Islam: a problem or a solution?

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious and Most Merciful. Assalamu alaykum. Peace be upon you all.

I would like to take this opportunity in thanking the leaders and members of this church and the Muslim community for inviting me to talk about my religion. It is not easy to discuss about a religion that is not only least understood in the West but is also hated. Truly, 9/11 has provided pen-pushing, self-proclaiming ‘experts’ and ‘think tanks’ to define Islam in ways that only unmasks their level of hatred and bigotry. They like to bring about the Armageddon in our time. The Islam they define is unknown to my people and me. It is also said that you know your friends only in tough times. I am, therefore, grateful to you all that you opted to learn about Islam from a Muslim, a person who believes and practices the Islamic faith.

Where shall I start? Shall I start with the statement of Jafar ibn Abi Talib (Radi Allahu anh’ [R: May Allah be pleased with him]) some fourteen centuries ago when he was summoned in the court of a Christian King in Abyssinia or shall I start with some citations from the Bible? [In the early days of Islam, Jafar and a small group of Muslims had to seek asylum in Christian-ruled Abyssinia because of persecution of Meccan idolaters. The latter wanted them extradited back to face charges of sedition.] Let me choose the latter.

The Bible says:

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, we will not walk therein. (Jeremiah 6:16)

The entire history of mankind has been a history of struggle between the forces of darkness and light, injustice and justice, oppression and liberty, taghut (false-gods) and Tawhid (true-God, lit. monotheism) to bring about an ideal society. This task has not been an easy one, and more often than not humanity has failed to establish (and then hold on to) a society that is just and balanced. The ideal that Islam has been seeking for the past fourteen centuries is also a universal one – the establishment of a just society. Truly, in this pursuit, the mission of Muhammad (Saal-lal-lahu alayhe wa saal-lam [S: May Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him]), the Prophet of Islam, was very similar to those of all the prophets and sages that came before him.

Islam came as a guiding light into a dark world –” a world that needed a lightning bolt to wake up from its deep slumber. It came in an age of truth-defying Jahiliya (ignorance) when the worship of one True God from China and Japan in the East to Morocco and Iceland in the West was replaced by worship of myriads of demigods. It came to a nation that boasted of its depth of corruption and debauchery in social and moral issues. Historically, Islam came after the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of the ‘dark ages.’ In the nearby Persian Empire, there was a lot of political bickering for power and in far-away Roman Empire, there were signs of decadence everywhere, and in Arabia, the land that was supposed to reshape the destiny of mankind, its people were devoid of compassion and moral values.

But it was in Arabia, at the confluence of the three great continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, that Muhammad (S) – the Prophet of Islam, a Meccan from the illustrious family of the Quraysh, a descendant of the Babylonian Abraham, and the Egyptian Hagar – was born around 570 C.E. (or 53 B.H. of the Muslim calendar). And here it was that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (S) in Arabic in the year 610 C.E. (13 B.H). Coming into a world that was marred by corruption and disintegration, Islam provided a unique pattern that was unknown in the entire history of man-kind. "Islam provided three basic elements – faith in one God (Allah), reform of self and reform of the society at large. Islam remained as a religious commitment, a socio-economic-political program, but above all a vehicle for the ‘continuous reform’ of the society."

What is Islam?

The word ‘Islam’ means submission. It is derived from the Arabic root word ‘salam’, which means peace. So, in essence, Islam is a religion of peace in submission to the commandments of Allah. As one of its great men, Ali ibn Abi Talib (R), had said, “Its illustrious principles excel in glory and nobleness; its brilliant precepts bring enlightenment to those living in the darkest ignorance of haqq (truth). It is a religion whose followers compete and try to surpass each other in good-ness and virtue. Confirmation of truth and justice are its ways, enlightenment of humanity is its chief objective, facing death boldly and nobly is one of the main items of its glorious teachings.” [Nahjul Balagha]

Concept of God

The God of Islam has the aspect of YHWH, the God of the Children of Israel, who interests Himself in human society, in the affairs of this world, who is stern and severe in punishment, and also the aspect of the God of Jesus, who is compassionate, merciful and forgiving. All of these divine attributes can be found in the Qur’an.

