What the Qur'an Meant: And Why It Matters with Garry Wills

October 3, 2017

Gary Wills. CREDIT: Billy Pickett

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for beginning your day with us.

Our speaker this morning is a prize-winning historian and religious scholar, Garry Wills. Today he will be discussing his latest book, entitled What the Qur'an Meant: And Why It Matters. It is an invitation to all non-Muslims to engage in a conversation about politics and religion in the 21st century.

Today it is accepted that the Qur'an is the embodiment of God's word. For 1.6 billion it is their Bible. They live by the book. Muslims try to memorize it and quote it against each other as well as against the outside world. It is held so sacred that a host of fastidious traditions adhere to it: For example, it must be placed at the top of any pile of books and must be held above the waist.

For a long time, most Americans did not have to know much about Islam. That is no longer the case. We entered into the longest war in our history without knowing basic facts about the Islamic civilization with which we were dealing. We are constantly fed information about Islam, claims that it is essentially a religion of violence, that its sacred book is a handbook for terrorists. There is no way to assess the veracity of these claims unless we have at least some knowledge of the Qur'an.

As a first step in expanding our understanding about a religion that captures the hearts and minds of 23 percent of the world's population, it is my pleasure to welcome one of our country's leading public intellectuals to this forum. Garry Wills, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to begin the conversation by asking you: When people think of you, Garry Wills, more often than not they associate your name not only with your wonderful writing on seminal political events in American history, but also with your widely acclaimed scholarship in Christianity. So the question is, most of us are wondering why you decided to write about the Qur'an now?

GARRY WILLS: Shame. After 9/11, when we were told that the Muslims had caused that catastrophe, I was talking with a group of academic friends, and they said, "Well, how much of this really comes from the Qur'an?" And it turned out that none of us, though we were all pretty well-educated and intellectually curious, had read the Qur'an.

One of the people said, "Not you, Garry? I thought you were a religious scholar." And she should have asked that, because it was stupid of me not to have. But I have tried to remedy that.

And when I kept asking people, "Have you read the Qur'an?" I was amazed at how few had, even people who were doing religious studies or political studies.

It turns out, of course, that for the purposes of agitators it is good that you have not read the Qur'an, because they tell you what is in it, and it is not. So, I started exploring that and giving some lectures and continuing to ask people. Even those who had claimed they had read it, it was very hard for them to answer any questions.

It is easy to misunderstand a different kind of scripture, and there was a whole lot of that out there, so I more and more started worrying about a world in which we engage with Muslims around the world without knowing really what they think. That made us credulous when wild statements were advanced about the Qur'an and about Islam.

Donald Trump on campaign told Anderson Cooper, "Islam hates us." That is a pretty sweeping indictment of 1.8 billion people in the world. He was asked in later interviews, "Do you want to qualify that statement at all?" He said, "No. I stand by it exactly, and there is just a whole lot of hatred out there for us. We are hated everywhere in the world."

It is certainly true that some terrorists who are formerly Muslim hate us. The vast majority do not. The vast majority are peaceful. They live lives of service to whatever community they are in. We in America have Muslim policemen, Muslim soldiers, Muslim doctors who do not hate us, obviously. Khizr Khan's son died fighting for America, and Trump attacked the father of Humayun Khan and his wife, saying, "Oh, religion makes her shut up."

My own friend Bill Buckley wrote a column saying, "Children cannot be taught the Qur'an. It makes them terrorists." This is so wildly untrue that I thought I had better try to fight it in some way.

JOANNE MYERS: On reading the Qur'an, what intrigued you the most?

GARRY WILLS: A lot of things surprised me. What was not in it surprised me. But what was in it especially surprised me.

It is a very inclusive religion, more inclusive than Judaism or Christianity. Judaism has its chosen people, the circumcised. Christianity has its chosen people, the baptized. The chosen people in the Qur'an are all monotheists—any of them. From Adam on, there is an unceasing stream of prophets, beginning with Adam, coming down through Isaiah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, John the Baptist, Mary the mother of Jesus. The only people who are excluded are the idolaters, that is, the pagan polytheists. Monotheism versus polytheism is the issue throughout the Qur'an.

