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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Two Arabic words: Falah, Fitna and General George Casey’s Koranic World View

There are two Arabic words which are crucial for understanding the Koranic world view.  Both begin with f. One is falah ‘success’, and the other is fitna ‘persecution’. 

Falah or success is what Islam promises to its adherents. For those who submit to Allah and accept his guidance, the intended result is success in this life and the next. The call of Islam is a call to success.

This call to success is proclaimed in the call to worship, which sounds forth to Muslims five times a day (in Arabic):

Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
I witness that there is no god but Allah.
I witness that there is no god but Allah.
I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
Come to worship. Come to worship.
Come to success. Come to success.
Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
There is no god but Allah.

The Quran emphasizes the importance of success a great deal. It divides humanity into winners and the rest:  those who do not accept Allah’s guidance are repeatedly called ‘the losers’:
Whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers. (Q3:85)
If thou associatest other gods with Allah, thy work shall surely fail and thou wilt be among the losers. (Q39:65)
On the other hand, those follow Islam are the ones who are promised success in this life and the next.

For many Muslims, part and parcel of this success is an entitlement to a sense of superiority.  This struck me forcibly for the first time when I was conversing with a friend, a convert to Islam, who stated, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, ‘Of course a more righteous person is superior.’

I was completely taken aback.  I had spent forty years reading the Bible and listening to sermons in church, yet this idea, that religious rigor brings superiority, was completely alien to me.  I searched through my knowledge of the gospels and the other writers of the New Testament, but I could not ground this idea  in my own religious context.  This was truly something distinctly Islamic, this idea that the religious person is superior and the non-religious person inferior.

Over the years I have found many references to the theme of superiority in Islamic sources.  There seems to have been a real fascination with superiority in the sayings of Muhammad (hadiths): many discuss what is superior to what.: which kind of camel is better than other camels; which well gives the best water; which kind of horse is better; which people are the best; which gender is better; which women are the best, and so forth.  Superiority was a major theme for Muhammad, and this influences Islamic thinking in many subtle ways.  It goes hand-in-hand with Islam’s focus on success, for an entitlement to feel superior, and to demand respect is part of Islam’s promise of success. In an often cited passage, the Koran states that Muslims are the best people on the earth: ‘You (Muslims) are the best nation ever brought forth’ (Sura 3:110).

Our second key word was fitna. The word fitna ‘trial, temptation’ is derived from fatana ‘to turn away from, to tempt, seduce or subject to trials’. The base meaning is to prove a metal by fire. 

Fitna can include either temptation or trial, including both positive and negative inducements, up to and including torture. It could encompass seducing someone, or tearing them limb from limb.

Fitna became a key concept in Islamic theological reflection around the early Muslim community’s experiences with unbelievers. Muhammad's complaint against the Meccans was that they had subjected him and the rest of the Muslims to fitna – including insult, slander, torture, exclusion, economic pressures, and other temptations – in order to get them to abandon Islam or to dilute its claims. They had stood in the way between him and success.

In Christian tradition, temptation or trial (Greek peirasmos) has been regarded as an inevitable part of following Christ.  However the New Testatment promises God’s grace to those who suffer trials because of their faith, and a reward for those who persevere.

The traditional Islamic attitude to fitna is very different.  It is much more proactive, with the goal being not so much to endure trials - although that is meritorious – but to eliminate them wherever possible.

The great Muslim commentator Ibn Kathir reported that,  at the time when Muhammad and his small band of followers migrated to Medina, Allah made made it clear that the whole purpose of fighting against non-believers was to eliminate fitna, i.e. anything which could cause Muslims to turn away from their faith:

And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, but aggress not: Allah loves not the aggressors. And slay them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution (fitna) is more grievous than slaying .... Fight them, til there is no persecution (fitna); and the religion is Allah’s;
then if they give over [i.e. cease their disbelief and opposition to Islam], there shall be no enmity save for evildoers.’ (Sura 2:190-93)
The idea that subjecting Muslims to any kind of trial or temptation away from their faith was ‘more grievous than slaying’ proved to be a momentous one. The same phrase would be revealed again after an attack on a Meccan caravan (Sura 2:217) during the sacred month (a period during which Arab tribal traditions prohibited raiding). It implied, at the very least, that shedding the blood of infidels is a lesser thing than a Muslim being led astray from their faith.

