Ghost Story

In a field near the lake
stands the ghost of a dead oak.
The ghost is black and very tall.
It never speaks or moves.
The sky wants to take it.
The earth wants to eat it.
But the ghost is strong, it does not want to move.
So it argues half its tongues into the dirt,
and grips hard against the sky’s glutton lung.
It whispers the other half into air,
and weathers the white earth’s thirst.
Like a frayed black suture it binds earth and sky together.
In this way the ghost stills its universe:
the sky can never rise nor the earth fall
out of their coupling’s grave jurisdiction.
The lake will breathe its atoms to the clouds,
the constellations will pageant
the lucky patterns of their composition
until they break and fade,
but the ghost will stand
contented with the silence,
with the snowfall,
with the stalemate of its own device.

-Art Zilleruelo

Christ Suffered and Died: To Unleash the Power of God in the Gospel

DURING THE WEEK LEADING up to Easter I will present seven distinct reasons why Christ suffered and died, culminating on Easter Sunday with To Reconcile Us to God. Today we look at Christ suffering and dying in order to unleash the power of God in the Gospel.

I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

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GOSPEL MEANS “GOOD NEWS.” It’s news before it’s theology. News is the reporting that something significant has happened. Good news is the announcement that something has happened that will make people happy. The Gospel is the best news, because what it reports can make people happy forever.

What the Gospel reports is the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul makes the news quality of the Gospel plain:

I would remind you… of the Gospel… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day… and that he… appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive (1 Corinthians 15:1-7).

The heart of the Gospel is that “Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised… and appeared to more than five hundred people.” The fact that he says many of these witnesses are still alive shows how factual the Gospel is. He meant that his readers could find some witnesses and query them. The Gospel is news about facts. And the facts were testable. There were witnesses of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection life.

The tragic thing is that, for many, this good news seems foolish. Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). This is the power that Christ died to unleash. “The Gospel… is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Why is the death of Christ not seen as good news by all? We must see it as true and good before we can believe it. So the question is: Why do some see it as true and good and others do not? One answer is given in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.” Besides that, sinful human nature itself is dead to true spiritual reality. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

 

 

It’s Christmastime!

Wow, only two days til Christmas Day. The year went so fast I almost forgot there were twelve months. Sometimes the days seem to run together. Partly because of the limited daylight. It’s typical for office workers this time of year to go to work in the dark in the morning and come home after work in the dark. Add to that all the rushing around as Christmastime draws near. Time slips without seeming to move the hands on the clock.

When I was young, time seemed to stand still on Christmas Eve. About six o’clock on WNEP 16 out of Scranton, PA, up-to-the-minute tracking of Santa Claus on radar would begin. It always felt like bedtime would never get here. And when it did, I would never be able to get to sleep. It’s Christmastime, I would think. Santa’s coming. If I go to bed. If I close my eyes and give in to slumber. Impossible, is what I used to think as I looked at the clock again and again, hoping it was time. Everything moves like a snail. Funny, but none of the adults seemed to notice this time problem. They would eat and drink and sing and dance around the living room, smiling and toasting one another. They were oblivious. But how is this possible, I would wonder? How can they be so calm?

Santa’s coming. Quick, everyone. Finish your merriment and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Clean up. Get a plate of cookies and a glass of milk ready for Santa. He’s coming! Straighten up the living room. Move those extra chairs out of the way. Santa needs to put my new bike there. Oh wow, this is taking so long. I can’t stand this. I really can’t. The excitement is causing me to nearly tremble. I have to pee, but I’m afraid to tell anyone. Maybe I can wait til I go upstairs to brush my teeth. It’s as though I think time will slow down even more than it has already. Oh, I have to go now! No waiting til bedtime. Well, what can I do? Nothing. I look at the clock. I don’t believe the hour hand has moved more than a half inch. You’ve got to be kidding me!

After what feels like half a week, it’s finally time to go to bed. I run up the staircase, nearly slipping and planting my face in the carpet at the top of the steps. I dash into the bathroom and head straight to the toilet bowl. I barely get my snaps open before the water works begin. Without having to be told, I grab my toothbrush and get brushing. I know Santa’s watching. I’ve known that for a long time. Have to listen. Have to be good. He is always checking. Sometimes twice. I’ve been nice. I’ve not been naughty. I finish up and sprint to my room to climb in my bed. I am thinking that maybe I should skip my prayers tonight and go straight to sleep. But wait, Santa will know if I don’t say my prayers. So I fold my hands and I get started. Short, but sweet. Done in ten seconds. I reach up and kiss my mom goodnight. She tucks me in and I squeeze my eyes shut real tight, hoping that will cause me to go right to sleep. It doesn’t. My heart is pounding. I can feel it in my ears and in the ends of my fingers. I can’t help but thinking, This is going to be a long night.

