By John Alden Williams
I have been given the theme “The Message of History” today. A message is delivered to a place and time. Our Creator has delivered us to this day, through centuries of history, to begin the year 2004 of the Common Era. We, our successes and our failures, are a message people need to take to heart. I must be brief, and I want to talk about the most serious religious crisis of our time. It is the rift that certain fundamentalists—Christians, Jews and Muslims—are trying to open between Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions on the planet. Sadly, some people are seeking to foster hatred and religious war on both sides. The sort of misinformation that is being disseminated among Christians and Jews is quite alarming and distressing. Some of it is outright falsehood.
For example, one thing you may hear today is that Muslims do not worship God, they worship something else called Allah. But Allah is simply the Arabic word for “God.” It is closely related to the word for God, Alaha, in Aramaic, the language that Jesus and his disciples spoke, a language still spoken in a few areas in the Middle East. If you are an Arab Christian, or Arabic speaking Jew or Muslim, you pray to Allah. To question that is like arguing that French speakers don’t worship God, they worship something else called “dieu”. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and anyone who opens an English translation of the Qur’an will see that.
Jerry Vines, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, has described the beloved Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, as a “demon-obsessed pedophile.” Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who also gave the invocation at President Bush’s inauguration, describes Islam as “a very evil and false religion.” Jon Hanna, an evangelical minister from Ohio who edits Connection Magazine in that state, also describes Islam as “false.” He cited the 1st epistle of St John (2: 21): “The one who denies that Jesus is the Christ, he is the liar. He is the Antichrist.” Mr Hanna then concluded: “The Muslim religion is an antichrist religion.”
Yet this is a barefaced lie. The Qur’an, or Recitation of the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, the holy book of Islam, always refers to Jesus as “the Messiah.” Christos or Christ is only a Greek translation of the Aramaic and Hebrew word, “messiah.” The Qur’an also refers to Jesus as the word of God and spirit from Him, born of the sinless virgin Mary, “purified above all women,” and it gives more space to Mary than the New Testament does. I know a number of Muslims who ask “our Lady Mary” for her intercession every day. There are several shrines in the Middle East where Christians and Muslims honor Mary side by side and ask her to pray for them. I have never heard, and never expect to hear, any Muslim insult the name of Jesus. It would be a rejection of what Islam has taught them, that he was the promised messiah, that he ascended to heaven, and that he will come again before the world ends.
Still another word you often hear is that Islam fosters hatred, violence, and religious warfare. I want to spend a bit of time on this, because it is so widespread a misunderstanding. Jews are told to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Christians are told that when smitten, they should turn the other cheek-although I have met very few of them who actually do that. Muslims on the other hand are told in their revelation to resist oppression, even at great personal cost, because otherwise one is only assisting the oppressor to oppress, and God hates oppressors. This is basic to Islamic ethics, and we need to understand it.
A related matter much misunderstood is the doctrine of jihad in Islam. It means “virtuous striving,” and that is a matter the Qur’an lays great stress on. “Did you suppose that you would enter Paradise without God knowing who among you have striven and are patient?” (Qur’an 3: 147).
Living a good Muslim life, praying ritually five times a day, keeping the hard fast of Ramadan, going on the arduous Pilgrimage to Mecca, giving generously to the poor, rearing one’s offspring in the fear of God, is all of it a jihad.
“You shall believe in God and in His messenger, and strive with your possessions and with your selves. That is better for you, did you but know” (61:11). “O you who have faith, fear God, seek means to come to Him, and strive for His sake; so may you prosper” (5: 54).
The early Muslims had to strive also in battle against attacks by their enemies. The Qur’an states the circumstances in which and Islamic state ruled by Islamic law, or an imperiled Islamic community, may resort to war. These are:
1. When there is a grave and sudden threat to religion. “And if God did not repel some people by others, then cloisters, churches, synagogues and mosques wherein God’s name is much remembered would have been pulled down. And surely God will help one who helps Him, surely God is strong and mighty” (22:40).
2. When Muslims are subjected to oppression. “And what reason have you not to fight in the way of God, and of the weak among the men and women and children who say, ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city, whose people are oppressors. Grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper’” (4:75).
3. When Muslims are forced out of their land. “And fight in the way of God those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Surely God loves not the aggressors” (2: 190). “Whoever retaliates with the like of that with which they are afflicted and are again oppressed, God will surely help him” (22: 60). “To fight in the Holy Month is a serious matter, but to bar from God’s way, and the Holy Mosque, and to expel its people, is yet more serious in God’s sight; the disorder is worse than slaying” (2: 217).
4. When political entities commit deliberate breaches of treaties and pacts. “Those with whom you make an agreement, who then break their agreement every time, and keep not their duty. If they break their oaths after their agreements and revile your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief- because surely their oaths mean nothing-so that they may desist” (9: 12).
Can you understand that in the eyes of many Muslims, Palestinians (for an example) have now been put in that position where they must resist? Suicide is forbidden in Islam, and very rare in Islamic societies, but if one must sacrifice one’s life in order to help the oppressed (and when one reaches that point is a matter of interpretation), most religions consider it an heroic action.
Muslims are also explicitly instructed in the Qur’an that all acts of war by them must cease immediately if their enemies sue for peace, pledge to end persecution and oppression, and sincerely undertake to abide by their oaths and covenants. “But if they desist, then surely God is Forgiving, Merciful” (2: 192). “And if they incline to peace, then incline thou also to it, and trust in God. Surely He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing ” (8: 61).
The issue of deterrence is also discussed in the Qur’an. “And make ready for them whatever force you can, and [have] horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of God, and your enemy, and others beside them, whom you know not-God knows them” (8-60). Thus Muslims are ordered to be ready for war, not in order to start it, but to keep their enemy from disturbing the peace.
So far as war for the propagation of faith is concerned, such a thing is not mentioned even once in the Qur’an. This fact should be a revelation for those who think that Islam requires its followers to fight for the spread of their religion.
This is something we and our statesmen need to be aware of: over a billion Muslims believe that they are divinely ordered to refrain from aggression, and also to resist attacks and oppression. Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion. If Muslims continue to be misunderstood and slandered, they can cause great pain to the world’s societies.
John Alden Williams
Retired Wm R. Kenan Jr Professor of the Humanities in Religion
The College of William & Mary in Virginia.