Teenagers, Monkeys, and Mirrors – Developing Self-Image in a Cyber-Addicted Society

Inside her classroom at Coral Springs Charter High School, Susana H. was in distress. The Florida teacher, seven months pregnant, was suddenly experiencing labor contractions. She sat down in a desk chair and struggled to endure the pain – her mouth open, her eyes wide, one hand on her brow. That’s when one of her students, junior Malik W., pulled out his mobile phone. It was time for a selfie. In dreads, cap, and big sunglasses, he flashed a big happy-go-lucky grin for his camera while angling the lens to show his grimacing, pain-stricken teacher in the background. “Selfie with my teacher while she is having contractions,” he tweeted.

Selfies. They bring new meaning to the word self-conscious. These quick, seemingly innocent self-portraits – typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media – serve many functions. They can be a preened vision of a public self, a bragging moment of accomplishment, a display of humor, or a declared irony to the world, almost a performance. The ubiquitous mobile phone with its mirror-image camera technology, makes self-portraits easy to take, delete, filter, or fix, and even easier to share.

Some kids would call what Malik in our example did, taking his own picture with a featured but unsuspecting person in the background, a kind of photobomb selfie. It’s a prank or joke. Photobomb moments are something like a tourist’s snapshot souvenirs. I was there. But this time, the background wasn’t Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls. It was Malik’s teacher’s suffering. Whatever you call it, in the time it took for the teacher to reach the hospital to be examined by doctors, Malik’s pic was making the rounds on social media, first to other high school students at Coral Springs, and then quickly beyond. By evening, it was viral and had been retweeted by thousands. When asked later by local TV news reporters what possessed him, Malik said he was just hoping to record the unexpected event for himself and “for her.”

It went viral mainly because people found it funny. BuzzFeed raved: “Behold! The greatest selfie of all time.” Was it funny? Sure, if you don’t take a moment to consider this act in a deeper way – and what it means to use a human being in distress as a visual joke in the background of a curated self-portrait shared on a public social network. There are more troubling trends to notice here – invasion of privacy, breach of good manners, absence of empathy, not to mention a demonstrated lack of respect for pregnancy, motherhood, and classroom setting, and a teacher’s authority. Let’s be honest: Nobody looks to teenagers as role models of civility and decorum. They can be jokesters, disrupters, provocateurs. Pushing the limits is what they do best. Why? In psychological terms, they are said to be forming self-concept, or identity, and enjoy experimenting with boundaries and taking risks.

They also crave feedback, which helps them figure out, eventually, who they are – and what the world expects of them. So when teenagers take selfies and share them, what are they hoping to discover? Probably themselves. Prior to the Internet, this crucial time of identity formation was spent in the real world – a more intimate greenhouse where feedback, both positive and negative, was received from a real-world audience of friends, family, and figures of authority. The social norms and what was expected of these developing human beings was fairly consistent. Twenty or thirty years ago, would a teenager have been allowed to take a photograph of a distressed teacher in a classroom and, without permission, been allowed to publish it in a magazine?

The Internet is now a primary adventure zone where teenagers interact, play, socialize, learn, experiment, take risks – and eventually figure out who they are. This blog post will try to grapple with this shift, and look at the impact of this new environment on youthful identity formation. Could growing up in cyberspace change a teenager’s sense of self? Why not?

WHY SO HEARTLESS, SELFIE?

The same year as Malik’s cyber-celebrity moment, another controversial selfie was seen by millions. A lovely young woman with long blond hair, aviator sunglasses, white knit scarf, and matching hat was caught in the act of posing for her own selfie while, behind her, a suicidal man was hanging on the rails of the Brooklyn Bridge. What, aside from basic psychopathic tendencies, would cause a person to be so cold and unfeeling about another human being’s emotional crisis? Let’s stop and contemplate this. Just as Malik made a joke of his teacher’s  moment of physical crisis, the young blond (she would remain anonymous), whether she planned to share her selfie with a wide audience or not, was apparently making fun of a stranger who was so emotionally troubled and confused that he wanted to end his life. Yes, her selfie seems more heartless than Malik’s selfie, but aren’t the sense of disengagement and lack of empathy eerily similar? The day after the Brooklyn Bridge incident, an observer’s photograph of the anonymous young woman took over the entire front page of the New York Post with the apt headline “SELFIE-ISH!”

This slap of disapproval only encouraged a new trend. In 2014, when traffic was stopped on a Los Angeles freeway due to a man threatening to jump from an overpass, a group of drivers left their cars to pose – big smiles – for group shots and selfies with the suicidal man in the distance behind them. The same year, a policeman in Istanbul was called to the scene of the Bosporus Bridge, where a desperate individual was clinging to the rails. The suicidal man jumped three hours later, but before he went, the officer took a selfie. The bridge and the jumper were in the background. More recently, in March 2016 – in perhaps the ultimate example of this trend – a hostage on an EgyptAir flight posed for a bizarre smiling selfie next to a hijacker in his suicide vest.

Let’s try to consider the mind-set of these people – not the distressed suicidal individuals, but the selfie-takers. Were they conscious of what they were doing? Or were they so lost, so separated from ethics and empathy, that they weren’t able to clearly consider their actions? Are they emotionally impaired, or has cyberspace impacted their judgment? A condition that results in lack of empathy toward another person’s distress is narcissism. This is a personality trait that exists to varying degrees in almost all human beings and can be facilitated by cyberspace. A little narcissism can be a good thing. Actors are famously perceived as the ultimate narcissists, and the psychologically healthier ones even crack jokes about it. They aren’t necessarily heartless people. But a narcissist’s desire to be noticed and become a focus of attention can override a concern for other people – and result in callousness about their suffering.

As with so many personality traits, psychologists have defined a spectrum of narcissism – generally assessed by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Individuals with high scores demonstrate an inflated sense of their own importance, grandiosity, extreme selfishness, enormous self-regard, and a deep need for admiration. Behind the mask of ultraconfidence, their self-esteem is very fragile and vulnerable to criticism. Why get into all of this? Because teenagers (as well as children) can display narcissistic-type traits due to the simple fact that their sense of self, or “self-concept,” is still being formed. They can seem to be uncaring about others because they are distracted by the work of creating an identity. Teenagers will try on new selves and new clothes and new hairstyles to the point of total disengagement with anything else going on in their family life or home. For a teenager, this sort of experimentation, along with risk-taking, is one way that identity is formed. Going too far is part of the process – almost a requirement.

Who am I today? Who do I want to be tomorrow morning? They look for answers in the feedback they receive from their peers. And today, to a greater and greater degree, this feedback happens online, not just from their friends but in free online astrological profiles, personality questionnaires, and a plethora of phone apps that will analyze their handwriting, music tastes, food preferences, and even bathing styles. Teenagers are consumed by their own reflections, in other words, hoping to figure out who they are. What happens when the bathroom mirror, where teens used to state at themselves, is replaced with a virtual mirror – a selfie that they just took with their phones?

MONKEYS AND MIRRORS

In a famous study done forty years ago, great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas – born in the wild were placed before a full-length mirror on a wall. At first, the wild chimps reacted as if another chimp had appeared in the room; they vocalized and made other threatening gestures at the mirror. After two or three days, they began to understand the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves in some way. Interestingly, they began exploring their own bodies before the mirror – studying parts of themselves they hadn’t seen before, or couldn’t see without use of a mirror.

In psychology, one way to describe what happens in front of a mirror is called mirror-image stimulation, referring specifically to “a situation in which an organism is confronted with its own reflection in a mirror.” An animal that shows signs of recognizing the image in the mirror as it own is said to have “passed the mirror test,” which is strong evidence of having developed self-concept. This is not innate, but learned. Self-concept is used in human social psychology to describe how people think about, evaluate, or perceive themselves. The actual definition is “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.” A monkey that has self-concept demonstrates an awareness of a self that is separate and distinct from others, as well as constant.

What are teenagers learning about themselves by looking at their own selfies? Could this impact the development of self-concept? The study also raises this question: Could young people who have grown up with too much technology and not enough face-to-face interaction with peers remain more isolated, retreating to the comfort of their own digital reflection rather than turning to their friends or family for comfort and physical interaction? Could this cyber effect encourage children or young teenagers to lose interest in others – or never develop it in the first place? Since there hasn’t been time for proper developmental studies in this area, we just don’t know.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers’s work is valuable in terms of illustrating how a young person develops identity. He described self-concept as having three components: (1) the view you have of yourself – or “self-image,” (2) how much value you place on your worth – or “self-esteem,” and (3) what you wish you were like – or “the ideal self.” Given the advent of social media, perhaps we need to add a fourth aspect of “self” Rogers didn’t consider. In today’s technology, identity appears to be increasingly developed through the gateway of a different self, a less tangible one, a digital creation.

Let’s call this “the cyber self” – or who you are in a digital context. This is the idealized self, the person you wish to be, and therefore an important aspect of self-concept. It is a potential new you that now manifests in a new environment, cyberspace. To an increasing extent, it is the virtual self that today’s teenager is busy assembling, creating, and experimenting with. Each year, as technology becomes a more dominant factor in the lives of teens, the cyber self is what interacts with others, needs a bigger time investment, and has the promise of becoming an overnight viral celebrity. The selfie is the frontline self, a highly manipulated artifact that has been created and curated for public consumption.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FEEDBACK

To understand feedback more deeply, we need to go way back to the work of sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1900, decades before the advent of the Internet or when monkeys were stuck in front of mirrors. Cooley came up with what he called the looking-glass theory. Cooley used the concept of a person studying his or her own reflection as a way to describe how individuals come to see or know themselves. In the case of Cooley’s looking glass, the information that we use to learn about ourselves isn’t provided in a mirror’s reflection. It is provided by others – their comments about us, the way they treat us, and things they say. In the looking-glass self, a person views himself or herself through others’ eyes and in turn gains identity. In other words, the human self-concept was dependent upon social feedback. Philosopher William James, the so-called father of psychology, expanded this idea by pointing out that individuals become different people, and express their identity in different ways, depending on whom they are with.

Now let’s fast-forward to the next century and do the math – and consider the psychology of this effect in cyberspace. If you have a repertoire of many selves – potentially as many as people who know you – social media could exponentially expand the number of selves you create. Is your “self” environmental-specific? Are you the same person on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and LinkedIn? Does this new explosion of selves cause a splintering of identity or, particularly for teenagers, who are going through critical stages of identity formation, cause developmental problems? And what about critical feedback? Presenting yourself to the whole world is a risky business. It’s hart to imagine an individual alive who hasn’t experienced some form of rejection, subtle or strong, embarrassing or humiliating. But you can also be accepted for the self you present – and feel rewarded by pleasant feelings of pride and affection.

Let’s imagine you have just turned thirteen. The five years ahead of you are a natural time for questioning and seeking. You’ll be trying new clothes, mannerisms, friends, interests, and pastimes. You’ll probably begin experimenting with what you think of as adult behavior. This helps you make sense of the self within, as you unconsciously piece together an identity, like a collage. You are working to create a constant, steady, reliable, knowable, and familiar self. What kind of information – or feedback – is the virtual mirror going to give you? In this regard, the cyber environment may be much more overwhelming than the real world. To begin with, the sheer number of “friends” has grown, and therefore the volume of feedback will be far greater. Prior to the Internet, a teenager would have a limited number of social groups to juggle – family and extended family, schoolmates, maybe neighbors. Now the number of social groups is potentially limitless.

