Religions invite stereotypes, holy texts even more so. Non-Muslims often see Islam as a faith followed by people who hew so closely to an unchanging set of words that they ignore awkward new facts sooner than contradict its message. For critics, this attachment to a text encourages extremists—like Boko Haram, a group that in December attacked Nigerian churches: hotheads can generally find a passage that seems to justify their violence.
Such passages abound in the Koran, just as they do in the founding texts of Christianity, Judaism and many other religions. There is also a long tradition of interpreting such verses in reassuring ways. For example, it is often stressed that the Koran’s injunction to “slay the unbeliever wherever you find him” relates to a specific historical context, in which the first Muslims were betrayed by a pagan group who had signed a truce.
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