The very first sentence of the Qur’an – Bismillahir Rahmaneer Raheem – starts with two attributes of God –” Rahman and Raheem (Gracious and Merciful). This phrase appears 114 times in the Qur’an.

The Arabic usage for the English word God is Allah, which is very similar to other Semitic usages, e.g., Eloah and Elah in Aramaic, and El and Elohim in Hebrew.

Some other attributes of Allah are:

“The Forgiver of sin, the Accepter of repentance, the Stern in punishment, the Bountiful. There is no Allah save Him. Unto Him is the journeying.” (40:3)

"He is God; there is no god but He, He is the Knower of the unseen and the visible; He is the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate. He is God, there is no God but He. He is the King, the All-Holy, the All-Peace, the Guardian of Faith, the All-Preserver, the All-Mighty, the All-Compeller, the All-Sublime. Glory be to God, above that they associate! He is God the Creator, the Maker, the Shaper. To Him belong the Names Most Beautiful. All that is in the heavens and the earth magnifies Him; He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise." (59:22-24)

"There is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting. Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep; to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth. Who is there that shall intercede with Him save by His leave? He knows what lies before them and what is after them, and they comprehend not anything of His knowledge save such as He wills. His throne comprises the heavens and earth; the preserving of them oppresses Him not; He is the All-High, the All-Glorious." (2:255)

“Say: He is Allah, the One. Allah, the eternally besought of all! He begetteth not nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him.” (112:1-4)

"God is the Creator of everything. He is the guardian over everything. Unto Him belong the keys of the heavens and the earth." (39:62, 63)

"No creature is there crawling on the earth, but its provision rests on God. He knows its lodging place and it repository." (11:6)

Prophethood in Islam

Muslims believe that God out of His infinite wisdom and mercy sent a multitude of prophets from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Jacob to Moses to David to Jesus to Muhammad (S) for guidance of mankind. The Qur’an says:

Mankind were one community; and Allah sent (unto them) Prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and revealed therewith the Scripture with truth that it might judge between mankind concerning that wherein they differed. (2:213)

The Qur’an commands Muslims to say:

"Say (O Muslims): we believe in Allah and that which is revealed to us and that which was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac and Jacob, and their children, and that which Moses and Jesus received and that the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and unto Him we have surrendered.”

The Book –” Qur’an

As for the book of Islam, the Qur’an, it was revealed to Muhammad (S) by Angel Gabriel (Jibril) in piecemeal over a period of 23 years of his prophetic life. It is a book that like the Torah contains social, political and military provision, even the instructions for the conduct of warfare, the taking and setting free of prisoners, that is interested in life, in building, in prosperity, in struggling against enemies and negative elements; but it is also a book that concerns itself with refinement of the soul, the piety of the spirit, and the ethical improvement of the individual. From the very first day of revelation to this very day there never was any scarcity of Muslims who memorized the entire Qur’an by heart. It is the most read and memorized book in its original language in our world.

There are some who now call for banning of the Qur’an saying that it is too violent, as if their own Books don’t have violent passages. Let me say that if they were to look for violent passages they don’t have to go beyond their own Book(s). Truly, there is no shortage of violent passages in any Scripture. All the Scriptures –” including the Bible and the Qur’an – are open to many interpretations.

Such passages in the Qur’an, without the context of 3P’s (people, period and place), as if moral imperatives (e.g., rahmah or mercy, ‘adl or justice, ihsan or kindness, and ma’ruf or goodness that are the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message) and historical context are irrelevant to their interpretation are vulnerable for abuse by “cherry-picking” or ‘exclusionary’ zealots for and against alike. But that would surely be disingenuous to castigate a religion.

The Prophet –” Muhammad (S)

The Prophet of Islam also possesses two contrasting aspects – aspects that would be contradictory in other men, but in him have been joined in a single spirit. For he was a man constantly engaged in political struggle against his enemies and the disruptive forces in society, concerned with building a new society and a new civilization in this world; and also a guide leading men to a particular goal; that is, also a man of prayer, piety, love, mercy and devotion.

