Essay of the Month, Violence and Religion: The Ambivalence of the Quran, 25.01.2015

Violence and Religion: The Ambivalence of the Quran


by Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

Islam literally means “submission“ to the will of Allah. Like a red thread, this submission runs through the Quran[1], which in its original form lies with Allah himself and in its book form is considered a direct reproduction of its original form formulated in divine Arabic. Quran initially means the reading out of a text, later it signifies the entirety of the revelation. Therefore, words from the Quran are essentially regarded as unhistorical and, in spite of their rather frequent contradictions, they are to be taken literally. Four famous schools of law have been concerned with these contradictions up to the 12th century, but their fatwas are canonised in a quasi classical, unchangeable manner themselves.

In analogy to the incarnation of the word at the heart of Christianity, the inlibration, i.e. the word turning into its book form, lies at the heart of Islam: The Quran contains the will of Allah regulating in detail the entire human life. Thus, to the Western reader the Quran appears more like a "code of law"[2] - in contrast to the "history book"-character of the Bible. While the latter starts with the first beginning (bereshit barah) and develops causalities and diagnoses of the status quo (cosmology and anthropology from theology), the creation of the world or statements about cosmology/anthropology/theology only play a minor role in the Quran. They are implicitly present or rather selectively taken from the Old Testament. After a short summary of the time from Adam to Moses, Sura 2 suddenly starts with an elaborate description of laws, i.e. regarding the treatment of women in connection with marriage, inheritance matters etc. Questions of the whence, the why and the whither of the world are subordinate to the codification of life. Obedience to the laws of the Quran is ideally absolute, i.e. Allah's word must suffice, and nobody has insight into his plans. There is an asymmetric relation downwards between Allah and creation; Islam does not develop an adequate character of reason, which has also provided human reason with a certain access to the divine and the fellow creatures. It can be assumed that the demise of Islamic sciences toward the mid-14th century was linked to an exaggerated doctrine of omnipotence, so that Allah as causa prima was able to invalidate the laws of nature at any time while Christian theology - especially thanks to Thomas of Aquin - at this stage introduced the causa secundae, the reliable secondary causation which the creator himself implanted in nature.

This disparity is significant: on the one hand the inlibration - the revelation of the "book", and on the other hand the propagation and incarnation of the son. Christianity is essentially no book religion. Islam, i.e. submission, implies the unquestioned retreat under Allah's power, he is the merciful and decider of the fate at the same time. There is no dialogue between Allah and the humans, no question, no clamour - obedience rules. For his entire life, Mohammed had remained a warrior, a commander-in-chief who suffered, exercised and passed on coercion. Especially the success of his numerous military campaigns and forays was considered a sign of his calling. The call to arms against the unbelievers or idolaters was therefore no metaphor but indeed part of the legitimation of the message and God-pleasing in itself. From a religiously phenomenological point of view, the phenomenon of the commander-in-chief as the religious founder is unique.

Essential for the historical vision of the Quran is the belief of an incremental historical transformation of the world: from the "House of War“ (dár al-harb), where the unbelievers reside by definition, to the "House of Islam“ (dár al-islám). Therefore, there are two possibilities: either mission, da'wa, leads to the elimination of disbelief or this "house" is spread by the adoption of a different culture by means of outvoting. In the end, dár al-islám comprises everything and everyone through the Scharia, literally meaning "pasture" or the Islamic law. A Muslim should not live in the "House of War" dominated by unbelievers permanently. This incremental transformation happens through dschihad. Dschihad, literally meaning "effort“, "endeavour on the path of God“, but in the present has been extended to a vague understanding of "Holy War". From an etymological point of view, the stem g-h-d indicates a determined spiritual attitude in the community. Insofar, dschihad signifies initially "to strive hard to honour the goals of God" without any military emphasis, which also implies striving hard for Islam “ with their property and their persons”. The military aspect can be assigned to the words qital = battle and harb = war. In effect, dschihad, first of all, explicitly signifies a spiritual effort just as Mohammed originally tried to convince his fellow tribesmen with the help of words and explanations.

After the Hidschra (Mohammed's exodus from Mecca), the term dschihad is intensified in Sura 9. Since then, four meanings of the term have developed: 1) Peaceful persuading in the original sense: promoting Islam; 2) fending off any external "aggression"; 3) military actions not during the four holy months and in any case not during Ramadan; 4) fight for Islam with no limitation in scope or time. These clearly distinct and even contradictory contents emerge from a historical development, which has - throughout the centuries - contributed to interpreting the instructions in the Quran and in the Sunna differently.

Sura 9 deals with the most comprehensive use of the word dschihad and is to be given a closer analysis in the following part. Originally, Sura 9 was presumably meant to be part of Sura 8[3] being concerned with the case of defence, the distribution of the spoils of war, with the treatment of their own people in battle and with that of the enemy after victory. Historically, the calls for fighting mentioned in Suras 8/9 refer to the crusade from Medina to Mecca in 631 A.D., in order to fight against Mohammed’s immediate enemies. The issue of that armed conflict was to be found in the conditions set by the then commander-in-chief, Mohammed, concerning his visit to the site of pilgrimage in Mecca, which had to be met by the people living there, who up to then had rejected Mohammed and his teachings. The decisive passage in 9: 1-28 can be traced back to 631 A.D., i.e. still during the prophet’s lifetime. The initial part deals with a kind of “immunity” given by Allah concerning certain agreements and is then continued with a revelation of his strategy of fighting. It is here that Mohammed suggests setting the “unbelievers” and “hypocrites” a time-limit of four months, within which to expect a change for the better (from their side). If this deadline has expired without any change, open fighting will be inevitable - including the killing of all the inhabitants of Mecca. 9:5:

“So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer (“salat”) and pay the poor-rate (“zakat”), leave their way free to them”.                                                                                                                                            

It is obvious that the essence of these verses (Ayat) was “lived out” in Mohammed’s strategy in those days, as it was exactly this strategy that turned out to be successful: Mecca understood the threat, offered access to the site of pilgrimage and became followers of Mohammed’s teachings.

