There is a dangerous dualism that has haunted Islamic societies since the very start of the faith. I am speaking about the haram that results from individuals and groups that seek to enforce a distinction between haram and halal through violence. The recent waves of sectarian killings are a chilling reminder of the harm that can be caused in the name of stamping out haram. In the north of Nigeria, as reported by al Jazeera, as many as 150 people may have been killed in a single day by Boko Haram, a militant group whose name means “Western education is sacrilege.” The irony of this name is tragic. When I think of the hadith “Seek Knowledge even unto China,” I do not think that the Prophet only meant to look eastward for knowledge. When I think of the extraordinary contributions Muslim scientists and philosophers made to the earlier classical heritage of knowledge, I do not think the Prophet would have disapproved. When I think of sacrilege, I remember that the Prophet forbade his followers to violate the truce of the sacred month and prohibited those who fought for him from mutilating the bodies of those who fought against him. There is much that is haram in this world, but it appears that the value of human life is not as sacred for some Muslims as it is for Allah as the Merciful One or for Muhammad as a Prophet for peace.

Whether it is the Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Al Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban or the various emendations of Al Qaeda, the central principle shared is one of violence against those who dare not to share the same rigid set of rules. All of these militant groups are not the same, nor is it clear the “real” enemy is the West apart from a rallying cry, but over and over the pattern is localized intolerance. It is hardly new and it is hardly limited to Islamic contexts. The problem in all these cases is that the broad array of Islamic teaching is reduced to a demeaning parochial version, indeed a perversion of the long moral trajectory of the faith. The history of Muslim scholarship on matters of religion and of practical concerns is one of disputation through rhetoric rather than de facto judgment by the sword. The Quran that survives, as Muslim scholars avow, is not an actual verbal transcription from the time of the revelation; nor are the thousands of hadiths all authentic. The purpose of tafsir over the years has been to clarify meaning that is not always 100 percent clear in the Quran. Indeed, the revered collections of the Prophet’s words acknowledge that we can trust what is said only by a trust in the human (not the divine) chain of transmission. The history of the faith testifies to the fact that Allah did not set forth knowledge that could be readily understood by anyone at any time in any place. First, the Quran must be understood in Arabic, and working within a language is always a matter of interpretation even before the issue of translation comes up.

For those sala-fisted folk who pick and choose only an occasional interpreter (an Ibn Taymiya but not an Ibn Sina) and otherwise assume that they can enter the mindset of the Prophet’s generation, interpretation is reduced to a creative act of imagination through a patent dogmatic taqlid that essentially turns tawhid into a human rather than a divine principle. The oneness of Allah does not deny that he has 99 names; the point is that all these different aspects are combined into the unity of Allah. One cannot see Allah as a destroyer of evil independent of Allah as merciful and kind to those he created. Having read the sira of Muhammad, I see both aspects of the divine in action: the Prophet spoke out against the evils of his day, but I cannot imagine him condoning a Muslim donning a bomb-vest to kill a fellow Muslim, or indeed the “infidels.” When Muhammad returned to Mecca after exile in Medina he did not purge the city of those who were against him. If you want to emulate the Prophet today, then look at how he interacted with those who disagreed with him rather than worrying about the length of your beard.

It is easy to look at the violence noted above and think this is part of an inevitable clash of civilizations, but in fact the clash is as much within as between. Nigerians are killing Nigerians; Afghans are killing Afghans; Iraqis are killing Iraqis. If the Prophets are still to hold value so many centuries later, whether they be Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, it is important to focus on the messages they gave to tame the cycle of violence. If any religious perspective is worth living for, why is it so important to kill others for choosing a different way, often culturally conditioned and always historically contingent? If an individual cannot be converted to a specific faith through reason, then the faith you are promoting is not rational. If an individual is killed in the name of a specific religious view, then you are acting as a judge of human life that rightfully belongs to Allah. It is not simply a linguistic accident that the term Islam is so closely related to the meaning of salam: submission is for the sake of peace rather than for the furtherance of war. This is the lesson of the greater jihad that makes the lesser jihad so prone to misuse. It is Allah alone who has determined haram from halal. To kill someone for not adhering to a specific human interpretation of the divine law is as much shirk as being an infidel; in the eyes of the Prophet it is no doubt even worse.

Daniel Martin Varisco