Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #7 – What is Radical Islam?

answering jihad

This is the seventh 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 #7 – WHAT IS RADICAL ISLAM?

IN 1950 AN EGYPTIAN literary critic with refined sensibilities and a toothbrush moustache moved into a sleepy town in northern Colorado. The America he encountered, seen through the lens of post-colonial tumult and his devout Islamic upbringing, ultimately transformed Sayyid Quth into the father of radical Islam.

THE BIRTH OF RADICAL ISLAM

As Qureshi covered in his answers to Questions 4 and 6, the first Muslims were launched into a trajectory of global warfare with no clearly delineated endpoint. There was an expectation of Muslim domination that would be the result of faithful practice of Islam, including endeavors of jihad, which the Qur’an enjoins upon all good Muslims. The salaf exemplified obedience with their devotion and their conquests. In return, Allah blessed them with the Golden Age of Islam. At the risk of overgeneralizing, this common understanding of Islam boils down to this: True obedience to Allah will result in Muslim dominance.

sheikh-zayed-mosque-2410877_960_720.jpg

The first cracks in Muslim dominance appeared in the mid-1700s, when Muslims like Ibn al-Wahhab and Shah Waliullah noticed that Christian lands were progressing into what would become the Industrial Revolution. They began to ask themselves how it could be that Muslims might lose dominance, given the promises of the Qur’an. Hundreds of years later, these questions would drive the development of radical Islam. For the time begin, though, the Muslims remained dominant over the vast territories that they had colonized.

The irony is that colonizing imperatives of Islam were put to an end by European colonialism. By 1920, every region of the Muslim world that Europeans desired was either directly or indirectly under European control. The foundational doctrines of Islam predicated upon Muslim superiority were not moot, and it became necessary to redefine jihad in the guise of anti-colonialist angst.

Abu al-Ala al-Maududi, a highly acclaimed Muslim scholar from the Indian subcontinent, attempted to redefine jihad in his 1930 work Jihad in Islam. As he was eager to denounce European colonialists for their rule over his homeland, he was obligated to explain how jihad was not a colonialist endeavor. Against the consensus of early Muslim jurists, he argued that jihad was not an effort to conquer lands, but rather a sincere desire of Muslims that they had loved. It was through jihad that non-Muslims were able to encounter Islam. In other words mujahideen were not colonialists, but liberators and freedom fighters.

hizbul-mujahideen-militant-former-militant-arrested-in-kashmir.jpg

One of the men Maududi influenced was Sayyid Quth. Unlike Maududi, Qutb was not an apologist, and his writings are devoid of guile. Having spent a few years as a student in the United States, Qutb was repelled by Western society. Even though he had lived in a sleepy town in northern Colorado that was prudish by most American standards, he was horrified by American culture. He saw Americans as ill-bred, brutish and savage. Their music was little short of screaming, their art was unsophisticated, and they were altogether numb to spiritual values. By contrast, he viewed the Arab world as brimming with Old World refinement and grace, especially when it came to higher matters of morality and spirituality. This enlightened condition he attributed to the blessings of Islam. America, by contrast, existed in a state of ignorance.

As the tendrils of the West were beginning to influence Arab politics, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Israel, the expansive resources of America and its influence in world politics concerned Qutb tremendously. He saw Egypt falling to the barbarous power of the West.

Upon returning to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that had recently been developed with the intent of starting an Islamic revival and returning to the study of the Qur’an and hadith. He quickly became the Brotherhood’s most dominant intellectual figure, infusing it with his thoughts and perspectives, until Gamal Abd al-Nasir’s regime arrested him along with most of the Brotherhood’s leadership. Qutb was humiliated, tortured, and ultimately executed under false charges by a government that was, indeed, increasingly coming under the influence of the West. Because of the way the government treated him, many Muslims hailed him as a hero and a martyr for his message.

1334659004-muslim-brotherhood-endorses-khairat-alshater-for-president-egypt_1135699.jpg

What was that message? Qutb believed Islam was the answer the world needed, but nowhere was it being practiced according to the principles of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life. The world was in disarray because democracy reigned in the West and communism in East. Muslim rulers were courting these foreign governments and modern principles, abandoning Sharia and making themselves apostates. This is important to grasp: Qutb saw the leaders of Muslim countries as hypocrites and apostates, no longer following Islam. They were a large part of the problem. If Muslims would follow the original, pure Islam, Allah would bless all the Muslims, the ummah, and return them to dominance. Muslims must thus raze centuries of compiled Islamic tradition and return to the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an.

