A detailed look at how Islamic apologist extraordinaire John Esposito whitewashes Islamic terror.
Does Islam itself promote hostility for and violence against non-Muslims, or are all the difficulties between the West and Islam based on secondary factors—from “radical” interpretations of Islam, to economics and grievances?
This is the fundamental question.
Obviously, if “anti-infidel” hostility is inherent to Islam itself, then the conflict becomes existential—a true clash of civilizations, with no easy fixes and lots of ugly implications along the horizon.
Because of this truism, those whose job it is to whitewash Islam’s image in the West insist on the opposite—that all difficulties are temporal and not rooted to innate Islamic teachings.
Enter Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-authored by John Esposito and Natana J. Delong-Bas. The authors’ goal is to exonerate Shariah, which they portray as enshrining “the common good (maslahah), human dignity, social justice, and the centrality of the community” from Western criticism or fear, which they say is based solely on “myth” and “sensationalism.”
In their introductory chapters they define Shariah as being built upon the words of the Koran and the Sunna (or example) of the Muslim prophet Muhammad as contained in sahih (canonical) hadiths. They add: “Shariah and Islamic law are not the same thing. The distinction between divine law (Shariah) and its human interpretation, application, and development (Islamic law) is important to keep in mind throughout this book…. Whereas Shariah is immutable and infallible, Islamic law (fiqh) is fallible and changeable.”
Next the authors highlight how important Shariah is to a majority of Muslims. They cite a 2013 Pew Poll which found that 69% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, 73% in South Asia, and 55% in Central Asia believe that “Shariah is God’s [Allah’s] divine revelation.”
Even larger numbers “favored the establishment of Shariah as official law”: 99% in Afghanistan, 84% in South Asia, 74% in the Middle East and North Africa, and 64% in sub-Saharan Africa.
So far so good. The authors’ introductory claims (that Shariah is fundamental to Islam) and statistics (that hundreds of millions of Muslims revere and wish to see it implemented) are correct.
But they also beg the aforementioned question: is Shariah itself behind the intolerance, misogyny, violence, and terrorism committed in the name of Islam?
Here, the hitherto objective authors shift gears and take on the mantle of apologists. Their thesis is simple: Any and all negative activities Muslims engage in are to be pinned on anything and everything—so long as it’s not Shariah.
In order to support this otherwise unsupportable position, and as might be expected, the remainder of the book consists of obfuscation, dissembling, and lots and lots of contextual omissions and historical distortions.
A small sampling follows:
Shariah on Women
The authors quote and discuss at length many Koran verses about women that seem positive (Koran 30:21, 3:195, and 2:187), without alluding to counter verses that permit husbands to beat their wives (4:34) and treat them as “fields” to be “plowed however you wish” (2:223). Nor do they deal with Muhammad’s assertions that women are “lacking in intelligence” and will form the bulk of hell’s denizens, as recounted in a canonical hadith.
They partially quote Koran 4:3: “…marry those that please you of other women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then marry only one.” This suits the authors’ purpose, which is to present the Koran as implicitly recommending only one wife, since it acknowledges the near impossibility for a man to treat all wives equally. Yet the authors deliberately cut off the continuation of that verse—which permits Muslim men to copulate with an unlimited amount of sex slaves (ma malakat aymanukum) even if they are married.
They also dissemble about child marriage, saying “classical Islamic law” permits it, but only when “the child reaches a mature age.” Yet they make no mention that, based on Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha—that is, based on his Sunna, which is immutable and part of Shariah—nine is considered a “mature age.”
Freedom of Religion and Non-Muslims
The authors claim that “There are more than 100 Quranic verses that … affirm freedom of religion and conscience.” They quote many at length and assert that “The guiding Shariah principle … underscored by Quran 3:28, 29:46, and 60:89, is that believers should treat unbelievers decently and equitably as long as the unbelievers do not behave aggressively.”
Yet they fail to mention or sideline the many contradictory verses that call for relentless war on non-Muslims—who are further likened to dumb cattle in Koran 25:44 —until they surrender, one way or another, to Islam (e.g., 8:39, 9:5, 9:29).
They fail to quote the verses that form the highly divisive doctrine of al-wala’ w’al bara’ (“Loyalty and Enmity”), including Koran 5:51, which forbids Muslims from befriending Jews and Christians, and Koran 60:4, which commands Muslims to harbor only “hate” for non-Muslims, until they “believe in Allah alone.”
