Burning in the Name of God
Fast on the back of Charlie Hebdo, the callously choreographed burning of the Jordanian air force pilot, Muadh al-Kasasbeh, is likely to reinforce in the eyes of much of the world the idea that Islam is synonymous with murder, and that all religions are a danger, because (turning a blind eye to secular warmongering), “they lead to war.”
Earlier this week I was in a Pakistani-Scottish friend’s newspaper shop. He said he had been listening to an imam interviewed about the Paris atrocities on Radio 5 Live. The poor man squirmed as he tried to explain that true Islam is a religion of peace. The militants, he argued, had stolen its good name. However, the station was giving him no quarter. “But the Qur’an says this, and Muhammad said that,” and to my young friend, it felt as if his religion, and with it is culture and identity, were themselves being executed over the air in a kangaroo court.
So, what does the Qur’an and the Prophet (peace be upon him) say about violence? First, it is true that all three of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – speak in differing degrees of nuance, either because they express an historical evolution of the human understanding of the divine, or because they are muddled messages, or because they seek to speak to people in differing contexts and differing stations of understanding.
For example, Christian “just war” theory hinges most strongly on post-Christ teachings attributed to Saint Paul where, in Romans 13:4, the authority of a state ruler is legitimised on the basis that, “he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” This is further augmented by the arguments of Augustine and Aquinas, albeit in tortured contravention of the Christ of the four gospels who taught and practiced, not “just war” theory, but full-on nonviolence.
The acceptance of “just war” theory was the victor’s narrative imposed on an earlier pacifist Christianity as it became cooped into Constantine’s Roman Empire around the year 312. Such is the ground to which most mainstream Christians today feel reconciled – the exception being what the World Council of Churches recognises as the “historic peace churches” of the Mennonites, the Quakers and the Church of the Brethren (German Baptists). Augustine’s theory has the advantage, at least, of placing constraints on warfare, including such principles as waging war only as a last resort, by “legitimate” authorities, proportionately, and with safeguards for non-combatants. This remains the lynchpin of military ethics as is explicitly taught in most western military academies to this day and as encoded in the Geneva Conventions.
In comparison, Islam holds much the same principles, some of them even more authoritatively encoded. The core Qur’anic text mandating “just war” is Surah II:190:
Fight in the cause of God
Those who fight you,
But do not transgress limits;
For God loveth not transgressors.
Those limits are set out in various hadiths or oral traditions of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). As P.J. Stewart points out in his chapter, “The Prophet at War” in Unfolding Islam, the hadiths specify:
• Not to kill women and children (Bukhari 32)
• POWs to be treated humanely (Bukhari 52)
• Not to mutilate the dead (Sira 388)
• No-one should be killed by burning (Bukhari 52)
On such a basis, the overwhelming majority of contemporary Islamic thinkers hold that terrorism is un-Islamic. (Some extend this to all of modern warfare that kills by firepower.) For example, Scotland’s most senior Sunni Muslim, Dr Bashir Mann, a past president of the Glasgow Central Mosque, has been outspoken for years on this point in his letters and articles in the British and Pakistani press. He draws attention to Surah V:35 of the Holy Qur’an: “If any one slew a person [unjustly] it would be as if he slew the whole people.”
In a current effort to redeem the good name of Islam, the Muslim Council of Britain features prominently on its website a forthright response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
Nothing justifies the taking of life. Those who have killed in the name of our religion today claim to be avenging the insults made against Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace. But nothing is more immoral, offensive and insulting against our beloved Prophet than such a callous act of murder.
To return the focus to Jordan, in 2004 King Abdullah II, out of concern over the use of Islam to justify terrorism, brought into being the Amman Message. Here leading scholars from all major branches of Islam declared infighting between Moslems to be anathema. Today this would include the Islamic State’s war on the rival Shi’a tradition, though until it sprung upon them, the Jordanians had not anticipated the rise of such a force as ISIS.
When an organisation or individuals kill innocent parties, or kill by burning, they violate fundamental principles of Islam. Such is the idolatry of violence – the worshipping (or “giving worth towards”) of a false god – the perversion of Islam into which alienated, angered and emptied young Jihadists are drawn. It is the antithesis of the opening verses of the Qur’an, known as “the Essence of the Book” – “In the name of God (Allah), the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds.”
