Is ISIS’s Interpretation of Islam Legitimate? How Top Journalists Cenk Uyger, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Gavin Ashenden All Got it Wrong

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post here. The Qur’an by Phalinn Ooi

Twice in as many days have I come across high profile journalists arguing that ISIS isas Islamic as your run-of-the-mill Muslim neighbourino Ned Flanders, eager just to spread the love.

Are they right?

The first was Cenk Uyger of The Young Turks (who should be applauded on otherwise great political commentary), stating that extremist and peaceful Muslims havedifferent interpretation(s) of their texts and when you read their texts, both interpretations are justifiable. In a similar vein, The Telegraph columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer wrote that:

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This is not a new issue. Gavin Ashenden asked the same question in The Times on the 20th March 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in his piece ‘Muslims Need to Face Up To The Violence of the Koran’. “Jesus says love your enemies; where is Islam’s restraint?” he asks.

It sounds right doesn’t it? How can all those crazies go around murdering people while shouting “Allahu Akbar!” if their holy text doesn’t advocate it in some way? Is the difference between a “moderate” and “extremist” Muslim, just a question of interpretation?

The Qur’anic answer is, emphatically: No. Why? Because the Qur’an tells you how to interpret it. The Qur’an highlights that it contains two types of verses: the first provide general, timeless principles, while the second are applicable within certain contexts only. The Qur’an goes on to condemn those who apply contextual verses out of context and in contradiction to the general, timeless principles. The Prophet of Islam too forbade this when he said: Thus were ruined those people who have gone before you, for they interpreted certain parts of their scriptures in such a manner as to make them contradict other parts (Musnad).

That’s all very nice in theory, but how does that work in practice with such verses as: kill them wherever you meet them (2:192)? How could such verses ever be justified?

Well, firstly, one could stop cherry picking and read on two more verses, where it commands us to remember…no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors. The other thing to note is that such verses have a context: a war of self-defence thrust upon Muslims. Don’t take anyone’s word for it – the Qur’an itself is explicit on this point: fighting is permitted it proclaims, for those on whom war is made (22:40,41). This is the earliest verse that permitted fighting, and it sanctions it only as self-defense. It goes on to clarify that Muslims have a duty to protect temples, synagogues and churches in addition to their own mosques.

But why does the Qur’an talk about “fighting disbelievers” at all? Well, Muslims took up arms in self-defense after being driven out of their homes by pagan non-Muslims, for accepting Islam. The division of the two armies was of belief, which is why there are verses that speak of “fighting disbelievers”. It’s not a standing order to fight all non-Muslims for all time, in the same way as Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech was not a standing order to kill Germans for all times.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the Qur’an categorically commands Muslims to be kind and act fairly to non-Muslims who have not fought against you on account of your religion and who have not driven you out of your homes. Why? Because Allah loves those who are fair (60:9). How much clearer does a religious text have to be?

Some, like Mr. Ashenden, claim that Muslims were peaceful for the sake of expediency while they were the minority in Mecca, and bloodthirsty after establishing themselves in Medina. He ignores the fact that the Qur’anic declaration that there is no compulsion in religion (2:257) and that no aggression is permitted except against the aggressors (2:194) were made when the Prophet of Islam was the ruler of Medina. The Prophet’s example of declaring general amnesty and forgiveness for all when he conquered Mecca further demonstrates that Islam is a religion of peace and reconciliation.

Mr. Ashenden finally argues that Christianity is morally superior to Islam for teaching love of one’s neighbour. He fails to realise that it is from that same love that Muslims are permitted to take up arms to protect the persecuted. What do the Gospels advocate for the likes of ISIS, when they massacred the Yazidis in the mountains? Turn the other cheek? A teaching that claims to be from God and yet gives no guidance as to when the fight for freedom is legitimate is seriously lacking. Islam is not such a teaching.

In short, the Qur’an tells the reader how it should be interpreted, so the notion that “it’s all in the interpretation” is false. Extremists are desperate for all to accept their poisonous narrative as Gospel truth. My message? Don’t believe the hype.

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