Have We All Been Hijacked?

The biographer of Muhammad and expert on fundamentalism says Sept. 11 is a watershed moment for all the Abrahamic faiths

BY: Karen Armstrong


There has been much talk of the Islamic religion itself having been "hijacked" by the terrorists. The appalling crime against humanity violated the cardinal principles of Islam and has taken it off in quite the wrong direction. Certainly, this action seemed to endorse the mistaken view so common in the West that Islam is essentially a fanatical and violent faith.

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But is this really a case of a faith being hijacked? Not yet. Because in this case, the other people in the "plane"--as it were--can take an effective stand against the moral nihilism of the terrorists. Muslims can decide whether they are going to follow the hijackers into violence and hatred, away from the true teachings of Islam, or ensure that their faith is not driven off-course.

You'll recall that the primary meaning of the word jihad is not "holy war" but "struggle" or "effort." This is a very important religious principle. It reminds us that religion is never something achieved or finished. The revelation is given, but those who follow it have to make a constant effort, day by day, year after year, to put it into practice in a flawed and tragic world.

Each faith tradition represents a constant dialogue between a timeless, transcendent, or sacred reality and the constantly changing circumstances of life here on earth. We all have to struggle to make our scriptures and the insights of our tradition speak to the circumstances we find ourselves in.

These circumstances are always unique. The Sept. 11th events gave Muslims a terrible insight into the way their faith can be abused and made an instrument of evil. Now they must initiate a new jihad, a new effort to delve creatively into their rich faith traditions and emphasize as never before the compassion, justice, and tolerance that are central to the Qur'anic vision.

President Bush has pointed out that the terrorists' crime has "blasphemed Allah." And all over the world, Muslim leaders and scholars have also condemned the atrocity. But verbal declarations are not what religion is primarily about. The struggle, or jihad, must continue every day in the coming months, in practical ways. Every time a violent action or an intolerant word is spoken, the world becomes a worse place and the virus of hatred and evil spreads. But every time any single believer reaches out to others in compassion and sympathy, the world improved infinitesimally. That daily, hourly effort is the jihad required right now.

Muslims don't carry this responsibility alone. Jews and Christians belong to the same religious family; they too can use this trauma creatively to reaffirm the values that we all hold in common. The religions of Abraham all worship the same God; all three have a deep commitment to compassion, justice, and peace.

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