The cyber self is always under construction, psychologically and digitally. Even while the real you is sleeping, the cyber you continues to exist. It is “always on” – evolving, updating, making friends, making connections, gaining followers, getting “likes,” and being tagged. I started this blog in December 2014. To date, I have 181 regular followers; however, 9,840 people from 93 countries have visited my blog since its inception. The constant source of feedback we receive today can create a sense of urgency, a continuous feedback loop, a sense of needing to invest more and more time in order to keep the virtual self current, relevant, and popular. This is especially true of a blog.

This may explain the obsessive interest among teens in curating their selfies. When the process of identity formation in real life becomes confusing and difficult to control, as it is for most teenagers at some point, what could be more satisfying than being able to perfectly calibrate and manage the portrait that the online world sees? To some extent, we all engage in image management, but it now begins at an earlier age, and in some cases before identity has been properly formed. This may lead to identity confusion. After all, which matters the most: Your real-world self or the one you’ve created online? Probably the one with the greater visibility.

CYBER MIGRATION

Amazingly, plastic surgery among teenagers is another area that has been impacted by the norms online. The easy curating of selfies may be linked to a rise in plastic surgery. According to a 2014 study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), more than half of the facial surgeons polled reported an increase in cosmetic surgery for people under thirty. There is also a rise in children and teenagers requesting teeth whitening and veneers reported at dental clinics. “Social platforms like Instagram, SnapChat and the iPhone app Selfie.im force patients to hold a digital microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” explains Dr. Edward Farrior, president of AAFPRS. “These images are often the first impressions young people put out there to prospective friends, romantic interests, and employers, and our patients want to put their best face forward.” Sadly, surgeons have reported that bullying is also a cause of children and teens asking for plastic surgery, usually as a result of being bullied rather than a way to prevent it.

Okay, so let’s put all these trends and technological developments together – from teenagers using apps to filter and “improve” the appearance of their selfies, to the  rise of plastic surgery among young people, the escalation in provocative self-presentation, and the quest for the perfect body. What do these developments tell us, given that we know human beings look to feedback in order to develop identity? Imagine for a moment the shy thirteen-year-old who feels uncomfortable speaking to others. For this child, posting a selfie will be easier and more rewarding – no actual contact! Now imagine that child progressing through the stages of identity formation and never having to practice being a human being on the stage of real life. This is what causes isolation in adulthood.

SELF-ACTUALIZATION

The cyber self, while it offers glimpses into who you are, is a literally detached self. This cyber self is like a hand puppet that is speaking for you but isn’t really you – and can actually be quite different from the authentic real-world you. In other words, the real you has turned the cyber you into an object: The selfie is proof of this objectification. By posting a selfie, you are required to experience yourself as an object that is presentable or not. You judge your selfie from a detached distance, even if it is posted impulsively. This self-objectification, and the sense of detachment from true self, could explain many of the negative behaviors seen online. It feeds disassociation. Detached from your cyber self, you can feel detached from your actions – and come to believe you aren’t truly accountable. Now let’s think about a teenager in the process of identity formation from the age of ten, eleven, twelve to late teens, a crucial window of time to create a strong foundation and sense of self. This process is critical to development, and can have an enormous impact on the rest of an individual’s life and sense of self-esteem.

Carl Rogers described “self-actualization” as an ongoing process of always striving to be one’s ideal self. A “self-actualized” person is one whose “ideal self” is congruent, or the same as, his or her perceived actual self or self-image. Rogers believed that this sense of being, or having become, the person you want to be is a good marker for happiness, and a sign of a fully functioning individual. If you accept his description of happiness, then it’s troubling to see the results of a survey of children and teens, ages eleven to sixteen, in which half agreed with this statement: “I find it easier to be myself on the Internet than when I am with people face-to-face.”

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a critical developmental phase, what psychologist Erik Erikson described as a “psychosocial stage.” For an awkward adolescent or teen, it may be a lot easier to avoid painful experiences performed on the stage of real life, but these are often important developmental milestones and come with consequences if missed. Identity may not be fully developed – and what one wants to do or “be,” in terms of a future adult role, may not be fully explored. Social coping skills may not be acquired. Learning to navigate the tension or lack of comfort that the real world sometimes brings is necessary for the developmental process, as youth explore  possibilities and begin to form their own identity based on their explorations.

Failure to successfully complete a psychosocial stage can also result in a reduced ability to complete further stages. For Erikson, the next stage is intimacy versus isolation, occurring between ages eighteen and forty, when individuals learn how to share more intimately with others and explore relationships that lead toward long-term commitments with someone other than a family member. Avoiding intimacy for fearing relationships or commitment can lead to isolation, loneliness, and often depression. This is why we need to talk more about the repercussions of teenagers failing to establish a sense of identity in real life as well as cyber life. The result of such a failure can be what Erikson calls “role confusion,” when young people become unsure about themselves or their place in society. Some experts believe contemporary boys are in crisis due to excessive use of technology. The digital self tends to become less and less like the real-life operator.

The cyber self is a masterful creation – funnier, wittier, better looking than the real self. But the problem lies with the vulnerability of this split-self existence. And it’s a serious problem. If you look at all the studies done over the past ten years on cyberbullying, you’ll see that few of the solutions and awareness campaigns have worked effectively. Each year, more teenagers are devastated, even destroyed, by experiencing bullying online. Why? Think of the time and energy that teenagers put into their cyber selves – the self-portraits they’ve painted. When the cyber self is attacked – called “stupid,” “ugly,” “a loner,” “a loser” – then this could cause a catastrophic inter-psychic conflict, an emotional clash of opposing impulses within oneself. Look at it this way: If the best version of you that technology can produce is rejected, how does that make you feel about the only self that’s left, your real one?

THE PRIVACY PARADOX

In real life, would a teenager girl walk around with a photograph of herself naked – and show everybody at school? Would she undress in class and pose suggestively? That’s what happens, potentially, every time a sext is sent. Besides impulsivity and narcissism, what are the other possible explanations for this disinhibited behavioral shift online? Teenagers exhibit a lack of concern about their privacy online. It’s an interesting shift because so often in the real world, many teens are self-conscious and tend to seek privacy. But online, something happens. Even teenagers who are well-versed in the dangers and have read stories of identity theft, sextortion, cyberbullying, cybercrimes, and worse, continue to share as though there is no risk.

I read an article in my hometown newspaper, The Daily Item, published online on May 7, 2017 regarding the Netflix mini-series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same name. I watched the show, which follows the final weeks of a high school girl who commits suicide. The writer of the Daily Item article interviewed local educators regarding Thirteen Reasons Why, specifically focusing on whether the young girl in the show justified her suicide and blame others, and whether the final scene was an unnecessarily graphic depiction of the act. The topic of teen suicide is one that is emotionally volatile, and is currently of much concern to educators.

Olivia Masser, director of the Milton Public Library, believes Asher’s story Thirteen Reasons Why unwisely portrays Hanna Baker as a martyr. Masser admits that the story raises awareness of the serious issues of sexual assault, cyberbullying and teen suicide. As Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) indicate, “…there exists a ‘quiet desperation’ that drives humanity to think about the question, ‘Does life have meaning?’” This question is faced by every teenager growing up in America. Certainly, when Hanna is sexually assaulted and bullied, and photographs are posted online that make her look “easy,” she is already struggling to find her way at a young age. She asks the ultimate question, “Why am I here?” What meaning was left in her otherwise meaningless life now that she’d been raped, bullied (including online), and labeled a “slut?”

According to Danah Boyd, the TED Talk celebrity and visiting professor at New York University, most teenagers scrutinize what they post online very carefully. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teens adjust what they present online depending on the audience they want to impress Everything is calibrated for a specific purpose – to look cool, or tough, or hot. When it suits them, teenagers can be enormously savvy about how to protect the things they want kept private, mostly from their parents. For example, they might not care if Facebook knows their religion, but they do care if their parents find out about their sex life.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We just might owe teenagers an apology. We are failing to protect and defend them in cyberspace. Period. We are failing to understand and therefore protect their developing selves. Tech companies have made billions of dollars while looking the other way. Opportunistically, they have jumped in to offer solutions to emerging obstacles, creating social platforms such as SnapChat, Wickr, Confide, and the German-based Sicher, where risqué images can be sent and viewed. While they supposedly can disappear almost as soon as they are posted, in fact there are many ways they can be saved. Do teenagers need to explore and have adventures? Yes. And we should let them. But the risks in the cyber environment are real.

And what about the more nuanced and much-harder-to-study risk of harm to a developing identity? Juggling two selves, the real one and the cyber one, is a lot to expect of young individuals who are still figuring things out, about themselves and the world. We are likely a decade away from seeing the cyber effect on psychological and emotional well-being and the formation of a sturdy and sustainable self. We can see signs and clues coming already in the new norms of sexting, the obsession with the cyber self, premature sexualization, the plastic surgery among younger people, the escalation of body and eating disorders, and the rise of narcissistic behavior (if not true narcissistic personality disorder). These trends should be cause for alarm. Narcissism and excessive self-involvement are both known attributes of those who suffer chronic unhappiness.

A teenager may think he or she is creating a better “self,” a better object with each selfie. Every selfie taken, and improved upon, causes an erosion or dismissal of the true self. With each selfie taken, and invested in, the true self is diminished. In a way, it’s similar to the phobia in Amish tradition that each portrait photograph robs the soul. Adolescents are naturally prone to “storm and stress,” during which kids will often experience mood swings, fight with parents, and engage in risky or dangerous behavior. We can’t blame the Internet for that. But we can wake up and see that it’s even more important to protect them there.

And, parents of teenagers, if you find a sext, sit down and talk about it. Resist the urge to shut down or confiscate all your son’s or daughter’s devices. The point at which you banish your teenager to his or her bedroom – hating themselves, hating you, and hating their lives – and take away their phone and computer, you are depriving them of their entire support system. That can be too hard. They need to vent. They need to reach out to friends. Let them. And finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents of teenagers are for.

References

Aiken, M., PhD. (2016). The cyber effect: A pioneering cyberpsychologist explains how human behavior changes online. New York, NY: Random House

Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. New York, NY: Razorbill

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making sense of your world: A biblical worldview, second edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

 

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Mobilizing Citizen Science to Address the Overdose Epidemic

From the blog of Dr. Lora Volkow, National Institute of Drug Abuse, posted November 16, 2017.

In the terrorist attack in New York City on October 31, citizens on the scene shared information and pictures in real time via their smartphones, using social media apps like SnapChat. index.png  The social media site recently introduced a location-sharing feature called Snap Maps, which was also used during the Las Vegas shooting, the Mexico City earthquake, and the hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and some US cities. Could existing social media or new, built-for-purpose apps, be used to attack the opioid problem? It is an area where additional research and partnerships with technology startups could potentially make a big impact.

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Social media and crowd-sourcing apps could be particularly useful for gathering and sharing information in real time about overdoses and using that information to prevent overdose deaths, thereby translating “citizen science” into “citizen prevention.” In October, 2016, NIDA partnered with the FDA and SAMHSA in a competition to develop an app that would use a crowd-sourcing approach to facilitate access to naloxone during opioid overdoses. The winning entry (out of 45 submissions) was an app called “OD Help” that will be developed by a Venice, California startup called Team Pwrdby. OD Help will link potential opioid overdose victims with a network of naloxone carriers; it will give instruction in administering the medication; and it can optionally be interfaced with a breathing monitor to detect signs of an opioid overdose and automatically alert the network.