Needless to say, they ignore Koran 3:28, which permits Muslims to feign friendship for non-Muslims, whenever the former are under the latter’s authority (such is the doctrine of taqiyya; see here, here, here, here, and here for examples).
It is, incidentally, because of all these divisive Koran verses—because of Shariah—that the Islamic State forthrightly explained, “We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers.”
The closest the authors get to address these issues is in a section titled, “Can Muslims in the West be Loyal Citizens.” They respond with a yes—but the evidence they cite are polls (based on wishful interpretations), which of course tells the reader little about the topic they purport to “de-mythologize”: Shariah.
As might be expected, when the authors reach the topic of jihad, their dissembling reaches a new level. They repeatedly insist that jihad, as enshrined in Shariah, is simply the Muslim counterpart of Western Just War theory, which teaches that war and aggression are permissible, but only in defense or to recover one’s territory from occupiers: “The lesser or outer jihad involves defending Islam and the Muslim community.” As usual, they spend much time quoting and elaborating on Koran verses that comport with this position, while ignoring or sidelining the many contradictory verses. In reality, mainstream Islam holds that the Koran’s “Sword Verses” (especially 9:5 and 9:29) have abrogated all the peaceful ones, thereby making warfare on non-Muslims—for no less a reason than that they are non-Muslims—obligatory.
Consider Koran 9:29: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid what Allah and his Messenger have forbidden, nor embrace the religion of truth [Islam] from the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.”
What, exactly, is “defensive” about this verse?
Similarly, they claim that dar al-harb, or “abode of war”—Islam’s designation for all those non-Muslim territories (such as Europe) that Muslims were historically in a permanent state of war with—“applied to other parties with whom Muslims were in conflict.” Again, they fail to mention that the primary reason Muslims were “in conflict” with them was because they were non-Muslim, and that all non-Muslim territories were by default part of the “abode of war,” except when treaties advantageous to Islam were drawn.
Instead, the authors say, “The territories classified as the abode of war were those that refused to provide such protection to Muslims and their clients”—thereby implying Muslims were hostile to, say, Europe, because Europe was first hostile to Muslims. (Reality, as chronicled in Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, was the exact opposite.)
One can go on and on; the authors engage in other forms of subterfuge to exonerate Shariah. They frequently project a Western veneer to Islamic terms and concepts, saying for example that Shariah is ultimately about “promoting good and preventing evil”—which sounds admirable—without pointing out that, based on the Koran and Sunna (that is, Shariah), conquering non-Muslim territories is about “promoting good” and keeping women under wraps and indoors, beating them as required, is about “preventing vice.”
While admitting that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities are currently being persecuted, not only do the authors insist that this has nothing to do with Shariah, but they invoke relativistic thinking: “Just as Muslims living in non-Muslim countries are often concerned with their rights and civil liberties as minorities,” they say, “so some consider the rights and status of non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim countries to be a parallel issue.” In other words, because some Americans view Muslims in their midst with suspicion, the ongoing enslavement and slaughter of Christians—more than 6,000 in Nigeria alone since January 2018—and ban on or destruction of churches is a sort of tit for tat, a “parallel issue” that can only be solved when the West becomes less critical about Islam.
Relativism is also invoked during the authors’ brief treatment of apostasy in Islam: “Historically, apostasy was sometimes punishable by death in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” They claim that apostasy is still a major issue in Islam due to “radical” interpretations or politics—bolstering their position by again quoting the same Koran verses that seem to support freedom of religion—without mentioning, say, the canonical hadith (meaning part of Shariah) where Muhammad said, “Whoever leaves his religion [Islam], kill him.”
Such is how Islam’s skilled apologists dupe the West: they admit to some of the more controversial aspects that many other apologists shy away from—namely that Shariah is indeed foundational to Islam and that hundreds of millions of Muslims revere and wish to see it implemented—but then, having established trust with the reader, they slip back into the “game,” portraying all the intolerance, misogyny, violence, and terrorism daily committed in the name of Islam as products of anything and everything—fallible Muslim interpretations, self-serving clerics and terrorists, socio-economic pressures, Western criticism or encroachments—never Shariah itself.
Contrary to its subtitle, then, John Esposito’s and Natana J. Delong-Bas’s Shariah is not “what everyone needs to know”; rather, it is what non-Muslims need to believe in order to give Shariah—which is fundamentally hostile to all persons and things un-Islamic—a free pass.