Should We Read the Koran to Understand Muslim Terrorism? A Response to Daniel Pipes
By Irfan Khawaja
In a brief but controversial column in the New York Sun (Jan. 20, 2004), the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes argues that we ought not to read the Koran to understand Islamic terrorism. “[R]eading the Koran,” he writes, “is precisely the wrong way to go about understanding ‘what’s happening in our world’….Instead of the Koran, I urge anyone wanting to study militant Islam and the violence it inspires to understand such phenomena as the Wahhabi movement, the Khomeini revolution, and Al-Qaeda. Muslim history, not Islamic theology, explains how we got here and hints at what might come next” (my italics). Indeed, Pipes goes so far as to hint that the recent enthusiasm for reading the Koran plays into the hands of Islamists: “American bookstores reported selling more Korans than Bibles,” Pipes writes. “All this,” he adds, “was music to Islamist ears.”
In thinking about Pipes’s argument, it’s important to be clear about his thesis, which I’ve italicized in the preceding quotations. His claim is not merely that one must go beyond the Koran to understand Islamic terrorism but that reading the Koran is the wrong way of understanding it. To say this is to say that by reading the Koran, one detracts from one’s understanding of the relevant phenomena. It follows, then, that one can somehow understand the Wahhabi movement, the Khomeini revolution and Al Qaeda terrorism better if one hasn’t read the Koran than if one has. This strikes me as an extremely implausible claim, for reasons I’ll explain in what follows.
Pipes begins by saying that we should not read the Koran because it is in a special sense “profound”: “One cannot pick it up and understand its meaning when nearly every sentence is the subject of annotation, commentaries, glosses, and superglosses.” He offers the analogy of the U.S. Constitution; a casual reader would not be able to grasp the meaning of, say, the Second Amendment simply by reading the twenty-seven words that comprise it (“A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”).
Pipes is right to say that the Koran is in a certain sense profound, but the claim does little to bolster his conclusion. Plato’s Republic and Mill’s On Liberty are profound texts in the same sense, but it seems absurd to say that they should not be read because of their profundity. The more obvious inference is that, given their profundity, they should be read with care. In this respect, Pipes’s allusion to the Constitution undermines rather than supports his intended conclusion: the U.S. Constitution may be profound in Pipes’s sense, but does that mean that reading it is “precisely the wrong way” of understanding contemporary American politics? How would one understand, say, the civil rights movement—or to use Pipes’s own example, debates about gun control—without having read the Constitution? It’s worth noting that the Civics Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress expects eighth-graders to have a basic grasp of the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and expects advanced twelfth-graders to “be able to explain fully the structure of American government and the political process” according to the Constitution. If high school and junior high school students can be expected to understand the Constitution, why can’t educated adults be expected to understand the Koran?
Pipes’s claim about profundity is in any case a non-sequitur. A text’s profundity says nothing at all about its relevance to any given topic. Profundity in this context is a function of the complexity of the text and the interpretive superstructure required to understand it fully. But the text and superstructure could be complex and yet still relevant. In fact, one irony is that Pipes ignores what seems the obvious fact that the “annotations, commentaries, glosses and superglosses” he mentions are often at pains to emphasize precisely the opposite of the argument he offers. There is an important sola scriptura strain of interpretation in contemporary Islam that argues that because the Koran is the only directly-accessible source of God’s will (it’s considered a direct revelation from God), it’s the only fully authoritative and binding source of Muslim belief and action.[ii] The other traditional sources—ahadith (traditions), sunnah (prophetic example), qiyas (analogy), ijma (communal consensus)—all fall far short in this regard: each reflects God’s will, but none directly asserts it. Pipes tells his readers to study “the Wahhabi movement” but fails to see that it is precisely the appeal of this sola scriptura version of Islam that attracts adherents to that movement, as well as to the closely-related Deobandi, Brelvi, Tabligh, and Tului-Islam movements.
