In previous years, ISIS and their ilk have dominated media headlines. The public’s conscious has been loaded with affiliations between nefarious terrorist groups, and the religion of Islam, or at least some interpretations of it. ISIS are well aware of this, and exploit this through their toxic propaganda, in which they attempt to claim the mantle of Islamic Orthodoxy. They buttress their narrative with quotes from the Quran and the Sunnah, which has sadly beguiled many passionate cubs.
As anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Islamic scholarship would know, Muslim theologians have responded with a mass of refutations, ravaging ISIS’s façade. Still, there are those who knowingly (and others unknowingly) deny such a response, and construe Islam as a uniquely problematic religion, evidenced by the perturbed actions of a statistical minority. Such people would claim that ISIS are not abusing Islamic scripture, but are drawing out it’s truest meaning. It would be of great benefit for them to take even a cursory glance over history, and they would find a plethora of cases in which groups and causes have plundered sanctified and sacred texts in a vain pursuit of legitimacy. These examples would paint the current debacle with Muslim terrorists in a very different light, as yet another case of the perversity of heart, manifest in untamed emotion and opportunism expressed through the abuse of scripture.
Biblical texts have been invoked for a wide range of atrocities. In the first hundred years of Columbus’ arrival in Latin America, millions died. Columbus believed that he was part of the mission to unite the world under the Pope, supplementing his ideas by quoting Isaiah 65:17. Naturally there were Christians at the time who were appalled by the violence, and opposed the oppression with their own references.
The colonization of South Africa spawned the Afrikanerdom counter movement which appealed to the Exodus narrative of fleeing persecution and heading to the Promised Land, whilst being surrounded by the unbelieving blacks. Desmond Tutu intervened with an eclectic and wholesome repertoire of Biblical texts and edicts to shed light on the abuse of scripture and usher the warring parties towards a better path.
These examples show the breadth of interpretations of the Bible, some of them abhorrent, and others positive and merciful. Rightly so, society does not judge the Christian veneer based upon these ugly examples. So too must society not demonise the Muslim populace over the actions of a statistical minority, and one who’s arguments have been so thoroughly debased by Islamic scholars. Rather, these examples are but another tragic plundering of the sacred by the perverse of heart.
The abuse of scripture does beg the question; is abuse inevitable given the broadness of scripture and those who read it? There are countless examples of differing interpretations of scripture emerging from and possibly because of diverse backgrounds. Since scripture targets humans at large, does the breadth of experience that accompanies the human experience mirror onto a similar breadth of textual interpretation, some of which will inevitably mirror the violence and injustice that pushes some to abuse text?
I think the answer to this is probably a matter of extent, rather than a categoric answer. Indeed, the bewildering differences between humans across cultures and ages would inevitably yield differing interpretations. In fact, it’s probably reasonable to suggest that any religion that claims to be divine ought to acknowledge and bear with this diversity, for how could the Creator of humanity not address the fundamental diversity of His creation? Irrespective, this diversity would not be so broad as to sap all objective meaning of a text. Text can certainly be ambiguous, which creates multiple avenues of interpretation, but it yet retains a meaning of its own by virtue of it being a text. Words after all are containers of reality. The word honey is not the physical stuff itself, not the thick goopy liquid itself, but it is a reference to it. This creates an inseverable link between words and reality. It is for this reason that different languages have words that do not exist in other languages, because some cultures observe realities that do not exist elsewhere. For example, there are many words for camel in Arabic, depicting different ages, colours and types, reflectively of the Arab reality of using camels to travel.
From this, it follows that text must still have a salvageable meaning which can be derived. This meaning will be tied to the particular reality in which the text emerged. This reality would therefore constrain the meaning to some objective meaning. Note, when I say objective meaning, I do not mean to suggest that there is only one meaning, but that there is some true meaning. Multiple interpretations can be true, just as tusks are as much of a feature of elephants as a trunk is.
I find this to underscore the importance of the Seerah (the documented Life of Muhammed (peace be upon him)), and how the Quran is irrevocably intertwined into the personage of the Prophet. Muslims are able to locate the reality that the text of the Quran speaks to. When the Quran says ‘he frowned’, we know it refers to an incident in which the Prophet very slightly frowned after a blind man interrupted his proselytization. This gives a clear way to understand the text, and to rebuff the outrageously misconstrued quotes used by extremists and Islamophobes alike.
This isn’t to suggest that the text of the Quran is entirely dependent on the life of Muhammed. A contextual understanding of Quranic text can expound many layers of meaning, though much of the text (I really don’t know how much) carries objectivity by referring to perennial experiences and wisdoms that are recognisable by the depths of the human condition, such as being awe-struck by stars, facing tyranny, surviving in chaos etc.
Sacred texts are the foundational texts of society, though this is very much understated today. It is therefore an urgent responsibility for scholars of different faiths to be clear not only on the meaning and reality of their texts, but also be careful not to polemicize the abuse of other sacred texts (most notably the Quran) into an ideological battering ram. The diversity of human experience, which necessarily must be addressed to some extent in divine scripture, should be used to draw out kaleidoscopic wisdom which the majority of faith adherents have benefitted from over the ages, and to tackle the tenacious demon of scriptural abuse rather than feeding it.
“…some of its verses are definite in meaning- these are the cornerstone of the Scripture- and others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and to pin down a specific meaning of their own: only God knows the true meaning. Those firmly grounded in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it: it is all from our Lord’- only those with real perception will take heed- “
Surah Al-Imran, Verse 7