Believe it or not, before I know it I am opening my eyes. I look at my clock. It’s six o’clock. At first, I’m thinking the clock never even moved. That it’s still the same time it was when I looked at the living room clock. Then it comes to me. It’s morning. I can’t imagine what might be waiting for me downstairs. I scream out loud. I can’t help myself. I just can’t. Mom shows up at my door grinning from ear to ear. Dad is standing behind her. Good. It’s time. No more waiting.

I nearly tumble down the steps as dad calls out, Take it easy Sport. I am not even all the way down the steps when I see the handle bars. Yep! Handle bars atop a brand new shiny bike. The bike is surrounded by dozens of presents. I am speechless. I took at mom and dad, and then I go sit on my new bike. Mom already has her Instamatic up to her eye, taking my picture. Dad says, Well, what do you think? I just grin and lean in to the handle bars, pretending I’m flying down Race Street hill, leaving a trail of flames behind me. Then I remember, there are presents to open. Man, this is just fantastic. I dive in, ripping at the wrapping paper. Present after present, I am blown away. I stop for a brief moment and think, This was well worth the wait.

Merry Christmas to everyone. Stay safe. Be healthy. Be thankful. And above all else, be patient. Because sometimes the clock just doesn’t seem to move at all.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

© Steven Barto 2014

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #8 – Does Islam Need a Reformation?

answering jihad

This is the eighth 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 #8 – DOES ISLAM NEED A REFORMATION?

QURESHI HAS HEARD MANY PEOPLE, frustrated by the increasing frequency and scale of Islamic terrorism, suggest that Islam needs a reformation. What they may not realize is that radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.

This might sound shocking, but consider: Just as the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to raze centuries of Catholic tradition and return to the canonical texts, so radical Islam is an attempt to raze centuries of traditions of various schools of Islamic thought and return to the canonical texts of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life. This desire to return to the original form of Islam can be seen not only in the words of Sayyid Qutb, but also in his method. He focused almost entirely on references to the Qur’an. It is true also of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS today, whose publications and proclamations are punctuated by references to the Qur’an and hadith literature. Radical Muslim organizations are explicit in their aim to reform Islam.

MODERATE MUSLIM SCHOLARS VERSUS ISIS

This reality hit Qureshi when he read an open letter written by 120 Muslim scholars rebuking ISIS for their version of Islam (see http://lettertobaghdai.com). The letter starts with twenty-four points of “Executive Summary,” the very first point of which emphasizes that “fatwas must follow Islamic legal theory as defined in the Classical texts.” But ISIS does not grant authority to the legal theory of classical texts, the thoughts of the great Islamic jurists. They are returning to the foundational texts, the Qur’an, and the hadith. The same is true for virtually all radical Muslim groups. This letter was therefore impotent in bringing about any change within ISIS, as Qureshi was inclined to think its writers must have known before issuing it.

Yet one of the points of the letter shot so wide of the mark that Qureshi was surprised it was included. In the writers’ condemnation of sex slavery, unable to provide a single reference that Islam forbade the practice, they instead appealed to a modern consensus: “After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth. You have resuscitated something that the Shari’ah has worked tirelessly to undo and has been considered forbidden by consensus for over a century.” Imagine ISIS leaders laughing as they read this. Their whole purpose is to work against any consensus of modern Muslim scholars, especially if it contravenes the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad.

The Qur’an and hadith  contain many references to sex slavery. The Qur’an explicitly allows Muslim men to use their captive women for sex (23:6; 33:50; 70.30). The canonical hadith collections corroborate the practice, going so far as allowing it even if captive women are already married and their husbands remain alive, or if the women are about to be sold and could be impregnated (Sadith Bukhari 4138; Sahih Muslim 3371 and 3384; Sunan Abu Daud 2150). The Qur’an also explicitly confirms the former practice, teaching that captive women can be used as sex slaves even if they are married (4:24). The “century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery” is a departure from the foundations of Islam, and radical Islam is against such bidah, innovations in Islam.

Qureshi said, “To be clear, I am not arguing here against the legitimacy of an Islam that departs from its roots, but as long as Muslims try to return to the foundations of Islam, such modern consensuses will hold little authority over the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad’s life. It is clear why ISIS does what it is doing; they are a part of the Islamic reformation.”

