The vast majority of non-Muslims who condemn Islamic extremists and Jihadist terrorists are, like me, amateurs and dilettantes in Koranic culture. Most have never read the Koran (I am one of the rare exceptions), even in translation. They are familiar with a smattering of quotations selected to bolster their opinion, which commonly is that Islam is a respectable religion deformed by anti-intellectual fanatics whose profound ignorance of the Koran, along with less worthy root-causes, has led them to believe that their crimes against humanity are the will of Allah.
It is important to realize that this popular, nuanced view is shared by recognized Koranic scholars. I have just read a lengthy study published by the highly respected Foundation for Political Innovation, which defines itself as a “liberal, progressive and European think-tank”. The article, in French, “Religious Pluralism in Islam, or The Consciousness of Otherness” (January 2015, 19 pages), was written by Eric Geoffroy, an Islamologist at the University of Strasbourg and a specialist in Soufism. The author’s thesis is that Islam and the Koran are not what many non-Muslims think they are. His very first sentence pinpoints the phenomenon which provoked his article : ISIS, the so-called Islamic State of Irak and Syria. “The Koran”, he writes, “proposes a very modern vision of a living together based on respect for differences”. He even claims that “the Koran is the only Scripture which establishes the universality of Revelation and inter-religious diversity … To be a Muslim implies the recognition of all revealed religions before Islam.” He quotes the Prophet as saying : “Whoever does harm to a Christian or a Jew will be my enemy on the Day of Judgement”. He offers two quotations from the Koran of particular interest to … atheists, because the texts condemn the use of force in matters of religion : “The truth comes from your Lord; he who chooses to do so will believe it, and he who does not will deny it” (18:29). “Would you want to force people to become believers ?” (10:99). The author even dares to oppose the opinion of later Muslim jurists who approved the death-penalty for anyone abandoning Islam, and affirms that there are no grounds for this, either in the Koran or in the practice of the Prophet. This statement has a special, personal resonance for me which deserves a brief explanation :
During my doctoral studies and four-year sojourn in the Paris Franciscan friary, I had the privilege of living with a world-famous Islamic scholar who had not only converted to Catholicism but had become a Franciscan priest ! Muhammad Abd el-Jalil had become Père Jean-Muhammad O.F.M., who for many years was a Professor of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne. His apostasy had been famously denounced by highly placed Muslim authorities and by his own family. Later I was to share a pain and a punishment (fortunately non-capital) similar to his. Some religious people are not as broad-minded and as tolerant as apparently the Prophet was …
Religious pluralism, says Geoffroy, in the context of Arabia in the 7th century, was essential to the Prophet’s project of establishing a city-state, a pluralist theocracy in an alliance of monotheists against the polytheists of Mecca. In Medina, Jews had their own area for worship, with equal rights and guaranteed protection. If the Prophet allowed more than 600 Jews to be executed in 5/627, it was because of the high treason of a rebel Jewish tribe, not anti-semitism. In 631 he allowed a Christian delegation in Medina to celebrate Mass inside a mosque facing Jerusalem ! In passing, the author points out that the prohibition in modern-day Saudi Arabia to build non-Muslim places of worship is supported by neither the Koran nor the practice of the Prophet. The “dhimma”, a kind of permanently renewable contract, guaranteed hospitality and protection to members of “other revealed religions”, on the condition that they themselves respected the domination of Islam and paid the “jizya” tax …
According to the Prophet, the “minor Jihad”, the purely defensive military action to protect Muslims from attack, is sometimes necessary to ensure the “major Jihad”, defined as “the sacred struggle of man against his passions”. On September 27, 2014, 120 Muslim scholars from five continents published a declaration (visible on the site Oumma.com), defining this understanding of Jihad, adding that “it is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat Christians or the People of the Book” and that “it is forbidden in Islam to force anyone to convert”. (The famous belligerent “verse of the saber” (9:5) is a call to kill only the polytheists who had violated their treaty by attacking a group of Muslims.)
Readers may be surprised to read the article’s conclusion : “Jihadism is the aborted child of Saoudian Wahhabism, which the West – and in the first place the Americans – has supported in such a sordid fashion. This abscess was born, certainly, in Muslim countries, of a post-colonial civilisational malaise, but thanks to globalization and the media, it displays itself now as a nihilist ideology under the cover of religion”.
ISIS is the enemy of Islam. But the world is at present in danger because of intra-religion theological opinions. We survived ours. Can we survive theirs ?