The Qur’an talks about him:

Muhammad is but a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) have passed away before him. (3:148)

God commands Muhammad to proclaim his humanity (and not divinity):

Say (O Muhammad, to the disbelievers): I say not unto you (that) I possess the treasures of Allah, nor that I have knowledge of the Unseen; and I say not unto you: Lo! I am an angel. I follow only that which is inspired in me. (6:50)

Say: "I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as Allah willeth. If I had knowledge of the unseen, I should have multiplied all good, and no evil should have touched me: I am but a warner, and a bringer of glad tidings to those who have faith." (7:188)

The Qur’an also says: “There hath come unto you a messenger, (one) of yourselves, unto whom aught that ye are overburdened is grievous, full of concern for you, for the believers full of pity, merciful.” (9:128)

The Qur’an proclaims that Muhammad (S) was the last of God’s illustrious prophets: “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Last of the prophets; and Allah is cognizant of all things.” (33:40)

Status of Man

The status of man is crucial to understanding any religion. In Islam, man is viewed to be made of mud and divine spirit. He is a bi-dimensional being, a creature with a dual nature. Every man is endowed with these two dimensions, and it is his will that enables him to decide either to descend toward the pole of lowliness of earth, or to ascend toward the pole of exaltation of the heavens, and the spirit of God.

Islam teaches that man’s genuine humanity lies in subduing the carnal self, in order to uplift the spirit, and not in being enslaved by the former. Islam is not just about spirit, but encompasses faith, action, idealism, spirituality, brimming over with vitality and life-giving factors whose ruling spirit is justice and equality.

This is beautifully said in the Qur’an:

O ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to Allah. Lo! Allah is Informed of what ye do. (5:8)

Faith minus action or conduct has no place in Islam.

Islam teaches that privilege comes with obligation, and that men were not created to serve nature, but that the universe was created for serving men. Here are some relevant verses from the Qur’an:

And [He] maketh the sun and the moon, constant in their courses, to be of service unto you, and hath made of service unto you the night and the day.
And He giveth you of all ye ask of Him, and if ye would count the bounty of Allah ye cannot reckon it. (14:33-4)

And (Allah) hath made of service unto you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth; it is all from Him. Lo! herein verily are portents for a people who reflect. (45:13)

God made man His vicegerent on earth. Let me here quote again from the Qur’an:

And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth, they said: Wilt thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not. (Qur’an 2:30)

God endowed knowledge to Adam and commanded angels to bow down to show their respect to him. This is true humanism. See how great is the dignity and stature of man; so great, indeed, that all the angels, despite their inherent superiority to man and the fact that they are created of light while he is created of mud and clay, are commanded to fall down before him.

Another remarkable matter concerning the creation of man is that God summons all of his creation, all the phenomena of nature –” animate and inanimate objects, and tells them: "Lo! We offered the trust unto the heavens, and the earth and the mountains, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it." (Qur’an 33:72) That is, they all refused to accept the trust, but man accepted it.

Man’s final goal is to become on the one hand the master of the universe as God’s vicegerent on earth, and on the other hand to recognize that he was created solely for the purpose of serving God.

Worship (‘ibadat) in Islam is, therefore, not confined to his fulfilling the rights of God (Huququllah) , but also includes those of his fellow human beings (himself included), other creatures, and nature or environment (Huququl ‘ibad). Serving or helping those in destitute, fighting for the rights of the oppressed are equivalent to serving God. Yes, even the protection of the environment is an Islamic obligation due upon the society. Complete contentment, complete satisfaction and complete peace of mind are byproducts of how effectively one was able to fulfill that divine mission for which he was created.

Islam preaches individual accountability for oneself ["Yours is what you acquire and theirs is what they acquire” (Qur’an 2:134)]. In addition to his belief in God, a believer in Islam must enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency. The lowest degree of faith is that when one sees or knows of something wrong, he only feels in his heart that such was wrong [and does not stop such from happening either by his hand or tongue]. Condoning a wrong or crime is, therefore, equivalent to losing one’s faith. As can be seen, Islam is militant when it comes to resisting oppression. It encourages people to overthrow despotic rulers and to come to the aid of the oppressed people.

