Recently, a teenage Muslim in Pakistan cut off his own hand because he believed it caused him to commit blasphemy.
At the local mosque, the imam asked for a show of hands of those who do NOT love the Prophet Muhammad. It was a rhetorical question. The 15-year-old, Anwar Ali, mistakenly thought the imam asked who DOES love Muhammad. He enthusiastically raised his right hand, only to be ridiculed as a blasphemer. Horrified, the young man went home and chopped off his right hand.
Muslim commentator, Mustafa Akyol, says the story reflects an “Islam of terrifying fear” that is all-too-real in certain parts of the world. For Akyol, this also reflects the fact that Islam, at least in part, is going through its own “Dark Ages” as Christianity did at roughly the same historical age. But for critics of Islam, the story simply confirms that the religion is inherently extremist.
How should Christians respond? What does this story tell us about Islam and the Qur’an?
First, some facts. A few passages in the Qur’an and hadiths do present amputation as a divinely sanctioned form of corporate punishment for thievery and hostility against early Muslim communities. For example, “Cut off the hands of thieves, whether they are man or woman, as punishment for what they have done” (Q 5:38). There is not, however, anything in the Qur’an that advocates self-amputation.
Interestingly, Anwar Ali’s act literally mimics a statement of Jesus in the New Testament, “if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:30). Of course, few Christians believe Jesus was endorsing self-mutilation. As a teacher, Jesus was employing hyperbole, rhetorical exaggeration, to drive home his point that sin must be taken seriously. Christian history has its outliers — the early Christian theologian, Origen, reportedly castrated himself because of a statement about adultery in Matthew 19:12 — but most Christians understand self-mutilation as a tragic misunderstanding that undermines Jesus’ life-affirming message.
Consider another example from the New Testament that illustrates the importance of context. Ephesians 6:5 says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters…as you obey Christ.” To modern readers, this can elicit images of chains and slave ships, of people torn from their homes and forced into servitude. Some early U.S. slaveholders even cited this verse to oppress their slaves and justify themselves. Does the New Testament support, or even promote, slavery?
For perspective on this, one should consider historical details such as the nature of slavery in the Roman Empire. But the literary context of the passage provides the most direct answer. While “slaves obey your masters” sounds like an endorsement of slavery, if you continue reading, a different picture emerges. The passage continues, “masters, do the same to them…for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality” (Ephesians 6:9). Rather than endorsing the status-quo, Ephesians drops a countercultural bombshell and tells slave owners to practice “mutual submission” and acknowledge ultimate equality with their slaves. Notably, some of those American slaveholders who used scriptures to justify themselves also denied their slaves access to the same scriptures because of this empowering message of equality and justice. Their fears were realized when Christian abolitionists, both black and white, found such inspiration.
What does any of this have to do with how Christians should read the Qur’an?
In short, everything.
The teaching of Jesus requires us to treat Muslims and their scriptures as fairly as we want to be treated. How do we do that? We can start by acknowledging that the Anwar Ali stories are the exceptions. Even if, as Akyol says, Islam is experiencing a “Dark Age,” most Muslims in the world respond to such stories with the same astonishment as everyone else. Most devoted Muslims experience their religion as life-affirming and a source for virtuous living, not terrifying fear. For more on this, see my post “The Best Answer to Bad Guys with Qur’ans is Good Guys with Qur’ans.”
But fairness toward our Muslim neighbors also requires fair treatment of the Qur’an, including its difficult passages. This can be done by considering mainstream Muslim interpretations and exploring context. Using the example of “cut off the hands of thieves,” let me suggest three contextual factors for fair treatment of this passage.
First, despite recent revivals of barbarism, most Muslims understand the passage as part of the Qur’an’s establishment of universal justice during a time of brutal tribalism. At the time, raiding, plundering, and excessive violence against rival tribes was the rule of the day. The Qur’an’s moral code, however, transcends tribal loyalties with a consistency and proportionality analogous to the Hebrew eye-for-an-eye policies. Secondly, most Muslims understand the passage as reflecting Islamic equality. The passage is directed to all people, “whether they are man or woman.” In a culture that was especially harsh on slaves and women, impartial justice introduced both protection and accountability for everyone equally, regardless of tribe, social standing, or gender. Finally, as is true throughout the Qur’an, the verse is immediately followed by an affirmation of God’s ultimate desires for forgiveness and mercy (Q 5:39). Most Muslims consider mercy to be the overarching context for everything in the Qur’an and Islamic religion.
Such observations do not answer all questions or appease all critics. But for Christians who value fairness, they are good starting points. Muslims and Christians have too many important things to share, and sometimes debate, to do otherwise.
A well-known passage from the Hebrew prophet, Micah, provides a good conclusion.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
When we caricature other community’s texts and traditions, we fail to do what is good.