Militant Islam: A Matter Of Interpretation?


The atrocities committed in Paris have again focussed the world’s attention on the grave threat posed to Western countries by militant Islam. Once again, world leaders expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, and renewed their pledges to work together to defeat international terrorism. At the same time, they hastened to reassure their home Moslem communities that they were not at war with the whole of Islam, only with the extremists who perpetrate mass murder.

They claim to recognise Islam as a religion of peace. Yet the militants use distinctively Islamist terminology, accusing the West of mounting a new crusade and claiming to be the true followers of the Prophet and the guardians of Sharia law. The Western layman is left wondering how the same teachings can be interpreted in such widely different ways.

For the westerner trying to gain an understanding of Islam the problem begins with the Quran. Translations of the Quran into English are notoriously difficult to understand. Many sentences make no sense as written, and are thus open to a variety of interpretations. Is the difficulty with English versions of the Quran due to the difficulty of translating from the ancient Arabic, or is the meaning of the Arabic unclear in the original?

It has been established that Mohammad, like Shakespeare, invented many new words when they were needed to express his thoughts. If there is any doubt about the meaning of these new words a further opportunity for divergent interpretations is apparent.

It would be a sound foundation for any religion to have a universally agreed interpretation of its holy scripture but none of the world’s great religions has achieved this ideal. Christianity has three major branches: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant, as well as dozens of minor sects and schisms.

Islam is the same, with the major split between the Sunni, who follow the democratically elected leaders who succeeded Mohammad, and the Shia who follow the fourth Imam, Ali, Mohammad’s son-in-law, and his descendants. The extremists can be consigned to Islam’s proliferation of minor sects, as has become apparent from the melee in Syria.

The essential problem of interpretation originates from the fact that no major prophet has yet written his/her own scripture. Jesus wrote nothing, and the New Testament was composed long after his death, so it is not surprising that its text is open to numerous interpretations.

Mohammad was also illiterate but is reputed to have dictated the Quran to be written down as it came to mind. This was an improvement, but with the new vocabulary and the constant rearranging of the contents the process was still far from ideal. The world awaits a religion founded by an inspired individual who is literate and able to leave his/her thoughts written by his/her own hand in clear language.

Only then can there be hope that all people will agree on one common interpretation, and terrorists will no longer be able to claim that they murder in the name of religion.

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