Quran and violence 1: Statement of problem

January 11, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

(This post is first part of a long four part article.)

There are repeated violent protests and attacks in the name of Quran and Muhammad. The Charlie Hebdo killing is just the most recent, neither the first not the last. Each time there are such attacks they are condemned by notable people from within Islam as well as outside. They are also supported by what is often called a small lunatic fringe; no one know the smallness or bigness of the fringe for sure, lunacy, however, seems to be obvious. Those who condemn the attacks often make an additional point: Quran does not sanction violence, it preaches peace. The people who condemn the attacks from within Islam mostly base their argument on this premise. And therein lies the problem.

The sincerity, wisdom, goodwill, progressivism and humanity of the people who condemn the violent attacks is beyond question. Let’s call this set of people ‘pacifists’. The pacifists, then, genuinely want these attacks to stop. However, their claims and psychology are totally wrong. Their argument is based on two assumptions: (i) The attackers believe in Quran and want to force the world to accepts its precepts. And (ii) They misunderstand Quran as recommending violence to silence dissent. This two assumption statement, obviously, does not capture the whole socio-political set of beliefs which prompts such attacks. But only articulates the religious basis of the argument. Let’s take the first assumption, that attackers believe in Quran, either to be correct as it is, or that the perpetrators of violence in the name of Quran are caught in a hypocritical mindset where professing belief in Quran and acting it out has become a socio-political necessity for them. In such a case the force of the pacifists’ argument depends on the acceptance of the truth of their second assumption; that Quran does not sanction violence to silence dissent. This assumption, however, is demonstrably false. And if the perpetrator of violence in the name of Quran see this falsehood, which is easy to see, then the pacifist argument cuts no ice with them. Neither does this with the silent majority among the believers in Quran. Therefore, the violent feel justified in their mindset and also maintain their support—whatever its size—within the community of believers.

The pacifists’ desire and valiant efforts to exorcise Quran of violence through reinterpretation is self-defeating; as in basing their argument on the Quran they reinforce its authority, they are trying to undermine religious bigotry through reinforcing the authority of religion. In this context it becomes important to examine whether Quran sanctions violence to silence dissent or not.

The approach

To approach this question properly in modern times and in an impartial manner one has to first take a position of suspended belief, neither of belief, nor non-belief, nor of doubt. Just an attitude of attempt to understand. Second one has to rely on one’s own lights; taking a theological position of either a believing scholar or a critical scholar would demand submission of one’s own reason to their percepts. One has to search for indications in the Quran itself, if there are any, to understand it, if there are any recommendations regarding how it should be interpreted.

Quran itself gives guidance as to how it should be understood in Sura 3. The verse number differs in different translations, I am using “Tafsir-ul-Quran” [TuQ, for short] and “The Noble Quran”[1] [NQ, for short] in both of which it happens to be verse 3:7. Since nonbelievers writing on Quran are often declared to be quoting out of context, therefore, I am giving the context as well as the verse in the full. The verse 3:7, then, is translated in TuQ as: He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book in which some verses are firmly constructed[2]—they are the essence of the Book; and others consimilar[3]—But those in whose hearts is a deviation follow only what is consimilar therein, seeking dissension and seeking to misinterpret the same whereas none knows their interpretation save Ailah. And the firmly grounded in knowledge say, “we believe in it, it is all from our lord”; and none receives admonition save men of understanding.[4]

The meaning of the verse is quite clear. 1. There are some verses in the Quran which are entirely clear and do not need any interpretation. 2. There are some others which are somewhat ambiguous, and need interpretation. 3. The ones which are entirely clear are the real backbone of the book are central to its meaning. 4. The verses which are not so clear need to be interpreted in the light and in consistency with the ones which are clear. 5. Those who want to deviate and do not have faith firm enough emphasize the verses which are not so clear and bring in their desired interpretation in them. 6. Those who want to bring in their own interpretation are to be admonished. 7. As no one knows the true meaning of these verses save Allah.

If the matter is still unclear NQ tells which ones are to be taken literally and not to be metaphorically interpreted, “those are the Verses of Al-Ahkâm (commandments, etc.), Al-Farâ’id (obligatory duties) and Al-Hudud (legal laws for the punishment of thieves, adulterers, etc.)” We should remember that the commandments and obligatory duties are defined in ‘unambiguous’ terms.

The TuQ emphasises in regard to these verses that “here it signifies the fundamental part of the Book, its essence, comprising its principal tenets and central doctrines in consonance with which other passages, less dear and less definite, are to be interpreted”. [Footnote 232]. The TuQ also helpfully explains the meaning of “men of understanding” at the end of the verse as “those who exercise their commonsense. Reason also commends this course of interpreting the equivocal in the light of the unequivocal.”

This makes the matter entirely clear. The verses that are to do with duties, obligations, legal rights are to be taken as they are, without trying to deviate by application of your common sense. The Allah has defined them very clearly. This is the approach then we will take in this attempt to understand violence in Quran.
(to be continued tomorrow)


[1] TAFSIR -UL- QURAN, (1991) Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an By MAULANA ABDUL MAJID DARYABADI, Published by DARUL – ISHAAT URDU BAZAR, KARACHI. And THE NOBLE, Translation of the meanings in the English Language by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din AI-Hilali, Formerly Professor of Islamic Faith and Teachings Islamic University, AI-Madinah AI-Munawwarah, and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Formerly Director, University Hospital, Islamic University, AI-Madinah AI-Munawwarah. KING FAHD COMPLEX FOR THE PRINTING OF THE HOLY QUR’AN, Madinah.

[2] NQ “entirely clear”

[3] NQ “not entirely clear”

[4] There is variation in translation of the highlighter part. Some translate it as ‘only those with wisdom understand/head’. Others as ‘only those with understanding mind’. NQ and TuQ roughly as only those who use their understanding are to be admonished. I am taking the later meaning, as this fits with the earlier translation better.