Written by James Thieke

Editor’s Note: These next two posts are a discussion of Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism (Cambridge University Press, 2018) by Mohammad Hassan Khalil, Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University. This post is a review by James Thieke, a PhD candidate in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. A response from the author will follow on the Christian-Muslim Studies Network blog.

Dr Mohammad Hassan Khalil’s book, Jihad, Radicalism and the New Atheism, is a critical evaluation of the claims made by several ‘New Atheist’ authors that Islam, as a religion, is most honestly represented by the actions and beliefs of terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and ISIS. Dr Khalil begins his book with an assertion, made by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, that Sam Harris (a New Atheist and harsh critic of Islam) and Osama Bin Laden agree on how the Islamic concept of jihad should be understood. Dr Khalil commences an examination of the historical and contemporary understandings of jihad, how Bin Laden’s and ISIS’s interpretations and uses of jihad significantly diverge from these understandings, and how New Atheist authors such as Sam Harris and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali treat these divergent uses of jihad as Islam’s norm, while diminishing or ignoring the more widely accepted consenses of historical and contemporary Islam.

Dr Khalil argues effectively and thoroughly, without veering into defensiveness or polemics, that Bin Laden, ISIS, Harris and Ali each distort or omit significant parts of the Quran, the Hadith tradition, and the history of Islamic thought that would contradict their theological assertions about Islam. Dr Khalil also argues that Harris and Ali, in attempting to show the inherent radical violence within the theology of Islam itself, completely ignore and discount the political and social motivations of terrorists in their actions, which – Dr Khalil argues with great detail – are inextricable from and often primary in determining terrorists’ rationales. Dr Khalil concludes with the rather interesting comment that Harris’s interpretation of Islam is actually far more radical than Bin Laden’s – as Dr Khalil notes, Harris argues that Islam enjoins its believers to kill all unbelievers, a belief which Dr Khalil repeatedly argues is not even held by ISIS.

As a PhD student in Science and Religion, I have frequently encountered the New Atheists in my studies, but mostly in metaphysical discussions on the existence of God. These discussions evaluate the claims of authors like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett that modern science, particularly evolutionary science, has rendered the concept of a divine being useless, meaningless or preposterous. These claims are contested by scientists and theologians alike (in my studies, the prevailing view I have encountered is that despite claiming to rely solely on reason, the New Atheists’ arguments consist primarily of exaggerated rhetoric with little substance and poor logic), but Dr Khalil’s book does not engage with metaphysical arguments, but moral ones.

By engaging in what first seems to be straightforward refutation, Dr Khalil actually opens the doors for much broader discussions that cut to the heart of the modern Western debate over Islam’s ideas of violence and jihad. These discussions include the complexities of scriptural hermeneutics, the influence of historical, political, and sociocultural context on theology, and how meaningful any religion can be reduced to ‘violence’ or ‘peace’.

I would like to offer some thoughts and questions for further reflection.

First, I would like to address scriptural hermeneutics, as Quranic verses feature prominently as evidence both for and against terrorist and New Atheist arguments in Dr Khalil’s book. For example, Sam Harris argues that the Quran, if read plainly, enjoins all kinds of violence, especially those perpetuated by radical terrorists, and that it requires ‘interpretive acrobatics’ to argue otherwise. Dr Khalil counters that both Harris and Bin Laden engage in their own ‘interpretive acrobatics’ when reading the Quran by ignoring contradictory verses, intentionally avoiding context, and drastically enlarging or minimizing the scope of other commandments against the counsel of the historical interpretive tradition.

But in doing so, Dr Khalil reveals that scriptural hermeneutics are far from straightforward, and the waters can quickly become muddied. The literal reading of a verse in one case may require more context, while the literal reading of another verse can stand as its own evidence. Certain verses of the Quran are seen by some interpreters to have abrogated other verses, while other interpreters disagree. Whole traditions of extra-textual interpretations have been developed throughout history, and it is difficult to determine their weight in relation to each other when they differ, or in relation to what could be considered a ‘plain’ understanding of the scriptural text. These issues are not limited to Islam – the New Atheists pounce on Biblical verses and challenge Christian theologians on their literal readings, which force Christians to wade through these same issues in response.

