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The Qur'an's Division of Humanity into Believers a Nd Non-believers

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A careful study of the Koran begs the question: is it a violent text? This question is of critical importance in our day, given recent events. This paper attempts to explore the question in great detail, never straying from Arberry’s standard translation of the classic text of the Islamic religion.

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The Koran divides humanity into believers and unbelievers. The believers believe in the divinity of its Revelation. The unbelievers do not. God commands the believers to say to the unbelievers:

I serve not what you serve

And you are not serving what I serve,

Nor am I serving what you have served,

Neither are you serving what I serve. (CIX)

As a reward for serving this true God, the believers will be admitted “into gardens underneath which rivers flow.” For the unbelievers, there awaits “the fiery furnace” of Gehenna, where they will burn for all eternity, even though “they shall shout, Our Lord, bring us forth, and we will do righteousness, other than what we have done.'” To this plea, God replies, “What, did We not give you long life, enough to remember in for him who would remember? To you the warner came; so taste you now!” (XXXV, 34-35).

The believers, then, believe in a God who will take absolutely no mercy on the unbelievers. In fact, their one and only God seems to derive a sadistic pleasure in meeting out damnation and fire, even taunting the unbelievers with their hopeless predicament (“so taste you now!”). If the believers were to apply this cruel aspect of God’s character as a model for how they should treat the unbelievers in the present life, on earth, it is no stretch to say that the most awful barbarity would follow. All-compassionate God shows no compassion for the unbelievers’ souls; how should His believers be expected to respect their lives? In a world which is “naught but a sport and a diversion (XLVII, 38),” would not the unbelievers necessarily become, in the eyes of the believers, the expendable fuel of a holy fire here on earth?

In a few passages, the Koran seems to answer this question with a categorical no. God alone is the final judge. It remains for the believers but to worship Him and be patient. They should “Seek not to hasten it for [the unbelievers],” “it” being the Day of the Resurrection (XLVI, 34), as “God will suffice you for them” (II, 132). The believers are commanded to “leave them to eat, and to take their joy, and to be bemused by hope,” as “certainly they will soon know!” (XV, 2-3); “Leave them alone to plunge and play until they encounter that day of theirs which they are promised” (LXX 41). Putting aside for the moment the invidious condescension of the attitude believers ought to have, and reading these and like passages as strict dictates, the Koran seems to be making a relatively clear distinction between what God will eventually do to the unbelievers and how the believers must deal with them in the meantime.

Indeed, if peace is possible, as a general rule the believers have an obligation to attempt it. “If they [the unbelievers] incline toward peace,” it is written in “The Spoils,” a Sura which treats principally the subject of war, “do thou incline to it” (VIII, 63), as “God loves not the aggressors” (II, 187). “If they withdraw from you, and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God assigns not any way to you against them” (IV, 93).

This language of peace, however, waxes weak. God tends to command non-aggression tentatively – rather recommending it than demanding it. God “loves not the aggressors,” but He does not hate them as he does the unbelievers. And although He “assigns not any way to you against them,” at no point in the entire text of the Koran is aggression against unbelievers expressly forbidden; at best it is not permitted. The only mention of actual kindness towards the unbelievers highlights how little God concerns himself with believers who choose to act in the most unkindly way:

“God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just.” (LX, 9)

God does not compel his believers to “be kindly to them, and act justly towards them,” he merely “forbids you not.” To be not forbidden to do something is far from being bound to do it. Kindness and justice towards unbelievers become optional; the believer who chooses to forgo kindness and justice has done nothing wrong here. He has simply exercised his implied second option. This second option must be termed, by a simple process of elimination, cruelty.

On the other hand, the above passage serves to define specific conditions for retaliation, thereby establishing specific conditions for peace. War here is a determinable state of affairs, not an unqualified justification of slaughter. Unbelievers must first pick a fight “in religion’s cause” or “expel you from your habitations” for the rules of war to apply.

It is, indeed, those passages dealing with war that most clearly instruct readers in stabbing and slaying. Believers are commanded to fight only with those who “fight against God and His Messenger.” As for them, they should be “slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off, or they shall be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world” (V, 37). If a believer dies in the process of trying to slaughter or crucify or disfigure an unbelieving aggressor, “it is unto God you shall be mustered” (III, 151); heaven is the reward for fighting in God’s way. If a believer “turns his back that day to them… he is laden with the burden of God’s anger” (VIII, 16); hell is the punishment for abandoning the fight, once it has begun. God very much encourages relentless battle: “Fight the unbelievers totally even as they fight you totally” (IX, 36). And he rewards his soldiers with superhuman power, providing them with an incentive to fight in the face of overwhelming odds: “If there be twenty of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred” (VIII, 66). Once the unbelievers have been defeated, the victor is forbidden from mourning for him: “pray thou never over any of them when he is dead, nor stand over his grave” (IX, 85).