Even within the terms “just war” theories, even without recourse to the stronger ethos of nonviolence, terrorism perverts religion, and all religions, to idolatry. The problem with idolatry and the reason why it remains a pressing modern spiritual problem is that it “can’t get no satisfaction.” It is a false-satisfier. It falsely satisfies the spiritual imperative, irrupting into life (as it can do) as an innate human need. That need, arguably reflecting ultimate reality – the need for profound interconnectedness, the need for a life that is embedded in love. In War is a Force that Gives us Meaning the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent, Chris Hedges, reveals the psychological consequences of worshipping a god that demands human sacrifice to this end and is only satisfied by death (pp. 10 & 162):
In the beginning war looks and feels like love. But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction. It does not affirm but places upon us greater and greater demands. It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war’s grip. It takes a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill. Finally, one ingests war only to remain numb. The world outside war becomes, as Freud wrote, “uncanny”. The familiar becomes strangely unfamiliar – many who have been in war find this when they return home. The world we once understood and longed to return to stands before us as alien, strange, and beyond our grasp.
The motivations of young European Muslims who go off to fight for the Islamic State – and they are numbered more in dozens than in hundreds – is probably very similar to bygone Christians who went off to the crusades. In his definitive study written in Scotland, A History of the Crusades, Sir Steven Runciman described crusader ideology as having been, “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”
We won’t start to tackle the roots of terrorism unless we recognise that we’re all in this together. It’s not just a thing about Muslims. If religions get the blame, where can be found their roots of redemption? What must it be the spirituality priority of people of pure heart to draw out, and stand up for?
There is now an ever-growing litany of the effective use of nonviolence in the face of lethal conflict. Christianity has the gospels of Jesus to prioritise and thereby redeem itself from the “just war” principles legitimised by the Paul of Romans 13, Augustine and Aquinas. Judaism has the later prophets – Isaiah and Micah – with their anticipation of beating “swords into ploughshares”. Progressive Jews such as Rabbi Michael Lerner courageously advance this today through the outstanding magazine that he edits, Tikkun. But what of Islam?
Behind the headlines, Islam has a long and venerable history of nonviolence. One example was the astonishingly courageous leadership of Ghaffar “Badshah” Khan – the “Muslim Gandhi” – whose unarmed followers stood steady, delegitimising their oppression, as soldiers of the British Raj pumped lead bullets into their chests in the Massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (“the Storyteller’s Market”) in Peshwar in 1930 – still just within living memory.
More recently, the world witnessed the power of well-organised nonviolent Islamic resistance during the Arab Spring. This very much remains “work in progress”. Nevertheless, it has exposed a new generation to the politics of nonviolent direct action.
Most overlooked of all, including by many of Islam’s scholars (perhaps it is too radical?), has been the Islamic basis of nonviolence within the Holy Qur’an itself. Here Surah V:30-35 gives the Islamic version of the world’s first murder, the story of Cain and Abel. When Abel sees the impending outcome of his brother’s spiritual jealousy, rather than retaliate in kind he tells Cain:
If you stretch out your hand to kill me, it is not for me to kill you, because I respect God, the Cherisher of the Worlds. You will only draw down sin upon yourself.
To this, the authoritative Qur’anic commentary of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, published in Jeddah, makes the observation: “To the threat of death [Abel] returns a calm reply, aimed at reforming the other.”
Yesterday the world learned that Lt al-Kasasbeh had been executed: placed in an iron cage, doused with petrol, and set alight. This morning we awoke to news that Jordan, in an initial stroke of retaliation, executed two of its prisoners including a failed female suicide bomber. Petrol continues to be poured on the pyre. New martyrs as recruiting sergeants. Only the hideous god of violence wins.
Like German Christians after the Nazis, Islam has to come to grips with having been hijacked. It needs time, and breathing space, and not to be pushed into corners and humiliated. Who knows, if we ever deployed Trident, we too would have to come to grips with our innate potential for atrocity. We, too, await the Chilcot Report.
All of us are facing a common human problem. Religion might be its presenting face, its stolen and perverted basis for legitimacy, but that is why religions need to reconnect with their deeper spiritual bases of nonviolence. Such is the spiritual task of this century, if not millennium. Violence only seems to work on a short temporal wavelength. We must tune in to the long wave.
In the name of Allah: “the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” (Qur’an I:1).
In the name of Christ: “My Kingdom is not of this world: if it were, then my followers would fight to save me…” (John 18:36).
In the name of Jehovah: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).