Professor Juan Cole, CMENAS director and Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, talks to Jason Steinhauer from The John W. Kluge Center on the idea of peace in the Quran.

Listen to the podcast here» or read the transcript below.

The John W. Kluge Center named Professor Cole the 2016 Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South. His tenure began in May and was in residence for four months. Read more»

Interview Transcription

ANNOUNCEMENT: From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

JASON STEINHAUER:  Hey there, everyone.  This is Jason Steinhauer from The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.  We are podcasting from inside the Library, Ground Floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, and today, we're talking about the idea of peace in the Quran.  And we're talking today with? 

JUAN COLE:  Juan Cole.

MR. STEINHAUER:  —who is the 2016 Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South, here at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.  He has been with us for the past 3 months.

So, Juan, I wanted to start really, really basic for our listeners, and so I am going to ask a very, very simple question to start, which is simply what is the Quran.

MR. COLE:  The Quran is the Muslim scriptures analogous to the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.  It's a repository of what are characterized by revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, who lived roughly 570 to 632 of the common era.

MR. STEINHAUER:  Okay.  And can you tell us a little bit about the Quran itself?  Do we know who wrote it?  Do we know when it was written?  What do we know about the text itself?

MR. COLE:  Well, Muslims believe that it is revelation from God, so they believe God wrote it, and however, they believe that it was conveyed to humankind by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, who lived in Western Arabia in the late antique period.

MR. STEINHAUER:  So before Muhammad, were there people in that region, and what did they believe?  Who did they worship, or what did they worship?  What was the background and context in which Muhammad was living?

MR. COLE:  Right.  Well, the region is called the Hijaz, and it's where Mecca, the holy city of Islam now is, where millions of people go to pilgrimage every year.  So that strip of coast along the Red Sea was a frontier.  It hadn't been entirely incorporated into the Roman Empire, and it was being encroached on from the South maybe by the Iranian Empire at the time, the Sassanids, but it was like the Old West.  It was just the sheriff.  You know, there wasn't any government around, and there were tribes people there.  There were urban dwellers.  And they hadn't, for the most part, apparently, adopted any of the great classical religions of that period.  The Roman Empire, of course, had become largely Christian by then.  The Iranian Empire was largely Zoroastrian, but the people in that region adhered to an old pagan religion of North Arabian gods and goddesses.

MR. STEINHAUER:  So they had multiple deities that they may have worshipped?

MR. COLE:  Yes.

MR. STEINHAUER:  Interesting.  And so Muhammad is born into that environment, into that society?

MR. COLE:  That's right.  He's born into a prominent clan of Mecca, the Hashim clan, but there's some thinking from the text of the Quran that people in that area were under the influence of Judaism and Christianity and Zoroastrianism, all of which were monotheistic religions, that they were reshaping their own local religion.  They were shipped a creator god just called "God," and in Arabic, that's Allah, but it's not a personal name.  The Christians called "God" by the same word.  It just means god.

Their thought to have seen him as unlike any of the other deities and maybe to be in the process of reducing the lesser deities to angels, and so they weren't quite monotheist, but maybe they were moving in that direction.

MR. STEINHAUER:  Let's talk a little bit about Muhammad.  Who was Muhammad?  Tell us a little bit about his life, his early years.

MR. COLE:  He was an orphan.  His father died while his mother was pregnant.  His father had been on a caravan journey up north to Gaza and died on his way back.  His mother died when the prophet was still a child, and then he went to stay with his grandfather for a couple years.  Then his grandfather died, and then he went to stay with his uncle, Abu Talib.  And it is said that Abu Talib took him on a caravan journey up to Syria when he was 12, that he later married a wealthy woman merchant, Khadijah, who was a pillar of the community, very upright, and she managed these caravan journeys for trade, and that he impressed her with his mercantile acumen, and that they married.

But then around 610, the traditional stories say that the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations from God through the angel Gabriel.

MR. STEINHAUER:  And so how old would he have been at that time?

MR. COLE:  Forty.