What Allah tells him is that he drew up the Hebrew covenant under the title for him of Yahweh. He drew up the New Testament covenant under the name of Jesus's father. And, of course, he drew up the Muslim covenant under the name of Allah. But it is all one God, there is no other God. He said, "So it is the duty of all these people to love and respect each other"—because they have the same covenant from the same God—"and to protect their places of worship." He tells the followers of Muhammad that they must protect synagogues and churches and those monotheists must protect mosques.

You never hear anything like that when people now talk about the Qur'an. It is absolutely the most striking thing. He said, "There cannot be argument among the followers of God because he drew up all of these covenants and they are all equal." Now, that certainly goes against what a number of people have believed and taught, and created great hatred out of with Trump's sayings. So that was pretty surprising.

JOANNE MYERS: So why do you think it is then that the Qur'an has been misinterpreted and exploited, especially by politicians and pundits?

GARRY WILLS: There are a few passages, which you can equate with the whole Qur'an, that are disturbing to us. People rely on just one or two passages, especially the so-called Sword Verse in the Qur'an, in which he says, "After four months, lie in wait for them, go to war with them"—"them" being polytheists. You can make a great case that this is a savage bit of advice.

Nobody who promotes that interpretation pays attention to the first words, "after four months." Why after four months?  There is a whole context in the ninth sūrah of religious truths. Religious truth was a common feature then—it is like the peace of God in Medieval Christianity—in which around the sacred places, especially the Kaaba, people agree there will be no fighting.

So there was a truce for four months, in which there will be no fighting. But during that time, the polytheists attacked the Muslims, and Allah, through Muhammad, said, "Don't fight. You keep the truce even if they don't. But after the truce, after four months, lie in wait for the ones who attacked you and kill them, unless they surrender, but in the process do not kill other people who had not attacked you." He said the main thing is to have mercy the minute anybody says, "We're sorry, we shouldn't have attacked you," etc.

That whole chapter is the explanation for that one violent thing. By excerpting that one entry, it has lived on as the Sword Verse. "Sword" is not mentioned there, or anywhere in the Qur'an. That is just a projection of our ideas about warfare.

The other thing that people make a great deal of is the misogyny of the Qur'an. There is no question it is misogynist. Women were second-class citizens—well, no, they were not citizens—as they were everywhere in the seventh century and for most of history. It is a lot easier to get misogynist texts out of the Old Testament than out of the Qur'an.

The equivalent of the Sword Verse for war—

JOANNE MYERS: Do you find the word "jihad" in that particularly?

GARRY WILLS: Jihad does not mean a holy war. Again, there is no word of holy war in the Qur'an.

Jihad is zeal. You can be waging jihad against your own imperfections. You should always wage jihad in promoting Allah, the one God, but the idea that that is a form of war is totally false.

What they concentrate on for women is the one section where he says, "If you are trying to correct a woman, a wife, instruct her, and if she does not pay attention, abstain from her bed, and if she still does not pay attention to what Allah has told you, strike her." Now, striking women was a very common thing in all societies then.

The interesting thing is, I wondered why abstain from her bed. The sex strike is usually what women go on, from the time of Aristophanes. Why was that a step in correction? Well, the main thing we have to remember is that multiple wives were the norm then, as in the time of Solomon and David and for Mormons. By withdrawing from her bed in a controlled harem situation, you are depriving her of certain privilege in her company and of the chance of breeding an heir for you. So you have to understand the society that he is talking in, and it is not wild or strained if you do.

The other thing that is interesting is that, though it was polygynous—not polygamous, but polygynous, that is, multiple wives, not multiple husbands, it has never been that—the wives in those marriages had to consent to be married to you, they were not forced, they were not ordered to.

Moreover, they came with their own property. It was a very different dowry system from the one we are familiar with in the Christian Middle Ages. In the Christian dowry a father gave to the family of the bride-to-be a dowry which her family disposed of. In the Muslim marriage, the dowry is given to the bride, and she keeps it as a separate fund for herself. So there is a kind of competition of ownership among the wives. And the wives can initiate divorce, quite unheard of in the seventh century, and they can take their dowry away with them after the divorce.