Qutb maintained a consistent approach to jihad, returning to the foundations of Islam for guidance. Jihad ought to progress in stages, just as it did in Muhammad’s life. One should start by peacefully proclaiming Islam, then engaging in limited warfare, then exacting retribution for injustices against the Islamic community, and finally launching in warfare without end against the non-Muslim world. However, under the influence of Maududi, Qutb envisioned jihad as a liberation of the non-Muslim’s mind, ensuring that the non-Muslim is able to hear and consider the message of Islam, something that may not happen unless jihad is waged.

Qutb’s martyrdom fanned his popularity among Egyptians, even though many Arabs also maintained hopes that modernization would benefit their nations as it had the Soviet Union and the West. When Israel decimated the Arab coalition of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six Days War of 1967, these hopes were dashed, and many more Arabs began to sympathize with Qutb’s view. President Anwar al-Sadat’s negotiations with Israel a decade later added fuel to this fire, confirming in the minds of many Arabs that their leaders had betrayed Muslims and become apostates.

In light of this background, it becomes more understandable why Sadat was murdered in 1981. After his assassination, investigators recovered a document authored by Abd al-Salam Faraj. Faraj built on the foundation laid by Qutb by saying that Muslim leaders had become apostates, and Muslims needed to return to a pure form of Islam, but he espoused a more historically accurate notion of jihad: When Muslims fight non-Muslims, Allah will bless them and given them territory where they will be able to establish an Islamic state and reintroduce the caliphate. There, Islam could be practiced in the pure form that apostate Muslim governments were neglecting. Faraj went so far in denouncing Muslim governments as apostate that he equated them with Israel. Their proclaimed allegiance to Islam was just a veneer, in his view, designed to gain the support of Muslims and actualize their un-Islamic aims. According to Faraj, Muslim leaders were actually rebels against Sharia.

TAKFIR AND MUSLIM-ON-MUSLIM VIOLENCE

Faraj treaded a dangerous road, one that alienated him from many would-be sympathizers. Historically, Muslims had maintained a generous approach to takfir, the practice of proclaiming someone an infidel. According to tradition, Muhammad declared that reciting the shahada was enough to consider someone Muslim; whether they were lying or not would be decided by God on judgment day. Qutb’s declaration of leaders’ apostasy, amplified significantly by Faraj, swung the door open wide for internecine hostilities among Muslims. But where was the line to be drawn? At what point could someone be declared non-Muslim?

This was new ground, and Faraj and his ilk ultimately settled on three nebulous criteria: an open manifestation of unbelief; ignoring the implementation of Sharia; and, a refusal to engage in jihad for the defense of the ummah. When all three of these criteria were fulfilled, a leader or a regime could be considered non-Muslim. Fighting against them for the sake of Islam would then be a legitimate jihad, and the aid of Allah could be expected. Qureshi said, “I have frequently encountered the misconception that if Muslims are fighting other Muslims, their grievances must not be religious. After all, they are fighting others ‘on the same side.'” Understanding Faraj’s and others’ radical approach to takfir should clarify this misconception. Muslim-on-Muslim violence can have everything to do with religion.

Surprisingly, the archetype of takfir is found in the Qur’an. The Qur’an regularly accuses Muslims of being hypocrites if they are less than zealous in their obedience. Although the Qur’an usually suggests that Allah will be the one to punish hypocrites on the day of judgment, one verse is frankly contrary, correlating hypocrites to non-Muslims: “O Prophet, strive against the disbelievers and hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their abode is hell” (9:73). The word for strive is jihad, and here we find a potential Qur’anic basis for Muslim-on-Muslim violence.

CONCLUSION

If we consider the words of the founders of the movement, radical Islam was born out of a frustration with the political inferiority of modern Muslim nations to Western and Eastern superpowers, especially in light of the Qur’anic promise that Allah will grant victory to those who strive for him. Radical Muslims believe another Golden Age awaits Muslims who are devoted to following the true teachings of Islam, and they are zealous to bring this about and see the glory of Islam restored.

Radical Islam, then, grows out of an understanding that the average expression of Islam today is too far removed from the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an. Adherents often consider moderate Muslims to be apostates because of their lack of zeal for the original teachings of Islam, and the Qur’an lays the foundation for undertaking jihad against these hypocritical Muslims. But to fully grasp what radical Islam is, we need to answer another common question: Does Islam need a reformation?

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #8 – Does Islam need a Reformation? 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.

Advertisements

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #6 – Was Islam Spread by the Sword?

answering jihad

This is the sixth 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 #6 – WAS ISLAM SPREAD BY THE SWORD?

