A's to Q's, Part VI
10/15/2006 (updated 10/15/2006)

How can you stand to be a part of a religion that is spread by the sword, and that contains such hateful elements as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda?

Not easy to answer in 30 seconds backstage, and not much easier in 3 paragraphs here…

The Pope revived this old chestnut about ‘spread by the sword’ the other day, which for someone who is supposed to be a leading theologian, shows he never bothered to study other religions. He also, for one infallible, gave the wrong verse number when he quoted the Qur’an. The Qur’an says there is no compulsion in Islam – you can’t convert someone against their will, you can’t force someone to pray, or perform any of the other aspects of the religion. It’s between them and God. Muslims are especially entreated to respect the ‘people of the Book’ i.e. Jews and Christians. This gets abused these days, but historically, it has mostly been the case. In Andalusia under the Moors, Christians and Jews were prominent and important members of society. When Hungary and Greece, for example, were under Ottoman rule, they remained predominantly Christian countries, there was no attempt to force Islam on them. The ‘spread by the sword’ idea probably comes from the time when the Ottoman Empire was knocking on the door of Europe, and must have been terrifying for the Christian world. There is more on all of this by journalist Uri Avnery at


The Muslims mostly fought for territory, not to spread religion. If only Al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein had some of the spirit of Saladin, the great 12th century Saracen leader, who understood that the real victory is to win the hearts of the enemy. When Richard, Coeur de Lion, had his horse killed under him at the Battle of Arsur on the Third Crusade, Saladin broke off the battle, and sent two of his best horses to Richard, saying, ‘So great a warrior should not have to fight on foot’. When Richard was wounded, he offered his own physician.

Jihad, which means ‘struggle’ is divided into two parts, Greater and Lesser. Greater Jihad is the struggle with oneself, to become a better person. Lesser Jihad is struggle against one’s enemies. The rules for Jihad are narrow, as described in the Qur’an, and through the example of Muhammad:

You can’t fight for pride, or to prove that you are strong

Fight only those who come to fight you

Only fight someone who has taken your possessions

You cannot take the possessions of another

You can’t harm women or children

You can’t destroy houses, farms, crops, livestock, trees, countryside or water supply.

Don’t kill those who run away in fear

Don’t strike someone who falls in battle

Only if someone comes at you with sword in hand may you defend yourself.

Even expanding ‘sword’ into ‘weapon’, these rules would put into question much of what is considered Jihad in the modern world. To hijack an airliner and fly it into a building, killing unarmed men, women and children, would be forbidden – not to mention suicide is forbidden. For Usama Bin Laden to say that this was now legitimate because of the state of the modern world is to place himself above his Prophet and his religion. For Al-Qaeda to drive interlopers from Iraq seems, on the other hand, justified. The use of bombs and land mines, however, would seem questionable. The Palestinians surely have a cause for Jihad, but again, the methods are beyond the prescribed rules. Speaking of flying planes into buildings, are we all happy with the official explanations of 9/11? The public record is full of trails of foreknowledge, complicity, cover-ups, funding and training of terror groups, etc….I’m keeping an open mind on the whole chain of events.

The Taliban, formerly funded and armed by the CIA, seem joyless, hard on themselves, hard on everyone else, and especially hard on women in a way that is contrary to Islam. This interpretation of the religion is similar to Wahabbism, popular in Saudi Arabia, which was a return to basics after a more liberal age, but which has lived on as a very puritanical strain of Islam. I would say that it is disregarding half of Islam – taking the bits it wants to focus on, and forgetting all the stuff about mercy, compassion, tolerance, equality of women, etc. A friend who has spent time in the mountains of Pakistan pointed out to me that the smartest son of the family becomes a doctor or lawyer, the second-smartest runs the family estate, and the third smartest goes into the Taliban.