Why does Islam resist change and always revert to its barbaric, bloody, violent nature? The answer is because it has no choice.
Jews do not read the Bible as if it were literally true and in any case, the Bible is only one part of the foundation of their faith. The Torah, the body of literature at its centre, contains many other documents and traditions that inform Judaism. It is quite possible to be a Jew and at the same time an atheist. Many great Jewish thinkers and scientists, notably Albert Einstein, have been exactly that.
Practising Jews are expected to read the Bible but to make their own peace with God; and furthermore there is no promise of extra-terrestrial reward or punishment in Judaism. The reward for a life lived well is the return of the Promised Land — Israel.
This, together with their tiny numbers and the historic and ongoing persecution they have suffered, has tended to make them very tolerant, except in matters of the land of Israel itself. For example, while lapidation remains a punishment specified in the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament, it has not been carried out for over 2000 years, as far as we know.
Israel, is a democratic secular state famously friendly towards its gay and transgender populations, despite the scriptural injunctions placed against them. Women — though still reviled by Orthodox Jews — are respected by mainstream Judaism and are regarded as fully equal to men within the State of Israel.
One of the reasons
Judaism is reasonable because there are contradictions in Scripture. It is impossible to equally believe everything this says when it directly contradicts itself, as well as observable reality. How could Jahweh possibly have created the sun three days after the Earth? Surely a day is a measure of solar time? Oy vey, it makes no sense.
The result of this is that most mainstream Jews see Scripture as a guide rather than as a rigid rule-book. This has tended to soften their attitudes. Although there are extremist fundamentalists who do not take this view, they are a minority and have no real power. Mainstream Judaism is inclusive, tolerant and receptive to new ideas.
The Catholic Church Fathers recognised the internal conflicts in Christian texts right from the beginning. During the hundreds of years that it took to define the official ‘canon’ of the New Testament — that is, which of the over 100 then extant books would be included — several compromises were attempted..
In the end, the Catholic Church took the view that the Bible was ‘revelatory’ and had to be interpreted by the priesthood. This followed the time-honoured tradition of priestly interpretation of divine revelation, which everyone in the Roman Empire was familiar with. For hundreds of years, lay people were discouraged from reading the Bible themselves. Authority, in Catholicism, comes not directly from the words of the Bible, but from the priestly interpretation of them — this is called ‘dogma’. And dogma can be changed.
Catholics no longer burn people at the stake for witchcraft, insist that the Earth is flat or that the sun rotates around it. While it might take the Church centuries to make these changes, they do happen. The Catholic Church even accepts Evolution and Big Bang Theory — carefully rewriting them as ‘acts of God’. Not only is the Church aware of the problem of internal contradiction, it is aware of the contradiction between the Bible and what can be observed; it is no accident at all that a significant number of scientists have been Catholics, including Gregor Mendel, the ‘father of modern genetics’, who was a friar.
Protestantism, whether of the Lutheran or Calvinist type, specified that each man — and they did mean men — should read the Bible and find his own truth in it. While Protestant church leaders have never been shy to shout their own interpretations from the pulpit, the essence of Protestantism is that followers must reconcile the contradictions between life and scripture, and the internal contradictions within the texts, for themselves. This has led to a thoroughly disparate set of religious practices. The truth is that Protestants cherry-pick the Bible just as much as Jews and Catholics do. I see no queues to lapidate people for eating shrimps.
This means that, once again, most Protestants adapt to social change, to scientific knowledge and to technical developments. There are a few who deny their children medical help because of their religion, but even in religious states today, they are prosecuted.
Awareness of contradictions in the texts, and between the texts and life, then, are essential tools by which the ferocity of religions may be tamed. It allows them to be modernised in the light of new discoveries. There are always extremist fundamentalists, be they Hasidic Jews or the odious offspring of the even more repugnant Billy Graham, but they are not mainstream. They are fringe and they will stay that way.
Why is Islam different?
Islam, unfortunately, cannot do this, and that is why it is the most barbaric and most dangerous major creed today. Yet the Quran is even more riven with internal contradictions than the other Abrahamic texts. So how has Islam managed to remain so firmly rooted in its most barbarous and cruel form? How is it possible for Islamic clerics to claim, as they do, that the Earth does not rotate on its axis?
In the first place, Muslims believe that the words of the Quran are, literally, the words of Allah, the infallible creator of everything. These words are neither revelatory nor metaphoric: they are the literal truth. Secondly, Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammed was to be the last who would ever receive such heavenly wisdom. In other words, the Quran is the last, direct word of Allah, transmitted through the Angel Gabriel to Mohammed, and it will never, ever be changed.
So what about the internal conflicts? Unlike the Jewish texts or the Christian ones, the Quran is ostensibly the work of one man, who faithfully remembered every word told to him by Gabriel, the infallible agent of Allah, who is of course, himself infallible. Contradictions should be impossible.