As feminist Muslims—and there are feminist Muslims—point out, if a man tried to beat you up too much, you could just leave and you could take your dowry. That was a way of restraining him. If he wanted to keep that dowry in his operating system, although titularly hers all along, he better not keep beating her or try to divorce her.

So it is a complex, totally different world, both for the bad and for the good, from the one that I have been accustomed to, and it involves great ignorance of the Qur'an to say these kinds of things about "it is a woman-hating scripture." It is certainly not more so than the multiple wives of David and Solomon, in which the wives did not have dowry rights and could not initiate divorce.

As Mormons have given up polygyny, some modern Muslims have given up polygyny; that is,very little recognition of the right to have more than one wife.

And even then, the Qur'an limited the number of wives that most people could have. It made an exception for Muhammad, hoping that he would produce a male heir, but he did not. That is what caused the split of Shia and Sunni. Nobody knew who exactly was the closest representative and heir to Muhammad, so they fought over that, and the fight led to a long history of different readings of the law and different interpreters, different judges, with each having a whole body of scholarship for their inheriting the legacy of Muhammad.

Anyway, those are some of the things that intrigued me. I found when I would present this just to friends, they would doubt it. Then I would pull out the book and show them the exact place where Allah says, "All your covenants are equal. I do not send mixed messages. All the prophets are my prophets," including Jesus, including Moses, including Adam.

There are great parallels between the Old Testament and the Qur'an. But Adam, in the Christian view, creates this terrible sin, he gets cursed, and then disappears from the history. Only in legend does it say that Jesus in the harrowing of Hell went down and pulled Adam out of limbo, or whatever he was stored in until the final days. But Adam repents and is forgiven in the Qur'an, and he becomes the first prophet. Allah says, "I have never ceased sending prophets, messengers, warners"—different words—"at any point in history. Why would I stop talking to my creation?"

The human is Allah's proudest boast. In fact, he tells Satan to kneel down to Adam when he first creates him. Satan refuses. He says, "Why should I kneel to him? You made him out of earth. You made me out of fire."

Allah says, "You have to have reverence for what I have made." And when he refuses, that is what condemns him to Hell. Hell is really even more present in the Qur'an than in the New Testament. It is not really present at all in the Old Testament.

The fallen Satan sends a number of his people around the world to fight Allah and to try to baffle the work of the prophets. This great struggle that goes on—when Allah says, "You should fall down and reverence Adam," he also says, "You should fall down and reverence my Earthly creations"—mountains. Allah loves mountains, but especially he loves water.

JOANNE MYERS: Because he was in the desert, right?

GARRY WILLS: Exactly. Water is sacred in the Qur'an. In fact, modern ecologists could do well paying attention to the dialogue with nature that Allah has and that he tells his followers to have. These are things that were great marvels of mine when I read it. It sounds like the Book of Job: "Were you there when I did this and this and this, that you would question me?"

These things give such a different slant to reading the book. You might ask, why did Pope Francis say, "The Qur'an is a peaceful, spiritual book from which Christians can learn how to be devout." He said that in The Joy of the Gospel. That is not what people, first of all, conceive of the book as.

Obviously, most Muslims are spiritually fed by this document. It is their only good expression of love of God. The dialogue that it sets up with nature, for instance: Allah says to Muhammad, "Moses prophesied, but so did the mountain. They collaborated in prophesying, that is, spreading the word of my (God's) greatness." There is a constant communication with creatures.

He also has those things responding to God. The mountain worships God. Even the ants worship God. For me, it is like Augustine saying, "Everything God made is good. We've screwed it up, but," he said, "I can descant in all candor on the glories of the worm, its perfect rotundity, how everything in it works from unity, from end to end, its natural colors," etc., etc. That kind of hymn to creation is all through the Qur'an.

JOANNE MYERS: Before we go to questions, I was just wondering, is there something that was most striking to you, recognition for you as a Catholic, on reading the Qur'an? What stood out to you the most, or what would be the message—

GARRY WILLS: I have already mentioned it: inclusiveness. The Qur'an really wants to have all God's people cooperate together. And you should not think that they have different gods. There is only one God.

