On Bearing False Witness: Our Casual and Repetitive Breach of the Ninth Commandment

By Martin Accad

How lightheartedly we break the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). This is a constant problem in my area of work: Christian-Muslim relations. I am not thinking of the way that Muslims portray Christianity, which can be the subject of another discussion. I’ll just start with the “log” in my own community’s eye. Granted, some teaching and writing about Islam in my circles these days are the result of skewed knowledge or missing information, which would perhaps not qualify as “false witness.” Although it could be argued as well that a witness with inaccurate information should not attempt to testify in a court. But as I read certain books, and attend certain conferences, meetings or consultations, I cannot help but wonder whether some of the things that are said are not actually plain intentional declarations of falsehood.

I suppose someone could also turn my suspicions against me. In fact, shortly after I added my signature to the Yale Response to the “Common Word” document in 2007, I did receive some emails questioning my integrity. As an Arab Christian in particular, it was assumed, I should know better than to accept that Muslims could be extending a sincere arm of cordial dialogue and good understanding towards Christians. Again a skewed understanding that assumed that nothing good, honest or sincere could come from a Muslim.

So how does this problem manifest itself? I will stick to the “best case scenario.” It would seem that there is too much of a simplistic, or what one might call an “essentialist,” understanding of Islam among us. We hate it when people put us all in the same camp and assume we all think the same thing. Yet that’s just what we far too often do when we speak of Islam. We are living in a time when many Muslims are carrying out violent acts. Yet instead of asking ourselves why this is happening, whether there may be some historical, political, or sociological motives (even though we might consider them unjustifiable), we go looking instead for a religious “ideological” motive for the behavior of such Muslim individuals. We thus cast the blame for the violence committed by disillusioned and angry individuals on their religious ideology: Islam.

I am often told that Muslims behave as they do (all of them, it is assumed…) because followers cannot be expected to behave any better than their master. For Muhammad, in many of the circles I frequent, is often characterized as a bloodthirsty individual motivated by an expansionist drive. Rather than attempting to replace this “demonizing” picture with an “idealizing” one, I want to bring up a major methodological problem that we are falling into. First of all, how do the claimants to the demonizing picture know that this is how Muhammad behaved? Ironically, they are relying mostly on the “official” narrative of traditional Islam (such as the official biography, Sira, of Muhammad), and partly on less favored traditions regarding Muhammad, of which there are many. Traditional Muslim scholars themselves have always recognized that the several thousand traditions considered authentic (sahih) were actually sifted out of several hundreds of thousands of forged ones. But critical scholars of hadith have presented numerous arguments which, I would argue, rather convincingly discredit the historical usefulness of most of these traditions, even those traditionally considered reliable both by Muslim and many non-Muslim scholars. The problematic nature of hadith material is no small issue, limited to that particular literary genre. When one realizes that hadith materials are the building blocks of most of the rest of the classical Muslim literary corpus, except for the Qur’an, we are left with some serious implications for our understanding of Islam and our attitude towards it. Indeed, Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence, and Muhammad’s official biography (the Sira), are all edifices built upon hadith material. If we question the historical authenticity of these traditions as a source for a reliable reconstruction of history, then all of these edifices become questionable. This does not make the said literary corpus less important and interesting for the student of Islam, as Islam as we largely know it has grown and developed mostly out of that corpus. However, when it comes to any claim about the Muhammad of history, about his nature and character, his behavior and habits, his teaching and ambitions, we have strong grounds for questioning the official narrative conveyed to us by the Muslim tradition. In fact, as has been long argued by some scholars, even quite recently by Prof. Gabriel Said Reynolds in his The Emergence of Islam, the most reliable Islamic document from the standpoint of early historical reconstruction is the Qur’an itself. For example, the Qur’an’s generally positive portrayal of the Judeo-Christian tradition is probably an accurate reflection of Muhammad’s actual understanding and teaching on the subject. And what we can glean in the Qur’an regarding Muhammad’s character, behavior and ambitions is likely more reliable historically than what we find in the later traditions that build on hadith material. Much more could and should be said, but this is not the right space for a comprehensive academic treatment of this complex topic. Instead, let me conclude with the practical implications of this for our understanding of Islam and Muhammad, and consequently for our attitudes and approaches to Islam and Muslims.

