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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Does a Literal Reading of the Qur’an Generate Terrorism?

Peter Cotterell is former Principal of the London School of Theology and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. An expert in Islamic studies, Cotterell is the author of nineteen books, including Islam in Context (with Peter Riddell) and the forthcoming One God.

Islam’s Four Authorities

There are verses of the Qur’an which support fighting against non-Muslims, and there are verses of the Qur’an which encourage a peaceful approach to non-Muslims.1 In answering the question of the role of the Qur’an in promoting violence, it is clear that Muslim terrorists both can and do refer to the Qur’an as their authority.

Islam is based on four authorities, not on the Qur’an alone. There is firstly, and uniquely, the Qur’an. But the interpretation of the Qur’an must take into account the second member of the quadrilateral, Abrogation—the power of a later verse to cancel out, or abrogate, an earlier verse. Thirdly, there are the Traditions (Hadith), mostly-unreliable memories of what Muhammad said and did. Fourthly, there is Shari’a Law, a comprehensive code of civil and criminal law, constructed partly from the Qur’an but mostly from the Traditions.

The Principle of Abrogation

The chapters of the Qur’an fall into two groups: those coming from the time when Muhammad was in Mecca, and those coming from the time when he was in Medina. It is confusing for the reader that when the various chapters were brought together to form the Qur’an, the general principle was followed that the longer chapters would come first, the shorter chapters last. But this happens to be exactly the reverse of their chronological order. So, with the exception of Sura 1, if a chapter has a low number and comes early in the Qur’an, then it is actually a late chapter.

Most of the chapters (suras) of the Qur’an are composite; this is most obvious in the chronologically later chapters. For example Sura 2 has 286 verses, and Yusuf Ali, in his translation of the Qur’an, breaks it up into 40 sections. To interpret such a chapter correctly it is necessary to know when each section was written. Then the later verses may be used to cancel out any conflicting earlier verses. The problem is that we often do not know when each section was written.

The so-called “Sword Verse” (Sura 9 verse 5) comes from the later, Medinan period of Muhammad’s life, and says “fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them.” Yusuf Ali dates this verse to A.D. 631, only one year before the death of Muhammad. Muslim scholars such as ibn Salama and ibn al-Ataiqi say that this one verse abrogates some 124 earlier verses, many of which counseled patience and peace.

The Question of the Qur’an’s Responsibility for Current Islamic Violence

Verses of the Qur’an are certainly used by the violent element in Islam to justify their actions, but it would be wrong to say that those verses are responsible for the violence. The fact is that many Muslims both submit themselves to the authority of the Qur’an and seek to live peaceful lives.

However, in their violent assault in the name of Islam on the Western world in general and on the USA in particular, the Muslim extremists could not hope to claim to be acting on behalf of Islam unless they could point to the Qur’an (and to the life of Muhammad) as their authority. They may connect their violence to the existence and policies of Israel; to the presence of non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries; to the growth of trans-national trading companies; to Western involvement in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq; to a desire to end the asserted immorality of the West; or to any combination of these factors. But whatever reason might be given, the authority of the Qur’an for such violence is absolutely essential to the terrorists.

A further factor which appears to motivate Muslim extremists is the existence of a number of Traditions which give extravagant promises of a life of bliss in the hereafter for the Muslim martyr. Sura 3 verse 169 does assert that those who had but recently died in fighting against the Meccans were not “dead” but alive, and enjoying the unspecified blessings of Paradise. It does seem that this assertion, clarified in the Traditions, has encouraged suicide bombers. But again it is not clear that the longing for Paradise is the reason for suicide attacks, but it has certainly been a factor in the thinking of the bombers and their handlers.

Also, when Muhammad himself led the attack on the Christian community at Tabuk, on the Gulf of Aqaba, he urged every Muslim to join in the struggle.2 Sura 9 verse 41 commands, “Go forth, (whether equipped) lightly or heavily, and strive and struggle, with your goods and your persons, in the cause of Allah.” Those who could fight were to fight, and those who were too aged or weak to fight should support the fighters. But this verse is regularly lifted out of its context in seventh-century Arabia and applied to suicide bombings in the twenty-first century.

A Possible Solution

It does seem to many who study Islam that some way must be found of removing the apparent support of the Qur’an for violence. There are at least two ways of doing this. The first is to “contextualize” such passages as the “sword verse,” to distinguish the context within which the verse was given (in which he was violently threatened by the Meccans) from the context faced by Islam today, wherein it enjoys freedom of expression, even in the West. (In contrast, Christianity lacks this freedom in Muslim countries.) In the contemporary setting, the “sword” need not be steel, but might be understood as the Qur’an itself, or as argument, or as the example of a peaceful Muslim lifestyle.

A more radical approach has been suggested (oddly enough, by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, amongst others): the recognition that Shari’a Law and Tradition (Hadith) are both long past the time of Muhammad and should not be seen as eternally authoritative. Then it is suggested that the Qur’an itself is readily divisible into two parts, the Meccan part and the Medinan part. It is argued that the Meccan part contains Muhammad’s ethical and theological teaching, before he had felt the sting of rejection, while the Medinan part is concerned with the many problems associated with organizing Medinan society and reacting against the specific threats of the Meccans. So the idea is to keep the Medinan suras as a valuable historical record, but draw authority from the earlier, peaceable, Meccan section alone. It must be admitted that this bold proposal has so far proved too radical for most Muslims to consider seriously. But perhaps the worldwide spectacle of terrorism in the name of Islam will nudge more Muslims to consider this new approach to interpreting the Qur’an.3


See Part V of this series, "Muslims Looking Outwards: Attitudes towards Non-Muslims."


See Part II of this series, "Muhammad, From Prophet to Warrior."


See also Part VI of this series, "Christians Looking into Islam: Ten Ways to Respond."