (Marmaduke Pickthall, who himself translated the Qur’an into English). A Muslim is someone who submits or surrenders to the will of Allah, the singular God of all monotheistic religions, specifically of Judaism and Christianity. In the Qur’an itself, Muslim is only ever used with its literal meaning. When the Qur’an addresses Muslims, it means those who submit to God. Many scholars believe that the Qur’an addresses Christians and Jews as Muslims throughout, and distinguishes those communities only when referring to specific, historically identifiable groups. The five pillars of Islam and the common conception of what it means to be a Muslim do(es) not come from the Qur’an but from a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation with the angel Gabriel.
Next, I’ll touch on some of the Ayat (verses) from the Quran you’ve quoted (really just a very few, if I waste too much of my time the terrorists may actually win–that’s meant as a joke) with the hope that I can clarify for you the difference between the fighting prescribed in the Qur’an and that carried out by terrorists. The first verse you cite, from Surah al-Baqarah: Ayat 190, begins, “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress. . .” the verb transgress (based on its conjugation) limits the fighting of those commanded. It can be rephrased, “Fight in the way of God but do not transgress (His limits).” Fighting in the way of God does not involve any of the actions we’ve seen attributed to “dash”, it’s remarkably well defined. A number of scholars have argued that the command to fight given to Muslims only applied as against the specific people who oppressed Muhammad and his followers (as they are the ones referenced in the verses containing the commandments) and cannot be extrapolated to justify fighting in the present age. Far fewer scholars (I’m aware of none) believe that the command to fight applies as against all “infidels” as you put it.
As to the third verse you cite, from Surat al-‘Imran: Ayat 151, which begins “We will cast terror. . .” That this is the Divine We speaking should be obvious. Terror, and terrorism therefore, is not the work of Muslims. God inspires the fear, those who take it upon themselves claim lordship and commit shirk, which is the greatest sin in Islam. The reference to infidels or disbelievers in fourth verse you cite is, in Arabic, الذين كفروا, or “those who cover up (the Truth)”, it has nothing to do with what a person believes but rather with their actions, hence the further explanation contained in the verse, “that they fight in the cause of tyranny.” There should be little doubt as to who fights for the cause of tyranny between the current sides of our global conflict. Muslims, even according to the Qur’an, are just as capable of covering up the truth as are any others. Infidel is perhaps the most mistranslated word in Arabic.
The fifth verse you cite, specifically the punishment “that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides” refers to their punishment “in the Hereafter” (it is explained later in the same verse). In the sixth verse you cite, the polytheists referred to are “those with whom you have a treaty” (referenced in the Ayat immediately preceding it as well as at the start of the Surah), it expressly refers to a particular historical group of people. I can run through an explanation of every single verse contained in your post and give you a Quranic, an historic, or an otherwise apparent reason that it clearly doesn’t mean or intend what you’ve implied in your post, but I don’t believe you’re so obtuse as to make that necessary. Suffice it to say that you’re gravely mistaken. Islam has never been a religion of the sword, it was not taught that way by the Prophet Muhammad nor by any other Prophet or Messenger before him. Those who claim it to be do so out of ignorance.
As context and for additional help with interpretation, I’ve attached an open letter from actual Islamic scholars concerning the actions of the so called “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” and their explanation of the connections between “dash” (the Arabic acronym, which I prefer to use) and actual Islam. These are not all liberal scholars, nor are they all people with whom most Americans and westerners would agree concerning the role of Islam in the world; many of the men who signed this letter are actually responsible for the spread of Wahhabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam and are thereby linked to what we in this part of the free world consider “extremism”. You’ll notice they still roundly condemn “dash”, particularly in light of permitted criticism in Islam. According to the Quranic definition, Mr. Dean is (and you yourself are) much more a Muslim than these terrorists.
Finally, I’m also writing to you as an American Muslim. The words you’ve published make my life in the country I choose to defend indescribably more difficult. I signed up because of the permission contained in the Qur’an for a righteous war against ignorance, hatred, and oppression. I serve because I don’t want terrorists as the voice or image of my religion. I am going to war with what I pray are God’s blessings. I do not want to have to perpetually fight violent, fear-mongering ignorance on two fronts. As much as I want my religion cleansed of terrorism, hatred, and extremist vitriol, I want my country to remain the beacon of freedom, diversity, and acceptance it has always represented. I ask that you correct some of your misconceptions and work to inform and educate your readers in the future.