I would argue that when we identify the religion of Islam as the root cause for violent acts perpetrated by Muslims, we are casting corporate blame upon an entire community and its ideology for the sinful behavior of individual members of that community. A parallel that comes to mind is the blame that the early Church laid for a very long time on the entire Jewish community for the death of Jesus Christ. The writings of some of the early Church Fathers and the venom that some of them spewed against the Jews collectively for killing Jesus has been identified and blamed for much of the Antisemitism that developed over many centuries. These led to violent persecution, pogroms, and eventually to the twentieth-century holocaust. By blaming a community for the acts of some of its members, and associating the behavior of some with their common ideology (in the case of the Jews it was blamed on a particular Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures), we are embracing a position that may well fit in the category of racism and bigotry. I raise the alarm for evangelicals to beware that we risk repeating history with regards to Islam and Muslims. There must be a reason why the sin of bearing false witness is listed among the Ten Commandments. Committing that sin has serious consequences indeed.

From the view I have expressed above regarding the Classical Islamic tradition, I hope it is clear that I do not by any means idealize it. In fact, the view of the Islamic phenomenon with which I have aligned above has potentially far more serious implications for Islam’s traditional narrative than the ones held by polemicists against Islam and Muslims. The difference is that I am neither disparaging nor disrespectful. I am simply questioning critically the historical reliability of the traditional Islamic narrative. My goal is not destructively to attack Islam, but to challenge some of its traditional assumptions and engage it creatively.

As for the evangelical constituency to which I belong, I invite them, based on the state of scholarship with regards to the history of Islam’s emerging period, to recognize first of all the complexity of the situation and the diversity resulting from our study of that early period. Secondly and finally, given the real and legitimate possibility for multiple narratives for Islam’s emergence, I invite us to embrace the best rather than the worst, seeing that the worst is by no means more historically viable than the best. Instead of bearing false witness, I would argue that we would thus be embracing consciously what I want to call a “redemptive witness,” a position far better aligned with the spirit of Christ.

12 thoughts on “On Bearing False Witness: Our Casual and Repetitive Breach of the Ninth Commandment

  1. Thanks for this Martin.
    I read most of this quite a while back, and reflected on this idea before you posted it.
    Just now, as I read it, I thought of an illustration on the “Christian” side: What if we categorize all Christians as being just like the pastor who threatened to, and then did, burn a Kor’an. We could say that all Christians are just as ignorant and intolerant, and violent as this “pastor.”
    I would hope that most of us who do follow Christ would be offended at that accusation.

  2. Brother Accad,
    it gives me pleasure to write to you, having read you before with genuine interest and I hope to meet you in time. Could you please clarify this sentence:
    “It would seem that there is too much of a simplistic, or what one might call an “ essentalist,” understanding of Islam among us. We hate it when people put us all in the same camp and assume we all think the same thing.”
    Fair enough but how is this not ‘the kettle calling the pot black’? You label critique of Muhammad as essentalist camp thinking. How is that not putting them in a label-box-camp? When a colleague once labelled me an essentalist, I wrote back, “Really? What’s your label? he replied, ‘Do not try to label me!’🙂
    Fine, let’s only judge Muhammad by the Qur’an. We do well to remember that following Muhammad’s failure with the only Christians he probably ever met during his years of being ‘prophet’, i.e. the Nadjran Monophysites (as per Surah 3.64-71) he insisted on a muballah prayer duel.(as per Ibn Ishaq). A Qur’an-only Muhammad is no different than the one my Muslims friends wish me to admire. Hate mongering of Muhammad has no biblical grounds, I grant you, but to point to Muhammad’s intermittent animosity towards Christians is not bearing false witness. Indeed, could not a better case be made that those who portray him as an ecumenical, dialogical, peaceful, merciful man are closer to bearing false witness? Was it not a Qur’an-only Muhammad that inspired Abu Bakr and Umar? Was it not a Qur’an-only Muhammad that inspired the infamous dhimmi Pact of Umar? Were Christians better off than than now? I’d be very interested in your thoughts, brother. Blessings in Christ, Benjamin

  3. It seems all you are asking is that we do unto Muslims as we would want them to do unto us, to think the best possible about us even as we disagree. Or as Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” Luke 6:31. It will be very interesting to see the response of some people in the evangelical community who have made a cottage industry of hating Islam. I hope this gets a wide read.

    • Thank you Gene for taking the time to comment. You are right that I do try to go by the “golden rule.” But I also hope I am doing this based on historical and textual evidence that warrants it. If what we can affirm for sure about the historical Muhammad is rather thin, then why endorse the worst case scenario which is based on questionable textual sources?