The other key phrase in this passage from Sura 2 is ‘fight them until there is no fitna’. This too was revealed more than once, the second time being after the battle of Badr, during the second year in Medina (Sura 8:39).

These fitna verses, each revealed twice in the Quran, established the principle that the use of force was justified by the existence of any obstacle to people entering Islam, or the existence of inducements to Muslims to abandon their faith. However grievous it might be to fight others and shed their blood, undermining or obstructing Muslims from following Islam was worse.

Later, most Islamic jurists extended the concept of fitna to include even the mere existence of unbelief, so the phrase could be interpreted as ‘unbelief is worse than killing’. Thus Ibn Kathir equated fitna to what he called ‘committing disbelief ’ and ‘associating’ (i.e. polytheism), as well as hindering people from following Islam:

“Since jihad involves killing and shedding of blood of men, Allah indicated that these men [i.e. polytheists] are committing disbelief in Allah, associating with Him (in the worship) and hindering from His path, and this is a much greater evil and more disastrous than killing. ... Shirk (polytheism) is worse than killing.”

Understood this way, the phrase ‘fitna is worse than killing’ was interpreted as a call to fight and kill  infidels who rejected Muhammad’s message, whether they were interfering with Muslims or not. Merely for unbelievers to ‘commit disbelief ’ – to use Ibn Kathir’s revealing phrase – was a greater evil than their being killed.

On this understanding, the whole concept of jihad warfare to extend the dominance of Islam was based. Thus Ibn Kathir, when commenting on Sura 2 and Sura 8 of the Koran, said that the command to fight means to go to war ‘so that there is no more Kufr (disbelief)’ and the Quranic statements ‘and the religion is Allah’s’ (Sura 2:193) or ‘the religion is Allah’s entirely’ (Sura 8:39) mean ‘So that the religion of Allah [i.e. Islam] becomes dominant above all other religions.’

The renowned modern Pakistani jurist Muhammad Taqi Usmani (b. 1943) reports that religious authorities have universally accepted that jihad is warfare to make Islam dominant:
... the purpose of Jehad ... aims at breaking the grandeur of unbelievers and establish that of Muslims. As a result no one will dare to show any evil designs against Muslim on one side and on the other side, people subdued from the grandeur of Islam will have an open mind to think over the blessings of Islam. ... I think that all Ulema (religious scholars) have established the same concept about the purpose of Jehad. (Islam and Modernism, pp.133-34.)
What Usmani is saying is that Islam must be so dominant that no-one could ever be tempted to follow another faith: then the complete dominance of Islam will give everyone an ‘open mind’ to consider the superiority of Islam.  Then there will be no more fitna.

It is significant that Islamic sacred history traces the beginning of the Islamic calendar from the migration to Medina, the point at which Allah declared an end to tolerance of fitna. This was a defining moment in the establishment of Islam, after which struggle must continue until all fitna was removed.

These are not just archaic or extreme ideas. A ruling issued in May 2009 by the International Fatwa Academy, an instrument of the Organization for the Islamic Conference, upheld the Islamic view that leaving Islam (apostasy) is a crime (punishable by death) because for anyone to leave Islam would be ‘a threat’ to the Muslim community, and must lead to to ‘casting doubts’ into the minds of Muslims. What the ruling was in effect saying is that for a Muslim to leave Islam is fitna for other Muslims.  And thus, because apostasy is fitna, the death penalty for apostates is no violation of human rights, but is in righteous agreement with Islam's command to use all efforts to remove fitna.

All this leads us to General George Casey, US Army Chief of Staff, who after the Foot Hood killings declared, “what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.” 

