By Martin Accad
How lightheartedly we break the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). This is a constant problem in my area of work: Christian-Muslim relations. I am not thinking of the way that Muslims portray Christianity, which can be the subject of another discussion. I’ll just start with the “log” in my own community’s eye. Granted, some teaching and writing about Islam in my circles these days are the result of skewed knowledge or missing information, which would perhaps not qualify as “false witness.” Although it could be argued as well that a witness with inaccurate information should not attempt to testify in a court. But as I read certain books, and attend certain conferences, meetings or consultations, I cannot help but wonder whether some of the things that are said are not actually plain intentional declarations of falsehood.
I suppose someone could also turn my suspicions against me. In fact, shortly after I added my signature to the Yale Response to the “Common Word” document in 2007, I did receive some emails questioning my integrity. As an Arab Christian in particular, it was assumed, I should know better than to accept that Muslims could be extending a sincere arm of cordial dialogue and good understanding towards Christians. Again a skewed understanding that assumed that nothing good, honest or sincere could come from a Muslim.
So how does this problem manifest itself? I will stick to the “best case scenario.” It would seem that there is too much of a simplistic, or what one might call an “essentialist,” understanding of Islam among us. We hate it when people put us all in the same camp and assume we all think the same thing. Yet that’s just what we far too often do when we speak of Islam. We are living in a time when many Muslims are carrying out violent acts. Yet instead of asking ourselves why this is happening, whether there may be some historical, political, or sociological motives (even though we might consider them unjustifiable), we go looking instead for a religious “ideological” motive for the behavior of such Muslim individuals. We thus cast the blame for the violence committed by disillusioned and angry individuals on their religious ideology: Islam.
I am often told that Muslims behave as they do (all of them, it is assumed…) because followers cannot be expected to behave any better than their master. For Muhammad, in many of the circles I frequent, is often characterized as a bloodthirsty individual motivated by an expansionist drive. Rather than attempting to replace this “demonizing” picture with an “idealizing” one, I want to bring up a major methodological problem that we are falling into. First of all, how do the claimants to the demonizing picture know that this is how Muhammad behaved? Ironically, they are relying mostly on the “official” narrative of traditional Islam (such as the official biography, Sira, of Muhammad), and partly on less favored traditions regarding Muhammad, of which there are many. Traditional Muslim scholars themselves have always recognized that the several thousand traditions considered authentic (sahih) were actually sifted out of several hundreds of thousands of forged ones. But critical scholars of hadith have presented numerous arguments which, I would argue, rather convincingly discredit the historical usefulness of most of these traditions, even those traditionally considered reliable both by Muslim and many non-Muslim scholars. The problematic nature of hadith material is no small issue, limited to that particular literary genre. When one realizes that hadith materials are the building blocks of most of the rest of the classical Muslim literary corpus, except for the Qur’an, we are left with some serious implications for our understanding of Islam and our attitude towards it. Indeed, Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence, and Muhammad’s official biography (the Sira), are all edifices built upon hadith material. If we question the historical authenticity of these traditions as a source for a reliable reconstruction of history, then all of these edifices become questionable. This does not make the said literary corpus less important and interesting for the student of Islam, as Islam as we largely know it has grown and developed mostly out of that corpus. However, when it comes to any claim about the Muhammad of history, about his nature and character, his behavior and habits, his teaching and ambitions, we have strong grounds for questioning the official narrative conveyed to us by the Muslim tradition. In fact, as has been long argued by some scholars, even quite recently by Prof. Gabriel Said Reynolds in his The Emergence of Islam, the most reliable Islamic document from the standpoint of early historical reconstruction is the Qur’an itself. For example, the Qur’an’s generally positive portrayal of the Judeo-Christian tradition is probably an accurate reflection of Muhammad’s actual understanding and teaching on the subject. And what we can glean in the Qur’an regarding Muhammad’s character, behavior and ambitions is likely more reliable historically than what we find in the later traditions that build on hadith material. Much more could and should be said, but this is not the right space for a comprehensive academic treatment of this complex topic. Instead, let me conclude with the practical implications of this for our understanding of Islam and Muhammad, and consequently for our attitudes and approaches to Islam and Muslims.
I would argue that when we identify the religion of Islam as the root cause for violent acts perpetrated by Muslims, we are casting corporate blame upon an entire community and its ideology for the sinful behavior of individual members of that community. A parallel that comes to mind is the blame that the early Church laid for a very long time on the entire Jewish community for the death of Jesus Christ. The writings of some of the early Church Fathers and the venom that some of them spewed against the Jews collectively for killing Jesus has been identified and blamed for much of the Antisemitism that developed over many centuries. These led to violent persecution, pogroms, and eventually to the twentieth-century holocaust. By blaming a community for the acts of some of its members, and associating the behavior of some with their common ideology (in the case of the Jews it was blamed on a particular Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures), we are embracing a position that may well fit in the category of racism and bigotry. I raise the alarm for evangelicals to beware that we risk repeating history with regards to Islam and Muslims. There must be a reason why the sin of bearing false witness is listed among the Ten Commandments. Committing that sin has serious consequences indeed.
From the view I have expressed above regarding the Classical Islamic tradition, I hope it is clear that I do not by any means idealize it. In fact, the view of the Islamic phenomenon with which I have aligned above has potentially far more serious implications for Islam’s traditional narrative than the ones held by polemicists against Islam and Muslims. The difference is that I am neither disparaging nor disrespectful. I am simply questioning critically the historical reliability of the traditional Islamic narrative. My goal is not destructively to attack Islam, but to challenge some of its traditional assumptions and engage it creatively.
As for the evangelical constituency to which I belong, I invite them, based on the state of scholarship with regards to the history of Islam’s emerging period, to recognize first of all the complexity of the situation and the diversity resulting from our study of that early period. Secondly and finally, given the real and legitimate possibility for multiple narratives for Islam’s emergence, I invite us to embrace the best rather than the worst, seeing that the worst is by no means more historically viable than the best. Instead of bearing false witness, I would argue that we would thus be embracing consciously what I want to call a “redemptive witness,” a position far better aligned with the spirit of Christ.