  4. Mr. Accad. If someone blows smoke in my eyes, it is very hard to respect them. Sorry to say, for but words of untruth constitute smoke. How so, and why are you so heated, Mr. Salaam? You may ask. . Case in point, you say “the Qur’an’s generally positive portrayal of the Judeo-Christian tradition is probably an accurate reflection of Muhammad’s actual understanding and teaching on the subject.” Compare this with what the scholar Neal Robinson said about the portrayal of ‘Isa in the Qur’an. Let me paraphrase: <<>> Or Samuel Zwemer in his Muslim Christ, p. 7 “With regret it must be admitted that there is hardly an important fact concerning the life, person, and work of our Savior which is not ignored, perverted, or denied by Islam.”
    Please for the respect of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Lord of the prophets, The Righteous One, The Apostle of our Faith, The Actual Word of God, The Holy One, Jesus, the One and Only, not to be eclipsed by the gutless worthless caricature of ‘Isa of Islam, cease blowing smoke in people’s eyes with this revisionist talk. It is bearing false witness, N’est pas?
    Shalom
    :

    • Dear Mr. Corniche, thank you for turning the heat up a bit on our blog! Merci beaucoup!
      May I draw your attention to the fact that my post was neither about Muhammad’s nor the Qur’an’s view of Jesus. I am addressing OUR view of Muhammad, and consequently of Islam and Muslims. I am saying that we need to reexamine our own motives to make sure we remain faithful to the spirit of Jesus, rather than give in to our quarrelsome instinct that wants to be loyal to our own “tribe” at the expense of another.

      • Today, since I am feeling a bit sentimental I hope to re-write the story of a certain Mr. Stalin. Some closed minded people have been using the writings of angry people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn to say that he was really not a nice guy. But let us look at the facts. If my memory serves me right, Stalin loved his cats. He fed them, took them to the vet, gave them the best of food. They were pampered cats. Road made of human bones in Siberia? Hey cut the hysteria. Don’t throw water on my new history. Look at cats with their glistening fur. Just like his friend Fidel Castro used to say, “history will absolve me.” Stalin’s cats have absolved him. Or is that my bristling cat fur ?
        Les hommes vont croire ceux ils veulent.

  5. Sir, your article could be summarized thus: bearing false witness is believing the worst about Islam; thus, telling the truth is believing the best of Islam. You have redefined truth/witness as what we believe (subjective) rather than what is authentic (objective).

    • Dear Sir, I believe you may have missed my central argument. In the limited space afforded by a blog post, I have tried to express the complexity of retrieving any reliable historical information about the person of Muhammad. I have also affirmed my belief (with many respected scholars of Islam, even though many others disagree) that the Qur’an may well represent a more reliable reflection of the historical elements we are able to retrieve about Muhammad’s intentions, original message, as well as a few kernels about his character and behavior. This being the case (provided, of course, that one agrees with the school of thought that is critical of the Hadith), when we endorse a very negative view of Muhammad, we are in fact embracing the classical narrative of Islamic origins held by Muslim traditionists, only retaining the worst of it. I am questioning this methodology, albeit without the space to build a solid Academic argument, and arguing that believing the worst about Islam is thus unnecessary, academically questionable, and plainly not useful for people interested in celebrating the beauty of Jesus with their Muslim friends.
      I am also saying, and this is more directly connected with my title, that many in our circles (not all I am sure) who disparage Islam and Muhammad, actually know better and realize that they are highlighting only the negative aspects of a complex and multidimensional reality. But it just serves their private agendas better to feed the negative feelings that many have about Islam in our post-9/11 world.

      • Perhaps you could enlighten me as to which are the schools of thought, Islamic I assume, that are critical of the hadith. I’ve certainly met Ahmadiyya who are. And I’ve met American converts who are critical, but that hardly constitutes a school of thought. Is this school(s) mainstream or on the fringe? How well accepted is their critique?

  6. As we engage our Muslim friends and neighbors in a dialogue about truth, and as we pursue peace, it is important to do so from a position of mutual respect, and based on truth. Your concerns about the veracity of some witnesses are well founded. There is an audience who are eager to hear those who will feed their fear and suspicions. One has to question those who prosper by taking advantage of that fear.

    Our Christian scriptures teach us to defend our faith with gentleness and respect. This is how Jesus presented himself, and how we are called to represent him.

    • Thank you for your comments, Chris. We need many more Christians that engage in an “authentic” learning about Islam in order to counter the destructive trends that are already well rooted among us. These are the people who will also be able to challenge their Muslim friends about certain issues intelligently and graciously.

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