Fanaticism and Interpretation of the Texts

Posted on Mar 23, 2017

In the fight against extremism, one of the central issue is what the rules for a correct interpretation of sacred texts are

Speakers at the meeting between al-Azhar and the Vatican delegation

Martino Diez | Oasis | 01 March 2017

We are publishing the excerpt of the speech delivered by Martino Diez, Scientific director of the Oasis Foundation, at the seminar held on February 22 – 23 at the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo on “the fight against fanaticism, extremisms and violence in the name of religion”. The seminar, led by the Deputy of Al-Azhar ‘Abbas Shuman and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, marks the resumption of the dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Vatican. The full text will be published in a volume curated by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and al-Azhar.

[…] Compared to other forms of extremism, owns the specific feature of using the language of faith as a mobilizing force. There is nothing surprising in this: religion is one of the major forces behind man. It would seem easy to dismiss the matter by saying that fanaticism represents an opportunistic use of religion for purposes unrelated to it, for example of political nature, but in reality things are not that simple: the majority of fanatics, including their leaders, acts in good faith, without hypocrisy. Refusing to reckon this basic fact means condemning oneself to not understand the phenomenon from the very beginning.

The texts and their interpretation

Thus, the fanatic often acts in good faith and, in doing so, he makes use of a number of religious texts: for example, Daesh’s statements are lined with quotations from the Quran and the Hadith. One of the questions then, as noted by many, is what the rules for a correct interpretation of these texts are. Soon we Christians will begin the Lenten season and will hear a very interesting passage of the Gospel, which narrates the temptations to which Satan subjects Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry (Mt 4,1-11). While the first temptation plays on Jesus’ human desire to eat bread, after having spent forty days fasting, in the second temptation Satan invokes a Biblical text – verses 11 and 12 of the beautiful Psalm 91 – to suggest to Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple: “For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone’”. However, Jesus responds to the provocation: “Again it is written: ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’”. Hence, this brief Gospel passage shows that even a revealed text, such as the Bible for us Christians, can be open to misinterpretations and manipulations.

Analogously, in the era of the first fitna, ‘Alī warned with these words Ibn ‘Abbās, while sending him to dispute with the Kharijites: “Do not quote the Quran to them, because the Quran has many faces. You quote a verse and they will quote another”1.

Faced with the original ambiguity of the text, the task is then to define the rules by which to read it, while the most dangerous illusion is precisely to think that there are no rules. But who is responsible for setting the rules? Today in the West it is not uncommon to hear non-Muslims explaining to Muslims how they should interpret the Quran or the Hadith. This practice, personally, makes me very skeptical. One thing, in fact, is to analyze a text from a scientific point of view, thanks to the universality of human reason that we all have in common; another thing is to propose a binding interpretation to a community of faith to which one does not belong. This may happen, at best, only on tiptoes, and as an extreme form of hospitality.

Instead, what can certainly be done – and must be done, also in respect of the victims of the terrorist attacks – is, rather than providing answers, asking questions. How do Muslims interpret this or that verse, which for example is used by Daesh to justify its criminal actions? How do they respond to its propaganda? If the challenge of jihadism will stimulate a reflection in these fields, the evil that this movement has disseminated will turn into an opportunity for good. […]

1 Cf. Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī, al-Itqān fî ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān, al-naw‘ al-tāsi‘ wa l-thalāthūn, fî ma‘rifat al-wujūh wa l-nazā’ir, Dār al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt 2010, p. 214.

[Translated from the original in Italian]