Observations in response to September 11 prepared for: The Third Annual Isra and Mi’raj Conference Sponsored by the Islamic Studies and Research Association (ISRA) 11 November 2001 * Columbia, South Carolina * 1422
Since September 11, Americans have heard again and again that real Islam means peace; it opposes corruption, terror, and acts based on anger or hate; it stands for security, reconciliation, and love for Allah’s creation. As Muslims, we know these statements to be true. But we also recognize that the tragedies of fall 2001 have cast these teachings of Islam into question. One wonders if such principles truly are well known to most Muslims. Certainly the Muslims who support the essential Islam————the Islam grounded in the Compassion and Mercy of Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa)————seem to have been in a minority in vocalizing their faith (although we pray and assume that they are the numerical majority).
Many factors fed the hatred that burst forth that September morning, including decades of poverty, oppression, and conflict; the repercussions of colonialism; resentments caused by short-sighted foreign policies. But mindful that “...Allah does not change [a] people’’’’s condition unless they change their own inner selves” (Qur’’’’an 13:11), I would like to focus on a factor closer to home: the misinterpretations that have been allowed to obscure the beauty of Islam
Islam is drowning in a sea of myths————not just myths held by non-Muslims, but myths contrived by extremists who glorify death and disregard believers’’’’ responsibility to work towards a peaceful and contented life for all peoples. Devastation results when misguided individuals distort Shari‘‘‘‘ah under the guise of education or promises of retribution. We have seen innocent people suffer because the name “Islam” has been grafted onto Jahiliyah attitudes of envy, revenge, hatred, selfishness, materialism, tribalism, and disregard for human rights and human life.
In the wake of September 11, it may take decades for Muslims to be accepted rather than suspect. We cannot shortcut this process, but we can facilitate it by debunking some of the most widespread myths surrounding Islam.
Myth #1: The worldwide community (ummah) of Muslims is monolithic.
Reality: Islam is a universal deen that has been subject to diverse interpretations.
Human beings naturally generalize. Our brains receive so much information that to simplify processing it, we place people in broad categories based on religion, race, nationality, or other features.
This habit is not inherently bad, but it becomes problematic when generalizations attain the status of all-embracing “us versus them”” world views. Such a view was put forth by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations. Usamah bin Laden propounded a similar perspective every time he called upon “all Muslims” to rally against the West.
Islam is a universal faith that offers a living aspect of qualities to which all human beings relate: Compassion, Mercy, Tolerance, Patience, Love. It contains a coherent and deep inner dimension that can enable any individual to strive to refine his or her self (nafs), and to come nearer to a personal and present God/Truth. These qualities and this doorway to intimacy with the Divine have attracted sincere individuals throughout the ages.
But bearing the label “Muslim” is no guarantee of valuing Islamic teachings. The Prophet Muhammad himself (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “...my ummah will be fragmented into seventy-three sects….” Muslims are not a single, homogeneous entity. Grave risks arise from thinking that they are.
Moderate Muslims must make clear the distinction between those who strive towards “inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong…” (Qur’’’’an 3:104), and those who foster evil. The latter have spent decades spreading disinformation and offering calculated training in hate. We must counter their destructive movements by designing and implementing constructive plans of action. We cannot presume immunity to the viruses of extremism; rather, we need to educate ourselves and future generations in how to diagnose their symptoms and build resistances against them. Otherwise, we may be forced to understand in a new way the saying of Sayyidina ‘‘‘‘Ali (radiya-Llaahu anhu): “The whole universe is like the droppings of camel-dung in the vast Rub-al-Khali [Arabian desert].” By these droppings, we know that “a great King’’’’s caravan [has] passed” (ad-Darqawi 20).
Myth #2: Islam is puritanical.
Reality: Islam is an expression of purity and potential.
I need not elaborate on the practices and images that have fostered the myth of puritanical Islam, from women being denied education and being beaten in public, to peaceful voices of dissent being silenced through incarceration or execution.
But this is not the reality of Islam as I know it. Islam as I know it recognizes a process of inner and outer development along with responsibility, duty, choice, and eventually, humble service.
Humanity is engaged in a process––––a process of development and evolution of ethic, morality, character, knowledge, technology, and understanding. This process proceeds best when societies steer clear of dictating unrealistic expectations or goals that are not yet attainable. No person or group can demand of another what even Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) does not demand but rather encourages and admonishes. That which has come to be called “fundamentalism”” or “extremism” is unrealistic and blatantly wrong in imposing such demands. Its misguided proponents see situations in black and white. They assume that others can and will change to fit their ideas of religious purity. Much of what they preach is so unfair, compromising, and demeaning that people naturally recoil from embracing it.
