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Rioting, killing in the name of Islam? : A Muslim's View

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Rioting, killing in the name of Islam?

The Quran itself raises questions, as does the possibility it was defiled; let's not lose our heads


Irshad Manji is author of "The Trouble With Islam Today," recently published in paperback. This previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

May 18, 2005

So Newsweek has retracted its report about the defiling of Islam's holy book, the Quran, by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.

But it's too late. Muslims everywhere are questioning America's respect for all religions. Journalists are wondering what standards allowed the charge to be printed without proof.

Foreign policy analysts are asking how the riots incited by the charge will affect the war on terrorism. Still, at least one more question needs to be asked: Even if the Quran was mistreated, are riots justified?

"What do you expect?" my critics will declare. "Abusing the Quran is like abusing basic human rights. If you're a good Muslim, your identity and dignity are bound up in r*****ng the Quran. It's the literal word of God. Unsullied. Unedited. Unlike the other holy books."

Sorry. That argument just doesn't wash. One can appreciate the Quran's inherent worth, as I do, while recognizing that it contains ambiguities, inconsistencies, outright contradictions - and the possibility of human editing. This is not simply a reform-minded Muslim speaking. This is Islamic tradition talking.

For centuries, philosophers of Islam have been telling the story of the "Satanic Verses." The Prophet Muhammad accepted them as authentic entries into the Quran. Later, he realized they deify heathen idols rather than God. So he belatedly rejected the verses, blaming them on a trick played by Satan - which implies that the prophet edited the Quran.

Let's push this point further. Because pious Muslims emulate Muhammad's life, those who compiled the Quran's verses after his death might have followed his example of editing along the way. The compilers were, after all, only human - as human as Muhammad himself.

Moreover, they collected the Quran's verses from sundry surfaces such as bones, stones and bark. How did the passages get there? According to Islamic lore, the prophet, an illiterate trader, couldn't personally record them. His companions served as scribes, often writing from memory. Given so much human involvement, isn't it possible that errors infiltrated the "authoritative" Quran?

In asking this question, I'm neither impugning the allegorical wisdom of the Quran nor inviting a fatwa on my life. I'm saying that Muslims have to get comfortable asking such questions - and not merely whispering them - if we're going to avoid a further desecration of human life.

Riots in Afghanistan have already resulted in at least 14 deaths. Aid workers have been attacked, their offices burned. How does this benefit the cause of dignity - for anyone?

Many will insist that I'm undermining the dignity of Muslims by challenging a pillar of their identity. By urging my fellow Muslims to consider these questions, I'm showing faith in their capacity to be thoughtful and humane. I'm appealing to their heads, rather than only their hearts. Ultimately, I'm fighting not Islam but the routinely low expectations of those who practice it.

Contrast that with the strategy of Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician who rallied his countrymen to express rage based on one paragraph in Newsweek. A fierce rival of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Khan objects to cooperating with the United States on security matters. He knew his comments about Newsweek would feed the most reflexive of Muslim impulses - to treat the Quran with uncritical veneration.

Such lazy tactics remind me of those used to drive the Miss World Beauty Pageant out of Nigeria in 2002 after a columnist suggested that the prophet would have taken its winner as his wife.

When people believe that certain aspects of religion are off-limits to questions, it doesn't take much to incite violence - or to withhold forgiveness. Even though the offending Nigerian newspaper apologized three times, Muslim protesters set its offices ablaze.

Muslims worldwide are scheduling demonstrations for the end of this month against those who insult Islam. They'll peacefully protest not just the possibility of the Quran's desecration at Guantanamo but the proved torture at Abu Ghraib and civil-rights violations suffered by ordinary U.S. Muslims. They have every right to condemn these injuries.

Will they also speak out against the bloody, fiery riots that, in the name of honoring Islam, are killing an increasing number of Muslims and non-Muslims? It's worth asking.

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