This is the tenth 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.
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QUESTION #10 – WHO ARE THE TRUE MUSLIMS? VIOLENT OR PEACEFUL?
QURESHI HAS INDIRECTLY ADDRESSED this in last week’s question, but he said, “It merits a direct response.” A month after September 11, when President George W. Bush asserted that Islam was a religion of peace, the Washington Post reported Jordanian cleric Abu-Qatada al-Filistini acerbically responded, “Is he some kind of Islamic scholar?” Although he asked the question rhetorically, it is relevant to point out that most of the people who repeat such statements about Islam are not Muslims, let alone scholars of Islam.
A survey of Islamic scholars clarifies the matter. Muslims are torn about whether Islam is a religion of peace, mostly along lines of geography and culture. Islam is proclaimed to be a religion of peace almost entirely by modern Muslims in conversation with Westerners. Yet from the very earliest era of Islam until at least the nineteenth century. Muslim theologians were largely comfortable with violence, even systematizing and codifying it.
ARE TERRORISTS MUSLIM?
Qureshi said, “I have heard quite a few Western Muslims say that terrorists are not really Muslim, but such comments are tragically ironic. Western Muslims who say this are engaging in the Islamic doctrine of excommunication, takfir, pronouncing Muslims to actually be non-Muslim. They usually make no reference in the doctrine of takfir itself, and may have no idea what the word takfir means, yet they are claiming to be the true Muslims. When radical Muslims engage in takfir and pronounce Western Muslims to be non-Muslim, they do so in light of Islamic doctrine.
By denouncing their radical Muslim counterparts, these Western Muslims are attempting to be the new Muslim hegemony, and to silence the voices of Muslims who disagree with them. It is a peaceful version of what radical Muslims are also attempting, declaring theirs to be the one true form of Islam. On one hand, this is little more than propaganda, while on the other it can represent an unfortunate Muslim tendency to see one’s own practice of Islam as the only legitimate version.
A 2011 Pew Forum survey titled, “The World’s Muslims Unity and Diversity” asked Muslims in thirty-nine countries whether there is only one correct way to understand Islam or if there are multiple possible interpretations. According to the survey report, in an astounding thirty-two of those countries, “half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam.” In the remaining seven countries, no more than 58 percent of respondents said Islam is open to multiple interpretations. This strong tendency toward intolerance of internal disagreement is, perhaps, reflective of why many Western Muslims are so ready to declare terrorists as non-Muslim.
Of course, radical Muslims often see Western Muslims as apostates as well, but their disavowals are more systematic and, arguably, more Islamic. Whereas Western Muslims denounce violent Muslims based on a perceived majority commitment to peacefulness, radical Muslims usually disavow Western Muslims on the basis of the latter not strictly adhering to Islamic law. Once again, the interplay is ironic. Western Muslims appeal to democracy to excommunicate radical Muslims who appeal to Sharia.
There can be no doubt by any useful definition of Muslims that Islamic terrorists are Muslim. They worship Allah, they strive to follow Muhammad, they perform their Islamic duties, and they have great concern for the international Muslim community. Relatively speaking, they tend to place more emphasis on the foundations of Islam than do average Muslims in the West who proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace.
SO ARE PEACEFUL MUSLIMS “GOOD MUSLIMS?”
The radical Muslim emphasis on foundational texts and their disregard for centuries of Islamic tradition tend to resonate with Protestant sensibilities. In fact, Protestants often ask Qureshi if peaceful Muslims are “good Muslims” in light of the violent trajectory of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life. If radical Muslims are placing a strong emphasis on following the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad, does that mean peaceful Muslims who largely ignore violence in Islamic foundations are not being loyal to “true Islam?” Muslims can legitimately practice peaceful forms of Islam. Outside of the Protestant “Scripture alone” perspective, most religions impute some authority to persons, and obedience to those authorities is a pare of the faith. Just as a “good Catholic” is one who obeys the Pope and adheres to the traditions of the Catholic Church, so a “good Muslim” is one who obeys his or her teacher and adheres to the traditions handed down in the practice of Islam. For this reason, those Muslims who practice the peaceful Islam that their tradition teaches are being “good Muslims.”
Perhaps the question Protestants intend to ask is whether an insistence upon peace is consistent with the foundation and origins of the Islamic faith. Qureshi states, “I have attempted to address that question head on in [my] book. No, it is not. Muhammad engaged in many battles, both offensive and defensive, both provoked and unprovoked, leading the Muslim community in eighty-six raids and battles during the last nine years of his life. The Qur’an’s final commands are found in Surah 9, chronologically the last major chapter of the Qur’an, and they are the most violent commands of all. The name of the chapter, “al-Baras,” means “the Disavowal.” Not only was the Surah a disavowal of peace treaties, but in many classical interpretations of Islam it was also a disavowal of other peaceful verses in the Qur’an through abrogation.
Surah 9 commanded Muslims to fight their enemies, even family members, even if they did not want to , even against those who had not fought Muslims, even in the face of death, and even if martyrdom was the result, as that would lead to their salvation. This was to establish Islam as the religion that would prevail over all others.
The Qur’anic teachings launched Muslims into world conquest and domination, and Muslims insistent on peace today must either ignore or reinvent whole swaths of Islamic history and thirteen centuries of Islamic tradition to dissociate themselves from violent Islam. Many peaceful Muslims do not do so consistently, instead simply ignoring some traditions as if they did not exist. In that case, though they may still be “good Muslims,” they are not being consistent thinkers.
Islam is a diverse religion with many expressions, though unfortunately there is a demonstrable tendency among Muslims to assume only one legitimate interpretation of Islam. On account of this, many Muslims accuse one another of apostasy, whether peaceful Muslims disavowing radical Muslims or vice versa. The reality is that Islam can be formulated either peacefully or violently, but violent expressions of Islam adhere more consistently and more literally to the foundational texts of the Islamic faith, the Qur’an and the hadith. Peaceful versions of Islam must reinvent traditions from Muhammad’s life in order to be internally consistent, or they must ignore them outright. Regardless of which of these two options peaceful Muslims choose, the common assertion that violent Muslims are not truly Muslim is uniformed or even disingenuous.
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #11 –Why Are Muslims Being Radicalized? 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.