Belief systems are not defined only by the practices or lives of their adherents. They also in part carry the identity of the sacred texts to which they appeal for their tradition.

So what about the Qu’ran? Is the Qu’ran an inherently violent text?

This sacred Muslim text is frequently cited as proof that Islam is indeed inherently and unavoidably violent. However, it is dishonest not to acknowledge that the reading of any ancient text is a complex business and the application of ancient texts over time does, and must, change.

The reading of any religious text requires interpretation. Interpretation is a demanding and inexact science. Our reading of ancient texts will be more credible to the degree that we are familiar with the languages in which they were written and the context in which they were composed.

One of the Qu’ranic verses most frequently cited to demonstrate the inherently violent nature of the Qu’ran, is 9:5 which reads:

“But when the forbidden months (months of truce) are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

According to “The American Muslim Commentary”:

This verse was revealed towards the end of the revelation period and relates to a limited context. Hostilities were frozen for a three-month period during which the Arabs pledged not to wage war. Prophet Muhammad was inspired to use this period to encourage the combatants to join the Muslim ranks or, if they chose, to leave the area that was under Muslims rule; however, if they were to resume hostilities, then the Muslims would fight back until victorious. One is inspired to note that even in this context of war, the verse concludes by emphasizing the divine attributes of mercy and forgiveness. To minimize hostilities, the Qur’an ordered Muslims to grant asylum to anyone, even an enemy, who sought refuge. Asylum would be granted according to the customs of chivalry; the person would be told the message of the Qur’an but not coerced into accepting that message. Thereafter, he or she would be escorted to safety regardless of his or her religion. (9:6). (Hathout, Jihad vs. Terrorism; US Multimedia Vera International, 2002, pp.52-53, emphasis added)

Therefore, this verse once again refers to those pagans who would continue to fight after the period of peace.

The key here is the stipulation, “if they were to resume hostilities.” Contemporary Muslim scholars suggest that the Qu’ranic statements on violence all fall under the category of self-defense. The reader may choose to agree or disagree with this conclusion. But it is incumbent upon anyone seeking to come to a fair and legitimate understanding of Islam to at least consider the exegetical options available in reading the text.

The world of the 8th century BCE in which the earliest texts of the Old Testament may have begun to be set down in writing, or  the 7th century CE when the Qu’ran was written, were vastly different than the world we inhabit today.

Believers may claim absolute authority for the texts they cite as the source and foundation of their belief system. But we must acknowledge that any contemporary reading of an ancient text always involves interpretation. Interpretations can differ and must evolve. It is appropriate for a person of faith to be fixed in their commitment to the sacred texts that form the foundation of their belief system. It is not appropriate to be fixed in our understanding of the meaning or application of these texts in a completely new context.

Interpretations can and must be debated within the context of those texts that are clearly oriented in a universal and life-giving application.
A reading of the Qu’ran might be guided by the following verses which can be universally affirmed and recognized as oriented towards the well-being of all people:

“The servants of the Compassionate are those who walk upon the earth in humility and when the ignorant address them, answer ‘Peace.’” (25:63)

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.” (2:256)

“Those who keep faith (with this revelation), and those who follow the Jewish way, and the Christians, and the Sabeans—any who have faith in God and the Last Day, and perform righteous works—shall have their reward with their Sustainer. On them shall be no fear, neither shall they grieve.” (2:62)

“The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel evil with that which is better; then he between whom and you there was enmity will become like an intimate friend.” (41:34)

“Keep to forgiveness, enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.” (7:199)

“What army can save you except the Compassionate?” (40:20)

Our reading of the Old Testament will be enhanced if guided by such verses as:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26, 27)

‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation…” (Exodus 34:6,7a)

The Lord upholds all who are falling,
   and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
   and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
   satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways,
   and kind in all his doings. (Psalm 145:14-17)

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
 The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow… (Psalm 146:7-9)

Granted these texts are highly selective. In both the Old Testament and the Qu’ran there are texts that could be used to incite violence. But, when we start with the peace, love and kindness to which the verses above call us, we will wrestle with any texts that seem to lead away from these qualities and find ways to understand and apply them in our current context that do not allow them to be used to incite violence today.

Sacred texts can be revered while at the same time being read thoughtfully, critically and in a direction that leads to human prospering for all people. We consult not only the text of the written world, but also the text of the human heart, where we find love, goodness, truth, and beauty.