This statement should be a wake-up call for America. It should have been greeted with howls of protest all up and down the country.  When the head of the army states that the death of diversity is worse than the slaughter of US soldiers, something has gone deeply wrong.  The victims’ relatives had every right to be outraged!

Yet what is most disturbing about General Casey’s statement is how closely it matches the Koran’s ‘fitna is worse than slaughter’.  In context, ‘loss of diversity’ would mean scrutiny of radicalized Muslims in the armed forces.  It would have meant not privileging Major Nidal Hasan, nor overlooking his deficiencies just because he was a Muslim.  It would have meant withholding unearned success from him.  It would have meant taking his religious views seriously into account.  It would have meant fitna – placing obstacles in this one Muslim’s path to success in the military, because of his religious beliefs.  Such 'loss of diversity' is what General Casey has said is worse than the slaughter of US soldiers.

I doubt whether General Casey grasps the concept of fitna.  He has perhaps never even read the verses in the Koran which speak of it, nor the episodes in Muhammad's life which set it in context.  Nevertheless, the general's words seemed to unerringly advocate  a Koranic World View, when he effectively re-expressed ‘fitna is worse than slaughter’ as ‘what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.’

This is an excellent illustration of World View Subversion.  When your adversary has conditioned you to think his thoughts, and articulate his wishes, your battle is already half lost.  It is deeply disturbing to hear, coming from the mouth of the head of the US Army, a Koranic principle of such compelling power and enduring spiritual significance, at the very time when US soldiers are shedding their blood in the Afghanistan and Iraq jihads. Do America's generals really understand why its soldiers are giving their lives so far from home?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Political Correctness Kills, Says Islam Expert

Tuesday, 26 Jan 2010 03:56 PM

By: Ken Timmerman The U.S. military missed multiple direct warnings that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was contemplating mass mayhem once he learned he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan but ignored them because of political correctness, an Australian scholar of Islam told Newsmax in Washington, D.C. recently.

“At a certain point, someone explained to Major Hasan that he had a duty to fight Americans and that if he didn’t, he would go to Hell,” says Dr. Mark Durie, who has written several books on Islamic ideology. His latest is: “The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is naturalization of Muslims in non-Muslim nations forbidden by Islam?

by Mark Durie

When Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood on November 5, killing 13 and wounding 30, the question on everyone’s lips was ‘Why?’  Many speculated about his mental state, but a Pentagon report has asked why his supervising officers did not pay closer attention to his religious views.

The comprehension deficit is not just in the military.  This shocking event also raised questions about the nation’s broader capacity to engage with Major Hasan’s World View.  In the days following the shooting, there was still the greatest reluctance to allow any faith-based motives to be attributed to his actions.  A spate of stories appeared on the post-traumatic stress in the military. President Obama pleaded with Americans not to “jump to conclusions” and said, “we cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing.”  Army Chief of Staff General George Casey seemed to apply that attributing faith motivations to Major Hasan could be a greater tragedy than the killings: “what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.” Newsweek’s Evan Thomas opined “he’s probably just a nut case.”

Yet it was soon revealed that a year and a half previously Major Hasan had presented a seminar ‘The Koranic World View as It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military’ in which he explained, citing chapter and verse, why Muslim service personnel could initiate “adverse events”, up to and including deadly attacks on fellow US soldiers.  His presentation of his religious World View was clear, logical and copiously referenced from the Koran.  Tragically, however, his discussion of the implications of some Muslims’ divided loyalties was not understood.

Although the New York Times described Major Hasan as a ‘lone gunman’, the challenging reality is that the ‘Koranic World View’ outlined by Major Hasan is neither eccentric nor unsupported within the wider world of Islamic opinion.  (This is not to say that all Muslims would agree with Major Hasan’s use of the Koran!)