A difficulty of a fundamental nature has to be taken into account: As the Quran is not considered to be a historical book that was written at a particular time influenced by the then prevailing circumstances, but is regarded as a “Holy Book” in the sense of a verbal inspiration by Allah, such verses (Ayat) - even today - cannot be separated from the historical background and subjected to a relativized analysis, but are to be given a fundamentalist interpretation, i.e. they have to be taken literally. This is all the more significant since we find a precise distinction between fighting against idolaters, with whom no agreement has been made (9:1-15), and against Jews and Christians (9:29-35). The idolaters are made short work of, as mentioned above, whereas Jews and Christians, who deserve being destroyed by Allah (9:30) - as they purport to have given up serving one god only -, are to be led back to the religion of truth:

“He (Allah) it is who sent His Apostle with guidance and the religion of truth, that he might cause it to prevail over all religions, though the polytheists may be averse.”

Other characteristic references to dschihad are as follows:

3:169: “…those who are killed in Allah’s way…(as martyrs, dsahid), are provided sustenance from their Lord.” There is, however, no justification for committing suicide. With regard to most recent events it must be added that causing the deaths of innocent victims is by no means justified.

35:52 calls upon Allah’s followers, as the bearer of good news, praising Him by reciting the Book of Allah. It is here (like several times in other passages as well) that the word dschihad appears within a longer phrase: al-dschihad fi sabil allah and is understood as a religiously motivated fight for self-assertion, even by means of razzawat, i.e. forays to contribute to making one’s living.

8:39 characterizes dschihad as military fighting like other ritual duties to be done for Allah.

4:95 calls upon the believers to strive hard in Allah’s way with their property and their persons. A mighty reward is promised: spoils (…of war) and rejoicing in the hereafter.

Mohammed died in 632 A.D. before being able to outline his strategy for the future. Therefore, it remains an open question as to which of the four interpretations of dschihad mentioned above he would have considered most appropriate after having been victorious. It could be assumed that the spiritual aspect of dschihad is the most comprehensive, but it cannot be ruled out that Mohammed - under certain circumstances - would have justified the violent aspect; even more so since Mohammed was an experienced and successful commander in many battles and forays, not least in connection with the well-known Medina killing of Jews. Sura 9 clearly reveals a connection between the text of the Quran and its historical origin. But as soon as the historical reference is neglected, the words of Mohammed’s calls to battle remain timeless in meaning.

In view of a revitalized, partly even fanaticized Islam, the answer can only be given by a revitalized but by no means fanaticized Judaism and correspondingly by Christianity, which acknowledges and respects its Jewish origin. All this concerns the religious aspect of the issue; the political and legal aspect concerning a democratization of Islam has to be discussed separately and is to be clarified politically with reference to the rule of law.

Being faced with fanaticism it is apparently not sufficient to perform rituals showing personal concern (candles etc.); it is not sufficient to show indifference, justifying this continued inaction by referring to a rather uncritical concept of tolerance; it is not sufficient to practice a mere coexistence of “cultures”, in which not even commitment to the Basic Law is accepted as common ground, at least as long as this Basic Law is not administered by the state with the necessary obligation; it is not sufficient to shout incantations such as “No Revenge!” after September 11th, 2001, just as if international law was based on the concept of  revenge and as if no international legal actions by the states were required as a defence against terror.[…]

Many talks are still to be held and even more: a historical analysis is required, but also an evaluation of Islam history by Muslims themselves in order to curb the willingness to resort to violence, in our day and age, a form of violence which can be found in the Quran in various stages ever since the 7th century. It ought to be made quite clear that this propensity for violence is an element of the past and other potentials within the Quran ought to be emphasized instead, such as the obligation to mercy. During Mohammed’s early period, his time in Mecca (611-622 A.D.), the Quran contained entirely peaceful messages, even to the polytheists: “You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion”

(109:6). “ Allah is our Lord and your Lord. We shall have our deeds and you shall have your deeds. No plea need there be (now) between us and you. Allah will gather us together and to him is the return.” (42:15)

Everything depends on whether the Quran is to be understood with reference to its conciliatory Suras or rather to those with a violent character.


[1] In German, there are numerous useful translations partly with commentary. The citation used is based on the renowned edition by Rudi Paret, Der Koran. Kommentar und Konkordanz, Stuttgart/Berlin/Köln (1975) 4. A. 1989. Vgl. H. Zirker, Der Koran. Zugänge und Lesarten, Darmstadt 1999.

[2] Medieval translations speak mostly of lex Mahometi, not of religio. Cf. Ernst Feil, Religio. Die Geschichte eines neuzeitlichen Grundbegriffs vom Frühchristentum bis zur Reformation. Bd. I, Göttingen 1986, 264.

[3] 'Othman ibn 'Affan, the third caliph and successor of the prophet after Abu Bakr and 'Omar, compiled the essential edition of the Quran and consolidated Suras 8 and 9 probably due to their content; he reigned from 644 until 656 and was murdered while reading the Quran; cf. Annemarie Schimmel, Religion des Islam. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart 2001, 20.