Islam and the Sword.

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by Gildas the Monk on August 22, 2014

There was a prescient piece in the Sunday Times this week by Tom Holland, historian and author of, amongst other books, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’, which charts the origins of Islam.

In the article he discussed the present predilection for beheadings by ‘Islamic militants’ and discussed the history of this particular brand of atrocity in the Middle East. He was not to know that a decent man, American journalist James Foley, would meet a similar utterly cruel and barbaric fate this week, at the hands of a young British man allegedly called ‘John’, his last moments spread all over social media.  It might have been better if ‘John’ had actually used a sword, but he used a nasty looking knife instead, I believe.

I understand that the ‘lslamic State’ and other radical groups of similar ilk enforce their will and rid lands of unbelievers in other vicious manners too, including crucifixion and cutting off their hands and feet.   

Before I express my views on the murder itself which I hope to do at a later date, I would like to explore the motivation or psychology for this kind of act. 

The first step is to understand the basic proposition of Islamic theology, and some would say that it is the reason why it is impossible to be “moderate” Muslim. 

The basic tenet is that the Quran/Koran is the exact word of God, related to the Prophet Mohammad by the Angel Gabriel in messages received and memorised by the Prophet over time. As the exact word of God it is perfect and must be obeyed completely unless a command in it was cancelled or over-ridden by a subsequent instruction or observation. This is the so called doctrine of abrogation. It also trumps any earlier Holy Books texts or instructions, such as the Gospels. 

Although the information was originally orally recorded when the book was collated in around AD 650 (the date is in dispute and some have suggested it was much, much later) the Word became flesh, so to speak. Hence the very book which contains the Word is holy, containing as is believed, the direct revelations and words of God. 

The book is collated in a strange way. It does not have a narrative story, but is rather a collection of what might be called stream of consciousness observations and instructions.  The chapters are not arranged in date order but by length, with the longest first and the shortest at the end. My understanding is that the earliest passages date from when the Prophet first began to preach his faith when he was in his home town of Mecca and he and his first followers were being persecuted by the ruling authorities, but the injunctions become more martial when he established a base in Medina and became a successful military leader.

Some of it is clear and some of it is obscure.  In addition to all of this, there are disputes about translation. It is thus a very good recipe for confusion. 

Perhaps the most controversial or notorious verse is number 5 from “Sura At-Tawba” and is known as the Ayat al-sayf, Ayah of the Sword or The Sword Verse. Here are a couple of translations: 

“Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” 

Or 

“And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”

Explaining the context of this verse, some Quranic scholars say that the permission to fight and kill is being given regarding specific tribes already at war with the Muslims who have breached their peace agreements and have attacked the Muslims first, or polytheists – not, therefore Christians or Jews. But as mentioned above, and as these translations indicate, there are issues about translation. Clearly the Prophet preached against the worship of multiple deities, as was common at the time. But I have seen other translations of this passage which suggest that it does include Christians and Jews. Some passages are positively complimentary of the co–monotheistic Christians and Jews. In others, they are permitted to carry on their worship if they pay tax.

That explains why Islamic State were willing to spare Christians in exchange for submission and tax – but the Yazidis, who had not been granted any such partial exemption, faced annihilation.         

Here is another passage: 

“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter”

This is why these practices are followed by the so-called fundamentalists today. Again, there are arguments about context, but it seems pretty clear to me. 

But the Quran/Koran is not the only source of authority. The Prophet is regarded as the perfect person, the possessor of all virtues. So the reasoning is that, if he did something, it is self evidently the right thing to do.

There are sources about the life of the Prophet which give information about his life. One is The Life of Mohammad by Mohammed bin Ishaq later, edited by Abdul Malik bin Hisham (spellings of the names vary) concerning the conquest of the mass killing of the men of the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe of Medina. The tribe was accused of having engaged in treasonous agreements with the enemies besieging Medina in the Battle of the Trench in 627. As translated by Professor Alfred Guilluame in 1955 it reads: 

Then the …tribe surrendered and the Apostle confined them in Medina…then the Apostle went out to the market of Medina and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck of their heads in those trenches as they were brought to him in batches. There were six hundred or seven hundred in all, though some put the figure as high as eight hundred or nine hundred…”

I believe other sources say that any boy who had begun to develop pubic hair was killed, and the wives and daughter taken into slavery.  There are stories of what we might call warlord behaviour. One story is that the last fort of the Jewish settlement called Khaybar was taken by the Prophet and his men; the chief of the Jews, called Kinana ibn al-Rabi, was asked by the Prophet to reveal the location of some hidden treasure. When he refused, the Prophet ordered a man to torture Kinana, and the man “kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead.” Kinana was then beheaded, and the Prophet took his young wife Safiyya as a concubine.” However, many Muslims dispute this as a slur.  

A few final points. It is clear that Islam embraces the concept of Jihad. This may involve inner struggle in search of purity (“greater Jihad”) but it equally clearly does unequivocally involve armed struggle (“lesser Jihad”). Some passages of the Quran/Koran suggest that this is measured, proportionate self defence. Others do not. But it is clear that the Quran/Koran promises immediate and automatic salvation with all sorts of sexual pleasures to those who die engaged in Jihad. If one truly believes that, death is a positive “win”. A suicide bomber in this psychological construct does not commit suicide, which I believe is forbidden. They die in combat and thus go straight to Paradise.  

Nothing in the Koran specifically states that the faithful are allotted 72 virgins apiece. For this elaboration we turn to the hadith, traditional sayings traced with varying degrees of credibility to Muhammad. Hadith number 2,562 in the collection known as the Sunan al-Tirmidhi says, “The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby.”

I have to add this does appear to be a Gentleman’s Club of a disturbing or entertaining nature depending on your point of view – but what happens to female Jihadis is a little unclear to me.  

The combination of this sense of perfect certainty of absolute spiritual authority, the literal interpretation of verses in the Quran/Koran and the known or assumed facts about the Prophet’s campaigns thus form the basis for a highly primitive, easy to absorb, belief system which plays nicely into a “them or us” mind set and which can easily brain wash the recipient into becoming a fanatic with a zeal for murder and self destruction.

It is a belief system which is trapped in time, transporting the mind set of a pre-Medieval psychopath into the 21st Century. It is the Ebola of religions.  

In another piece I shall try to explain what is manifestly true. That the acts of these groups are evil, and by whatever means they must be annihilated. 

©Gildas the Monk    

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