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Crowd-sourcing apps could potentially be used to facilitate access to evidence based care in specific regions of the country by sharing information about treatment capacity, waiting lists, and available beds in treatment centers. They could also help opioid-addicted patients in treatment, by enabling them to share their withdrawal experiences, ease fears, and offer suggestions. Families could also share ideas for encouraging loved ones to seek treatment. Crowd-sourcing capabilities like this might also augment mobile health (or mHealth) tools being developed as treatment and recovery aids. One mobile app, the Addiction Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (ACHESS) tool, developed with NIH support, utilizes GPS to warn users recovering from alcohol addiction when they are near locations that may be personal triggers for alcohol use; but it can also link users to other ACHESS users via text messaging or to pre-approved family members, friends, or peers for help, thereby bringing the power of crowd-sourcing to recovery support.

Crowd-sourcing is already beginning to change the face of public health. Since 2011 a participatory disease surveillance system called Flue Near You has collected reports of flu-like symptoms encountered by volunteer users via its Website, Facebook, or a mobile app. Similar tools are being used to crowd-source information on food-borne illnesses, toxic waste hazards, and other health threats. They could readily be applied to monitor drug overdoses. [Crowd-sourcing is featured in the new Jeremy Piven crime drama Wisdom of the Crowd. Piven’s software company created a program called “SOPHE,” which is basically Twittr for crime solving, where people can post any evidence or information they have related to a crime.]

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The NIDA-funded National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS) already crowd-sources emerging drug trends from its nationwide network of researchers, such as regional spikes in overdose deaths or emergency department admissions caused by particularly dangerous batches of heroin or counterfeit pills. If augmented with smartphone technology, this information could be more readily used to warn the public and share with public health authorities so that resources could be quickly mobilized to prevent further deaths in an area where a pocket is detected.  Such information could be a boon to implementation research by allowing researchers to determine if a prevention or treatment intervention or a new model for delivery of care was successful in achieving its goals.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) funded the Baltimore/Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) to develop an app for first responders and emergency personnel called the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP). Data gathered through this system can be used to identify localized spikes in overdoses over a 24-hour period, enabling a public health and safety response to be swiftly mobilized. Additionally, the app enables users to enter how many administrations of naloxone were used (if any) and whether the overdose proved fatal, which in turn can help identify areas where more potent opioids or mixed drugs might be responsible for the naloxone failure.

There are obvious issues of privacy protection and bystander legal protection, among others, that will need to be addressed in developing crowd-sourcing apps. But we should not allow the inevitable challenges in this relatively unexplored domain dissuade us from studying the possibilities. If we are going to end the opioid overdose epidemic we need “out of the box” thinking, and must avail ourselves of the new crowd-sourcing possibilities smartphones and social media apps are making possible.

 

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #4 – Is Jihad in the Qur’an and the Life of Muhammad?

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This is the fourth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

QUESTION # 4 – IS JIHAD IN THE QUR’AN AND THE LIFE OF MUHAMMAD?

IT IS HELPFUL TO provide some context about the average Muslim’s encounter with the Qur’an and hadith before diving into this week’s question. Even though the Qur’an and the hadith are the foundations of Islam, Muslim’s do not usually engage in systematically studying their teachings. This is true even of those Muslims who have memorized the entire Qur’an; though they may have memorized the Arabic recitation of the text, they often do not know how to determine or analyze its meaning.

This begins to make more sense when we remember that most Muslims are not Arabs, and they do not natively speak Arabic. In fact, nobody natively speaks the Arabic in the Qur’an, as classical Arabic has given way to colloquial forms of Arabic that differ significantly throughout the Arab world, and the only people who speak a form of Arabic that approximates the Qur’an are those who have studied it in schools.

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It is for this reason that, even though Qureshi had recited the entire Qur’an in Arabic by the age of five and memorized the last fifteen chapters by his teen years, his understanding of the Qur’an was limited to what he had been taught by the elders in his community. Similarly, though he had memorized the Arabic of shorter hadith traditions, he never even touched the canonical collections of hadith. The hadith Qureshi knew were those that had been selected by his elders. Often, during Friday sermons, weekend religious classes, or the like, hadith were recounted without any reference whatsoever. Qureshi said, “I do not doubt the good intentions of our teachers.”

Qureshi said none of this is to point the finger at Muslims, because only a small percentage of people in any religious community endeavor to critically engage their canonical texts. The time, education, and financial resources required for such efforts are luxuries not afforded to many. Yet the net effect of all this is that the vast majority of Muslims inherit their understanding of Islam and have not investigated the foundations of Islam for themselves. If they were raised in the West and taught that Islam is a religion of peace, as was Qureshi, then their first foray into the foundations might be somewhat of a shock, and they will probably soon find themselves either in a defensive positions or grappling with significant cognitive dissonance.

MUHAMMAD’S LIFE AND ITS REFLECTION IN THE QUR’AN

Let’s first consider the life of Muhammad as recounted in Islamic tradition and as reflected in the Qur’an, with a focus on peace and violence. Although there are many intractable problems that arise when studying Muhammad’s life, including questions about the historical reliability of the sources, discrepant archaeological findings, the ages of Qur’anic manuscripts, inconsistencies in geographic reports, foreign accounts of early Islam, and problematic merchant records, none of these detract from Qureshi’s aim to simply understand Muhammad according to Muslim tradition.

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Muhammad was born in 750 AD and experienced a very difficult childhood. His father died before he was born, and his grandfather also died. In his young adulthood he became a merchant and was known for his integrity, wisdom, and skill. At the age of forty, Muhammad received his call to become the prophet of Islam while meditating in a cave near Mecca. It came in the form of a revelation given to him by the angel Gabriel. These revelations were ultimately called Qur’an, and they gradually increased in frequency. His first thirteen years as the prophet of Islam were spent proclaiming these Qur’anic revelations to the polytheists of Mecca, primarily proclamations of monothesim. The mercantile economy of Mecca was bolstered by the pilgrimage of other polytheists to their city, which was home to 360 idols, so the polytheists of Mecca did not take kindly to Muhammad’s insistence the there was only one God.

During that time, Qur’anic proclamations also focused on welfare for orphans and widows and fellowship with other monotheists, such as Jews and Christians. Over the course of some years, many of the humble and weak became Muslims despite the threat of persecution. Some Muslims were indeed persecuted, and a few were even martyred before Muhammad escaped Mecca on the night of an assassination attempt. These early years of Muhammad’s ministry are known as his Meccan years, and they are the only years Muhammad did not deputize or personally engage in raids or battles. The Qur’an reflects this era of teaching in the Meccan surahs, or chapters, though the Qur’an is not neatly categorized. Meccan passages and later passages, usually referred to as “Medinan,” are frequently found side by side in the same surahs.

The next ten years were the last of Muhammad’s life. These were his emblematic years, often called the maghazi years by classical Muslim commentators. Maghazi means “raids,” and it is an appropriate description. At the end of his first year in Medina, Muhammad started launching raids and continued launching skirmishes or battles until he died. The first six such raids, however, were failures.

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The first successful raid that Muhammad ordered, the Nakhla raid, was controversial and remains so 1,400 years later. On Muhammad’s orders, raiders were sent to intercept a Meccan caravan quite some distance from the Muslim base of Medina. Whether by Muhammad’s intention or not, the interception occurred during a holy month, a time of truce between all Arabs. The Muslim raiders shaved their heads, making it appear that they were on a pilgrimage. Upon seeing that the Muslims were observing the holy month, the Meccans let down their guard and began setting up camp. That is when the Muslims attacked, killing and capturing undefended Meccans during a sacred time of truce, a great sin in the eyes of most Arabs.

When news of this treacherous act reached Medina, even many Muslims were understandably indignant. But then came a revelation from the Qur’an, defending Muhammad’s raiders against the inquiries of the dismayed: “They ask you about fighting in the holy months. Tell them, ‘Fighting in the holy months is a great sin, but a greater sin is to prevent mankind from following the way of Allah, to disbelieve in him’… [O]pression is worse than slaugher” (Surah 2:217). According to the Qur’an, the Meccan oppression of keeping people from Islam was worse than slaughtering them during a time of truce. This attack by the Muslims during the holy month, not at all defensive but entirely offensive, was vindicated by the Qur’an.

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Until this time, Muslims had only been victims, but now Allah was blessing their efforts with spoils. Understandably, Muhammad commissioned many more raids, and one of them inadvertently launched the first major battle in Islamic history. As Muhammad ordered a raid against a passing Meccan caravan, the caravan commander perceived his danger and sent to Mecca for reinforcements. The Battle of Badr was the result, and the odds were against the Muslims. Despite the odds, Muslims won the battle, and this victory has been forever etched in the spirit of Muslims and memorialized in the Qur’an.

As mentioned previously, the Qur’an discusses the battle in its eighth Surah, the chapter of the “spoils of war.” 8:42-43 describes the scene of the battle, and that Muhammad had brought the Muslims to attack a caravan based on a dream that it would be lightly defended. Upon arriving, they found a large Meccan army defending the caravan, and they fought an unexpected battle. Surah 8:7 describes the Muslims, upon seeing the Meccan army guarding the caravan, desiring to fight the lesser of the two forces, but Allah intended them to fight the stronger for the sake of “the truth.” This truth, of course, is that Allah is with the Muslims who struggle for him. The Muslims gained the upper hand and killed the Meccans, though it was not the Muslims who killed, but it was Allah who killed. The chapter ends by extolling those who emigrated from Mecca and carried out jihad against the Meccans (Surah 8:72-75).

On account of this victory, the Muslims were emboldened to fight even more, and the Qur’an explicitly told them to be so emboldened: “O Prophet, rouse the believers to fight. If there are twenty patient men among you, they will overcome two hundred. And if there are one hundred with you, they will overcome a thousand disbelievers because they are a people who do not understand” (Surah 8:65) Muslims increased the scope of their battles from raids to larger campaigns. In addition to raids against the Bedouins, Muslims attacked agricultural Jewish tribes to secure their fertile lands, including the Jews of Khybar, who, much like the Meccans during the Nakhla raid, were unarmed and unaware when the Muslims attacked. Muslims also fought campaigns for dominance over the Hijaz, a western region of Saudi Arabia. After Badr came the battles of Uhud, Khandaq, Mecca, and Hunain. In addition to these battles for land, Muhammad led Muslims on attacks against the Christian Byzantines at al-Muta and Tabuk, the former battle a result of Muhammad’s demand that the Emperor submit to Islam, the latter a battle for plunder.

THE MIXED NATURE OF QUR’ANIC VERSES

Most of these battles were offensive campaigns against mutual enemies. Such battles at times resulted in the complete decimation of the Muslims’ enemies, such as the defeat of the Jews at Khybar, who as a result had to pay half of their agricultural produce every year as a jizya, or ransom tax, before being expelled from the land regardless. Some of the battles were defensive, such as the battle of Khandaq, which was a Meccan siege of Medina. That particular battle involved new strategies of fighting, including digging trenches, that resulted in the Meccans leaving Medina after a bitter stalemate. Muhammad recouped some of his losses by decimating a tribe of Medinan Jews whom he accused of supporting the Meccans. He executed all pubescent boys and adult men, took their women and children for slaves, and divided their possessions among the Muslims, including lands the Jews owned that Muhammad had not been to before. This is recorded in the Qur’an (Surah 33:25-27), but with much more detail in the traditions.

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Some battles were complete losses, such as the Battle of Uhud wherein Muhammad was struck down and feared dead for a time. Other battles, though not as bitter, were fruitless, such as the ill-fated Battle of Tabuk where the Muslims were unable to even find their enemies. But the victory that is sweetest among all the eighty-six battles that Muhammad launched was the conquering of Mecca. Almost a decade after fleeing for his life and fighting repeatedly among the Meccans, Muhammad returned triumphantly with 10,000 warriors and conquered his homeland. What is most notable about this account is that even though these were the Muslims’ most inveterate enemies, great mercy was extended as most people who did not fight the Muslim conquerors were allowed to live. Only a handful of those who surrendered were executed.

