Over the past few years, Western leaders whose knowledge of Muslim scripture is scanty in the extreme have repeatedly been obliged to pose as experts on Islam. The atrocities currently being committed by jihadis in the Middle East have prompted them to a particular slew of commentary. John Kerry, speaking recently in Iraq, was typical. The Islamic State, he declared, “claims to be fighting on behalf of Islam but the fact is that its hateful ideology has nothing to do with Islam.” A reassuring assertion, and one that almost everyone, including the vast majority of Muslims, would desperately like to believe – but wishful thinking, all the same.
The grim truth is that sanctions can be found in the Qur’an, in the biographies of Muhammad and in the histories of early Islam for much that strikes the outside world as most horrific about the Islamic state. “Kuffar are afraid we will slaughter yazidis,” a British jihadi tweeted recently from Syria, “our deen [religion/ law] is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves insha Allah.” That this reading of assorted qur’anic verses and episodes from the life of the Prophet is the most brutal one imaginable does not necessarily invalidate it. To be sure, there are other, richer, more nuanced interpretations possible – and yes, the bone-headed literalism of those who would interpret the Qur’an as a license to maim, enslave and kill represents a challenge to everyone who prizes it as a revelation from God, supremely compassionate and supremely wise. That is no reason, though, to play the jihadis’ own takfiri game, and deny them a status as Muslims. The very appeal of their sanguinary interpretation of Islamic scripture is far too lethal to permit such a tactic. It is not enough to engage with the jihadis solely on the battlefield. They must be defeated as well in mosques, and libraries, and seminar rooms. This is a battle that, in the long run, can only be won by theologians.