THE SHORT ANSWER: technically no, but indirectly yes. As Qureshi mentioned before, different jurists began to develop codes of conduct with myriads of rules, but an overarching understanding of jihad came to be shared in broad strokes. First, the world was to be seen as divided into two sections, one including those lands that were part of the Islamic empire and one that included everywhere else. The former is called Dar al-Islam, the “house of Islam,” and the latter is called Dar al-Harb, the “house of war.” A third division is also discussed at times, Dar al-Sulh, the house of treaty, where a treaty prohibited Muslims from conquering a land.

31 Islamic Scimitar

Second, in Dar al-Harb, fighting was not incumbent upon Muslims but it was permissible should they want the land for themselves. If they wished to conquer it, they were to first invite its people to Islam. If the people agreed, they were safe and the house of Islam was spread without the sword.

Third, if people refused to convert to Islam, they were then offered the option of paying jizya, the ransom tax. If they agreed, they were considered a conquered people whose lands now belonged to Muslims and they received the rights of second-class citizens, dhimmis. This option was given even to polytheists despite Surah 9 of the Qur’an.

maxresdefault.jpgFourth, if the people refused to accept Islam or pay the jizya, then Muslims could fight them. If the Muslims won, it was because they either killed their enemies in battle or because their enemies surrendered. In the case of victory through surrender, Muslims could do whatever they wished with their vanquished foes (Sunan Abu Daub 2612).

There may have been occasions in history when Muslims gave an ultimatum of conversion under the threat of death, but that was not the norm. A much more common outcome, for example, was the systematized enslavement of captives that Muslims then trained and enlisted as slave soldiers, or mamluks. Given this process of waging jihad, it can be seen that the primary goal of jihad was not to convert people at the point of the sword but rather to expand Muslim territory. Conversion was one of the outcomes of jihad, but not its main purpose.

hold_the_gun_by_jihadprincess-d332fe6.jpg

Yet if it had not been for campaigns of the sword, Islam would not have spread as widely as it did. As David Cook summarizes in Understanding Jihad, “Islam was not in fact ‘spread by the sword’ – conversion was not forced on the occupants of conquered territories – but the conquests created the necessary preconditions for the spread of Islam. With only a few exceptions… Islam has become the majority faith only in territories that were conquered by force. Thus, the conquests and the doctrine that motivated these conquests – jihad – were crucial to the development of Islam.

Although the object of jihad was not conversion, once lands had been conquered, people were more prone to converting. This is unsurprising, as second-class dhimmi status was at times harsh. Also, the jizya was not a set amount, and records indicate that it was prone to change over time. Conquered Christians record that Amr Ibn al-As, one of Muhammad’s companions, is recorded to have tripled their taxes, and elsewhere he raised the jizya until the conquered Christians were unable to pay.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF ISLAM

It was through the injunctions toward Dar al-Harb that the Islamic empire expanded rapidly. Whatever the reality of that era and its warfare, many modern Muslims remember it with nostalgia as the Golden Age of Islam. Nostalgia is perhaps too mild a term; “longing” or “yearning” may more accurately convey the wistful sentiments of many Muslims. In their eyes, Allah rained his blessings upon the land because of the devotion of early Muslims, teaching them insights through the Qur’an that advanced them scientifically and intellectually beyond the rest of mankind. The world was as Allah intended it to be during this era when Muslims obeyed Allah and Islam reigned supreme.

dome-of-the-rock-israel-copy.jpg

This basic notion of supremacy through the practice of Islam appears in the Qur’anic concept of jahiliyya. The Qur’an teaches that, before the advent of Islam, mankind was in a state of ignorance and barbarism, jahiliyya. Obedience to Allah results in lifting mankind out of their base condition and into “enlightenment.” The hadith build on this framework, coupling the proper practice of Islam with the generation of Islamic conquests.

In a well-known hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad says, “The best of you are my generation, and the second best will be those who will follow them, and then those who will follow the second generation… Then will come some people who will make vows but will not fulfill them; and they will be dishonest and will not be trustworthy, and they will give their witness without being asked to give their witness, and fatness will appear among them. (Sahih al-Bukhari 8.78.686)

The premise of this hadith undergirds the common Muslim conception of the Islamic Golden Age: after Muhammad will come the best era of Islamic history, and gradually through selfishness and lack of integrity, Muslims will fall away from the proper practice of Islam. Classically, Muslims and scholars have considered the Golden Age to span 500 years, starting at about the middle of the eighth century, but radical Muslims today are given to envisioning the era of the Golden Age as far back as the first generations of Muslims.

