“[…] the moment there’s a book which is being interpreted in a strange way by a group of people, then you shouldn’t adjust the book, you should adjust the people that misinterpreted the book. You should have them acquire knowledge. That’s the solution, the book isn’t the problem.” - Abdulmohaimen Amer1
In the debate surrounding Islam and Islamic terrorism some apologists of Islam, both muslim and non-muslim, hold the view that the text of the Qur’an can’t be among the causes of terrorist acts committed by Islamic extremists (let’s call this the ‘innocent Qur’an’ view). The quotation above is, I believe, an example of this view. The aim of this essay is to refute the innocent Qur’an view and establish that the text of the Qur’an can in fact be among the causes of Islamic terrorism.
1. Arguments for the innocent Qur’an view
Adherents to the innocent Qur’an view usually believe in one of the two following propositions. They either believe proposition (A1):
“There is no such thing as ‘the correct interpretation of the Qur’an’”2.
Or they believe proposition (B):
“The correct interpretation of the Qur’an is one that promotes non-violence, tolerance, etc.”
Proposition (A1) is often held to because the adherent also believes that (A2) “The Qur’an itself has no essence”. Given (A2), proposition (A1) makes sense. For if the Qur’an has no essence, then there is also no essence for an interpretation to grasp, and in that sense there is no correct interpretation of the Qur’an. Furthermore, if the Qur’an indeed has no essence, then violent interpretations of the Qur’an can’t originate from the Qur’an but must originate from already violent interpreters themselves.
Proposition (B) is used in almost the same way. While it doesn’t deny that the Qur’an has an essence, it just supposes that the essence which the Qur’an has is a non-violent, tolerant one. And if the essence of the Qur’an is indeed non-violent and tolerant, then here too the violent interpretations must originate elsewhere.
2. The argument against the innocent Qur’an view
We have seen two ways in which the innocence of the Qur’an can be upheld. Both ways suggest that any violent or intolerant interpretation must originate from somewhere else than the Qur'an. The counter-argument to this idea functions, not so much by denying propositions A1, 2 & B, but by suggesting another way in which the Qur'an might contribute to violent and intolerant interpretations. It relies upon a distinction I would like to make between different kinds of interpretations.
In the domain of interpretations two distinctions are already well established. These are the distinction between correct and incorrect interpretations and the distinction between plausible and implausible interpretations. Of these two, the distinction I would like to make seems most similar to the latter.
I’d like to distinguish easy interpretations from hard interpretations. By distinguishing ‘easy’ from ‘hard’ I am referring to the difficulty, to a layman, to acquire one interpretation or another. One interpretation can be more plausible than another while at the same time being harder to acquire for the layman. Consider, for instance, a contract which is made to seem as if it says something different from what it actually says. Some contracts are deliberately misleading by making use of convoluted jargon, fine print, or other means. In such a case a well-trained lawyer might not be fooled: he would be able to distill the correct meaning and he’d be able to put up a plausible argument that the contract is not what it seems. But the layman, on the other hand, is easily fooled: his interpretation is neither correct or plausible, it was simply the first thing that came to his uneducated mind upon reading the contract. The laymans interpretation was, in that sense, the easiest interpretation. It required no formal education, no hard thinking, no reasoning about alternative possibilities, merely an elementary understanding of the english language was necessary for the layman to come to his conclusion.
So, in the sense just described, some interpretations of texts are easy while others are hard. In a sense, therefore, what we have established is that interpretations can have a certain degree of difficulty. And from here it won’t be too hard to accept that the degree of difficulty contributes to a person actually adhering to one interpretation or another. Meaning: the easier the interpretation, the more likely someone is to actually interpret a text that way, as is obvious from the example with the layman and the contract.
Now that we have established all this about texts in general, what does it have to do with the Qur'an? Well, the crux is ofcourse that if we could agree that a violent and intolerant interpretation of the Qur'an is the easiest interpretation to acquire, then it follows that the Qur'an itself contributes to the likelihood of a person actually interpreting it in a violent and intolerant way. And if the Qur'an itself contributes to that likelihood, then it bears at least some responsibility for the violent and intolerant interpretations that stem from it and we can no longer maintain that the Qur'an is absolutely innocent.
3. The easy interpretation
Now that the counter argument is firmly set in place we are left with establishing, finally, the proposition that the easiest interpretation of the Qur'an is an intolerant and violent one. However, it is important to keep in mind how 'easiest' was defined here. I distinguished it from 'correct' interpretations and from 'plausible' interpretations. So the claim is not that a violent and intolerant intepretation is the correct one, or the most plausible one3, just that it is the one most easily acquired by a layman. A person without guidance, without any prior knowledge, not putting too much effort into it, stands a non-negligible chance of interpreting the Qur'an as violent and intolerant.
Unfortunately the road to agreement on this issue is rough, for I will necessarily have to rely on the honesty and common sense of individual readers. My first argument therefore, if we can even call it that, is merely to ask readers of the Qur'an to judge for themselves what they feel would be the easiest interpretation. Do you really feel that a book in which nearly every one of its 114 chapters states that eternal punishment awaits unbelievers is somehow easiest interpreted as saying one must be tolerant of those outside Islam? Can you not muster some suspicion that such phrases might contribute to intolerant interpretations?