MR. STEINHAUER:  At 40.  So, at 40, he began to see revelations.  So what was the nature of the revelations, at least what has come down to us?

MR. COLE:  Well, the firmest evidence for them is in the Quran, and there, there are descriptions of visions of the prophet ascending to heaven, where he sees the angel at the throne of God.  There is also an element of prophecy that the last days are coming, the judgment day is coming, and there's the strong emphasis on the moral life, that people should not be stingy towards orphans and the poor, that they should share their wealth a little bit, that they should live moral lives.  They should be faithful to their spouses.  They should avoid various sins and so forth.  So there are these three elements of the visionary, the apocalyptic, and the moral.

MR. STEINHAUER:  And do these come for the rest of his life?  Do these come only in a span of a few months or years, or do we know?

MR. COLE:  Well, according to the traditions, they did come for the rest of his life until he died in 632, and so the Quran is traditionally thought to be a book that gradually accumulates of these individual revelations from 610 to 632.

MR. STEINHAUER:  So let's talk a little bit about some of the ideas, then, that weigh into the Quran and into the sort of spread of this religion that becomes Islam because, in some of the material you've shared with me, you talk about how this ascent to heaven, there is sort of an element of piece and serenity that is sort of endemic to that revelation or that vision.  Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of it?

MR. COLE:  Yes.  Well, what I am finding in my research is that peace is very central to the message of the Quran and of Islam, and, of course, "peace" as a word means a lot of different things.  There's inner peace that someone might have.  There's a celestial peace.  There's peace with nature, and then there is peace within a community and between the community and others.  So all of those kinds of peace are apparent in the Quran, but I think the earliest form in which peace is emphasized in the book has to do with heaven.  So, when you arrive in heaven, the angels greet you saying, "Peace."

And my research suggests to me that heaven and these apocalyptic works of the late antique period was thought to have levels like—you know, it shows up in Dante later, the same thing.

MR. STEINHAUER:  Uh-huh.

MR. COLE:  So I think as far as I can see, the highest level in heaven is when God addresses you, and only the very righteous get this level, and God says "Peace" to you.  Then the revelation itself is represented as peace.  There's a chapter of the Quran that talks about the night that the revelation first came.  The last verse of it is "And peace it is until the breaking of dawn."  The peace that it is is the peace of revelation, of the assurance of God's contact with human beings, his guidance, and the inner peace that comes from worship and pure prayer.  So that heavenly peace is mirrored on earth by the peace of the believers, and that seems to me to be a complex that follows through the book.

And then, at some point, the Quran actually gives names to God.  God is the just, the all-seeing, the omnipotent and so forth.  The names that it gives him is peace.  God is peace.  So I think this is—the divine, the heavenly, and then the earthly worship, all—the pinnacle there is peace.

MR. STEINHAUER:  And so is that supposed to teach us that on earth, the pinnacle of behavior is peace, and if we follow that, we get to the pinnacle of heaven which is peace?  Is there a correlation there?

MR. COLE:  Yeah.  I think very much so that it's implied that heaven, as it's described in the Quran, is the ideal society, and so it's being held up as an ideal for what the best life on earth might look like.

MR. STEINHAUER:  Now, traditionally, I think when we hear the word "peace" at least in our modern day, we think about wars among people, wars between nations.  What does the Quran have to say about that?  Is peace in that sense of the word throughout the revelations as well in the scriptures?

MR. COLE:  Well, the traditional account of the life of the prophet falls into two eras.  One is when he begins preaching in his hometown of Mecca from 610 to 622, and then the second period is when he is forced out of Mecca by his pagan enemies.  And he and his community have to relocate to the nearby city of Medina, and he's there until 632.
So, in the Meccan period, in the first period, the Quran seems to me to recommend almost a kind of pacifism to the Muslims.  There's a verse that talks about they were humiliated and ridiculed and boycotted, but the Quran praises those who walk humbly upon the earth, and when they are ridiculed, they reply to their tormenters, "Peace.  Peace be upon you," which is a prayer for peace.  So they are turning the other cheek.  It's almost Christian.

