Interview with Gudrun Kramer

Muslims must take a critical look at controversial passages in the Koran

The majority of Muslims are quite rightly resisting attempts by jihadists to co-opt their religion. Yet at the same, both jihadists and their opponents justify their arguments by quoting passages from the Koran. Ulrich von Schwerin spoke to the Islam Studies scholar Gudrun Kramer about the relationship between Islam and violence, the interpretation of the Koran and possible ways of combating jihadism

After the Paris attacks, many Muslims and Islamic clerics said that such acts of violence had "nothing to do with Islam". Is this sweeping statement correct?

Gudrun Kramer: It's an understandable defensive argument but it falls short, because the fact that a group or an individual makes recourse to a religion does indeed have something to do with that religion. I don't see why perfectly normal Muslims are expected to emphasise time and again that they have nothing to do with murder. But they do have to clarify their relationship to the problematic statements in the Koran and in the Prophetic tradition. It can't be a question of finding the one true Islam, but of recognising that the sources contain different statements, which they have to order and weight. The claim that "all that" has nothing to do with Islam isn't enough for me.

Muslims certainly have distanced themselves from these acts. Even conservative clerics have presented detailed arguments based on the scriptures as to why the jihadists' actions violate the principles of Islam.

Kramer: Yes, there are plenty of attempts to distance Islam from jihadism, and the murders in Paris were as good as unanimously condemned by Muslims, including those in the Islamic world. These voices are occasionally acknowledged here, but in many cases they're not. That's partly because the points are often made in non-European languages like Arabic, Persian or Turkish, which means they don't reach the majority of people in Europe.

At the same time, I see it as a problem that both sides try to simplify a complicated, multi-voiced tradition that's not always quite clear, and either to say that Islam is the religion of peace and nothing else or that Islam is a religion that demands jihad as an armed struggle for the truth, for God and Islam itself. Both sides argue on the basis of the Koran and the Prophetic tradition. They pay no attention to history.

A Koran (photo: Getty Images/D. Kitwood)
"The Koran is revelation, religious guidance, but not a handbook for civil and international law, ethics or detailed behavioural and dietary rules. If one understands the Koran in this broad sense, one gets away from the obsessive search for whether some particular clause prescribes this behaviour or that, demands this law or that, or stipulates this punishment or that," says Prof Kramer

Many jihadists have a very simplistic reading of the Koran and pick out isolated passages without putting them in the context of the entire text or their historical setting.

Kramer: It's true that militant Islamists take isolated statements out of context and present them as absolute. But so too do those people who claim that Islam is solely a religion of peace. There are lot of things written in the Koran that are problematic for today's readers. That includes statements on the relationship between men and women, between believers and non-believers and on violence.

According to Muslim conviction, the Koran is the word of God and therefore its wording cannot be changed. The Koran is revelation, religious guidance, but not a handbook for civil and international law, ethics or detailed behavioural and dietary rules. If one understands the Koran in this broad sense, one gets away from the obsessive search for whether some particular clause prescribes this behaviour or that, demands this law or that, or stipulates this punishment or that.

There are frequent demands for Muslims to develop a modern interpretation of the Koran. But isn't Islamism itself a decidedly modern phenomenon?

Kramer: Yes, it is. The word "modern" is usually used as a simplified description of a liberal, pluralist, open society, which allows for doubt, criticism and satire without feeling deeply affected. However, other phenomena such as fascism, National Socialism and totalitarianism were also "modern". In order to feel at home in a pluralist, open society, Muslims have to find an approach to Islam that allows for doubt, criticism and satire. The more exclusively they regard the Koran as the only obligatory basis, the more difficult that will be. Looking back at Islamic history, in which pragmatism often set the tone, would be a helpful step.

If Muslims recognise pluralism of interpretation and accept that there is no one true Islam, as the liberal reformers suggest, would that not lead to uncertainty?

Kramer: Yes, it certainly would, but there's no way around that. Either one says there is a message that is bindingly imparted by a central authority – that would be the simple solution. Or one allows for ambiguity and doubt and relies on openness of interpretation. When directly confronting a convinced militant, the latter position is certainly the weaker one. Yet European history in particular shows that the flexible, open approach has always been more sustainable in the long run. Without it, there can be no free society at all.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Egypt (photo: Reuters)
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Egypt, who is widely respected by Sunnis the world over has publically condemned IS and its actions on numerous occasions in the past. According to Grundrun Kramer, however, this is likely to mean little to jihadists, because "most jihadists consider these authorities to be old men who have been bought by the regime and are loyal to the West, and they pay them no respect or attention"

Because it cannot fundamentally be denied that jihadism is one form of Islam – albeit an ideologically exaggerated form – how should we deal with it? 

Kramer: I see two possibilities. Firstly, Islamic tradition provides a relaxed position that doesn't claim absolutism for itself, which could be very helpful for the present day. There is a statement that has been handed down from great scholars who are still revered to this day: "Perhaps I am right, perhaps the other is right, only God knows." One can be very much convinced that there is one truth, as long as one acknowledges that one has no monopoly on it.

Secondly, the moderates have to take a critical look at those statements in the Koran to which those who condone violence refer. They have to find an Islamic justification for rejecting violence against those who think and believe differently. It's certainly possible to argue on the basis of the Koran that one can seek the truth without forcing one's own opinion on others, let alone raise a sword against them. In the case of some statements, however, I think we must come to the conclusion that even though they're in the Koran, they aren't guiding for our time.