To set Major Hasan’s World View seminar in the context of broader Muslim opinion, one does not have to turn to the American-born Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki, Major Hasan’s spiritual mentor.  One can instead look to the Islamic Fiqh Academy, a body set up by the Organization for the Islamic Conference, a veritable ‘United Nations of Islam’.  The Academy’s stated purpose is to “achieve the theoretical and practical unity” of the worldwide Islamic community by providing authoritative interpretations of the teachings of Islam.  In other words it seeks to guide the whole Muslim world on the right religious path. 

The Fiqh Academy has solicited rulings from the world’s most respected Islamic jurists on certain questions of interest. One of these questions relates directly to the Major Hasan’s issue of divided loyalties: it was asked whether it is lawful, according to Islam, for a Muslim to become a naturalized citizen of a non-Muslim nation such as America.

The Fiqh Academy’s findings, reported on its website in Arabic, are salutary.  The Muslim authorities were concerned about the issue of divided loyalties.  Their rulings presuppose that naturalization in a non-Muslim nation, without proper justification, is unacceptable.  Most considered that it could be allowed, but only under specific conditions of dire necessity, for example if Muslims have been persecuted in their own country, and they could find no Muslim society to escape to.

Another condition was that the naturalized Muslim should not seek to advance the cause of their adopted nation above that of Islam. Former Supreme Court Judge of Pakistan, and vice president of the Fiqh Academy, Justice Muhammad Taqi Usmani stated that “if naturalization in a foreign nationality is for the purpose of rendering it mighty and to be proud of it, or to prefer it to the Muslim nationality, or to resemble its people in practical life, this is absolutely forbidden.”

Another distinguished member of the Fiqh Academy, Sheikh Muhammad Mukhtar al-Salami, the former Grand Mufti of Tunisia, was concerned that if a Muslim adopts a new flag, an adverse consequence could be having to serve in the military against fellow Muslims:  “he is one of the members of the state which he has associated with, and should a war occur between this state and an Islamic state, his duty demands him to fight Muslims and to pour bombs over their heads.”  Sheikh al-Salami concluded that under such circumstances, to become an American citizen would be “an absolute rejection of the rules of Islam.”

There have been multiple incidents over the past decade where Muslim American service personnel have attacked and killed fellow US soldiers, for self-confessed religious reasons.  These events have invariably been dismissed as the acts of isolated extremist individuals.  However in the light of clear rulings, reported by the International Fiqh Academy, that Muslims are forbidden to aid the cause of a non-Muslim nation, or to aid in its wars against Muslims, a public debate needs to take place, about whether, to what extent, and in what circumstances, an Islamic World View can be in conflict with loyalty to the nation.  To stifle this debate dishonors the innocent victims of these attacks, and invites continued ‘adverse events’.

This debate needs to be pursued without being censored by political correctness.  It would, for example, be ridiculous to stigmatize the rulings of respected Muslim legal authorities as Islamophobic.

Religion is something which many in the West would prefer remained as a private category.  However an adequate response to the tragic case of Major Hasan demands that his Koranic World View not be dismissed as something belonging to the private world of personal preferences.  Major Hasan’s commanding officers should have paid closer attention when he was explaining his beliefs about the Koran, jihad and loyalty.  If they had dedicated themselves to comprehending his World View, and acknowledged the implications of its crystal-clear logic, his thirteen victims would still be alive today.

Mark Durie is an Australian human rights activist, and author of The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Nag Hammadi massacre and the Collective Character of the dhimma

The recent shooting of Copts as they filed out from Church on January 6th in Nag Hammadi was allegedly triggered by accusations that a Coptic youth had violated a Muslim girl.  What is striking about the circumstances of this attack and the allegation associated with it, is the mismatch between the collective character and the individual nature of the alleged transgression.  An individual is said to have crossed the line, but the whole community was attacked.

The line alleged to have been crossed in this case is of the many boundary markers which constitute an age-old institution in Sharia law, the dhimma pact: Christian males are not supposed to have any relations - let alone criminal ones - with Muslim women.

