Many moderate and extremist Muslims enjoy branding each other as “non-Muslims” or implying that the other does not follow “true” Islam. Each group has in turn been asked to justify these comments about individuals who follow the same teachings and read the same scriptures as they do. It is a valid request. As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I have often encountered this criticism while in front of the class. It is true that a reader can easily find contradictory passages in the Qur’an but I wonder whether we can choose a side, whether a value judgement can be made about whose approach to scripture, extremist or moderate, is actually the right one.
I believe that the moderate standpoint can be validated by stating that it is more in line with the nature and identity of God than the extremist point of view. Those unfamiliar with the Qur’an have often been confused as to how extremists and moderates can quote the same sacred scriptures to make their respective cases. The answer is that scripture, Qur’an and Bible alike, are often full of contradictions. Moderate Christians can look to the same Bible that Michael Bray was reading (before he bombed seven abortion clinics in 1985) to make a case for compassion and forgiveness. This is what is unique and frustrating about scripture.
One can open up the Qur’an and see: “Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing” (Qur’an 2:191). Extremists who feel persecuted and victimized by the West can easily find divine sanction for retaliation. Keep flipping through the Qur’an and the reader will also encounter this: “Do not argue with the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, etc) unless in a kind and fair way, apart from those who have been oppressive towards you. Tell them that we believe in what has been sent down to us and we believe in what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one and to Him we submit” (Qur’an 29:46). There are numerous verses in the Qur’an calling for peace and declaring continuity and oneness with the prophets and sacred texts that came before Muhammad and the Qur’an.
The two verses just cited are calling for opposite ways of life, opposite ways of dealing with the Other. The verse calling for war and the verse calling for peace both have a historical context in which they were revealed. How do we decide which is more in keeping with what God really wants? How do we decide which we should take to have universal application and which only applies in specific historical and social circumstances? In order to answer these questions, the nature and identity of God has to be taken seriously. If we believe that God is compassionate, merciful, and loving, then scriptural verses that reflect these characterizations must be applied universally. Verses that contradict these characteristics only apply in specific situations.
Marxists will respond that God does not truly have a nature or identity of His own. For Marx, and Feuerbach before him, God is the idealistic projection of characteristics human beings possess but are afraid to acknowledge in themselves. He wrote that we took qualities like goodness, beauty, truthfulness, and love (which are things we admire about ourselves), elevated them to heaven and then began to worship them. Perhaps, but this is irrelevant when dealing with the interpretation of scripture. Regardless of whether or not God is a projection, we still believe that God possesses certain characteristics and it is through the lens of this belief that we approach scripture. So, how do we decide which Qur’anic verse is universally applicable and which is not? Theologically, the answer follows from the simple fact that God can never establish a universal commandment that goes against His very nature.
If, then, we pick up the Qur’an or the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament and read something like, “Kill them wherever you encounter them,” we must recognize this to be going against the nature of God and therefore understand it to apply to a particular historical circumstance. However, the command to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) or Surah 29:46 above, can more readily be seen as universal. It does not make sense to state that you should only love your neighbour under certain historical conditions while generally despising and hating him. Therefore, if we take the nature of God seriously, any scriptural commandment that reflects the good, just, compassionate, and merciful nature of God must be understood as universal while any verse that contradicts this has to be deemed contextual. From this vantage point, extremists may not be “non-Muslim” or “non-Christian” but they are certainly wrong.