Muslims who are working to make the characterization of Islam as a religion of peace into a reality deserve our admiration and support, all the more so inasmuch as the worldwide challenge they face is so seemingly insurmountable. To date those insisting that Islam is a peaceful religion have been more successful in persuading non-Muslims living in Western societies than in convincing Muslims in Muslim-majority societies that this is so. (A 2013 Pew survey of global attitudes found that 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 62 percent of Pakistani Muslims favor the death penalty for apostates. Other statistics on matters such as the stoning of adulterers and inferior status of women, etc. are equally troubling.) The underlying problem is that there are a great many texts, traditions, and historical precedents that would have to be fundamentally altered in order for Islam to shake off the perception of its intrinsically violent nature.
We non-Muslims can do little to enhance the influence that peace loving Muslims will have in Muslim-majority lands. Repeating the religion-of-peace mantra is an empty gesture, which can only reassure the most violent of the jihadist that those they see as infidels are too feckless and craven to be taken seriously. What is needed in our country is a national debate, moderated by a Western authority on Islam, between a distinguished spokesman for moderate Islam and an equally impeccable authority – of which there are many – defending, for instance, the death sentence for apostates, the perpetual war against infidels, the subordination of women, and other doctrines equally odious to Westerners but for which passages in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sunnah can be quoted as sacred warrant.
If such a debate were to focus – not on the peaceful texts in the Qur’an, many of which are abrogated by subsequent texts of greater authority – but precisely on the controverted texts which not only authorize violence but which demand it – the debate would be a remarkable event. Of course, such a debate would need to address the question of what constitutes legitimate ways of interpreting the sacred texts of Islam. Unlike biblical exegesis, which approaches the text with the aid of both reason and faith, and which situates scriptural passages within the history of divine revelation, Islam insists that what was dictated to Mohammad and inscribed in the Qur’an is set in stone for all time, immune to later nuance or interpretation.
The debate therefore needs to address two features of Islamic interpretation of which most non-Muslims are unfamiliar, but on which the most respected Islamic authorities agree. The first longstanding principle of Qur’anic interpretation adjudicates the conflicting injunctions found in the Qur’anic passages from Mohammad’s earlier Mecca period, when his small and relatively weak movement was less violent and more accommodating, and those from the period after he fled to Medina, when he was militarily successful and his most violent and morally offensive behavior was solemnly recorded as exemplary. Where Qur’anic passages from the relatively peaceful and the more warlike phases of Mohammad’s life are incompatible, the passages from the later and more violent Medina period are regarded as abrogating the passages from the earlier more peaceful period.
The second key to interpreting Islam about which most Westerners remain unaware relates to Islam’s tenth century intellectual crisis, which led to the rejection of rationality and the triumph of the will – specifically the will of Allah as the normative source of all morality. On the basis of this principle, an act is not only justified but absolutely required, not because it is moral, but rather it is regarded as moral purely and simply because Allah demands it, regardless of how it might offend a morally healthy conscience. These are the things that need to be debated among Muslims and those non-Muslims who have a stake in which of these understandings of Islam prevails – which today includes most of the world. For if we are to take the measure of Islam and assess its compatibility with the moral, religious, and political structures of Western civilization, these are the issues that will have to be adjudicated.
Prominent among those Westerners who are informed enough and courageous and forthright enough to moderate such a debate are Robert Spencer, Robert R. Reilly, and Andrew McCarthy, each of whom has written extensively and lucidly on the crisis of radical Islam, the historical, intellectual, and theological sources of this crisis, and the unlikelihood that the moderate Muslims will soon prevail, their forms of interpretation being so widely rejected by Islamic authorities of the highest standing. The value of such a debate, however, will be in clarifying what stands in the way of the emergence of a more peaceful and tolerant Islam, and what obstacles moderate Muslims and their non-Muslim supporters must overcome if Islam is to become genuinely tolerant and compatible with legitimately secular political institutions.