The concept of collective guilt, and retribution upon a whole community for the sins of the individual is also one of the principles of the dhimma.  This is explained in my book The Third Choice: Islam, dhimmitude and freedom.  Here is an extract from the book (pp.160-162):

“Such events need to be understood in the context of the communal or collective nature of the dhimma pact. As it was the whole community which made the pact, it is the whole community which must pay the price if the pact is broken. Even a breach by a single individual dhimmi could result in jihad being enacted against the whole community. Muslim jurists have made this principle explicit, for example, the Yemeni jurist al-Murtada wrote that ‘The agreement will be cancelled if all or some of them break it ...’ and the Moroccan al-Maghili taught ‘The fact that one individual (or one group) among them has broken the statute is enough to invalidate it for all of them.’

As a result dhimmis have always lived in a state of perpetual concern for the potential impact of their personal actions on their whole community. Individuals would be very reluctant to take any prominent position in the society. Historical accounts tell of how well-off dhimmi families could allow their children to go about in rags, and wealthy merchants would do service sweeping the streets, to avoid attracting hostility from Muslim neighbors.

It must be emphasized that there need not be actual dhimmi laws in place for reprisals to be enacted which accord with the pattern of the dhimma pact. The dhimma is not merely a legal contract: it is a religious institution which informs and influences the culture and behavior of whole societies, whether the political authorities uphold the dhimma or not. This was repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Muslim world after the Ottomans officially revoked the dhimma, and the principle continues to be shown today in the enforcement of many dhimma conditions against non-Muslims in Islamic nations.

The sense that individual ‘transgressions’ of non-Muslims legitimates a communal reprisal remains an enduring issue in Muslim communities. In September of 2005, a reprisal was directed against the Christian Palestinian village community of Taiba on the basis of the actions of an individual man who had a romance with a Muslim woman. A report entitled ‘Muslims ransack Christian village’, published in the Jerusalem Post of September 5, 2005 described the events:
"Efforts were under way on Sunday to calm the situation in this Christian village east of Ramallah after an attack by hundreds of Muslim men from nearby villages left many houses and vehicles torched. The incident began on Saturday night and lasted until early Sunday, when Palestinian Authority security forces interfered to disperse the attackers. Residents said several houses were looted and many families were forced to flee to Ramallah and other Christian villages, although no one was injured.
... ‘More than 500 Muslim men, chanting Allahu akbar [Allah is greater], attacked us at night’, said a Taiba resident. ‘They poured kerosene on many buildings and set them on fire. Many of the attackers broke into houses and stole furniture, jewelry and electrical appliances.’ ... ‘It was like a war, they arrived in groups, and many of them were holding clubs’, said another resident.
Several aspects of this attack points to its character as a jihad reprisal under dhimma conditions: 
- the impression that the attack was ‘like a war’: it was in fact a manifestation of jihad;
- the traditional war cry Allahu Akbar ‘Allah is greater’, uttered by the attackers, showed that they regarded their deeds as having a religious motivation; 

- the looting of non-Muslim homes; and 

- the communal character of the reprisals, for the transgression of an individual.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

"They ARE the Reformation"

By Mark Durie

On December 1, 2009, Wafa Sultan and Daniel Pipes debated whether and to what extent a 'moderate' Islam is possible.  Although both are opponents of Islamic radicalism, on this question they did not agree.

Wafa Sultan argued that Islam is Islam, pure and simple, and there can never be such a thing as 'moderate Islam'. On the other hand, Daniel Pipes argued that the answer to radical Islam must be moderate Islam: Islam can be moderated, and the effort to support Muslim moderates is both necessary and worthwhile.

The two participants in the debate are as contrasting a pair as one could imagine.  The ex-Muslim Wafa Sultan is undoubtedly a powerful voice in her native Arabic, and even in English she is impassioned and speaks with a memorable turn of phrase.  In contrast, Daniel Pipes is measured and softly spoken, carefully and persistently making his case.  He challenged her to explain what practical solutions she could offer to the challenge of radical Islam.  She challenged him to show the results produced by his promotion of moderate Islam.