How can fundamentalists presume to enforce the end of a long personal developmental effort? The lives and teachings of prophets such as Jesus and Muhammad (peace and blessings upon them both) exemplify the goal of our sojourn in this world. The attainment of this goal cannot be legislated. It certainly cannot be institutionalized without regard for the rest of God’s created universe and systems and their interface with human tendencies. What is revealed and taught speaks to the ultimate capability of certain human beings; but also, to be effective and accepted, it must apply in degrees to all people as they journey through life. Imperfections and barriers, failures and renewed effort are all critical parts of the system of perfecting.
To the degree we strive to exemplify tolerance, faith, service, fairness, understanding, respect for the sanctity of life, and respect for Allah’s creatures, in keeping with Allah’s guidance, that will be our degree of peace and trust in Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa). That will be our degree of Islam and iman (faith): an Islam and iman that reflect the truth of “There is no compelling in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And one who rejects false deities and believes in Allah has grasped a firm handhold that will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower” (Qur’an 2:256).
Myth #3: Muslims are out to convert the world.
Reality: Muslims are guided to be examples of human harmony, tolerance, and peace: qualities which attract the human heart.
Confronted with non-Muslims’ accusations that Islam is expansionist, Muslims commonly cite the ayat just mentioned: “There is no compelling in religion….” Nevertheless, discussions of da‘wa within Muslim circles often reflect an almost missionary zeal for recruiting converts.
Going out and converting people is a far cry from being a magnet that attracts people. Real da‘wa is not about swelling the ranks of our congregations. Our Islamic goal, our historical goal, is to encourage remembrance of the Truth, Mercy, Compassion, and Forgiveness of the Almighty, along with respect for His creation, including all humanity. Our goal is not to spread a religion, but rather to share a way of life that is attractive to all individuals of heart and soul————to expand their belief through their contact with Muslims, with Sufis————with us, coming forward with open hands, with courage and a sense of duty to serve those around us. Our purpose in life is not limited to dunya (the physical world). How we act and work in this world creates a passage to the next. If we act for the sake of Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa), we are complete————let Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘‘aalaa) respond as He Wills. Deepening our faith and service and supporting others’ well being, sense of fulfillment, and completion provide the means to the hayat-i-tayibat (good life). Acting for the sake of Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘‘aalaa) is different than acting in the name of Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa). We need Allah’s Mercy. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) does not need our help.
The greatest da‘wa is to respond to the needs of our neighbors, our communities, our society, and our world. We as Muslims have an understanding of universal values like equity, tolerance, and justice; we have practical, experientially-proven methods of self-reflection; we have a progressive and fulfilling way of life. All of these could be tremendous assets to the people around us.
Now, people who claim to represent our deen have created a mountain that we must scale before we can share what we have to offer. We have been thrown into the most defensive position. But we must not let this stop us from the real da‘wa: from sharing the fruits of our spiritual practices and values with others.
In order to bring Islamic teachings to bear on today’’s issues, we must debunk a fourth myth.
Myth #4: Islam is fixed, static, and unable to adapt to the contemporary world.
Reality: Islam is a foundation for progress, enlightened development, and dynamic, positive change.
This myth reflects both the post-modern desire to make all rules subject to revision, and the orthodox backlash against such revisionism. Akbar Ahmed explains, “Where nothing is sacred, every belief becomes revisable. Thus fundamentalism is the attempt to resolve how to live in a world of radical doubt.”
Any of us who seeks to uphold the fundamental teachings of Islam must indeed stand by certain established principles.
! We must help all those who are in need, to the point where they can begin to assist themselves, if possible. The Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) taught that “God loves those who love His creatures.”
! We must be not only generous, but peaceable and just. The Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu‘‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ““There are three attributes, which, if they are found in a person, will complete that person’s faith: giving charity despite abject poverty, spreading peace throughout the world, and giving people their acknowledged rights without the use of a judge.”
! We must honor the contributions of women as well as men. If Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) states, “I will not let the good deed of any worker among you, whether a male or a female, be wasted…………” (Qur’an 3:195), who are we to waste any person’s talents or efforts?
! We must respect people of all races and backgrounds. The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) taught: “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white, except in piety.”