CONCLUSION

It is easy to see why people would think Islam was spread by the sword. Muhammad said, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah. [O]nly then will they save their lives and property from me” (Sahih Bukhari 1.2.25). Though this may sound like Muhammad wanted to convert non-Muslims at sword-point, early Muslims did not interpret it that way. Rather, it was understood that Islamic territory was to expand, but the fighting would desist if the vanquished converted to Islam.

This distinction between conquering for conversion or conquering them for their territory unless they convert is a subtle one, and in the long run the outcome was the same. With a few exceptions, Islam is the majority religion only in those lands that were captured through jihad. Muslims believe that because of the obedience of early Muslims, the Islamic empire expanded beyond all estimation. The obedience of the earliest Muslims laid the foundation for the Golden Era of Islam, and it is remembered with yearning in the Muslim heart as a time when people obeyed Allah and Allah blessed the land. Mankind was at its pinnacle. Political, intellectual, scientific, and moral progress has never been sustained in such purity since that time. Muslims can thank the earliest Muslims, the salaf, for their devotion, and if they model their example in obeying Allah and following Muhammad with integrity, Allah will bless mankind again.

With these final pieces of the puzzle, the expectation of Islamic dominance and the nostalgic notion of an Islamic Golden Age, the foundations of radical Islam were laid.

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #7 – What is Radical Islam? 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 #5 – What is Sharia?

 

answering jihad

This is the fifth 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 #5 – WHAT IS SHARIA?

WITHIN 150 YEARS OF the advent of Islam, Muslims had expanded an empire from the Atlantic Ocean to India. Significant changes had transpired in their leadership and governance, as Muslims had also fought multiple civil wars and the seat of the caliphate had moved to Syria. It was at this time that Muslims began to record in writing the life and sayings of Muhammad.

6db4da4f6fbea1161f98aa361bbccc15--spread-of-islam-learning-maps.jpg

Why had they waited so many years before doing so? The answer is not entirely clear, but it may have to do with the novelty of writing long works in Arabic at that time. The Qur’an was the first Arabic book ever put into writing, and the Arabic script of the seventh century remained too deficient to capture the richness and complexities of its text. Muslims’ desire to write the Qur’an drove the development of the Arabic script. This is the charitable answer to the question of why Muhammad’s life and sayings were recorded so long after his death; a growing opinion in scholarship is that the traditions were being fabricated, but Qureshi leaves that discussion alone.

timthumb.php

Whatever the reason, Muslim biographers began to write about Muhammad’s life around 797 AD, the warrior ascetic Abdallah bin al-Mubarak had compiled his text, The Book of Jihad, specifically documenting the development of Islamic warfare between Muhammad’s day and his own. It was a precursor to similar books that would be found in the canonical hadith collections.

THE HADITH COLLECTIONS

hadith

By the middle of the ninth century, there were more than 500,000 traditions of Muhammad’s life in written and oral circulation, and Muslim scholars decided to undertake the effort of sifting through them and distilling the most authentic accounts. Since the teachings of Muhammad are essential to Islam, it was necessary to distinguish accurate teachings from pretenders. Among Sunni Muslims, who today make up approximately 80 percent of all Muslims in the world, six collections of hadith are considered more reliable than any others: Those of Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Daud, Ibn Majah, al-Nasai, and al-Tirmidhi. These are not the only collections used by Muslim scholars, but these collections are considered the most reliable, especially the collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim. The titles of these two collections reflect this, as they are called the “Sahih” – “authentic” collections.

Each of these collections contains at least one book on jihad, collecting Muhammad’s purported statements about strife and warfare. These teachings are not presented systematically, however, but as collections of individual sayings or accounts of Muhammad’s deeds. The systematization of these teachings ultimately came with the great Muslim jurists, and the formalization of Sharia was the result.

WHAT IS SHARIA?

As Qureshi explained in Week #4, it is necessary to know the context of the Qur’an in order to understand its teachings. Islamic jurisprudence is the effort to understand all the teachings of Muhammad systematically, so that Muslims can know how to live. The end product, or the point of discovery, is Sharia. The word sharia literally means “path” or “path to water.” This imagery is strong, especially for a desert people. Following Sharia is what preserves the life of the believer as water preserves the life of the thirsty.

sharia law.jpg

Not just anyone can engage in Islamic jurisprudence, called ijtihad. Since there are thousands of verses in the Qur’an and hundreds of thousands of hadith, it is expected that only trained Muslim jurists can engage in determining what Sharia teaches. The jurist must give primacy to the Qur’an, then consider the actions (sunnah) and sayings (hadith) of Muhammad, followed by reviewing the consensus of Islamic scholars, or ijma, before using his own reasoning (qiyas). By following these four steps, a Muslim jurist can make a decision, or fatwa, about what Sharia teaches on a given matter. The ultimate goal is to apply the teachings of Sharia to Muslim life, and that is called fiqh. This process may seem straightforward, but there are many complicating factors that give rise to significant disagreements among Muslims. One such important factor is abrogation.