When he speaks, he also boasts of the fact that "I get my message out in the language of the receiver," that is, "I spoke Hebrew when I struck up the covenant with the Jews. I spoke Greek when I struck up the covenant with the Christians. I spoke Arabic when I struck up the covenant with you, Muhammad." That is the most striking thing. It most differentiates this from other sacred writings.

Later on, people will try to be ecumenical about their "rival religions." For a long time, when I was young, we were forbidden to go into any non-Catholic church or any synagogue. That was countenancing error. They were wrong, and we shouldn't encourage them by even respecting them. That is gone in the Qur'an. As I said, the only people who are outside the covenant would be atheists, if there were any around—it was not a subject that was up, so it is never mentioned in the Qur'an.

What he goes after is the idolaters, the ones worshiping different gods. He is like Yahweh, who says, "I am your god. You can't have rival gods to me, no other god." That is the trait of the Qur'an, too.

We do not have nearly as many polytheists around—"idolaters" is the word for them, of course—each separate god having their own identity. Of course, that was very real to Muhammad. According to the history that Allah reveals to Muhammad, the Kaaba, the great holy place, was originally built—well, first of all, it was built before the Flood, then the Flood wiped it out, and then Abraham built the Kaaba, but then polytheists came in. Mecca is a caravanserai stop; the caravan of goods going in and out of Mecca is very strong.

Another thing about the Qur'an is that it is a very commercial document. It is also against usury. It says you have to strike fair bargains in your business dealings. That was very personal to Muhammad because the woman he first married was a rich merchant and she had him take over the business and run it until she died.

So he is saying: be very upright in your dealings, because, as in a great merchandising center—take Venice of Shakespeare's play—these ships are going out and coming back, and you are broke or not according to what they deliver. Of course, the Jew is attacked for usury because he does not trade fair on these exchanges. Well, that is all forbidden in the Qur'an.

As I said, women can inherit, as well as be given a dowry. Now, it is true that they inherit only half of what a male heir will inherit. Nonetheless, they do inherit, it is property that they own, and that is almost unheard of at that time.

JOANNE MYERS: Where does Sharia law fit into all of this?

GARRY WILLS: Sharia law is mentioned only once in the Qur'an. Sharia means "path." At one point, Allah has to keep reassuring Muhammad that even though he is being denied by the polytheists, he must deliver the message. Of course, that is what the Jewish prophets find out: "They are all going to deny me, they are going to kill me, they are going to do that." God says, "Go ahead, deliver my message." Now, the only time that Sharia is mentioned in the Qur'an, he says to Muhammad, to buck him up, as he often does, "Follow the Sharia, the right path, "no matter what."

The whole history of Sharia later on was people developing or distorting things that Muhammad had set up. As I say, there were two different interpretations of the inheritance, Shia and Sunni, and they both developed their laws, their history. To them, Sharia, the right path, became much more codified legal stuff.

It is very like the development of the New Testament into Medieval canon law. None of that is really in the New Testament, but it becomes a great source of authority and controversy. The whole scholastic splitting-of-hairs approach to religion which offended many people, the reformers in Christianity especially—"Go back to the New Testament and stop all this quibbling about what a Christian can and can't do and must do," etc., etc.

Sharia law developed out of those rival inheritances and it became very specialized. There are thousands of provisions of Sharia law. There is not one body. It depends on where you are in the world.

Dozens of American states have legislated, or tried to legislate, "We won't let Sharia law into our government." It is very hard to know what they mean by that. None of them seem to have great learning about what Sharia is now or in the past.

I wonder how they are so sure that Sharia law does try to creep into our legal system, which it does not. A lot of people just equate Sharia law with the Islamic people who behead people around the world. That is the shorthand for Sharia law in many people's minds. It could not be farther from either historical developments or the original Qur'an.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for beginning this inter-religious dialogue.


QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for bringing real religion into our lives this morning. But the question is, because we also have to deal with politics and with the world as we know it: How can this message be carried?  You mentioned Pope Francis, and there are many Catholics. So, instead of people misinterpreting and killing each other on the basis of their own interpretations, how can you, how can we—certainly the Carnegie Council is a bastion—bring rationality and understanding about the Qur'an and about Islam?