In addition to these and other constructive, non-negotiable prescriptions, Islam provides a system of thought and self-evaluation that enables it to continually adapt to changing times
The framework of Shari‘ah is evolutionary, not constraining. In Arabic, shaar‘ means “a broad street or boulevard.” Shari‘ah is a broad boulevard of activity. It is like a raga in Indian music. A raga is a precise musical form, but endless improvisation is possible within that form. Shari‘ah gives us clear parameters for our choices, within which we can be creative in developmental ways.
The Prophet’s enjoinder to “Seek out knowledge from cradle to grave” implies a continual, conscious effort to expand our understandings. We might consider, for example, the issue of organ transplants. Some Muslims may regard transplants as an offense against God’s natural order, arguing that the violation of a body is forbidden. But other contemporary Muslims point to the Qur’anic passage: “...whoever saves a life, it would be as if he [or she] saved the life of all the people” (5:32). They note that according to Islamic law, “the lesser of two evils is to be chosen if both cannot be avoided.” From their perspective, an organ transplant is permissible if it will make the difference between life and death (Organ Donation).
We need to wrestle with such issues actively, recognizing the context of our position and the questions before us. We have the tools of ijtihaad (independent judgement), shuuraa (consultation), ra’y (opinion), and ijmaa’ (consensus). Let us remember and utilize these gifts of the Almighty with humility and vision.
Islam is in need of a revivification, which I believe ardently could come from North America. Our society is well-positioned to lead this great work. American Muslims appreciate and are able to make the most of the dynamic, values-oriented, spiritually-fulfilling yet practical way of life that is offered by Islam. Yet, we must also recognize that this way of life is an offer, not a given or something we can take for granted. Unless we accept that offer and are responsible for ourselves, we will remain silent and passive, while the arrogant and misguided speak and act in our name. I did not give, nor would I ever give, permission for the perpetrators of 9-11 and their supporters to speak either in my name or in the name of my belief. Did you?
But our passivity could be construed as permission. The actors and the handlers of recent events have been preparing for years by corrupting and indoctrinating the minds of a generation and a half of discontented “have nots,” or by creating idealogues out of conflicted educated individuals. To counter their doctrines, we must be equally diligent in using the light of Shari‘ah to see and to relate to today’s world in better ways, for individuals and for the human community at large.
This effort is the real jihad, in contrast to the kind of jihad associated with the next myth.
Myth #5: Jihad refers exclusively to military confrontations, which Muslims launch routinely.
Reality: The concept of jihad reflects a realistic understanding of the inner and outer need for struggle, with the goal in all instances being peace.
We all know that the word jihad does not refer primarily to “holy war.” As the American media has stated numerous times recently, jihad literally means striving or struggling. We might wonder, truthfully, who is really listening to what sound like apologetic and weak responses to tragedy and hate. But regardless of who else may or may not be listening, it is critical that we as Muslims understand the meaning of jihad: that we know that it is the kind of striving associated with perfecting the expression of Truth in our lives.
We all have heard countless times the Prophet’s saying: “We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” But how do we get people to understand within Islam that the greater jihad should be the focus of our lives? More importantly, how do we help people understand that if the greater jihad is our focus, it will eventually abrogate any need for the lesser jihad?
In the Qur’’an, we read: “...Allah sends whom He will astray, and guides to Himself all who turn (to Him), who have believed and whose hearts have rest in the remembrance of Allah. Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest!” (13:27-28). “Rest” in this ayat implies not only repose, but a sense of calmness, tranquillity, security, and equanimity born of trust. When we set selfishness aside, we become better able to accept graciously what God has given us, be it gold or iron, poverty or wealth. We find refuge in patience (sabr). We stop blaming others, and become humble enough to look at ourselves, to see our faults, repent, and try to rectify the wrongs we have done to those around us. We begin to consider others’ needs as if they were our own. We become muslimoon in the literal sense of the word: individuals who, having surrendered ourselves to God, work actively for the peace, security, and well being of all people.
While it is true that Islam permits fighting (and in some cases commands it), always the use of force must support long-term peace. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) revealed: ““Permission is given to those who fight because they have been wronged…those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is God.’’’’ For had it not been for God repelling some people by means of others, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques, in which the name of God is often remembered, would surely have been pulled down…” (Qur’an 22:39-40).
