Boko Haram’s lies must be challenged

The Nigerian militant group are mad, bad and dangerous. They must be allowed to hide behind the teachings of the Quran

In a video released on Monday, the leader of the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram spoke about his group’s kidnapping of 223 girls from a school in northern Nigeria. In a rambling video, during which Abubaker Shekau appeared to be under the influence of drugs, he threatened to sell the girls, saying: “I want to reassure my Muslim brothers that Allah says slaves are permitted in Islam.”

Shekau is clearly mad, bad and dangerous. He is no scholar – neither a scholar of religion, nor a scholar of men. If he had read the Quran he would have read Surah Al Balad – one of the shortest chapters of the book – which clearly counsels believers to take the “steep” path, rather than the easy way. And what is the steep way? “It is the freeing of a slave,” says the Quran. There are several other references, which make clear that slavery is not permitted in peace time, nor in war.

Yet Shekau’s madness points to a broader problem, which is the lack of a public role for mainstream Islamic institutions. From its beginnings, Islamic teaching was egalitarian in the sense that anyone who could read the Quran could interpret it equally. There was not a segregated group of men and women who had special access to the teachings of God, as with the Christian clergy. Over the centuries that has evolved, but the idea of equal access to interpretation remains a current of Islamic opinion. Some extremist groups believe they are free to interpret the Quran as they see fit.

And yet equal interpretation does not mean that every interpretation is valid. Scholarship, teaching and critical readings, as well as the competition of similarly qualified scholars, remain vital to deciding which interpretations of the Quran are mainstream and which are fringe.

Important institutions of religious learning, such as Al Azhar in Egypt, the pre-eminent seat of Sunni Islamic learning, have had their public roles hollowed out by successive governments, wary of promoting voices that could have challenged theirs. And yet it is vital that such institutions exist and are able to challenge the religious statements that groups such as Boko Haram make.

Boko Haram is not the only fringe group touting divergent interpretations of religious texts as fact – see the Taliban in Pakistan and their bizarre views on polio vaccination – and certainly no one seriously believes they are speaking with religious authority. But the fact that those who hear their thoughts are not easily able to compare them to mainstream Islamic teachings poses a problem for Nigerian Muslims. Boko Haram are a thuggish group with little else on their mind but guns and power. They should not be allowed to hide behind the teachings of the Holy Quran.

Published: May 6, 2014 04:00 AM


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