Section Four: A Brief Note on Textual Sources
Much has been said about the textual sources of jihad by force (hereinafter simply “jihad”) in Islam. This is, of course, and important question or issue because like the other “revealed religions” (mainly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, although perhaps Zoroastrianism and some Hindu movements may be included), what the textual sources say determine orthodoxy and orthopraxy (correct belief and correct practice respectively). This issue in Islam will now be discussed along with brief remarks on what Jewish and Christian scriptures and textual sources say about war.
Most forms of Islam have a set of fundamental, authoritative textual sources, which are: al-qur’an (the Qur’an, the holy and revealed book of Islam; literally “that which is recited”), al-ahadeeth (“the sayings”, specifically those of Muhammad and senior early Muslim figures; singular is (al-)hadeeth), and as-sunnah (“the example”, specifically the acts and practices and doings of Muhammad and senior early Muslim figures). From these (and other methods such as independent reasoning) comes ash-shari’ah (shari’ah, “the path or way”, the collection of Islamic law, of which there are five major versions, four among the Sunnis and one among the Shiites).
Now, many focus on what the Qur’an says. This makes sense but betrays a Judeo-Christian (and not Muslim or Islamic) paradigm. Jews and Christians often quote from their scriptures. Muslims do too. But in Islam, as well as in Rabbinic Judaism, there is a fundamental belief that the Qur’an must never be treated alone. Indeed, some go so far as to say that common people should not try to understand the Qur’an for they are unable to do so and will only become misguided if they try. The reason for this is that the other sources of Islam (ahadeeth, sunnah, and shari’ah) comment on what has been revealed along with providing the rules and ways to implement what has been revealed. Trying to understand the Qur’an without these sources is to have an incomplete understanding and one that could very well be inaccurate. In practice, what this means is that it does not matter what the Qur’an says.
Two examples should suffice. Many people know that Muslims pray five times a day. But if one reads what the Qur’an has to say about prayer, one will soon become confused. There are no set rules, and some mandates seem to be contradictory (one verse says that one must face the Ka’bah in Mecca; another says it does not matter in what direction one prays). The timings, words, and acts of prayer are not in the Qur’an. Most of the rules concerning prayer (when, where, with what movements, with what words, other rules of performance and recitation, in which direction, under what circumstances or conditions, and so on) to a very significant extent come from the non-Qur’anic sources of Islam. If one confined Islam only to the Qur’an, one would not know how to pray at all. Muslims have determined the rules and manner of prayer mainly by the practices and sayings of Muhammad rather than what the Qur’an says. (On the other hand, the Qur’an is quite explicit with regard to division of inheritance. Go figure.)
Another is an issue of abrogation. One verse says that gambling and alcohol are. Just bad but not prohibited. Another says that alcohol and gambling are absolutely forbidden. To reconcile this, the principle of abrogation was devised: a later verse (here the prohibition of alcohol and gambling) abrogates and supplants and replaces an earlier verse (here simply warning against alcohol and gambling).
If one were to read the Qur’an, without any commentary or interpretation and casting aside the other authoritative textual sources of Islam, one either becomes confused or comes up with a very warped sense of what Islam is. Islam is more what its non-Qur’anic sources say it is rather than what the Qur’an says it is.
This relates to jihad in that many people, when speaking or writing about jihad (for it, against it, or whatever), depend heavily on what the Qur’an says. This is not entirely right. The other sources of Islam must be studied because they determine, in practice, what Islam is and is not, not what the Qur’an says. Or, in other words, what matters is not what the Qur’an says but how it is interpreted.
A somewhat similar situation exists with regard to violent verses in the Jewish and Christian versions of the Bible. Just because the Bible has violent imagery and verses does not mean Judaism or Christianity are violent. Indeed, such verses are often ignored, explained away, said to be metaphorical or allegorical, or referring to another imminent age. And so it does not matter what the Bible says but how what the Bible says is interpreted or implemented. And so criticism of the Bible is not right either unless its violent verses are taken seriously.