The Mission of Imams in America: Marginalizing Extremists by Revealing the Real Truth About Muhammad

The Mission of Imams in America:  Marginalizing Extremists by Revealing the Real Truth About Muhammad

Muslim Leadership Conference
June 24, 2007


by Dr. Robert D. Crane
Founding Chairman, Center for Understanding Islam



I.  The Unique Role of Imams in America

Welcome to what surely must be the first Muslim leadership conference in North America that is led by formally-trained imams for concerned Muslims at the grass-roots.  There have been other so-called leadership conferences, usually at the national level, but these have been led mainly by engineers and doctors to complain about the irrelevance of our imams in the modern world, especially after 9/11, and perhaps to educate them.  This is the first conference of which I am aware that is led by imams to address the irrelevance of the engineers and doctors who chair the boards of trustees and run the affairs of the Muslims organizations that have grown up around the mosques. 

This conference was organized at the last moment primarily to address the reaction of Muslims in New Jersey to the Fort Dix incident a few weeks ago, in which American Muslims from the big South Jersey mosque, according to FBI infiltrators, allegedly were plotting to bomb American military facilities.  When the media converged on the scene to interview local Muslims, they asserted perfunctorily that these indicted terrorists were not representing Islam.  In other words, they were part of the “don’t blame me” syndrome, which is a convenient way to avoid addressing the challenge of Muslim extremists who are hi-jacking their own religion.

The major significance of the recent events at Fort Dix and JFK, of which there may be more in the future, is that the attendance of Muslims at the Friday prayers at South Jersey fell by a third, and parents began to take their children out of the associated Islamic school.  More importantly, and the real reason for the conference today, is that not a single mosque in New Jersey offered to help or even to express condolences.  The State of New Jersey, with its more than a hundred mosques, has the densest population of Muslims in America.  The leadership of these mosques, with a few exceptions, has followed the general trend of all Muslims since 9/11 to hunker down and pretend that for all practical purposes they do not exist.  They have become irrelevant to society. 

The tone of this gathering was set at the beginning after the hall here at the Hilton suddenly filled up to capacity and Imam Shibley from the big Islamic Society of Central Jersey, with his booming voice, ordered all the chairmen and presidents off the introductory panel.  He did this, to the shock of everyone present, not only because there was no room for them up front but because for once, and perhaps for the first time, the boards of the mosques were going to have to listen to the imams and to the women and youth.

The tone was further set by the fact that for the first time, the majority of imams up front were from African American mosques.  They came of their own accord, thanks to the initiative of Anisa Mehdi, the famous director of the film, “The Legacy of the Prophet,” because the spontaneity of the gathering did not permit adequate advance planning. 

Jimmy Small, the veteran politician and public office holder in East Orange, New Jersey, declared that it is about time the wider Muslim community would start to listen to Muslims who know the local scene in America from more than a hundred years of experience in facing the same problems that all Muslims in America face today.  He said that Muslims must become relevant to the political process, because otherwise they will be irrelevant to themselves and to America.

He and the other inner-city imams pointed out that every mosque in America is an ethnic mosque, a mini-ghetto, with little or no solidarity in the wider Muslim umma.  They noted that, perhaps as a spin-off from events in Iraq and Pakistan, the gathering reflected a coalescence of Sunnis and Shi’a, which Muslim leaders in New Jersey until recently have failed to bring about.

All the imams focused on the elemental fact that the role of imams in America is radically different from their role “back home” where the imam is often an ignorant drop-out from school and usually is a tool of government.  Here in America, the role of the imam is to be a leader in society, which means that he (one imam said “he or she”) must also be a leader in bringing the wisdom of Islam to the political process and to all the venues where justice can provide a framework for addressing society-wide issues of conscience. 

In the past, Islamic leadership among Muslims from abroad has come from those not formally trained in the din of Islam, simply because most of the imams imported from abroad have not been capable of leadership in American society.  The doctors and engineers must continue to provide such leadership but in the future they must work more closely with the imams by recognizing the unique potential of formally trained Muslim scholars, both native-born and foreign-born, for leadership in America.

