Misinterpreting Islam

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The dastardly suicide bomb-attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar some weeks back in Pakistan was shocking, of course, but not entirely surprising. For some time now there has been a continuous series of attacks, which have become almost a routine tradition, on religious places across Pakistan, causing the deaths of literally thousands of worshippers. Most of these religious places have been mosques. This time, however, it was a church.

Pakistani Christians are a small and vulnerable minority. They keep a very low profile and abstain completely from agitation and confrontational politics, despite the painful discrimination they are subjected to. And so, exactly what ‘revenge’ was being meted out to these hapless people on that tragic day when bombers struck the church, killing dozens of worshippers?

Some elements sought to justify the blast as a revenge for American drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan – there couldn’t be a more terrible example of intellectual poverty, moral bankruptcy and religious sadism than this specious argument. If this logic were to be true, then no community anywhere in the world would ever feel safe. This twisted logic is also completely anti-Quranic. The Quran tells Muslims not to attack religious beliefs, or deities that other people worship. Because then, as a reaction, those groups or communities will start abusing God. The Quran (6:108) explains:

“Abuse not those to whom they pray, apart from God, or they will abuse God in revenge without knowledge.” 

If you consider the Peshawar church blast in the light of this Quranic verse, it is evident that this heinous crime was a complete violation of God’s commandments. Such ruthless action may invite similar counter-reactions against mosques in Christian-majority countries at the hands of people ill-disposed towards Islam.

Those who have even a little knowledge of Islam are well aware that according to Islam, no one can bear the responsibility for someone else’s sins. And so, if the government of a certain country oppresses a people, revenge cannot be taken against innocent citizens of that country. Likewise, if a country whose majority claims to follow a particular religion attacks and oppresses Muslims, the latter do not have the right to take revenge by attacking and oppressing as a reflex action. So the fact that American drone attacks have killed many people in Pakistan does not in any way justify the attacking and killing of innocent Pakistani Christians and blasting their churches. This reasoning has no Islamic sanction at all.

In the last few years, the alarming phenomenon of violence and extremism in Pakistan has gravely damaged the image of Islam at the global level. A special characteristic of Pakistan is that it is one of the few ideological states to have come into being in the name of Islam in the modern period. And so, irrespective of who was involved, it will not at all be surprising if non-Muslims, in particular, view this horrid deed in the context of Islam. This, despite the fact that such actions have no justification whatsoever according to authentic Islamic teachings.

The fact of the matter is that despite Pakistan having been in existence for over half a century, that country’s link with Islam is simply a matter of tradition, something that is just boasted about rhetorically, for the most part. Islam is, by and large, merely an aspect of the emotional make-up of the majority of Pakistanis, rather than the very basis of their mentality and spirit. In large measure, this is because the very foundation of Pakistan is based on a spurious understanding of Islam and the so-called ‘Two Nation theory’. Both these lines of thought have woefully and completely failed. Their utter failure was testified to by the whole world when Bangladesh won freedom from Pakistan. The Pakistani leaders, both religious and others, did not however learn any lessons from that momentous event. They paid little attention to the reform and character-building of individuals, remaining heavily obsessed with politics and the capturing of state power. Religious movements in Pakistan assumed the form of political movements, and, in this way, they fell prey to all the many defects that typically characterize political movements.

It is absolutely bizarre how, many of those who ardently desire to see Pakistan as an ‘Islamic state’ remain blind to the basic fact that one of the components defining an Islamic state – indeed one of its basic principles – is the safety and security of its non-Muslim citizens. There are three foundational principles that, if absent, cause a territory to cease being considered, in the language of the traditional ulema, a dar ul-islam or ‘abode of Islam’. One of these principles is that its non-Muslim citizens no longer enjoy the same peace and security that they earlier did from a Muslim state. The greatest indication of the success of the political system of any country — be it India or Pakistan or any other — is the security and protection of the rights of its minorities.

Given the fact that ensuring safety and security of non-Muslim citizens is the basic duty of an Islamic state, it is incomprehensible why extremist groups in Pakistan who desire to ‘Islamize’ the ‘secular’ Pakistani state, do not understand that their heinous crimes are tantamount to destroying the very roots of Islamic political ideology. And with crimes such as the Peshawar blasts being committed in the name of Islam, how on earth can we face others and convince them that Islam is a religion of tolerance and large-heartedness, that it does not favour coercion and oppression, that the Quran respects the religious rights of people of other faiths?

