Much of the cruel barbarity in the religious world today is being perpetrated by self-confessed Muslims. Though many moderate Muslims are beginning to decry the atrocities of Boko Haram, the Taliban, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, AQIM, al-Shabaab, Hamas, Abu Sayyaf, al-Qaeda, etc., these movements continue to proclaim their Islamic bona fides, justifying their beliefs and actions on the basis of sound, authoritative traditions within Islam concerning Muhammad as well as upon standard jihad and retribution texts in the Quran.
Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, for example, have taken to crucifying Christians and to severing hands and feet of those accused of “causing mischief in the land” (a Quranic phrase capable of application to a wide array of disapproved behaviors). Where did they come up with these tortures, and others such as immolation? The short answer: from the traditions of Muhammad and his companions.
Take this story, for instance, from the most highly regarded of the Hadith collections (second only to the Quran in authority for Sunni Muslims), that of Sahih Bukhari. To be fair, Muslims acknowledge that some of the traditions found, even in Bukhari, are doubtful or even spurious, but the following account occurs no less than ten times in Bukhari’s collection, with minor variations. It is widely accepted by the Sunni world:
A group of people from `Ukl (tribe) came to the Prophet and they were living with the people of As-Suffa, but they became ill as the climate of Medina did not suit them, so they said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Provide us with milk.” The Prophet said, I see no other way for you than to use the camels of Allah’s Apostle.” So they went and drank the milk and urine of the camels, (as medicine) and became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and took the camels away. When a help-seeker came to Allah’s Apostle, he sent some men in their pursuit, and they were captured and brought before mid-day. The Prophet ordered for some iron pieces to be made red hot, and their eyes were branded with them and their hands and feet were cut off and were not cauterized. Then they were put at a place called Al-Harra [a wilderness region outside Medina], and when they asked for water to drink they were not given till they died. (Abu Qilaba said, “Those people committed theft and murder and fought against Allah and His Apostle.”) — (Bukhari, Vol. 8, Book 82, Hadith 796)
In a related tradition found in Sunan Abu Dawud, we find a short sequel to the above account:
When the Messenger of Allah cut off (the hands and feet of) those who had stolen his camels and he had their eyes put out by fire (heated nails), Allah reprimanded him on that (action), and Allah, the Exalted, revealed: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution or crucifixion.” (Bk 39, Hadith 4357).
This tradition, considered weak by many Muslim jurists (no doubt because it reveals that Allah had to reprimand Muhammad, whom Muslim dogma declares to be the moral exemplar of humanity), provides the rationale for the revelation of the Quranic text found in Sura 5:33:
The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on the opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a great torment is theirs in the Hereafter. (Hilali-Khan translation)
This text, quite clearly, is one which provides modern disciples of Muhammad the justification for the atrocities they are committing with apparently clear consciences. When you add to texts like this the overarching Quranic ethic of retributive justice (“And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” – 2:194), it becomes easy to trace the rationalizations of jihadists who feel that the whole Western world is on a personal quest to eradicate them and Islam as a whole.
It’s no use claiming that all “revealed religions” have texts commanding violence, and thus it’s wrong to single out Muslim atrocities. The pertinent texts in the Bible are all limited in time and scope – they were meant for limited periods of history and cannot be stripped of their context to encourage modern expansionist violence against all non-believers. Primary evidence of this is found in the fact that we don’t see any biblical terrorists anywhere reciting holy texts as they decapitate, maim or incinerate enemies. For Christians, on top of that, we have direct teachings from Jesus that eschew force or violence as a means to Kingdom expansion. In Islam, however, these incendiary texts are taken by and large to be timeless commands, meant to be in force until the whole world converts or is subjugated to Allah and his prophet. Nothing in the Quranic text itself limits the application of these commands. One may appeal to all the scholars one wishes in order to seek to blunt the plain reading of the text, but most Muslims are not tuned in to the nuanced, tiptoeing dances of moderate scholars while their imams wax eloquent in their Friday sermons about Allah’s pleasure in the spilled blood of the infidel.
The example of the prophet, his commands, the actions of Islam’s caliphs, and the history of Islam on the march all have contributed to making certain forms of barbarism sacred in the minds of today’s disciples of Muhammad. If this is not what moderate Muslims want Islam to be known and reviled for, it’s time to stand up and be counted, not just as individual objectors but as a reform-minded movement that squelches the radicals and sterilizes the religion from any future strains of violent jihadism.