When I first approached William J. Bennett's excerpted commentary published on Beliefnet, I was expecting an intelligent analysis of how Islam has been distorted and misinterpreted to justify horrid acts of terror. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The piece quickly degenerated into an anti-Islam diatribe, and it is clear that both Bennett and Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose information Bennett relied heavily upon, have only a superficial understanding of what Islam really is.

From the very beginning, Bennett's premise is flawed. He cites the flaws of misguided Muslims to show all of Islam as problematic. Further, he speaks of "Islam" as one large monolithic blob that can be packaged in a box and labeled as this or that. The Islamic world spans five continents and encompasses 1.2 billion people. It simply cannot be packaged in a box. In the July issue of Harper's, Columbia Univeristy's Edward Said described the study of Islam this way: "Once we add matters of language, culture, history, politics, community, and school of interpretation in all the various parts of the world, the question of Islam and Muslims becomes virtually unapproachable from any simple or summary point of view."

In fact, it is best to think of Islam as being comprised of many little "Islams," as Muslim scholar Aziz al-Azmeh explains in his book, Islams and Modernity. Depending on where one travels in the Muslim world, the variation in the application and practice of Islam varies enormously. Bennett clearly demonstrates his ignorance of this fact.

Further compromising his credibility is the source of his information about Islam: Bernard Lewis. A prolific, retired academic from Princeton, Lewis has come to be seen as an "expert" on Islam and Muslims. Edward Said, in the same Harper's article, however, exposes Bernard Lewis' profound ignorance of Islam and Muslims. Said wrote: "Just as it has now become inappropriate for white scholars to speak on behalf of 'Negroes,' it has...stopped being fashionable or even acceptable to pontificate about the Oriental's (i.e., the Muslim's, or the Indian's, or the Japanese's) 'mentality.' Except for anachronisms like Lewis." Discussing Lewis' book, What Went Wrong?, Said continued: "The book is in fact an intellectual and moral disaster...completely removed from any direct experience of Islam, rehashing and recycling tired Orientalist half (or less than half) truths."

These two factors combine to make Bennett's commentary about Islam at the very least suspect. Take Bennett's discussion of the "classical" division of the world into the dar-al-Islam ("realm of Islam") and dar-al-harb (what Bennett calls "realm of the sword"), for instance. This concept is not of Prophetic origins; rather, it was developed by Muslim scholars centuries after the Prophet's demise. Volumes, in fact, have been written about this subject. Not only that, the definition of the various "realms" differs from scholar to scholar. Further, this scholarly division of the world was not devised in a geopolitical vacuum, and the historical context of each individual scholar must be understood if any intelligent analysis of Islamic jurisprudence is to be made.

A crucial concept about Islamic law, to which Bennett apparently is oblivious, is that application of that law by an individual Muslim community depends heavily upon the cultural, political, and historical context of that community. For instance, Imam Al-Shafii, founder of one of the four major Sunni schools of law, changed almost his entire set of legal rulings after he moved to Egypt, because the environment of the Muslims in Egypt differed substantially from that of the Muslims in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

Of course, no commentary about Islam can be complete without a quote from the Qur'an out of context: "There is no equivalent in the New Testament to the Koranic injunction to 'kill the disbelievers wherever [you] find them.'" This verse, and the others similar to it, was revealed during a time in which almost every single tribe surrounding the Muslims was hostile and ready to strike at any moment. Far from a universal, blanket injunction to kill all non-Muslims, the verse spoke about those specific tribes that relentlessly attacked the Prophet and his companions. Islam has never propagated a "state of permenent war" between Muslims and "infidels," as Bennett claims. This is falsehood, plain and simple.

Still, I am not about to thrust my head in the sand and cry, "No, no, no, Islam means peace!" The Islam that Bennett portrays does indeed exist in the minds of some Muslims today. There are indeed Muslims who see the world as "us vs. them," "Muslim vs. infidel," and are willing to die for their ugly, misguided "war of the realms." Far from being "authentic teachings," it is a gross distortion of Islamic thought and belief that has both infected and hijacked the classical faith. Striving against this malignant mutation of Islam has become one of my new missions in life, one of the new "jihads" I now happily wage.

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