GARRY WILLS: The place to begin is to read the Qur'an. How many of you have read the Qur'an?  [Show of hands]

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Well, you have a much better religious knowledge than most of the people that I talk to.

JOANNE MYERS: We have an informed audience.

GARRY WILLS: Unless we are willing to engage the religion where it begins, there is not much we can do. Anybody can say anything they want to say about Muslims and about the Qur'an, and if you just have not read it and are not equipped to say it is not—for instance, 72 virgins if you kill somebody; that is not in the Qur'an. In fact, intercourse in Heaven is not in the Qur'an. Marriage is—no matter how many women you marry, they are going to be your spouses in heaven, and you are going to be very happy together just sitting on a couch and being served and treated. It does not say anything about having sex in heaven.

"The gardens" is the word for Heaven in the Qur'an. As it was pointed out, it is a desert culture, so well-watered gardens, not this arid sand, is what is waiting for you when you get to heaven.

But a number of Islamic scholars have pointed out that most of these terrorists do not even know their own religion, they are ignorant of it, any form of it. If you are a practicing Muslim of any sort now, you do not prepare to go to heaven by drinking and having lap dances the night before you bring on the horror of 9/11, as those stupid, mainly Saudi, killers did. They were not even practicing Muslims. They were Muslim-haters.

Pew and Gallup have done extensive polls around the world and found out that the militants are the most ignorant of their own religion, and the peaceful majority, the vast majority, are the only ones who really pay attention to the Qur'an.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

For seven or eight centuries, Islam was the triumphant force in the world, and with the military success came artistic and scientific achievements as well. Then the star faded, and for the last many centuries the movement of world history has been dominated more by Western Christians.

I just would ask, what were the factors that promoted that or brought that change about, military, etc.?

GARRY WILLS: Well, they were military, of course. As happens with peaceful religions when they start, first they are persecuted by opponents, and when anybody is martyred under that persecution they are made a great deal of. That was true of Christians and of Muslims. Then they get some power to defend themselves, and then they get some kind of alliance with their former persecutors.

That is what happened under Constantine when Christians went from equal opportunity to practice their religions, until then, under Constantius, when they were established as the state religion. When the religion becomes a state religion, that is always extremely dangerous because everybody who is against them is against God, they are the devil. That was true of Medieval Christianity, that is why there were so many persecutions of dissident Christians and of Jews and others.

When the Muslims ascended this ladder to power and became a terrific imperial force, the equal of Medieval church-state relations, they actually were far more tolerant of other religions than Christianity was in the same—Gibbon is a great student of Islam, and he says—and many people have confirmed this—that Islam at the height of its imperial power, when as you say it became a great artistic force, as did Christianity in the 13th and 14th centuries, was far more tolerant of other religions than Christianity had been at its peak.

Then, in a whole series of fights, including the Crusades of course, the Christians tried to take back the holy places from the Muslims, and they lost, for the most part. In the fight that expanded the empire of Islam, like most things, like the Medieval Christian empire, it succumbed to various things: secular, rival religions, or just plain military force. Finally, they were driven out of Spain by the queen.

The idea of "God willing that I rule the world" that both Christians and Muslims have had at certain stages of their development, then they start pulling back, and are forced to go back to more spiritual values of their original founding. There are then movements like St. Francis, who went over to Muslim territory hoping to convert people, not fight them, hoping to end that Crusade.

So it depends on what part of history you are going to dip into. One of the problems about how you interpret something like Christianity or Islam is when you are going to choose a historic period and kind of reify that as the essence of the thing.

That is why I think we have to go back to the sources. You have to go back to the New Testament to find out what Jesus wanted, which is mainly love and forgiveness of enemies, etc., and to find out what the Qur'an meant, which is mainly mercy. Mercy is the introductory entry to every sūrah and every discussion ends: "But remember, God is merciful." I have not checked this, but my bet is that mercy is the most common spiritual trait named in the Qur'an. I must check that.

QUESTION: James Starkman. Thank you for a fascinating intellectual discussion.

