The Islamic Response

“My problem,” he said, “is that we can never find an Islamic response. I can find a Christian response to the death penalty, or to nuclear weapons, or a Jewish response but where is the Islamic response?”

Mubarak Awad is a Christian Arab pacifist political organizer of impeccable credentials; he was escorted out of Israel in chains in 1988. His Washington-based organization, Nonviolence International, had hosted the all-day panel at American University, entitled “Nonviolence in Islam,” to which the MPF had been invited. And he would find it really helpful if the Muslims would somehow officially declare themselves to be nice guys.

It’s true that we regularly insist that “Islam is the solution” to every human ill, that Islam is the Religion of Peace, and that we as a community are far more sinned against than sinning. But when it comes to concrete matters, there is frequently a deafening silence from the Muslim quarter. Part of this can be blamed on selective and biased media coverage - but not all of it. Why do we rarely seem to get out there on the issues, take the obvious humane and rational positions, and make sure that we are heard?

It’s a problem, all right, for someone like Awad who is trying to put together a multi-faith-based front against social injustice - a front dedicated to pursuing a particular technique claimed to be universal - when a very major player refuses to play. (Or at least, apparently refuses to play.) But it’s a problem for us Muslims too: a problem not only for our public image, but for our confidence in our ability to act.

“You are classifying a strength as a weakness,” I objected, attempting desperately to defend the team. “Islam has no pope; it has no single built-in ideology; there is no party line. As for the sort of positions you can’t seem to find out there, that’s why we founded the MPF.” (Would he have expected Pat Robertson and the American Friends Service Committee to agree upon a common Christian response?, I wondered.) “We can speak for Islam; any Muslim can speak for Islam. Why not?”

The idea is a little radical, I’ll grant you that.

“Well, some of them have read and studied more than others….” Prof. Mahmoud Ayoub noted drily. (Dr. Ayoub is a distinguished Muslim scholar teaching at Temple University.) “And Islam does have a response to nuclear weapons. Islam says, “Do not mutilate either a dead or a living body.” And then he quoted the famous instruction given by Hadrat Abu Bakr as-Siddiq,radiya Allahu `anhu who wrote to his generals:

Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead or living bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services: leave them alone. 1

It seems a straightforward enough syllogism: Muslims may not mutilate a dead or a living body; the Bomb mutilates dead and living bodies; therefore, Muslims may not make use of the Bomb. How one is to proceed from this deduction to a proposal that nobody should make use of the Bomb remains, however, obscure. And Dr. Ayoub declined to say anything at all about the death penalty. The Qur’an, of course, may be quoted to permit it.

It is a noble statement, that seventh-century order which Dr. Ayoub cited. It is always good to hear, and was particularly good to bring to the attention of those who might never have come across it. But “Islam” didn’t say it: Hadrat Abu Bakr said it. Certain later scholars have chosen to base a general argument upon it.

If Hadrat Abu Bakr had not issued such an explicit order - or if it had not survived - would the moral argument against indiscriminate destruction therefore cease to be Islamic?

The Shi`ah do not accept the authority of Hadrat Abu Bakr. Suppose for a moment that no parallel Shi`i reference exists. Are the Shi`ah therefore excused from abhorring the Bomb? Would the Bomb somehow become less monstrous, more Islamic, by passing into Shi`i intellectual territory? Or would Shi`is en masse, for want of a traditional text, turn morally un-Islamic, become mutilating monsters?

Some Muslims do fear that lack of familiar validation means immediate moral ruin; the unauthorized is unequivocally wrong. If morality comes to us only from outside, if Islam is something we are obliged blindly to accept because Those Who Know tell us we must, then it is entirely possible that only by obeying all the “right” authorities can anybody be sufficiently Islamic. If that is true, then those who cite other authorities and hold other opinions are dangerous corrupters; social welfare requires that they be neutralized. Let’s leave conflict with other communities out of it: the continuing intra-Muslim carnage in Pakistan and elsewhere is enough to show that this sort of terrified vision remains a dismally popular one.

But can an Islam that is so easily threatened really be the religion whose preservation has been guaranteed by God? Can something so fragile that the tiniest question rocks it actually be “the rope of Allah2the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks?3 Doesn’t it bear more resemblance to the “spider’s house” of obstinate wishful thinking, which confuses one’s own ingrained preferences with the truth?

We’ve come across such preferences before, and been warned about them. “Shall we then feed those whom, if Allah had so willed, He would have fed (Himself)?‘“4 protested the simultaneously complacent and socially very nervous Meccans. The Qur’an has relayed to us their tactic for self-justification. “When they do aught that is shameful, they say, “We found our fathers doing so,” and, ‘‘Allah commanded us thus.” Say: ‘Allah never commands what is shameful!‘5 Yes, they too pointed to religious tradition, and cited the name of Allah, in order to glorify their own self-interest and inertia. And they too could not tolerate an alternative view.