II.  The Pew Poll

I was asked to introduce this conference by chairing a panel on the latest Pew Poll.  This poll led to some objective and favorable interpretations, as well as to some statistical legerdemain that was clearly designed to make Muslims irrelevant in America.  The media pointed out that Muslims in America are perhaps unique in the world because they are much better integrated in society than Muslim minorities anywhere else, in part because most foreign-born Muslims in America were leaders or potential leaders as part of the elites in their own societies. 

The hidden agenda of the Pew Poll, however, which was not addressed by any media reports that I have read, was the strategy to commit what I call “statistical genocide” by artificially reducing the number of Muslims from several million to a mere two million.  For years, I have been addressing this crime against humanity, best illustrated by Golda Meir’s famous statement denying the existence of Palestinians.  She justified the Israeli occupation of Palestine by asserting that this was a divine duty to “bring a people without land to a land without people.”  Politically this somewhat covert side of the Pew Poll means that Muslims at best are politically irrelevant and that therefore every Muslim in America can be treated, as were the slaves a couple of hundred years ago, as only three-fifths of a human being.


III. The Challenge of Professional Hatemongering

My talk today, a first draft of which is available on the tables at the entrance and will be available edited post-conference on line at http://www.theamericanmuslim.org addre,sses the professional hatemongering best illustrated by the bestselling polemicist, Robert Spencer, in his popular book, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.

This book is significant partly because it bases all its perversions of the Qur’an on statements by Muslims.  This is designed to show that Muslims themselves properly interpret Islam as inherently terroristic and as a threat to America and to all traditional American values. 

Muslims are puzzled by events like 9/11, which appears to have been planned and carried out by Muslims.  They are frightened by the rabid hatred exuding from so many Muslims throughout the world who commit monstrous crimes and purport to act on behalf of Islam. 

This phenomenon is no mystery.  In societies where religion is important, those who seek political power as their ultimate goal naturally seek to use religion as a tool.  This is especially true of the Muslim world, because it is the last place on earth where religion remains the dominant language of communication.  Successful extremists know they must use the Qur’an and ahadith to justify their un-Islamic violations of every human right. 

In secular societies, those who would impose their will on others justify their drive for power by resorting to various closed-minded ideologies.  The Communists used Marxism.  The Nazis used the ideology of racial superiority.  More recently, the Neo-Conservatives promised to save the world from chaos by imposing a new international law to stabilize the world through unilateral military preemption.

The favorite tool of political movements is to adopt an enemy to demonize.  The favorite enemy today is Islam, because it is potentially the most powerful force in the world capable of resisting any new international law that would legitimize global oppression by secular fundamentalism.  Islam is demonized by interpreting the Qur’an and ahadith as the source of Muslim extremism and therefore as the ultimate cause of terrorism throughout the world.

There have always been extremists among Muslims who pervert the Qur’an in their efforts to hi-jack their own religion, just as extremists among Christians and members of other faiths have often done so in the past and continue to do so even today.

This attack on Islam from within can be countered only when the imams assert their right and responsibility to bring their knowledge of classical Islam to bear in countering and marginalizing Muslim extremists. As I have been preaching for decades, Muslims must revive the classical teachings of the great Islamic scholars, almost all of whom have been imprisoned by one tyrant or another for trying to maintain the purity of Islam as revealed by Allah and taught by the words and actions of his prophet, Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.  Only Muslims can do this.  Among Muslims only the most courageous can do so, because the extremists have tried to terrorize all Muslims who disagree with them.  And among the courageous we must begin to rely on the imams among us, whose calling is to preserve the purity of the traditionalist teachings of all the world religions.


IV.  The Spencer Book

The Center for Understanding Islam has adopted my 140-page book, entitled Compassionate Justice, which relies on the classical scholars, especially of the 3rd through 6th centuries A. H., to bring out the clear teachings of the Qur’an and of early Muslim practice on human rights.  In this book I have not directly refuted the statements and interpretations of Robert Spencer, because I believe that one can gain more leverage over the long run by bringing out the truth rather then by merely exposing lies. 

