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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Understanding Islam and Jihad

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Nabeel Qureshi, author of the New York Times bestseller Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, has written an engaging and revealing new book called Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward. Qureshi was raised Muslim. He was an eighteen-year-old American Muslim on September 11, 2001, proud of being both American and Muslim. His family taught him to love his country (America), and not just by their words. His father lived this teaching by serving in the U.S. Navy throughout Qureshi’s childhood, starting as a seaman and retiring as a lieutenant commander. Qureshi also has an uncle who served in the U.S. Army and another uncle who served in the U.S. Air Force. Growing up, Qureshi was surrounded by Muslims who loved and served America.

Interestingly, he indicates that it was Islam that commanded him to love and serve his country. Islam taught him to defend the oppressed, to stand up for the rights of women and children, to shun the desires of the flesh, to seek the pleasure of God, and to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. By his teenage years, he proclaimed Islam to all who would listen, and he usually started by informing them of a teaching that was knit into the fabric of his beliefs: Islam is a religion of peace. On September 11, he was confronted for the first time with the stark reality of jihad. It was not as if he had never heard of jihad before; he certainly had, but he knew it as a defensive effort buried deep in the pages of Islamic history. That is how the American imams alluded to jihad, and Qureshi said he and his fellow American Muslims never questioned it. In fact, they rarely, if ever, thought about jihad.

When the twin towers fell, the eyes of the nation turned to American Muslims for an explanation. Qureshi sincerely believed September 11 was a greater shock for American Muslims than for the average American. Not only did they newly perceive their own insecurity from militant jihadists, as did everyone else, they also faced a latent threat of retaliation from would-be vigilantes. In the midst of this, while mourning their fallen compatriots and considering their own security, they had to defend the faith they knew and loved. They had to assure everyone that Islam was a religion of peace, just as they had always known. Qureshi remembers hearing a slogan at his mosque that he shared with many: “The terrorists who hijacked the planes on September 11 also hijacked Islam.”

Qureshi began to investigate the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad’s life, and to his genuine surprise, he found the pages of Islamic history dripping with violence. How could he possibly reconcile this with what he had always been taught about Islam? When he asked teachers in the Muslim community for help, they usually rationalized the violence as necessary or dismissed the historicity of the accounts. At first, Qureshi followed their reasoning, but after hearing the same explanations for dozens if not hundreds of accounts, he began to realize that these were facile responses to non-Muslims who questioned Islam. Of course, Qureshi understood why they were doing it. American Muslims truly believed Islam was a religion of peace, and they were interpreting the data to fit what they knew to be true.

But was it true? After years of investigation, Qureshi had to face the reality. There is a great deal of violence in Islam, even in the very foundation of the faith, and it is not all defensive. Quite to the contrary, if the traditions about the prophet of Islam are in any way reliable, then Islam glorifies violent jihad arguably more than any other action a Muslim can take.

FROM QURESHI’S STORY TO MUSLIMS TODAY

Qureshi’s experience of Islam is, of course, his own, but his continued interactions with hundreds of Muslims confirmed for him that his experience as an American Muslim was not far from the norm. Perhaps his parents were more devout than most, his family more patriotic, his sect more explicitly peaceful, but by and large he saw his own former thoughts and convictions in the devout American Muslims he encounters today. In addition, the present climate in America is more than ever reminiscent of the days and months following September 11. The public at large is questioning whether Islam is a religion of peace, just like before, and Qureshi encounters Muslims who are providing the same defenses and explanations that he provided after September 11, before he knew better.

He said he does not doubt that Muslims who investigate the history of Islam from the primary sources are concluding, as he did, that the foundations of Islam are violent. Such Muslims are faced with the same choices he faced: apostacy, apathy, or radicalization. That is, turn from the faith completely, decide the truth doesn’t matter, or join the jihadists. For them, radicalization is not just a paranoid hypothetical, but a potential reality. Thousands of Muslims raised in the West have become mujahideen, fighters with various jihad groups, even though the battles are often centered in Middle Eastern countries. Presently, twice as many British Muslims fight for ISIS than for Britan’s armed forces, leaving their peaceful Muslim families grieving. This includes young women, such as the tragic case of the three girls from Bethnal Green in London.

