Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, apparently orchestrated by people who quote the Koran to justify terrorist acts, President Bush has joined religious leaders in urging Americans not to condemn all Muslims because of the actions of a few seeking to "hijack Islam."
Many people have responded by learning more about the world's second-largest religion -- visiting mosques, surfing the Internet and clearing bookstore shelves of copies of the Koran.
Understanding the Koran is essential for understanding Islam, because Muslims believe the scripture Prophet Muhammad received in the 7th century from the angel Gabriel to be the "true word of God."
But the Koran, like the Bible, presents problems of interpretation because of contradictory passages about vengeance, war and peace.
In one instance, the Koran advocates doing a good deed for an enemy instead of retaliating against him. "We ordained therein for them: 'Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal,' " says Surah (Chapter) 5. "But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself."
Just a few verses earlier is this harsh warning to infidels: "The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter."
In Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah in the Hebrew Bible, Moses shares this fiery message from God as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land: "I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy."
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus amends an Old Testament call for vengeance with a pronouncement that might have been the source for the similar text in the Koran: "Ye have heard . . . An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on they right cheek, turn to him the other also."
Yet a few chapters later, Jesus makes a pronouncement that has perplexed Christians for centuries. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth," Jesus tells his disciples. "I came not to send peace, but a sword."
The words of the Koran, which is about the same length as the New Testament, are infallible -- but only in the original Arabic. Tradition holds that other languages cannot approach the Arabic in style and accuracy, so Muslims are required to read, recite and pray in Arabic.
But some Arabic words present differing interpretations for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, said Barbara Stowasser, a Koranic scholar and director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
The most controversial example is jihad, whose noun and verb forms appear more than 30 times in the 114 chapters, or surahs, in the Koran, Stowasser said. In English translations, the word appears variously as "struggle," "strive" or "fight."
But in any language, mainstream Muslim scholars say, jihad refers primarily to the inner faith struggle of the believer, not to physical confrontation. They often recite a statement attributed to Muhammad after he returned from battle: "We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad -- jihad against the self."
Osama bin Laden and other Muslim extremists "pick and choose" passages from the Koran to support a global jihad, or holy war, against the United States and other countries, Stowasser said, citing a passage from Surah 9 that is sometimes used by militant Muslims.
"Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Apostle, and took the aggressive by being the first [to assault] you? . . . Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you [to victory] over them, heal the breasts of Believers, and still the indignation of their hearts."
The Arabic word for "fight" in this passage is not jihad but qital, which means "fight with weapons," Stowasser said. The word jihad, translated below as "strive," is used two verses later to refer to the inner struggle of Muslims who in 622 followed Muhammad into self-exile in Medina after a decade of persecution in Mecca.
"Think ye that ye shall be abandoned, as though God did not know those among you who strive with might and main, and take none for friends and protectors except God, His Apostle, and the [community of] Believers? But God is well-acquainted with [all] that ye do."
The struggle within sometimes refers to using restraint during times of war. "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you," reads Surah 2, "but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors." That means using only the "absolute minimum of destruction," Stowasser said.
Two conditions warrant war, according to the Koran -- defense against attackers and deposing an unjust ruler. But combatants are prohibited from killing noncombatants, especially women and children. That injunction comes from the Hadith, an extensive collection of Muhammad's sayings that were written down by his followers and is, after the Koran, the second-most sacred of Islam's texts.
Mohammad Abu-Nimer, a professor in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program at American University, said the prohibition against killing innocents has been understood for centuries. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, or great Muslim leader, after Muhammad's death in 632, instructed his soldiers "not to deviate from the right path," which included not killing women, children or old men, and not mutilating dead bodies.
Abu-Nimer, a Muslim Palestinian who grew up in Israel, frequently visits Islamic countries and addresses concerns many Muslims have about the "threat against Islam" posed by the United States and other Western countries. He quotes passages from the Koran to underscore what he says is the underlying theme of Islam -- peace.
One is from Surah 17: Do not "take life -- which God has made sacred -- except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority" to demand justice for the death or to forgive it. "But let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped [by the Law]."
Surah 5 says that a person who kills another person for reasons other than in response to "murder or for spreading mischief in the land -- it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one save a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people."
Radical Muslims act out of a "deep sense of injustice," Abu-Nimer said. "Certain groups take that injustice and fuel it with religion to justify [terrorist] acts. That doesn't mean those actions are right, but it also doesn't mean the injustice does not exist."
Abu-Nimer said some clerics read literally passages in the Koran that talk about going to war against the enemies of Islam and argue that the action is defensive as the holy book requires. But he said the violent imagery, and brutal punishment for the enemy, might have been appropriate for the "tribal culture" of 1,500 years ago, when the text was written, but not today.
"Islam is a dynamic religion that interacts with the times. It's not static," he said. Muslims who cannot adapt to the times "are capable of doing this crime as they've done it," he said of the attacks in Washington and New York.
Extremists who mete out punishment through terrorist attacks on innocent people are "blinded by their feeling of oppression and hatred," Abu-Nimer said. "They have an inability to distinguish what's in their religion and what's without."
The Koran is "mainly about the values of peacemaking and how to bring justice to an oppressed people," he said. "It's not about how to use violence indiscriminately."
Surah 2 warns against using the name of Allah to justify evil acts: "And make not God's [name] an excuse in your oaths against doing good, or acting rightly, or making peace between persons; for God is One Who heareth and knoweth all things."