Thursday, November 22, 2007

Islam and Violence

1Islam and Violence

Many non-Muslims, upon hearing from Muslims that Islam is a “religion of peace” take the statement with a grain of salt. With terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and violence frequently being carried out in the name of Islam, one may wonder how is it possible to call Islam a religion of peace? Moreover, when these same “militant Islamists” justify their horrific actions through the verses of the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet, this idea is only reinforced. The question is, if Islam truly is a religion of peace, how can such actions carried out and such crimes committed in its name?

To begin to answer this question one must first make a distinction between what Islam actually says—in the Quran, in the Sunnah, and in the writings of Muslim scholars—and what “Muslims” actually do. Herein lies the disconnect. The fact is that today, the vast majority of these people who claim to be Muslims have never engaged in a deep study of Islam or the Quran. They do not have the knowledge and authority to issue fatwas (religious edicts) or make vast proclamations. In fact, many of these people labeled “Muslim extremists” are really extremists who happen to be Muslim. As the noted scholar Hamza Yusuf said “If you get Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists and Muslim extremists in the same room - they all seem to look very similar.” Deep down, religion is not what really motivates them but rather it is a raw passion stemming perhaps from dreadful economic and political conditions in their countries. And in order to give a more legitimate basis to their ideas, they like to quote out of context from the Quran and appropriate religion to their ends—religion, because in the Muslim world, religion possesses great motive force.

And yet all around the world, qualified Islamic scholars have condemned and continue to condemn such violence and attacks against civilians. “Vigilante violence has never been sanctioned in Islam” states Hamza Yusuf and the scholar Faraz Rabbani observes, “These people are not “Muslim soldiers” but renegades acting on anger and frustration, rather than law and dignity.” In other words, their’s is not the correct understanding of Islam. To mention all of the places in the Quran and the Islamic Tradition condemning such acts of violence and aggression would really require another post, but perhaps it would be instructive to show how easily it is to quote the Quran out of context:

Many militant Muslims who cite the Quran to support their violent actions often use the following verse out of context:

"And fight in the cause of Allah with those who fight with you...And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out..." 2. 190

But here is the passage in its entirety.

"And fight in the cause of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the reward of the unbelievers. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors." (Qur'an, 2:190-192)

Still, one may be wondering why it is that violence and extremism are so often associated with Islam and not with other faiths. There are many reasons but one may be the terrible economic and political conditions in Muslim countries. Think of the major hotspots in the world today-- Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur—nearly all of them are in Muslim countries. Unsurprisingly, such extreme situations breed extremism in otherwise normal individuals. Perhaps another reason may be that unlike in Christianity ( and I’m not sure of Judaism), Islam does not have a clergy, or a hierarchically organized, unified body that controls and certifies people to become religious leaders. The system in Islam is far more decentralized, with individual schools and universities bestowing the title imam, with no oversight from some external, universal Islamic body. With the largely terrible state of the Islamic education system, it is not at all difficult for unqualified people to slip through the cracks and be declared religious leaders despite their lacking the requisite knowledge or training.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Speaking the Same Language

While perusing some of the work of Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway (see post on October 28, 2007), I came across a quote from the Qur’an that reminded me almost word for word of a famous passage from the Talmud, the lengthy record of rabbinic discussion that serves as the basis for Jewish law. Take a look at these translations:

From the Qur’an:

If anyone slays a person
- unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land -
it would be as if he slew all people.
And if anyone saves a life,
it would be as if he saved the life of all people.
(Qur'an 5:32)


From the Talmud:

For this reason, man [i.e. the first human being] was created alone, to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as though he had destroyed an entire universe, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved an entire universe.
(Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)

Though there are notable differences – for example, the conditionality inserted into the Qur’anic verse – overall these excerpts are remarkably similar in wording in addition to message. I’m not sure I have much else to say – I think these quotes and their resemblance speak for themselves. What do you make of these two verses?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Women in exercise as bridge-builders

I have always been interested in exploring the intersectionality of women's identities, across faith, race, ethnicity, and other lines of difference. I am especially encouraged by Muslim-Jewish women dialogue groups that seek to bring women together by exploring commonalities in faith, commonalities as women, and, of course, commonalities as women of faith. So, when I first heard that a Jewish female instructor, Jamie Kaplan, had joined Muslim female trainer Mubarakah Ibrahim at her fitness center in New Haven, I was heartened.

As background, Mubarakah Ibrahim is a covering Muslim female trainer who teaches everything from pilates to yoga to kickboxing -- all in a hijab (Muslim headscarf), long sleeve shirt and baggy pants! -- in her women-only Balance Fitness Studio down Whalley Street in New Haven, CT. This mother of four has reached Oprah-fame, even published a book on nutrition, and now, with the addition of Jamie's perspective and presence, made her center a comfortable space for both Muslim and Jewish women who have to similarly adhere to a modest dress code (which requires covering in public around non-related males). When this happened last year, headlines ran "Muslim-Jewish Relations Bridged with Exercise."