I commend the debate to readers, not because one party won the day, but because the speakers were addressing important questions, which will exercise many minds for years - perhaps generations - to come.

My concern here however is to focus on an important comparison between medieval Christianity and present-day Islam, which was raised by someone in the audience, who asked:
"I will suggest that this [radical Islam] is not that different from Christianity at the time of the crusades, which was a very belligerent religion compared to what it is today.  So look at that in terms of the evolution of a religious doctrine, and how long does that take?"
The questioner went on to speculate whether the acceleration of change, which we see in the world around us, could allow a reformation of Islam to happen more rapidly than happened with Christianity.

On countless occasions over the years I have heard this comparison: Christianity has undergone its reformation, so why not Islam? The European reformation took centuries: why wouldn't an Islamic reformation also take time?  Isn't it all a matter of time.

This line of thinking arises from a world view which looks at ideologies through the lens of 'progress' or 'evolution', shaped by a kind of Darwinism.  The underlying presupposition is that human societies evolve as time passes, progressing and becoming more humane and more advanced. 

Clearly not everyone in the West works from this assumption, but many do.  As recently as the 1960's, it was even fashionable among Western secularists to believe that religion had had its day altogether. Many announced that God was, at last, 'dead'.  The death of God was widely  regarded as one of the positive benefits of progress.

The idea of progress is not simply a concept - it has become part of the warp and woof of our everyday language.  We speak of ideas, policies and practices as 'backward' or 'regressive', 'progressive' or 'advanced'.  Time has become a yardstick to measure the ever-improving character of human social order.  It is the embedding of the idea of progress into our everyday language which gives credibility to the question "Can Islam not undergo its own reformation too?"

But do societies really tend to evolve, becoming more and more advanced?  Do social institutions inevitably improve with time?  Is progress more than just an idea - is it a law which governs the history of religions?

I find it very difficult, looking back over the ethical wreckage of the 20th century, to subscribe to the presupposition of progress. The worst atrocities of the past 100 years were perpetrated by regimes which held up an ideal of social evolution, and which were motivated by a vision of human progress.  One recalls, for example of the careers of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.  Such shameful monuments to 'progress' as National Socialism and Communism do not inspire confidence that human societies and ideologies can and must improve with time.

There is another problem with comparing today's Islam with pre-Reformation Christianity, and this has to do with the meaning of 'reformation' itself.  It has become accepted by many thinking people today that 'reformation' means some kind of softening, a 'moderating' process.  Indeed a manifestation of 'progress'.  This far from the truth.

Throughout the whole medieval period the idea of reformation (reformatio) was prestigious, and many reform movements chased after this ideal   Reformation meant going back to one's roots, and just about everyone agreed that this was a Good Thing.  For medieval Christians, a reformed Christianity meant being more Christ-like, more apostolic, and more Pauline.  Wealthy St Francis read Jesus' words about giving away one's possessions to feed the poor, so he followed this teaching, and many flocked to join him.  Thus the Franciscans were founded as a reform movement. 

St Francis was a radical reformer. He was not inspired by a vision of making Christianity more moderate and progressive.  What moved him was a desire to follow the Jesus of Gospels. 

Likewise Luther recalled the words of St Paul about freedom in the letter to the Galatians - 'for freedom Christ has set us free' - to exort the German Nobles to claim their own freedom from ecclesiastical authority.

The European Reformation - so often invoked in comparisons with Islam today - was driven by a desire to re-form Christianity a second time,  taking it back to its roots.  It sought to move ahead by going backwards.  Its inner logic had nothing to do with the modern idea of progress or the Darwinian concept of 'evolution'.  The Reformation was not a 'progressive' movement in the modern sense, but one which sought to 'regress', renewing the example of Christ and his apostles. 

This is why Luther and other reformers encouraged believers to read their Bibles for themselves, in their own native tongue.  Luther regarded it as the duty of every Christian to be constantly renewing their own faith from the original sources.  LIke St Francis, Luther was a Christian radical.