One sees this in a powerful way in the testimony of Muslims (or ex-Muslims) who have had the opportunity candidly to discuss the motivations behind their beliefs. In Ibn Warraq’s recent book Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out (Prometheus, 2003), one Pakistani apostate describes the attractions of Tului-Islam as follows (Tului-Islam is a branch of Islam with a theology similar to Wahhabiism; I’ve modified the spelling of “Tului-Islam” slightly from the original passages):
I came across the Tului-Islam literature, which I avidly read, and for a short period I accepted it. What appealed to me about it was that its founder, Ghulam Ahmad Pervez, completed rejected the hadith, which he regarded as totally unreliable. He claimed to base his theology on the Koran alone, which he interpreted in a very unique way. He claimed that the Koran advocated an economic system that was socialistic and against private ownership of land. This meant the elimination of feudalism and the doing away of poverty. Into the bargain he also threw in progressive policies about women and criticized the institution of slavery and the death sentence for apostasy, which he alleged were un-Koranic. (Husain Ahmed, “A Rationalist Look at Islam,” Leaving Islam, p. 231).
A pseudonymous Pakistani woman in the same book describes her Tului-Islam education as follows:
I studied in a Western type of convent school, where religion was not given much importance at that time (late 1950s). With this background I could have grown up an average materialistic, nonorthodox, Koranic Muslim. But I don’t know how I had a knack for seeking the reality about the creator and creation. When I was incollege, someone introduced me to Tului-Islam, an Islamic movement run by Ghulam Ahmad Pervez. I became a staunch supporter and fan of Pervez for his novel concepts derived from the Koran. (Qayyum, “On Being a Woman in Pakistan,” Leaving Islam, p. 277).
Notice that both authors were attracted to a form of Islam in which the Koran took center stage. Both found precisely this feature of Tului-Islam attractive, and were glad either to relegate the non-Koranic traditions to the periphery or to banish them altogether. Though I had never heard of Tului-Islam before reading Ibn Warraq’s book, the ideas expressed by these authors were entirely familiar to me, growing up as I did in a borderline Wahhabi household (where by “Wahhabi” I mean a version of Islam committed to a sola scriptura conception of Islam, not necessarily one with terrorist sympathies). I suspect that this sola scriptura attitiude would be familiar to many contemporary Muslims of the same socio-economic class, education, and general outlook—particularly among Muslims who feel the need to distinguish their specifically Islamic commitments from tribal or cultural customs only loosely associated with Islam.
Contrary to popular (Western) belief, the Wahhabi and similar movements hold their greatest attractions not for illiterate peasants or proletarians (the Taliban were an anomalous exception in this respect), but for urban, college-educated Muslims looking to reconcile Islam with the demands of modern life. And that means streamlining it. After all, who in the modern world has time to read, much less digest, the pointless nitpicking of such classical hadith collections as Sahih al Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and the like—or for that matter, the dusty commentaries that line the walls of the libraries of the neighborhood madrasa? And what self-respecting Muslim would care to entrust the salvation of his immortal soul to the mandarins who spend their lives wading through such texts? Unless such texts are demonstrably indispensable by Koranic strictures, they quickly become dispensable for pragmatic (and theologically justifiable) reasons. A sola scriptura approach thus fits the aims and aspirations of educated Muslims for much the same reasons that such an interpretation of Christianity fit those of the seventeenth-century Puritans. Precisely because it does, one has to understand the attractions of Scripture to such people (including many Wahhabis, would-be Wahhabis, and fellow-travelers). Contrary to Pipes, that makes reading the Koran indispensable.
