Whose interpretation of the Koran is Islam?
While most English translations of the Koran are similar, there are essential differences that may escape non-Muslims, including its well-intentioned and articulate critics. Actually, these differences are better termed human interpretations rather than translations, because they are, in their essence, inextricably wedded to the biases and orientation of their translators. I need not point out how a story, told to one person, who tells it to another, and so on, can bear no resemblance in the end to the original; some parts can become magnified, others exaggerated, and others omitted altogether.
A scholarly discussion of variations of translations is presented by Dr. Khaleel Mohammed in the Middle East Quarterly. Dr. Mohammed points out the various impositions of medievalists upon the vast majority of currently-available translations of the Koran – especially those most commonly distributed by Wahhabists and Salafists (another strain of repressive Islam). They rely, for example, on the interpretations of Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Khan. Dr. Mohammed states in “The Koran Interpreted,” that Arthur Arberry (1905-69):
“… acknowledged the orthodox Muslim view that the Qu'ran cannot be translated, but only interpreted. He rendered the Qur'an into understandable English and separated text from tradition. The translation is without prejudice and is probably the best around.”
Dr. Mohammed also notes that Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Koran is notably “bucking the Saudi orthodoxy” and to its credit banned in Saudi Arabia. Any academic linguist can confirm that perfect translations of a text from one language to another can often be essentially impossible, especially when dealing with classical Arabic, which is the expertise of only a tiny minority of Muslims.
It is my belief that most lay Muslims have the capacity to understand the Koran or to find the innumerable resources which can – when put together by an individual, liberty-loving Muslim – give a more mainstream, pluralistic interpretation of passages that, until now, have remained solely in the province of Islamist “experts” to interpret, on their behalf.
Interpreting the Koran through the lens of freedom: History is not religion
Well-intentioned scholars, non-Muslim critics of Islamism and Jihadism, and especially the Jihadists themselves, may differ on the version(s) of history that I was taught, and have conveyed herein.
Pious anti-Islamist Muslims will typically want to remain grounded in the integrity of our Arabic Koran while presenting an anti-Jihadist interpretation of the same scripture. There can be no more effective weapon to defeat the militant Islamists. The only other option is a disassembly of Islam’s Koranic history, which to most Muslims would make the faith unrecognizable. It is Muslims who love their faith, get close to God through reading their Koran, and yet reject Islamism who are the only ones with the credibility to put global militant Islamism into remission, on a local and global scale.
A simple reading of Chapter 9, Verse 5 above states, “slay the idolators wherever you find them.” But this same violence, when done in self-defense, or after violation of a peace treaty in necessary self-preservation by a faith community on the verge of annihilation, can be an ethic which most would respect and stands against terrorism.
In 2007, it would be equally moral for a Muslim to say that we should “slay al Qaeda wherever we find them.” Thus, a Muslim learns these passages as exhortations from God regarding war as last resort, and with the underpinning of principles of just war. These same principles have been used in other faiths to this very day, to justify war in the protection of our nation-states.
At the end of the day, what truly matters the most to the free world is not necessarily whose version of Arabian history from 610-632 C.E. is the “truth.” What matters most is whether the predominant Muslim version of that history in the 21st century being taught to our children is compatible with American and western morality of “just war,” and post-modern enlightenment values of universal freedoms.
If Muslims can begin to articulate and establish an ijtihad (reinterpretation of scripture in the light of modernity) through the lens of individual freedom, we can then reconcile our faith, our religion, with American ideology. We cannot surrender the mantle of our faith to the militant Islamists or the Jihadists. Our Koranic passages are what Muslims make of them – not what extremists dictate to us. It will remain what extremists dictate to us only so long as we abrogate our duty to defeat their Islamist/Jihadist ideology and interpretations.
As an American and as a Muslim, I have always been an admirer of Thomas Jefferson –- especially his articulation of and respect for religious liberty. Above everything, Jefferson espoused a respect for liberty which Muslims need to lift up. He also laid out the challenge for liberty reformists:
"The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides to defeat their own rights and purposes." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823. ME 15:464
And at its crux, it is the Jeffersonian ethos that bin Laden in his latest video rant, stands so militantly against. Jefferson also said,
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
In the defense of freedom for all under God, Muslims need to wake-up to the current relative vacuum of reasoned Islamic theological defenses of liberty. Anti-Islamist Muslims are far behind where we should be in the theological defense of liberty.
Bin Laden understands freedom and free markets and its deep threat upon the power he seeks. In his latest screed, he reserved special condemnation for the economic manifestation of freedom-- capitalism-- the free exchange of privately-owned values among a free people. He castigated it as an evil ideology.
In part four, I will present an example of Jihad in Koranic scripture.