What are Muslims obligated to defend? The freedom to say, “Our Lord is God.” The security to remember God often. The spaces wherein human beings of diverse faiths meditate, pray, and turn their attention to the Divine. All these are critical to the inner equanimity that enables outer peace.
Other guidelines for jihad also direct us back towards establishing the groundwork for peace.
! Muslims’ responses to violence must be proportionate and measured. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘‘‘‘aalaa) stated in the Qur’an, “If you have to retaliate, let your retaliation be commensurate with the wrong which was done to you” (Qur’an 16:126).
! It is forbidden to destroy an enemy’s family or means of livelihood. Abu Bakr (radiya-Llaahu ‘anhu) instructed his soldiers: ““Do not kill the [enemy’s] children, old people, and women. Do not…burn their harvest, nor cut the fruit bearing trees”” (Doi 446).
! In the midst of war, spiritual pursuits must be maintained. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) revealed in the Qur’an, “...some shall refrain from going forth to war, and shall devote themselves [instead] to acquiring a deeper knowledge of the faith, and [thus be able to] teach their home-coming brethren, so that these might guard themselves against evil” (9:122).
! Muslims must set aside the outer jihad as soon as possible. “If the enemy inclines towards peace, you also incline towards peace, and trust in Allah…” (Qur’an 8:61).
Finally, while the oppressed have the right to take “an eye for an eye,” forgiveness is considered more praiseworthy and lasting. “The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah” (Qur’an 42:40). Elsewhere in the Qur’an, Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) revealed: “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with that which is better; then will he, between whom and you was hatred, become as it were your friend and intimate!” (41:34).
The Prophet himself (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) set the example for repelling evil with that which is better. Throughout the years of persecution in Mecca, he and his companions never resorted to armed resistance. Later, at Hudaybiyah, the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘‘alayhi wa sallam) again demonstrated the power of nonviolent tactics. Many Muslims were frustrated by the Prophet’s refusal to fight on that occasion. But Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) stated: “Lo! We have given you a clear victory…” (Qur’an 48:1). Today, we might call the Treaty of Hudaybiyah a “win-win” outcome. It set the stage so that when the Muslims assumed control of Mecca, they could enter the city “without shedding a drop of blood” (Armstrong 23).
Violence breeds hatred. It sows destruction on physical, emotional, and mental levels, as evidenced in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iran, Kurdistan, Palestine, Chechnya, and Iraq, among many other places. In contrast, choosing nonviolence inspires people to re-make their lives (Khan 2).
One of the most successful modern-day practitioners of nonviolence was the Muslim leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, mobilized the Pathans of the North-West Frontier (now, ironically, Pakistan) into a nonviolent army on behalf of Indian independence. His success reflected the hadith: “Allah grants to gentleness what He does not grant to violence.”
Sustainable security, prosperity, equity, and peace depend on addressing more than geo-political issues. Accords that emerge from the United Nations or the Hague may lead to a cessation of violence. But ongoing co-existence depends on the reconstruction of society, which can only come about in an atmosphere where trust, love, faith, and understanding can develop————where people are economically secure, and not exploited from the outside (or, as is unfortunately often the case, from the inside).
We have seen how dangerous longstanding resentments, cultural biases, and prejudice can be; how they can be usurped by opportunists and power-hungry egotists who grasp a bit of the truth, then culture it in the petri dish of discontent and disparagement into a toxic, lethal weapon of mass destruction. So deadly is the weapon they devise that it can destroy not only their so-called enemies, but those who cultivated it (just as cancer kills itself through its uncontrollable hunger to consume the host). Consider Chechnya. The Chechens primarily aspired to be an autonomous state in the Russian Federation. The Wahhabis introduced terrorist tactics to their struggle (Koshan). The furor of Russia then descended on Chechnya, and warfare consumed the country.
Many other places could become equally polarized. In fall 2001, the Chinese government claimed that 1,000 Muslims from Xinkiang province had been trained in al-Qaeda camps. Whether or not we believe this claim, we should take seriously the danger that imported extremism could set the stage for increased violence and oppression in Xinkiang (Pan).
Without question, millions of Muslims are suffering today. Every news update chronicles further bloodshed in Palestine. The majority of the world’’’’s refugees are Muslims. UNICEF estimates that in Iraq, 500,000 children have died as a result of UN sanctions. In the Philippines, the Balkans, Nigeria, and elsewhere, Muslims are struggling. These are terrible situations, and we stand with our brothers and sisters in these lands. But as we consider how Muslims can best respond to oppression and conflict, we should look at the meaning and application of jihad with the same creativity that we bring to topics like medical ethics, technology, or entrepreneurship in light of Shari‘ah.
