For anybody who wishes to reduce the amount of religious hatred in the world, the last few days have been dispiriting. Angry mobs have been ginned up across the globe, incited by self-appointed Muslim leaders to protest a few sentences in a lecture by Pope Benedict XVI (unless, of course, one believes the protests are a completely spontaneous reaction by millions of people who read papal lectures closely on a regular basis). The story has now reached the predictable stage of asking, How much blame does the pope himself bear for the street violence? Andrew Sullivan cites a London Times report saying the pope got the Koran wrong. The pope said that the Koran passage — Sura 2:256 — forbidding compulsion in religion was a product of Muhammad’s early period, when he was “still powerless and under threat.” The Times’s Ruth Gledhill says the passage was actually written when Muhammad was “in Medina and in control of a state” and “in a position of strength, not weakness”; and Sullivan comments that this “undercuts [the pope’s] point almost completely.”
To which I comment: One of the Korans I own, published under Saudi auspices, identifies Sura 2 as “in the main an early Madinah sura”; in other words, composed shortly after Muhammad and his followers had fled for their lives to Medina. Another Koran translator, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, writes in his introduction to this Sura that “it was revealed at Al-Madinah [when] the Prophet’s own tribe, the pagan Qureysh at Mecca, were preparing to attack the Muslims in their place of refuge [and when] cruel persecution was the lot of Muslims who had stayed in Meccan territory.” That sounds to me like a situation in which Mohammed was still at least relatively “powerless”–and certainly “under threat.”
But I wish to go deeper on this than mere nitpicking of the Gledhill/Sullivan criticism of the pope. The circumstances under which Mohammed wrote a particular verse are not, finally, that important; what is important is how the Koran is transmitted to future generations. Koran interpretation is a key battleground in the struggle for the soul of Islam. In this regard, one of the saddest Koran passages for me is from yet a third version of the Koran, from another Saudi publisher. In Sura 15:85, Allah is telling Mohammed how to deal with polytheists and other wrongdoers: “The Hour is surely, coming, so overlook (O Muhammad) their faults with gracious forgiveness.” And here the commentator for this version immediately adds, in brackets: “[This was before the ordainment of Jihad -- holy fighting in Allah’s cause.”] This is as if a Christian Bible commentator were to add, as a footnote to Jesus’s words, “Turn the other cheek,” the helpful comment that “Jesus said this before we knew we could attain more power by killing our enemies.” An older generation, in rebuke, would have quoted the Bible accurately against any such commentator, as follows: “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
The Koran is one of the loveliest books ever written, a distillation of monotheism that is full of spiritual wisdom, and I never fail to profit from my reading of it. But the global mainstream of Koran interpretation stresses the passages that are harmful, and slights those that are irenic. The pope’s words approached, without quite touching, this unpleasant truth.
As a result of the current riots, there will be even more Western voices calling for a “clash of civilizations” against Islam itself. But before we decide that Islam cannot be saved from its darker side, we should call to mind Christian history. Less than 150 years ago, a pope (Pius IX, “Syllabus of Errors”) was still formally condemning freedom of religion as a heretical notion. And John Calvin, the spiritual progenitor of the theology of America’s founding fathers, ran a cruel theocracy in Geneva that, among other things, executed the theologian Servetus for heresy. Religions, acted on by the Spirit, can change. Our Muslim brothers and sisters need our prayers, and they need us to support the forces among them that are resisting the lure of religious hatred.
– Michael Potemra is National Review’s literary editor.