PROGRESSIVE ISLAM

The notion that reformation should lead to peaceful expressions of a religion is predicated on the assumption that the origins of that religion are peaceful. As Qureshi has demonstrated, that is not the case with Islam. Since violence is built into the very origins of Islam, the religion would need to be re-envisioned in order to produce a peaceful religion that is internally consistent. Emphasis would have to be drawn away from the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life, or the records of their contexts would need to be disavowed. This would not be a reformation but a progression of Islam.

Some Muslim thinkers have aimed to do just this. Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani theologian of the mid-twentieth century, tried to impose humanist thought upon an Islamic framework, focusing on ethics and freedom. His method was to reconsider the historical authenticity of hadith, an essential component of the traditional foundations of Islam. He argued that hadith were formalized in the context of a living oral tradition; therefore, behavioral norms of Muslims of the time were formulated into the words and teachings of Muhammad. In other words, according to Rahman what we know as hadith are often simply the practices of ninth-century Muslims that have been petrified into an unchanging set of rules for all Muslims. Dispensing with the traditional foundations of Islam, Rahman offers novel understandings of the Qur’anic text, attempting to revolutionize the application of Islam.

Although this method might work in theory, Muslim culture tends to be too loyal to its heritage to allow for such a radical departure from tradition. Rahman was effectively exiled from Pakistan as an enemy of Islam. He continued his work in a context more amenable to progressive Islam, the United States. Rahman has passed away, and other Muslim scholars have taken up his mantle. One of his champions is Professor Ebrahim Moosa at Duke University, under whom Qureshi had the privilege to study Sharia for a short time. He and other Muslim scholars like him do not hesitate to denounce Islamic terrorism and to explore how Islam can be shaped to speak to our twenty-first-century context.

In Islam and the Modern World, coedited with Jeffrey Kenney, Moosa asks questions like, “What happens when the sacred book and the world seem to contradict one another?” He proposed an answer to this question in one of his lectures. Even early authorities of Sunni Islam altered the practice of Islam to fit their contexts. Umar, the companion of Muhammad and the second caliph of Islam, did not apply the Qur’anic mandate of giving his soldiers a percentage of the spoils of war booty. He decided to give them a salary instead, reshaping the practice of Islam to fit the needs of his context. If Umar was appointed by Allah, as Sunnis believe, and he could reframe a direct injunction of the Qur’an to fit his context, can we not do the same today as responsible Muslims.

In like manner, some Muslim thought leaders are attempting to progress Islam beyond its origins. Yet the fact remains unfortunately true that they are working against the current Muslim zeitgeist, which is focused on the vindication of Islam by return to its roots. Progressive Muslims have yet to obtain much of a foothold even in the West, let alone in Muslim-majority nations.

Qureshi said, “I hope I am wrong, but I doubt progressive Islam will ever have much sway among Muslims. Islam has always been grounded on obedience to Muhammad; that is the crux of the religion. Its cultural identity and religions practices are subsidiary to the commands of Muhammad, so the accounts of his life and teachings will always be foremost. Past successes of various schools of thought in progressing Islam away from Muhammad’s example were partly indebted to the inaccessibility of Islamic traditions to the average Muslims. On account of the Internet, that can no longer be the case, as the traditions are a click away (see, for example, http://sunnah.com). Progressive Muslim scholars aim to redefine Islam in its essence, to redirect its focus from the example of Muhammad to religious principles. Such a redefinition is far more difficult to accomplish than a reformation, which is why it is the latter that currently dominates the global scene.

CONCLUSION

As we reviewed in Question #5, the reason Muslims can be both devout and peaceful in spite of violent teachings in the Qur’an and hadith is that Muslim authorities have interpreted Islam in this manner for them, often in accordance with various schools of thought and centuries of accreted Islamic tradition. When Muslims wish to circumvent these authorities and return to the roots of their faith, whether due to disillusionment with current expressions of Islam or a desire to please Allah and win his favor, violent expressions of Islam are often the result.

It was this line of reasoning that let Sayyid Qutb to lay the foundations for radical Islam, and it was the same line of reasoning that led Abd al-Salam Faraj to intensify his view of jihad such that it became the cure for the ails of the Islamic world. The common denominator between these two founders of radical Islam was their zeal to follow Islam to their utmost, not as it was being practiced in the twentieth century but as it was established in the seventh century. Radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.

