Misreading the Quran to threaten the “South Park” guys

There's no general command to "terrorize the disbelievers"

Topics: Terrorism, Religion, South Park, Islam

Misreading the Quran to threaten the "South Park" guys

This CNN report on the veiled threat made by an obscure, fringe American Muslim website against the creators of the “South Park” cartoon shows an extremist saying something completely untrue:

“Yunus Muhammad” says in the interview that the Quran instructs Muslims to “terrorize the disbelievers.” It does no such thing. The Quran instructs Muslims to live at peace with non-Muslims who are at peace with them.

The verse to which this individual referred was in the chapter of the Spoils (al-Anfal), 8:60:

Wa a`iddu lahum ma istata`tum min quwwatin wamin ribati ‘lkhayli turhibuna bihi `aduwwa Allahi wa`aduwwakum

Which means, “Prepare against them all the power, and all the war horses that you can, whereby to strike fear into the enemies of God and your enemies.”

The context of this verse is the Battle of Badr on March 17, 624 of the Common Era. In the 610s, the pagan Meccans had persecuted the new religion of Islam and ultimately chased Muhammad and the Muslims out of Mecca for preaching the one God. They took refuge in the nearby city of Yathrib, which became known as Medina (i.e., the City [of the Prophet]). The wealthy Meccan polytheists hoped to wipe Islam and the Muslims out, and fought skirmishes with them. The early Muslims riposted by raiding Meccan trading caravans, in hopes of weakening their foe economically. That March in 624, the Meccans sent out their best fighters to protect a caravan. A Muslim force more or less stumbled onto this expedition. Badr, named after a well south of Medina, was the first major battle between the two sides, and the Muslims won it, thus saving themselves from genocide.

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So what the Quran is saying in 8:60 is that the Muslims should keep a stable of fighting steeds at the ready and let the Meccans know about it, to strike fear into the hearts of an enemy trying to wipe out them and their religion.

The verse does not command any act of “terrorism.” It commands that Muslims attempt to forestall irrational violence against a Muslim state through deterrence. It is defensive in intent.

The verse does not say anything about mere ‘disbelievers’ or non-Muslims. It is warning of the designs of “enemies of God,” i.e., militant and violent anti-Muslims. Moreover, there is no implication that Muslims should act as individuals or vigilantes. Medina was a city-state that the Prophet Muhammad ruled, and he gave the orders. Muslims could not just run off and attack whomever they pleased whenever they pleased. A duly constituted Muslim state was in charge of defense of the community.

So unless Yunus Muhammad can find a group of armed individuals who aim at violently attacking Muslims en masse and trying to wipe out them and their religion, he should stuff a sock in it and go home.

In fact, trying to import terrorism into the Quran is an infinitely greater blasphemy than that of any Western cartoonist, and one would hope Muslim groups would get more upset about Yunus Muhammad and “Revolution Muslim” than about an irreverent American TV program.

Unfortunately, along with people with genuinely hurt feelings, there will be some cynical political forces that manipulate Muslim fundamentalists and will try to advance their agendas by taking advantage of this “South Park” controversy. (The show depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit to avoid showing him — which is about as close as “South Park” gets to deference to religious feelings.)

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

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