The greatly varied experiences of the early Muslims are reflected in the Qur’an, and not in chronological order. Therefore, we can find verses commanding great peace and great violence interspersed throughout the text. There are verses that prohibit Muslims from fighting, verses that allow Muslims to fight defensively, and verses that command Muslims to fight even when they don’t want to. There are verses that designate Jews and Christians as friends of Muslims and verses that call them the worst of creatures. There are verses that tell Muslims to desist from fighting those who are peaceful, and verses that command Muslims to fight those with whom they have treaties; verses that say all who believe in God and do good works will receive his mercy, and verses that say anyone who follows a religion other than Islam will not be saved. There are verses that say Allah will certainly grant victory to Muslims if they fight, and verses that say Allay was testing Muslims by allowing them to be defeated.

This is why, according to basic principles of Islamic hermeneutics, it is problematic to single out verses of the Qur’an and draw conclusions without considering the historical context. Sine the Qur’anic text is not presented in chronological order, the endeavor is made more difficult. Especially when it comes to jihad, polemics are plentiful, but we ought to carefully consider assertions in light of the complex reality of Islamic traditions.

THE VIOLENT CULMINATION OF THE FOUNDATIONS OF ISLAM

Through the chronology of Muhammad’s life and the Qur’an, there is one clear trend: The proclivity toward violence in the early Muslim community continued to increase from the moment they could fight, through Muhammad’s death, and beyond. Muhammad’s leadership began peacefully for thirteen years, then ventured into small raids involving only tens of fighters, then engaged in significant battles with hundreds of fighters, and finally Muhammad conquered Mecca with 10,000 soldiers and secured the lands of the Hijaz with 30,000 soldiers. By the time of his death, Muhammad had conquered the Arabian Peninsula and most likely succeeded in his goal of cleansing it of all non-Muslims.

An increasing proclivity towards warfare is reflected in the Qur’an itself. The oft-cited peaceful passages, such as 2.256 and Surah 109, are among the earliest passages of the Qur’an. After them chronologically come statements such as 2.216, which says, “You are required to fight, even if it is hard for you.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of verses that suggest or command violence can be brought forth from the Qur’an, but the example of one particular Surah will suffice. Surah 9 of the Qur’an, called “the Disavowal,” is the last major chapter of the Qur’an to be revealed, according to Islamic tradition, and it is by far the most violent chapter. Because of it sweeping commands and finality, classical Muslim theologians understood it to function as the final orders from Allah to Muhammad, nullifying the earlier, peaceful passages of the Qur’an. (Nullification of former Qur’an passages is normative and called abrogation, as Qureshi will discuss in Question #5).

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The chapter begins with a disavowal. Now that the Muslims had conquered Mecca, all treaties they had made with the polytheists were to be nullified, though time would be allowed for the polytheists to decide whether they would convert to Islam, leave Arabia, or fight the Muslims. At the end of those months, the Muslims were commanded to “kill the polytheists wherever you find them, lay siege to them, take them captive and sit in ambush for them everywhere. If they (covert to Islam) leave their way.” (Surah 9:5) Of course, some of these polytheists were family members of recent converts to Islam. 9:23 says, “O believers, do not take your fathers and your brothers as family if they prefer disbelief over faith. Those of you who have friendship with them are doing wrong.” This was to be the categorical end of all relationships, the disavowal, between Muslims and polytheists.

The problem with this was that polytheists who came to Mecca brought trade to the city and income to Meccan Muslims. The next section of the Qur’an answers those who fear the economic repercussions of killing the polytheists of Arabia: “O you who believe, surely the polytheists are impure, so do not allow them to approach the sacred mosque after this time. If you fear poverty, Allah will provide for you from His grace, if He wills.” (Surah 9:28) How exactly will Allah provide? The next verse explains: “Fight those who do not believe [in Islam]… from among the people of the book [the Jews and Christians] until they pay the jizya and feel their subrogation” (9:29) In other words, Jews and Christians will be made to pay a ransom tax, helping to ameliorate the financial loss of expelling the polytheists.

A justification must be provided for unprovoked attacks on Jews and Christians, so the next verse (9:30) provides the reasoning. “The Jews say ‘Ezra is the Son of God’ and the Christians say ‘Christ is the Son of God.’ These are the very words of their mouths, they imitate what disbelievers said before them. May Allah destroy them!” It is not the actions of the Jews and Christians but their beliefs that have earned them their doom.

The following verses continue to make it clear that Jews and Christians, according to their beliefs, have set up partners with Allah, the unforgivable sin of “shirk” in Islam, and they will receive their just punishment. “They have made their rabbis and their monks into gods other than Allah: (9:31). This makes Jews and Christians like the polytheists, and thus Muslims ought to conquer them. According to Surah 9:33, “He [Allah] is the one who sent the messenger [Muhammad] with the guidance [the Qur’an] and the true religion [Islam] in order to prevail over every faith.” Note these last words. Islam is now to be dominant over every other faith. For this reason, Jews and Christians will be subjugated and made to pay tribute. Verses 34-35 clarify that these proclamations are still ultimately related to the financial concerns of Muslims, because they point out that the Jewish and Christian leaders have great wealth. These verses also taunt Christians, saying their “good news” is actually that they are going to hell.

So chapter 9 expands the scope of Islamic warfare tremendously. It begins as a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to kill them wherever they may be found unless they convert. It continues by telling Muslims not to worry about the financial impact of this policy, as Jews and Christians deserve to be conquered for being like polytheists themselves. Out of their great wealth they ought to pay Muslims, as Islam is the best religion and will “prevail over every faith.” This is the command of the last major chapter of the Qur’an, the final marching orders of Muhammad to his men.

JIHAD AND THEN NEW BARGAIN WITH MUSLIMS

Within this chapter, we see that an incredibly expansive scope of war is the new norm for jihad. In Surah 9:38-39, the Qur’an warns Muslims that if they do not fight they will be punished. “O you who believe, what is wrong with you? Have you become happy with the worldly life instead of the afterlife? If you do not march forth, He will punish you with a great punishment…” They are then literally commanded to fight jihad. “March, whether heavy or light, and carry out jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. That is good for you, if you only knew” (9:41). Turning to Muhammad, the Qur’an tells him that no true Muslim would avoid jihad. “Those who believe in Allah and in the last day do not ask you to excuse them from jihad” (9:41). 9:49 goes even farther, saying that such people are already encircled by hell.

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The words of the Qur’an here are important to grasp. A Muslim’s willingness to engage in jihad is an indicator of whether he or she really believes in Islam. This is because the outcomes of jihad are only good. Either one receives spoils, which are good, or one receives martyrdom, which secures eternal bliss (9:52). Those who do not engage in jihad are revealed to be hypocrites. Hypocrites are a category of people often discussed in the Qur’an, which portrays them as people who outwardly display belief in Islam but are actually liars. This is an important category which Qureshi will explore in more detail in Question #7.

As for those who do fight, 9:111 is axiomatic and essential for understanding the future development of jihad. “Surely Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their properties in order that paradise be theirs. They fight in the way of Allah, so they kill and are killed, on which there is a true promise… Rejoice in the bargain you have made!” Those who fight and die in the way of Allah have made a bargain. If they die, they are guaranteed paradise. A true Muslim ought to rejoice at this, according to the Qur’an.

This is the salvific contract that paved the way for the zeal of early Muslim conquests. On account of this verse, later Muslims would say that “the sword wipes away sins” (Ibn Mubarak, Kitah al-Jihad). It is no wonder that early Muslim warriors famously said they desired death more than their enemies desired life. They believed the promise of the Qur’an. The final major chapter of the Qur’an launched Muslims into warfare with no clear endpoint and a desire to fight to the death. This was the ethos that led to Muslims conquering fully one-third of the known world within 150 years of the advent of Islam.

OFFENSIVE VERSUS DEFENSIVE JIHAD

While many Muslims are aware of the battles in Muhammad’s life, they often believe the battles were all defensive. As we have seen, that is not true, not even of the very first battles that Muslims fought. Both Nakhla and Badr were offensive endeavors. The Qur’an attests of the Battle of Badr that Muhammad led Muslims out to battle expecting to find a lightly guarded caravan. After Muhammad had fled Mecca and had the ability to live peacefully, it was his command that let to the first blood spilled.

The Qur’an in 9:29 also gives Muslims the command to fight Jews and Christians because of their beliefs, not because of any aggression on their part. This understanding is verified by Muhammad’s launching of his fighters against the Byzantine Christians who had never even threatened Muslims. When Qureshi first discovered these facts, his response was to try and find a way to say they were, despite appearances, defensive battles. The raids Qureshi dismissed as historically uncertain, the Battle of Badr an attempt to reclaim what Meccans had stolen, the Battle of Tabuk a preemptive strike under threat of Roman attack. But these were Qureshi’s knee-jerk responses to defend the teachings he had inherited, and they were implausible at best. When considering the big picture, such explanations are wholly indefensible.

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The early Muslim community certainly had nothing against offensive attacks, as its conquests demonstrate. Common sense precludes them from believing that the vast conquests of the early Muslims all came from defensive campaigns, but the records of the conquered remove all doubt. One such record, The Chronicles of John, Bishop Nikie, reveals what happened during the Muslim conquests of northern Egypt in 640 AD. One of Muhammad’s companions, Amr ibn al-As, came with his army to an undefended city whose soldiers had run away in fear.

“Amr and the Muslim army… made their entry into Nakius [Nikiu] and took possession. Finding no soldiers, they proceeded to put to the sword all whom they found in the streets and in the churches, men, women, and infants. They showed mercy to none. After they had captured this city, they marched against other localities and sacked them and put all they found to the sword… Let us now cease, for it is impossible to recount the iniquities perpetrated by the Muslims after their capture of the island of Nakius.”

This is how history recounts one of Muhammad’s companions enacting jihad. Even though the record contains the slaughter of non-combatants, it appears to be more consistent with a plain reading of Surah 9 than do views of peaceful or defensive jihad.

THE HADITH AND JIHAD

What ultimately convinced Qureshi that jihad was primarily violent and often offensive was reading the hadith collections. For example, in Sahih Bukhari, the collection of hadith that Sunni Muslims consider most trustworthy, we find an entire book dedicated to Muhammad’s teachings on jihad. There Qureshi found a tradition in which Muhammad says, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped by Allah, and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger… [O]nly then will they save their lives and property from me” (Sahih Bukhari 1.2.25). Similarly, in the next most reliable collection of hadith, Sahih Muslim, there is also a book on jihad, and in it Muhammad says, “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims” (Sahih Muslim 1767a).

These traditions in hadith collections that Muslims consider most authentic seem to go even further than Surah 9 of the Qur’an. They imply that Jews and Christians will not be allowed to live in Arabia. While Surah 9 does not command this of Muslims, it does not prohibit it either. Consider another hadith that says fighting in jihad is better than praying and fasting ceaselessly.

“A man came to Allah’s Messenger and said, ‘Instruct me as to such a deed as equal Jihad [in reward].’ He replied, ‘I do not find such a deed.’ Then he added,’Can you, while the Muslim fighter is in the battle-field, enter your mosque to perform prayers without cease and fast and never break your fast?’ The man said, ‘But who can do that?’ Abu-Huraira added, ‘The Mujahid [Muslim fighter] is rewarded even for the footsteps of his horse while it wanders about tied in a long rope.” (Sahid al-Bukhari 4.52.44)

Another hadith from the same book bolsters an understanding of Surah 9, focusing on the good outcomes of jihad and Allah’s bargain with Muslims.

