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The Other Side of Islam

As a specialist in the Qur’ān, Clare Wilde wants to place Islam in its historical context. If you really want to understand Islam, you need to read the Qur’ān as people heard it in the seventh century, rather than just seeing it through contemporary eyes, says the brand-new Rosalind Franklin Fellow.

If there is a prevailing negative association with Islam in the West today, it is the association with intolerance and violence. Although we know that extremists are only a fraction of the Muslim population in the world, news about violence by groups such as IS taints our view of the faith. After all, these extremists do use the Qur’ān to justify their actions. Clare Wilde, Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies since March, is often asked whether the Qur’ān causes intolerance. Her answer is nuanced, not because she wants to skirt around the issue but quite simply because she does not believe there is a clear answer. ‘ Anyone can use the Qur’ān or the Bible, or any other book you care to mention, to justify their behaviour,’ she remarks. For every passage that appears to defend violence there is one that can be read as promoting peace. ‘It’s not about what the Qur’ān says, but about how you read and understand the text. You shouldn’t just read the book from today’s perspective, but should also see it in the context of its time.’

In the seventh century, when the Qur’ān first appeared, there were various faiths in the Middle East, she says: Christianity, Judaism, Polytheism and many other religious faiths. ‘In a sense the world did not differ much from now. There were rural communities and areas with more cities, such as modern-day Iraq. There were travelling preachers, scholars, rabbinical schools and schools for Christian monks.’ In her research Wilde not only examines what the Qur’ān has to say about Judaism and Christianity, but also what Christian texts have to say about Islam. ‘I hope that these early texts will give us a better idea of what an Islamic state was really like.’

Most importantly, says Wilde, there was interaction between Jews, Christians and Muslims. ‘Religions lived alongside each other. The Qur’ān knows biblical accounts and also Late Antique Christian narratives. And it assumes its auditors knows these accounts, too. The problem is that contemporary readers are not always aware of what the Qur’ān expects its auditors to know. But, over a thousand years ago, there was dialogue, even religious polemic – between Christians and Muslims. ’ Polemic? So hate, jealousy and intolerance? Apparently not. ‘In the first centuries after the appearance of the Qur’ān, Christians in what is now Iraq, Syria and Jerusalem did struggle with living under Muslim rule. While they did worry about their position with regard to the Muslims, they also did not like being the socio-political equals of Jews. But, the language of the Qur’ān – Arabic - also united these various communities; furthermore, Christians translated Greek works into Arabic and Christian tracts were also written in Arabic. ’

But what about the Prophet Muhammad? A common Christian polemic is that he was a warrior (in contrast to Jesus the pacifist). Wilde doesn’t like to describe him as intolerant either. ‘Yes he did participate in battles, but there were other sides to him as well. These are particularly evident in the Hadith, accounts of the words and deeds of Muhammad. For example, there are accounts about how loving he was towards animals. And, the Qur’an also condemns a custom from the time, the live burial of young girls. ’

Clare Wilde

All in all, says Wilde, you cannot really say that one faith is more peaceful than the other, because the behaviour of believers cannot only be explained from the perspective of their faith tradition. ‘ You also need to look at the geopolitical situation in which they live, as well as the historical context. ’ Anyway, she adds, ‘It’s people who commit violence, not texts. Take someone like Anders Breivik, who killed so many people in Norway. With someone like him we also look further than the texts that he bases his actions on. We try to explain why he started to think the way that he does. If you look at Dutch Muslims who go to fight for IS, you also need to look further than their faith. For example, what does it do to people if they feel excluded and – even if they speak Dutch better than I ever will - are labelled ‘allochtoon’?’

Similarly, the Qur’ān need not be understood exclusively through the interpretations of (some) contemporary Muslims. As with the Bible, all that has happened in the centuries since the emergence of the Qur'ān – wars, colonization, etc. – certainly colours the way people today understand it, says Wilde. ‘It’s unconscious. It’s extremely difficult to avoid.’ When Islam is criticized because of the actions of contemporary Muslims who justify their actions in part on the basis of the Qur’ān, Wilde stresses the importance of trying to hear the Qur’ān as its first auditors did by peeling away this layer of history.

She also encourages us to (re)examine our own biases. For example, when asked whether Islam (mis)treats women, she replies, ‘An ancient Christian polemic, echoed by contemporary politicians, is that Islam as misogynistic and oppressive, but that is a selective reading of history and scripture. Of course you can call it unfair that the Qur’ān states that a woman can only inherit half of what her brother inherits, but Wilde still wants to see this in a wider perspective. ‘According to the Qur’ān an inheritance must be shared in a certain way between the members of the family, men and women. How does this compare to biblical, or Judeo-Christian tradition? Likewise, the Bible says that woman was created from the rib of a man. In the Qur’ān, man and woman come from the same soul. ’ Finally, she adds, ‘Look at me: I’ve been assigned a special post that was established for women, because there are too few female academics in top posts in the Netherlands. But my experience as a female academic is that you cannot determine the social influence of women – or men – from their titles, jobs, clothes, scriptures, or their faith traditions.’

The message that Wilde wants to get across is that there is more to say about Islam than stories of religious fanaticism or inequality between men and women. She became curious about the history of the religion when she studied Arabic in Jerusalem in the middle of the 1990s. ‘I am from New York, where was a lot of discussion about the Israel-Palestine issue, and people had strong opinions about Islam. Professors said: “Islam oppresses women”. I thought there must be more to say about it than that.’

But few people understood her decision to study Arabic. ‘Russian, OK, but why choose a language that has no economic potential?’ Some five years later her discipline had risen in worth. Arabic and Islam became relevant disciplines, because studying them could help to understand the ‘enemy ’. ‘But despite the growing popularity of Arabic, misunderstandings about Islam remain, informed, in part, by ancient Christian polemics. Additionally, many parts of the Arabic-speaking world are considered risky, so American students are not always able to travel to the areas whose culture they are studying.’

It still frustrates her when people expect her to talk about Al Qaeda or defend US policy in her classes. ‘I chose this subject because I wanted to know more about Islam and Arabic Islamic culture. ’ Students are sometimes disappointed. ‘“She likes Arabs too much”, was what one person wrote on an evaluation form. Or I’m called an apologist. Well, perhaps I just know more about Islam and the background of some contemporary conflicts, if only because I’ve travelled a lot in the Middle East.’ She hopes to show people that there are more narratives, more sides to Islam. ‘So much is claimed in the name of Islam . I want to show that hostility to other cultures is not inherent to the faith.’

About Clare Wilde

Clare Wilde joined the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in February as a specialist in early Islam in the group ‘Judaism, Christianity and Islam in their formative phase’. She has been awarded a Rosalind Franklin Fellowship in a University of Groningen programme for female academics that leads to full professorship. In her research she focuses on the reception history of the Qur’an in Islamic and Christian traditions. Alongside studying Religious Studies at Princeton and Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Pontifical Institute in Rome, she earned her PhD in Church History at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

Text: Dorien Vrieling

Source: Broerstraat 5, the alumni magazine of the University of Groningen

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.07 a.m.