It is true that some changes brought in by the European Reformation had a moderating effect on Western intellectual life. There developed a greater emphasis on freedom and individual responsibility, for example. The Protestant work ethic was one bi-product of this emphasis. Yet these developments did not take place out of a desire to develop a more moderate form of Christianity, but because they they were regarded as conforming more to the  Bible.

Therefore, according to the core meaning of 'reformation' - a return to one's roots - reforming Islam  would mean making it more Muhammadan.  An Islamic reformation would produce a religion which is closer to the Koran, and above all, closer to the example and teaching of its founder. 

The hankering of some Westerners after an Islamic reformation begs the question of what would it mean to be follow Muhammad's example more closely?

As it happens, such a movement has been underway for more than 100 years, and is in full swing today.  It is what we know today as Islamic radicalism. The ideal of an Islamic reformation has produced, among many other results, the global jihad movement, the push for sharia revival and reimplementation of the Caliphate. This is what a desire to revive the example and teaching of Muhammad has led to.

There are two two main reasons why renewing the example of Muhammad leads to Islamic radicalism.

One is that Muhammad combined within himself the offices of king, judge, general and religious leader, thus unifying politics, law, the military and religion.  To follow his example means creating a theocratic political order, where the laws of the land are controlled by Islamic theology.  In contrast Christian tradition has always distinguished the secular from the ecclesiastical, based on the older Hebrew religious distinction between priests and kings.  This feature of medieval Christianity - the distinction between religion and politics - was severely criticised by famous Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun.  Muslim thinkers had always regarded it as one of the key weaknesses of Christianity.

The second reason why renewing Islam leads to radicalism is that many of the harsher elements of Islamic law - such death for apostates, stoning adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, enslaving one's enemies, and killing non-believers - are firmly grounded in Muhammad's example.

Australian Muslim Waleed Aly was entirely correct when he said Islam has already had its Reformation, and the outcome has been Islamic radicalism: 
"Still, Western calls for an Islamic Reformation grow predictably and irrepressibly stronger, while those familiar with the Islamic tradition easily observe that radical and terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, cannot be cured by Reformation for the very simple fact that they are the Reformation." [People like us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, p.xv].
For those today whose world view is shaped by the ideal of progress, and look out upon Islam peering through the frame of Western assumptions about 'backwardness', 'progress' and 'evolution', Waleed Aly's insight can be difficult to grasp.  Yet it is essential that it be understood and appreciated. 

In today's world, if what is needed is more moderate manifestation of Islam, then the very last thing that could ever accomplish this would be an Islamic Reformation.

A version of this article was published by World Magazine.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Accentuate the positive: Dr Muqtedar Khan's New Year Recipe for World Peace

Dr Muqtedar Khan has written a recent opinion piece, ('Muhammad's promise to Christians', December 30, 2009), calling upon Christians and Muslims to 'tell and retell positive stories' about each other, and 'abstain from mutual demonization'. He follows his own advice by telling a nice story about a letter, which is thought to be sent from Muhammad to the monks of St Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt.

Pointing out that these Christianity and Islam  account for more than half of the world's population between them, Dr Khan writes that 'if they [Christians and Muslims] lived in peace, we would be than half way to world peace.'

Dr Khan also implies that those who would expose Islam or Christianity to criticism are fuelling global conflict. He proposes that, instead of 'demonizing' each other – i.e. telling negative stories, adherents of these two faiths should seek out, and retell the most postive stories that they can find about each other. I am reminded of Bing Crosby's song:
 Man, they said we better
 Accentuate the positive
 Eliminate the negative

 You've got to spread joy (up to the maximum)
 Bring gloom (down) down to the minimum
 Otherwise (otherwise) pandemonium
 Liable to walk upon the scene
Is this viewpoint valid? In one sense this is just good neighborliness.  If two parties have a history of conflict, it can be helpful if each side agrees to speak well of the other.