“I heard Allah’s Messenger saying, ‘The example of a Mujahid in Allah’s Cause… is like a person who fasts and prays continuously. Allah guarantees that He will admit the Mujahid in His Cause into Paradise if he is killed, otherwise He will return him to his home safely with rewards and war booty.'” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.46)

A pithy hadith tells Muslims that jihad is the best thing in the world.

“The Prophet said, ‘A single endeavor [of fighting] in Allah’s Cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.50)

These are but five of hundreds of hadith in the canonical collections that clarify the nature of jihad in the foundations of Islam. Islam is built on Muhammad’s teachings, and these teachings are contained within the canonical traditions. Simply reading the books on jihad found in these collections clarifies much.

CONCLUSION

Although the average American Muslim agrees that the Qur’an and hadith are the ultimate basis of their faith, many have not critically read the traditions. They would be surprised to find violent, offensive jihad shot through the foundations of Islam. The Qur’anic revelations reflect the development in Muhammad’s life as he moved from a peaceful trajectory to a violent one, culminating in Surah 9 of the Qur’an, chronologically the last major chapter of the Qur’an and its most expansively violent teaching.

Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians so that Islam may “prevail over every faith.” The scope of violence has no clear limits; it’s fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued, or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final Surah of the Qur’an, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites. If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits.

Qureshi says the summary in this week’s Question #4 is not an alarmist attack against Islam or intended in any way to be polemical. It is simply an overview of Islam’s foundational teachings on jihad with a focus on final orders. These teachings propelled a people to conquer much of the world at a speed and with a lasting impact arguably unparalleled in human history, save Alexander the Great. Yet most Muslims today do not live their lives based on chapter 9 of the Qur’an or on the books on jihad in the hadith, and there are good reasons for this. Qureshi will show us why in the answer to the next question, “What is Sharia?”

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #5 – What is Sharia? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

The Cross

In today’s advanced aged of technology, terrorism, and the search for peace, there seems to be no concrete answer. People look for an outcome that will satisfy their needs, but forget to look in the Bible for answers from God. Even though the manuscripts are over 2,000 years old, they remain relevant for many generations, to include the present and future populations seeking peace within their hearts.

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The only man-made things in heaven are the scars on Jesus Christ. He was wounded and killed so that we could spend eternity with Him and our Father God. Because of our belief in the sacrifice Jesus endured, we can be saved and forgiven for our sins. It takes faith to believe in something we cannot see. In fact, Hebrews 11: 1 tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Most people only rely on tangible assets which they can touch, feel, and see.

We are to lead a Christian life, which includes love and sacrifice for the less fortunate. Eternity is forever, and where we choose to spend it is a personal choice that each person has to make on his or her own. The mistakes or confrontations we encounter daily in life bring us closer to God and His Son Jesus. Upon our request, the Holy Spirit will come along side us and provide a spiritual solution.

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The Cross is symbolic because it provides us with the solution of forgiveness for our sins, and empowers us to forgive those who have hurt us by their actions or words. Jesus died on the cross even though he healed the sick and taught His disciples how to lead a Christian life filled with love, kindness, forgiveness, and honoring God by being an example to unbelievers. Words certainly can hurt when the tongue speaks in anger, hatred, envy, or jealousy. The cross gives us the ability to lead a godly life.

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Without the Holy Spirit to guide us daily, we will be searching for answers we cannot find on our own. There is only one way to the cross; faith and belief that eternity has no end, and that we will be at peace, shalom, living with God forever. When we spend time in the Word daily, we find answers to life’s questions and how it all relates to God’s unconditional, everlasting love. The price for being forgiven of our sins has been paid in full by Jesus as He hung on the cross. God sent him to teach us how to live, and, ultimately, He showed us the unfathomable love of God, who sent His only begotten Son to hang on a cross in our place. Our transgressions have been forgiven, allowing us to spend eternity with our Creator.

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For since the creation of the world God’s visible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

The only way we can begin to thank God for this unbelievable sacrifice is to praise Him, allow Him into our hearts and lives, guiding us in this earthly world. We are to be a beacon. We are salt and light to the world. This is actually not an option. Jesus said that we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” He did not say, “You can be” or “You have the potential to be.” He said, “You are the salt and the light.” Everyone who is born again is the salt and the light of the world. (See Matthew 15:13-16.) We are salt and light to the world, not the church. We are to go beyond the church  and share the Good News. We were saved to shine! We cannot hide our testimony. We have a story to tell. Jesus said we are to let our light shine before men so they might see our good works and choose to glorify God.

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Actually, as salt we Christians are to counteract the power of sin. As light we are to illuminate or make things obvious. Matters that need to be settled. Sin that needs to be exposed. We are to show others (believers and non-believers alike) that they should lay their burdens, their sin, their strongholds, their fears, their resentments at the foot of the cross. We have been crucified with Christ. Our lives are to be an ongoing witness to the reality of Christ’s presence in our lives. When we worship God with a pure heart, when we love others as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31), and when we do good without expectation of reward, we are shining lights. It is actually not our light, but a reflection of the Light of the Word, Jesus Christ.

We stand forgiven at the cross. We stand healed at the cross. We stand set free at the cross. The cross is the place where all the wounds of sin are healed. If you suffer from emotional problems – guilt, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment – there is healing through the cross of Christ. He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree. Clearly, God demands a penalty be paid for sin. Christ took that penalty upon Himself on the cross. The power of sin is too great. We cannot be delivered from it by turning over a new leaf. We can’t behave our way into heaven. Thankfully, we have a substitute, Jesus, who was a propitiation for our sins. When Christ died, those who believe in Him died too. We were identified with him in His death. When He rose from the dead, we were raised with Him into newness of life.

What happened at the cross shows us that God loves all people equally. He has a special place in His heart for those who are hurting – those who are under the penalty and power of sin. Simply put, the meaning of the cross is death. It was, after all, a means of execution for centuries. In Christianity the cross is the intersection of God’s exacting judgment and his unparalleled love. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice of the cross, those who put their trust and faith in Him have everlasting love. Through the cross, and the horrendous death endured by Christ, we are guaranteed eternal life.

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #3 – What is Jihad?

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This is the third in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

QUESTION #3 – WHAT IS JIHAD?

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THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ISLAM defines jihad in this way: “In law, according to general doctrine and in historical tradition, the jihad consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam and, if need be, of its defense.” This is a fairly standard definition of jihad among scholars of Islam in the West.

In broader Muslim literature there appears to be no such widely accepted definition, but that makes sense given the various kinds of jihad and the myriad application of the term found in classical and modern Islamic literature. The primary meaning of jihad as used by pre-modern Muslim jurists is “warfare with spiritual significance.” This definition appeals more to Qureshi than the standard scholarly definition, because it reflects the reality of a less than rigid use of the term.

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The popular definition of jihad as “Islamic holy war” is misleading. The words holy war are charged with connotations of the Christian Crusades, but the impetus and theological justification of the Crusades were markedly different from jihad, as Qureshi will explore in Question 17.

THE DEVELOPING DOCTRINE OF JIHAD

Part of the reason why jihad is so difficult to define is that the Arabic word itself means “strife” or “struggle,” and it is not always used in a doctrinal sense. The Qur’an appears to use the term to mean a “struggle for spiritual purposes,” at times remaining ambiguous about whether a violent or non-violent struggle is in view. In fact, some verses do use the word jihad as a purely spiritual struggle, such as Surah 22:78.

The Qur’an frequently uses the word in reference to a violent struggle for spiritual purposes. A clear example of this is a discussion of warfare in Surah 2:216-218, which culminates in Allah’s approval of those who undertake this jihad: “Warfare is prescribed for you, though you dislike it… Behold, those who believe, emigrate, and undertake jihad, these have hope of the mercy of Allah.” It is incorrect to argue, as do some apologists for Islam in the West, that the word can only refer to a spiritual struggle. Even in the Qur’an that is demonstrably false, let alone in the tradition of Muhammad’s life.

In fact, when it comes to the hadith, far and away the most frequent context of jihad is violent physical struggle. Qureshi will explore this issue further in Question 4, which will be published here next Friday. But for now, we will merely note that this meaning makes sense when we consider the time during which the canonical hadith collections were compiled, which was at the pinnacle of Islamic conquests. The Muslim community then preserved those traditions that were most relevant to them. In so doing, they solidified the term jihad in the direction of a violent spiritual struggle.

By the time of the great Muslim jurists, the generations that founded various schools of Islamic thought and enumerated codes of Sharia, jihad had developed into a fairly systematized doctrine of warfare. Conditions and rules of jihad conduct had been developed based on the relevant verses of the Qur’an and hadith traditions of Muhammad. For example, jihad could not be the endeavor of a rogue Muslim, but had to be formally declared by a legitimate authority among the Muslim people, most likely the caliph, the leader of the Muslims. [So much for validation of the “lone wolf” ISIS sympathizers.] The impetus for jihad must be of critical importance for the religion of Islam itself, or at least for a great number of Muslims. The causes ought to be specified prior to engaging in warfare, as well as the terms for resolution. These rules of conduct explain why al-Qaeda regularly broadcasted proclamations of jihad with Usama Bin Laden prominently displayed as an authority, airing lists of grievances against the West and demands for the cessation of hostilities. The endeavor was not simply for dramatic purposes, but also to fulfill the classical conditions for appropriately launching jihad.

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There are other requirements of jihad that classical jurists upheld, conditions that were grounded in Muhammad’s teachings for the sake of humane warfare. These included refraining from killing non-combatants or looting their property, restraint from disfiguring the corpses of fallen enemies, prohibitions against scorched-earth policies, and more. Depending on the jurist, treatments of jihad differed in exact rules and emphases. Although many jurists appeared concerned with combatant conduct for legalistic purposes, by the classical era of Islam there was a definite concern for moral warfare and attempts to limit collateral damage by some jurists.

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Of course, the mere enumeration of rules of jihad did not necessitate their enforcement, and it is clear that Muslims did not always follow them. For example, non-combatants were frequently slaughtered in eighth- and ninth-century Islamic conquests. In addition, Muslim-on-Muslim jihad was proclaimed at times during the classical era, even though these pronouncements should have been categorized as non-jihad hostilities. To be clear, examples of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the past were not the same as contemporary Muslim-on-Muslim jihad, which is often rationalized by accusing enemies of being apostates. This is a modern development, though with ancient roots, as Qureshi will demonstrate in Question 7.

Although the concept of jihad continues to develop to this day, one theme remains consistent. Because jihad is a struggle for spiritual purposes, a mujahid enjoys the benefit of Allah’s blessing. This promise is in the Qur’an itself, and it partially explains the prevalence of jihad throughout Islamic history, especially among those most zealous for Allah’s approval.

THE USE OF TERROR

Although the Qur’an probably does not envision something similar to twenty-first century terrorism, it does command Muslims to use terror and spread fear: “Prepare against them all the strength and war horses that you can to strike terror into the enemies of Allah and your enemies.” This teaching of the Qur’an is corroborated through the hadith, as Muhammad said, “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.220). Casting fear into the heart of Allah’s enemies is thus enjoined in the Qur’an and has a precedent in Muhammad’s life.

THE GREATER JIHAD AND THE LESSER JIHAD

A regular feature in Western scholarly discussions about jihad is the distinction between the greater jihad and the lesser jihad. The account reads: “A number of fighters came to the Messenger of Allah, and he said: ‘You have done well in coming from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ They said: ‘What is the greater jihad?’ He said: ‘For the servant [of God] to fight his passions.'” (Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Zuhd al-Kabir). From this tradition, a number of scholars and apologists defend the notion that jihad ought to be primarily understood as a spiritual struggle and secondarily understood as a physical one.

