Sex and Jihad – the Failure of Modern Hermeneutics

You are currently viewing Sex and Jihad – the Failure of Modern Hermeneutics

Over the past few weeks I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that there is a massive similarity in the way our society is handling the two “religious” questions of homosexuality and violent Islam. In both areas there has been a singular failure to read religious texts as they were intended to be read and to understand how they were intended to be applied. As our Western world turns both to the Bible to understand what it says about sexuality and to the Qu’ran to understand what it says about Jihad we see clear evidence of this malaise.

Perhaps you would not have put these 2 subjects together – sex and jihad. Let me try and persuade you otherwise.

Sex and reading the Bible

By now most of us are familiar with the standard revisionist approach to the question of sexual ethics in the Bible. Clear prohibitions are “uncertain” or “relate only to cultic prostitution” and so on. As we move into the New Testament it’s common to assert that Jesus had nothing to say on the subject. There’s not really anything new that’s been written in the past 20 years or so and yet the same tired arguments are rolled out.

There are, of course, corresponding answers. Readers will be interested in the extensive writing of Robert Gagnon in this area – lots of good material there. I also have a lot of time for John Richardson‘s What God Has Made CleanAt the heart of much of this debate is the key question “how do we read these texts today?” i.e. what is our hermeneutic?

While the Post-moderns have a lot to answer for, one thing they taught us well is to take care when we read any text. Post-modernism comes in for a kicking in many areas (and rightly so, slippery thing that it is) but the original Post-moderns were often very good readers who we can learn a lot from. No less so when they read the Bible. Paul Ricoeur makes a telling observation on Biblical hermeneutics when he refers (Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 52) to,

Jesus Christ himself, exegesis and exegete of Scripture…

It’s a brilliant turn of phrase. Jesus is the exegesis (the correct reading) of the Bible and, at the same time the exegete (the correct reader) of the Bible. He is the lens through which we read everything in the Scriptures and He gives us the definitive reading. As a result the answer to all theological questions pass through Him (and, we might add, through His cross – but that’s another discussion). And all of a sudden we realise that there is a consistent way of reading the Bible that makes sense of all those allegedly difficult passages – Jesus is the key. Everything written beforehand points inexorably to Him and to what He came to do. He provides the interpretive grid for everything we read in the Bible and, at times, speaks authoritatively Himself on that same Bible. We therefore understand that much of the Old Testament does not stand alone but points to and is fulfilled in Jesus and His life, death and Resurrection. This is not a strange novelty but long understood and, of course, affirmed regularly in the New Testament.

Answering this same question, Tim Keller helpfully notes:

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible—about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation—then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties. It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mish-mash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

That last sentence is worth noting in and of itself. Liberal “Christianity” shares the same hermeneutic that the rest of our culture has because it shares the same base assumption – that Jesus is not the Christ, the Son of God and Saviour as traditional readings of the Bible have understood Him. There is a common foundation of unbelief that underpins the common approach to the Bible.

We see this worked out in the key issue itself, human sexuality. Jesus is the exegesis in that He presents Himself as the Bridegroom of the His bride, the church (so Matt. 25:1 et seq., Mark 2:19 = Luke 5:34, John 3:29). In doing so He draws upon frequent similar language in the Old Testament where God portrays Himself as the loving faithful husband of His bride, His people (so Isa. 62:5, Jer. 3:1, Hos. 3:1 etc.). The New Testament Apostolic authors also take up the same theme (e.g. Eph. 5:22 et seq., Rev. 19:7 etc.). The correct reading of those OT texts finds their fulfilment in Jesus and He Himself makes that clear. And He speaks clearly on the topic of human sexuality too, citing Genesis 2:24 as the definitive created order for human sexual expression:

Mark 10:6-9 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

There is a clear trajectory in all of this, the hermeneutic isn’t hard to understand. What is clear, however, is that not liking the obvious conclusion of that hermeneutic leads people down strange paths of inconsistency and, frankly, just poor reading.

Jihad and reading the Qu’ran

So what does all this have to do with Islam and Jihad? Simply put, our Western culture exhibits exactly the same deliberately blind lack of any understanding when it approaches another tricky “religious” topic, this time the question of the validity of Islamic “terrorism”.