Pipes goes on to say that we ought not to read the Koran because it is “complex and contradictory”: “Some verses have been abrogated and replaced by others with contrary meanings,” so that the casual reader has no idea which verse may be abrogated and which retained. A first response here is that not all Muslims accept the doctrine of abrogation. Since they don’t, it’s not clear why non-Muslims must. If we reject the doctrine of abrogation (as I think we should), we confront two possibilities: either (a) the contradictions in the Koran can somehow be internally resolved or (b) the text is simply inconsistent. In case (a), we face no problem. In case (b), surely the inconsistencies of the text are relevant to understanding contemporary Islam (and by implication, Islamic terrorism). The inconsistencies of the Koran, after all, could help to explain why societies influenced by the Koran are liable to contrary beliefs and impulses, and likewise, why Islam failed to produce a viable political philosophy consistent with its theology. That in turn could help explain the attractions of such absurdly incoherent texts as Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones or Abul Ala Mawdudi’s Towards Understanding Islam.
Suppose, however, that we accept the so-called doctrine of abrogation. What prevents the reader from learning it, and learning how to apply it? Pipes suggests that doing so is too difficult. But is it really more difficult than learning the history of the Wahhabi movement, the Iranian revolution and/or Al Qaeda? In any case, the Koran’s complexity has no bearing on its relevance: make the text as complex as you like, and it could still be relevant. In fact, its complexity could well be part of the explanation for how it was relevant.
Pipes goes on to say that “an unchanging holy scripture cannot account for change over time. If the Koran causes terrorism, then how does one explain the 1960s, when militant Islamic violence barely existed?” But this claim contradicts Pipes’s own: the Koran’s text may be unchanging, but he himself tells us that interpretations of it differ and change. So there is a sense in which “the Koran” is not merely “an unchanging holy scripture,” but an unchanging text tied to radically dynamic and divergent interpretations.
As for the Koran’s failure to explain the 1960s, the objection is a strawman: the point is not that the Koran explains everything about the Arab/Muslim world at all times (much less that it “causes terrorism” by itself), but that certain interpretations of it explain a great deal about Islamism today. The 1960s were a time of relative secularism in the Arab/Muslim world; precisely for that reason, the Koran explains less about the 1960s than it would about later times, when Islam has claimed greater allegiance. This implies, to be sure, that one cannot explain the change from secular to religious allegiances by appealing to the text of the Koran. But that’s beside the point: Pipes is not merely arguing against someone making such a claim; he’s saying that the Koran is irrelevant to our understanding of contemporary events. The latter claim, I’m suggesting, is false.
Finally, Pipes argues that we should not read the Koran because it is “partial”: “holy books have vast importance but do not create the immediate context of action.” This is also true, but it hardly supports Pipes’s thesis: in fact, it directly contradicts it. If the Koran has “vast importance,” then it seems of some importance to read it. After all, if the Koran is part of the picture, it surely makes sense to devote some time to understanding the part of the picture it represents. But Pipes tells us simultaneously that the Koran has “vast importance”—and that we should ignore it. The claim is self-contradictory.
Why make such heavy weather of a seemingly arcane interpretive issue?
One reason is that Pipes’s interpretation has the potential of being too easy on Islam: if we insist on understanding terrorism out of relation to the Koran, we’ll inevitably miss the ways in which the Koran may really be responsible (however subtly or indirectly) for terrorism. It’s become axiomatic among both scholars and journalists that we’re not to look to “Islam itself” to understand the nature of contemporary Islam, or to understand the dysfunctional nature of contemporary life in the Islamic world. The axiom is one that “Orientalists” like Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis seem eagerly to share with outright apologists such as Ibrahim Hooper and John Esposito and with secular-minded “anti-Orientalists” such as Edward Said and Tariq Ali. But I see no good reason to accept the axiom. The point is not that the Koran contains some direct textual warrant for terrorism (I don’t think it does), but that it can justifiably be read as providing indirect justification for it (e.g., 4:75, 8:39). Pipes’s downgrading of the Koran gets it off the hook in this respect. (Interestingly, Pipes’s views on this issue bear a striking affinity to those of Edward Said and vice versa; see Said’s preposterous essay, “Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified,” Harper’s, July 2002. Incidentally, the Harper’s version of Said’s essay is not the same as the shorter “Mt. Holyoke” version posted on his website.)