Although Sufi Muslims did develop the notion of “greater jihad” beginning in the twelfth century, there are significant problems with using the quotation above as a proof text for the primacy of peaceful jihad. Perhaps the most significant problem is that the Qur’an teaches the exact opposite. In Surah 4:95, the Qur’an says, “Not equal are those believers who are sedentary, other than the disabled, and those who undertake jihad in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has granted a grade higher to those who strive with their wealth and lives than to those who sit.” The exemption for the disabled makes the verse particularly clear. Physical fighting is more virtuous than not, according to the Qur’an.

This may be why none of the canonical collections of hadith include the tradition of the greater jihad; those compilers either did not know the hadith or considered it too dubious for inclusion in their collections. As Muslim scholars assert, and as Western scholars ought to agree, it is inappropriate to look at an entire doctrine through the lens of a single hadith, especially if that tradition is not in any of the canonical collections. The fact that the tradition directly contravenes a Qur’anic teaching should put the matter out of dispute: The notion that spiritual jihad is greater than physical jihad has no place in the foundations of Islam.

THE “SIXTH PILLAR” OF ISLAM

On the contrary, physical jihad was given such a place of prominence in the foundations of Islam that it has been honorifically referred to by some Muslim scholars as “the sixth pillar.” The Five Pillars of Islam are the minimum practices incumbent on all Muslims: proclaiming the shahada, reciting daily prayers, paying alms, fasting during Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, in the canonical hadith collections, a great emphasis is also placed on the Muslim’s duty to participate in jihad. Perhaps this is why, even in the earliest categorized hadith collections, the sections on jihad usually followed immediately after the sections on the Five Pillars. These traditions, as we shall see ahead, seem to imply that fighting is a requisite duty of all who are able.

CONCLUSION

Though the word jihad literally means “struggle,” and the Qur’an at times uses it in a spiritual context, the primary use of the word has always implied a physical struggle for spiritual purposes. The doctrine of jihad has been developing from the time of the Qur’an until today, in the classical era being expounded to include a code of conduct with injunctions designed to preserve innocent lives and lesson collateral damage. These rules, however, have not always been enforced.

The portrayal of jihad as primarily a spiritual endeavor, often by referring to the tradition of the “greater jihad,” is inconsistent with the Qur’an, the canonical hadith collections, Islamic history, and classical Islamic hermeneutics. It is an argument that has little grounding in reality. On the contrary, the foundations of Islam consistently portray jihad as primarily a physical struggle, as will be explored in Question 4 next Friday.

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #4 – Is Jihad in the Qur’an and the Life of Muhammad? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

10 Ways to Write a Poem

I found the following post on Poetry Breakfast, a WordPress blog I subscribe to. Please stop by: https://poetrybreakfast.com/

  1. Reassemble the torn bits of the poem
    he left on your desk in 1989
  2. Listen to the waves wash around
    sanded jellyfish and mermaids
  3. Retrace the steps he took
    to give you a birthday kiss
  4. Dance with her in post-stroke
    and wedding dresses
    and a virtual audience
  5. Feather the skinned knees of every
    smooth-cheeked kiss
  6. Drink down wine
    turned to water
    turned to winter
  7. Stretch the length of your spine
    along his hand and the lined page
  8. Taste the fat of coffee cream lyrics
    sung by a burning boy
  9. Lock eyes with clasped hands
    across happy hour smiles
    and congenital heart defects
  10. Commit it all to paper
    commit to no one
    commit soul to holy hands
    commit the rest to memory

By Annmarie Lockhart

About the Poet:  Annmarie Lockhart is the founding editor of vox poetica, an online literary salon dedicated to poetry, and Unbound Content, an independent poetry press. A lifelong Bergen County, New Jersey resident, she lives, writes, and works two miles from the hospital where she was born. You can read her words at fine journals online and in print.

 

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #2 – Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

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This is the second in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

QUESTION #2 – IS ISLAM A RELIGION OF PEACE?

Nabeel Qureshi writes, “Since I was born, I was taught by imams and my family that Islam is a religion of peace. What is surprising, in retrospect, is that this popular slogan may not have been around much earlier than that.”

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THE MEANING OF THE WORD ISLAM

Mark Durie, a research scholar of Linguistics and Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, informs us in an article for the Independent Journal, “Islam was first called the ‘religion of peace’ as late as 1930, in the title of a book published in India… The phrase was slow to take off, but by the 1970s it was appearing more and more frequently in the writings of Muslims for Western audiences.”

Whether or not one agrees that the slogan first appeared in the twentieth century, it is beyond dispute that the Qur’an never says, “Islam is the religion of peace,” nor do the traditions of Muhammad. This common misconception may stem from another, the oft-repeated assertion that the word Islam means “peace.” It does not. The Arabic word Islam means “surrender,” though it is related to the word for peace, which is salaam. Durie sheds light on the nature of the relationship and the origin of the word Islam: “The word Islam is based upon a military metaphor. Derived from aslama, ‘surrender,’ its primary meaning is to make oneself safe (salama) through surrender. In its original meaning, a Muslim was someone who surrendered in warfare.”

In an Islamic community, Muslims are taught that the “surrender” of Islam was a submission of one’s will and life to Allah, which Qureshi argues is noble and does not connote violence. But to contend that the word Islam signifies peace in the absence of violence is incorrect. Islam signifies a peace after violence, or under the threat of it. According to Islamic tradition, that is how Muhammad himself used the word. His warning to neighboring tribes is famous: Aslim taslam, which means, “If you surrender, you will have peace.” It was a play on words, as aslim also connotes becoming Muslim: “If you convert, you will have safety through surrender.”

So the word Islam refers to the peace that comes from surrender. Peaceful Muslim communities today present that imagery as a spiritual peace with Allah, but records of Muhammad’s life indicate that the notion of submission was also used in military contexts.

FROM ETYMOLOGY TO HISTORY

A more appropriate avenue for answering whether Islam is a religion of peace is the life and teachings of its prophet, Muhammad. The Qur’an and the traditions (hadith) of Islam’s prophet are far more definitive than the etymology of the word Islam. Qureshi plans a more in-depth discussion in Question #4, but suffice it to say for now that no one can honestly deny the presence of violence in both the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad. From the time Muhammad first obtained a following that could successfully fight, he launched raids and battles every year until he died. According to David Cook in Understanding Jihad, he commissioned or personally participated in eighty-six battles during that time, which is more than nine battles a year.

The Qur’an refers often to these campaigns, many times in approbation. For example, Chapter 8 of the Qur’an is about the Muslims’ first major battle, the Battle of Badr, and it teaches that Allah is the one who led the Muslims, that he compelled the Muslims to attack the Meccans, that he supplied them with angelic assistance, and that he was the one who slew the Meccans through the hands of the Muslims. There is no avoiding the presence and even the glorification of violence in this chapter, or elsewhere throughout Islam’s origins.

The battles of the early Muslim community seem to have escalated in a crescendo toward the end of Muhammad’s life, not halting with his death, but rather catapulting into global proportions. As soon as the prophet Muhammad died, there came the apostate wars, then the overthrow of Persia, and then the campaigns of Egypt and beyond. Within two centuries of the advent of Islam, Muslim conquests expanded Islamic territory from the shores of the Atlantic well into the valleys of India. At the end of that era, the most influential hadith collectors gathered whole books documenting Muhammad’s conduct and commands during times of warfare. Shortly after them, the great Islamic jurists systematically codified Sharia, Islamic law, devoting whole branches of jurisprudence to the proper practice of warfare.

For these reasons, no one can claim that “Islam is a religion of peace” in the sense that the religion has been historically devoid of violence, neither in its origins nor in the history of the global Muslim community. Apart from the first thirteen years of Islamic history, when there were not enough Muslims to fight, Islam has always had an elaborate practice or doctrine of war.

IN WHAT WAY MIGHT ISLAM BE A RELIGION OF PEACE?

Qureshi says, “In my experience, most Muslims who repeat this slogan have not critically considered the history of Islam. Those who have and [who] continue to say it mean it in one of two senses: a spiritual sense or an idealized sense.” In the spiritual sense, it is understood that Islam brings peace to a person through personal discipline, a right relationship with other Muslims, and submission toward the Creator, Allah. This sense of the slogan is irrelevant as a response to violent jihad.

In the idealized sense, it is generally meant that Islam brings peace to this world. Though battles have been fought, they were fought out of necessity. Ideally, the goal that Islam strives for is peace throughout the world. According to this sense, Islam can be a religion of peace despite the presence of war, so this sense of the slogan is also irrelevant as a response to violent jihad. (Some who espouse this view argue that the wars in the foundation of Islam were defensive endeavors, and argument that Qureshi will consider in Question #4.)

THE WEST AND THE RELIGION OF PEACE

Unfortunately, neither of these more viable and nuanced approaches appears to be in mind when Western media and Western leaders proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace. Rather, such proclamations appear to be little more than attempts to change public perception of Islam, albeit for a noble cause such as precluding retaliation against innocent Muslims. We often hear the loudest proclamations of Islam’s peacefulness in the wake of the most heinous jihadist violence. President George W. Bush called Islam peaceful after September 11. Prime Minister Tony Blair called Islam a peaceful religion after the July 7 London bombings. President François Hollande make the same proclamation after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This regular juxtaposition of extreme Islamic violence with a strong insistence that Islam is a religion of peace is obviously jarring, and not just to Westerners.

The Syrian Sheikh Ramadan al-Buti, considered one of the most influential traditionalist Sunni scholars in the world today, saw an insistence on Islam’s peacefulness as an effort by the West to emasculate Islam. If Western leaders and Western media repeat it enough, perhaps Muslims themselves will begin to believe it. He asserted in The Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography that the West was seeking to “erase the notion of jihad from the minds of all Muslims.” In asserting this position, the sheikh showed characteristic Middle Eastern candor in his assessment of peace and violence in Islam. Tragically, he was himself killed by a suicide bomb in 2013.

CONCLUSION

Instead of seeking to redefine Islam, Qureshi believes we should consider more thoughtful and honest approaches. The question of whether Islam can be a religion of peace in spiritual or idealized senses ought to be considered, but the implication that Islam is a religion devoid of violence is simply false. The frequent proclamations by leaders and media members of Islam’s peacefulness may be well-intended, but more is needed than good intentions.

Instead, Qureshi says, “We must open our eyes and not allow ourselves to remain blind to evident facts in our attempts to either protect or sway Muslims. Though violence is writ large throughout the pages of Islamic history, including in its foundations, that does not mean our Muslim neighbors are violent. Muslims deserve to be treated with the kindness and respect due to all people.” In fact, their journeys may be leading many of them to confront Islam’s violence for the first time, as Qureshi’s journey once did, and they, too, may be approaching a critical three-pronged fork in the road.

Qureshi concludes, “May our eyes and our arms both be open to them.”

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #3 – What is Jihad? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

Like a Roaring Lion, Seeking Whom He May Devour

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WHEN YOU YIELD YOURSELF to sin, you’re serving Satan, who is the author of sin. But when you yield yourself to obedience, you serve God, who is the author of righteousness.

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It’s easy to realize there are consequences (and rightly so) for what we do in everyday life, some worse than others. The impact is often multi-leveled. If you’re driving over the speed limit – something I used to do quite frequently – you could get a ticket or cause an accident. The speeding violation could cost you money and put points on your driver’s license. An accident could damage your car, other property or, worse yet, cost someone their life. Infidelity could cost your marriage, and typically leaves emotional scars on the couple and any children. Stealing a loaf of bread, even when out of necessity, puts you at risk for a criminal charge, which will blemish your record for years to come. Embezzling from your employer – one example from our local television station involved a bookkeeper taking nearly $100,000 from her employer – can land you in prison.

