by Benjamin Tua
Since the September 2001 Al Qaida attacks on the United States, American ignorance of Islam and the Muslim world has decreased somewhat. This progress has occurred despite the efforts of some who seek to discourage increased understanding of the world’s second largest religion, because that would defeat their efforts to demonize an entire faith. After all, “knowing something about Islam is an even stronger predictor of low Islamophobia than is knowing a Muslim personally” according to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s “American Muslim Poll 2019: Predicting and Preventing Islamophobia”.
Efforts to portray Muslims and their faith as threatening diminish our society by stigmatizing a significant American minority. They also can facilitate costly foreign policy blunders such as the 2017 Executive Order banning entry into the US of visitors from several Middle Eastern majority-Muslim countries, an order purportedly based on terrorist activity, technical hurdles to properly document these countries’ travelers, and poor coordination with US officials.
Two recent books, “Mohammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires” and “What the Qur’an Meant: And Why it Matters,” take on the task of broadening Americans’ still unacceptably low understanding of Islam. The authors – Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize winning lay scholar of American Catholicism – approach their subject in distinctly different manners. Yet, their message and conclusions are remarkably similar – namely, that ignorance of and distortions of Islam and what the Quran says both alienate vast numbers of Muslims and have led to foreign policy missteps. The books complement each other nicely.
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Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole
Cole’s 2018 volume is concise but dense. For a book that, as the author tells the reader, “has been gestating for decades,” it is remarkably short — 208 pages of text. But it includes 85 pages of supportive notes, a 16-page index and, especially valuable, 61 excerpts from some 28 of the 114 surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an (The Recitation). The excerpts buttress Cole’s argument that the Qur’an and early Islam were strongly imbued with values of compromise and peacemaking.
The book will be of interest to scholars with substantial knowledge of Islam. But it also is perfect for the reader who knows little about Mohammad’s life and origins as a member of a tribe that settled feuds in Mecca, about Islam and its pragmatic, peace-oriented tenets, or about the historical and geo-political context of Islam’s emergence.
Mohammad was not just a merchant and prophet but also a pragmatic political leader brokering compromises, adhering to truces and treaties, and employing tactics of conciliation in a turbulent world where peace was in short supply. In sum, he was a man of the world and very much in the world.
Major features of the world in which Islam was formed were the Roman-Iranian conflict, with shifting alliances on both sides, and Arabian paganism, which had long been showing signs of decay. Islam incorporated Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian monotheistic tenets and teachings as well as pagan influences (the Arab Kaaba, the Sacred House at Mecca, built by Abraham for the worship of the One God).
Pagan and Christian concepts of “just war”, including the Zone of Peace (the shared sacred city of Mecca and the Kaaba) and the Season of Peace, became part of Islamic, Qur’an-based doctrine, such as non-aggressive war, proportionate response to wrongs, and the treatment of prisoners. The Qur’an, Cole explains, largely concurs with Augustine and Ambrose on the subject of just war, “seeing battle as a legitimate response to aggression.” The Qur’an also contains prohibitions against plunder in war and indiscipline.
However, Cole tells us, Christians have underreported the peaceful universalistic aspects of the Qur’an and Islam. And Muslims have contributed to the misperceptions by, for example, multiplying the few battles between Medina and Mecca and structuring the last decade of the Prophet’s life around dozens of raids, even in instances where Muslim actions lacked a military dimension. Soon after Mohammad’s death in 632, Cole tells us, Muslim leaders “simply put Islam to the same uses that Constantine and his successors had put Christianity.”
In fact, in contrast to the Christian approach in Mohammad’s time, which had demoted Judaism from a religion to a superstition and Jews to second class status, “Mohammad argued that Christians and Jews recognize their common biblical roots and respect the sanctity of churches and synagogues, safeguarding them and entering them in reverence.”
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What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters by Garry Wills
Wills’ 2017 book is shorter, more personal, and more fun to read than Cole’s, more a long magazine article than a scholarly work. Indeed, Wills tells us that his book is not intended as a carefully or minutely argued examination of a topic but a conversation. Rather than citing centuries-old text, Wills’ footnotes tend to illuminate contemporary issues, such as the 2003 Iraq War.