ABROGATION

According to Islamic tradition, as the Qur’an was being revealed during Muhammad’s life, certain teachings and passages cancelled previous revelations. For example, most classical Muslim jurists were convinced that the verse of the sword (Surah 9:5) cancelled peaceful passages of the Qur’an such as chapter 109. This process of cancelling teachings is called abrogation, and classical Muslim scholars believed there were multiple kinds of abrogation, wherein either the text or the application of a Qur’anic verse has been cancelled.

Perhaps the most problematic category of abrogation comprises those Qur’anic commands that still apply to Muslims even though the text itself has been abrogated. In other words, the Qur’an is believed to contain teachings that are not found in its pages any longer. To find these teachings, one must know the appropriate hadith traditions. A famous example that hadith traditions record is the verse of rajm, stoning. Although the Qur’an appears to teach that lashing is the appropriate punishment for adultery (24:2), hadith indicate that a text of the Qur’an has been abrogated, but that the punishment of stoning still applies (Sahih al-Bkhari 8.82.816).

This feature of abrogation in the Qur’an, called al-masikh wal mansukh in Arabic, is the great complicating factor in Sharia. How is one to know whether a command has been abrogated? Is there agreement on when a command is to be followed even though its text has been abrogated?

SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT AND THE AVERAGE MUSLIM

Historically, not all jurists agreed with one another on matters of Sharia, and they began to pronounce differing fatwas. Throughout the expanse of the Islamic empire, pockets of Muslims followed various schools of thought: Shafi, Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi, or Shii. The last school was so different from the rest that it is now considered its own branch of Islam, the Shia branch, which leaves the other four as the major schools of Sunni thought. The scholars in each school developed complex legal decisions and precedents, all building upon one another over the centuries. Until the twentieth century, Muslims often found themselves in one or another school of thought and had to take their civil or criminal matters to their respective courts for judgment. For example, the decision of whether a woman would be allowed to divorce her husband had to be made by a jurist in her school, and the different schools had different rules.

As is probably clear by now, at no point was the average Muslim expected to read the Qur’an to decide upon correct Islamic practices by himself or herself. Not only is Islam not a faith that upholds the sufficiency of scripture alone, the complexity of its foundations virtually necessitates a reliance on jurists and scholars for proper practice.

SHARIA AND THE APPLICATION OF SURAH 9

Sharia is not a book, and its laws are unclear until we reach the level of individual schools of thought. Even then, specific decisions need to be regularly explicated by Muslim jurists to this day. Traditionally, therefore, Muslims have received their religion from their leaders and scholars. To assume that Muslims must live a certain way because the Qur’an or hadith command it misses a crucial step in the Islamic worldview, the distillation of Sharia through Muslim authorities. If jurists and imams say that Surah 9 does not apply with their Jewish, Christian, and polytheist neighbors, then it is entirely appropriate for a Muslim to follow his imam and live peacefully. Whether the imam is making the decision honestly or consistently is another matter.

CONCLUSION

Even though Surah 9 of the Qur’an is very clear in what it teaches, and even though it is the final marching orders that Muhammad left for his people, and even though it strongly accords with the hadith on jihad, Muslim leaders in various schools of thought do not teach their followers to act upon its teachings today. Because of the expansive number of Islam’s foundational teachings, and because of complication factors such as abrogation, Muslims do not determine fiqh for themselves but receive it from their imams. So they ought not be faulted for believing Islam is a religion of peace, especially if they have never confronted the violent verses of the Qur’an and the hadith. Yet the legitimacy of their personal, peaceful practice does not mean Islam itself is a religion of peace. We must remember that we are not defining Islam as the practice of Muslims, but rather as the teachings of Muhammad. There is a tension between the reality of violent jihad pervading Qur’anic sources and the peacefulness of many lay Muslims on account of Sharia, which Qureshi will return to at a later date.

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #6 – Was Islam Spread by the Sword? 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 #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.

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Understanding Islam and Jihad

answering jihad.jpg

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.