For short-run impact, however, it would be useful to expose Spencer’s demonic lies directly and in detail.  For this purpose, I have been asked to write a book for this express purpose.  Exposing Spencer’s bias is very simple, because one needs merely show that in every case he quotes only Muslim extremists and ignores untold centuries of mainline scholars who taught the exact opposite of what he contrives to be the message of Islam.  His bias is embarrassingly evident throughout the book.  For example, he questions whether the Medina constitution calling for protection of the Jews ever existed, but he has little doubt that the story about the massacre of the treasonous Jewish Qurayzah tribe is true.  He dismisses the scholarly investigation by W. N. Arafat reported in a lengthy article in 1976 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, which concludes that the alleged massacre never happened.  Spencer attacks Arafat by ridiculing one of his arguments, namely, that such a massacre would violate Islamic law.  Since Spencer’s whole purpose is to brand Islam as terroristic, he dismisses every scholarly analysis that would undermine his diabolical strategy.

Today, I have time only to touch on one example of Spencer’s apparently deliberate distortion both of the Qur’an and of the character of the Prophet Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.  This is Spencer’s treatment of the Battle of Badr and the several revelations from Allah that came immediately afterwards.  These set forth the guidelines for all subsequent scholarship on human rights in Islam.  Spencer distorts all these revelations in an effort not merely to counter them but to reverse their meaning.  According to the ahadith on the Messiah al Dajjal, known in Christianity as the Anti-Christ, such reversal of truth and falsehood is the definition of evil.

Long before the beginning of international law in Europe, Islamic scholars developed a sophisticated set of criteria for the just war similar to that now universally accepted at least in theory throughout the world.  Islam does not preach pacifism because Allah revealed in the Qur’an that under certain conditions one must oppose aggressors with force, because otherwise not a single synagogue, church, or mosque would remain standing.  A permanent state of war, as advocated by many Muslim extremists today, however, is both unnecessary and forbidden.

Self-defense is the first requirement for resort to physical force.  This is limited to extreme provocation, in which case refusal to fight is forbidden, but even then the time may come when one should seek reconciliation and peace even at the risk of defeat.  Thus the standard English translation of Verse 9 of Surah al Mumtahinah 60:9 states: “God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of your faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid others in driving you forth.  As for those (from among you) who turn towards them in friendship, they are truly wrongdoers.”  This verse refers to those Muslims at the time who were secretly trying to secure their own future by making private political alliances with the tribes that were trying to expel and annihilate the Muslims.

The term here mis-translated as “turning toward them in friendship,” yatawallahum, is the verb form of walii, which means “guardian.”  This is one of the 99 names of Allah and is the same as the term “God-father” in Christian baptism.  The plural awliyaa’ is the Arabic term for spiritual leaders or saints.  It clearly does not refer to ordinary friends.  This is a perfect example of why no English translation of the Qur’an can possibly capture all the nuances of the Qur’anic Arabic.

The laws of just war were revealed principle by principle in real-time, which is why the ‘illah or circumstances of the particular revelation are important.  The first set of rules in the Islamic just-war doctrine followed the Battle of Badr because this was the first battle between the Qurayshites from Mecca and the Muslims who two years earlier had emigrated from Mecca to Medina in order to avoid being massacred.  A state of open war had developed, so the Muslims lured the Meccan army to fight on neutral turf of their choosing by announcing well in advance that they were going to attack a Meccan caravan of a thousand camels returning from Syria.  The Muslim victory resulted in the capture of several dozen Qurayshites, which precipitated several revelations, recorded in Surah al Anfal. 

Spencer starts his commentary on the Battle of Badr by asserting, “Allah told Muhammad’s followers to fight fiercely and behead their enemies.”  Spencer, incidentally, uses the term Allah rather than God in order to show that Allah is a false god who incites all manner of crimes.  The issue here concerns Surah al Anfal 8:12-13, which uses the phrase “smite above their necks.”  Spencer says that this provides the basis for the practice of beheading hostages and prisoners, when in fact this phrase in classical Arabic calls merely for unconditional surrender. 

Spencer then uses Surah al Anfal 8:1 and 8:41 to claim that the early Muslims were greedy bandits interested only in booty.  In fact, these two ayat were revealed to command that booty captured from the enemy should not be an object of individual greed, as was common at the time in Arabia (Surah al Anfal 8:41).  For this reason the sole authority on disposing of the booty was to be the Prophet Muhammad, who was directed to distribute a fifth for the common good as determined by the government, “for the near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer.”

