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What Is Islam?

2001 September 20
by Paul Vallely

Its name implies peace, but it preaches Holy War – so what kind of religion is it?

It seems a long time now since the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History. It was not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen. The Cold War was over. Capitalism had triumphed. There were to be no more conflicts, just the playing out of humankind’s increasing prosperity.

Even then there were sceptics. Another American theorist, Samuel Huntington, pronounced that the great conflict of the 21st century would in fact be played out along the fault line of the tectonic plates on which Islamic and Western civilisation co-existed so uneasily. In the search for a new enemy after the collapse of Communism, the alien dispensation of Mohammedanism  –  to use a term which Muslims hate  –  appeared as promising a candidate as any.

To non-Muslims, time has only seemed to give additional credence to the notion. First there was the Rushdie affair which raised the spectre of Islam as a threat to hard-won post-Enlightenment Western liberal values. Then the expressions of support by some British Muslims for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war went further, creating the image of the UK’s two million Muslims as potential subversives  –  a deadly time bomb ticking in our midst. And now Islamic fanatics have perpetrated the biggest terrorist atrocity of modern times.

Extremists, terrorists, fanatics  –  the descriptions vary  –  but the constant always is the adjective “Islamic” which precedes them. So is there  –  non-Muslims wonder  –  something fundamental about Islam which makes it incompatible with Western values of democracy and freedom?  Are Muslims inevitably more likely to be, in the vocabulary of cosmic good and evil so beloved of President Bush, “the bad guys”? Certainly one might think so from the questions which one now hears being asked about Islam by nervous observers of current events. Many are questions born of ignorance; but, for that very reason, they are worth answering. Here are six of the most common.

Why does Islam seem so confrontational, aggressive and intolerant?

The sword has always figured prominently in Islamic history. Christianity may have been inaugurated by a man who seemingly failed in his worldly agenda, but the seventh-century Arab who founded Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, was a man who vanquished his enemies on the battlefield. In the centuries which followed, military conquest was the means by which Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula, and China.

The traditions and law of Islam were thus formed during an era of success. Programmed for victory, it has no theology for failure  –  or for being a minority. This undoubtedly heightens the sense of humiliation Muslims feel in an era of globalisation when Western power  –  cultural, economic and military  –  is increasingly unchallenged. Having said that, for almost half a millennium, under the Ottoman empire, the tone of Islam was one of civilised consolidation.

It was also far more tolerant, of both Jews and Christians, than Christian Europe ever was of its minorities. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Muslim philosophy was the most sophisticated in the world. In Moorish Spain the governing mood was one of co-operation. In the centuries after, the attitude of Muslim conquerors to Hindus in India  –  moderated by the growth of Sufism  –  was far less narrow-minded than is often claimed. It is only with the growth of fundamentalism that the tone of intolerance has heightened, and many modern Muslims insist that the new practices of death-sentence fatwas and book-burning are unIslamic.

Why is Islam so inflexible?

Muslims believe that the Koran is the actual words of God, as dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. As such, not only is its Arabic language thought to be unsurpassed in purity and beauty (to imitate the style of the Koran is a sacrilege) but it is also the infallible word of God. That means that there is no room for the kind of interpretation common in Christianity and Judaism which sees the Bible as the revelation of God’s purpose through the experiences, minds and pens of men. The Koran cannot have been influenced by the circumstances under which it was revealed. It can contain no mistake. And it cannot be mitigated by any new discovery. What has been revealed by God is fixed and immutable.

In the three centuries which followed the Prophet’s death, attempts were allowed to interpret the Koran in the light of a changing world. The practice was known as ijtihad. But by the end of the ninth century Islam had been codified in legal manuals of The Shari’ah (The Way), a comprehensive code of behaviour that embraces both private and public activities. The “gates of ijtihad” were then closed. Islam became a rigid and static system in which society could not shape or fashion the law, but instead became controlled by it. The word islam means submission.

Some change has taken place. Several prominent Sunnite scholars, such as Ibn Taymiah (1236- 1328) and Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti (1445-1505), dared to reopen the gates. And Shi’ite Muslims  –  a minority branch who split from the Sunni majority in the seventh century and who predominate still in Iran and parts of Iraq  –  believe that ijtihad is still allowed. But in general, attempts by Sunni modernists toward the end of the 19th century to reopen ijtihad to reconcile Islam with what they found valuable in Western scientific traditions have not been widely pursued.

