You can be sure that the Muslims teaching about the Qur’an will eagerly quote 5:32 and be careful, at the same time, to avoid quoting the verse that follows, 5:33, that glosses 5:32 and gives it its sense. Another favorite Qur’anic verse that the apologists like to quote is 2:256: “there is no compulsion in religion.” That sounds straightforward, and non-Muslims will be expected to take it at face value. But a little thought about the matter will lead to quite a different conclusion. Non-Muslims are not strictly “compelled” — this is the Muslim view –to give up their religions and convert to Islam. They have a “choice” — so supposedly no “compulsion” — either to convert to Islam, to be killed, or to live as dhimmis under Muslim rule. As dhimmis, they must pay the Jizyah (a capitation tax on non-Muslims) to the Muslim state, and will also be subject to a host of lesser disabilities: displaying identifying marks on both their dress and dwelling; riding donkeys rather than horses; stepping aside on footpaths so as always to yield the right of way to Muslims. Isn’t this seeming “choice” really a form of “compulsion”? In order to avoid either death, or being forced to pay the Jizyah and observe other requirements made on dhimmis, all of which are daily reminders of their well-deserved humiliation, the only way out was to convert to Islam. While some Christians and Jews paid the Jizyah, others, over time, in order to free themselves of this onerous tax, converted to Islam. Any fair-minded person would describe that as “compulsion.”
And what about Muslims themselves? Muslims were not free to choose a religion other than Islam. The punishment for Muslims who wish to leave Islam — that is, to be apostates — has always been death. That too, sounds a lot like “compulsion in religion.” If you have ever wondered about how the handful of well-known apostates from Islam — e.g., Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq — have managed to survive, the answer is simple: they now have the security of living in the advanced West. But they don’t dare travel back to the Muslim countries they came from, and they know all too well what the phrase “there is no compulsion in religion” actually amounts to in Islam — that is, to nothing.
As for the 109 Jihad verses in the Qur’an — see, e.g., 9.5, 9:29, 2:191, 4:74 — one assumes that the Muslims will try, for the non-Muslims they are “teaching,” to “contextualize” those verses. The superficially plausible patter will likely go something like this: “Look, we all know that Arabia in the seventh century was a violent tribal society. Muhammad wanted to bring peace to all the warring tribes. He saw himself as a peacemaker. But many of those tribes saw Muhammad’s message of peace — a pax Islamica — as threatening their way of life. They made war on him, so much so that in the last ten years of his life he and his followers were forced to fight in 65 different campaigns. Of course there was violence, and Muhammad did what he had to, to protect his people by way of self-defense. Each of the verses that are about violence has to be seen in the context of a particular space and time — western Arabia, in the early 7th century. Exactly which enemy of the Muslims is alluded to in which verse? This is the kind of thing scholars of Islam can make their life’s work; we just don’t have the expertise. Remember, Muhammad almost never names those enemies — he didn’t have to, for his followers at the time knew exactly who was fighting them, and against whom they had to fight back. And the main point is this: these were verses that applied at the time of their writing to specific enemies of Islam. They were meant to be descriptive of a particular situation, not prescriptive for all Muslims for all time. It is this that the islamophobes keep missing. It is simply bad faith on their part to insist, without any evidence, that a verse written 1400 years ago, about a fight among certain tribes in Mecca or Medina or some oasis in the western Arabian desert, must surely apply to all people, for all time, and everywhere. This misapprehension is what makes some people, quite unnecessarily, fear Islam. Just exercise your own historical sense, put those verses back into the context to which they were meant to apply, some 1400 years ago and relax.”
So this is what the non-Muslims who attend these “Learn Islam From Its Source” meetings will have learned: 5:32 but not the indispensable gloss of 5:33; 2:256, as if “there is no compulsion in religion” really did apply to Islam; the Five Pillars, without any additional information about Zakat or Salat. This focus on the Five Pillars gives Muslim instructors a chance to use up time discussing rituals that are essentially innocuous, while spending less time on the Jihad verses, that can be explained away only by claiming that they require “contextualization” to be properly understood. Non-Muslims are to be reassured that these Jihad verses apply only in context (Western Arabia, early 7th century). Are there still non-Muslims willing to believe this? Unfortunately, a great many.