The Quran stresses that the enmity of any community must not lead one to behave unjustly with them. Rather, one must behave justly under all conditions. Thus, the Quran (5:8) says:

“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God and be just witnesses and let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety, and fear God.”

And according to an early Islamic tradition, attributed by some to Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, a kafir or non-Muslim government can remain established if it rules with justice, but an Islamic government cannot remain in power if it is oppressive.

Compared with other communities, Christians have a closer relationship with Muslims. This is testified to in the Quran itself which tells Muslims (5:82):

“[…] the nearest in affection to them are those who say, ‘We are Christians.’ That  is  because  there  are  priests  and monks among them; and because they are free from pride.”

In fact it was a Christian monk, Bahira by name, who was the first to predict the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad. In the early period of the Prophet’s preaching mission, several of his followers sought refuge from the persecution of the polytheists of Mecca by migrating to Abyssinia, which was then ruled by a Christian king. This king very kindly provided shelter to these Muslims, who had left their homes to safeguard their faith. In other words, one can say that the first ‘helpers’ or ansars (helpers) of the Muslims in Islamic history were this Abyssinian Christian king and his Christian subjects.

Another indication of the close historical connect between Muslims and Christians is the fact that numerous important and highly revered figures in the early period of Islamic history married women from Christian families. The Prophet Muhammad provided a beautiful example of large-heartedness with regard to Christians by permitting a delegation of Christians from Najran to pray in the Christian manner inside the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.

In the medieval period, Christian scholars played an extremely important role in the evolution of Muslim civilization. The Abbasid Caliph Mamun Al-Rashid (according to some other scholars, it was Harun al-Rashid) set up the ‘House of Wisdom’ or Bayt al-Hikmat in Baghdad, through which a vast number of books in various languages, such as Sanskrit and Greek, were translated into Arabic. This greatly contributed to the flourishing of Muslim civilization. Christians played the most important role in this translation project. The head of the project, Yohanna Ibn Maswah, was a Christian. The man credited with the largest number of translations, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, was also a Christian. Because of the key participation of Christian scholars in the evolution of Islamic civilization, they were looked upon with respect.

Today, it is imperative for Muslims, including the ulema and other Islamic scholars, to establish close and friendly bonds with believing Christians, including and especially the Christian clergy. One reason for this is explained in the Quran, in the verse which we referred to earlier, which talks about Muslims finding Christians closest in affection to them. Another reason has to do with something that the great servant of Islam from Turkey, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960), referred to in many of his writings. In his Al-Lama‘at (‘Reflections’), he wrote that in today’s times, it is not enough for Muslims to make efforts to promote understanding and unity among themselves. Rather, he stressed, they must go beyond this and establish good relations with pious, practicing Christians, too. The reason according to him, is that Muslims and Christians today face common enemies – atheism, irreligiousness and forces that stand for enmity against God. Together, the two can unite to defeat this common foe. To Nursi, the preservation of religion and religious values demanded that Muslims establish good relations with practicing Christians.

The fact of the matter is that people like Pastor Terry Jones, who recently shot into infamy by burning the Quran, are an exception among practicing Christians, including the clergy. On the other hand, the majority of practicing Christians, including priests, want to have good relations with Muslims. They see this as necessary for human welfare. In this regard, heinous actions committed by some extremist Muslims can only further widen the gulf that separates Muslims and Christians. And this, in turn, can only prove disastrous for humanity as a whole.

It is interesting to note that the Quran includes along with the aims of struggle or jihad, the protection of Jewish synagogues and Christian churches from forces inimical to religion. It tells us (22:40):

“If God did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is much invoked, would surely be destroyed.”

But what Peshawar recently witnessed is precisely the opposite of what the Quran says in the above-quoted verse. Instead of a jihad to protect a church, Peshawar witnessed a so-called jihad to destroy a church – yet more proof of how totally anti-Quranic this devastating crime is.

Even in the course of a war Muslims must not attack Christian clerics or monks or such figures in other communities, and their places of worship. Likewise, it is forbidden for Muslims including soldiers in a Muslim army fighting a war, to attack and kill children, women and the elderly, irrespective of religion. But those who blasted the Peshawar church in the name of Islam did not seem to care in the least for these clearly established Islamic codes. One might add, as the Quran very aptly puts it, that what they are engaged in is no form of Islamic jihad whatsoever. In fact, it is its very opposite – what in Islam is called fasad fil-ardh (corruption in the land), which is a terrible abomination in the eyes of God.

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