On the other hand, there are times where telling the truth is essential, even if the truth is unwelcome or hard to hear, even when it is not a 'positive story'.  Where there has been a history of abuse and injustice, sweet talk can make injustice and suffering worse.

Consider for example the desperate and fragile situation of South Africa emerging from the apartheid years.  It became necessary – and wise – to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because genuine, lasting harmony needed to be truth-based.  The nation was plagued with deep and festering wounds, causing the whole body of South Africa to be sick. These wounds had to to be opened to the light of day, and their causes acknowledged, to allow a reasonable hope for genuine and lasting reconciliation.

The problem with Dr Khan's advice is that when reconciliation is what is needed, sweet talk can be a smokescreen for continued abuse. Dr Khan's advice is at worst a form of emotional blackmail, which attempts to shut down serious critical discourse, for his logic would paint all who attempt a serious critique of the legacy of each faith as inciters of hatred, and 'demonizers'.  This is itself a form of demonization, which will stigmatize the victims of interfaith hatred, simply for telling their far from 'positive' stories.

In the light of these considerations, Dr Khan's example of St Catherine's letter is misleading and unfortunate.  Dr Khan must surely be aware that scholarly opinion does not regard this document as genuine.  It is almost certainly a forgery, created to bolster the security of the Christian monks of the Mount Sinai Monastry.  This is why the document no longer exists in its original form: there never was an original letter.   In reality the very existence of this document is evidence of the fear under which the monks have lived, as are the impregnable walls of the monastery building itself.

Dr Khan must also be aware that this letter is in conflict at several points with classical Islamic sources, including the Koran.

Dr Khan asserts, on the basis of the Mt Sinai letter, that Christians 'do not have to make any payments' for living in peace with Muslims.  However he does not mention that the Koran commands the imposition of a tax (known as jizya) upon conquered non-Muslims (Sura 9:29), and this was incorporated into Islamic law.  Also, although the letter states that Christians were to be allowed to repair their churches, the orthodox Islamic position was that churches were not allowed to be repaired after conquest.  This was based upon the Pact of Umar, which has been relied upon by many great Muslim commentators and jurists. Undoubtedly this phrase was included in the forged letter to counter the difficulties Egyptian Christians were having living under sharia conditions.  The reference to Christian girls not being forced to marry Muslim men against their will does not reflect Muhammad's intentions for 7th century monks at Mt Sinai, but the ever-present fear, which Egyptian Christians experience to this day, that Christian women could be forced into unwanted marriages with Muslim men.

In the end, despite Dr Khan's evident good will and positive story, it is the authority of the Koran and accepted sources such as the Pact of Umar which have shaped Islamic law and affected the destiny of millions of conquered non-Muslims over centuries – and continue to do so today.  Not letters held by Christians in monasteries.

Dr Khan writes that:
Those who seek to foster discord among Muslims and Christians focus on issues that divide and emphasize areas of conflict. But when resources such as Muhammad's promise to Christians is invoked and highlighted it builds bridges. It inspires Muslims to rise above communal intolerance and engenders good will in Christians who might be nursing fear of Islam or Muslims.

When I look at Islamic sources, I find in them unprecedented examples of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. They make me want to become a better person.
In reality Islam's policy for dealing with Christians, Jews and other conquered peoples was not shaped by the Mt Sinai letter.  It is quite misleading for Dr Khan to imply that it was, or that this letter could be regarded as compelling evidence for Islam's policy towards non-Muslims.

Genuine reconciliation demands more than this.  It requires a frank and open acknowledgement of the past.  In order to truly engage with the impact of Islam upon its conquered peoples, Muhammad's advice of 'Speak the truth, even if bitter' is well worth following. 

It is a form of abuse to attempt to silence the voices of those who suffer from the worst aspects of Islamic law.  To characterize as 'demonization' attempts to speak about these sufferings or examine the reasons behind them, is intolerable.  This contributes nothing to interfaith harmony, but only condemns the wounds of the past to fester on, unhealed.  Sadly, Dr Khan's counsel is no New Year recipe for peace and harmony in our broken world.