How does Islam justify the notion of Holy War?

There are five “Pillars of Islam”  –  practices which anchor the Muslim community. They are: the profession of faith (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”); five daily congregational prayers, with bowing and prostration, preceded by ritual ablutions; zakat, an obligatory charitable tax to provide for the needy; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and to travel, at least once in their life, on the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. But to these some Muslims add a sixth pillar: the jihad.

There is much debate in Islam as to what this Holy War means. All agree it means “active struggle”. Muhammad’s followers in the early years took it to mean military advance, not to enforce the conversion of individuals  –  the Koran forbids compulsion in religion  –  but to control the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islam. After the Muslim empire was established, however, the doctrine of the jihad was modified. More spiritual interpretations took over. The struggle became an internal one of moral struggle against temptation.

So where does the notion come from that suicide bombers go straight to heaven?

There is nothing about this in the Koran. But Islam also has many books of hadith  –  sayings which were attributed by others to the Prophet. It is here that it is stated that martyrs, among the host of heaven, stand nearest the throne of God. Tradition also provides other details about a paradise of milk and honey with 72 beautiful virgins to every martyr. Yet many modern Muslims dismiss these notions as Arab hyperbole. Taken in context, they say, the practice is unIslamic. The Koran clearly states that “If anyone murders an [innocent] person… it will be as if he had murdered the whole of humanity.” And Muhammad is recorded as saying that Muslim rules of engagement forbid attacks on non-combatants, women, children and men of religion; they outlaw attacks on the “means of subsistence” of those who “offer no resistance”. No miscreant should be given succour or refuge by Muslims. Moreover there is a Koranic insistence that only God at Judgement Day should punish. And there are many fatwas (the word merely means Islamic legal judgment) which pronounce suicide to be illegitimate.

How can a British Muslim say, as one did this week, that his religion is more important than his nationality ?

Muslims believe they are bound by their common faith into a single community  –  the umma  –  all of whom are “brothers unto each other”. This explains the particular solidarity Islam creates, regardless of national boundaries. Nevertheless, most British Muslims insist that they can hold their religious and national loyalties together without any sense of conflict, though many feel that they get a rough deal as far as education, housing and job opportunities are concerned. Which creates additional tensions.

How can Islam, with its Barbaric code of criminal punishment and its treatment of women, be reconciled to modern Western notions about human rights?

The veil, the Taliban’s refusal to allow women education or hospital treatment, the widespread practice of female circumcision  –  all mean that Islam is frequently accused of treating women as second-class citizens. Muslim apologists suggest that these are cultural practices not religious ones. But the Koran and hadith contain provisions which make a prima facie case for misogyny  –  ruling that a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man, that her inheritance rights must be lesser, and that woman is to be seen as Satan when a man is sexually tempted. And the Koran lays down punishments regarded in the West as barbaric  –  cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers to death. Yet many British Muslims, including white women converts, insist that they have found embracing Islam to be a liberating experience which has brought them inner peace. It is a reconciliation which continues to mystify most non-Muslims.

Even so it is difficult to spend any time looking into Islam, and meeting modern British Muslims, without concluding that often it is our questions which tell us more about the problems we face than do their answers, even where they fail entirely to convince. It is clear that much of our contemporary secular mindset about Islam is about as accurate as an assessment of Christianity were to be if we made it on the basis of the rhetoric of the Rev Ian Paisley or the actions of the IRA in its terrible heyday. The 1,000 Muslims who were reported to be among those who died in last week’s attacks on New York would doubtless tell us so, if only they now could.

The issue, of course, is not Islam but fundamentalism  –  a tendency which is as evident among Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even Confucians. Academics argue that it makes no sense to talk of Muslim fundamentalism  –  for if you don’t believe that the Koran is literally the inspired word of God, you’re not a Muslim. But fundamentalists in all religions share common characteristics beyond the fact that they interpret symbols literally. All are highly selective in “the fundamentals” they chose to return to, and in what part of modernity they accept. All take traditional texts and use them out of context. All embrace some form of Manicheanism  –  seeing themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil in which they have to find an opponent and demonise them. The danger in the days in which we non-Muslims now find ourselves is that we too will succumb to some of the same temptations.

If so, it may be that there is indeed a time-bomb ticking away at the heart of our society. But it is ignorance of Islam that may prove to be the deadliest thing we have to fear.

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