Does the Koran Advocate Violence?

Religious scholars debate interpretations of controversial Koranic passages.

September 29, 2010, 6:06 PM

Oct. 1, 2010— -- In the United States, there is enormous suspicion of Islam and the Muslim faith.

The debate over the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero and Pastor Terry Jones' controversial "International Burn a Koran Day" on the 9/11 anniversary are just some recent examples that anti-Muslim tensions are high.

On a special edition of "20/20," ABC News' Diane Sawyer and Bill Weir ask scholars to trace the roots of violence in Islam and how Americans and Muslims understand the Koran's teachings.

In Christianity and Islam, as in all religions, how followers choose to practice their beliefs is based on their interpretation and acceptance of Holy Scripture. Many passages in all forms of religious texts are outdated and are considered criminal if carried out in today's time, but are still discussed as part of the faith.

In the Bible, dire warnings are dotted throughout the Old Testament for those who worship other gods or several gods at once. Deuteronomy 17 tells believers who come upon such a person to "bring that man or woman to the gates of the city ... and stone them with stones until they die."

Another brutal passage about non-believers from the Bible, Psalm 137, states, "Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

Father Dan Madigan, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, pointed out that these passages are recited every day in the Christian faith, and yet thousands of clergy members remain at peace.

"Imagine how many monks and nuns around the world chant the Psalms every day," he said. "In the Psalms, there are some really awful versus about smashing babies heads against rocks, but they chant them and it doesn't make them violent."

He noted the double standard many put on the Koran. "We have a way of dealing with our scriptures as they are and Muslims are in the same position."

The Old Testament is filled with tales of divinely-ordained slaughter and war, yet about two billion Christians today follow the word of the Lord, coupled with the New Testament, which includes a command from Jesus to "love thy neighbor as you love thyself."

Muslims also face a similar dichotomy of ideas in the Koran, from maintaining peace to raging war. In one part, the scripture says there is "no coercion in matters of faith." In another, the Koran tells Muslims to "fight those who believe not in Allah."

ABC News Answers Your Questions About Islam

ABC News received hundreds of viewer-submitted questions about Muslims and their faith, and posed them to a group of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of the Koran, who tackled the most common ones.

The scholars agreed that the Prophet Muhammad's words turned more militant later in life, around the time his tribe came under violent attack.

"He's under siege by his own people, he becomes a warrior and a statesman, and a religious leader all at once," said Eliza Grizwald, the author of "The Tenth Parallel." The book documents her travels through the "torrid zone" across Africa and Asia where Christianity and Islam often clash.

But according to Grizwald, those words should not supersede anything Muhammad is said to have stated earlier.

"Not at all. In fact, this is one of the hottest debates inside Islam today," she added.

While some fundamentalist Muslims may declare they follow Muhammad's instructions to "fight the infidels," moderate scholars argue the infidels he was referring to have been dead for 1,300 years.

"'Infidel' in the Koran is not just a noun or an adjective, it is the word that the Koran uses to describe explicitly and exclusively the Meccan aristocracy with which the Muslim community was at war with," explained Dr. Reza Aslan, a Muslim scholar and author of several books on the Middle East.

Father Dan Madigan also pointed out the key passage that follows the "fight the infidels" line that many radical Islamists often ignore or don't know it exists.

"The verse immediately after it says, 'If any of the unbelievers asks you for sanctuary, then take them into your houses so that they might hear the word of God and then let them go on their way,'" he said.

On the other hand, another Muslim scholar stated that of the more than 6,000 verses of the Koran, 109 call for war against enemies of the faith.

"One of these passages, Chapter 5, Verse 32, explicitly states that if you kill a human being, it is like killing all mankind, except if you are killing that human being as punishment for villainy in the land," said Irshad Manji, a New York University professor and director of the college's Moral Courage Project.

She added, "That clause beginning with the word 'except' is a loophole. It's an escape hatch, and many would-be terrorists pounce on that to justify their violent jihads."

Interviews with alleged Islamic terrorists have shown that many are ignorant about, or choose to ignore, the full teachings of their own faith.