As we mentioned earlier, there are attempts to relativise the problematic statements in the Koran. But can jihadists be influenced by such theological arguments?

Kramer: I would think that a hard-nosed man of violence, particularly one who wants to prove his worth as a man, would not be influenced by such arguments. I wouldn't expect anyone to be able to convince an "Islamic State" fighter that way, even if the arguments come from established religious authorities such as Al-Azhar in Cairo. Most jihadists consider these authorities to be old men who have been bought by the regime and are loyal to the West, and they pay them no respect or attention.

But I do think it would have an effect if schools taught from an early age that the Koran is a book of revelatory scripture open to interpretation and not a book of law that puts Muslims in a tight corset for everyday life. Legal scholars could do that, but also charismatic individuals whom young people see as role models. That's highly unlikely to happen in an authoritarian setting, however. How can an open, doubting spirit that promotes contradiction on religious questions be encouraged in an authoritarian land?

Young children at a Koran school in Turkey (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"I do think it would have an effect if schools taught from an early age that the Koran is a book of revelatory scripture open to interpretation and not a book of law that puts Muslims in a tight corset for everyday life," says Grundrun Kramer

Does the phenomenon of jihadism have much to do with religion at all, or does it in fact have social and political causes?

Kramer: It's always a mixture. Of course, it can't be denied that there are social problems not only in Islamic countries but in Western nations as well, which lead young people to the conclusion that they're not wanted here, and they resort to violence in an attempt to gain the respect they don't get. It's no secret that discrimination exists. But it's not just men and women from the margins of society who join the jihadists, but also children from middle-class families that are considered intact. So I wouldn't focus entirely on social and economic factors.

Are the Muslims actually angry about the caricatures because they ridicule the Prophet? Or are they enraged because their religious feelings are not being respected?

Kramer: Most Muslims are convinced that it's not permissible to insult a prophet and drag him through the dirt – and that also goes for the other prophets recognised by Islam, like Jesus. At the same time, they see the intention to hurt Muslims themselves via the Prophet. Freedom of the press has to be protected, and that includes caricatures and satire. Yet we do draw boundaries in other areas. For instance, no one in Germany, for good reason, would think of caricaturing Jews or the destruction of Jews .

In my opinion, we need to demonstrate comparable sensitivity and prudence towards Muslims. Do I really have to hit people over and over in the place where they're particularly sensitive? Is it not possible that members of other religious communities feel differently to the average Christian – whereby of course, many devout Christians have problems with caricatures of Jesus. Time and again, we hear that the Muslims have to learn to tolerate things including hurtful satire. Presumably, they do. But to what effect? I think if we want to win Muslims over to taking a critical approach to their own religion and heritage, it would be wise not to keep aiming at the same sore spots.

Interview conducted by Ulrich von Schwerin
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Prof. Gudrun Kramer is a scholar of Middle Eastern and Islam Studies at the Freie Universitat Berlin.

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Comments for this article: Muslims must take a critical look at controversial passages in the Koran

Please advise these words in the bible to be better than the Quran

Kill those who are not Christian or Jewish:

You must kill those who worship another god. Exodus 22:20

Kill any friends or family that worship a god that is different than your own. Deuteronomy 13:6-10

Kill all the inhabitants of any city where you find people that worship differently than you. Deuteronomy 13:12-16

Kill everyone who has religious views that are different than your own. Deuteronomy 17:2-7

Kill anyone who refuses to listen to a priest. Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Kill any false prophets. Deuteronomy 18:20

Any city that doesn’t receive the followers of Jesus will be destroyed in a manner even more savage than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Mark 6:11

Jude reminds us that God destroys those who don’t believe in him. Jude 5

Ignorance is bliss. Christians should not practice free inquiry nor socialize with non Christians:

Don’t associate with non-Christians. Don’t receive them into your house or even exchange greeting with them. 2 John 1:10

Shun those who disagree with your religious views. Romans 16:17

Paul, knowing that their faith would crumble if subjected to free and critical inquiry, tells his followers to avoid philosophy. Colossians 2:8

Anonymous12.02.2015 | 22:09 Uhr

No Muslims are authorized to interprete Kor'an for social laws because of islamic schools (mazhabs) has solved all problems.
If somebody wants to learn islam religion is really peacefull or not,he/she has to investigate theese four schools doctrines(tenets)
Unfortunately,muslims make so abdurd arguments on this point.Main problem is accumulated on this point.

Munir Kebir16.02.2015 | 16:57 Uhr

Just to highlight that there is no central authority in Islam:

Unlike Christianity, in Islam we do not see "Authority of Church" What I mean by that is, that, in Islam there is no central authority to guide each individual community or "Parish in Christianity" as to how to interpret the Quran. Each individual family or person or community makes their own interpretation of the Book. However, the beauty is that they have the same version of the book. In Christianity you have the Vatican for the Catholics, Church of England for others and various other Christian organisation. Than you have the Council of Churches. This is one of the factors why a unitary message can not be sent down the line like the Christians and the Hebrew speaking brothers and sisters can do.

Peter Holden22.02.2015 | 23:31 Uhr