Except Allah was, apparently, not infallible. He made mistakes and this gave rise to a solution that has forever crippled Islam’s ability to evolve.
This is called the ‘doctrine of abrogation’. When Mohammed was — allegedly — receiving the good news from Allah via the Angel Gabriel, his followers noticed that, over the years, inconsistencies appeared. Mohammed — again allegedly — asked about this and Gabriel transmitted his question to Allah.
Allah’s response was to say that when he gave a verse that contradicted an earlier one, he took back or ‘abrogated’ the older one. In other words it ceased to be the current infallible word of Allah. Only the later one was. Since Allah is infallible, however, the verses remained in the Quran.
So, Allah is infallible but changes his mind; but because the Quran is the last iteration of the word of Allah that will ever be given, according to Islam, then the last versions, whatever they are, are immutable for all time. They can never be changed.
Religiously sophisticated Muslims are generally very careful not to discuss the ‘doctrine of abrogation’ with non-Muslims. This is made worse because the vast majority of the world’s Muslims have never read the Quran, since it is in Arabic and most of them don’t understand it. (There are translations into vernacular tongues but Muslim scholars scoff at these.) The consequence is that many Muslims do not even know about abrogation. But it is core theology.
The ‘doctrine of abrogation’ means that there are no contradictions in the Quran, even though there are verses, or Suras, that contradict each other, because only the last one is valid. But how do we know which that is? The Quran is not ordered chronologically, but by the length of the texts. There is no way at all to know which came first, from the Quran itself. The only way you can find this out is by reading the Hadith, or the commentaries on the life of the Prophet, which explain when each Sura was ‘received’.
Religious authority in Islam
Authority in Islam is not from the Quran alone; it comes from the Quran and the Hadith together. The above shows how important it is to realise this. Furthermore, the doctrine of ‘Taqqiya’ instructs Muslims to conceal, lie and dissemble when dealing with non-Muslims, in the furtherance of the faith.
When discussing their religion with non-Muslims, clerics always talk about the Quran. They will quote verses from it left, right and centre. They never talk about the Hadith, for it is here that the true nature of Islam is revealed. The Quran is hopelessly self-contradictory and confusing, with no narrative structure at all. It is only by studying the Hadith that it becomes possible to contextualise and, therefore, understand the Quran and indeed, Islam itself.
Muslim clerics and scholars are perfectly well aware of this and would prefer that non-Muslims did not read and understand the Hadith; this is because doing so will reveal, amongst other things deeply harmful to the PR image of Islam, that the harshest, most cruel and most violent Suras are invariably the later ones: those that still have force and are ‘unabrogated’.
The later Suras are violent and intolerant while early ones tend to be peaceful and accommodating. This is because in the early part of his life, when he was seeking followers and was under scrutiny by the authorities at Mecca, where he lived, Mohammed was very conciliatory. It was politically expedient to be. He had not enough followers to challenge the government and he feared that he might be punished if he were too aggressive. Mohammed had no interest in being executed as a troublemaker, and he lived in harsh times. So the Suras from this period tend to be ‘soft’.
Flight to Medina
After Mohammed and his followers, sure enough, had annoyed the people of Mecca such that they were expelled, they fled to Medina. Here, he and his merry band discovered banditry as a lifestyle and soon were getting rich by plundering camel caravans carrying trade goods. They then began taking whole towns and villages by force. Be under no illusions: these were not heroes taking from the rich to give to the poor. These were criminals robbing, raping, enslaving and killing to make themselves wealthy and more powerful. The Hadith explain all of this in only-too-gory detail.
The later Suras are much more violent and warlike in reflection of this confidence and faith in violence. By this time, Mohammed was a successful brigand, plundering and killing any he challenged. Conciliation was yesterday but today was fire and sword. The Hadith identify which Suras these are.
Early vs. later Suras.
When pressed by non-Muslims, apologists will always quote the early Suras, even though they know perfectly well that these have been ‘abrogated’. They are recognised as the words of Allah, but they have been cancelled out. So the fact that these may contradict later, violent Suras is irrelevant, since they are no longer the official word of Allah with effect today.
However, the same apologists will exhort Muslims to follow the later, ‘hard’ Suras precisely because these have not been abrogated and are thus the effective word of Allah.
There is absolutely no internal contradiction within the Quran, because in all cases of conflict, only the latest Sura is given any value. The others have been abrogated, or, as we have seen, been ‘taken back’ by Allah and replaced. Only the last remains valid. One simply has to identify which is the later Sura on any given disagreement and then the point is settled.
Violence and warfare
What this means is that Islam has as its underlying principles violence and warfare, to the ends of increasing the individual wealth of Muslims and expanding the territory under the control of this benighted cult and, worse, that these are permanently locked in forever. This is because the last Suras were ‘received’ by Mohammed when he was a successful warlord and leader of a band of armed killers. To call it a ‘religion of peace’ reveals the speaker as either a blatant liar or as ignorant of Islam. Unfortunately there are many of both.
