The Islamic world is afire. Off against America, and what it means in the mind of the rioters and those who inspire them.
We are told: these are extremists, not really representing Islam. See how their own Islamic governments try to keep them in check. Even the highest Saudi religious authority denounced present day violence as un-Islamic. Besides, we offended their feelings.
What to think about it? How to get around in order to judge who is right about the legitimacy, from the Islamic point of view, of such violent reactions to the news of words and images demeaning of the figure of the man held to be the Prophet? No more than news, mind, for people who hardly have the chance to hear or see them, rumors spread on purpose by those interested in making havoc against America. Again, we might ask how proper this is from an Islamic point of view.
I must say: don't look for an answer by reading the Qur’an. You may doubt that, staying to it, the so called extremists are right.
In respect for Islam, I must recognize that it is, after all, a widely spread civilizational reality of about 1400 years, a span of time over which quite different claims have been advanced in its name. For what I know, then, the Islamic world isn't one coherent block, but it is a very diversified reality. Everywhere, it seems, the Qur’an is read as God's word dictated to Mohammad, but according to the time and the place different things have been read into it. I don't have the competence to deny that they are there, but I have enough confidence in my own capability of reading and understanding what is prima facie written (if translations are granted validity). And before the Qur’an I am perplexed.
First of all, the chapters of the Qur’an, which bear the Arabic name of sura, are assembled according to the utterly extrinsic criterion of their length. Which is very confusing, especially if we consider the importance of chronology according to the same Qur’an: so that, where they diverge, the later suras supersede the early ones. But this is the least of problems, which can be easily overcome with a textual guide informing on the chronological sequence. The perplexity comes from elsewhere.
What I find, starting from the earlier suras, is the witness of a man who has an experience of the absolute sovereignty of God, or, in slightly different words, a vision of an utterly transcendent Sovereign, who is speaking to him. Nothing strange for me in this. I know it from all historical evidence, that everywhere men experience in society the sense of a whole that transcends them, and that someone among them represents it by referring beyond himself. I also know, from experience, that in writing I have no control on words, which come or don't come to me, are dictated, so to speak, from elsewhere. The same it is witnessed, for example, in the Homeric poems with the invocation to the divine Muses, or also, but without the Muses' mediation, when the inspiration is perceived as coming immediately from the one source of all things, such as the divine Lord of the Bible. Nothing peculiar in this, therefore, with the Qur’an. The claim of “prophecy” any one advances is though open to controversy, and peculiar to the Qur’an is the way the contrast arising from it is maintained absolutely raw.
From earlier to later suras, it is a crescendo. The voice speaking in the Qur’an, traditionally identified as that of Mohammad, while on one side presents the speaker as being addressed by another voice, that speaks to him in sovereign fashion, and at times merges with it, addresses on the other its audience with the authority coming from that. The audience it addresses is at the beginning universal, and it remains such, on the background, throughout. But it is addressed to determine a choice, pro or against the message brought forth, and so at a certain pont the audience is split, between those who have accepted the speaker's authority and those who have rejected it. Prima facie, which is as far as my reading goes, the theological message is pretty simple, somewhat like what remains of Christianity by the hands of some modern philosophers: there is one God, only sovereign to whom all men are subjected, to be judged by the end of time. Here comes the division of the audience, between the deniers, who have refused subjection (in Arabic islam), and those who accepted it. To the firsts, who are ironically made to speak in the moment of judgment as looking for excuses, none is granted and are destined to the fire of hell, while the expectation for the seconds is life in beautiful gardens. Hence the speaking voice expands in giving a thorough vision of history, made with materials widely drawn from the Jewish Bible, by which it is shown that to all people have been continuously sent messengers to call them back on the right way of “subjection”, whom they refused to listen to or did it just for a short time. In addressing those who have accepted “subjection”, the voice becomes then that of a lawgiver. A main law of purity appears to be given, and it is that of not mingling with the deniers, who, by refusing subjection, have excluded themselves from the common humanity of the universal audience to whom the message is addressed. Killing them is therefore allowed, if not even, as in the awful verse 5 of sura IX, prescribed.
What to think of all this?
That Muslims find themselves at a crossroad. A big dilemma. I know, I said, that much more has been read in the letter of the Qur’an than what I just referred. But this happened inside the umma, as they call the community of the faithful, once it was established, history teaches, by way of conquest. Done, it looks, following the prescription of the founder. Now days, though, Muslims are no longer living within an umma territorially severed from other people, literally or even when belonging to Islamic countries, because of the wider world of planetary communications in which we are all involved. Either then they interpret away that kind of prescriptions, and learn how to promote the deeper universal content of their teaching in a different way, out of the raw logic of contrasting claims with no other solution than the subjection of one to the other; or they maintain it to the ultimate consequences. But, to follow the first path, might mean simply to cease to be Muslims in a traditional sense. So, while avoiding such a conclusion, but seemingly not wanting to follow the second path either, easily they engender a suspicion of dissimulation.