UNL Islam professor holds lecture at UNO


By Mike Bell

Students and scholars gathered on the third floor of UNO’s Arts and Sciences Hall on Friday to hear Simon Wood, assistant professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, present his lecture titled “The Quran: Jihad, Peace and War.”Wood is the author of Islamic Proofs: “Rashid Rida’s Modernist Defense of Islam” and “Christian Criticisms.” He teaches courses about modern Islam, Christian-Muslim relations and the problems of religious fundamentalism. His lecture explored the definition of Jihad and how the Qur’an’s multiple views of it affected Islam both hundreds of years ago and today.

“Religion is a matrix through which all spheres of life fit: economic, social, et cetera,” Wood said. “Ideally, Islam admits to no separation between what English labels as sacred or profane or secular.”

Wood said religion, especially Islam, is connected to the idea of debt to God. The Qur’an says that God is rich and people are poor, and that the poverty is all embracing. To repay God, every thought and action should be related to him through Islam.

“Islam means ‘to submit,'” he said. “It’s an action, not an intellectual proposition. A Muslim is a submitter. Submission leads to peace by following the Pillars of Islam.”

Wood asked the crowd, many of them students attending the lecture for extra credit, how many Pillars of Islam there are. Many raised five fingers, but he said there are 11 pillars in all: six of belief and five of practice.

Wood said the pillars of practice are well known because Islam places more emphasis on doing than believing. In that sense, it is more similar to Judaism and different than Christianity. Though belief and practice are important in all of these religions, Wood said the distinction is in the emphasis.

The five pillars of practice are testimony, the daily prayers, the religious tax of 2.5 percent, fasting during Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca. But Shiite Muslims, which represent 15 percent of the Islamic population, consider jihad to be the sixth pillar of practice.

“The closest English translation for jihad is ‘striving’,” Wood said. “There are many ways a person can strive or jihad; with the hand, mind, heart, with a pen or with a weapon.”

There are two distinctions of lesser and greater jihad in the Qur’an. The lesser forms are physical conflict, while greater jihad is spiritual.

Wood said that after a battle, the prophet Mohammed said that the lesser jihad is finished, the greater jihad has begun. Wood said that this meant that the spiritual, inner conflict is more important than any outer battle.

The Qur’an itself mentions jihad several times over its 114 chapters, but there is no one section that dictates what believers should follow in times of peace or war. The Qur’an is organized very differently from the collection of books that is the Bible.

“It is closer to a series of nursery rhymes than a book of scripture,” Wood said. “In its non-narrative form it is much more similar to rap music.”

As one progresses through the book, the references to jihad start as peaceful suggestions and become much more belligerent and vivid by the book’s end. The early verses are called the “Peace Verses”, while the latter, more violent ones are called the “Sword Verses.” The early texts describe giving non-believers time to understand, telling believers to teach them of a reckoning with God and to turn away from pagans.

The “Sword Verses” describe fighting against aggressors. Though Islam professes peace, Wood said that it does not teach pacifism. It does not tell its followers to turn the other cheek. To allow the community to become weak and vulnerable to attack is considered sinful. The Sword Verses were written late in Mohammed’s life while he was busied leading a military campaign throughout Saudi Arabia.

“‘When the sacred months have passed kill the idol worshipers wherever you find them,” Wood quoted. “‘Siege them; lie in wait for them in every place of ambush. If they repent and pay the religious tax then let them go on their way.'”

Jihad can include fighting in defense of one’s self, but does not teach to attack those not involved, such as women, children and the unarmed. Wood said it teaches that the result of fighting may be worth it, but fighting as a means is considered evil.

How can one religious text teach to spread a non-compulsive awareness while vowing to murder any who stand in the way of its spread? Wood said that a minority of Islam believes that the Sword Verses counteract the peaceful verses found earlier in the Qur’an, while others believe that modern Islam no longer needs the Sword Verses.

In Islam’s 1400-year history, it has rapidly expanded beyond Saudi Arabia. It has risen against European powers and has splintered into several different tribes and factions. As Islamic lands came under the domination of Russia, France, Britain and many other colonies, it led Muslims to re-interpret the peaceful verses as a way to peacefully coexist with those who are different.

“There is no such thing as a ‘holy’ war,” Wood said. “In the traditional texts of Islam, the only thing holy is God; not the prophet Mohammed, and not the Qur’an. From this perspective, war is not holy.