A few weeks ago 2 men murdered a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich in the UK. Here’s one of the men’s explanation for what he did, filmed immediately after the atrocity. (Caution – some disturbing images)

And here the transcript of what he said (except for the [bracketed section] which I have corrected) with citations from the Qu’ran referenced,

The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.

So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands? Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists and kill us? Rather you lot are extreme. You are the ones that when you drop a bomb you think it hits one person? Or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family? This is the reality.

By Allah if I saw your mother today with a buggy I would help her up the stairs. This is my nature…

We [are forced by the Koran in Surah At-Taubah … many many Ayah through the] Koran …  we must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I apologise that women had to witness this today but in our lands women have to see the same.

You people will never be safe. Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. You think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? You think your politicians are going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy, like you and your children.

“So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so we … so you can all live in peace. So leave our lands and we can all live in peace.

“That’s all I have to say. Allah’s peace and blessings be upon you.

We’ll return to this in a while.

What has been noticeable in the response of politicians in the UK, mirrored by the mainstream media, is the general consistency of argument that this murder (while initially labelled as “Islamic terrorism”) is not representative of Islam or has no grounding in Islam. Prime Minister David Cameron said,

This was not just an attack on Britain – and on our British way of life. It was also a betrayal of Islam – and of the Muslim communities who are give so much to our country.

There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.

and the Muslim Council of Britain had this to say,

Eye-witnesses suggest that the murderers made Islamic slogans during their heinous action and were thus motivated by their Islamic faith.

This is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam…

Nothing in Islam to justify this act.

No basis in Islam.

The problem is that it’s simply not true. But that’s not to say the question isn’t complicated.

Islam has a messy and, quite obviously, violent history. From the very beginning Islam has been blatantly expansionistic. Rather than being a “religion of peace” it is a religion of submission. In fact that’s what the word Islam means; “submission” – submission to Allah. As you read through the Qu’ran this much is perfectly obvious – the rule of Islam, the Caliphate, is a very earthly kingdom that was instituted in the early decades and then centuries of it’s existence at the point of the sword once the opportunity for persuasion had failed,

When Muhammad first began to receive “revelations” from God, in 610, he lived in Mecca, a major center of polytheistic worship. As he preached his monotheistic message, he encountered indifference and then growing resistance. Over 13 years, persecution against him and his small band of followers eventually became so severe that they finally left Mecca and emigrated to Medina (then known as Yathrib) about 220 miles to the north.

In Medina, Muhammad gathered many followers—along with political and military power. After eight years of raids and battles, he conquered Mecca and instituted Islam in place of the city’s polytheism.

According to Firestone, “Muslim scholars came to the conclusion that the scriptural verses regarding war were revealed in direct relation to the historic needs of Muhammad during his prophetic mission. At the beginning of his prophetic career in Mecca when he was weak and his followers few, the divine revelations encouraged avoidance of physical conflict.”

After the intense persecutions that caused Muhammad and his followers to emigrate to Medina, however, they were given leave to engage in defensive warfare. As the Muslim community grew in strength, further revelations broadened the conditions under which war could be waged, “until it was concluded that war against non-Muslims could be waged virtually at any time, without pretext, and in any place.”

The later verses, known as the “Sword Verses” (9:5 and 9:29), were considered by Muslim scholars to have cancelled the previous verses mandating kindness and persuasion. Expansionist jihad became the explicit norm.

That this was believed amongst the early Muslims, those closest to the original events, is evident from the pattern of the next few centuries:

Arab Muslim Caliphate Expansion & Military Campaigns Map
Arab Muslim Caliphate Expansion & Military Campaigns Map

In one sense Islam brought peace, but it was an enforced peace at threat of death. The submission of Islam was extended as wide as possible.

At this point we need to observe that, just as with the Bible, there is a question of hermeneutics here. When do the “sword verses” apply? Is it right to consider Islam now permanently in the “Medina” stage (ie expansionary or in control in a land) or are there some Muslims who are “in Mecca” (ie in a minority in a strange land)? Of course, for many Muslims living in the West the situation is far more “Mecca” than “Medina” and yet the “Medina” paradigm still exists in one important sense which we will now turn to.

