No need for theology to call a crime by its name

Abdou Filali-Ansary

Posted Apr 4, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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No need for theology to call a crime by its name

By Abdou Filali-Ansary

It is remarkable that some of the most critical concepts of Muslim religious terminology have now become part of the international language of current affairs. Questions drawn from Islamic theology are discussed freely by the world public, engaging specialists and nonspecialists, Muslims and non-Muslims. Theological disputation has moved far from Islam’s religious academies.

For example, the term jihad, commonly translated as “holy war,” has become nearly ubiquitous. Though conceived in early Muslim history as a means of spreading God’s word, Muslim scholars today distinguish between two kinds of jihad - one being an internal struggle against temptation, the other a physical conflict against an aggressor who threatens the survival or the fundamental rights of a Muslim community. In this context, there is widespread rejection of the fundamentalists’ use of the term.

Numerous Muslim scholars have raised their voices to challenge the terrorists’ defense of suicide bombings or attacks against civilians, offering long citations from centuries of religious jurisprudence. In itself, this approach represents a worthy expression of collective conscience in opposition to the terrorists.

But many among the public and in the media want more. Muslim intellectuals are being encouraged to press the religious argument against fundamentalist violence in order to deprive the terrorists of their most fearsome and potent arguments. If Muslim scholars can somehow disprove these arguments, it is thought, then the terrorists’ ability to sustain their violent underground will be reduced.

Is this right? A quick survey of the history of religious conflict shows that theological controversies have never been resolved by theological arguments. Looking more closely, one finds that while these controversies were often framed in religious terms, they were not at all about religion. The range of opposing interpretations of religious texts is virtually unlimited, and disputes are seldom resolved by rational argument.

In earlier times, such controversies were decided by political authorities, which used military force to impose one particular point of view at the expense of all others. Muslim history is full of such cases. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi forces into Kuwait, he found scholars who raised theological arguments on his behalf. The coalition confronting him had no difficulty finding religious arguments that led to precisely the opposite conclusion.

Today, it is clear that fundamentalists and their supporters are completely closed off to even the most elaborate theological refutation of their views, even when produced by distinguished religious authorities. The first reflex of the fundamentalists is to withdraw from the mainstream, to build a shell around themselves that is impervious to any logic other than their own.

The most essential questions that people face today - those that engender the deepest conflicts - have nothing to do with theology. They concern disputes over territory, political power, definitions of rights, and distribution of wealth. The means of discussing these questions is known to all and is expressed in all religions and all languages. The evils most deeply resented - in all societies - are injustice, despotism, corruption and poverty. We all understand what these mean, and how certain people must live with them on a daily basis.

Originally published in the Daily Star at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.