The following was written in response to a recent essay written by an American historian trying to come to grips with the current “war against terrorism” in following the terrorist attacks in September of this year which damaged the Pentagon and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City. The essay was entitled “Would the Lord the Giftie Give Us to See Ourselves as Muslims See Us” and is taken from an often quoted line of poetry by Robert Burns “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel’s as others see us!” The author made several statements that seem to this Muslim to be commonly shared misconceptions of Islam and Muslims. Among them were the following: “Muslims see us as the greatest evildoers on earth. Part of this traces back to those misbegotten Crusades” and “It is hard to believe that these people were highly civilized when Europe was in the deepest of its Dark Ages” and “fundamentalist Muslims’ attitudes are far more extreme than those of our own ‘religious right’”. A title for this response might be taken from Thomas Jefferson in his Summary View of the Rights of British America.
Most Americans seem to have some trouble differentiating what are erroneously called “fundamentalist” Muslims from the broad body of traditional Muslims and traditional Islam. This is not surprising; accurate information is scarce and difficult to come by. Most of the trouble stems from the amazing paucity of scholars, over the past four or five centuries, who are able to understand and interpret Arabic language and thought patterns to English speakers. Thus, rather than explain Islam and Muslims within a Muslim perspective, “Western” scholars interpret Islam and Muslims from a “Western” and usually implicitly or explicitly hostile perspective. This is something like trying to produce Chinese food using Mexican ingredients, utensils, and cooking methods. While some of the results will be recognizable, they cannot by their nature do justice to what they trying to approximate. In short, islam and muslims cannot be explained using Christian or secular Western concepts.
Islamic historical perspectives can be very different from those of the Christian West. For example, the Crusades are one of the pinnacles of European civilization. These two centuries of warfare against Muslims have indelibly marked the Western character. And borrowings by the ignorant, unwashed, illiterate, superstitious Christian West led to the Renaissance. Among these borrowings from Muslim holy law are the scientific method, algebra, the joint stock company, most of the rules for modern warfare summarized in the Geneva convention, and the ideal of religious toleration: in short all of the Renaissance and the seeds of the Enlightenment. Muslims won the Crusades; in the Muslim world the Crusades were a minor irritation, an influx of filthy barbarians who soon enough were killed or civilized. The loss of 90% of the population of the greater Persian Empire from central Asia to Anatolia, the loss of Baghdad and all of its scholars and libraries to Jenghiz and Hulagu Khan and the Mongols, these were serious and are still lamented.
Some scholars have correctly identified an evil fanaticism in the teachings followed by Osama bin Laden and his followers. In Muslim Holy Law and Traditions a Muslim is one who testifies the unity of The God (Al Lah—Allah). No one may question whether one is or is not a Muslim who has so testified. That is strictly between the individual and his God. But, when the Wahabbis, the spiritual ancestors of bin Laden and his ilk first began to prey upon decent, peaceful, God fearing muslims, they took it upon themselves to decide what the Almighty Himself will not decide until the Day of Judgement and declared ordinary Muslims outside the faith and thereby permitted them to be plundered, enslaved, or killed. Their political leader was named Ibn Saud. They grew strong and took and held Mecca, preventing the hajj by non-wahabbis for three years and burned the tomb of the Prophet and many muslim saints. They were expelled by the forces of the Ottoman Sultan in 1819. They were reborn during the War to End All War by the English midwife T. E. Lawrence with his bags of gold sovereigns, and later sustained by American petro-dollar wet-nurses from Aramco. For the past several decades now they have underwritten the expense of building mosques and religious schools all over the world and here in the USA that teach their extremist doctrines that disregard the Koran, the Traditions, and the methodology of islam. They follow no recognizable school of Islamic jurisprudence, they do not accept the rulings of religious judges, they insult and demean the Seal of the Prophets, they published books of the Holy Traditions with missing chapters. (This is the literal meaning of the word kufr, often mistranslated as infidel. The infidel is he who covers or hides the truth.) In short the wahabbis, the Salafis, and Osama bin Laden do not subscribe to the body of sacred knowledge that constitutes the covenant of islam, nor to the procedures and courtesies that make up the daily life of the Muslim. They are outside of Islam, they reject and are rejected by ordinary, traditional Muslims.