Still, assuming that the distinction holds between peace and war, one might argue with a certain consistency that the Koran preaches a modicum of compassion for people who disagree with its precepts. But the Koran distinguishes between war and peace only in the loosest political terms:

…Give thou good tidings to the unbelievers of a painful chastisement;

Excepting those of the idolaters with whom

You made covenant, then they failed you naught

Neither lent support to any man against you.

With them fulfil your covenant till their term; surely God loves the godfearing.

Then, when the sacred months are drawn away,

Slay the idolaters wherever you find them,

And take them, and confine them, and lie in wait

For them at every place of ambush.

Peace is here clearly defined as that period of time during which a covenant (or a treaty, in modern terms) applies. War is all other times. In other words, unless believers have sat down at the negotiating table and signed a peace treaty with unbelievers, believers are to act as if they were in fact at war. War is the norm, peace the exception (“the sacred months”), and fighting the Lord’s commandment.

There are many lines in the Koran that support this militaristic reading. More than once God commands His believers to fight the unbelievers “til there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely” (I, 189; VIII, 40). “O believers,” urges God, “fight the unbelievers who are near to you, and let them find in you a harshness” (IX, 125). Can this be understood in any other way than as Allah commanding his followers to “smite their [the unbelievers’] necks” (XLVII, 4) whenever possible? If “persecution is more heinous than slaying,” and the unbelievers “will not cease to fight with you,” (I, 213) then it follows logically that believers have an obligation to “take them, and slay them wherever you find them” (IV, 92). This reading is hardly a stretch: it is on the Koranic surface.

Gestures of peace appear all the more token in light of God’s commandment that believers must not take unbelievers as friends. Believers “have had a good example in Abraham, and those with him, when they said to their people… ?between us and you enmity has shown itself, and hatred for ever, until you believe in God alone” (LX, 4). “Let not,” commands God, “the believers take the unbelievers as friends… for whoso does that belongs not to God in anything” (III, 28); “the unbelievers are for you a manifest foe” (IV, 102). The Koran even robs this foe of his humanity. “They are like cattle; nay, rather they are further astray” (VII, 178); “Surely the worst of beasts in God’s sight are the unbelievers” (VIII, 58).

Knowing this, to call the Koran a compassionate text is to blindly wish to see it as such. Short passages of peace are overshadowed by repeated orders to pick up the sword and slay the cattle-like unbelievers. A sophisticated theologian might argue that God is in fact “The Merciful, the Compassionate,” but a humble reader encounters instead a god who takes pleasure in contriving the most awful end for people who refuse to accept Islam as the true religion:

As for the unbelievers,

For them garments of fire shall be cut,

And there shall be poured over their heads boiling water

Whereby whatsoever is in their bellies

And their skins shall be melted; for them await hooked iron rods;

As often as they desire in their anguish to come forth from it, they shall be

restored into it, and: “Taste the chastisement of the burning!” (XXI, 21)

The impassioned believer will note the literalness of God’s wrath. He will note that God employs human means (even “hooked iron rods”) to carry out his divine punishment. Will he not understand this – quite rationally – as a call to do similarly to the unbelievers in this world, a world of so much less importance? Melting skins and bellies may be metaphorical, but the many lines of the Koran that are something like “slay them wherever you come upon them” are not. Mixing the two, as the Koran does Sura after Sura, serves not only as an easy justification for the most heinous atrocities against unbelievers, but makes perpetrating such atrocities an act of the highest spiritual merit, a spark of the Divine for which believers should thank God, just as God will reward the perpetrator with Paradise.

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“We will cast into the hearts of the unbelievers terror… their lodging shall be the Fire” (III, 142). Is this the royal We, or is this God in league with his believers? In a world where, “wherever you may be, death will overtake you, though you should be in raised-up towers” (IV, 80), the question is of paramount importance. The answer that the Koran provides, again and again, over and over, in spite of a few mild warnings to the contrary, is that believers are in fact urged – if not commanded – to do Allah’s ghastly work.

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