And there are limits to it.  The Quran is not a pacifist document.  I think nobody would make that argument.  I would say that the Quran's approach to these matters, it does allow, even in this early Meccan period, I think, a violence to protect the weak or in self-defense in the face of highway robbery.  The word that's used is a little obscure.  It's that if there's a murder of if there is someone wreaking corruption in the land, that it's permissible to take up arms.  And remember there's no government in this part of Arabia.  It's a consensual tribal system.  So everybody is on their own.  There's no jails.  There's no authority.  So, if somebody attacks your family, the Quran does permit you to defend them.

But short of, I'm arguing, something like lethal violence or a very severe violation of someone's rights, it's recommending peace, even with the pagan community.  Even with people who believe in multiple gods and who are actively persecuting the Muslims, the Quran's earliest recommendations are for the Muslims to face that in a peaceful and ironic way, and it uses the word "jihad" in this period.  It says—but it means struggle, not war.

MR. STEINHAUER:  So I want to talk a little bit now about how this message spreads because you mentioned it in passing about how Muhammad went on to preach across the region, and at the beginning, of course, I guess everybody was a nonbeliever, right?  You had to get people on board with this.  So how does he then take this message out?  And when he's taking that message out and preaching, is it a message of peace?  Is it a message of warning that Dooms Day is coming?  Do we know what the tone of that message was?

MR. COLE:  Well, the Quran is actually fairly clear on these matters.  First of all, the Quran doesn't make a division on the basis of religion.  It makes a division on the basis of theology.  So people who believe in one god and who live a moral life are saved, according to Quran, and this is a very challenging doctrine in this period because you know the Roman Empire didn't think that way.  They had become very strong Chalcedonian Christians, and they persecuted people, pagans, who still tried to perform the old rites to Zeus and Hera and so forth.  And they even persecuted Christians who didn't accept the Nicene Creed or didn't accept the Chalcedonian interpretation of Christianity.

So the Quran really has a broad-minded view of these things, but it does theologically condemn polytheism.  So anybody who dilutes God's uniqueness and associates other gods with God is doing something wrong and will go to hell, according to the Quran.  But there's not an implication in the Mecca period at least that you should, therefore, be meant to them.  You should preach to them and try to convince them and save them, but there's not a sense of enmity.  

In the Medinan period, Muhammad went to the neighboring city of Yathrib or Medina.  The Meccans were intent on crushing this new religion, and they had developed an enmity with Muhammad, and they seemed to have expelled him from the city.  And Mecca was a sanctuary.  You're not supposed to kill people there.  So somebody who is living there was kind of Teflon, but once Muslims were expelled from Mecca, then they could be killed.  And there were then three wars between the Muslims and the pagan Meccans, according to the traditional sources, in the Medinan period.

But even then, the Quran says defend yourselves, fight them wherever you find them if they're attacking you, but if they come to you and sue for peace, you must make peace with them.  So the ideal is ultimately peace, but it is allowed that there is such a thing as a just war, and the Muslims view those wars with Mecca is just wars.

MR. STEINHAUER:  And it strikes me that this is really sort of an amazing story in our human history that this religion, it starts relatively late compared to the other two major monotheistic religions, and it becomes the dominant religion in the region fairly quickly.

MR. COLE:  It's a few decades later.  The Prophet Muhammad died in 632.  By the next two or three decades, the Muslims had taken over the southern third of the old Roman Empire on the other side of the Mediterranean from Rome and had taken over the old Iranian Sassanid Empire.  So they very quickly got to the point where Muslim rules stretched from Southern Spain in the early 700s to the borders of China beyond Afghanistan.  That was an empire . It made a Muslim ruling class of conquerors, but most people were Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and so it was a multicultural—there were even pagan communities, and so it was a multicultural empire and remained so for hundreds of years.  I mean, many of these societies, like Egypt, might not have become majority Muslim until the Medieval period, say the 1200s.