The radicalized Muslims were explicitly introduced to violent traditions of early Islam, they became convinced of their authenticity, and they intentionally chose to follow them. Whether or not this is always the defining factor for radicalization should not cloud the fact that it is a universal factor. There is no need to remain bewildered any longer. When mujahideen themselves tell us their reasons for becoming radicalized, if we would simply listen carefully to what they say, we would find the foregoing to be true without exception.

There is a reason why both Muslims and non-Muslims might want to avoid the elephant in the room. Acknowledging violence built into the foundation of Islam could lead people to see Islam as a necessarily violent religion, and by uncritical extension, it might lead people to see all Muslims as inherently or latently violent people. Qureshi says we must boldly assert that these are false and dangerous conclusions, but that does not mean we ought to close our eyes to a common impetus for radicalization. Until we diagnose and respond to the actual causes for radicalization, we will continue to lose the sons and daughters of peaceful Muslim parents to terrorism.

EIGHTEEN QUESTIONS

Qureshi indicates that September 11 was a pivotal juncture in his life that ultimately led him to study the primary sources of Islamic history. This, he says, is often a watershed moment for many Muslims who are presently wrestling with the path they will take. Some may very well choose jihad. If we care about these young men and women, and the peaceful Muslim families they come from, to say nothing of the countless innocent lives they may take in the name of jihad, Qureshi believes it is critical that we carefully and thoughtfully engage the study of jihad with both truth and compassion. We cannot close our eyes or indulge in wishful thinking. It would seem the matter is not going away.

He also believes we must, at the same time, be careful not to slide down the slippery slope of assuming every Muslim is a threat. Of the thousands of Muslims he has encountered, only one has become radicalized to the point of explicitly supporting violence, and none have actually undertaken violent jihad. It is wrong, he says, to paint all Muslims with the same brush; we need to see them as individuals, the vast majority of whom just wish to live life, take care of their families, and peacefully honor God.

In his own words, Qureshi says, “I do not claim to have all the answers, especially answers regarding public policy, but there is certainly a first step in responding well to radical Islam, whether individually or collectively. We must understand it for what it is. To that end, I will respond in the pages ahead to eighteen questions people most commonly ask me 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, I will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in my view the best way forward.”

Qureshi is quick to remind us that, contrary to what a lot of frightened Americans believe lately, most Muslims in the world are not violent people, despite their desire to intentionally and genuinely follow Islam. That is why he hopes to also explain their perspectives, so we can understand our Muslim neighbors and show them the love and compassion that all people deserve, devoid of fear and mistrust.

Qureshi says, “Finally, it behooves me to mention that I am a Christian who left Islam after investigating the foundations of Islam and Christianity. This subject matter is deeply personal to me, and I do not pretend to be unbiased, especially since all people are biased to varying degrees. That said, in this book, I am trying to be as objective as I can be in presenting the information about jihad without judgment. I try to keep explicit Christian views out of the discussion, although a few certainly come through in the eighteenth Question and in the conclusion. I ask your pardon, but I really do feel that the Christian teaching of loving one’s enemies, even in the face of death, might perhaps be the most powerful answer to jihad at our disposal today. Not only does it allow us to counter jihad, it also enables us to treat Muslims with the utmost dignity: as image bearers of God.”

As the writer/publisher of The Accidental Poet blog, it is my intention to present each of Nabeel Qureshi’s Sixteen Questions  – which appear in separate chapters in his book – weekly, one each Friday, beginning tomorrow, for the next sixteen weeks. In the seventeenth week I will present Qureshi’s concluding remarks. Qureshi is affiliated with the ministry of Ravi Zacharias, a former Buddhist from India who converted to Christianity and is one of today’s leading apologists. I highly recommend Zacharias’s book The End of Reason.

Please take a few minutes to hear about this challenging and frequently polarizing subject from Nabeel Qureshi as he gives a glimpse into his book by clicking on the link below. May God bless us all.