Still, even after a seemingly honest reading there will be those who deny the premiss. My second effort at convincing those who remain will be to point out inconsistencies in their words and those who stand with them. At the beginning of this essay, for instance, I put a quote by a guy named 'Abdulmohaimen Amer'. He was one out of a group of three muslim youngsters who was invited to talk on a Dutch television show 'Jinek' about the problem of radicalism. While first espousing the view that the Qur'an itself is not part of the problem, elsewhere in the show he says this: "They are going to fall back on religion without any form of guidance, causing them to fall back on the literal interpretation". And when it comes to studying the Qur'an Abdulmohaimen had this to say: "[...] it's not a study that comes easy, it's a study that takes guidance". So it seems like something strange is going on here. Just like we have seen with the example of the contract Abdul seems to imply here that to a layman the Qur'an might seem violent and intolerant, even though it really isn't. In that sense Abdul seems to acknowledge that a violent and intolerant interpretation is easiest, for it takes guidance before one realises the correct interpretation.
If, after all this, critics still maintain their position I would like to turn the tables and ask them: 'how would you argue that a non-violent and tolerant interpretation is the easiest one to acquire?'. If the answer is one that refers to the context in the text or history, or if it refers to some obscure scholar of Islam, then by virtue of that answer itself one has proven which interpretation would be easiest to acquire. Because surely an interpretation that requires one to read up on the history of a text or to seek out a certain scholar is harder to acquire than one that merely requires a basic understanding of the english language.
4. Closing remarks
In ending this essay I'd like to reiterate one final moment what this argument says and especially what it does not say. First of all, this argument merely makes a claim about the possibility and the actuality of the Qur'an being a causal factor in muslim extremism. It does not, however, make a point about the extent to which the Qur'an contributes to muslim extremism: it merely makes the point that it can contribute and most likely does contribute. The extent of its contribution is left for others to judge.
Secondly, comparisons with other religions are also outside the scope of the argument. The argument merely focuses on the question whether the Qur'an might be a causal factor in terrorist acts perpetrated by muslim extremists. Whether the argument applies equally to, for instance, the Bible, is left for others to judge. The same goes for the question of whether the Qur'an might contribute more to muslim extremism than say, the Bible does to Christian extremism. Take note, however, that the answers to these two questions have hardly any bearing on the validity of the argument laid out in this essay.
Thirdly I'd like to emphasize my personally deeply held belief in Hume's guillotine: no is can ever simply justify an ought. Meaning: whatever this essay has said about the relationship between the Qur'an and muslim extremism, it has said nothing about prescriptive measures to take.
Finally, one can wonder why I have insisted upon using my own third distinction between easy and hard interpretations. Wouldn't the argument have succeeded, for instance, using the already more established distinction between plausible and implausible interpretations? Perhaps that could be the case. But, firstly, it would be a lot harder for me to convincingly argue the strong claim that the most plausible interpretation of the Qur'an is really a violent and intolerant one. For that would require me to go up against well educated scholars of Islam, which I am not, and to go in depth on the Qur'an itself. For that reason it is simply easier to make the weaker claim, not that the Qur'an is most plausibly interpreted in some way, but that the Qur'an is easily misinterpreted. More importantly however, I have argued for the latter because I want to build a bridge in the discussion between the apologists and the critics of Islam. Right now it seems to me that there is, on the one side, a very vocal group denying that the Qur'an has anything to do with muslim extremism, and a very vocal group on the other side claiming it has everything to do with muslim extremism. With this argument I hope the two sides can find an acceptable common middle ground without each group conceding too much to the other. Using this argument, for instance, apologists can remain safely convinced that the Qur'an is, in reality, a wonderfully peaceful book while at the same time empathising with the concerns of its critics by acknowledging that the Qur'an might bear some responsibility for being easily misinterpreted.
- Amer, A. (2015, Januari 13). Jinek: Hoe emancipeer je de islam van binnenuit? (Dutch television show). Translated from Dutch by me. Page source: http://www.npo.nl/jinek/13-01-2015/KN_1666171
- Former radical, now critic of Islamism, 'Maajid Nawaz espouses a view much like proposition (A1). In his recent book with Sam Harris 'Islam and the Future of Tolerance' (which I very much recommend) he has said "I don't accept that there's a correct reading of scripture in essence". Interestingly, though, Nawaz' views on the supposed innocence of the Qur'an are not entirely clear to me and I'd be interested to hear them. If I had to venture a guess I would say Nawaz is very open to the idea that the Qur'an might be easily misinterpreted.
- I believe mentioning Islam critic 'Sam Harris' in this context is in order. Harris, to me, is one of the few critics that has shown himself well versed in the crucial distinctions made here. I think it is warranted to say that Harris, for instance, has argued in favor of the strong claim that a violent interpretation of the Qur'an is plausible, all the while being very careful not to claim it is correct. His 2014 interview with Fareed Zakaria attests to this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4nIfLGqd9s). I suspect Harris might even be open to embrace the distinction I've made here, if he hasn't already done so.