I know a little bit about Islam; not as much as I should. Reza Aslan’s 2005 summary of Islam’s history (No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam), which I bought from the clearance section in a bookshop a few days ago, is magnificently educative.
Not only is this book a fine piece of literature (I wish I could write as well as Reza – which would make my message so much easier for the people of India to understand), it deals effectively with a number of controversies that beset Islam. In doing so it gives the impression of genuine, scholarly objectivity (to the extent that a practicising Muslim can be totally objective).
When I read such books by Muslim authors (other good books of this genre which I've read include: The Shade of Swords by MJ Akbar and Reconciliation by Benazir Bhutto), I get the sense that things will turn out well in the end, despite the total mess in the Islamic world today. It is not going to be easy, though. A hard journey lies ahead for Muslims, to overcome many obstacles, including the hatred they have formed of the West. But as education expands, the capacity of educated Muslims like Raza Aslan to educate the world (and their fellow believers, as well) will expand.
My respect for Mohammed – the prophet of Islam – has increased considerably after reading this book, and I'm able to better see why many of the criticisms often made against him are basically invalid. The founders of religions are often good people (not perfect!) but their followers, through rigidity of opinion, politics, and confusion, often create numerous problems for mankind. If Mohammed was alive, Osama bin Laden would have been long booted out of Islam.
If you haven't yet read the book, I strongly commend it. Three excerpts from this book are available on his website:
- Chapter One: The Sanctuary in the Desert
- Chapter Three: On The Origins of Hijab
- Chapter 10: The Islamic Reformation
I'm particularly interested in having everyone read this little section (from Chapter 4: Fight in the Way of God). Fortunately, someone has already scanned and OCRd it for wider dissemination (here), so I'm just reproducing this bit.
The meaning of Jihad as it was intended by Mohammed
The doctrine of jihad, as it slowly developed in the Qur'an, was specifically meant to differentiate between pre-Islamic and Islamic notions of warfare, and to infuse the latter with what Mustansir Mir calls an "ideological-cum-ethical dimension" that, until that point, did not exist in the Arabian Peninsula. At the heart of the doctrine of jihad was the heretofore unrecognized distinction between combatant and noncombatant. Thus, the killing of women, children, monks, rabbis, the elderly, or any other noncombatant was absolutely forbidden under any circumstances. Muslim law eventually expanded on these prohibitions to outlaw the torture of prisoners of war, the mutilation of the dead; rape, molestation, or any kind of sexual violence during combat; the killing of diplomats, the wanton destruction of property, and the demolition of religious or medical institutions – regulations that, as Hilmi Zawati has observed, were all eventually incorporated into the modern international laws of war.But perhaps the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars. "Fight in the way of God those who fight you," the Qur'an says, "but do not begin hostilities; God does not like the aggressor" (2:190). Elsewhere the Qur'an is more explicit: "permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed… who have been driven from their homes for saying, 'God is our Lord'" (22:39; emphasis added).
It is true that some verses in the Qur'an instruct Muhammad and his followers to "slay the polytheists wherever you confront them" (9:5); to carry the struggle to the hypocrites who deny the faith" (9:73); and, especially, to "fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day" (9:29). However, it must be understood that these verses were directed specifically at the Quraysh and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib – specifically named in the Qur'an as the "polytheists" and "the hypocrites," respectively – with whom the Ummah was locked in a terrible war.
Nevertheless, these verses have long been used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to suggest that Islam advocates fighting unbelievers until they convert. But this is not a view that either the Qur'an or Muhammad endorsed. This view was put forth during the height of the Crusades, and partly in response to them, by later generations of Islamic legal scholars who developed what is now referred to as "the classical doctrine of jihad": a doctrine that, among other things, partitioned the world into two spheres, the House of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the House of War (dar al-Harb), with the former in constant pursuit of the later.
As the Crusades drew to a close and Rome's attention turned away from the Muslim menace and toward the Christian reform movements cropping up throughout Europe, the classical doctrine of jihad a vigorously challenged by a new generation of Muslim scholars. The most important of these scholars was Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), whose influence in shaping Muslim ideology is matched only by St. Augustine's influence in shaping Christianity. Ibn Taymiyya argued that the idea of killing nonbelievers who refused to convert to Islam – the foundation of the classical doctrine of jihad – not only defied the example of Muhammad but also violated one of the most important principles in the Qur'an: that "there can be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). Indeed, on this point the Qur'an in adamant. "The truth is from your Lord," it says; "believe it if you like, or do not" (18:29). The Qur'an also asks rhetorically, "Can you compel people to believe against their will?" (10:100). Obviously not; the Qur'an therefore commands believers to say to those who do not believe, "To you your religion, to me mine" (109:6)…
Over the last century, however, and especially after the colonial experience gave birth to a new kind of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, the classical doctrine of jihad had undergone a massive resurgence in the pulpits and classrooms of a few prominent Muslim intellectuals. In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89) relied on a militant interpretation of jihad, first to energize the anti-imperialist revolution of 1979 and then to fuel his destructive eight-year war with Iraq. It was Khomeini's vision of jihad as a weapon of war that helped found the Islamic militant group Hizbullah, whose invention of the suicide bomber launched an appalling new era of international terrorism.In Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941-89), professor of Islamic philosophy at King Abdulaziz University, used his influence among the country's disaffected youth to promote an uncompromisingly belligerent interpretation of jihad that, he argued, was incumbent on all Muslims. "Jihad and the rifle alone," Dr. Azzam proclaimed to his students. "No negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues." Azzam's views laid the foundations for the Palestinians militant group Hamas, which has since adopted Hizbullah's tactics in their resistance against the Israeli occupation. His teachings had an exceptional impact on one student in particular: Osama bin Laden, who eventually put into practice his mentor's ideology by calling for a worldwide Muslim campaign of jihad against the West, thus launching a horrifying wave of terrorism that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Of course, these attacks are not defensive strikes against specific acts of aggression. They are not sanctioned by a qualified mujtahid. They make no differentiation between combatant and noncombatant. And they indiscriminately kill men, women, children, Muslim and non-Muslim. In other words, they fall far short of the regulations imposed by Muhammad for a legitimate jihadi response, which is why, despite common perception in the West, they are so roundly condemned by the vast majority of the world's Muslims, including some of Islam's most militant and anti-American clerics such as Shaykh Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Hizbullah, and the radical Muslim televangelist Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
The fact is that nearly one out of five people in the world are Muslims. And while some of them may share bin Laden's grievances against the Western powers, very few share his interpretation of jihad. Indeed, despite the ways in which this doctrine has been manipulated t justify either personal prejudices or political ideologies, jihad is neither a universally recognized nor a unanimously defined concept in the Muslim world. It is true that the struggle against injustice and tyranny is incumbent on all Muslims. After all, if there were no one to stand up to despots and tyrants, then, as the Qur'an states, our "monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques – places where the name of God is honored – would all be razed to the ground" (22:40). But it is nevertheless solely as a defensive response to oppression and injustice, and only within the clearly outlined rules of ethical conduct in battle, that the Qur'anic vision of jihad is to be understood. For if, as political theorist Michael Walzer claims, the determining factor of a "just war" is the establishment of specific regulations covering both jus in bello(justice in war) and jus ad bellum (justice of war), then there can be no better way to describe Muhammad's doctrine of jihad than as an ancient Arabian "just war" theory.