Most of the world’s Muslims do not speak or read Arabic, although they may be able to recite large parts of the Quran. They do so without understanding a word of it, but this is no matter since it is the sound of Arabic being chanted that pleases Allah. And even if they can read Arabic, the Quran is nonsensical without study of the Hadith.
Islam recognises that this is a problem, so it trains Arabic-speaking clerics, well versed in the Hadith, to preach to the masses.
Islam in retreat
Now you need to understand another issue that Muslims do not like to talk about. In 1683 the bloody tide of Islamic conquest in Europe was turned back by the defeat of the Ottoman hordes at the Siege of Vienna. The liberating forces were led by the Polish King Jan Sobieski, who not only led the biggest cavalry charge in history, but without whom the whole of Europe would have been plunged into darkness and you would not be reading this. (The Poles have never received adequate thanks for literally saving our bacon.) The Enlightenment, perhaps the most vaunted product of post-Renaissance Western culture, would have been snuffed out.
Thanks to the courage of the Poles, in defeating an enemy many times their numbers, over the next century the Muslim world was fractured and the faith itself was menaced by new empires — nearly all Christian.
Jihad is a powerful word in Islam. Up until the defeat at Vienna, it had unquestionably referred to the armed struggle to conquer more territory. While Islam was at its lowest ebb after the triumph of Europe, it was altered to emphasise a ‘spiritual struggle’. But this was pure convenience. The mullahs and clerics looked to the Hadith and saw that when Mohammed was under threat in Mecca, he preached peace and tolerance. So after the fall of their own empires, this is exactly what the clerics did themselves.
Muslims are permitted, when they are so outnumbered that armed rebellion would wipe them out, to live in peace with their neighbours. This has been called ‘Stealth Jihad’. This phase of jihad is indeed a spiritual rather than an armed struggle. It reflects Mohammed’s early years in Mecca, when he and his followers were powerless and at the mercy of the other people in the city. In cases like this Muslims, following the example of Mohammed, should pray and live devout lives, lying low and preparing themselves for the time when their numbers are such that they can resume the armed struggle.
Stealth jihad is what the Muslim world reverted to after the defeat of its armies, but it must be realised that this can only ever be a temporary situation. The resumption of armed struggle is inevitable, a prerequisite of faith. Islam exists to conquer the world and make it Arabic; this can never be changed. When Islam is being complaisant, it is only because it is gathering strength.
It should be clear now that Stealth Jihad is not a softening of Islam at all, but simply a defensive measure. But remember, most Muslims do not speak Arabic and few are really familiar with the Quran, let alone the Hadith. The responsibility of deciding which message Muslims should follow, or even hear, falls on the clerics. For over 200 years they focussed on the moderate, non-violent — but at the same time abrogated — Suras.
Today, empowered by the wealth born of the developed world’s thirst for oil, encouraged by the appalling obsequiousness of Western governments and positively bolstered by the sheer stupidity and ignorance of the ‘regressive left’, the clerical class that once preached the early Suras and encouraged the population to be calm, to submit to the power of others and to cause no trouble, are again preaching the Medina Suras — the ones that exhort violence and armed jihad.
It is vital to realise, right now, that so-called Islamist extremists are not: they are simply preaching the words and will of Allah now in force, which are contained ONLY in the later, unabrogated Suras. They are preaching the ‘true’ version of Islam, the later version, which is, throughout, bloody and violent and exhorts Muslims to kill, enslave and extort non-believers. The cult these men (always men) preach is not extremist within the context of Islam. In fact it is the only true form; and it is to this that all Muslims must revert when they are strong enough to do so without risking extermination. Armed jihad and global conquest are not fringe extremism in Islam: they are its core values.
With absolutely no contradictions in the Quran, which the simple yet diabolical mechanism of ‘abrogation’ ensures, there can be no debate and so, no modernisation. When Muslim scholars argue, they are not doing so over the issue of which Suras are more valid. They only have to look in the Hadith to establish this. They are instead nit-picking over the nuances of meanings of words, or obscure calligraphs in texts. They know what Islam is about; there is no argument there. It is established, permanently, with no opportunity for alteration. And its end is world conquest.
The ‘gentle face’ of Islam is a sham, a ruse designed to persuade an unwary enemy, ignorant of the truth, that Islam will not spread war and violence; that it is peaceful and may be trusted.
This is an illusion. While individual Muslims may indeed be peaceful and trustworthy, they are the fringe. I celebrate those like Maajid Nawaz, who risks his life every day to try to soften Islam; but in a way, men such as he are the extremists, in an Islamic context, for they are furthest from the established doctrinal basis of the cult. That is why they are so viscerally hated by other Muslims. While we must — rightly — be thankful for good men such as he, it is not possible to be optimistic about the chances they have of successfully taming this monster.
In the next in this series I will look in detail at the different forms of jihad and what they mean.
Also published on Medium.