Characteristics of those who are successful

The Qur’an says:

The (faithful) slaves of the Beneficent are they who walk upon the earth modestly, and when the ignorant address them, they say: “Peace”; And who spend the night before their Lord, prostrate and standing, And who say: Our Lord! Avert from us the doom of hell; lo! the doom thereof is anguish; Lo! it is wretched as abode and station; And those who, when they spend, are neither prodigal nor grudging; and there is ever a firm station between the two; And those who cry not unto any other god along with Allah, nor take the life which Allah hath forbidden save in (course of) justice, nor commit adultery – and whoso doeth this shall pay the penalty; The doom will be doubled for him on the Day of Resurrection, and he will abide therein disdained for ever; Save him who repenteth and believeth and doth righteous work; as for such, Allah will change their evil deeds to good deeds. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful. And whosoever repenteth and doeth good, he verily repenteth toward Allah with true repentance – And those who will not witness vanity, but when they pass near senseless play, pass by with dignity. And those who, when they are reminded of the revelations of their Lord, fall not deaf and blind thereat. And who say: Our Lord! Vouchsafe us comfort of our wives and of our offspring, and make us patterns for (all) those who ward off (evil). They will be awarded the high place forasmuch as they were steadfast, and they will meet therein with welcome and the word of peace, abiding there forever. Happy is it as abode and station! Say (O Muhammad, unto the disbelievers): My Lord would not concern Himself with you but for your prayer. But now ye have denied (the Truth), therefore there will be judgment. (25:63-77)

Five Pillars

The Prophet said: “Islam is that you: (1) attest that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His servant and messenger, (2) establish prayer, (3) pay Zakat (poor-due), (4) fast during the month of Ramadhan and (5) perform Hajj (pilgrimage to Ka’ba) provided you have the means of making journey to it.” [Muslim]

1). Shahadah (Witness)

The Muslim testimony of faith is composed of two phrases: La ilaha il-lal-lah Muhammadur Rasulullah (meaning: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah). The Qur’an commands:

O my people! worship Allah! you have no other god but Him. (Qur’an 7:59)

This commandment is not any different from those in the Bible. For instance, the Bible says:

Deut. 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.

Mark12:29: And Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord.”

And why should there be any difference when God proclaims in the Qur’an: “Lo! This, your religion, is one religion, and I am your Lord, so worship Me. And they have broken their religion (into fragments) among them, (yet) all are returning unto Us. Then whoso doth good works and is a believer, there will be no rejection of his effort. Lo! We record (it) for him” (21:92-4)?

"Say (O Muhammad) my prayer, my sacrifice, my life and my death belong to Allah; He has no partner and I am ordered to be among those who submit (i.e., Muslims)." (6:162-163)

"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward the East or the West, but righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Prophets, and gives his beloved money to his relatives and the orphans and the needy and for the ransoming of captives and who observes prayer and pays the poor-due; and those who fulfill their promises when they have made one, and the patient in poverty and affliction and the steadfast in time of war; it is those who have proved truthful and it is those who are the God-fearing." (2:177)

2). Salat (Prayer)

The Qur’an proclaims:

"Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers." (23:1-2)

Muslims are commanded to pray five times daily. Their prayer includes praise of Allah and seeking help and guidance from Him:

"Praise be to Allah: Lord of the Worlds: The Beneficent, the Merciful: The Owner of the Day of Judgment. You alone we worship and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path. The path of those whom You have favored: Not the path of those who earn Your anger nor of those who go astray ." (1:1-7)

Friday is the day of gathering when Muslims offer congregational prayer.

Surah Jumu’ah: “O ye who believe! When the call is heard for the prayer of the day of congregation, haste unto remembrance of Allah and leave your trading. That is better for you if ye did but know. And when the prayer is ended, then disperse in the land and seek of Allah’s bounty, and remember Allah much, that ye may be successful.” (62:9-10)

3). Zakah (Poor-due)

Muslims are commanded to spend a small percentage (typically 2.5%) of their savings on the poor and the needy.

"Believe in Allah and His messenger and spend of that over which He made you trustees." (57:7)

4). Siyam (Fasting)

A Muslim must fast during the month of Ramadhan (the 9th month in the lunar calendar) every year unless he/she is sick, weak or traveling.

