On New Year’s Day, President al-Sisi of Egypt made a remarkable speech . How, he asked, could belief in Islam make Muslim nations a “source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction”?
“Is it possible,” he added, “that 1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants — that is 7 billion — so that they themselves may live?”
He was asking where the mechanism of restraining Islamic violence lay.
But this heroic intervention has not sparked a worldwide theological debate amongst Muslims. The only perceivable response was the slaughter of 21 Egyptian Copts by Isis in Libya.
To understand the lack of protest by moderate Muslims, we need to look at Islam on its own terms and not try to see it through “Christianised” spectacles.
Study of the Koran by Muslim scholars is more geared to its application than to challenging its authority, its internal coherence or its integrity. The Reformation was a European and a Christian phenomenon. To imagine it will or should happen to Islam is nothing more than western chauvinism.
Jesus made it very easy in the gospels when he explained what principles took priority. First the adoration of God the Father and secondly the wellbeing of our neighbour. As for enemies, they were to be loved and forgiven. But Islam appears to lack such clarity.
The Koran contains verses that are generous and conciliatory towards people of the book (Jews and Christians) on the one hand, and also verses which call for violence and retribution (often called the sword verses) on the other. How do Muslims decide which verses and which principles to give precedence to?
The chronology of Muhammad’s life provides a key.
The context of the birth of Islam was one of violence. Muhammad faced violence from the merchants of Mecca whose interests he was challenging, and he attacked them in return. His early days in Mecca were a period of vulnerability, and the conciliatory verses are largely products of this time. As the violence grew, he fled to Medina which became a power base that allowed him greater confidence. The verses urging violence and retribution on the enemies of Islam emerge more prominently from this stage of his life.
Two principles determine how these aspects of Islam interact. The first is called Naskh and gives the later, more violent, verses of the Koran precedence over the earlier, more conciliatory, ones. This is why conciliatory voices in the Islamic community are often drowned out by the call to arms.
The second has to do with power. Christian culture is used to trying to distinguish between the political and the spiritual. Jesus eschewed political power for the transformation of the human heart. But Islam makes no such distinction. It is both a spiritual and a political force. It has an element of political totalitarianism at its heart, dividing the world into two warring halves: the Muslim world (or in Arabic “Dar al-Islam”) which is in perpetual struggle with the rest of the world (or “Dar al-Harb”, the “abode of war”) until, in the Koran’s words, “all religion belongs to Allah” (Koran 8:39). And if you ask Jihadi John or Mohammed Emwazi why he acts as he does, you might reply “When you meet unbelievers in fight, strike off their heads” (47.4)
The western media talks of “radical” or “extreme” Islam. But this misunderstands the Islamic dilemma. Islam and the Koran have two faces, one benign and one violent. The violence that Isis inflicts on non-Muslims is Koranic, not radical.
Monotheism inspires and encourages the good in humanity and helps to restrain its violent urges. Judaism’s mechanism of restraint is to limit revenge to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”; Jesus commands the uninhibited love of the enemy. Where, to echo President Sisi’s lament, is Islam’s mechanism of restraint?