By not including any of the Hadith or Sira in these “Learn Islam From Its Source” lessons, it bears repeating, almost all of the most disturbing aspects of Muhammad’s life will be avoided.
Muhammad is the central figure in Islam, the “Perfect Man” to be emulated by all true believers. His words and deeds, then, are indispensable for a full understanding of Islam. By pretending that the Hadith and Sira can be ignored, and that non-Muslims can best “learn Islam from the source’” — that is, from the Qur’an alone — what is presented as pedagogic common sense turns out to be a sinister exercise in taqiyya. And the worst part of it is that the victims of this will not, unless they study on their own, in advance, know enough to realize what is being withheld from them about Muhammad, and why it matters so much. Nor will they be sufficiently prepared to understand the highly misleading version of the Qur’an that is presented to them.
Before you show up for these “Learn Islam From Its Source” meetings, prepare yourself by learning about Islam from non-Muslim sources. Two lucid guides by Robert Spencer can be recommended: “Blogging the Qur’an” and The Truth About Muhammad. If these guides are read and thoroughly assimilated, you will then be in a position to attend these events and ask pointed questions. Among them, as previously noted above, are these: Who cannot receive Zakat? Why and how are the kuffars denounced seventeen times a day during the recital of Salat (the five daily prayers)? How do Muslims understand and apply Qur’an 2:256 (“there is no compulsion in religion”)? What does 5:32 mean if read by itself? And if read in the light of 5:33? What do Muslim apologists mean when they stress the need to “contextualize” the Qur’anic verses about violence and terrorism, and how convincing are their attempts to do this?
And then you should be well-prepared to bring up those episodes in the life of Muhammad that are to be found not in the Qur’an but in the Hadith and Sira, which you will have to read and reread on your own, once you learn that you are being deliberately dissuaded from consulting the Hadith and Sira by those helpful Muslims insisting that you “Learn Islam From Its Source.” You will have the satisfaction of watching as your initially smiling hosts suddenly become not quite so affable, and indeed, may become quite unpleasant about all this information you appear to have learned — how dare you? — without checking with them, they who so disinterestedly were determined to help you “Learn Islam From the Source.” For they will insist that only the Qur’an can be fully trusted, that non-Muslims have a hard enough time grasping that text, that the Hadith and Sira pose even greater problems of authenticity and of meaning — so that non-Muslims are likely to become unduly confused. “It would be better,” you will be told, “if you would please stick to the Qur’an, as by far the most important Islamic text, and focus, please, on those parts of it that mean the most to Muslims, such as the Five Pillars, and the injunction against killing at 5:32 and the guarantee of no compulsion in religion at 2:256. And how do we know that these are the most important verses? Because we are Muslims ourselves.”
But the damage will have been done to the “Learn Islam From Its Source” campaign — you will have made an end run around your Muslim pedagogues, by reading, before meeting them, the Qur’an, with commentary, learned the real significance of those verses — 5:32 and 2:256 — favored by Islamic apologists, learned (from a commentary such as “Blogging the Qur’an”), the ways in which Zakat differs from Christian charity, and how reciting the five daily prayers, or Salat, brings with it kuffar-cursing seventeen times a day. Such a commentary will have explained, too why the violence in the Qur’an is not descriptive (as in the Bible), as you will be told but, rather, prescriptive, and applicable for all time.
Even more important than your self-study of the Qur’an, undertaken before your encounter with local Muslim apologists who are ready to misrepresent that text in by-now well-practiced ways, will be the study you undertake of the Hadith and Sira, the very texts that are left out entirely by those engaged in the “Learn Islam From Its Source” campaign. And all you have to do is raise your hand and ask a few unwelcome questions based on that reading. Mention of Aisha, Kinana of Khaybar, Asma bint Marwan, Abu ‘Afak, the Banu Qurayza, should do the trick. You will be in a much better position to ask uncomfortable — even unanswerable — questions. Among your Muslim would-be teachers, who had hoped to pass over in silence many of the details of Muhammad’s life, the result will be ill-concealed fury. For these episodes in Muhammad’s life are impossible to explain away, and deeply damaging to the image of the Prophet that Believers wish at all costs to protect.