"O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may gain piety." (2:183)

5). Hajj (Pilgrimage)

A Muslim is required to perform hajj at least once in a lifetime, if he/she can afford to do it from his/her own income, provided that it is (also) easy and safe for him/her.

The Qur’an proclaims:

“Perform the pilgrimage and the visit (to Makka) for Allah. … The pilgrimage is (in) the well-known months, and whoever is minded to perform the pilgrimage therein (let him remember that) there is (to be) no lewdness nor abuse nor angry conversation on the pilgrimage. And whatsoever good ye do Allah knoweth it. So make provision for yourselves (Hereafter); for the best provision is to ward off evil. Therefore keep your duty unto Me, O men of understanding.” (2:196-7)

Other Issues:

1). Women in Islam

The status of women in Islam is one of the most misunderstood items in the western world. Little do westerners realize that Islam guaranteed women’s suffrages some 13 centuries before most western countries. [No western woman could vote before 1893. The credit goes to New Zealand for making that happen. In the United States, women (only White) were allowed to vote in 1920. The British women (over the age of 21) got the right in 1928. France followed as recently as 1944. Switzerland did not permit women to vote in national election until 1971.]

While all societies have failed in varying degrees in their treatment of women, who could deny the fact that women ‘liberation’ does not automatically translate into women empowerment? So, while the United States still has not had a woman president or a vice-president, four populous Muslim countries –” Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia –” have had women prime ministers or presidents (all holding ultimate political power in either a parliamentary or a presidential system of government). And all this before France has had a woman President, Germany a woman Chancellor and Russia a woman President. Now, if the treatment of women was that inferior, as whined by some how was it possible for those women to get elected for the highest position in their respective countries?

British women were granted the right to own property independent of their husbands only in 1870, while Muslim women have always had that right. While in many Western cultures daughters could not inherit anything if there were sons in the family, Islamic law has always allocated shares from every inheritance to both daughters and sons. A woman inherits from her relatives. The Qur’an states: "For men there is a share in what parents and relatives leave, and for women there is a share of what parents and relatives leave, whether it be little or much – an ordained share." (4:7) Islam made sure that mother, wives, sisters and female children were not neglected from their due share in inheritance. Islam made primogeniture unlawful.

According to the Qur’an, God created men and women out of the same substance and material. (Qur’an 4:1) They share the same lineage, and are brothers and sisters to each other – descended from the same mother (Eve) and father (Adam), race and origin. There is no notion of “Blame it all on Eve.” Both Adam and Eve were equally held responsible for the fall from the Garden of Eden. (Qur’an 2:38)

While men and women are treated equal and have similar rights (Qur’an 2:228), the responsibilities are different. Man is held primarily accountable for providing support of the family. The Qur’an says: “Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property.” (4:34)

This does not, however, negate Muslim woman’s right to earn money, the right to own property, to enter into legal contracts and to manage all of her assets in any way she pleases. She can run her own business and no one has any claim on her earnings including her husband. Khadija (R), Prophet’s (S) wife, was one of the successful businesswomen of Makkah. The Qur’an states: "To men is allotted what they earn, and to women, what they earn; but ask Allah of His bounty, for Allah hath full knowledge of all things." (4:32)

Let me now quote some Prophetic sayings about the treatment of women in Islam.

Nearly twelve centuries before the dawning of western Enlightenment, the Prophet (S) of Islam said, "The best among you are those who treat women well." The Prophet (S) also said: "The most perfect believers are the best in conduct. And the best of you are those who are best to their wives." He also said, “No one of my Ummah (community) supports three daughters or three sisters and treats well, except that they will be a shield for him from the Fire (of Hell).”

A man came to Muhammad (S) and asked: “O Messenger of Allah, which person of all people is best entitled to kind treatment and the good companionship from me?” He (S) answered: “Your mother.” The man asked again: “And then?” He said: “Your mother.” The man asked for the third time: “And after her?” He said: “Your mother.” The man asked for the fourth time: “And after that?” He said: “Your father.”

How could a culture that teaches – "Paradise lies under the feet of mother" be oppressive to women?

There is, however, no denying that Islamic rules on sexual modesty have on occasions resulted in undue segregation between the sexes in public places, sometimes resulting in marginalization of women in public affairs. But that is the failure of present-day Muslims in not living up to the dictates of the Qur’an and Islamic Traditions, not of Islam as a religion. Contrary to the images portrayed in the western media, Muslim women see the Qur’an as a solution to their rights and not as a problem.

