Early in October, as director of Public Affairs Programs for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, I interviewed Gary Wills, the prize-winning historian and religious scholar, to discuss his latest book, titled “What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters.”
The book is an invitation to all non-Muslims to engage in a conversation about politics and religion in the 21st century. The following is an excerpt from the interview:
For a long time, most Americans did not have to know much about Islam. That is no longer the case. We entered into the longest war in our history without knowing basic facts about the Islamic civilization with which we were dealing. We are constantly fed information about Islam, claims that it is essentially a religion of violence, that its sacred book is a handbook for terrorists. There is no way to assess the veracity of these claims unless we have at least some knowledge of the Qur’an.
As a first step in expanding our understanding about a religion that captures the hearts and minds of 23 percent of the world’s population, it is my pleasure to welcome one of our country’s leading public intellectuals to this forum. Garry Wills, thank you so much for joining us.
I want to begin the conversation by asking you: When people think of you, Garry Wills, more often than not they associate your name not only with your wonderful writing on seminal political events in American history, but also with your widely acclaimed scholarship in Christianity. So the question is, most of us are wondering why you decided to write about the Qur’an now?
GARRY WILLS: Shame. After 9/11, when we were told that the Muslims had caused that catastrophe, I was talking with a group of academic friends, and they said, “Well, how much of this really comes from the Qur’an?” And it turned out that none of us, though we were all pretty well-educated and intellectually curious, had read the Qur’an.
One of the people said, “Not you, Garry? I thought you were a religious scholar.” And she should have asked that, because it was stupid of me not to have. But I have tried to remedy that.
And when I kept asking people, “Have you read the Qur’an?” I was amazed at how few had, even people who were doing religious studies or political studies.
It turns out, of course, that for the purposes of agitators it is good that you have not read the Qur’an, because they tell you what is in it, and it is not. So, I started exploring that and giving some lectures and continuing to ask people. Even those who had claimed they had read it, it was very hard for them to answer any questions.
It is easy to misunderstand a different kind of scripture, and there was a whole lot of that out there, so I more and more started worrying about a world in which we engage with Muslims around the world without knowing really what they think. That made us credulous when wild statements were advanced about the Qur’an and about Islam.
Donald Trump on campaign told Anderson Cooper, “Islam hates us.” That is a pretty sweeping indictment of 1.8 billion people in the world. He was asked in later interviews, “Do you want to qualify that statement at all?” He said, “No. I stand by it exactly, and there is just a whole lot of hatred out there for us. We are hated everywhere in the world.”
It is certainly true that some terrorists who are formerly Muslim hate us. The vast majority do not. The vast majority are peaceful. They live lives of service to whatever community they are in. We in America have Muslim policemen, Muslim soldiers, Muslim doctors who do not hate us, obviously. Khizr Khan’s son died fighting for America, and Trump attacked the father of Humayun Khan and his wife, saying, “Oh, religion makes her shut up.”
My own friend Bill Buckley wrote a column saying, “Children cannot be taught the Qur’an. It makes them terrorists.” This is so wildly untrue that I thought I had better try to fight it in some way.
MYERS: On reading the Qur’an, what intrigued you the most?
WILLS: A lot of things surprised me. What was not in it surprised me. But what was in it especially surprised me.
It is a very inclusive religion, more inclusive than Judaism or Christianity. Judaism has its chosen people, the circumcised. Christianity has its chosen people, the baptized. The chosen people in the Qur’an are all monotheists—any of them. From Adam on, there is an unceasing stream of prophets, beginning with Adam, coming down through Isaiah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, John the Baptist, Mary the mother of Jesus. The only people who are excluded are the idolaters, that is, the pagan polytheists. Monotheism versus polytheism is the issue throughout the Qur’an.
What Allah tells him is that he drew up the Hebrew covenant under the title for him of Yahweh. He drew up the New Testament covenant under the name of Jesus’s father. And, of course, he drew up the Muslim covenant under the name of Allah. But it is all one God, there is no other God. He said, “So it is the duty of all these people to love and respect each other”—because they have the same covenant from the same God—”and to protect their places of worship.” He tells the followers of Muhammad that they must protect synagogues and churches and those monotheists must protect mosques.
You never hear anything like that when people now talk about the Qur’an. It is absolutely the most striking thing. He said, “There cannot be argument among the followers of God because he drew up all of these covenants and they are all equal.” Now, that certainly goes against what a number of people have believed and taught, and created great hatred out of with Trump’s sayings. So that was pretty surprising.
MYERS: So why do you think it is then that the Qur’an has been misinterpreted and exploited, especially by politicians and pundits?
WILLS: There are a few passages, which you can equate with the whole Qur’an, that are disturbing to us. People rely on just one or two passages, especially the so-called Sword Verse in the Qur’an, in which he says, “After four months, lie in wait for them, go to war with them”—”them” being polytheists. You can make a great case that this is a savage bit of advice.
Nobody who promotes that interpretation pays attention to the first words, “after four months.” Why after four months? There is a whole context in the ninth sūrah of religious truths. Religious truth was a common feature then—it is like the peace of God in Medieval Christianity—in which around the sacred places, especially the Kaaba, people agree there will be no fighting.