Islam has never been a religion of the sword. In its early years, it grew in the hearts and minds of millions of people not due to coercion, but due to the attractiveness of the qualities it espoused. Today, those qualities remain the same, for they are Allah’s Attributes. Our challenge is to focus on and externalize the reflection of those attributes in our lives————before it is too late…if it is not already too late.
We are not alone in striving to translate spiritual values and qualities into daily life. We have allies among the sincere believers of other faiths. In order to tap the power of these alliances, we need to combat a final myth.
Myth #6: Relations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims are inherently hostile.
Reality: Tensions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims can be resolved.
Islam supports religious tolerance. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) revealed: “Those who believe————the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans————whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right————surely their reward is with their Lord…” (Qur’’’’an 2:62). The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘‘alayhi wa sallam) prohibited religious persecution, saying: “Opponents to me are all those who offend a dhimmi [follower of earlier revelation]; and such to whom I am now an opponent will also be my opponent on the Day of Judgement.” Historically, many Muslim governments treated religious minorities well, honoring their religious and legal structures, allowing them to participate freely in the economy, encouraging their scholarly contributions, and at times welcoming them into the military, the civil service, and positions of government office.
All that said, relations among Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been and continue to be tense in parts of the world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has significantly soured Muslims’ attitudes towards Judaism and towards supporters of the state of Israel. In addition, many Muslims, especially outside of the Western world, have been kept ignorant of the unifying teachings of Islam and consequently harbor cultural and religious prejudices against Christians as well as Jews.
But American Muslims have no excuse to be ignorant of these teachings. Like the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)————who had Jewish neighbors and business associates; whose wife’s cousin was a Christian; who was respected by Christian monks and who in turn praised and respected the Christian ruler of a neighboring country————we, too, know Christians and Jews who share our values. It is time to affirm our common interest in combating the extremism that plagues all three Abrahamic faiths. Arrogance must give way to dialogue and acceptance of the guidance given in the Qur’an:
...say: “I believe in whatever Scripture Allah has sent down, and I am commanded to be just among you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord. Unto us our works and unto you your works; no argument between us and you…” (42:15).
Say: “O followers of [earlier] revelations (ahl al-kitab), come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him…” ( 3:64).
And tell my servants that they should speak in the most kindly manner [unto those who do not share their beliefs]; verily, Satan is always ready to stir up discord between people, for, verily, Satan is an open foe! (17:53)
The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Truly Allah loves kindness in everything.” Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘‘‘‘aalaa) loves kindness in everything, from everyone, in every circumstance. If by chance we receive little kindness in return, still, we should extend kindness.
Part of speaking in a kindly manner is to address, simply and gently, the questions directed to us by non-Muslims. We should also openly address the apparently negative statements about Jews and Christians in the Qur’an. We must clarify the difference between guidelines given in the context of specific historical events (including situations of betrayal) during the lifetime of the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and the more frequent and more universally applicable guidelines that enjoin Muslims to respect Jews, Christians, and other peoples of faith.
While myths abound, so, too, do opportunities for talented, open-minded, and visionary members of the ummah to bring forward Islam’s positive potentials. We need to support and encourage those among us who are best able to express the true Islamic world-view: a world-view of tolerance, equity, compassion, generosity, patience, justice, and peace. We need to find those who can come together and create, fund, and implement a plan of action that will use the mechanisms available in modern society to counteract the years of untruth and misguidance that have infected us all.
As we try to find our way out of present circumstances to the next level (inshaa’a-Llaah) of human development, we must not shirk our personal or community responsibility, our national or our moral and ethical foundation, our duty to look critically at the tracks in the sand before they disappear, to see from whence we came, and to look ahead to the horizon, towards where we are headed. Let us go forward with our hands extended in sisterhood and brotherhood to all as peacemakers, reconcilers, seekers after knowledge, and givers of hope. Other people may define us with their words; let us define ourselves with our actions and contributions. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta‘aalaa) alone is the best Guide and the best Friend.
Wa Llahu lahu ul-haqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
Hasbuna Llahu wahdahu wa ni‘mal-wakil.
Wa salli ‘ala sayyidina Muhammadin wa ahli wa sahbihi ajma‘in
wal-hamdu li-Llahi rabb il-‘alamin.
Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.
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