Paradoxically, Pipes’s interpretation also has the potential of being too hard on Islam. Precisely because he de-emphasizes the Koran, he imports into his conception of “Islam” things that are arguably extraneous to it without ever identifying the non-scriptural criterion that makes a belief or practice “Islamic.” Thus he speaks of the veil as though it were incontestably “Islamic,” and elsewhere, of jihad as though it were an exclusively military concept. But neither claim can be sustained on scriptural grounds: “the veil” (in the contemporary and customary sense) is not mentioned in the Koran (see 24:31), and jihad is mentioned in non-military contexts (e.g., 22:78, 25:52, 29:68-69). To predicate his claims on “Islamic history and tradition” begs the question: a Muslim can cogently and consistently argue that not everything that Muslims have done is Islamic—not even when all of them have done it, and not even when the Prophet himself recommended it. Since only the word of God is infallible, and those words are codified in the Koran, only the Koran is indubitable. If so, putatively “Islamic” practices have to demonstrate their Islamic credentials by scriptural standards, not the other way around. In ignoring this fact, Pipes slights the sola scriptura understanding of Islam, obscuring its attractions, and conflating important issues that ought to be distinguished.
Some have argued (though Pipes does not) that the Koran is irrelevant to understanding terrorism because terrorists tend to be inept interpreters of its texts. In other words, what difference does the correct interpretation of the Koran make if Islamic terrorism is being driven by heretical interpretations of the Koran like those of Ayman al Zwahiri or Osama bin Laden? They are not, after all, accredited Koranic scholars. But it makes all the difference. If the Zwahiris and bin Ladens are interpreting the Koran correctly—or even plausibly—then the Koran might very well be an important source of terrorism. That’s worth knowing by itself. If they are misinterpreting it, we need to ask why their misinterpretations have come to acquire whatever legitimacy and popularity they have. And if both things are true, then both conclusions apply in different ways.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the Koran consistently says that its message is clear and accessible to all sincere persons, that sincerity is the fundamental requirement of interpreting its text, that readers ought to ponder its meaning on the basis of their own capacities, and that they will ultimately bear responsibility only for their own beliefs and interpretations. (There are dozens of texts to this effect, but one of the clearest is 2:121-123. Sura 25:19 suggests that understanding of the Koran comes only with divine assistance, and 22:78 stresses the overriding value of sincerity in matters of religious belief.) There is at any rate no Koranic verse that says, “O believers: listen to and obey accredited Koranic scholars; for your salvation depends not on your own acts, but on your conformity with their interpretations.” If so, one can’t simply shrug off someone’s reading of the Koran because he or she is not an “accredited Koranic scholar.” Not all “accredited scholars” are worth listening to, and many non-accredited non-scholars are. Put it this way: the Prophet Muhammad was not an “accredited Koranic scholar,” but John Walker Lindh was. Enough said.
The bottom line is, there is no way to understand Islamic terrorism without understanding Islamic theology/jurisprudence, and there is no way to understand Islamic theology/jurisprudence without reading the Koran. Reading it is in a necessary condition of understanding anything to which the modifier “Islamic” can legitimately be applied. Contrary to Pipes (and many others), that’s as true of Islamic terrorism as it is of anything else.
Daniel Pipes, “Study the
Koran?” New York Sun, Jan. 20, 2004:
Daniel Pipes, “The Evil Isn’t
Islam,” New York Post, July 30, 2002:
Civics Achievements Levels,
National Assessment of Educational Progress (U.S.
Department of Education):
Ali Sina, “Yes, Study the
Koran!” FaithFreedom.org, Jan. 21, 2004:
I prefer “Quran” to “Koran,” but since Pipes uses the latter spelling, to avoid confusion, I’ve used the same spelling throughout my essay.
This is not quite what “sola scriptura” means in the Protestant tradition, but since I can’t think of a better phrase to describe the idea expressed in the text, I’ve simply appropriated the Protestant term for my own purposes here. Cf. the similar appropriation of the word “fundamentalism.”
Irfan Khawaja is adjunct
professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and
Mercer County College, and lecturer in politics at