Common use of the word “jihad” seems to be simply a translation of the Latin based word Crusade. Jihad has two primary meanings, both based on what might be better translated as “struggle” or “effort”. The greater jihad—jihad al Akbar—is the struggle against lower emotions that subvert one’s natural reason and cloud one’s spiritual vision so that one is unable or unwilling to follow one’s guidance and to read the signs with which the Almighty instructs and guides us. the lesser jihad is to take up arms against an invader in order to protect one’s life and family and community from those who would prevent us from living a peaceful life in harmony with our neighbors on this sacred earth provided by our Creator.
There is no wonder that someone like Osaka bin Laden would hate America, he hates traditional muslims, he was trained by unelected and largely unsupervised parts of our government to hate infidel imperialists. One might better concern oneself with how might an average American influence his government so that it does not ally itself with the very source of this darkness, the Saud family and the government of Saudi Arabia. And one might struggle to drive out the dark forces in the American government that, by preventing a normal democracy in Iran through the ouster of Mossadegh set in motion the ascension of the Ayatullah Khomeini. You remember the “Muslim terrorists” picked up in Washington State about a year ago? They were Algerians bent on revenge because the United States would not lift a finger when the Algerian government suspended democracy because it was about to be overwhelmingly ousted by the Islamic parties. There was a vote on this in the Congress, Dana Rohrabacher (R, Orange County, California) was one of a handful who voted to allow the islamic parties to come to power. The overwhelming majority in the congress turned their backs on democracy and on decent, moderate muslims. And the predictable bloodbath followed the death of Algerian democracy.
As an American one might feel some sympathy for freedom and democracy, maybe even enough to allow others, Muslim others, to govern themselves without having foreign (US, French, British, Russian) financed dictators imposed on what could be future friends and allies. The Afghanis don’t want the Taliban, they are not Afghani, and they don’t follow the local islamic religious traditions. The Algerians don’t want a French sponsored socialist technocracy. The Iranians have overwhelmingly elected moderates who now must undo the tyranny put in place by Khomeimi, in response to the tyranny imposed by America in 1954. The same is true in Egypt, Tunisia; all over the muslim world, there is hardly a democracy or a republic to be found. We have been divided and conquered and added to one empire or another bit by bit. And we are living under post-colonial legal and socials structures imposed by another civilization and ruled by tyrants bought and paid for by foreigners and beholden to foreigners.
Do you want to help the United States defeat Osama bin Laden and his kind? Support democratically elected, responsible government in the muslim world.
We muslims have both the same challenge to support democracy and a different challenge. We have been skillfully manipulated and caught in our own dilemma. The unity of the group is almost sacred, and the toleration and easy acceptance of variations in “theology” and religious practice are one of the hallmarks of Islam. Indeed, there are three forgivable lies that a Muslim may tell. He may tell his wife she is beautiful, he may lie to save his life, and he may lie to preserve the unity of the Muslims. So we have tolerated the extremists, hoping to persuade them or to isolate them from leadership. Meanwhile our mosques are literally the scenes of fist fights, of different factions of Boards of Directors locking each other out of their own mosques, and suing each other in civil courts rather than accept the jurisdiction of our religious judges. This scenario has been repeated, not just here in Fresno, and in Orange County and Riverside, California, but across the country.
We Muslims have a parallel duty to fight against injustice in our governance and to reject unjust or impious rulers. And we are specifically warned against extremists and called time and again to ‘the middle way’ between fanaticism and neglect. But we have no priests, per se, no religious structure in the sense of the Christian Church with its accountability, and ability to withdraw sacraments or to expel members. We are inclusive, not exclusive. Fortunately, since the events of September 11 last month, the extremists have never been quieter, here in Fresno and elsewhere. So we now see an opportunity to draw together and to develop the habits of representative and responsible governance in our mosques that is part of our Traditions and Holy Law.
While not exactly republican or democratic, like Presbyterians or Congregationalists, our Holy Law enjoins our leaders to seek ‘counsel’ (shura) from all parts of the community when making decisions. This has been likened to the workings of a School Board which submits proposals to public hearings, and review by interested parties. In my experience, it seems remarkably similar in practice to the Quaker’s “sense of the meeting.” Our task is difficult, demands skill and tact, and will take time. And this drawing together, this seeking and finding the middle way, this rejection of those who do violence to others and to our beliefs and institutions, cannot be done by any government or by any non-Muslim. This we must do ourselves, in our own way, and in our own time. Or to be precise we must speak out and take back our mosques and religious schools and institutions with the help of Allah in Whom we trust, in the way, and in the time of Allah, the Best of Planners.
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