Fanatics Do Not Speak For Islam
A Muslim alumnus asks that the West not listen to Islamic thugs.
by Michael Berdine ’68
As-salaam-u alaykum, peace be to you, we say in Islam — much as in the Catholic Mass you say the peace of the Lord be with you, and the responses are similar also: and also with you in the Catholic Mass, and wa alaykum as-salaam, and to you be peace, in Islam.
I begin this essay with the word peace because I wish to be clear when I say that Islam is not the twisted creed of the malefactors who perpetrated heinous crimes on September 11, nor of the extremists and thugs who have distorted the true meaning and teachings of Islam ever since. The root of the word Islam is silm and salam, which mean peace, and Islam is about living in peace with the Creator, with yourself, with other people, and with all the creation. “If anyone kills a person — unless retribution for murder or spreading corruption across the land — it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind,” it says in the Holy Qur’an.
Nowhere in the Qur’an (which Muslims believe to be the exact word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad), or in the hadith (the teachings of the Prophet himself), do we read that the ends justify the means. Nowhere. Moreover, if as Muslims we mistake our motivations and values, attributing false righteousness to ourselves, we will have lost our cause and perhaps our very souls. So to those who claim to speak for Islam, who claim that terrorism and the murder of innocents is a right path, I say: you do not speak for Islam, and beware the loss of your soul.
In Hadith al-Qudsi: “The first of people against whom judgment will be pronounced on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who died a martyr...He will say [to the Almighty]: ‘I fought for you until I died a martyr.’ [The Almighty] will say: ‘you have lied: you only fought that it might be said: ‘He is courageous. And so it has been said.’ Then he will be dragged on his face to the Hellfire.”
The fact of the matter is that, as far as the expression “Islamic” terrorism, there is no such thing. Those who participate in such activities are not following the teachings of Islam; far from it. They are merely thugs and murderers. They are not true Muslims, but merely actors playing a part, allowing themselves to be manipulated by others behind the scenes. They commit crimes for effect, to make an impression. They seek to gain their objectives through the manipulation of an audience. But these actors use real bombs, assassinations, murders, rapes, and mayhem to manipulate others to their will. Their agenda is political change, and no matter how assiduously they insist that their motives are religious, they are not the motives of Islam. Do not grant them that which is not theirs to claim. Even their use of the word jihad is false. There is no such thing as a “holy war” in Islam. Only God is holy in Islam. The word jihad has a root verb — jahada — which in Arabic means exerting maximum effort or striving. The theological connotation is striving for betterment. Its major form — the “Greater Jihad,” jihad al-khabir — is the struggle within oneself for self-improvement, elevation, purification, and getting closer to God. It is a spiritual struggle to do good and avoid evil so one will attain heaven in the afterlife. Another form of jihad is using economic power to uplift the condition of the downtrodden and to finance the struggle for justice and liberation. The last, but not least form of the word, known as the “Lesser Jihad,” or jihad al-Saghrir, is the physical form, where people actually fight their oppressors. The principles of this form are stipulated clearly in the Qur’an and teachings of Prophet Muhammad. They are as follows: Fighting is only to defend against those oppressors who attack Muslims and try to kill them because of their religion, or force them to convert away from their religion, or to drive them out of their homes; fighting is limited to combatants; the lives of civilians are to be protected; and if an enemy inclines towards peace, peace should be accepted.
The fact is that the word jihad has been incorrectly translated and largely misunderstood, not only by non-Muslims but by some Muslims as well who then misuse it for their own ends. There are some non-Muslims, too, who have twisted its meaning in order to give the impression that Islam and Muslims are inclined towards violence. This understanding would lead some who otherwise have no knowledge of Islam, or any contact with Muslims, to conclude that, inherently, Muslims cannot be active participants in world peace. Such a misunderstanding ignores the Arabic language, Islamic sources, history, and the routine practices of Muslims. The malefactors who commit crimes “in the name of Allah,” or Islam, are guilty of twisting the words and message of the Islam — as, very often, is also done in the West.
As an American native who discovered and adopted Islam myself, I believe that few of us Americans knew very much at all about Islam before the murders of September 11, 2001. Since then, although many Americans have evinced a wonderful open-mindedness and genuine desire to understand Islam, we have also seen the rise of self-proclaimed experts who claim that all Muslims are violent, and the Qur’an instructs violence.
This is false. Let me repeat the basis for war and peace in Islam: War is not holy. In jihad, wars are only defensive, to be fought to defend against oppressors who seek to kill innocents, or force people to convert away from their faith, or drive them from their homes. Moreover, war is limited to combatants. If peace is offered in good faith by the enemy, it is to be accepted. The verses often used to “prove” the violent ethic of Islam are all verses explaining rules of engagement to be used only against an attacking force bent on destruction of the faith and family, and specifically by those who hold no belief in God and aim to extinguish it.
I also must note that what some malefactors like Osama bin Laden appear to desire and inspire, that is, hatred of Jews and Christians, is directly contradicted throughout the Qur’an. Muslims are permitted to marry and otherwise relate and work with “People of the Book” [Christians and Jews]. It is a matter of historical fact that, with the exception of Palestine, which is a political issue, Jews and Muslims have historically had good relationships. It would be a poor Christian who ignores the facts that it was Christians who waged the Crusades — inventing the term “holy war” — against Muslims, colonized Muslim lands and peoples, and instituted an Inquisition against both Muslims and Jews in Spain, casting both out of that country after 1492.
Over and over again, the Qur’an specifies that “all worship is due to God alone,” and that is a scenario that does not, and has never, required of Muslims that they convert the world. In fact, conversion to Islam in its early centuries was very slow because of the tolerance built into Islam. In the Qur’an it says very clearly that “there is no coercion in religion.” This is not to say that this has not happened, but it is to say that it is against the teachings of Islam to forcibly convert anyone. Most of the Muslim world, by the way, came to Islam peacefully, influenced by the goodness of the Muslims with whom they worked, lived next to, and came to know. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world today, was one such place, as were what are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today, and Central Asia — regions which constitute approximately 80% of the Muslim world.
As Christians know full well, quoting parts of any scripture out of context, without acknowledging the particular circumstances of the verse, or verses, is doing injustice to an intelligent understanding of the text. This reductionism is not only done by people who wish to malign Islam, but by some Muslims, particularly those using Islam to justify their ideologies and extremism.
Finally, I point out that every aspect of each Qur’anic mandate is aimed at nurturing an environment that will allow peace to emerge and prevail. Recognizing that humanity is flawed and will err, Islam provides a system to eradicate injustice and allow peace to flourish. In the spirit of its universal message of peace and respect for diversity, Islam’s goal is not to impose itself by force or declare war against non-Muslims. Forcing Islam onto the masses contradicts the spirit of the Qur’an. Again I quote: “And if they incline to peace, incline to it as well, and place your trust in God. Verily, He alone is all hearing, all knowing!”
Do not mistake Islam for what some Muslims say or do. The men who murdered innocents on September 11 were no more doing the will of Allah than the Crusaders who murdered innocents across Europe and the Holy Land were following what Jesus taught. So then: as-salaam-u alaykum, peace be upon you...