The endeavor to modernize Islam and make it relevant to the twenty-first century is called progressive Islam. Progressive Muslim thought leaders, thought few in number and limited in influence, are present and are working to recreate Islam’s religious framework from within. Indeed, that is what it would take for Islam to become devoted to peace – not a reformation but a re-imagination.

Thanks for reading.

Sorry this got posted after midnight, making it a day late. Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #9 –Who Are Al-Qaida, ISIS, and Boko Haram? 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.

 

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

answering jihad

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.

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

answering jihad

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.

Hatred

In light of the nationwide bickering and outright disrespect each seems to have for the other this year in particular, I felt it fitting to reblog this poem I wrote in 2008 and included in a post from nearly two years ago. I long for your feedback. God bless America.

The Accidental Poet

That hatred you have for everyone, that global anger,
Is going to kill you.
It doesn’t matter how justified you are, or how wrong the other person is.
You can fume and cuss and scream, complain and blame everything on others,
But it’s just going to eat you alive.
You can get pissed off at me for telling you this,
Give me the cold stare and refuse to talk to me
Until the end of time, but it won’t change a thing.
Hatred will kill you.

1998 Steven Barto

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Through All of It

As most of my followers know, I struggled for nearly four decades with addiction. I was able to put down the drink and the pot pipe in 2008, but I held on to one thing. One “ace up my sleeve.” One exception. One excuse. Opioid painkillers. This latest struggle has taken me through some ugly places. Despite legitimate severe pain, I cannot responsibly use such medicines as Vicodin, Percocet, or Ultram. During my last bout, I fell down the rabbit hole after taking 90 Vicodin in 4 days.

My opioid binges remind me of the example of the jaywalker in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. At first, he makes it across the street. But then he gets hit by a car and suffers some bumps and bruises. He’s not phased, though, and continues to jaywalk. The next time, he suffers a broken wrist. Again, he decides to try jaywalking, only to sustain a broken leg. This continues without end. He is actually showing behavior that demonstrates the true definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over, expecting different results. So was I.

For me, what always follows is withdrawal symptoms that include irritability, anger, lying, denial, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and severe diarrhea. Once I level out, I get my appetite back. I see the sun shining again. I get back out the door. I return to my usual outgoing, polite self. I do my laundry. I wash my car. My problem with drugs and alcohol began at age 18 when I drank a Miller Lite and smoked a joint. I was an addict from the start. (I don’t remember ever drinking “just one.”) My regret has always been the terrible ways I’ve treated people. Used and manipulated them. Two wives. My mother. My children. My siblings. My friends.

Today, I am more determined than ever to stand against my addiction. My mantra now is to tell my addiction (whose name is Satan) that I am an ambassador of Christ, and that my body is an embassy. It is “foreign soil.” I tell the devil he is not permitted to enter. I rebuke him in the Name of Jesus, refusing to even open the gate. I have taken a totally different approach to pain management over the last two weeks. I am using modalities I’ve only “considered” in the past: chiropractic; stretching 3 times a day; walking about a half a mile every day; hydrotherapy; laying hands on painful spots and asking God to send relief to those exact areas; meditation; weight loss.

I have definitively decided, after years of struggle and denial, that I cannot safely use narcotic pain medication. I’ve put all of my physicians on notice, saying they are not to give me anything, even if it’s a year from now, or I beg them. I stay away from friends who routinely use such medications. I attend regular NA meetings, and I see a Christian psychotherapist who went to seminary and post-graduate studies. I have stepped up my interaction with fellow believers, listen exclusively to contemporary Christian music, and began classes online  at Colorado Christian University in 2015. I attend weekly individual and group outpatient drug and alcohol treatment. And, finally, I have an NA sponsor rather than an AA sponsor. This works best for me. I recently spent over an hour on my knees crying and seeking God’s face, realizing just how out of touch I’ve been. How much I’ve missed. How much sorrow I’ve spread.

This contemporary  Christian song hits me hard every time I hear it. I changed one phrase to suit my situation. (See the brackets.) This song, by Colton Dixon, can help all of us, but it has become especially inspiring for me. I am reprinting the lyrics below.