2). Jesus in the Qur’an

Muslims believe in Jesus’s miraculous birth, and that he was a prophet of God. The Qur’an says:

(And remember) when the angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, illustrious in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near (unto Allah). (3:45)

Muslims reject Trinity. The Qur’an says, "People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not as to God but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’ Refrain; better is it for you. God is only one God. Glory be to Him – (He is) above having a son." (4:171)

As to Jesus’s mission on earth, the Qur’an says:

And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: "O Children of Israel! I am the messenger of Allah (sent) to you, confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving Glad Tidings of a Messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad." But when he came to them with Clear Signs, they said, "this is evident sorcery!"(61:6)

3). Status of Mary, the mother of Jesus

Muslims respect Mary, the mother of Jesus, very dearly. There is even a chapter of the Qur’an that is named after her (Surah Maryam). As to her status, the Qur’an categorically says: “Behold! the angels said: ‘O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee – chosen thee above the women of all nations.'” (3:42)

4). Attitude towards Christians

Christians are considered the People of the Book (i.e., to whom a Scripture was sent from God). The Qur’an says:

“And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. When they listen to that which hath been revealed unto the messenger, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of their recognition of the Truth. They say: Our Lord, we believe. Inscribe us as among the witnesses.” (5:82-83)

5). Attitude towards Others

Muslims believe in peaceful coexistence with others, irrespective of their faiths. Islamic history is a testimony to religious tolerance. This attitude comes from the Qur’an, which says:

“To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what He has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.” (5:49)

“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower. (2:256)

Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

Lo! those who believe (this revelation), and those who are Jews, and the Sabaeans and the Christians and the Magians and the idolaters – Lo! Allah will decide between them on the Day of Resurrection. Lo! Allah is Witness over all things. (22:17)

He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah. But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over them. (4:80)

It is because of such lofty notions of diversity and tolerance that the Islamic civilization was pluralistic and unusually tolerant of various social and religious denominations, something that was simply unthinkable outside in the Middle Ages. Jewish historians testify to the fact that had it not been for the protection and tutelage provided by Muslim rulers, Jews could not have survived in the Middle Ages. It was all too natural for European Jewry to find refuge among Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire when Christian Europe was practicing Inquisition, pogroms and holocaust to exterminate them. Muslim rulers never interfered with the religion of their subjects either. There was never anything like the Inquisition or the fires of Smithfield. Thus a number of small Christian sects, called by the larger sects heretical, which would inevitably have been exterminated if left to the mercies of the larger sects whose power prevailed in Christendom, were protected and preserved by the power of Islam. Even to this very day, there are groups like the Mountain, Tadzhik and Uzbek Jews, Yazidis and Sabaeans (Sabians) that are surviving with their culture and religion intact.

Muslims are a minority in the West. Should non-Muslims be worried about their presence? I pray not. Islam teaches Muslims to be obedient subjects: “Oh you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you.”(Qur’an 4:59) A well-known hadith says: “You are bound to hear and obey the orders of the authority in hardship and in ease, willingly or unwillingly, and even when you are treated unjustly.” [Muslim]

Islam commands Muslims to be the best of the neighbors. In a celebrated hadith, Muhammad (S) said: “That person will not enter Paradise whose neighbor is not safe against his mischief. [Bukhari and Muslim] He also said, “He is not a [true] believer who eats his full while his neighbor lies hungry by his side. [Baihaqi]

Here are some more sayings of the Prophet (S): “The best neighbor is one who behaves best towards his neighbors.” [Tirmizi]

“By Him in Whose Hand my soul is, a slave of Allah does not believe till he likes for his neighbor what he likes for himself.” [Bulugh al-Maram]

“Be a good neighbor to your neighbor and you will be a Muslim. Be a good fellow to your companion and you will be a Mu’min.” [Ihya Ulum al-Din]

Likewise, the Qur’an commands Muslims, “Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are of kin, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet) and the slaves : for Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious”. (4:36)

