(This is the fifth and last article in a multi-part series. If you haven't already read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4, I recommend that you do so before continuing here.)
In this article, I'd like to address the plethora of books, articles, Web sites and other media that attack Islam as a religion; attack its 'scriptures', the Koran; and accuse it of directing its followers to enslave, torture and kill any and all who do not accept and/or follow its teachings. The problem is, where does one start? There's so much material involved that it'll be impossible to address it all in the space of a single blog article.
Let's begin by examining a faith with which many of my readers are likely to be at least passingly familiar; namely, Christianity. Many (wrongly) assume that the popular catch-phrase of 'accepting Christ as their personal Lord and Savior' is all there is to it - after that, you're 'home free'. Not so fast! Christianity requires a wide-ranging and permanent conversion of one's attitudes, actions and lifestyle. Furthermore, if you want to understand the faith in any depth, be prepared for a great deal of hard work. You'll have to read its sources of revelation (the Bible for sure, plus - if you want to be thorough - the sources of tradition and binding authority recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, whose members together comprise almost 70% of all Christians). You'll need to learn how Christianity was established and grew; how its doctrines were formalized; how conflicts within it led to changes, splits, new denominations, etc.; how its missionary activity took it around the world; how it helped shape and form kings and nations, and how the latter shaped and formed it in their turn; etc. You can't just read the Bible, then claim to understand Christianity as a whole - after all, the Bible is not the root, but the fruit of the Church, because the Church defined what went into the Bible! That's why most mainstream denominations require their ministers to study for five to seven years before ordaining them. There's a lot to learn!
Precisely the same may be said about Islam. Reading a book about it, or perusing a few articles on a Web site, will not, repeat, not give you an adequate understanding of it. You'll have to read and study for several weeks to gain even a basic balanced knowledge of the field. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either uninformed or lying. (As a starting point, if anyone claiming to be an 'expert' about Islam isn't fluent in both written and spoken Arabic, he can't possibly have the expertise he claims!) I studied Islam for three years at both undergraduate and post-graduate level; and while I regard myself as well-informed about it, I freely admit I'm far from being any sort of expert.
Furthermore, it's almost impossible to truly understand any faith unless you associate with those who believe and practice it. It has social and cultural as well as theological and doctrinal aspects. I had contact with a number of Muslims in South Africa for several years;
- Associates in my work with the victims of violence during South Africa's long period of civil unrest from 1976-1994;
- Mujahedin volunteers returning from Afghanistan;
- Iranian-sponsored activists who founded Qibla and later PAGAD (the latter in particular becoming a criminal and terrorist organization in its own right), who tried to force me to direct aid to locals through their channels so that they could take credit for it (they didn't succeed);
- Imams and lay Muslims in various walks of life.
I also served as a prison chaplain in the USA, which brought me into contact with several hundred Muslims of various denominations and sects. These experiences do not make me an expert, but I've been able to see Islam in practice. That's helped me to understand it as an institution. Without such contact, I submit that a purely academic knowledge of Islam will be lacking depth and substance.
Much of the information in circulation about Islam is at best questionable, at worst entirely false. Consider the following:
- Many of the so-called 'authorities' who write about Islam, or who are cited by others in defense of their views, appear to be 'climbing on the bandwagon' of uninformed Western fears about Islam following terrorist acts by fundamentalist Muslims. As an example, take one Walid Shoebat, referenced by a commentator in Part 4 of this series. There are many questions concerning his authenticity; yet he continues to make a very good living by bolstering people's fears about Islam and spreading 'information' that has been called into question by those who are genuinely knowledgeable in the field. He is not the only self-proclaimed 'authority' under scrutiny.
- Other so-called 'authorities' emit a barrage of alleged 'facts', citing ayah (verse) after ayah from the Koran as if they were a shotgun spewing forth pellets. However, such 'authorities' hardly ever place the verses in the context of whether the sura (chapter of the Koran) from which they're drawn is Meccan or Medinan in origin; how it is understood and explained in the hadith and sunnah; how different denominations within Islam interpret it (for example, Shi'ite Muslims generally don't follow the six major collections of hadith used by Sunni Muslims); how it has been applied in terms of fiqh and the different Madh'habi; how its interpretation and application has changed down the centuries (if at all); etc. These factors can drastically affect how a particular ayah is interpreted and applied today. Indeed, it's not unusual to find some Muslim denominations, sects or madh'habi placing great emphasis on certain aspects of the faith that are downplayed by others. This remains the source of considerable friction within Islam, particularly when conflicting fatwas are issued by different religious authorities. Furthermore, critics frequently fail to distinguish between matters that are binding on all Muslims as matters of faith, and those that are culturally specific. (For example, notwithstanding fatwas issued by a few individual Islamic teachers and allegations by numerous critics of Islam that female circumcision is a Muslim religious requirement, it is not commanded by the Koran or the madh'habi, even though it is, regrettably, a cultural norm - not a religious one - in certain - not all - Islamic societies.)
