Professor’s lecture encourages thorough understanding of Islam

April West

Religious studies professor Seth Carney gave a talk in Riverview Lounge Feb. 2 entitled “Understanding Islam and the Islamic World: Jihad and Terrorism.” The talk dealt with misconceptions of Islam, how the religion began and its basic premises.
“Jihad is all the West ever hears about,” Carney began. The reduced interpretation
of Islam in the West makes it difficult to understand the diversity of beliefs among followers of Islam. Fundamentalism goes back to the 19th century, beginning with the Catholic belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. This fact is often forgotten due to the modern use of the word fundamentalism.
The Quran does not exist in isolation, Carney explained. It is unique among religious texts in that it speaks of itself – it even speaks of interpretation of itself. This need for interpretation has led to much confusion, debate and creativity. All interpretations of the Quran are taken to be fallible and open to question.
The media often takes excerpts of the Quran out of context. They make general claims of Islam with the aim of sloganeering.
Carney said that this springs from a failure to acknowledge the diversity of interpretation present within Islam. To ignore over 1,000 years of scholarly debate is oversimplifying the issue. “You cannot ask the question ‘What would Judaism do?’ and you cannot expect the same of Islam,” he stated.
Carney also supplied a brief history of Islam and the Quran. Muhammad was the religion’s founder, announcing a religion of pure monotheism. This was fairly dramatic because it went against the Arabian social and economic structure of his day. Islam is seen as the original primordial
religion of God and attracted only a few followers in the beginning. It was also met with extreme oppression; those involved were tortured and murdered. Muhammad himself was eventually exiled from Mecca, with a small amount of authority still attached to him.
The nature of the Quran, said Carney, changed and evolved over the 23-year period during which it was revealed to Muhammad. Prior to Muhammad’s exile, the Quran was extremely anti-violent, but then was later interpreted as granting Muslims the right to defend themselves. Violence is seen as a weighty and sensitive
subject in the Quran. The society at the time was extremely violent and tribal warfare was especially prominent. Over time, interpretations of the Quran granted more allowances for violence. When large conflicts began between Medina – the city where Muhammad went after exile – and Mecca, the Quran as interpreted began to praise martyrdom and the idea of the holy warrior. After that, the Quran was seen as granting permission to conquer Mecca. This has been taken by some to be an endorsement for blanket jihad, Carney said.
What does jihad mean? There first needs to be a distinction between lesser
and greater jihad. The lesser jihad deals with holy war and conflict, whereas greater jihad deals with the struggle with oneself. There is jihad of the hand, heart, tongue and sword. The sword represents military conflict, the hand is related to work and labor, the tongue represents speaking out against evil, and the heart represents the internal hatred of evil. Jihad itself is much larger than the concept
of holy war. The idea of holy war was used to spread influence so that people would be able to hear the Quran, tying into the form of the tongue jihad. The justification is that it is necessary to instill just leadership so that people can hear the truth. In view of the classical interpretation
of the Quran, Carney explained, all other societies are unjust. This is the key criterion and motivation for extremist groups. The right to jihad was an obligation
upon all Muslims.
The idea of an Islamic state is modern.
Until 1923, there was no central Muslim authority. In Islam, God has the sovereign right to legislate over all issues. To many, this means that no secular law can exist alongside God’s. Traditional Muslims view any other law as absurd.
According to Carney, Islam does not have the answer to all questions. To radicals such as Osama bin Laden, the view is that Islam has become unpurified and needs to be purified again. Bin Laden himself goes against many traditional Islamic traditions, Carney stated, saying, “I will say that bin Laden is not crazy, but does have a logic that is based on a misinterpretation of the Quran . The Quran can be used to justify a number of things.