In 2005, Barbara Walters sat down with Jihad Jarrar, a Palestinian serving 22 years in an Israeli prison after a failed suicide bombing attempt.

"God compensates the martyr because he lost his life and lost the world on earth. He compensates him with 72 virgins in paradise," he told Barbara Walters in a 2005 interview.

When Walters asked him where the legend of the 72 virgins came from, Jarrar responded: "No, no. God created them just for the people who are in paradise."

But according to scholars, the Koran makes no mention of a sexual reward for holy martyrs. The idea comes from other texts quoting Muhammad, and there is much debate over what he meant.

"I don't see any evidence in the Koran for the pledge of 72 virgins," Manji said. "This notion of 72 virgins actually comes from a mistranslation with the real translation being 72 raisins. ... I don't know that is the definitive translation, but I do know that virgins is highly debatable."

Modern works can also misconstrue the scripture. Dr. Tawfik Hamid referenced one book in particular called, "Minhaj-al Muslim" or in English, "The Way of a Muslim."

As a teenager in Egypt, Hamid joined a terrorist group headed by 9/11 organizer, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

"Within six to eight months, I became indoctrinated with certain teachings that completely changed me to a very different personality that became ready to kill and die for Allah, to do jihad activity, to dream about dying as a shahid or a martyr," he said, adding that after leaving the group he was asked to kill a police officer.

Bestselling books like "The Way of the Muslim" are often quoted in place of the Koran while brainwashing young recruits, according to Hamid.

"The most dangerous quote, in my view… which mean [sic] the compensation for killing the disbeliever is half the blood money of the Muslim man," he said. "When you devalue the life of non-Muslims, that is the root cause of the problem. Terrorism is the last stop."

Feisal Abdul Rauf is a New York imam who has become well-known for being a central figure in the debate over the construction of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero. He said his faith does not celebrate suicide attempts.

"The killing of innocent civilians is expressly prohibited in Islam, and the killing of one's self is expressly prohibited in Islam," he said.

It's estimated that more than a billion moderate Muslims around the world share this belief.

Most Muslims say they are strongly offended if they are associated with Al Qaeda.

"They're not us. You get radicals everywhere and in every religion," said Roya Zaneti of Cairo, Egypt. "Don't tell me you don't have cults or radical thinkers in the states!"

Zaneti, who described herself as a moderate Muslim, said she harbors some of the angry opinions towards the Western world that radicals do, but she said she makes up her mind from reading newspapers, not the Koran.

When asked what she thought of America, Zaneti said the United States isn't living up to its ideals.

"It's a country that should practice what it preaches," she said. "If it is all for democracy and freedom of speech ... it doesn't do that with other countries. Especially countries it gets into and invades. I'm sorry but who do you think you are?"

In fact, many in the Islamic world think the U.S. and other Western nations are trying to stamp them out because of their beliefs, not the other way around.

"The face they've seen of the West historically has been that of soldiers, missionaries, and today it's Britney Spears," said Grizwald. "The idea is that the Christian West is out to wipe them off the face of the map."

Muslims also share suspicion of their own people in their homelands.

According to experts of the Koran, the text talks about an obscure law called "al taquiya" that encourages its believers to lie about their faith to non-Muslims to avoid persecution. However, extremists have turned this into a diabolical loophole for recruiting.

"They say, 'don't tell your mother that you're going to blow yourself up,'" Eliza Grizwald said. "'This is al taquiya.' It's complete and utter garbage."

The part of the verse radical recruits choose to ignore is the commad for Muslims to "shun false speech."

"Religion is used as an excuse, as the cover," said New York University professor Irshad Manji. "It's politics that poisons everything, not religion."

However, Hamid disagreed and said religion absolutely plays a part. He points out that Christians living in impoverished villages in the Middle East, without democracy, and who are exposed to the same setiment about American foreign policy are not becoming terrorists.

"The religious element cannot be ignored here. Ignoring it is just like ignoring that you are facing a brick wall and you continue to running and insist that doesn't exist," Hamid said. "You will just face the reality at the end."