Isis has sharpened many people's sense of paranoia towards Islam. The majority of Muslims have a peaceful reading of the Koran, but as Isis commits more and more atrocities, the argument that the Koran equally invites a violent interpretation of its teachings has begun to gain ground.
A quick internet search that throws up certain passages which, read at face value, could prove these suspicions correct. For example, critics of Islam often cite verses such as: "fight such of the disbelievers as are near to you"; or to "kill the idolaters wherever you find them". Passages such as these leave an impartial observer wondering — is Islam simply a matter of interpretation? Is the line between a peaceful Muslim and a terrorist simply a matter of which verses you follow and which you ignore?
No, is the emphatic answer of the Koran. Whether Islam is peaceful or extreme is not just a matter of interpretation, and for the simple reason that the Koran tells you exactly how to interpret it. Once you’ve read how it works, you’ll understand exactly why the verses above aren’t actually calling for "Death to the West", but are in fact completely reasonable in their context. If that sounds far-fetched, then keep reading.
The Koran clearly states that it contains two types of verses: context-independent verses, and context-dependent verses. Context-independent verses are unambiguous and timeless principles which can be applied in every situation. Context-dependent verses are those that are specific to particular situations, and can’t be read in isolation. The Koran then goes on to condemn those who cherry-pick verses to suit their own selfish ends, and tells its reader to take all the verses together before coming to any conclusions.
"Peace" is one of the literal meanings of Islam, and its ultimate aim. And as such, it explicitly teaches that there is no compulsion in matters of faith. Regarding war, it teaches that Muslims are only ever allowed permitted to fight defensively, stating that "permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged – and Allah indeed has the power to help them".
The verses that are often quoted by critics are, like those at the beginning, cherry-picked context-dependent verses. They were only applicable at a time when war had been openly declared against Muslims because of their faith. They were being driven out of their homes and routinely assassinated. "Fight them until there is no persecution and religion is freely professed for Allah", says the Koran. But if they stop oppressing you, it warns, then remember that "no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors". Verses such as these mention fighting "disbelievers" because the division of the two sides was one of belief – non-Muslims who were the aggressors, and Muslims, who were being killed for their acceptance of Islam.
As for how Muslims should co-exist with peaceful people of other beliefs, the Koran couldn’t be clearer: "Allah only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes". For everyone else, it is taught that you should be kind and act fairly towards them.
So just to be clear: Islam is not simply a matter of interpretation, because the Koran itself tells us how to interpret it. Any other interpretation is either willfully dishonest or just plain ignorant.
Once this has been accepted, then can we recognise the evil of Isis without letting them divide us? It is unity across diversity that is the best way to defeat them. Repel evil with that which is best, says the Koran (or: don't stoop to their level). And this is something that I hope we can all agree on, regardless of our religious beliefs.