The chapter of the Qu’ran containing the “sword verses” cited above is well worth reading in full.  In particular it has these texts,

5. Then when the Sacred Months (the Ist, 7th, 11th, and 12th months of the Islamic calendar) have passed, then kill the Mushrikun (see V.2:105) wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush. But if they repent and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and give Zakat, then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

28. O you who believe (in Allah’s Oneness and in His Messenger (Muhammad )! Verily, the Mushrikun (polytheists, pagans, idolaters, disbelievers in the Oneness of Allah, and in the Message of Muhammad ) are Najasun (impure) . So let them not come near Al-Masjid-al-Haram (at Makkah) after this year, and if you fear poverty, Allah will enrich you if He will, out of His Bounty. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

29. Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

122. And it is not (proper) for the believers to go out to fight (Jihad) all together. Of every troop of them, a party only should go forth, that they (who are left behind) may get instructions in (Islamic) religion, and that they may warn their people when they return to them, so that they may beware (of evil).

123. O you who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who are the Al-Muttaqun (the pious – see V.2:2).

There are also these to take on board, from Surah 2.

178. O you who believe! Al-Qisas (the Law of Equality in punishment) is prescribed for you in case of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But if the killer is forgiven by the brother (or the relatives, etc.) of the killed against blood money, then adhering to it with fairness and payment of the blood money, to the heir should be made in fairness. This is an alleviation and a mercy from your Lord. So after this whoever transgresses the limits (i.e. kills the killer after taking the blood money), he shall have a painful torment.

179. And there is (a saving of) life for you in Al-Qisas (the Law of Equality in punishment), O men of understanding, that you may becomeAl-Muttaqun (the pious – see V.2:2).

It’s well worth bearing in mind that these verses were given when Islam was in it’s ascendancy. According to some Islamic sources well over a third of the Arabian peninsula was already under their control. They are certainly “later” texts and so abrogate much of what has come before when Islam was on the defensive in the “Mecca” years. It’s not my intention here to enter into a detailed analysis of the texts (instead I point the reader to pieces such as this which provide a comprehensive assessment of such ayah).

Here we see a major basis for Islamic violence against others and, in particular, for much Islamic anger with the West (and indeed with some of their own leaders) today. Despite the command of 9:28, unbelievers have “come near Makkah” (in Saudi Arabia) and done so at the invitation of the King of Saudi Arabia. The stationing of Western troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait caused no small crisis in the Kingdom and led to Al Quaeda denouncing King Saud’s government and leaving the country.

What is important to realise, then, is that for many Muslims the unbelievers in their Muslim lands (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan) are in the “Medina” context. Islam rules in those places and so the unbelievers fall under the rule of the “sword verses”.

With all this is mind, we can return to the question of what the Woolwich killer had to say and whether we ourselves can say that their actions “have no basis in Islam”. I think at this point it’s easy to argue that the actions of the Woolwich killers, while truly barbaric and even denounced by much of their own community, have a solid basis in Islam by any reasonable reading of the Qu’ran. The appeal to “an eye for an eye” (the principle of equality seen in 2:178 and reiterated in 5:45) is on the basis that “Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers”. If Surah 2:178 is to be taken seriously by a devout Muslim then what we saw on the streets of Woolwich is an entirely logical outcome. It is interesting, also, to note the demeanour of the man in the video footage. He is obviously agitated, the adrenaline still pumping through his body, but there is a deliberate calmness about him. When he says “if I saw your mother today with a buggy I would help her up the stairs. This is my nature…” I have no reason to disbelieve him. His apology that women had to witness the event was no charade.

And yet, despite this, he calmly and deliberately chose to behead a British soldier in broad daylight and then to rush armed police when they arrived. It was an entirely rational considered act and in his brief statement he explain the rational consideration that had led to it – he had read his Qu’ran and done what it told him to do.

