Understanding War and Jihad in 2021

Webinar “Reading Challenging Texts in the Holy Scriptures” December 8, 2021

Ömer Gürlesin

In his presentation “On coming to terms with violent texts of the Bible”, prof. E. Gerrit Singgih (Duta Wacana Christian University), divided violence into violence directed to the people of God and violence from the people of God toward others. The first, he stated, is regarded as negative, but the second is positive.

Singgih was the first speaker at this webinar organized by the Pokja Inclusive Religious Education of the Netherlands Indonesia Consortium for Muslim-Christian Relations (NICMCR). He further mentioned that in daily life and in Sunday sermons, Christian congregations do not address violent verses or perhaps do not even realize that they exist. The emphasis is more on the love of God. Also in Bible commentaries, reference to violence done by the people of God to others is usually absent. This may be due to two reasons. The first is absent-mindedness. The second is that this may have been done purposely. Thus, readers will not encounter violent texts and will not be able to use them as a tool to legitimate their violent actions.

Singgih thinks that it is not right not to deal with violence texts. There is, for instance, the word “kherem” which is often mentioned in the Bible and alternately means  “to destroy”, “annihilate”, “exterminate”. We can find an example in the book of Deuteronomy: “At that time we captured all his towns, and in each town we utterly destroyed (kherem) man, women and children, we left not a single survivor” (Deut. 2:34), so it should be acknowledged that kherem texts or violent texts are there. However, violent texts should not be read in order to get rid of, or conversely, to use them to legitimate violence, but to come to terms with them. It is a good thing, he asserted, that we stumble on these violent texts, because it may make us humble to realize that we are not as righteous as we think we are. It also reminds us that we live in a different context and do not want to bring the past into the present by condoning ethnic-religious cleansing.

Starting with a quote from Psalm 139:22: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies”, a quote that evokes great resistance in the ears of contemporary believers, Rev. Drs H. Harold Schorren (Sint Laurens Church) focussed on the crucial question of “what we should do with holy stumbling texts about war and violence”. Many other examples which he cited from the Old Testament and the New Testament, show that stumbling texts can be found everywhere.

The writers of the sacred texts did not live in a vacuum. Time and context guide the pen and colour the stories, which are often written records of a long oral tradition. The aim was not only to record the history of the people, but also to speak to the people in a particular situation of crisis.

In the stories of the past, one finds answers for the present. Schorren added that the readers also  read the texts through the lens of their time, of their situation, of their personal lives. When extremist, for example, use sacred texts to legitimize oppression and terror, it tells nothing about those texts, but about a situation in which extremism flourishes. It makes no difference if they are Jewish, Christian or Islamic sacred texts.

Asking himself the question: “what do our actions say about God?”, Schorren concluded that perhaps the greatest challenge in reading the stumbling texts is not to place evil outside ourselves. We are not asked to exterminate our greatest enemies, but the enemies within ourselves. When fighting ourselves to let the good and holy win, the words of Psalm 139 also sound anew when they speak of the enemies.

I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

By doing so, the sacred text becomes sacred again. Without violence…, without terror.

Dr. Munirul Ikhwan, (UIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta), held a strong plea for “An Urgent Need for a Humanist Theology”, a common theology that strongly upholds human values. The so-called jihadist theology most likely produce interpretations of Islam tending to be intolerant, authoritarian and violent. As an example he addressed the book Tarbiyah Jihadiyyah by Abdullah Azzam, an influential jihadist ideologue. In this book jihad must take precedence over any other religious obligation, including the five pillars of Islam. Azzam also states that the history of the Muslim community is nothing but a struggle with the “sword” in the one hand and the Quran in the other.

The Qur’an, Munir claimed, remains as it is as the Muslim Scripture, but its interpretations undoubtedly vary.  Different theological orientations contribute to shaping how Islam is expressed and articulated. While the majority of Muslims believe in the compassionate character of Islam as the true face of this religion, we cannot deny that there remain a few Muslims who are eager to feature Islam as a religious and political ideology that must take control over people’s life, imagination, belief and practices, even through coercive and violent measures.

There are islamist movements which are more shaped by ideology then by the Scripture. They emphasize the Islamic caliphate as the only legitimate Islamic political authority. Although some reports attributed to the Prophet, mention caliph as a political leader, yet their authenticity is often questioned.

Returning to his plea, Munir mentioned the collaboration of Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad Tayyib and His Holiness Pope Francis, two contemporary world religious leaders. Their jointly signed document ‘Human Fraternity’ (2019) is an important effort which may be able to promote a humanist theology, not only guaranteeing a sense of theologically justified respect among diverse religions and faiths, but also providing a breakthrough toward a more humanist interpretation of the Scriptures.

Last speaker Orhan Bircan (Istanbul University) offered a different perspective on understanding verses related to war and violence in the Qur’an. In the light of the Sufi Tradition, the Qur’an, being the eternal speech of God, is the written form of the Cosmos and human beings alike. Even though it was sent down in time and space, its message is timeless, limitless and personal to a great extend. The Qur’an must be comprehended beyond any socio-cultural and historical context.

The Sufis base their approach on a prophetic saying, narrated by Ibn Masu’d, one of the most famous companions of the Prophet. In this hadith, the Messenger of Allah once said: “The Qur’an was revealed in seven ahruf. Each harf has a back (zahr) and a belly (batn). Each harf has a border (hadd) and each border has a lookout point (muttala’).”

Relying on this hadith, Sufi commentators maintain, that apart from its outer and historical dimension, the Qur’an does have an inner side which is definitely timeless and purely individual. In their consideration, Bircan explained, human beings can reach and touch this inner dimension only through kashf (illumination). To do that, one has to draw his/her attention towards the heart and purify the nafs (ego) from any terrestrial whims.

Considering this inner-focus approach, Sufi Commentators reflect the historical figures and events of the Holy Book as being the outer symbols of the inner aspects of the human soul. Qur’anic verses with respect to war and violence can only be meaningful if we take them inwardly (bâtın) which is none other than the pure reality itself (haqiqa). They use the Arabic word al ishara (allusion) for their interpretation instead of al tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis), for al ishara designates all the possible exoteric and esoteric meanings.

In Sufi understanding, Bircan argued, war and violence in the Qur’an, refer primarily to the human struggle with the self and the pursuit of human perfection. Historical characters such as Fir’awn, Haman, and others must be understood as the negative emotions of the self and Moses, Joseph, and others as the human spirit and its divine forces. Bircan concluded that war in the Sufis’ world is none other than the inner fighting against the carnal desires of the ego. Physical appearances are the outer manifestations of this inner war.

During the discussion, moderator Erin Gayatri (Center for Security and Peace Studies) asked for possible alternate meanings of violent texts. What could be the purpose of God with these verses and under what conditions were these texts revealed. Munir thought that it could be a reaction to the fact that in the modern world, Islam is no longer the conquerer of the world as it was in the past. While countries such as Turkey adapted their systems to secularism, other countries displayed jihadi reformist approaches, decisive in their understanding of the Qur’an.

Conversely Bircan stated that Turkey is not an exception compared to other Islamic countries in this regard. The current administration puts the jihadist verses in the center of its policy and uses these verses to seize power against the West. He also addressed another approach, that of historicism and its rigid view which completely ignores these verses.

To the question, why in the Netherlands today, Christians do not refer to violent verses, Schorren referred to the current state of peace they live in, which is the determining factor.

Due to limited time, an intriguing question why extreme groups in Indonesia are having trouble understanding the humanist theology discourse or are unwilling to understand the Sufi theology, was left unanswered. Hopefully this can be taken up in following debates around violent texts in the Holy Scriptures.