It seems to me that the essence of the misunderstanding, or understanding, of Islam boils down to the definition of the word "infidel" or "non-believer." You have told us this morning that that definition is the non-belief in polytheists. Is there wiggle room in that interpretation to possibly include other religions, other sects, etc.?

GARRY WILLS: Not according to the Qur'an.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Starkman]: That is very explicit?

GARRY WILLS: Sure. He says, "All the believers are my believers. I have sent them all a message, all the believers in one God." Infidel means polytheist, plain and simple. It does not mean other religions.

And it does not mean atheism, because that was not a problem then. Now, of course, atheists are a huge part of the population. The Qur'an never deals with that question because there were so few atheists around, and if they were there, they were indiscernibly there.

His word for unbelievers is not infidels but polytheists, believers in rival gods, and those are the only ones who are condemned.

QUESTION: Thank you for that great talk. I am a practicing Muslim. It was great to have a person like you at the Carnegie Council.

I just realized listening to you, for those of us practicing Muslims, it is very difficult to look and see. I think most of the West looks at the Muslims and judges Islam. We just want them to differentiate between Islam and the Muslims of today. We feel that this is the darkest days for Muslims. I wish we were sitting during the time of the Inquisition, we would not be discussing ISIS but something else.

I think we need people more like you to teach to the West, but also in my country. I am Turkish. We feel that our faith was hijacked by Wahhabism, by tribalism, by Arab customs. So for those of us Muslims—and not all Muslims are Arabs—we feel that there is another challenge there. So not just here, but even in our own countries, we have a hard time showing true faith.

I studied at Harvard and I studied the Ottoman records, and I found out that the women had pre-nups, the Ottoman Muslim woman. So I went through all these court records in Egypt. One of them was like this: Imagine, I am Turkish, so these are like my ancestors. So this woman said, "If you do not take me to Mecca two times a year, ten dresses a year"—like she put, like I want ten dresses a year—"and you have to give me this much money, then I will divorce you."

I asked about dowry as well when I was studying Islamic studies. And, mind you, I studied in this country. Why? Because back in Turkey I would not have that. They said the dowry is half because the man needs to give his money to his children, whereas the woman retains the dowry. She is not supposed to, so at the end of the day woman ends up with more money.

There were so many more miraculous verses. It is just that the faith has been hijacked from those.

I just wanted to share this. It is like poetry to my ears listening to you.

GARRY WILLS: I notice you are not wearing a hijab. You do not have to to be a Muslim.

QUESTIONER: But I do pray, and the Qur'an in my home is below all of the books. But for a regular Muslim, if you live in a just society, you do not need to live under Sharia law. So, for a current Muslim, if you live in America, which is relatively more just than my society in Turkey, that means that this is the de facto Sharia law. There is no Sharia law, and it was incredible that you brought that up.

GARRY WILLS: Thank you.

I bring up the hijab because one of the signs of the inferiority of Muslim women is that they have to cover up so much according to different things. That is not in the Qur'an. The Qur'an says men and women should be modest and cover their privates and women should cover their neck and shoulders. That is like Paul saying that women have to wear hats or something in the church. Then, later on, as I say, when the scholastic period of both religions comes along, we get more and more symbols through clothing for the men and for the women.

In Christianity we wrapped nuns as thoroughly as any burqa. The nuns who taught me in grade school, I could not tell whether they had hair, breasts, a waist. The habit, as it was called, was designed to prevent you from ever thinking that could happen. And various other Christian communities have had various dress codes—Amish, Mormon, etc. The dress code for Mormons is your baptismal underwear, which is worn by men and women.

Again, there is one verse—in all these matters, there is one verse that is taken as the whole meaning of the Qur'an—that is called the "veil verse." "Veil" in that chapter does not refer to clothing. It says, "When people come to petition one of Muhammad's wives, they should speak through a veil, a screen"—it is variously translated. But it has nothing to do with her clothing, it has to do with the decorum of someone presenting himself to a women who is part of the harem. First of all, it makes it difficult to have any sexual communication.

But it is really a traffic law. One of the things is that Muhammad was allowed more wives than most. When people came to petition, there had to be rules for this, which wife are you petitioning, etc., etc., etc. One is that at the residence of Muhammad people would speak through the veil.

