Islam: A Complex Faith

The Barnabas Fund, 14 September 2001


The terrorist attack on America’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon last Tuesday has given rise to a media debate on Islam.  Although the perpetrators have not yet been identified, many commentators have suspected that an Islamic group may be responsible, hence the debate. This article is a contribution to the debate on the nature of Islam.  We make no assertions whatsoever as to who may have masterminded last Tuesday’s tragic events.

The Muslim prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a complex character whose attitudes and opinions changed and evolved during his lifetime in response to events around him.  It is not surprising to find that Islam is a complex faith, and cannot be pigeon-holed as, peaceful, or, violent or under any simple heading.

Muslim leaders around the world have condemned Tuesday’s terrorism.  Many leading public figures in the West have done the same, often going on to express an understanding that Islam is a peaceable faith which could never sanction such actions.  It is heart-warming to see such concern for the image, feelings and well-being of the Muslim community worldwide.  We echo this concern and particularly the concern for Muslim minorities in the West, who feel themselves very vulnerable to revenge attacks by those who believe Muslims responsible for the World Trade Centre attack.  The threats and intimidation that Muslims in the US, UK, Australia etc. have reported since Tuesday are inexcusable and thoroughly contemptible.

Islam means peace, we are often told by Muslim and non-Muslim alike.  Even before Tuesday, British newspapers and TV had tended to paint a glowing picture of Islam as a religion of peace, modesty, morality, self-discipline and family values, sadly tainted by the violence of a few fundamentalists.  Muslim minorities nevertheless continued to complain of Islamophobia, and felt themselves unjustly portrayed in the media as terrorists to a man.

The truth lies not so much in the middle between these two extremes of peace and violence, but manages to embrace both extremes at the same time. It is true that many individual Muslims are peace-loving and law-abiding.  But it is not true that peace is the main characteristic of faith of Islam.  It is not even true that the word Islam means peace.  In fact it means submission.  Islam as a faith emphasises submission of Muslims to God and, by a logical extension, the submission of non-Muslims to Muslims.

Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) says the Qur’an (Surah 9, verse 5). An explanatory note in the respected translation by A. Yusuf Ali makes clear that this is not intended metaphorically. When war becomes inevitable it must be pursued with vigour & hellip. The fighting may take the form of slaughter, or capture, or siege, or ambush and other stratagems. 

There are some Muslims who argue that this verse need not be interpreted literally any more, but the orthodox majority hold that the Qur’an is the immutable word of God. It is true that the Qur’an also contains verses urging tolerance of non-Muslims but these verses pre-date the more belligerent ones.  Islamic scholars have a simple rule to deal with such contradictions in the Qur’an, the later verse takes precedence.

Another verse from the Qur’an which is not often quoted in non-Islamic contexts runs:

Ye shall be summoned to fight against a people given to vehement war: then shall you fight or they shall submit. (Surah 48, verse 16).  The meaning here is that the Muslims should fight until their opponents embrace Islam.

In the early days of Islam, the faith was indeed spread by the sword.  Those who would not embrace Islam were killed.  The same thing is happening today in Indonesia, where at least 8,000 Christians have been forcibly converted to Islam by well-armed Islamic extremists.  Any who refused were killed.

Furthermore, many Christians are being killed by Muslims without any conditions being offered.  Some ten thousand have been killed in Indonesia in the last two years or so, mostly by the well-armed Laskar Jihad group who have declared their intention of eradicating Christianity.  In the same time period there have been many violent incidents in Nigeria in which thousands of Christians have been killed, their houses and churches destroyed.  In Sudan, the Arab Islamic government has been at war since 1983 with the African peoples of the South, who are mainly Christians or follow traditional African religions, apparently intent on killing them all, civilians and military.

Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohamed of the British-based organisation, Al-Muhajiroun, published on his organisation’s website on 13th September (two days after the World Trade Centre attack) an interview in which he distinguished between civilian and military targets.  He indicated that military and government entities were legitimate targets for Muslims to attack.  On 31st August the Kuwaiti paper Al-Watan presented arguments to justify the killing of non-combatants by Muslims. The article was concerned particularly with Jewish non-combatants, but the thrust of the argument would make it applicable to any non-Muslims living in a democracy. Citizens of a democracy have voted for their government and pay taxes to it, ran the argument, therefore they can be attacked as if they were the government or military.

Television news has shown us the grotesque sight of Palestinian Muslims celebrating the World Trade Centre attack.  They are not alone.  Similar reports are coming in of grass-roots Muslim celebrations in other parts of the world.  In London a poster appeared outside Finsbury Park Mosque the day after the attack.  It showed the remains of the World Trade Centre and photos of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.  The text read: Death to Bush.  Death to Blair. Taliban.  It is hard to continue to argue that only a few

extremists are hostile to the West and the non-Muslim world when this kind of response is so widespread.

So there are clearly two strands in contemporary Islam: the peaceable and the war-like.  Islam is not one or the other; it is both at the same time.

In this it differs from Christianity.  While many atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity, they are not sanctioned by the teachings of the Christian faith, whose founder is called, The Prince of Peace, and whose law is summed up as love for God and others.  Atrocities committed in the name of Islam may be deplored by many individual Muslims, but it cannot be denied that they are justified by Islamic teaching.

Non-Muslim minorities

Islam also differs from Christianity in its treatment of those of other

faiths.  As time went on it was no longer possible for Muslims to kill all those who refused to accept Islam, so rules were formulated to govern the treatment of non-Muslim minorities.  These were based not only on the Qur’an, but also on traditions about Muhammad’s own words and actions, and formed part of the Shari’ah (Islamic law).

According to the Shari’ah, non-Muslims living within Muslim societies were to be treated very much as second-class citizens.  Numerous petty laws restricted and humiliated them in their daily lives at work, at worship, in the lawcourts etc.  Those who left Islam to follow another religion were, according to the Shari’ah, to be killed.  The general attitude of contempt for non-Muslims still exists in many Muslim countries and they find themselves discriminated against in many ways.  Similarly the ruling that a convert from Islam is deserving of death is still followed in some countries today e.g. Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran.  Even where it is illegal to kill converts, most will find themselves severely harassed and sometimes murdered with little likelihood of punishment for the murderer.

Christians and other non-Muslims living in Muslim-majority contexts suffer in a multitude of ways and feel themselves powerless and voiceless.  As Christians in the West it is right for us to be concerned for minorities in our midst, including Muslims.  It is right for us to seek harmony in society and tolerance for all.  It is right for us to condemn vigilante attacks on innocent Muslims just because their faith might be shared by the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Centre.

But let us not forget our fellow-Christians around the world who are also suffering innocently.  It is unfair and unbiblical to keep silent about our Christian brothers and sisters in need, just because we want to spare the feelings of Muslims.  Sometimes there seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the sufferings of Christians.  This only adds to their pain.  They are hurt, perplexed, baffled and despairing.  They cannot understand why Christians who have the freedom and power to help them will not do so. Muslims are not embarrassed to show that they care first and foremost about their co-religionists.  As Christians, who follow a God of love, can we do less? Our brothers and sisters depend on us.

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