But “the weakest of all houses,” the ayat tells us, “is the spider’s house.“6

In our last issue, Suroosh Irfani wrote about the powerlessness (first brought into public discourse by Edward Said as “Arab powerlessness”) that seems so fatally to afflict the Muslims. Disasters strike us: nobody acts. Why? Perhaps because flimsiness comes naturally with living in spider’s houses. Or perhaps merely because we are content that Islam should be what somebody else has said.

For quite awhile, we’ve believed it was safer that way. But our current circumstances argue, with devastating eloquence, that such is no longer the case. What, after all, are we protecting with our infinite reservations, our endless waiting for an unfindable imprimatur? If our situation now represents social and spiritual safety, with what worse difficulties could danger possibly present us?

What makes something Islamic? We become Muslims through believing in the unity of God; through adopting as our ideal the Holy Prophet Muhammadsalla Allahu `alayhi wa sallam; through following his example; and through showing a deep reverence for the revelation that came to us through him. We learn our Islam from the Qur’an, from the hadith, from the great personalities of the tradition with whom we enter into spiritual conversation, from our immediate teachers, our communities, our homes. But Islam does not come from any of these: it comes only from Allah. And Islam does not reside in any of these: it resides in the human heart.

For the faithful are those who, when Allah is mentioned, feel a tremor in their hearts; and when they hear His signs rehearsed, find their faith strengthened, and put their trust in their Lord; who establish regular prayers and spend (freely) out of the gifts We have given them for sustenance. Such, in truth, are the faithful. They have grades of dignity with their Lord, and forgiveness, and generous sustenance.7

Islam is the religion of fitrah, of the primordial human nature. That primordial nature is not some distant grand metaphysical conception, but the concrete, everyday core of you and me, the routine heritage of every single human being. It cannot be alienated from us. We can only get confused about it. Texts and teachers have been sent to us, by the generosity of Allah, to help us get unconfusedand then to help keep us that way. Our best text, the Qur’an, tells us that we have been sent to this place to serve as the khalifahs of Allah. We must establish regular prayer, formally linking ourselves to the Creator of the Universe, and then spend freely of the gifts that have been given us “whatever gifts we have” to take care of the job before us. Whatever that job might be.

Perhaps our best Islamic consciousness begins on the day that we recognize that fact.

For it is a fact. We are khalifahs now. Not tomorrow, not when we get mystically enlightened, not when everybody agrees with us or when we get back our land. Not when we have more guns and make more rules. We are khalifahs now. We are fully responsible. Islam is how we behave with that weight on our backs.

We indeed offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to bear it, being afraid thereof; while the human being bore it, who is unjust and ignorant.8

Being unjust and ignorant, we need checks and balances to keep us from losing the path and our perspective, and support to help us from being crushed like the mountains by the impossibility of it all. How good it is to have the Qur’an, the Messenger, the sunnah, the wealth of stories of those who came before us! How good it is to be able to correct, admonish, or reassure ourselves! How good it is not to be alone!

But neither Qur’an, nor hadith, nor illustrious ancestors can accomplish anything here without us. And by themselves, they cannot make our behavior Islamic. Only our taqwa, our care for our responsibility, can do that. Mechanically following the right set of directions is not enough.

Neither the flesh nor the blood [of your ritual sacrifice] ever reaches unto Allah. It is your taqwa that reaches unto Him.9

The divine message serves as a witness either for or against our taqwa. It is a witness we may consult with here, if we are wise. Whether we do or not, it will surely testify about us later. We know we are human beings. We have been warned.

Because we are human beings, because we are in possession of fitrah, we know that the Bomb is wrong. That is the Islamic response. But if we challenge our own certainty (and it is one of the branches of sincerity constantly to challenge one’s own certainty), we can check with the witness. And for every moral reaction that genuinely comes from fitrah, we will eventually find corroboration.

It really doesn’t matter so much that Hadrat Abu Bakr said that indiscriminate destruction is wrong. Of course we are grateful he did…and the fact that he did is one of the indicators of the profound moral integrity, the “grade of dignity with his Lord,” for which he is so widely revered. But someone would have said it. Someone in the Shi`i tradition is sure to have said it. Someone everywhere will have said it. It comes from fitrah; it belongs to the human race.

What matters is that we say it. And it matters more that we act upon it. In that way only do we become, not just passive consumers of stories, but working contributors to the Islamic tradition.

Or we could stick with powerlessness. At least, until the Qiyamah, when there might be some embarrassing questions.

Rabia Terri Harris is coordinator of the Muslim Peace Fellowship.


1Sahih Muslim.

2Surah Al- `Imran, 103.

3Surah Baqarah, 256.

4Surah Ya Sin, 47.

5Surah A`raf, 28.

6Surah `Ankabut, 41.

7Surah Anfal, 2-4.

8Surah Ahzab, 72.

9Surah Hajj, 37.

(October 1998, As-Salamu `Alaykum)

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