by Michael Lame, posted on August 10, 2010
The Cordoba Initiative, the leading sponsor of the mosque complex slated to be built near the site of the Twin Towers, seeks to improve Muslim-Western relations through interfaith dialogue and outreach. Its founder and chairman, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has served for many years as the imam of a Manhattan mosque and has actively fostered Christian-Jewish-Muslim communication. He writes and speaks extensively on behalf of what is known in the West as moderate Islam. Characteristics of that approach are evident in this paragraph from the Cordoba Initiative’s website about one critical Islamic concept:
“In the post-9/11 environment, some Americans tend to think of Islam as a violent creed and of those who practice jihad as terrorists by definition. Jihad, however, is a large and complicated concept, whose meaning actually boils down to the need for peaceful struggle for self-betterment – the war that we wage against the vices within ourselves – a central injunction to all Muslims. That Americans associate Islam with violence is, of course, entirely the fault of the extremists who perpetrate crimes under a false Islamic guise.”
Like any other advocacy group, the Cordoba Initiative is not eager to post inconvenient truths on its website. Instead, it will present those parts of the truth that forward its mission, while denying or ignoring the rest. The group’s definition of jihad as essentially a “peaceful struggle for self-betterment” no doubt is designed to reassure a non-Muslim American audience well disposed to the idea of personal improvement, but that definition certainly doesn’t tell the whole truth. For a fuller picture and another perspective, read the following from Rudolph Peters’ book, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam:
“The Arabic word jihad…means to strive, to exert oneself, to struggle. The word has a basic connotation of an endeavour towards a praiseworthy aim. In a religious context it may express a struggle against one’s evil inclinations or an exertion for the sake of Islam and the umma…In the books on Islamic law, the word means armed struggle against the unbelievers, which is also a common meaning in the Koran. Sometimes the “jihad of the sword” is called “the smaller jihad,” in opposition to the peaceful forms named “the greater jihad.” The origin of the concept of jihad goes back to the wars fought by the Prophet Mohammed and their written reflection in the Koran…It is not clear whether the Koran allows Muslims to fight the unbelievers only as a defense against aggression or under all circumstances.”
Other books and treatises offer additional interpretations of this key Islamic concept of jihad, which is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of the faith. The point here is not whether Peters or Rauf got it right, but that serious students of Islam see jihad quite differently, and these differences are reflected in the views of millions of Muslims around the world.
According to the storyline developed by Rauf and other moderate Muslims over the last decade, radicals such as al-Qaeda have “hijacked” Islam, which is a religion of peace. The terrorists who bombed various cities around the world during that time period are political revolutionaries or reactionaries who happen to be Muslims. They do not represent Islam and their actions cannot be attributed to Islam since terrorism is un-Islamic.
On the other hand, if you read the statements released by Osama bin Laden and Aymin al-Zawahiri as well as the notes found after the bombings, you will see that Islamic beliefs lay at the heart of the 9/11 bombers’ murder-suicide operation. Neither the bombers nor the men who sent them just happened to be Muslims. That moderate Muslims would say otherwise, claiming that al-Qaeda adherents perpetrated their “crimes under a false Islamic guise,” is understandable, but unpersuasive.
While one might prefer Rauf’s descriptions of jihad and Islam to be correct, they are only partial pictures. And therein lies the danger. Most Americans, Europeans, and Asians, most Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists do not understand Islam, yet it is increasingly important that they do. So which of the many Islams should they get to know? The moderate and peace-loving Islam of Rauf? The spiritual and quietist Islam of the Sufis? The austere Islam of the Wahhabis? The various strains of Shi’ite Islam – the Fivers, the Seveners, or the Twelvers? The national liberation Islam of Hamas? The terror-promoting militant Islam of al-Qaeda?
There is no single Islam. No one on the planet – no matter how devout or how steeped in Islamic literature, history, tradition and practice – can speak for Islam. Muslims never had a pope; the caliphate was abolished decades ago. In its stead, there exist multiple Islams with numerous spokespersons, all competing with one another.
Islam has not been hijacked. The spread of Islam by any means necessary has been advocated by some Muslims since the 7th century, while others have espoused a live-and-let-live approach towards non-Muslims. One can cite chapter and verse from the Quran to back either position. The commonly quoted “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256) can be set against “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (Quran 9:5). True, these quotes are taken out of context, but that is how scriptures are always quoted – out of context. Periodically, throughout Muslim history, reformers and fundamentalists have stepped forward to rescue or revive Islam, either by modernizing or by purifying it. Imam Rauf would have more credibility with American skeptics if he did not speak as if there is only one true Islam (the one he espouses) and that more extreme versions of Islam are false.
Building a massive 15-storey Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero is already highly controversial. If the project comes to fruition, it will continue to attract attention. What sort of speakers, one wonders, will be featured in its 500-seat auditorium? Will only moderate, peace-and-tolerance-promoting, Jew-and-Christian-loving Muslims be allowed to appear? And if so, will that moderate view become the face of the faith that New Yorkers accept as the real and true Islam? Or, on the contrary, will a series of moderates-only speakers present such a continuous contradiction to what people hear, read and see everyday that the entire enterprise will be discredited as a whitewash of aspects of Islam which are less-than-friendly to non-Muslims?
Once we get past the “we all love Abraham” meet-and-greet, Christians, Jews, and Muslims would be well served, as they engage in real interfaith dialogue, to remember the traditional Anglo-American court room oath required of each person who offers testimony: “Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God.”
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