Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

BY: Karen Armstrong


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The word jihad is much misunderstood. It is rarely used as a noun in the Qu'ran, but in a verbal form, meaning striving, struggle or effort. This jihad denotes the determined effort that Muslims must make to put God's commands into practice in a terrible and evil world. Sometimes this will mean armed struggle, but the jihad also refers to a spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, domestic or purely personal effort. There is a very famous and much quoted hadith or "tradition" about the Prophet Muhammad, which describes him returning home after a battle and saying to his Companions; "We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] to the Greater Jihad," which is the far more important and urgent struggle to reform one's own heart and one's own society.

Consequently, the Qu'ran is quite clear that warfare is not the best way of dealing with difficulties. It is much better to sit down and reason with people who disagree with us, and to "argue [with unbelievers] in the most kindly manner, with wisdom and goodly exhortation." If Muslims are forced to respond to an attack, their retaliation must be appropriate and proportionate to the wrong suffered, but forbearance is preferable: "To bear yourselves with patience is far better for you, since God is with those who are patient in adversity." (16:125-127]

The Quran also quotes the Jewish Torah, which permits the lex talionis--an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth--but adds that it is a meritorious act to be charitable and to refrain from retaliation. [5;45]

Muslims must be realistic. If God had wanted all peoples to be the same and have identical opinions and policies, then he would have made them into one nation and made them all Muslims. But God has not chosen to do this, so Muslims must accept his will. [10:99;11:118]. If there is an irreconcilable difference, Muslims must simply go their own way, as the Prophet himself did when he found that he could not agree with the Meccan establishment, saying: "Unto you your moral law, and unto me, mine." [109:6] You go your way, and I'll go mine.

Above all "There must be no coercion in matters of faith." {2:256]. The grammar here is very strong, very absolute. (La ikra fi'l-din) It is similar in form to the Shehadah, the Muslim profession of Faith: "There is no God but Allah!" ("La illaha `l Allah!" The Unity of God is the basis of all Muslim morality and spirituality. The principle of tawhid ["making one"] is the Muslim task par excellence. Nothing must rival God ~ no ideology, material goods, or personal ambitions. A Muslim must try to integrate his entire personality and his whole life to ensure that God is his top priority, and in the unity that she will discover within herself when this is achieved, she will have intimations of that Unity which is God. It is, therefore, significant that in the Quran, the prohibition of force and compulsion in religious matters is made as emphatically as the assertion of the Unity of God. The principle is as sacred as that.

Muhammad did not intend to found a new world religion to which everybody had to subscribe. The Qu'ran makes it clear that he considered that he was simply bringing the religion of the One God to the Arabs, who had not had a prophet before and had no scriptures in their own language. The Qu'ran insists that its revelation does not cancel out the revelations made to previous prophets: to Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Enoch, or Jesus. Every nation on the face of the earth has been sent some kind of revelation, which it expresses in its own cultural idiom. So every rightly guided religion comes from God.

In the Qu'ran, Muslims are commanded to speak with great courtesy to Jews and Christians, "the People of the Book," who believe in the same God as they do. [29:46] These were the world faiths that Muslims were familiar with; today, Muslim scholars argue that had the Prophet known about Buddhists, Hindus, the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, the Qu'ran would have endorsed their religious leaders too. Muhammad simply thought that he was bringing the Arabs, who seemed to have been left out of the divine plan, into the religious family founded by the other great prophets.

This is reflected in the symbolic story of the Prophet's spiritual flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he is welcomed by all the great prophets of the past on the Temple Mount, preaches to them there, and then ascends to the Divine Throne, greeting and sometimes taking advice from Moses, Aaron, Jesus, John the Baptist and Abraham on the way. It is a story of religious pluralism: the prophets all affirm one another's visions and teachings; they gain help from one another. And it also shows the Prophet's yearning to bring the Arabs in far-off Arabia into the heart of the monotheistic faith.

So when Osama bin Laden declared a jihad against Christians and Jews, he was acting against basic tenets of the Qu'ran. It goes without saying that any form of indiscriminate "killing" [qital], which is strongly condemned in the Qu'ran, is also unIslamic.

So too is suicide, which is forbidden in Islamic Law. True the Qu'ran promises that those who fall in battle while fighting for their lives against Mecca will surely go to Paradise. It was certainly not encouraging Muslims to rush out and expose themselves to the danger of certain death .

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