In another hadith, Muhammad (S) illustrated the rights of a neighbor as follows: “Do you know what are rights of a neighbor? [They are as follows], If a neighbor seeks your help, extend it to him. If a neighbor asks you for a loan, lend him [if you have it.]If your neighbor becomes poor, then help him financially and attend to his poverty if you can. If your neighbor becomes ill, then visit him [checking on his health and situation.] If your neighbor is happy on certain gain, then congratulate him. If your neighbor is suffering a calamity, then offer him condolence. If your neighbor dies, then be at his funeral [if you can.] Do not raise your building over his building causing him a lack of sun exposure, or wind passage. Do not bother your neighbor with the smell of your cooking, unless you intend to offer him some [of the cooked food.] If you buy fruits [while he does not have the means to buy, or not] then offer him a little present of the fruit. If you do not want to offer him a present of your fruit, then bring it in the house [in an unnoticeable way.] Do not permit your child, later, to carry the fruit you bought and drag his son and tease him with it.” [Al-Kharaitee].

6). Jihad

The topic of Jihad is a very favorite item in the arsenal of critics of Islam. It is often equated with religious intolerance that is sanctified in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This accusation by western critics is like turning the tables with a reprisal when one recalls that not a Muslim was left alive in Spain or Sicily or Apulia, and that not a Muslim was left alive and not a mosque left standing in Greece after the great rebellion in l821 (even to this day there is not a single mosque in Athens). In the Greek War of Independence in 1811, three hundred thousand Muslims – men and women and children – the entire Muslim population of the Morea without exception, as well as many thousands in the northern parts of Greece – were atrociously exterminated.

The Arabic word Jihad comes from the root word Juhd, meaning striving. There are two types of Jihad –” minor and major.

The Prophet (S) said, "The mujahid is he who strives against his soul in Allah’s way." [Bahr al-Fava’id] He also said, "We have returned from the lesser Jihad to the greater." He called fighting against one’s nafs (cravings, ego) the "greater" Jihad because the outward enemy is clear to us all. And we are, thus, able to guard ourselves against it. But the path of this enemy [nafs] is hidden: we do not see it, and thus it is difficult to guard against it.

Jihad does not mean Holy War (Arabic phrase – al-harb al-muqaddasah does not exist in the Qur’an). Truly, the term ‘holy war’ is from the time of the Crusades and originated in Europe among the Christians as a rallying cry against the Muslims in Jerusalem. Far from being addicted to warfare, Islam insists on the importance of peace (was sulh khair –” meaning: and peace is better.) The message of the Qur’an is a plural vision; it respects and values other traditions.

The Qur’an has fundamentally defined Jihad not as a war of aggression or of superiority or of authority, but of resistance against aggression.

Early Muslims of Prophet’s time were commanded: "Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities," [2:190] "And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah." [2:193]

Allah also said in Surah al-Baqarah, “Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not. " [2:216]

Allah commands Muslims not to initiate war and to stop fighting: if the opposing party stops fighting.:”So, if they (opponents) hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, Allah alloweth you no way against them.” (4:90)

“But if they (opponents) cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (2:192)

If Muslim youths today appear to be frustrated and angry it is not because of theology of Islam but of an inability as a human being to comprehend and/or tolerate anti-Muslim hypocrisy, double standard and the treatment of their brethren as third-class citizens of this planet. They are massacred, maimed and mutilated. They see how monumental abuses of human rights are routinely practiced against them, and yet, there seems to be no end in sight. They see how the neo-Crusadic powers of our time deliberately bomb everyone in a village or a market just to apprehend/kill a suspected hostile combatant. They see how scores of international charters and resolutions do not mean a thing to their greatest advocates, who practice not what they preach. It is a sad world indeed! There is none that speaks for them, and none that rescues them from their abysmal misery.

Just as the humiliating Treaty of Versailles sowed the seed of Second World War, leading to deaths of 55 millions of armed and non-armed people, unless western powers are just and equitable in their dealings with Muslims, I am afraid that we will not see peace in our lifetime. Peace without justice is only an illusion!

7). Brotherhood in Islam

In his farewell hajj (pilgrimage) speech, Muhammad (S) said, “O people, listen to me in earnest, worship Allah, say your five daily prayers, fast during the month of Ramadhan, and give your wealth in zakat. Perform hajj if you can afford to. You know that every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. You are all equal. Nobody has superiority over the other except by piety and good deeds.”