There’s much more to life than what we can see – the physical, natural, surface-level realm. Spiritual dynamics are constantly taking place around us. Frustration, resentment, unforgiveness – all can leave a blemish. Have you ever had a falling out with an individual, perhaps a family member? I am presently struggling with this very problem; something I brought on by my actions. It is easy to get embroiled in the dispute to the point that you cannot see your own part.  Pride goeth before the fall. Whether you recognize it or not, Satan is the one who influences us to respond in the wrong way.

Joyce Meyer, in her seminal book Battlefield of the Mind (1995), says, “How can we express the importance of our thoughts sufficiently in order to convey the true meaning of Proverbs 23:7: ‘For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.'” Frankly, the longer I serve God and study the Bible, the more I realize the importance of God’s thoughts and words. Today, I long for finding the guidance and divine influence of the Holy Spirit. It is clear that as long as we are alive on this earth we will need to study what God’s Word teaches on the the various areas of thoughts and deeds.

Clearly, the devil is a liar. Jesus called him the father of lies and of all that is false. (John 8:44) He lies to you and me. He tells us things about ourselves, about other people, and about circumstances, that are just not true! He usually will not tell us the entire lie at one time. Instead, he begins by bombarding our mind with a cleverly devised pattern of propaganda, including a hierarchy of nagging thoughts, suspicions, doubts, fears, wonderings, reasonings, and theories. He moves slowly and cautiously – after all, well-laid plans take time. He has a strategy for his warfare. He has studied us for a long time, and he knows what will trip us up.

Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message says, “Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.” The New King James Version states, “…your adversary walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

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Because we are in a spiritual battle, we cannot afford to indulge the “luxury” of strife. God is a God of peace. (Romans 15:33; 16:20) Regarding the creation of mankind, God said, “Let us make man in our own image.” (Genesis 1:26; 2:7) He directly breathed the breath of life into man’s nostrils. Consider that God’s intent, at the moment when He breathed his breath of life into man, was to impart His image on mankind in full measure. I believe it was then and there that man became an image bearer of God. He at least hoped man would be of peace and not of strife. It is likely at this point that God transferred His agape love, His unconditional love, unto mankind with the desire that man would handle his every interaction with his fellow man in accordance with the kind of love we’re told about in 1 Corinthians 13. This is clearly the ideal.

Our life should be full of peace, not animosity and disunity. Of course I’m not saying that we (after the Fall) will ever live totally free from all wrangling and dissension, hatred and jealousy, but we should never just accept these attitudes, like it’s “game over,” nor should we promote them through our behavior. We ought to actively stand against such things and fight, recognizing that every time we get into strife a door is opened for anything the enemy wants to do in our lives. Think I’m nuts? Hey, how many times (consider the recent news events involving mass shootings) has strife or jealousy or mistrust or bigotry led to outright massacre? Too often! Satan gains access to our daily lives whenever there’s strife, and he has a giant appetite for death and destruction. He’s quite pleased when mankind turns from love and acceptance to carnage and plunder.

AN ONGOING BATTLE

Whether you realize it or not, we are at war. We’re in a fight over our souls. A battle which has the potential to end in spiritual death. Satan is walking about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. The devil is trying to destroy our lives, moment by moment, from within. This is no typical war. In this battle, the casualties are our souls. The devil desires to rip your soul right out of your chest and drag it into the darkness forever. Worse, he wants to do this to our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. Essentially to everyone. A scary component of this war is that every man, woman and child on the planet is being dragged into combat whether they like it or not. There is no escape.

I’m not making this up. I wish I were. If you are attending a church where your pastor is not telling you about this struggle, please consider seeking a new, Bible-filled church. Our church leaders need to be talking about this. Ephesians 6:12 tells us, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (NIV) Satan is ready to do battle at the drop of a hat. Peter warns us to be alert and of sober mind because the devil is on the prowl.

This is hard stuff, and I don’t find any of it particularly comforting. I will say that I lived well over 50 years in ignorance of these facts, or, worse, stupidly unafraid. The battle for my soul really went into full swing when I could not let go of anger and resentment toward my father, or anyone who would challenge me, defy me, or disappoint me. I laughed at the warnings I was given about drugs and alcohol. Surely I was bigger than addiction. I gave over to strife, opening the door just a crack, only to have mental illness, delinquency, selfishness, bitterness and active addiction claim me. We all have these types of issues, and we’re all vulnerable to conquest from the devil. Consider it a draft into servitude if you will.

IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP

Most Christians do not want to face this reality or acknowledge the stakes. Certainly, there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on; maybe the Bible is wrong. Perhaps it’s all just allegory and illustration. Perhaps we can just lethargically run out the clock and then float up into the heavens and stroll along streets of gold. When we get there, we think God will embrace us and hand us our “honorable mention” trophy or, for some of us, our “conduct above and beyond” plaque. Maybe, but what about the warning of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23 regarding those who thought they were Christians because they said so? The Scripture says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord.’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'” (NKJV)

You see, even Christians tend to sleep when their outward circumstances are most pleasant. A man doesn’t sleep when he discovers his hot water bottle has been leaking all over his bed, but when an electric blanket has warmed up his bed to the ideal temperature and he can curl up under the sheets. When all is soft and comfortable, then he will say, “Soul, soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years. Take thy rest; eat, drink, and be merry.” Admit it, you’ve been there. And while there, you’ve closed your eyes to the bad things you’ve been through, as well what’s going on around you now, and the terrible days that lie ahead. I remember all the painful, lonely, out-of-control times. The many years of active addiction. The sense that nothing would ever get better. My addiction, my brokenness, forced me to the throne of grace. I dropped to my knees and surrendered. I engaged with addictions professionals, fellow addicts and alcoholics, my sponsor, my pastor. I returned to the church of my youth, where I was saved and baptized at age 13. I made a habit of taking notes during men’s Sunday school and during the pastor’s message. I typically do not miss an opportunity today to assemble with fellow believers.

Funny, but I suddenly felt alive, relevant. I was wide awake. More spiritually engaged than I can ever remember. Few men sleep with a thunderstorm overhead and lightning striking nearby; many more sleep on a calm night. Now I’m not one to be ungrateful when given an completely new life; when renewed and rescued, set on the correct path, forgiven by God yet again, one more time. Moreover, God has called me to serve despite my decades of selfish, deliberate, sinful behavior. I start every day with enthusiasm, completely cognizant of the possibilities. It’s still fresh for me, but I know the potential remains for complacency to set in. As an alcoholic and addict in recovery, and a psychology major headed to graduate school for a master’s in professional counseling, I have at least a “head knowledge” of what happens when we get comfortable. Even as Christians. We “settle in.” We fluff our pillows and relax.

Ironically, we can get to a point where we rely on God less than when we did back when our world was crashing down around us. We tend to pray less often, and hardly ever on our knees. We claim being too busy, but we rationalize, saying to ourselves, “At least I talk to God in the shower or while driving to my next appointment.” We become less aware of God’s hand on our life. When the evening news becomes too laden with bad stories, we simply turn it off. Thankfully, I belong to a praying church. Several Sundays ago, our church held a special service. Instead of worship and a message, we held a “prayer walk.” We began in the sanctuary, then, after some basic instructions and prayer, we headed to the gymnasium of our affiliate Christian school. (Our church also operates a Christian school, grades K-12, which was founded in 1974.) Our pastor and elders had set up more than twenty individual prayer tables around the gym. Needs ranged from the missions we directly support, to missionaries in Muslim countries, our military men and women around the globe – especially those serving within harms way of North Korea – the fight against terrorism, various diseases, hurricane victims in Texas and Florida, our Christian academy, all the public schools and colleges in our region, those in the grips of active addiction, and so on.

My point? Arouse yourselves. Don’t become satisfied or complacent. Stay in the fight. Is Satan asleep? Or those powers and principalities, rulers of the darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms? Are they less dangerous than they used to be? No! There is no trial half as bad as imagining we are free from all trials. There is no defeat so great as imagining we are living lives of constant victory despite the headlines. It is often after we get confident about our status as God’s children, and rest in cliches, that we sleep; that we let our guard down. There is extreme danger in slumbering in the face of ever-present evil. We cannot defend ourselves when we’re sleeping. Nor can we stand in intercessory prayer for those in danger around us. Let’s face it: We need to arouse ourselves. There is work to be done. Did you know that Bible-believing Christians have never been so well off in this country. We have the resources to get anything done we set our minds and hearts to. We have everything we need except the will to do it.

A FINAL THOUGHT

When someone robs a bank and the police surround the building, they sometimes take a hostage. A bank typically has a great deal of security – locks, vaults, cameras, armed guards, top-notch alarm systems. One person with a gun isn’t really sufficient to go in and overpower such security measures. In spite of this, if the thief grabs a hostage and puts a gun to the hostage’s head, the thief knows his demands will be met. The people who run the bank aren’t willing to see a hostage killed just to protect a pile of money. One person with a gun and clip of ammo can challenge a multitude of police and S.W.A.T with automatic weapons simply by placing the life of one person in jeopardy.

Satan knows he can never overpower God in a direct confrontation. However, he saw how God gave Adam and Eve unconditional authority. Suppose he could get them – of their own free will – to yield their authority to him? God created the universe, and breathed life into Adam. He gave Adam a partner, a help-mate, Eve. When Adam and Eve defied God and ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God had the right and the authority to simply push the reset button and start humanity all over again. He could have destroyed Adam and Eve, the devil, and all the angels caught up in Lucifer’s rebellion. Instead, He realized that to intervene in the affairs of this world in such fashion would violate his covenant with Adam and Eve. He had given dominion over the earth to Adam and his help-mate. And he gave them free will. If God intervened, He would have violated His Word.

What was God’s answer? Redemption. That’s a powerful word. Have you ever looked at its meaning? It means (i) the act of gaining or regaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt; (ii) the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. God had Adam’s attention. Indeed, He had his heart. He walked in complete harmony and fellowship with God. Nothing was wrong. Everything was beautiful. Exactly as God intended it to be. Then Satan took Adam and Eve hostage, plunging all of mankind into exile. Somehow, God had to regain possession of mankind. In the original Hebrew redemptio, redemption means repurchasing of captured goods or prisoners; the act of procuring the deliverance of persons or things from the possession and power of captors by the payment of an equivalent; ransom; release; as the redemption of prisoners taken at war; in theology, the purchase of God’s favor by the death and sufferings of Christ; the ransom or deliverance of sinners from the bondage of sin and the penalties of God’s violated law by the atonement of Christ.

Knowing that you were not redeemed by perishable things like silver and gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless; the blood of Christ. – 1 Pet. 1:18-19

References

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York, NY: AA Worldwide Services.

Meyer, J. (1995). Battlefield of the Mind. Fenton, MO: Warner Faith.

Addressing the Opioid Crisis Means Confronting Socioeconomic Disparities

FROM THE BLOG OF DR. NORA VOLKOW, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE

October 25, 2017

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The brain adapts and responds to the environments and conditions in which a person lives. When we speak of addiction as a chronic disorder of the brain, it thus includes an understanding that some individuals are more susceptible to drug use and addiction than others, not only because of genetic factors but also because of stress and a host of other environmental and social factors in their lives that have made them more vulnerable.

