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 .

It is perhaps important to note that the suicide bombers are not simply trying to achieve a first-class ticket to Heaven, as Westerners sometimes imagine. The Greek word from which we derive our "martyr," means "witness." So does the Arabic for martyr: shahid. When Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed that in their deaths they were witnessing to values that were higher than those of the coercive, persecuting state. It was a way of giving dignity and meaning to their terrible deaths.

Muslims have the same ideal. They all honor the Prophet's grandson, Husain, a special hero of Shiite Muslims. Husain and his band of loyal followers were killed by the powerful armies of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. Husain's martyrdom was a very powerful motif in the Iranian revolution, when Iranians exposed themselves to the guns of the Shah's army to witness to the Islamic values of social justice, which they believed the Shah was violating.

But what we saw on September 11th and on previously in Israel/Palestine and in the Lebanon is evil, because no martyr may take other people with him. To turn the vulnerability and lonely courage of the martyr into an act of aggression is a great and wicked perversion, and there is nothing in Islam that can sanction that.

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?

    Since the terrorists follow a distorted version of Islam, have they ever been reprimanded by top Muslims?
    Strictly speaking, there are no top Muslims equivalent to the Pope, the Chief Rabbi or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Islam is a very egalitarian religion and at least in principle doesn't believe in authority figures that tell other Muslims what to do.
  • However, Muslim ulama [religious scholars] and heads of Muslim states have condemned the atrocity of September 11th. After the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, a meeting of the Congress of Islamic States, which met the following month, unanimously condemned the fatwa as unIslamic--though this did not often make it into the Western press. Last April, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia said that suicide killings were simply suicide and therefore wrong.

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