- Many self-proclaimed 'authorities' about Islam will have little or no idea what I was talking about in the second point above, because they are ignorant of the specialist terms I used. (I've met several who've exhibited that problem.) Their discussions of Islam are all too often incestuous: they merely regurgitate what others like them are saying, sometimes copying-and-pasting text from each other's articles and Web sites without even bothering to edit it (or credit the original author). They frequently cite each other as 'authorities' and trustworthy sources, when in fact they're neither. Furthermore, many of them have ulterior motives. They may be peddling an Islamist or Islamofascist perspective, or trying to promote the conversion of the Islamic world to Christianity, or following some other agenda (including, perhaps, making as much money as possible from the overly credulous - see point 1 above). Many of them appear to be willing to use, or misuse, or make up out of whole cloth, anything that will help them achieve their goals.
I'd like to suggest a very important principle, one that applies to every aspect of life, not just religion:
If you want to learn something about anything, consider the scholarly and other credentials of your sources, and their motivation and agenda(s), and confirm their trustworthiness before relying on them.
If you apply that principle to the subject under discussion, you'll be protected against most of the codswallop floating around out there claiming to be 'authoritative' information about Islam.
It will be impossible for me to provide a 'potted summary' of the Islamic faith here. Let me point you to a couple of articles and sources on the subject that are reasonably trustworthy.
- The Islamic faith overall is summarized in a good article at Wikipedia, with many links to other related articles and sources.
- The 'five pillars' or basic tenets of the Muslim faith in practice are discussed in an article at Patheos (which also has many other useful articles on Islam).
- There are many grounds on which Islam has been criticized. Again, Wikipedia has a good general article about them, with links to other articles that go into more detail.
Do please consult the many articles on Islam provided by Wikipedia and Patheos, check them against each other to ensure accuracy, and follow the links they suggest for further reading. The subject of Islam is far too large (and much too complex) for any one article to do it justice. Also, please use their articles and links to fact-check the often hysterical, rabid, poorly-referenced polemics against Islam that you'll find on many Web sites. I won't bother to name examples here, or provide links to them - they don't deserve the exposure - but if you find a source that denies or contradicts information provided by both of those I've suggested, you may be fairly sure that the former is, at best, being 'economical with the truth'.
With that background firmly in mind, let's cut to the chase. It's quite true that there are suras in the Koran that suggest, support or even mandate:
- The superiority of Islam over all other religions;
- The spread of Islam through violence, if necessary, and the forcible conversion of pagans;
- The execution of apostates;
- The necessity of struggle, or jihad, for all Muslims (although please note that jihad does not mean only a religious war against unbelievers or in defense of Islam - it's a far more complex subject than that).
Upon hearing such admissions, some will immediately jump up and down, and scream that those beliefs disqualify Islam from consideration as a 'civilized religion', or make it a deadly threat to other faiths and cultures, and so on. Er . . . not so fast, guys. For a start, let's acknowledge that Christianity, too, claims to be the only true faith, and as such superior to all other religions. Objectively, if it's wrong for Islam to make such a claim, then it's equally wrong for Christianity to do so (although adherents of both faiths may argue otherwise from their subjective perspectives). Furthermore, in the past Christianity has claimed and/or enforced in practice the same prerogatives asserted by Islam. Examples include (but are not limited to):
- The Crusades, where Christianity was imposed by violence on the land and people of Palestine (and also parts of Europe such as Sicily and Spain), and many Muslims and Jews were either killed or forcibly converted to Christianity;
- Internecine conflict, where Christians and (allegedly) Christian nations fought, tortured, murdered and executed one another because of differences over the faith;
- The punishment (sometimes including torture and/or execution) of those identified as heretics and/or apostates, as exemplified by the Catholic Inquisition or the English Reformation.
However, Christian nations went through the Renaissance of the 14th-17th centuries, and the 16th-century Reformation, both of which produced major changes in the understanding of faith in practice, and promoted countervailing philosophies, ideologies, policies and legislation. As a result, religious faith's control over political and social life became diminished, and is still diminishing to such an extent that some call our era a 'post-Christian society'. The Islamic world has never undergone such episodes, and there is still (at least in theory) no separation between religion and state in a Muslim country. Just as the Pope once claimed temporal as well as spiritual authority over kings and princes, so Islamic religious leaders today claim similar authority over their worldly rulers. Many (including myself) believe that the Islamic world is only now entering upon its Renaissance, where secular education and other influences are spreading through a society previously dominated by religion. (Whether or not it will also experience something like the Reformation is, at present, impossible to predict.) Just as Europe took several centuries to process and implement the changes produced by the Renaissance, so the Islamic world will also require time to do so. When it has done so, we may see such sweeping assertions of religious authority modified or scaled back, just as Christianity did after the Renaissance. Let's hope so, anyway.
