Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Meaninglessness of Fitna

I recently completed The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, which is a theological and exegetical statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission promulgated in March 1994. In the fourth part of the text, the authors state the following:
It is the living tradition of the community of faith that stimulates the task of actualization. This community places itself in explicit continuity with the communities which gave rise to Scripture and which preserved and handed it on. In the process of actualization, tradition plays a double role: On the one hand, it provides protection against deviant interpretations; on the other hand, it ensures the transmission of the original dynamism.
This, I believe, is a wonderful articulation of how we should approach the texts of the three great monotheistic religions of the West: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I recently watched a film called Fitna, produced by the Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders. In it, he takes some selected quotes out of the Qu’ran that are particularly violent. Certainly, the Qu’ran has many passages that are hard to hear and make one recoil.

Here are just a few I picked out myself:

Slay the idolaters wherever you find them and take them captive and besiege them and prepare for them each ambush (Surah 9:5).

And if he wills it, God will drown them and there is no help for them, neither can they be saved (Surah 36:43).

Then David said, “Bring them back to me,” and he fell to slashing with his sword their legs and necks (Surah 38:33).

It is clear to any 21st Century person reading the Bible, that there are also passages that make one uncomfortable.

And it came to pass when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field (Joshua 8:24).

And after him was Shamgar, the son of Anath, who slew six hundred Philistine men with an oxe goad (Judges 3:31).

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

Each of these single sentences, taken out of the context of the narrative in which they are written and with no knowledge of what comes before or after them, sound pretty horrible. It is for this reason that this process of isolated quoting should never be used. What remains profoundly true about the Western religious tradition is the honored place of the book. Eastern religions certainly have sacred texts, but I am unaware of a comparable status given to the Bhagavad-Gita or the Sutras of the Buddha as is given to the Bible and the Qu’ran.

This seems to have resulted in another key distinction between East and West, which is a fundamentally communal one. Hinduism and Buddhism are largely religions of the individual, where theology and worship are so vast and can be expanded to encompass so much. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are centered on the community who are to give proper interpretation to theology, law and worship.

Islam is a religion of over 1 billion people on every continent. It is a religion that has at its core a venerated book. Out of faithful adherence to that book, a system of law, worship and spirituality has been developed and cultivated. That adherence has resulted in millions coming closer to the divine. It has resulted in charity and family stability and community responsibility. It has resulted in legal codes and proper prayer postures and mystical experiences. It has also resulted in violence and hatred and bad blood between neighbors from time to time.

What remains true here, however, is that as an outsider, my judgment must be tempered. I am not a member of the community who has engaged in years of study and practice. My ability to extrapolate meaning from isolated, individual passages of the Qu’ran is meaningless. What I should do is remain sober, alert and in a posture of dialogue. If I do that, I will learn more. If I listen to films by people who are not Muslims and have no respect for Islam, its history or its future, then I will learn nothing.

Mason Slidell


Karen said...

Fitna is not something I'd hold up as a great work of art or a definitive representation of Islam. The hoopla over it, I think, has more to do with issues of freedom of speech and censorship and the usual hysteria that takes place whenever someone draws a cartoon or makes a video that proclaims Islam to be not quite as "Religion of Peace" as it is constantly represented as being.

For an actual education, I'd recommend instead "Islam: What the West Needs to Know." The English translation can be found here:

Markel & Mason said...


I have seen the Robert Spencer documentary in question. But I would again point out that it fails my test.

If I wouldn't go to anti-Christian for an explanation of the Joshua's brutality at Ai or Charlemagne's forced conversion of the Franks, then why would I go to anti-Muslims for an explanation of the beheading of the Bani Qurayza or Muhammad's marriage to Ayesha?

Mason Slidell

Anonymous said...

markel & mason,
Good point: why wouldn't an atheist just point to God's command to Abraham to murder his own son, and say "the Western faiths, all of which consider this story part of their understanding of God, are barbarous"? Our only response would be (and rightly so)...

"You're quoting the Bible out of context."

Thanks for defending the nuances of our faith.

Anonymous said...

Why to see Robert Spencer documentary?
I wouldn't go to Karen Hall blog for an explanation of who the jesuits are, so...