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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on "Twisting Islam to Justify Cruelty" by Paul Sheehan

To the Editor
The Sydney Morning Herald

I am writing to congratulate you on publishing Paul Sheehan's courageous and fair-minded piece "Twisting Islam to Justify Cruelty" (May 27, 2013). There needs to be a conversation about radical Islamic theology and its Koranic foundations.  Sheehan is to be commended for tackling this thorny subject.

Concerning Mohamnmad Abdalla's response "Critical opinion of Islam ignores the fundamental truths", his article is littered with misrepresentations.

For example concerning non-Islamic violence, Abdalla writes:
Many violent Jewish and Christian groups have used these Biblical texts to justify their actions. Crusaders used them against Muslims and Jews. Nazis used them against Jews. Serbian Christians used them against Bosnian Muslims. Zionists use them regularly against Palestinians. But non-religious people have done the same in the name of one ideology of another.
In 2011, Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik allegedly hated Muslims and Islam and subscribed to a fundamentalist, right-wing Christian ideology. Of course, little to no mention was made about Breivik's ''religious'' association, or that he was ''devout'' of any sort.
  • It is not true to say that the crusaders used the Old Testament verses associated with the conquest of Canaan to justify their campaigns in the Holy Land.  They had a theology, to be sure, and we still have the texts of some the sermons which incited them to go to war, but this theology was about the promise of forgiveness of sins to those who went on the crusade, not genocide in Canaan.
  • Nazis did not use the Old Testament to justify going to war or killing Jews.  Mein Kampf does not appeal to the Bible as a source of authority for its hatred.  (See here).  National Socialism also was not based upon Biblical proofs: it was secular, appealed to science, and anti-religious.
  • I challenge Abdalla to find a single case where Serbs uses verses from the Torah to justify their actions in warfare.
  • Zionists do not use verses relating to the conquest of Canaan 'against Palestinians'.  I know many Zionists, Christian and Jewish, and read their writings extensively, and I've never known a single one to quote a verse such as Numbers 31:17-18 in support of their cause.
  • Andrew Breivik was not a practicing Christian.  He called himself a cultural Christian, and even spoke approvingly of Christian atheism, by which he meant a cultural tradition.  Associate Professor Abdalla has heard no mention of Breivik being 'devout' because he was not.
More than this, Associate Professor Abdalla's treatment of the Koran violates the very principles he promotes.  (See here for a more extensive explanation).

A passage he refers to, (Koran 2:190-195) with its six verses (not five as he reports), when not read literally, but interpreted in its proper context, has been used by leading and highly trained Muslim scholars to argue that non-Muslims are infidels who deserve to be killed: specifically, they have been cited by  scholars to support putting apostates to death, and to claim that merely to disbelieve Islam is a worse injustice than murder.  It is completely false to say that these verses prohibit killing of innocent people. 

Ironically, when the Woolwich killer Michael Adebolajo quoted the Koran to justify his actions, he cited a verse from this very passage, saying "But we are forced by the Quran ... through many, many ayah [verses] throughout the Koran that we must fight them as they fight us." The phrase in bold is from the Koran 2:190: "And fight in the way of Allah those who fight you."

Then when Abdallah cites three further passages, two from the Koran and one from the hadiths, he fails to mention that his method of putting texts in their proper contexts, if applied to these passages, reveals that they have a much worse meaning than might initially seem to be the case, and certainly worse than he wishes to convey to the Sydney Morning Herald's readers.

1. The verse "take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law" (Koran 6:151) has been interpreted by Muslim scholars as a justification for killing apostates for Islam, through the exception "except by way of justice and law."  

2. The verse, "that if anyone killed a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land" is immediately followed by a denunciation of Jews, and then a command to crucify people who fight against Muhammad, cut off their hands and feet, banish them and humilitate them (Koran 5:32-33). Not a nice passage.

3. A third text is claimed by Abdalla to argued that 'innocent non-Muslims' should not be killed.  In fact the term he translates as 'innocent non-Muslims' means a 'protected person', or 'tolerated non-Muslim' living under Islamic law.  In other words people who have surrendered to the armies of Islam.  These are the non-Muslims whose life is protected in Islam.  Those who refuse to surrender, and stick to their disbelief in Islam, are not protected:  they are not considered to be "innocent".  It remains open for Muslims to kill infidels who refuse Islam's dominance, or so this text implies.

Abdalla's claim that Islam forbids killing innocent people has to be read in the light of a long tradition of Islamic scholarship, based on the very same contextualizing principles which Abdallah claims are essential when reading the Koran. A traditional Islamic view has been that non-Muslims by definition are not "innocent", but guilty of the unforgivable sin of shirk or 'polytheism", and therefore it is not a crime to kill them.

Abdalla is guilty of the very thing he charged Sheehan with:  manipulating and distorting Islamic texts.

Mark Durie is an Anglican pastor and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.


  1. Thanks again for the patient and careful exposition of the real issues in this arena Mark.

    Sadly, it will take much more pain before our cultural/political leaders really begin to take notice. Come to think of it, the lack of cultural leadership is a big factor in why we are where we are.

  2. Your point that "There needs to be a conversation about radical Islamic theology and its Koranic foundations" is well made. Stephen Collins Coughlin issued the challenge in his thesis “TO OUR GREAT DETRIMENT”: IGNORING WHAT EXTREMISTS SAY ABOUT JIHAD"

    "[T]he Current Approach is grounded in “moderate” concepts of Islam starting with the assumption that Islamic-based extremism is aberrant and that Islam has become a “religion hijacked.” The consequence of (uncritically) accepting this assumption is that it brings with it an unstated corollary that because extremists do not represent “true” Islam, Islam itself should be excluded from analytical processes that support threat development."


  3. In fact, Breivik's Christian credentials were, if anything, grossly exaggerated by the media. Only a few days ago, when reporting on the anniversary of Breivik's rampage, the Spanish news channel 24 Horas described him as a Christian fundamentalist.


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