In contrast to Cole, the dispassionate scholar, Wills is full of passion and indignation. Cole writes of scholars of early Islam who treat Muslim histories differently from Byzantine or Carolingian chronicles, “once again condemning non-Europeans to being a people without a history.” The Qur’an, he continues, “tells us about that history if we will listen to it, and tells us what is plausible in the later biographies of the prophet.”
Wills writes of the “vast ignorance of Islam,” of influential people in our country who “tell us blatant lies about the religion,” and of the many who “would block our reading of it.” He names, among others, Franklin Graham as well as William F. Buckley, Jr., who argued after 9/11 that the Qur’an should be banned from schools.
The introduction, titled “My Qur’an Problem,” outlines Wills’ failure – like that of so many otherwise well-educated and well-informed Americans — to read it, remaining ignorant of Islam before September 11, 2001.
In Part I, “Iraq: The Cost of Ignorance,” Wills focuses on the foolhardiness of twenty-first century US Middle East foreign policy, particularly during President George W. Bush’s administration. Wills discusses the Project for the New American Century, the neo-con think tank (1996-2006) whose stated goal was “to promote American global leadership,” and describes the second Iraq war as “a war with secular outlines filled in by religious Certitude.”
Wills warns of the intent of those “who wish to act against shari’ah before determining where and how it is observed and the determination not to know the Qur’an or let others know about it.” He urges that we not let our own extremists defame Islam solely in terms of Islamic extremists. He deplores that in the runup to the 2016 presidential election, it sometimes seemed as if the Republican candidates were running against Islam rather than Democrats.
Part II, “The Quran: Searching for Knowledge,” is essentially a guide to major themes in the Qur’an. Wills writes of the “intense treatment” in the Qur’an of “the Big Two: Moses and Jesus,” and of the intimate relationship between the Qur’an and Jewish teachings, noting that, “God even tells Mohammad to consult the Torah if he is confused about certain things.” He cites the passage in the Qur’an to the effect that, “We sent Jesus…to confirm the Torah.” Wills adds that, “the only criticism of the Jews is for not observing their own Torah.” He tells the reader that “the book insistently promises Jews who do observe the Torah that their place in heaven is assured,” and that, “No prophet is praised in the Qur’an more than Jesus.”
In sum, Wills argues, “It is clear that Mohammad’s revelations were meant to lay a basis for peaceful relations between followers of Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an. He agrees with scholars who argue that the Muslim record of tolerance is generally good and that, generally speaking, religious minorities did better under Muslim than under Christian rule in premodern conditions. In fact, the Prophet had both a Jewish and a Christian wife.
In his discussion of shari’ah, Wills explains that, rather than presenting a penal code, most of the Qur’an dwells on religious duty and moral conduct, especially matters such as commerce and marriage. Wills calls the Qur’an more enlightened than the Torah and the Gospel on the worth of women, and outlines the rights of women as presented in the Qur’an, including property and divorce rights.
Wills also discusses the concept of just war in the Qur’an and notes that, “’holy war,’ sometimes taken as a definition of jihad, is not a concept expressed anywhere in the Qur’an.” In fact, Wills sums up, the Qur’an’s “overall tenor is one of mercy and forgiveness which are evoked everywhere, almost obsessively.” At the same time, Wills adds, “just as the Christian empire grew by battle and slaughter, so did the Islamic empire.”
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One has to marvel at how far Cole’s and Wills’ thoughtful expositions are from the statements of those who, possessing a high degree of religious illiteracy, proceed on the basis of freedom from evidence, on emotion rather than facts or reason. The Qur’an is not an easy book to read and understand. Wills and Cole make both easier. Wills assures us that we do not need to become Islamic scholars to acquire a working knowledge of the religion as practiced. A reading of Cole’s presentation of the influences on the Prophet of the world in which he lived and the book’s extensive collection of Qur’anic verses on peace and compassion reinforce Wills’ assertion.
During his foreign service career, Benjamin Tua served in Brazil, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lesotho, and the Soviet Union and its successor states. He was Deputy Chief of Mission in Kyrgyzstan, the US Representative in the Assistance Group to Chechnya of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Head of the Crimea Office of the OSCE Mission to Ukraine. Washington assignments included the Office of Soviet Union Affairs and the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. He was the State Department Representative to the negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention 1985-87 and the Arms Control Analyst in the Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia policy office of the Secretary of Defense 1994-95.