It is open season on Islam these days, with conservative critics making remark after remark that attack Islam, Muslims, the Qur'an, and the Prophet Muhammad as pervasively and inherently bad. An essential argument these conservatives and others have against Islam is that the Qur'an preaches violence.

The most popular verse quoted is the fabled Verse of the Sword: "Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)." (9:5) On the surface, this verse seems to confirm Islam's perceived intolerance of non-Muslims. It may even lead one to conclude that all the talk about Islam being a religion of "peace" is a ruse, and that the real Islam is the violent, repressive faith practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

But hold on. The truth is quite different from what these Islam's attackers want us to believe.

I must address a few very important points here. For there to be any semblance of an intelligent and scholarly analysis of verses of the Qur'an, a full understanding of the Arabic language along with understanding of the context of the verses in question is an essential prerequisite. In fact, this must be the scholarly approach to the exegesis of any book of scripture, including the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Volumes upon volumes have been written by numerous Islamic scholars, both classical and modern, that attempt to interpret the meaning of the over 6,000 verses of the Qur'an. Qur'anic exegesis is an academic discipline in itself, and it requires years of learning before a scholar is able to independently comment on Qur'anic scripture. Neither Islam's conservative critics, nor the "scholars" and "experts" they read and quote from in their writings, possess such knowledge. What they do is misquote, mistranslate, or quote Qur'anic verses out of context and use those misquotations as evidence for their claims. These tactics violate every rule of Scriptural Exegesis 101.

When the infamouse "Verse of the Sword" is studied in its proper context, it becomes quite clear that the claim the Qur'an is violent is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. From the very beginning of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was violently opposed by his people. At first, the Pagan Arabs simply ignored the Prophet's call and ridiculed his message. They quickly realized, however, that this tactic did not stop the flow of converts to Islam. The Meccans then turned to torture and repression of Muhammad and his companions to try to muffle his message, which was nothing more than the abadonment of the worship of idols for the worship of the One True God. Muhammad himself survived several assassination attempts. In one of these, a Meccan tried to crush the Prophet's head with a large boulder while he was praying at the Ka'abah, the holy shrine at Mecca. God, however, miraculously foiled the attempt and the Prophet was saved.

After 10 years of hardship, the Meccans finally expelled the Prophet to Medina, a city 200 miles to the north. Since they could not kill him, this was the only thing the Meccans could do to stop the Prophet's message. There, the inhabitants of Medina accepted Islam, and it became the first Islamic city-state with the Prophet Muhammad as its spiritual and political leader. While in Medina, the Meccan pagans did not relent in their hostilites against the Muslims. Now, however, many surrounding tribes also became hostile to Islam and joined in the Meccans' fight. Several battles were fought against the Muslims. These tribes also attempted to assassinate the Prophet on several occasions, as the Meccans tried a decade earlier.

It is in this violent context that verse 9:5 was revealed. The commandment to "slay the pagans wherever you find them" in verse 9:5 speaks of the hostile Arab tribes surrounding Medina. At every given chance, these tribes attacked the Muslims and killed as many of them as possible for no just cause.

Frequently, columnists and pundits who try to smear Islam quote verse 9:5 incompletely and out of context. The full verse reads as follows: "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."

If one reads on in the ninth chapter, the reasons for "slaying the pagans" is clearly outlined: "Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Do ye fear them? Nay, it is God Whom ye should more justly fear, if ye believe!" (9:13) When sincere scholarship and exegesis is applied, it becomes quite clear that verse 9:5, and all others similar to it, is one of self-defense and not a carte blanche to kill all non-believers, as some would want us to believe.

In fact, the principle of fighting in Islam is self-defensive: "To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid...If God did not defend one set of people by means of another, then monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure, would surely have been destroyed..." (22:39-40)

Notice that the reason the Qur'an gives for waging war, as a last resort, is for the protection of churches, synagogues, and mosques--so much for Islam's "intolerance."

Further, Muslims are commanded not to be aggressive: "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors" (2:190) In addition, when the enemy inclines toward peace, Muslims are commanded to cease hostilities: "But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace" (8:61). The guiding principle of Islam with respect to non-Muslims is one of tolerance and mutual respect, plain and simple: "God does not forbid you from dealing kindly and justly with those who do not fight you for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes: for God loveth those who are just." (60:8)

Then there is the issue of how the Qur'an treats Jews and Christians. Some have claimed that the Qur'an says Jews are consigned to "humiliation and wretchedness" (2:61), try to introduce corruption (5:64), have always been disobedient (5:78), and are enemies of God (2:97-98). When addressing verses that, on the surface, seem to be derogatory toward Jews, again, it is essential that the verses be placed in context (remember Scriptural Exegesis 101).

Verse 2:61 refers to those of the Children of Israel who were disobedient to Moses after being freed from Egyptian bondage, not all Jews. The text of verses 2:97-98 refer to those who are "enemies of Archangel Gabriel," not Jews. Verses 5:64 and 5:78 speak of the Jews who were disobedient to God and His Prophets, again not all Jews.

When sincere scholarship and exegesis is applied to the Qur'an, it becomes a clear that the claim of the Qur'an's anti-Semitism is an absurd fallacy.

In the Qur'an, Jews and Christians are given the honorific title of "People of the Book." The Prophet was the last in the line of Prophets and Messengers, dating back to Adam, and Islam is nothing more than the continuation and completion of their message. Thus, the Qur'an acknowledges and respects the prior messages of Moses and Jesus.

The Torah is described as "a guide to mankind" (3:3) and the Gospel of Jesus as having "guidance and light" (5:46). While the Qur'an rejects the notion of the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus, the Jewish Prophets that are named in the Qur'an are highly honored: "And we gave him [Abraham] Isaac and Jacob, each did We guide, and Noah We did guide before; and of his descendants David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, and Aaron; and thus do We reward those who do good. And Zechariah, John (the Baptist), Jesus, and Elias; every one was of the righteous. And Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah, and Lot; each one we favored above all others" (6:84-86).

Further belying the accusation of the Qur'an's anti-Judeo-Christian stance is this passage: "Those who believe and those who are Jews, Christians, and Sabeans; any who believe in God and the Last Day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord and on them shall be no fear and they will not grieve" (2:62).

I neither deny nor dismiss the existence of Muslims who use the Qur'an to justify their acts of terrorism and murder.

These Muslims, like Islam's conservative critics, also misquote or quote the Qur'an out of context. In fact, anyone with sinister intentions can quote a verse of scripture out of context to seemingly prove a point. Biblical verses, quoted out of context, have been used to condone murder, violence, slavery, racism, and anti-Semitism, all in the name of God, throughout history. Further, take this passage from I Corinthians: "For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man." (I Corinthians 11:8-9) Can I conclude that Christianity is a sexist religion that seeks to opress women? Is it fair to characterize misinterpretations of Biblical scripture as tenets of Christianity or Judaism? Absolutely not. Islam must be accorded this same treatment.

In addition to quoting Qur'anic verses out of context, Islam's attackers project the opinions of a small handful of Islamic scholars upon all of Islam, as if Islam is a monolithic blob that can be packaged and labeled as this or that. Such insincere and disingenuous scholarship is wrong and fans the flames of hatred. It is this fueling of hatred and intolerance against American Muslims that threatens to destroy the fabric of our nation's unity.

It must be stopped before it is too late.

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