The third revelation, in 8:67, is interpreted by Spencer, on pages 110-111 of his book, to call for the killing of prisoners of war in order to promote the religion of Islam.  In fact, 8:67 merely forbids the taking of captives in peacetime, that is, except after a legitimate defensive jihad on behalf of justice and freedom.  This was designed to forbid the taking of slaves as an object of warfare and, in effect, at the time was designed eventually to eliminate slavery altogether.  And even those POWs taken in legitimate warfare, according to the previous surah (47:4), must be freed after the war is over.

Spencer discusses the ahadith that describe a dispute between the men who became the first two political successors of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr and Umar, over what to do with the prisoners taken at the Battle of Badr.  ‘Umar ibn al Khattab argued that they should all be killed in revenge.  Abu Bakr, on the other hand, argued that they should be released in return for ransom, because such an act of mercy might induce them to appreciate the truth of Islam.  This dispute was settled by another revelation, Surah al Anfal 8:68, which has been interpreted by most of the classical scholars as a warning that the taking of booty is legitimate but the proposed execution of the prisoners would have constituted an awesome sin and warranted a “tremendous chastisement.”  Spencer uses these ahadith to show the opposite.

Another revelation cited in connection with Badr is Surah al Nisa’a 4:91, which reads, “But if they do not stay their hands, seize them and slay them whenever you come upon them, for it is against these that We have clearly empowered you [to make war]”

This command follows a series of revelations that urge Muslims to seek peace in every way and to make war only after exhausting all means to peace.  Spencer perverts every one of these revelations.  In his chapter, entitled “War is Deceit,” he argues that they call for the exact opposite of what they clearly mean.  In Surah al Anfal 8:58, the Muslims are warned against treachery, whether committed by themselves or by others: “If you have reason to fear treachery from people [with whom you have a covenant], cast it back at them in an equitable manner (sawaa’)”.  The classical scholars interpret this to mean that one should not attack without warning, but announce beforehand that the treaty is no longer binding.

In Surah al Anfal 8:61-62, God reveals in the Qur’an that, “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you should seek peace and trust in God.  He is all-hearing and all-knowing.  And should they seek only to deceive you [by their show of peace] – behold, God is enough for you.”  The implication is that even a deceptive peace must be accepted, since all judgment of their intentions must be based on outward evidence alone.  In other words, mere suspicion cannot be made an excuse for rejecting an offer of peace.  And Allah instructs the Muslims in Verse 7 of Mumtahina: “But it may well be that Allah will bring about mutual affection between you and some of those whom you now face as enemies, for Allah is infinite in His power – and Allah is much-forgiving and a dispenser of grace.”

Unfortunately, those extremists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have a self-serving agenda other than the pursuit of truth and the legitimate defense of human rights have reversed the above Qur’anic teachings on peace to justify terrorism. 

The limits of just war are the same as the limits for the jihad al asghar or Lesser Jihad.  The aims must be approved by legitimate authority and must be limited to the defense of human rights for oneself and others.  The amount of force must be held to the minimum required for victory in order to avoid harm to non-combatants and property.  “Fight in the cause of God [to defend justice] against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors” Surah Baqara 2:190.  Furthermore the expected benefit from war must be greater than its inevitable harm.  And all measures short of war must have been exhausted in the search for justice.

Among the measures short of war are the other two forms of jihad.  These are the jihad al akbar or Greatest Jihad and the jihad al kabir or Great Jihad.  The greatest jihad is the purification of the self spiritually so that one will always seek peace.  The greatest and lesser jihads are found in the hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. 

The great jihad, which is the only one mentioned in the Qur’an (Surah al Furqan 25:52) reads, wa jahidhim bihi jihadan kabiran, “strive with it (divine revelation) in a great jihad.”  This is the intellectual jihad needed especially during times when one’s soul and body are relatively secure.  This is the struggle of tajdid or societal renewal in order to promote greater justice at all levels of human community, since injustice is the major cause of war.

According to the Grand Mufti of Syria, Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaro, who headed one of the Naqshbandi Sufi orders until his death at an advanced age, “The Great Jihad is to acquaint ourselves and others with our Lord, with His greatness, wisdom, justice, mercy, and love.  It is to reflect all of His attributes, as we can conceive of them, in our own lives so that we become instruments of His purpose.  And the Great Jihad is to acquaint ourselves and others with the models of Allah’s attributes to be found in the Prophets and Messengers of Allah and in their common message in all its purity and fullness in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.”

