Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Friday 14 September 2001
Islam : a complex faith
The terrorist attack on America’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon last Tuesday has given rise to a media debate on Islam.
Although the perpetrators have not yet been identified, many commentators have suspected that an Islamic group may be responsible – hence the debate. This article is a contribution to the debate on the nature of Islam. We make no assertions whatsoever as to who may have masterminded last Tuesday’s tragic events.
The Muslim prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a complex character whose attitudes and opinions changed and evolved during his lifetime in response to events around him. It is not surprising to find that Islam is a complex faith, and cannot be pigeon-holed as “peaceful” or “violent” or under any simple heading.
Muslim leaders around the world have condemned Tuesday’s terrorism. Many leading public figures in the West have done the same, often going on to express an understanding that Islam is a peaceable faith which could never sanction such actions. It is heart-warming to see such concern for the image, feelings and well-being of the Muslim community worldwide. We echo this concern and particularly the concern for Muslim minorities in the West, who feel themselves very vulnerable to revenge attacks by those who believe Muslims responsible for the World Trade Centre attack. The threats and intimidation that Muslims in the US, UK, Australia etc. have reported since Tuesday are inexcusable and thoroughly contemptible.
“Islam” means “peace” we are often told by Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Even before Tuesday, British newspapers and TV had tended to paint a glowing picture of Islam as a religion of peace, modesty, morality, self-discipline and family values, sadly tainted by the violence of a few “fundamentalists”. Muslim minorities nevertheless continued to complain of Islamophobia, and felt themselves unjustly portrayed in the media as terrorists to a man.
The truth lies not so much in the middle between these two extremes of peace and violence, but manages to embrace both extremes at the same time. It is true that many individual Muslims are peace-loving and law-abiding. But it is not true that “peace” is the main characteristic of faith of Islam. It is not even true that the word “Islam” means “peace”. In fact it means “submission”. Islam as a faith emphasises submission of Muslims to God and, by a logical extension, the submission of non-Muslims to Muslims.
“Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)” says the Qur’an (Surah 9, verse 5). An explanatory note in the respected translation by A. Yusuf Ali makes clear that this is not intended metaphorically: “When war becomes inevitable it must be pursued with vigour … The fighting may take the form of slaughter, or capture, or siege, or ambush and other stratagems.”
There are some Muslims who argue that this verse need not be interpreted literally any more, but the orthodox majority hold that the Qur’an is the immutable word of God. It is true that the Qur’an also contains verses urging tolerance of non-Muslims but these verses pre-date the more belligerent ones. Islamic scholars have a simple rule to deal with such contradictions in the Qur’an: the later verse takes precedence.