Sex and Jihad – the lessons of hermeneutics

So what can we learn from all this? Modern readers of texts quite often are really bad at it! In both cases the ignorance of the text’s own trajectory and internally-explained hermeneutic leads to the imposition of a framework that is alien to the text itself and causes the poor reading. In the case of the Bible and sex it ignores both what Jesus has to say and what explanatory resolution He brings to the deep question of the relationship between Old and New Testament. In the case of the Qu’ran there is not even the slightest evidence of an attempt to grapple with the Medina/Mecca question nor to explain the “sword verses”. Instead all we get is the recurrent mantra of “Islam is a religion of peace” despite the quite obvious Qu’ranic and historical evidence to the contrary. It betrays a quite sophomorically blinkered approach to the whole subject matter.

Christians need to bear all this in mind as we enter into discussion and debate amongst our community. We simply cannot assume that our culture’s understanding of religion and particularly Christianity is built upon some actual intellectually-honest knowledge. It’s not just the new (pop) atheists who read this way, although they are particularly guilty since so many of them claim to have knowledge about things they are clearly ignorant about, but more widely so many of those we are reaching out to simply don’t know what we’re talking about but will often fill their ignorance with our society’s assumptions.

We can react with frustration and anger at this or, perhaps, see it as a unique opportunity.

For someone like me who grew up in the church and learned true stories out of the Bible from a very young age, there’s something quite refreshing when I meet someone who hears the Bible (and particularly the gospel narratives) for the very first time. That wonder and amazement is a real encouragement to us as we see people’s eyes and hearts open up, particularly as we get to then explain about the Lord Jesus Christ.

More generally we therefore need to take every opportunity to explain what difference Jesus makes to the big questions of life – starting with the public questions about sex and then moving on to the core matters of the gospel (a link which the Bible itself, as we have seen above, makes clear).

And for the same reason I think we ought to try and find a way to urge greater honest engagement with the questions of Jihad in the Qu’ran. That’s important because without proper understanding of these things the West will never get to grips with a meaningful response to Islamic terrorism. More importantly, a society that reads a text like the Qu’ran properly will also be a society that reads the Bible properly and therefore come to a better understanding of Jesus Himself whose kingdom (we ought to add in a discussion like this) is truly one of peace and not of this world.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Andrew Reid

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your engagement with the issue of hermeneutics and the realities of the Quran’s teaching. As you say, it is pointless to pretend there that the Quran’s teaching is entirely peaceful and that the violent bits have been abrogated. Some more moderate Islamic scholars have tried to say that these verses are only applicable to the context in which they were written (7th century Arabia) but this is not a majority view. Pretence does nobody any favours.

    But I want to add a note of caution about the nature of the Quran. We can’t interpret the Quran in the same way we go about interpreting the Bible. Our well-learned methods for Biblical hermeneutics don’t work on the Quran. Why?
    – It is viewed as God’s voice alone, not also the work of human authors. It is also viewed as having existed eternally in heaven before being revealed to humanity. Therefore, it is the text itself that is primary rather than the meaning of the text. (Our Muslim friends spend lots of time reciting the Quran not so that they can understand and apply it, but so they are blessed simply by reciting the text).
    – There is no meta-narrative like in the Bible. It is a series of revelations over 40 years rather than telling God’s story over the whole of history. That also means there is no interpretive key, whereas in the Bible Jesus is at the centre of everything.
    – The historical context of verses and suras (chapters) is very unclear. Despite some agreement about when certain revelations happened, many are disputed and so it becomes hard to figure out what abrogates what.
    – There is only one literary genre, Arabic rhyming poetry. Imagine the Bible was all Proverbs or Psalms and you get a feeling for what it’s like. So we interpret it as poetry rather than historical narrative or prophecy.

    This doesn’t mean the Quran can’t be interpreted or its text can’t be understood. It just means we can’t apply Biblical hermeneutics. The closest Christian parallel to the Quran is the Lord Jesus himself. Muslims believe that when Allah wanted to reveal himself to humanity, he sent the Quran, as revealed by his apostle Muhammad, rather than our belief that God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. So, we ought to have robust and respectful discussions with Muslims about these verses and their interpretation, but not expect that they will use the same hermeneutical tools we do.

    1. David Ould

      Thanks Andrew, that’s a really helpful addition to my piece.

Leave a Comment - but please pay careful attention to the house rules