My favorite quote from Mubarakah:
"And no matter where you choose to worship, every woman wants to know, 'How do you get rid of cellulite?'"

Friday, November 9, 2007

Interfaith v. Intrafaith?

I participated in a Muslim public service-oriented program this summer and the issue of Sunni versus Shia dialogue (the two major sects of Islam) surfaced and re-surfaced multiple times. Months after the program has finished, I find myself still mulling it over -- it seemed, for all the "We all believe in the same God" discussions we had been having in our respective communities with regards to our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters, very few people were actually engaged with the realities of religious diversity within Islam.

This topic, in light of the seeming non-stop sectarian violence in Iraq and even incidents of sectarian tension in the United States, has brought about many positive changes of course (to name a few: the Los Angeles-developed Muslim Intrafaith Code of Honor and the more international Amman message) but I am still often frustrated by how dispersed these efforts seem. Does the oft-repeated Quranic verse, below, not apply to differences of opinion within the faith as well?
"O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you" (Quran 49:13)
A quick Google search reveals different, yet similar issues within the Jewish faith tradition, especially with regard to intrafaith marriages (which, unfortunately, are not at all as common in the Muslim community); I am intrigued. What is it about intrafaith work that makes it so much more difficult to do than interfaith work? Do we approach our conversations with people outside of our faith, be they Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc, with more of a willingness to listen and less of an attempt to proselytize or convert or persuade than we do in those conversations with people who carry the same religious label as we do? Does it bother us to think that there are others practicing our faith differently than we do?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Israeli Holocaust Memorial to Honor Muslims

By Khalil

As the media focuses on "Islamofascism," Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, is honoring the Muslims of Albania for protecting Jews from Hitler's army in 1943. Due to the heroic actions of the government and the people, there were more Jews in Albania after the war than before it. This is an important episode in Muslim-Jewish solidarity. Click here for the article from the Jerusalem Post on the special exhibit at Yad Vashem.

"The extraordinary story of Albania, where an entire nation, both the government and the population, acted to rescue Jews is truly remarkable," said exhibition curator Yehudit Shendar. "Many, if not all, were heavily influenced in their choice by Islam... This very human story, told through these sensitive portraits, combine to highlight a little-known but remarkable aspect of the Holocaust."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia: free speech??

Though it has been a few weeks since Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University, I still find myself wondering what exactly Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, could possibly have been thinking when he invited Ahmadinejad to campus. To give a respectable forum to such a hateful man, in the process polarizing his campus, seemed an irresponsible action for a university president to undertake. To then treat his invited guest with such disrespect – though I personally share the disgust of Ahmadinejad that Bollinger’s statements expressed – only underscored the absurdity of the whole scene.

One aspect of the event that particularly bothered me was the argument that Bollinger’s invitation of Ahmadinejad was illustrative of just how well Columbia acts on the principle of free speech. This line of thought seems to me a complete distortion of the concept. In their book Denying History, Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman refer to editors of undergraduate student newspapers who, when confronted by Holocaust deniers wishing to publish advertisements, feel that given their unflinching support of free speech they must allow the ads despite being repulsed by the content. This, Shermer and Grobman contend, is a misinterpretation of what free speech means. While it would violate that principle to, say, pass a law preventing a Holocaust denier from publishing his or her own materials (or barring someone from endorsing Ahmadinejad’s views), one should not feel obligated to facilitate the presentation of those ideas. We should not feel held hostage to free speech – if we do, then we have, in fact, lost our freedom. The leader of an organization or institution is responsible for the values that body endorses and is entitled, under the principle of free speech, to make choices over what views to tolerate.

Bollinger, of course, took the initiative in inviting Ahmadinejad, but I think Shermer and Grobman’s argument is relevant considering Bollinger called his invitation the “right thing to do” and lauded his and Columbia’s practice of free speech in the context of the event. Bollinger had no obligation under the principle of free speech to invite Ahmadinejad. In doing so, he made a choice, doubtlessly aware of the reaction his invitation would provoke, to turn a respected university into a soapbox for Holocaust denial, homophobia, and many other forms of hatred.

Of course I want universities to invite controversial speakers. Of course I want to hear diverse opinions. But Ahmadinejad’s views are so contrary to the values universities like Columbia claim to treasure that allowing him on campus desecrates, cheapens, and devalues the ideal of free speech which is so crucial in a thriving academic institution. Inviting Ahmadinejad is not a welcoming of diverse or controversial opinions; it is a contribution to the promotion of hatred.