How lightheartedly we break the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). This is a constant problem in my area of work: Christian-Muslim relations.
Granted, some teaching and writing about Islam these days are the result of skewed knowledge or missing information, which would perhaps not qualify as “false witness.”
But, as I read certain books and attend certain conferences, meetings or consultations, I cannot help but wonder whether some of the things that are said are not intentional declarations of falsehood.
So how does this problem manifest itself?
It would seem that there is too much of a simplistic, or what one might call an “essentialist,” understanding of Islam.
As Christians, we often hate it when people put us all in the same camp and assume we all think the same thing. Yet that’s what we do far too often when we speak of Islam.
I am often told that Muslims behave as they do (all of them act the same, it is assumed) because followers cannot be expected to behave any better than their master.
Muhammad, in many of the circles I frequent, is often characterized as a bloodthirsty individual motivated by an expansionist drive.
Rather than attempting to replace this “demonizing” picture with an “idealizing” one, I want to bring up a major methodological problem that we are falling into.
First, how do the claimants to the demonizing picture know that this is how Muhammad behaved?
Ironically, they are relying mostly on the “official” narrative of traditional Islam (such as the official biography, “Sira,” of Muhammad), and partly on less favored traditions regarding Muhammad, of which there are many.
Scholars of hadith (statements attributed to Mohammed) have presented numerous arguments that, I believe, rather convincingly discredit the historical usefulness of most of these traditions, even those traditionally considered reliable both by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars.
When one realizes that hadith materials are the building blocks of much of the classical Muslim literary corpus, except for the Quran, we are left with some serious implications for our understanding of Islam and our attitude toward it.
Indeed, Quranic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence and Muhammad’s official biography are all edifices built upon hadith material.
If we question the historical authenticity of these traditions as a source for a reliable reconstruction of history, then all of these edifices become questionable.
This does not make the said literary corpus less important and interesting for the student of Islam, since Islam, as we largely know it, has grown and developed mostly out of that corpus.
However, when it comes to any claim about the Muhammad of history, it has long been argued by some scholars, even quite recently by Prof. Gabriel Said Reynolds in his “The Emergence of Islam,” that the most reliable Islamic document (from the standpoint of early historical reconstruction) is the Quran itself.
The Quran’s generally positive portrayal of the Judeo-Christian tradition is probably an accurate reflection of Muhammad’s actual understanding and teaching on the subject.
And what we can glean in the Quran regarding Muhammad’s character, behavior and ambitions is likely more reliable historically than what we find in the later traditions that build on hadith material.
Much more could and should be said, but let me conclude with the practical implications of this for our understanding of Islam and Muhammad and, consequently, for our attitudes and approaches to Islam and Muslims.
I would argue that when we identify the religion of Islam as the root cause for violent acts perpetrated by Muslims, we are wrongly casting corporate blame upon an entire community and its ideology for the sinful behavior of individual members of that community.
By blaming an entire community for the acts of some of its members and associating the behavior of some with their common ideology, we are embracing a position that may well fit in the category of racism and bigotry.
A parallel that comes to mind is the blame that the early church laid for a very long time on the entire Jewish community for the death of Jesus Christ.
The venom in the writings of some early church fathers toward the Jews has been blamed for much of the anti-Semitism that developed, which led to violent persecution, pogroms and eventually to the Holocaust.
There must be a reason why the sin of bearing false witness is listed among the Ten Commandments. Committing that sin has serious consequences indeed.
From the view I have expressed above regarding the classical Islamic tradition, I hope it is clear that I do not by any means idealize it.
In fact, the view of Islamic development set forth above has potentially far more serious implications for Islam’s traditional narrative than the ones held by polemicists against Islam and Muslims.
The difference is that I am neither disparaging nor disrespectful. My goal is not destructively to attack Islam, but to challenge some of its traditional assumptions and engage it creatively.
As for the evangelical constituency to which I belong, I invite them, based on the state of scholarship with regards to the history of Islam’s emerging period, to recognize the complexity of the situation and the diversity resulting from our study of that early period.
Given the real and legitimate possibility for multiple narratives for Islam’s emergence, I invite us to embrace the best rather than the worst, seeing that the worst is by no means more historically viable than the best.
Instead of bearing false witness, I would argue that we would thus be embracing consciously what I want to call a “redemptive witness,” a position far better aligned with the spirit of Christ.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.