That is it. That is where the whole veil thing starts. It is as unjust to say that it had to be wrapping up the woman so that she was sexually unidentifiable as like taking as the essence of the New Testament the Dominican nun habit that I was very familiar with.

QUESTION: Helena Finn. Thank you, Professor Wills, and I want to thank Suna [previous questioner] also for her comments, throwing this into another whole perspective.

GARRY WILLS: Hear, hear!

QUESTIONER [Ms. Finn]: My question goes back, as a follow-up to yours, to having to do with the arts. The Muslim world—and I am a former diplomat, I have lived in a number of majority-Muslim countries—has produced some of the most magnificent architecture—the Taj Mahal, the Süleymaniye in Istanbul, and many other such edifices, decorative arts, poetry, calligraphy. It is documented by a Harvard historian that around the world the Wahhabis have been destroying the calligraphy and some of the most exquisite arts.

What I would like to know is, what does the Qur'an have to say about the arts, if anything?

GARRY WILLS: He says, "Don't deface anything having to do with a fellow believer." If he says protect churches and protect synagogues as you would protect mosques, obviously that does not mean destroy work of other believers. That has no possible relationship to the Qur'an.

QUESTION: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Ahadur Polash, a CUNY student at City Tech. I am also a fellow Muslim, so I would like to address everyone with alsalam ealaykum warahmat Allah wabarakatuh, which means, "May the peace and blessings of God be upon you all."

My first question to you, professor, is: Have you ever spoken with or had a conversation with any Islamic scholars?

GARRY WILLS: Yes, in correspondence but not face to face. Why? Do you think they would disagree with what I have been telling you?

QUESTIONER: No, I would not say that, because everything you have said I have heard my scholars also say the exact same thing, except for some—like the wives of Muhammad, peace be upon him, the reason why he had more than four is because before that verse came allowing to have four, before that, many of the companions and Muslims had more than four wives. So when that verse came, many of the companions had to divorce many of their wives and they were only allowed to keep up to four.

But in the case of Muhammad, peace be upon him, the law said that his wives were not just any regular women, they were considered the mothers of the believers, all of them, and that is why no one was actually allowed to marry them. So that is why he was allowed to keep them as wives, and it was only for him. After that, he never married anyone and he never actually divorced anyone.

GARRY WILLS: The Qur'an says, yes, that he did have many wives and that he was allowed to. It also said that—remember, getting close to Muhammad was getting close to God, and so a lot of people wanted to be associated with him in many ways. They all had to boast of their intimacy, and the companions, the people who went on the journey from Mecca to Medina, they had great force.

And that was true of the wives. It was so much an honor to be married to Muhammad, that some of the later wives he took were the widows of the companions who had fought with him and died with him. He took them in almost as an act of royal prestige; these are people to be honored in every way, including marriage to him.

It is called "marriage" in the Qur'an. It says, "Don't think other people get these exceptional things." The others are told—what is interesting—"You can have four wives if you are able to support them. If you cannot, do not do it, because that will make you liable to exploitation or corruption or whatever to try to get enough to support them." He said, in other words, "Do not use marriage as a way to increase your fortune. Unless you have enough, you are not eligible to marry."

QUESTION: John Richardson.

Is there any clue or guidance in the Qur'an as to secularism, or does it support religious leaders governing the country, as you have in Iran or something like that? 

Just as a person who knows nothing about the Qur'an or anything like that, I do think, from a secular point of view, the clothing—the hijab or the burqa—are wonderful things. I hope that they are widely used in this country because it hides the tattoos. [Laughter]

GARRY WILLS: Or perforated nostrils and everything else.

If by "secularism" you mean non-religious, he doesn't address that because, as I said, there were no atheists in that world. If they were against the Muslim population, the only thing that they would know is polytheism, and that is not secularism.

Practical atheism—that is, the law is atheist in the sense of not recognizing any religion, not establishing any religion—that was inconceivable in the seventh century.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for your insights, for helping us to begin this conversation, and it was really a privilege to have you here.

His book is available for you to purchase. Thank you.

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