The existence of such texts in the Koran does not mean that most Muslims are going to use violence against us to force our conversion. The simple fact of daily coexistence with Muslims in many Western nations proves this conclusively. In your home town or city, when was the last time a Muslim stopped you in the street, demanded to know your faith, and threatened you with violence unless you recited the shahada at once? I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of my readers will answer, "Never". That says it all, right there. The fact that it may be a religious requirement codified in the Koran does not imply that it's something that is automatically going to be forced upon you.
For those living in Islamic or predominantly Muslim states, the reality is somewhat different, of course. There have been (and continue to be) cases of abduction and forced conversion (usually related to marriage); there have been cases of religious intolerance and discrimination towards adherents of other faiths; there have been cases where Muslims who converted to other faiths have been sentenced to death or murdered as apostates. Such actions are abhorrent to those of us in Western countries; but that's because we are accustomed to living in a society where freedom of religion is taken for granted, and religion and state are separated, and human rights are respected (at least in theory). Most Islamic nations do not embody those values. Islam is a totally different culture to our own. That doesn't excuse such actions, of course - they remain abhorrent and unacceptable to anyone with what you or I would call a 'civilized' perspective - but those living in such nations simply don't see the situation as we see it. We may not like that, but it is what it is. I don't condone or seek to excuse their actions, you understand: I merely point out that they regard themselves as justified in behaving that way. Unless and until their society, culture and world view is modified, there's no prospect of that changing.
Finally, remember that in both Christianity and Islam, the application of religious teaching in daily life is not necessarily what is mandated in revelation or theologically derived from that revelation. Faith in action, just as with many other aspects of human existence, isn't always a matter of 'black and white' - there are all too often 'shades of gray' in its implementation. Let me give you a couple of practical examples.
- The Catholic Church teaches that anyone in a state of mortal sin is forbidden to receive any sacrament unless and until he/she sincerely repents of and turns away from his/her sin(s), confesses it/them to a priest, and receives absolution. Sexual relationships outside marriage are regarded as a mortal sin. However, couples in such a relationship are usually allowed (at least in the USA) to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony in order to 'regularize' their situation, even if they refuse to repent of and cease their sexual sin and seek absolution for it. Furthermore, after such a marriage they are usually readmitted to all other sacraments. Practical considerations have thus been allowed to trump doctrinal purity.
- Islam forbids its adherents to consume alcoholic beverages. However, the precise nature of the prohibition is seen by some authorities as ambiguous, in that the suras in question refer to alcoholic beverages known to the prophet Mohammed and his followers at the time they were written. Some Muslims (particularly those in positions of power) have therefore seen their way clear to drink alcoholic beverages that are not made from 'the fruit of the vine', such as slivovitz (made from plums) or vodka (made from the distillation of fermented substances such as potatoes or grain). Others go so far as to disregard the prohibition entirely. Technically, this is haraam (forbidden) to Muslims; but in practice it appears to be tolerated by some Islamic religious authorities, in the interests of not upsetting their relationship with the powerful.
I don't have space or time to provide more examples. You'll have to look them up for yourself. Suffice it to say that the old proverb, 'circumstances alter cases', relates as much to the application of religious doctrine to everyday life as it does to law and custom.
I guess I can't say much more about Islam here. The subject is too vast for a short series of blog articles. However, I hope I've been able to illustrate that the relationship between Islam and the Western world is much more complex and complicated than many would have you believe, and that emotional, 'knee-jerk' condemnations of Islam as 'the religion of terror' or the like are, at best, misguided. I hope you've been given sufficient factual, verifiable information to pursue your own investigation of this tangled topic, and find more answers for yourself.
Tragically, in many ways Islam has been made into a 'bogeyman' to scare Western audiences. I suspect some politicians and Christian leaders actually like having it around as a convenient target for fear-mongering and disinformation. While the people concentrate on the so-called 'threat' from Islam, they can be more easily distracted from living in accordance with their own religious faith or other standard(s) of everyday morality; they can be more easily manipulated by strident calls to take certain action(s), or give up certain freedoms or liberties, in order to 'counteract' the alleged 'threat' from Islam; and they probably won't take much notice of (let alone fix) the very real problems present in their own society, because they'll be too busy pointing fingers at the problems in and of Muslim countries. I submit that the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5 apply very firmly to Christians in this situation.
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."
For my readers of faith: may all of us who believe in God, no matter what our religion or denomination, behave towards each other with the same mercy and compassion we hope to receive from Him when we are judged.
EDITED TO ADD: Following some of the comments to this and earlier articles in this series, I'd like to encourage you to read an article in the Telegraph: Are we wrong about Pakistan? It won't change the perspective of someone who's already made up his or her mind, but I hope it'll give others food for thought, and illustrate that even an Islamic nation that's at the heart of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism has many 'shades of gray' in its makeup. For another perspective, see Ale under the veil: The only brewery in Pakistan.