There are days of taking more than I can give
And there are choices that I made that I wouldn’t make again
I’ve had my share of laughter
Of tears and troubled times
This has been the story of my life

I have won
And I have lost
I got it right sometimes, but [most] times I did not
Life’s been a journey
I’ve seen joy, I’ve seen regret
Oh, and You have been my God through all of it

You were there when it all came down on me
When I was blinded by my fear and I struggled to believe
But in those unclear moments You were the one keeping me strong
This is how my story’s always gone

I have won
And I have lost
I got it right sometimes, but [most] times I did not
Life’s been a journey
I’ve seen joy, I’ve seen regret
Oh, and You have been my God through all of it
Oh, through all of it

And this is who You are, more constant than the stars
Up in the sky, all these years, all my life
I, I look back and I see You
Right now I still do
And I’m always going to

I have won
And I have lost
I got it right sometimes, but sometimes I did not
Life’s been a journey
I’ve seen joy, I’ve seen regret
Oh, and You have been my God through all of it

If you want to listen to it, click here.

A Very Profound Passage

I had to repost this. Sorry, but I forgot to properly cite the Scripture passage when I left out “Luke.” Enjoy this profound statement from Jesus. Please click on the link in the post to take in the blog post it came from.

The Accidental Poet

Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.  For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:21-24)

The above Scripture is one of the most profound I have read in a long time. It comes from a blog post by Don Merritt. You can find the entire post here: https://lifereference.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/the-72-return/

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A Study in Romans Chapter 7

This is the second installment in a three-part Bible Study in Romans 6, 7, and 8.

Paul clarifies the relationship between the law and sin in Romans Chapter 7. The heading for Chapter 7 in Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message is Torn Between One Way and Another. Paul begins by giving us an analogy from marriage. He says in Romans 7:1, “Do you not know, brothers and sisters, for I am speaking to those that know the law, that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?” Paul has already argued in Chapter 6 (as we saw in Part One of this study) that we died with Christ, and we have therefore died to sin. In Chapter 7 he will argue that, in our union with Christ, we also died to the law. When we died to sin we also died to the law of Moses. In the eyes of the law, we are dead.

We have been given new life with Christ. So where does that put us?  Paul’s second point is that we are under a new authority. In verse 2, he uses the analogy of marriage, in which death can affect the legal status of the living. He says, “For example, a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him.” The law of marriage is binding only so long as both partners are alive. As soon as one dies, the marriage restrictions are gone. By comparison, under the old covenant, we were bound to the law. But since we died with Christ, we are released from the law, and as a result, a new union can be formed. That’s what Paul is interested in – a new union. Because a death has occurred – the death of Jesus Christ – a new relationship can be formed.

Paul applies his analogy to the law in verse 4. He says, “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to Him that was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Paul’s point is that death breaks the bond of the law, and a new bond is permitted. As believers, we died to the law through the death of Christ, and our allegiance is to Him rather than the law. We have to be released from the law so we can be united with Christ.

We are supposed to avoid sin, but sin is no longer defined by the laws of Moses. Rather, it is defined by the character of Christ. We are to conform to Him, and since He is not bound by the law of Moses, neither are we. We belong to the One “who was raised from the dead.” Why? To “bear fruit for God.” We are to serve Him. When we first trusted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we enjoyed our initial access into grace. God intends for His children to continue accessing grace day by day throughout their lives. Every time we face any matter with dependence upon the Lord Jesus, we are drawing from the bottomless ocean of God’s grace. His grace becomes our resource for living.

Paul contrasts the “before and after” again in verse 5: “For when we were in the realm of the flesh” [some translations say “sinful nature” – the Greek word is sarx], “the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.” The Amplified Bible says, “When we were living in the flesh [trapped by sin], the sinful passions, which were awakened by [that which] the Law [identifies as sin], were at work in our body to bear fruit for death [since the willingness to sin led to death and separation from God].” Before Christ, our lives were dominated by our sinful nature, and our sinful desires, instead of bearing fruit for God, brought us death. But with Christ, our life need no longer be controlled by the flesh.

Paul says that our sinful passions were “aroused by the law.” As he said in Romans 5:20, the law had the ironic result of increasing our desire to sin. Before Paul develops that thought more, he makes this conclusion in verse 6: “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” The law once bound us, but we have been released from it. Instead of serving God according to the law, we serve in a new way, defined by the Holy Spirit. (Paul explains that in chapter 8.)

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful?” (v. 7). If the law causes our desire for sin to increase, is the law bad? Paul says, “Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” Romans 3:20 says, “…because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” (NASB) Unfortunately, that is a dangerous bit of knowledge. We tend to think that if we know what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do we will comply.

The relationship between law and sin is worse than simply giving information. Paul is saying that the law, by defining sin, told his sinful nature how to sin more.  Our sinful nature wants to violate laws. If you give it a rule, it wants to break it. So the law, by prohibiting certain things, made people do them even more, because of our perverse nature. Is Paul really talking about himself, or is he just giving a general principle, writing in the first person? Some people are troubled by the idea that Paul struggled with sin throughout his Christian life. They would like to put all that struggle in Paul’s past, but Paul was human.