The Great Jihad and the Greatest Jihad also call for countering the many distortions of truth that professional polemicists have been popularizing in their war against the religion of Islam by reviving the leftovers from the time of the crusades.  These distortions are based largely on ahadith and revisions of sirah or histories of the Prophet’s teachings and actions that are of questionable reliability at best.  These have been further misinterpreted and distorted by political prostitutes among the Muslims who were either bought, as in the past, by one Muslim tyrant or another in the march of imperial Islamdom or, as in the present, are ensnared in an ideology of hopeless alienation, hatred, and violence. 

Such self-serving, radical Muslims provide more than enough grist for the mills of the modern Muslim bashers.  These distortions include allegations of pedophilia based on the age of A’isha when she married the Prophet Muhammad, which modern computer analysis of hundreds of relevant hadiths now indicates is about 17.  These distortions include allegations that the Muslim heaven is a whorehouse, based on absurd anthropomorphizing of the heavenly hurries, as well as even the accusation that the Qur’an calls for stoning adulterers, when, in fact, this is nowhere to be found in the Qur’an, which in Surah al Nur 24:2 limits the punishment to whipping.

A constantly recurring accusation is that the Prophet Muhammad approved and even instigated banditry when some of the early Muslim emigrants to Medina attempted to recover their goods confiscated by the Meccans for sale after the Muslims were forced to flee for their lives to Medina, and even later when some Muslims raided caravans in acts of terrorism.  The classic example was Abu Basir, whom the Prophet returned to Mecca according to the terms of the Treaty of Hudaybiya, but who instead fled to Dhu al Marwah and gathered followers to raid the caravans of the Meccans in violation of the strict rule that all violence is prohibited unless formally approved by the governing body of the community (al jama’ah).  This is often cited in support of the classical rule that “jihad without state authority is terrorism (hirabah).”

Such allegations and perversions do not have to be invented by Muslim bashers, because for various self-serving reasons over the centuries they have been either invented or exaggerated by Muslim revisionists themselves seemingly determined to generate an artificial clash of civilizations.


V.  Conclusion

The major challenge to Muslims today does not come from people like Robert Spencer, who come from the fringes of society, but from all those Muslims who are afraid to speak out against Muslim extremists. 

Let me tell you a story about the time after 9/11 when for three years I was the founding chairman of the Center for Understanding Islam here in New Jersey.  We held an imam’s workshop, where everyone had something to say.  Afterwards, the imam and director of one of the largest mosques in New Jersey told Ali Chaudry and me that he really needed to talk to us.  I said, let’s go out in the hall right now.  They said no, they need three or four hours.  So we met at the office of the Center for Understanding Islam and talked until after midnight. 

The Imam said, “I agree with everything you are saying, but if I said the same thing, my people would throw me out.  If you would come and give a khutba or dars to say the same thing we could then follow up.  So a couple of weeks later I went to his mosque to give the khutba.  As Ali and I entered the musalla, we saw a lot of old, white-bearded Pakistani men.  Ali whispered, ‘You better cool it, otherwise you might cause a riot.’  I did not cool it and said that we must reform Muslim thought in order to counter those radicals of both right and left who want allegedly to “reform” Islam.  Afterwards, one of the old Pakistani elders came marching up, so I expected the worst.  Instead, he said, almost pleadingly, ‘We agree with everything you say, but if we said this, our imam would throw us out’.”

The message is that Muslims are afraid of each other and afraid they would be ostracized by speaking the truth as they see it.  We can no longer afford such cowardice, because it is un-Islamic. 

The future of Muslims and of the entire world now depends on whether Muslims can rise up against the extremists, both Muslims and non-Muslims, and teach the real truth about Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam. 

We must do this not only to educate people like Robert Spencer, who no doubt are hopeless.  Much more importantly, we must speak out in order to inspire the youth, both Muslims and non-Muslims, to recognize the power of Islam to change persons and to focus attention on the possibilities and responsibilities to promote compassionate justice as the only road to peace and indeed for the survival of civilization. 


Robert Spencer wrote a “response” to this article on June 26, 2007.


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