In Islam: all men are not simply equal; they are brothers. The difference between equality and brotherhood is quite clear. Equality is a legal concept, while brotherhood proclaims the uniform nature and disposition of all men; all men originate from a single source, whatever their color.

Nearly a hundred years ago, Mahatma Gandhi said: "Someone has said that Europeans in South Africa dread the advent of Islam – Islam, that civilized Spain; preached to the world the Gospel of Brotherhood. The Europeans of South Africa dread the advent of Islam, as they claim equality with the white races. They may well dread it. If brotherhood is a sin, if it is equality of the colored races that they dread, then their dread is well-founded."

Indeed, unlike most religions, Islam teaches that human diversity is a sign of God’s mercy and a portent for men of knowledge. The Qur’an declares: "And of His (God’s) signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors."

Islam shuns the very idea of chosen people or superiority based on race, ethnicity, color, tribe, language, geography, etc., by declaring: "O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware." (Qur’an 49:13)

With such profound statements in the Qur’an, Islam was able to wipe out age-old ethnocentric notions of superficial superiority and exclusive nobleness of mankind. In his book – Muhammad the Prophet of Islam – Prof. Ramakrishna Rao comments: "The principle of universal brotherhood and the doctrine of equality of mankind which he proclaimed represent very great contribution of Muhammad to the social upliftment of humanity."

Muhammad’s (S) credit lies in putting this manifesto of survival of mankind into actual practice by transforming the lives of tens of thousands of individuals, who had hitherto a history of fighting wars for generations, in his lifetime. Following his teachings people buried their jealousies and discarded their vendetta and blood feuds. He made humanity realize and achieve the principle and practice of brotherhood of man, and to give up intrigues and conspiracies against truth and justice.

Universal brotherhood is of vital importance in Islam. In Islam, what makes one better than the other is only Taq’wa, one’s fear of God. The prophet of Islam epitomized the very idea of universal brothe-rhood. It was there that we find Rasulullah (S) being in the midst of Arabs and non-Arabs alike, e.g., Salman – the Persian, Bilal – the Abyssinian, Shuaib – the Byzantine, and many others. Other peoples asked why the non-Arabs were in his company? The Prophet (S) is reported to have said, “O my people, our father is one, our Lord is one, and our faith is one.” He also said, “Salman (the Persian) belongs to my family.” In the early days of Islam, when group prayer was proclaimed, he (S) made Bilal (R) the first mu’addhin of Islam to call the ad’han. Even after the conquest of Makkah, it was Bilal (R) who was asked to climb to the top of the Haram al-Sharif to call ad’han after the idols were removed from its premises.

At what time or place and in relation to what other social, economic, political, religious system, philosophy or ideology – did the world ever witness such a perfectly amazing phenomenon? Even after some fourteen centuries later, Malcolm X [Alhaj Malik El-Shabazz] was amazed at his first contact with mainstream Islam when he visited the Muslim world in 1964: "America needs to understand Islam, because this is one religion that erases from its society the race problem. .. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all together, irrespective of their color."

Concluding Remarks

Fourteen centuries ago, a Muslim Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (S) addressed the general of the Persian garrison in the following words: "[Islam summons] mankind from the lowliness of the earth to the heights of the heavens, from the servitude of each other to the service of the Lord of the Universe, and from the oppression of the religions to the justice of Islam." Yes, that was precisely the role that Islam tried to play in the global arena. Through its concept of tauhid or pure monotheism and universal brotherhood, it offered the world a road to salvation. Instead of making God manlike, it tried to make man godlike. And this it tried by providing three basic elements – faith in one God without any associate, reform of the self and reform of the society at large. Islamic movements around the globe over the centuries, therefore, remained a religious commitment, a socio-economic-political program, but above all, a vehicle for the continuous reform of the society.

Who can deny the importance of such forces and principles that make our world better for common good of all humanity? I, therefore, see Islam as a solution and not as a problem.

Thank you very much for listening to my talk.


** Lecture at the Unitarian Church in Delaware, March 20, 2005