Start with this article. It’s about British-born Muslims who used to wage war against their government. But something changed their minds, and now they’re working to convince other British-born Muslims to give up the jihad.
Go on, read it. It’s a good article.
Now let’s talk about texts, beliefs, and interpretation.
The article introduces Usama Hassan, a British cleric who was raised in a strict Muslim household where he did a lot of reading—mostly the Koran.
“We weren’t allowed music or TV or any contact with the opposite sex,” he says. “We were very sheltered. I didn’t go out a great deal.” By the age of 10, he had memorised every word of the Koran in its original Arabic.
After fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and recruiting other young Muslims to fight in Afghanistan and Bosnia, Hassan came to question the absolute righteousness of his cause.
He says the 7/7 bombings detonated a theological bomb in his mind. “How can this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually a metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia.”
Keep that in mind, and let’s consider another person from the article.
Maajid Nawaz was the victim of anti-Muslim violence as a kid in Britain. He started recruiting other Muslims for an extremist group, and eventually converted almost an entire college campus. He oversaw the killing of a Nigerian Christian who tangled with his students. Then he went to Pakistan and Egypt to recruit more fighters. But in Egypt he ended up in jail. And in jail he found something that surprised him.
Maajid was thrilled to discover two of the men who had conspired to murder Anwar Sadat […] had recently been moved to this dank cell. “This is like meeting Che Guevara—these great forerunners and ideologues who I can now get the benefit of learning from,” he says. But […] “they told me I had got my theology wrong.”
After more than 20 years in prison, they had reconsidered their views. They told him he was false to believe there was one definitive, literal way to read the Koran. […] Sharia was a voluntary code, not a state law. “It was always left for people to decide for themselves which interpretation they wanted to follow,” he says. […]
Maajid’s ideology crumbled.
Finally, at the end of the article we meet a notorious, unrepentant British-born Muslim extremist, Anjem Choudhary.
When I read him statements by ex-Islamists, he spits: “This is heresy … The Muslim must submit to the sharia in all of his life. If I start to say things like, ‘I don’t believe the sharia needs to be implemented,’ then that’s tantamount to denying the message of Mohamed … To say that any part of the Koran is not relevant nowadays is a clear statement of apostasy.”
Taking any part of the Koran as metaphor will, he warns, cause the text to turn to dust in their hands. “I can’t pick and choose what I like from the scripture. This is not strawberry season, where you can pick your own strawberries. You abide by whatever Allah brought in the final revelation with the example of the Prophet. And if there’s something that you don’t like, then you need to correct your own emotions and desires to make sure they’re in line with the sharia.”
Of those Muslims who don’t read the Koran literally, Choudhary says:
“After they’ve been burnt, their skin will be recreated, and they will suffer the same punishment again and again and again.”
The issue for all three men is whether the Koran is a sacred document that should be taken literally, or a living document that its actively interpreted by its readers.
Quick—let’s define fiction. I think of fiction as any narrative that has been crafted for a purpose and thrives on actively engaging its audience. That’s an awfully broad definition. It includes idle gossip, journalism, recipes, political campaign narratives, highway signs, etc. But it does not include the so-called instructions of a sacred, untouchable text. That’s not fiction; it’s dogma. One is the social and intellectual fabric of life; the other is an inhuman set of rules.
What this article captures is how some British-born Muslims have begun to think of the Koran as a work of fiction—something to be questioned and actively interpreted in light of personal experience—and how doing so has turned them away from violence, toward a moderate form of Islam that can co-exist with the rest of British society.
This isn’t just a Muslim thing. Christians, too, are susceptible to a strain of extremism that treats the Bible as a literal document. From there it’s not hard to imagine a moral imperative to bomb abortion clinics, or mandate prayer in public schools.
And this isn’t just a religious thing. There are plenty of Americans—some of them sit on the Supreme Court—who believe the Constitution is essentially infallible, something fixed and impervious, and that we should revere the language of the founding fathers.
(Psst. As this insightful piece from The Onion reminds us, even if you find yourself in possession of a sacred, literal, infallible document, you aren’t necessarily qualified to comprehend it.)
The great struggles of our age—this is how fiction explains the world—are often described as conflicts between fundamentalists and liberals. But we might as well talk about the struggle between narrow readers, who take things literally, and broad readers, who recognize that everything we discuss is, in a way, fiction, and that we owe it to ourselves to stay actively engaged as readers.
Sometimes I get pegged as a “book nerd,” someone who gives too much importance to language and articles and novels. But the more I read—and the more widely I read—the more I realize how utterly mortal and fallible narratives are; how we all participate in the day-to-day story-making process, through news and emails and short stories and dreams, to such an extent that fiction is a terribly common thing. Meanwhile, people who read exclusively from one book—like the Koran or the Bible—seem to adore it so much that it becomes cold and unapproachable, fearsome and almighty. Who’s the book nerd now?
As a postscript, it’s interesting to note that some of the teenagers interviewed for the article eventually found themselves drawn to a different kind of Islam—Sufism—which emphasizes the beautiful, unknowable aspects of religious life, and sounds almost like literary fiction in the way it attempts to evaporate into the ineffable.
They had to go looking for other Islams – and often they found it in the more mystical school of the Sufis. “Wahabi Islam is totally sensory: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” Usman says. “It lays out a strict set of rules to be followed here on earth, every moment of the day. Sufi Islam teaches instead that the realm of Allah is wholly separate and spiritual and nothing to do with the shadow-play of mere mortals. It is accessible only through a sense of mystery and transcendence.”