Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Islam: Between Terror and a Hardplace (Jan-Feb 2002)

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by Khalil E. Jahshan
January – February, 2002

In the aftermath of the September 11 hijackings and terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush went out of his way to indicate that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam or Muslims. Although the President’s message was well received by many people, both at home and abroad, some questioned the validity of his statement and insisted that “of course this is about Islam,” particularly in light of the fact that all the known perpetrators of these terrorist attacks were Muslims whose leaders justified their heinous acts in the name of Islam.

Clearly, our world crisis has led many observers to raise serious questions about Islam as a religion and its relationship to the violent and hateful acts committed against the United States. What is the nature of Islam? Does it condone violence? What does Islam have in common with Christianity? Can one differentiate between Islam as a religion and the acts of its followers? Is it fair to blame Islam for the sins or shortcomings of Muslims? What is the difference between Islam as a religion and political Islam?

Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a monotheistic religion with a high sense of social and economic justice. It is, in my humble judgment, an inseparable part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Islam, at the risk of offending some of my many Muslim friends, is an Arabized version of the Old (Torah) and New (Evangel) Testaments rendered culturally applicable and meaningful to seventh century Arab society and its tribal social milieu at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 AD).

Muslims believe that their holy book or scripture, the Qur’an, is revealed by Allah (Arabic for God) just like the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, was revealed. In addition to emphasizing the oneness of God, Islam, which means surrender or submission to the will of God, shares with Christianity and Judaism a firm belief in the goodness and omnipotence of God and in resurrection and the last judgment. To be saved, Muslims have to perform five specific duties known as “the five pillars of Islam.” They include public profession or witness of faith, prayer or worship, almsgiving or sharing, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.

In addition, Muslims believe in all the biblical prophets and revere Jesus more than their Prophet Muhammad and look forward to his second coming. Jesus, who is referred to in Islam as the Messiah and the word of God, is indeed treated as a special Prophet, miraculously born of a virgin, and endowed with supernatural powers.

On the other hand, Islam differs from Christianity in several respects. First, Muslims believe that God “does not beget, and is not begotten.” In other words, as far as Muslims are concerned, Jesus is not the “Son” of God and has no claim to divinity. This is outright blasphemy for Muslims. Second, the Qur’an teaches that Jesus was not crucified but ascended directly to heaven. Jesus was too important to be crucified; therefore, someone who resembled him was actually crucified in his stead. And third, Muslims hold that Muhammad, “the seal (the last) of the Prophets,” was foretold in the authentic Bible, but contemporary Christians and Jews forged their own scriptures to deny him that status.

Furthermore, unlike Christ and some of the Hebrew prophets, for example, the Prophet Muhammad was simultaneously a man of God, a religious reformer and a political ruler. Thus, the Qur’an goes beyond the religious or spiritual teachings of Christianity and furnishes Muslims with detailed and precise legal, political and social principles to govern their daily lives. For Muslims, Islam is both a religion and a comprehensive way of life. It is not just a system of personal spiritual beliefs but also a justice system, indeed a total state system. In other words, there is no separation of church and state in Islam.

In order to understand what took place on September 11, it is vital to distinguish between religious Islam as a system of belief espoused by Muslims and political Islam, which is a radical political movement, practiced by Islamists. All believing Muslims share the same spiritual tenets of their faith, but not all of them follow the politics of fanatical Islamist activism. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa’ida network represent the latest offshoot of the latter although they claim to speak for all one billion Muslims worldwide in their hatred for “secular” Arab and Muslim regimes and their propensity to blame the decadent West for all the ills that plague their societies. In this sense, bin Laden might not be the Muslim prototype of religious piety, however; for many frustrated and schizophrenic Islamists he is a definite role model worthy of emulating.

Many were tempted after September 11 to blame Islam as a religion for the terrorist attacks because the perpetrators of these crimes are Muslims who apparently justified their actions in the name of their faith. However, making this linkage is the logical equivalent of blaming Christianity for the criminal deeds of Timothy McVeigh, Jim Jones, Adolph Hitler or the Crusaders. Although all four were the product of their “Christian” environment, one cannot rationally assign collective blame to Christianity for producing such monsters or aberrations. Religion, Islam included, has always been subject to the abuse of its followers.

The great Islamic scholar and reformer Fazlur Rahman, who taught me about Islam at the University of Chicago, was always fond of saying that “the Muslim should learn to look more objectively at his religious history, particularly at how Islam has fared at his hands.” One wonders whether bin Laden and his followers and sympathizers realize what they have done to their own religion.

The real question, therefore, is not about the nature of Islamic religious teachings and practices that generate hatred for Western infidels but about social, economic and political conditions in a largely non-democratic and underdeveloped Muslim world that generate political alienation, despair and violence in certain sectors of Muslim societies. This large pool of frustration and hopelessness serves as a fertile ground for essentially legitimate calls for economic, political and social justice that often find expression in hateful and violent acts committed in the name of Islam. Again, it is not that Islam condones violence or is inherently a violent religion, but the social factors stated above, coupled with Islam’s keen sense of economic and social justice and its doctrinal inability to separate church from state all contribute to that impression within and outside Muslim society.

Over the past few weeks, many accusations have been leveled at Islam questioning its commitment to peace and tolerance. These accusations present a great challenge for Muslims, which they must address for themselves. What adds to the confusion is the fact that Islam is both a religious and a political enterprise at the same time. Unlike contemporary Christianity, Islam is meant to govern. It provides for itself the role of state religion and the legal and moral basis of the universal Islamic political order. The challenge for Islam lies in the fact that it never had its exact equivalent to Christian reformation and Restoration where a “firewall” was established between church and state to protect each one from the inevitable abuses of the other. Until this type of firewall is placed between Islam and politics, Muslims will continue to exist in a state of suspended animation between a glorious past that cannot be easily duplicated and an unattainable stable and prosperous future that cannot be built on the shaky foundation of their dismal present.

The bin Laden phenomenon does only present the United States and Western culture with a serious challenge. Militant and violent political Islam is even a more lethal and threatening challenge to Islam and to Muslim societies. Some observers have written in recent weeks about the need for mainstream leaders in the Muslim world to rescue Islam from the violent groups that have essentially hijacked it. Indeed, Muslim religious and political leaders need to speak up and articulate a counter-vision to that offered by bin Laden and his al-Qa’ida cohorts. Frankly, these societies are doomed unless their counter vision succeeds in a credible way to bridge the gap between Islamic tradition and modernity.New Wineskins

Kahlil E. Jahshan

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