Use Quran
to counter

Its peace-inspiring verses
should supersede others

Are we fighting extremists in Iraq with the right weapons? Tanks, bombs and planes don't scare zealots willing to die for their cause. While complicated socio-political factors are involved, the United States should consider using the weapon extremists have used remarkably well: the Muslim holy book, Quran.

Consider the following Quranic verse: "Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)." This is displayed prominently on the Web site www.fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/980223-fatwa.htm, allegedly a message from Osama bin Laden. Elsewhere, extremists assert other Quranic passages, such as "Do not take Jews and Christians for friends and protectors."

Thirteen Quranic verses in particular have high violence- inciting quotient. By hypnotic and emotional reference out of context to these passages, extremist leaders urge the masses to undertake suicide missions -- motivating them to look forward eagerly to fanciful and sensuous rewards in paradise. Any others who get killed apparently do not matter.

Unfortunately, the same masses might not know of the Quran's many peace-inspiring verses, such as those permitting Muslims to eat and intermarry with "People of the Book" (including Jews and Christians); commanding Muslims to "invite others to the ways of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching"; and warning Muslims that killing believers will condemn them forever.

Why do such apparent contradictions exist among Quranic verses? The Quran, revealed to Muhammad over a 23-year period, provided him information on both spiritual matters (such as God's attributes and wonders of creation) and temporal matters (such as rules of conduct and family life). The former remained essentially unchanged during the 23 years of his prophethood. The latter guidance, however, changed from being "reactive" to "pro-active," thereby reflecting the dynamic situation as Muhammad's status changed from "fugitive" to "ruler" and from seeking followers to leading a nation.

When he started preaching against idolatry and became a marked man, the Quran advised him against trusting "outsiders."

More than two decades later, however, when all Arabia had been conquered and danger dissipated, the Quran included Jews and Christians among "insiders." In fact, permission to eat and intermarry with them was the last guidance Muhammad received. He died shortly thereafter.

So, rather than looking upon these mixed signals as contradictions, we should consider them as midstream corrections.

The Quran records all revelations Muhammad received, including those promoting animosity against other religions -- just as the U.S. Constitution records all its articles, including those acknowledging slavery. However, the Quran also clarifies that later guidance on any subject replaces earlier guidance on that subject -- just as amendments to the U.S. Constitution brought about changes in the law, including abolishing slavery.

However, the Quran, compiled 10 to 20 years after Muhammad died, is not arranged chronologically. Thus, unlike amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it is difficult to determine which Quranic verses came later and which verses they replaced.

There is an urgent need, therefore, for Muslim governments and scholars to embark upon a two-pronged action plan: (1) discuss this issue objectively and arrive at some consensus; and (2) use the airwaves to disseminate the Quran's peace-inspiring verses, the context in which various verses were revealed and the concept of replacement of verses.

The recent bold initiative of Spanish Muslim clerics denouncing al-Qaida must not simply wither away. We must strengthen it with suitable Quranic verses and challenge the extremists on their own terms. The Soviet Union learned this the hard way in Afghanistan, but did not know how to respond until it was too late. Let us not make the same mistake. And while this might not bring the current conflict in Iraq to an end, it might minimize the senseless killing of innocent civilians -- both Iraqis and foreigners.

Meanwhile, here is a point of contemplation for policymakers: Should Muslims who believe the entire Quran must be followed unquestioningly -- including passages asking Muslims to "not trust Jews and Christians" and to "fight and slay the pagans" -- travel to or live in countries where such actions are illegal and forbidden?

Saleem Ahmed of Honolulu is the author of "Beyond Veil and Holy War." This column is based on his forthcoming book, "Suicide Bombers: Martyrs or Murderers?"

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