The trouble is that most lay Christians and Muslims do not have volumes of historical interpretations, theologies, and current discourses from religious leaders on their shelves at home; they have only a Bible or Quran, the words of which are seen as divine authority in their respective faiths. When the New Atheists – or terrorists – use almost exclusively scriptural texts for their narratives, it can have a much more compelling effect on listeners than the rebuttals that appear to require many qualifications from non-scriptural sources.

Given that most scholars and religious leaders would disagree with the New Atheist arguments, it makes one ask whether this is just the way scriptural hermeneutics must be – the plain or literal understandings of scripture need regular qualification from a vast array of historical and contemporary sources in order to avoid misinterpretations – or, is there something overlooked in that view, and can misinterpretations be avoided while letting scriptures ‘speak for themselves’, so to speak?

These thoughts are connected with another discussion point, that of the influence of historical, political, and sociocultural context on theology. Dr Khalil demonstrates well that the beliefs of terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden are conditioned by socio-political factors. In disputing Bin Laden’s and ISIS’s views, Dr. Khalil draws on the historical and socio-political factors surrounding certain verses of the Quran. However, it is my understanding that there are many Muslim thinkers who would argue that the Quran, being the Word of God, is also timeless and thus cannot be limited or qualified by situational factors. While Quranic interpretation, ijtihad, has a long tradition within the history of Islam, it has recently fallen out of favor in many parts of the Islamic world, and it would not be a fringe opinion for a scholar to argue against the use of context and situation in interpreting Quranic verses. In considering cases like this, where exactly are the boundaries between theology and context in these kinds of arguments?

Finally, while Dr. Khalil shows how the beliefs and actions of Bin Laden and other terrorists do not meet the standards for jihad as understood throughout Islamic tradition, his explanations also probe further into the many ways in which thinkers have argued that Muslims could perpetuate violence within acceptable standards for jihad. I could envision a New Atheist rebuttal to this book, ‘So the particular violence and justifications of Osama Bin Laden, suicide bombers, and ISIS are unacceptable in Islam, but it seems as though a government or people coulduse violence, even large-scale, and justify it wholly through appeals to the Quran and Islamic tradition. Why are we wrong, then, in saying that Islam is a religion of violence?’

To this end, Dr. Khalil brings into his book the comments of Maajid Nawaz in response to Sam Harris’s accusations of Nawaz being disingenuous when saying Islam is a religion of peace. Nawaz responded that, for him, Islam is not inherently violent or peaceful; that can only be determined by how its followers interpret it, and a majority of Muslims believe it to be a peaceful religion. I would be interested to hear what Dr Khalil thinks of this idea, as I am not wholly sure what to make of it. While I would likewise hesitate to label any religion as inherently violent or peaceful, I am also hesitant to place the burden of such labels exclusively on the interpretation of adherents. As this book makes evident, not all followers hold the same interpretations, and if truth is essential to a religion, then one interpretation is closer to truth than another, and adherence by a majority today is not, to me, a clear referendum on the truthfulness of an interpretation.

For example, in thinking about Christianity in the Middle Ages, there would have been a time when a majority of Christians may have described the Christian God as a vengeful God who requires the blood of those who have dishonored him. If someone had made the point then that Christianity was a religion of retribution and conquest, by Nawaz’s standards it would be a true label – but some Christians of that day, and many more at other times in Christian history, would push back strongly on such a characterization and claim it untrue. Assuming that the meaning of a religion does not change with the times and people, there must be some interpretations that are closer to the true meaning than others. Basically, the questions I am pondering are: can a religion be justifiably called violent or peaceful, and what is the appropriate framework for determining such a label?

In conclusion, this book is an excellent read, and well-worth exploring for anyone wishing to learn more about the Islam-New Atheist discourse, and it opens up some very interesting discussions on how one should interpret and understand faith. I look forward to hearing further thoughts from Dr Khalil on these discussions.

Our next post will include a response from the author.