MR. STEINHAUER:  And, of course, those regions are still heavily, if not predominantly, Muslim today, and you have—in your career, you have both lived in that region.  You have written extensively about that region.  It's interesting that you've done so much research about the current Middle East, and now you're also going back and looking sort of at the origins of the story in some way.  Can you talk a little bit about maybe how the Quran functions today inside Islam and inside the Middle East, and do these messages of peace—are they still understood to be there, or have they been sort of shifted or distorted a little bit?

MR. COLE:  Well, as I suggested, it seems to me that one of the great tragedies of the history of Islam is that the Quran got overruled.  It got overruled in a number of ways.  One way was that these folk sayings that were attributed to the Prophet Muhammad gained a kind of canonical status, and some of them—you know, I don't mean to offend anybody in the Muslim community, but some of them, quite frankly, obviously contradict the text of the Quran.  You can't have both of them in many instances, and so the Quran gets overruled by them.  And most of those sayings come from a period when Islam had become an empire in its kind of feudal society, and so they're much more warlike than the Quran text itself usually is.

And then another thing that happened was that the Muslim clergy developed a doctrine or a theory of the Quran that later verses abrogate earlier verses.  So many of the verses that I was talking about of a peaceful nature are alleged by some of the clergy to have been abrogated by later verses, which talk about just war and so forth.  So between being overruled by the sayings and doings of the Hadith and being overruled by the clergy—and one clergyman said he could find 110 verses of the Quran that had been abrogated by a later verse and so forth—often these aspects of the text that I'm interested in are not being foregrounded in the contemporary community.

And often they'll quote half of a verse or half of a principle.  So the Quran has a kind of rhetorical addiction where it will make a broad statement, and then it will come back and modify it.  So it will say, you know, fight the unbelievers wherever you find them or kill them in war, but then it will say, "But if they sue for peace, then you must make peace with them."  Well, these fundamentalists leave out the second part, right?  And so a lot of the discourse of a group like ISIL, which has taken over part of Syria and Iraq, if you look at the way they deploy the Quran, it's intellectually dishonest from beginning to end because it only quotes very selectively.

MR. STEINHAUER:  And you wrote a book recently about new Arabs and millennials in the Middle East.  I mean, do you get the sense that the Quran still really resonates with that generation that's not more maybe tech savvy and more connected globally to what's happening in others places in the world?

MR. COLE:  Well, actually, a lot of the youth that were prominent in the 2011 youth revolves throughout the region are frankly rather secular-minded.  Some of them, their parents were Marxists or Arab nationalists with a socialist bent, and the polling suggests that, in some countries—this is not universal, but in some countries—Lebanon and Tunisia standout—there is a very distinct difference in the degree of religious observance, not necessarily a belief, but of observance between the older generation and the younger.  In Tunisia, it's a 15-point spread, and in Lebanon, it's more like 50 percent of the millennial youth don't seem to be very interested in religion.

I think, actually, the rise of ISIL, which happened after my book came out, has accelerated this trend.  I think a lot of youth are pretty disgusted by religious fundamentalism.

MR. STEINHAUER:  So, by taking on this project, by trying to go back to the Quran and find these threads of peace in it, what do you think your contribution can be?

MR. COLE:  Well, I think that there's been a lot of writing about war and Islam and war and the Quran.  There are many books about the idea of jihad or holy war, and I did a literature search for the Quran and peace.  And I tried lots of different combinations of words and so forth, and I don't find very many journal articles or books on that subject.  
So, again, the Quran is not a pacifist document, and I'm not making that argument.  But it does have ideas about peace in it and reconciliation and social harmony and inner peace and spirituality, and it seems to me odd that we shouldn't also investigate those aspects of the scripture.

MR. STEINHAUER:  Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.  He is currently at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress as the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.  His most recent book is The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East.  He is a prominent scholar of Islam and the Middle East, and he has a very popular blog called Informed Comment, which is read by tens of thousands, which attempts to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world into historical context.

For more information about the Kluge Center, please visit our website, loc.gov/kluge, K-l-u-g-e, and you can also check us out on our blog Insights and on Twitter #KlugeCenter.  I'm Jason Steinhauer.  Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCEMENT:  This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress.  Visit us at loc.gov.