Opioid addiction is often described as an “equal opportunity” problem that can afflict people from all races and walks of life, but while true enough, this obscures the fact that the opioid crisis has particularly affected some of the poorest regions of the country, such as Appalachia, and that people living in poverty are especially at risk for addiction and its consequences like overdose or spread of HIV. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers people on Medicaid and other people with low-income to be at high risk for prescription drug overdose.

Below is a pic of teens in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, the heart of Appalachia.

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Some of the reasons have to do with access and quality of health care received by people in economically disadvantaged regions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people on Medicaid are more likely to be prescribed opioids, at higher doses, and for longer durations – increasing their risk for addiction and its associated consequences. They are also less likely to have access to evidence-based addiction treatment. But psychological factors also play a role. Last year, economists Anne Case and Agnus Deaton attributed much of the increased mortality among middle-aged white Americans to direct and indirect health effects of substance use, especially among those with less education, who have faced increasing economic challenges and increased psychological stress as a result.

Environmental and social stressors are an important predictor of many mental disorders, and decades of research using animal models have told us a great deal about how such stressors increase risk for substance use, and even make the brain more prone to addiction. Among the best-known animal models of environmental stress and addiction risk are those involving social exclusion and isolation: Solitary animals show greater opioid self-administration than animals housed together, for example – a finding originally made famous by the “Rat Park” experiment of Bruce K. Alexander in the 1970s and replicated by other researchers over the subsequent decades.

Even more pertinent to the question of how low social status might affect addiction risk is research by Michael Nader, who showed that male monkeys who are dominant in their social group demonstrate less cocaine self-administration than lower-ranked (subordinate) animals or solitary ones. Some evidence points to brain circuitry in the insula – a region important in processing social emotions – that may link feelings of social exclusion to increased drug craving, as well as possibly altered dopamine-receptor availability in the striatum – part of the reward circuit – depending on social status. The relationship may be bi-directional. In other words, exclusion not only increases risk for using drugs, but increased drug use can increase social isolation further, creating a vicious cycle. Similarly, when people have strong family or community relationships, this often acts as a protective factor against the risk of becoming addicted, and can facilitate recovery among those striving to achieve it.

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Another animal model of environmental stress is an environment without opportunities for play, exploration, and exercise. Rodents housed in non-enriched environments have been shown to be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of heroin compared to those in more enriched environments. A team of researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston recently explored the molecular mechanisms that mediate the protective effects of enriched environments. They analyzed the transcriptome – or the parts of the genome that are expressed – in the nucleus accumbens, which is part of the reward circuit, following cocaine exposure in animals raised in either enriched or dull environments. They identified a number of molecules and signaling pathways, including a pathway involving retinoic acid – a product of Vitamin A metabolism – that may underlie the effects of an enriched environment on the brain’s processing of reward. The researchers suggest that the mild stressors and surmountable challenges presented by an enriched environment act to “inoculate” against stress, making individuals in those environments more resilient.

Although highly simplified, animal models of social and environmental stress can tell us a great deal about how stressful human environments may act as risk factors for substance use and other adverse outcomes and, conversely, how socially supportive and rewarding environments may offer protection. Prevention efforts targeting some of the environmental determinants of substance use, especially in young people, have already shown great success by applying the principles of boosting social support and creating the human equivalent of “enriched environments.” For example, a primary prevention model implemented in Iceland drastically reduced teen substance use in that country by increasing parental involvement and youth participation in team sports.  

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Blame for the opioid crisis now claiming 91 lives every day is often placed on the supply side: overprescription of opioid pain relievers and the influx of cheap, high-quality heroin and powerful synthetics like fentanyl, which undoubtedly have played a major role. But we cannot hope to abate the evolving crisis without also addressing the lost hope and opportunities that have intensified the demand for drugs among those who have faced loss of jobs and homes due to economic downturns. Reversing the opioid crisis and preventing future drug crises of this scope will require addressing the economic disparities, housing instability, poor education quality, and lack of access to quality health care (including evidence-based treatment) that currently plague many of America’s disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities.

References

Volkow, N. (October 25, 2017). “Addressing the Opioid Crisis Means Confronting Socioeconomic Disparities.” [Web blog comment.] Retrieved from:  https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog

 

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #1 – What is Islam?

This is the first in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

QUESTION #1 – WHAT IS ISLAM?

There are presently 1.6 billion Muslims globally, making Islam the world’s second-largest religion, and there are probably as many answers to the question, “What is Islam?” as there are adherents. The many individual expressions of the faith are valid experiences that give us insight into the lived reality of Islam. Qureshi says, “For that reason, it will be useful to start by sharing my personal experience of Islam while I was still a Muslim.”

QURESHI’S EXPERIENCE OF ISLAM AS AN AMERICAN MUSLIM

People often speak of religion in terms of beliefs and practices, and many introductions to Islam focus on the basic beliefs of Muslims, as represented by the Six Articles of Faith, and the mandatory practices of the Five Pillars of Islam. Yet that approach seems too distant and aloof to describe Qureshi’s experience as a Muslim. He says, “Islam was my identity, my culture, my worldview, my pride, even my raison d’être. For me, Islam was more than just a religion; it was my entire way of life.”

This passionate, comprehensive embrace of Islam was not unusual in Qureshi’s childhood environment. His great-grandparents were Muslim missionaries to Uganda, his grandparents were Muslim missionaries to Indonesia, his great-uncle was one of the earliest Muslim missionaries to the United States, and his uncle built one of the first mosques in America. While these relatives are idiosyncratic to Qureshi’s story, the convictions of his parents are reflective of many devout American Muslims. They were wholly dedicated to raising him as a pious Muslim child in what they perceived to be a morally permissive Western context.

What this means in essence was a constant remembrance of Allah and the teachings of Muhammad throughout Qureshi’s day, from waking to sleeping. Literally. Upon waking, he was taught to recite an Arabic prayer thanking Allah for giving him life; when lying down to sleep he prayed another prayer, affirming that his living and dying were in the name of Allah. Ceremonial washings and memorializing prayers filled his daily routine. His parents even taught him a standard prayer to recite on every occasion for which there was no other scripted prayer.

In addition to acts of ceremonial devotion, there were dozens of legal commandments intended to protect the community and glorify Allah. Men were forbidden to wear silk or gold, women were required to maintain modesty and veil themselves accordingly, and all Muslims were prohibited from usury and interest in their monetary transactions. Some commands functioned as identity markers for the Muslim community, such as the proscription of pork and alcohol, and the mandate to fast during Ramadan. Community was, of course, incredibly important for American Muslims as a minority. The majority of Americans did not understand them, and they felt it all the time, whether it be in the innocuous mispronouncing of their names, or the suspicious sideward glances at their women’s burqas. The mosque served as a haven where they could gather with others who experienced life in the same manner. Grievances from foreign lands were often laid to rest within the American Muslim community, as the local mosque was open to Sunni and Shia, Sufi and Ahmadi, Indian and Pakistani, rich and poor, black and white. Qureshi’s parents were focused on affirming Muslim unity and identity.

More importantly to Qureshi than all of this, Islam taught him to lower his gaze before women, to refrain from lust and other desires of the flesh, to respond to temptation by fasting, to consider the less fortunate and oppressed, to restrain himself from anger, to always tell the truth, to honor his parents and elders, and to follow countless other virtuous morals that he and his fellow believers often saw lacking in the amoral world around them. Through it all, what drove them ideologically were Allah and the prophet Muhammad. God, in his mercy, had sent guidance to mankind time and again, though man in his ignorance had rejected the messengers of Allah. Ultimately, Allah sent his chief messenger, Muhammad, to guide people as the perfect exemplar. Unparalleled in wisdom, character, and spiritual devotion, Muhammad led the new Muslim community from ignorance, through oppression, and into glorious victory for the sake of Allah. Since Muhammad was the perfect exemplar, Qureshi and his fellow Muslims followed his practices as best they could.

SO WHAT IS ISLAM?

But is Islam simply what Muslims experience, or is it something more? The sociologically inclined might say that Islam is simply the sum experience of all Muslims, but Qureshi says he would disagree, as would most Muslims. Islam is an entity beyond its people. Even if there were no one to experience it, we could still talk about Islam. Islam exists beyond experience. Qureshi says, “In my opinion, religions ought to be defined by the identifying characteristics that distinguished the earliest community from all others. For Islam, this boils down to exclusive worship of Allah and obedience to Muhammad. This understanding is verified by the shahada, the proclamation that every Muslim must recite in order to become Muslim: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger.” Even the prophet of Islam taught that this was sufficient to make one a Muslim.

There is much more to the religion of Islam, but at its core are the teachings of Muhammad and the worship of no other god than the one he proclaimed, Allah. These teachings are contained within Muslim scripture, the Qur’an, and in isolated traditions of Muhammad, often referred to collectively as the hadith.

DEMOGRAPHICS AND DENOMINATIONS

Yet Muslims interpret Muhammad’s teachings very differently, often along partisan lines of authoritative interpreters and cultural boundaries. That is why, in very broad strokes, Shia Islam looks different from Sunni Islam, why Bosnian Islam looks different from Saudi Islam, why folk Islam in the outlands of Yemen looks different from scholarly Islam in the halls of Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

Although the core of Islam is centered on the person of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, the expression of Islam reflects local customs. That is one reason why it is important to remember that Islam is not primarily a religion of Arabs. [This is something that was quite new to me.] The country with the most Muslims in the world is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, India, and then Bangladesh. None of those nations are Arab, and local customs manage to find their way into Islamic expression.

In addition, no two Muslims are exactly alike, and that is another reason why the expression of Islam is so varied. Qureshi said, “My sister and I were raised in the same sect by the same parents, but her practice and interpretation of Islam looks very different from how mine looked. Her leanings were far more Western and pluralist than were mine. I was more interested in learning about Muhammad and his teachings than she was, while she was more interested in American pop culture than I was.”

MUSLIMS ARE NOT ISLAM

Especially because of the great diversity of Islamic expression, it bears repeating that Islam is not Muslims, and Muslims are not Islam. Though Muslims are adherents of Islam, and Islam is the worldview of Muslims, the two are not the same, as many uncritically believe.

On one end of the spectrum, many assume that if the Qur’an teaches something then all Muslims believe it. That is false. Many Muslims have not heard of a given teaching, some might interpret it differently, and others may frankly do their best to ignore it. For example, even if it were demonstrated through careful hermeneutics that the Qur’anic injunction to beat disobedient wives (Qur’an 4:34) is meant to apply to all Muslims today, it would still have zero bearing in one particular family. Qureshi said, “My father would never beat my mother.”

On the other end of the spectrum, criticism of Islam is often taken to be criticism of Muslims. That is equally false. One can criticize the Qur’anic command to beat disobedient wives without criticizing Muslims. The accusations of Islamophobia, discussed in Question 12, often fails at this point. Islam is not Muslims, and one can criticize Islam while affirming and loving Muslims.

CONCLUSION

Thus Islam is defined by obedience to Muhammad’s teachings and worship of no other god but the one he proclaimed, Allah. Although there are as many as 1.6 billion expressions of Islam in the world, Muslims are not themselves Islam. Qureshi says, “In my experience as an American Muslim, there was absolutely no emphasis placed on violence, but a great deal of emphasis placed on morality, legality, community, and spirituality. For me and all the American Muslims I knew, Islam was a religion of peace with God and peace with man. But my experience of Islam is not the only one, and it cannot define Islam. For other Muslims, violence is a part of their expression of Islam, but their experience is no more definitive than mine was. To answer whether Islam truly is a religion of peace, we must consider what Islam teaches, not just what Muslims practice.”

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #2 – Is Islam a Religion of Peace? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

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