So there was a truce for four months, in which there will be no fighting. But during that time, the polytheists attacked the Muslims, and Allah, through Muhammad, said, “Don’t fight. You keep the truce even if they don’t. But after the truce, after four months, lie in wait for the ones who attacked you and kill them, unless they surrender, but in the process do not kill other people who had not attacked you.” He said the main thing is to have mercy the minute anybody says, “We’re sorry, we shouldn’t have attacked you,” etc.
That whole chapter is the explanation for that one violent thing. By excerpting that one entry, it has lived on as the Sword Verse. “Sword” is not mentioned there, or anywhere in the Qur’an. That is just a projection of our ideas about warfare.
The other thing that people make a great deal of is the misogyny of the Qur’an. There is no question it is misogynist. Women were second-class citizens—well, no, they were not citizens—as they were everywhere in the seventh century and for most of history. It is a lot easier to get misogynist texts out of the Old Testament than out of the Qur’an.
The equivalent of the Sword Verse for war—
MYERS: Do you find the word “jihad” in that particularly?
WILLS: Jihad does not mean a holy war. Again, there is no word of holy war in the Qur’an.
Jihad is zeal. You can be waging jihad against your own imperfections. You should always wage jihad in promoting Allah, the one God, but the idea that that is a form of war is totally false.
What they concentrate on for women is the one section where he says, “If you are trying to correct a woman, a wife, instruct her, and if she does not pay attention, abstain from her bed, and if she still does not pay attention to what Allah has told you, strike her.” Now, striking women was a very common thing in all societies then.
The interesting thing is, I wondered why abstain from her bed. The sex strike is usually what women go on, from the time of Aristophanes. Why was that a step in correction? Well, the main thing we have to remember is that multiple wives were the norm then, as in the time of Solomon and David and for Mormons. By withdrawing from her bed in a controlled harem situation, you are depriving her of certain privilege in her company and of the chance of breeding an heir for you. So you have to understand the society that he is talking in, and it is not wild or strained if you do.
The other thing that is interesting is that, though it was polygynous—not polygamous, but polygynous, that is, multiple wives, not multiple husbands, it has never been that—the wives in those marriages had to consent to be married to you, they were not forced, they were not ordered to.
Moreover, they came with their own property. It was a very different dowry system from the one we are familiar with in the Christian Middle Ages. In the Christian dowry a father gave to the family of the bride-to-be a dowry which her family disposed of. In the Muslim marriage, the dowry is given to the bride, and she keeps it as a separate fund for herself. So there is a kind of competition of ownership among the wives. And the wives can initiate divorce, quite unheard of in the seventh century, and they can take their dowry away with them after the divorce.
As feminist Muslims—and there are feminist Muslims—point out, if a man tried to beat you up too much, you could just leave and you could take your dowry. That was a way of restraining him. If he wanted to keep that dowry in his operating system, although titularly hers all along, he better not keep beating her or try to divorce her.
So it is a complex, totally different world, both for the bad and for the good, from the one that I have been accustomed to, and it involves great ignorance of the Qur’an to say these kinds of things about “it is a woman-hating scripture.” It is certainly not more so than the multiple wives of David and Solomon, in which the wives did not have dowry rights and could not initiate divorce.
As Mormons have given up polygyny, some modern Muslims have given up polygyny; that is,very little recognition of the right to have more than one wife.
And even then, the Qur’an limited the number of wives that most people could have. It made an exception for Muhammad, hoping that he would produce a male heir, but he did not. That is what caused the split of Shia and Sunni. Nobody knew who exactly was the closest representative and heir to Muhammad, so they fought over that, and the fight led to a long history of different readings of the law and different interpreters, different judges, with each having a whole body of scholarship for their inheriting the legacy of Muhammad.
Anyway, those are some of the things that intrigued me. I found when I would present this just to friends, they would doubt it. Then I would pull out the book and show them the exact place where Allah says, “All your covenants are equal. I do not send mixed messages. All the prophets are my prophets,” including Jesus, including Moses, including Adam.
There are great parallels between the Old Testament and the Qur’an. But Adam, in the Christian view, creates this terrible sin, he gets cursed, and then disappears from the history. Only in legend does it say that Jesus in the harrowing of Hell went down and pulled Adam out of limbo, or whatever he was stored in until the final days. But Adam repents and is forgiven in the Qur’an, and he becomes the first prophet. Allah says, “I have never ceased sending prophets, messengers, warners”—different words—”at any point in history. Why would I stop talking to my creation?”
The human is Allah’s proudest boast. In fact, he tells Satan to kneel down to Adam when he first creates him. Satan refuses. He says, “Why should I kneel to him? You made him out of earth. You made me out of fire.”
Allah says, “You have to have reverence for what I have made.” And when he refuses, that is what condemns him to Hell. Hell is really even more present in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. It is not really present at all in the Old Testament.
The fallen Satan sends a number of his people around the world to fight Allah and to try to baffle the work of the prophets. This great struggle that goes on—when Allah says, “You should fall down and reverence Adam,” he also says, “You should fall down and reverence my Earthly creations”—mountains. Allah loves mountains, but especially he loves water.
To continue reading the interview, held at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, click here.