In the literary flow of Romans, Paul is talking about something that happens after we come to faith in Christ. In chapter 6 he said that we died to sin, but we still have to fight it. In chapter 7, he says that we died to the law, but we are to serve Christ in the way of the Spirit. He does not want to make it sound effortless or automatic. The struggle that began before we came to faith continues even after – and indeed that’s the experience of many Christians. “For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (v. 8-9). When was he alive apart from the law? When he was a baby, too young to understand. But when he learned the law, the sinful nature inside of him found a way to express itself — by rebelling. Sin sprang to life, and Paul sinned. He was condemned.

The law is not the problem — it’s just that it is so easily hijacked by our sinful desires. The law didn’t cause us to take a wrong turn — it just told us where we would end up if we took it, and the perversity inside us made us take the wrong turn. Sin deceived us and put us on the pathway to death. The law isn’t the culprit — it was an unwitting accomplice. So Paul concludes in verse 12 that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” The law is holy, but it can’t make us holy. The law is about performance. Those who live by the law are left to their own resources to work up a life that measures up to the perfect standards of God. Those who daily put their faith in the Lord Jesus for the issues of life access grace for godly living.

Paul says, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” (v. 14) How could this be the Christian Paul, who said he died to sin and is no longer its slave? In verse 15 he describes the struggle: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” The Message puts it this way: “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.” Paul wants to do good, but he ends up doing bad, and he struggles to know why. He has a converted mind that wants to do the will of God, but his flesh wants to do bad. Why? Because there is another power at work within him, that is, in his flesh.

“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good” (v. 16). The fact that he doesn’t like his own behavior is evidence that he likes the law. “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (v. 17). The Message says, “…if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes.” All the blame goes to sin, not to Paul, and that is why he can say that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (See Romans 8:1). Whatever bad they do is blamed on the sin within them, not on the new person they are in Christ.

It is as if Paul explains the problem by splitting himself in two — there is the old person, in the sphere of sin, and there is the new person, alive in Christ. The new person is enslaved to Christ, but the sinful nature is still enslaved to sin. Being freed from sin and enslaved to righteousness is not automatic — it involves a struggle.  Galatians 5:17 describes the same struggle: “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.”

“For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (v. 18). Paul qualifies his statement by saying that he’s talking about the flesh, the sinful nature, not his new nature in Christ. All the good in Paul’s life comes from Christ living in him, rather than originating in himself. The good comes from the new nature, the bad comes from the old. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (v. 18-19). He wants to do good, but he sometimes sins. The sin within him makes him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do.

Paul summarizes this issue in Romans 7:21-23 when he says, “So I find it to be the law [of my inner self], that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully delight in the law of God in my inner self [with my new nature], but I see a different law and rule of action in the members of my body [in its appetites and desires], waging war against the law of my mind and subduing me and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is within my members.” (Amplified) This is the nature of the struggle. Although he wants to do good, the evil within him sometimes causes him to do things that he hates. So he groans, as he says in Romans 8:23, waiting for the redemption of his body, the resurrection, and the ultimate victory over his sinful nature.

Paul describes in the Book of Romans a deep frustration—one with which all Christians can identify. The agony comes from realizing that our sinful flesh refuses to respond to the requirements of God’s Law. Those things which we despise, we find ourselves doing. No matter how much we may wish to serve God in our minds, we find ourselves sinning in our bodies. As Paul describes his frustration in Romans 7, with his mind he desires to serve God. He agrees with the Law of God and rejoices in it. He wants to do what is right, but his body will not respond. He watches, almost as a third party, as sin sends a signal to his body, and as his body responds, “What would you like to do?” Paul finds, as we do, that our fleshly body refuses to obey God. Instead, we tend to do that which we desire, rather than that which delights God.

As long as we continue under the law as a covenant, and seek to be justified solely by our own obedience, we continue to be the slave of sin in some form. Paul makes a devastating self-assessment in verse 8: “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t.” (NLT) Paul is not saying that the believer who sins moves from being a Christian to being a non-Christian. More likely, he is saying that, in the moment of failure, sin got the upper hand. Remember Paul’s warning in Romans 6:12: “Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires.” (NLT) He tells us to not let sin reign in our mortal bodies so that we obey its lusts. In other words, we should not sell ourselves to sin.

Paul concludes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (NIV)