Vital passage: Misunderstanding and understanding Islam

… [T]here is so much misunderstanding of Islam.  The debate on Islam that is in full cry in the West since September 11 is too often little more than a parading of deep-rooted prejudices.  For example, the critics of Islam ask: ‘If there is such an emphasis on compassion and tolerance in Islam, why is it associated with violence and intolerance toward non-Muslims and the poor treatment of women.

The answer is that both Muslims and non-Muslims use the Quran selectively.  The Quranic verses revealed earlier, for example, Surah 2: Verses 190-4, emphasize peace and reconciliation in comparison to the latter ones like Surrah 9: Verse 5.  Some activists have argued that this means an abrogation of the earlier verses and therefore advocate aggressive militancy.  In fact, the verses have to be understood in the social and political context in which they were formed.  They must be read both for the particular situation in which they were revealed and the general principle they embody.

Take the first criticism of Islam: that it encourages violence.  The actions of the nineteen hijackers had little to do with Islamic theology.  Killing a single innocent person is like killing all of humanity, warns the Quran (Surah 5: Verse 32).  The Quran clearly preaches tolerance and understanding.  Indeed, there is an anthropologically illuminating verse which points to the diversity of races: ‘O Human Beings! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and female and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another… The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct’ (Surrah 49: Verse 13).

The idea of a common humanity is central to the Muslim perception of self.  By knowing God as Rahman and Rahim, Beneficient and Merciful – the two most frequently repeated of God’s 99 names, those that God Himself has chosen in the Quran by using them to introduce the chapters – Muslims know they must embrace even those who may not belong to their community, religion, or nation.  God tells us in the Quran to appreciate the variety He has created in human society: ‘And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors. Lo! Herein indeed are portents for men of knowledge’ (Surrah 30: Verse 22).

Verses about fighting Jews and Christians – or Muslims who are considered ‘hypocrites’ – must be understood relative to a specific situation and time frame.  What is important for Muslims is to stand up for their rights whoever the aggressor: ‘Fight against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities’, the Quran tells Muslims (Surah 2: Verse 190).  Men like bin Laden cite this verse and the next to justify their violence against Jews and Christians in general and in particular the United States, which represents the two religions for them.  They give the impression that God wants Muslims to be in perpetual conflict with Jews and Christians.  They are wrong.  Not only are these verses taken out of context, as they relate to a specific situation at a certain time in the history of early Islam, but the verses that follow immediately after clearly convey God’s overarching command: ‘Make peace with them if they want peace; God is Forgiving, Merciful’ (Surrah 2: Verses 192-3)

Misguided Muslims and non-Muslims, especially the instant experts in the media, are both guilty of this kind of selective use of the holy text to support their arguments.  In this case the Muslims would argue that violence against Jews and Christians is allowed; the non-Muslims would point to this line and say it confirms the hatred of Muslims against others.  They imply that the idea of fighting against Islam is therefore justified.

The discussion around the number of women a Muslim many may marry suffers from a similar fate (see below chapter 4, section ii, ‘Veiled Truth: Women in Islam’).  Misguided Muslims cite Surah 4: Verse 3 ; ‘Marry as many women as you wish, two or three or four’ – to justify having four wives; misguided non-Muslims, to point to Islam’s licentious nature.  Both ignore the next line in the same verse, which insists that each wife be treated equally and with ‘justice’ and, as this is not possible, then one wife is the best arrangement.

Source: Ahmed, Akbar.  Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World.  Polity: UK, 2003.


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