Looking for Islam in All the Wrong Places: A Response to Nabeel Qureshi

Courtesy of Homo Economicus' Weblog 7/7/13

Nabeel Qureshi made his debut into the evangelical anti-Muslim apologetics market with his conversion narrative Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, published in 2014. In the past, Qureshi has professed charity towards Muslims themselves even as he accuses his former religion of having a history laced with vicious violence. But his most recent opinion piece makes us—a Muslim Qur’anic scholar and a Christian in dialogue with Islam—wonder just how much one can separate demonizing a religion from demonizing its adherents.

For Qureshi, the Qur’an is a bloody and violent text—a fact which learned interpreters of Islam today ignore, he implies, but somehow the unlearned Jihadists get right. Qureshi claims that as a young man, he was shielded from reading Qur’an and hadith on his own, and instead was taught a message of Islamic peace and love. This reading was subsequently shattered by his own independent investigation of the texts, bypassing centuries of the tradition and scholarly interpretations.

Qureshi claims to speak more authoritatively on Islam than the imams whose interpretation he explicitly ignores. He remembers as a child, “if I wanted to know about the traditions of Muhammad, I had to ask imams or elders in my tradition of Islam.” It was not until he bypassed “centuries of tradition and their imams’ interpretations” that he discovered real Islam—apparently on the internet, where young potential ISIS recruits easily find real Islam too.

Qureshi’s rejection of the learned scholars of his community in favor of the internet (maybe Reddit’s exmuslim sub) is comparable to an atheist learning everything she knows about Christianity from Richard Dawkins.

Like all fundamentalists, Qureshi’s deviation from the normative tradition begins the moment he declares the religious scholars of his tradition inept, corrupt, and unqualified to transmit the religious knowledge they’ve accumulated. Most Muslims understand and agree that reading the foundational texts of Islam (Qur’an and hadith) independent of the 1400-year interpretive tradition is inauthentic. So inauthentic that it is precisely this criticism of fundamentalism that hundreds of Muslim scholars use to delegitimize the claims of the Islamic State, calling them anything but Muslim.

Qureshi rejects the 1400-year interpretive tradition of Islam. He claims that his discovery of the Qur’an and hadith as violent stems from a “literal” reading, “interpreted consistently.” Yet his reading of the Qur’an does rely on tradition—albeit tradition he gets wrong.

“…there is no such thing as a simple, literal, consistent reading of any sacred text.”

His prime example of the Qur’an’s violence comes from Surah 9, the “Chapter of Repentance.” Why Surah 9? Because, Qureshi argues, “throughout history, Muslim theologians have understood and taught this progression, that the message of the Qur’an culminates in its ninth chapter.” Qureshi here refers to the interpretive principle of abrogation, a method in Islamic law (fiqh) ruling that the later revelations overrule the earlier. Of course, the Qur’an interpreted in Qureshi’s “literal” way neither states the principle of abrogation nor spells out which surahs were revealed earlier or later. So much for “bypassing centuries of tradition.”

This might come as an embarrassment to Qureshi, but the Quranic revelation culminates in Surah 112 “The Triumphant Succor”:

In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
When God’s help comes and he opens up your way [Prophet] When you see people embracing God’s faith in crowds
Celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness:
He is always ready to accept repentance.

This refers to the liberation of the citizens of Mecca then under the oppressive rule of the Quraysh tribe. Every Muslim child knows that when Muhammad’s army reached Mecca, not one inhabitant of the citizen was harmed, nor forced to convert to Islam. This episode is attested by both Muslim and non-Muslim historians. Instead, Muhammad explicitly granted absolute clemency for those who waged more than a decade of war against him and his exiled community. Clemency, not violent retribution, is the very last chapter of the Quranic revelation, reminding the believers of their Lord’s clemency for the offenders.

Qureshi tries to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to refute the Qur’an via bypassing its traditional interpretation, but then also uses that tradition to refute the Quran.

“Jihadists share Qureshi’s belief: a real Muslim is militant.”

What’s more, as the recipient of an MA in Religious Studies from Duke and a current PhD student in New Testament at Oxford, Qureshi should know better than to pretend that one can read a text without a tradition or a context. Qureshi fails to understand how sacred scriptures actually work within religious traditions. As we change, the ways we read scripture change too. When brought to bear on our own times, there is no such thing as a simple, literal, consistent reading of any sacred text. Interpreting sacred texts requires tough choices. Some exegetes choose to emphasize God’s Rahmah, or Compassion.  Others choose to emphasize verses that can be used (correctly or not) to support violence. This does not mean that all choices are equal. There are bad readings.

Qureshi, by contrast, is a fundamentalist. He seems to think there must be a single meaning of a verse in the Qur’an. But unbeknownst to Qureshi, there are literally hundreds of preserved commentaries to the Quran some of which have been translated to English, mostly encyclopedic in presenting the widest range of interpretations known to their authors. Qureshi fails to acknowledge the assumptions and the contexts he brings to bear on reading the Qur’an. That is the definition of fundamentalism.

Qureshi offers his own solution to ISIS and other Jihadists:

sharing alternative worldviews with Muslims is one of the best methods to address radicalization.

He means evangelizing the Gospels of Jesus—an Islamic prophet by the way. For Qureshi, you are either a dishonest Muslim, ignorant of your own tradition—or a good Christian. He conveniently ignores the fact that the majority of Muslims, including all the imams he has rejected, do not interpret the so-called violent verses in the Quran as a call to arms or an absolute command.

Jihadists share Qureshi’s belief: a real Muslim is militant.

For a genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims to be successful, there need to be some terms of agreement. Christians and Muslims need to read each other’s sacred texts, but they need to be careful not to ignore the authentic interpretive tradition surrounding those texts.