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New York City Mosque: Part I, Jihad

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.”

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “New York City Mosque: Part I, Jihad”

  1. Garrett Mitchellon Aug 10th 2010 at 7:38 am

    Michael —

    An excellent and very helpful piece, which I will call to the attention of my readers. You’ve performed a valuable service by helping people understand the various divisions, schisms, and branches of “Islam,” and, in my judgment, you’ve done so in a very ‘fair and balanced’ way.

    The other observation I’d make — and perhaps that’s what Part II will deal with — is to discuss the “hadith,” so that readers will understand how much of Islam today comes from those post-Quran dictates, and how that has been one of the vehicles by which this religion has been ‘hijacked.’

    But I wanted you to know that this reader appreciates greatly the time and thought you put into this one, and I look forward to Part II, III??


  2. Thomas Mitchell, PhDon Aug 10th 2010 at 8:02 am

    I think that you are right about there being multiple Islams. But this is true of any developed religion with a long history and tradition and a holy book. One can look at multiple Christianities or multiple Judaisms, etc. Just compare the Christain Identity movement of survivalists in Idaho, with practioneers of liberation theology in Latin America or Catholics in medieval Europe not to mention all the sects of Eastern Christians in the earlier centuries of Christianity. In Judaism today the teachings of Reform Judaism and Othodox Judaism regarding ritual practices are quite different.

    If you want to imagine why this is so look at our own secular society where power resides in the interpretation of the Constitution. I have discovered that when Republicans and Democrats speak they are quite literally speaking of two different Constitutions. The Republican Constitution is the written Constitution with the meaning that the original founders gave it when they passed it plus the amendments with the meaning at the time that they were passed. When Republicans want to change the meaning they attempt to change the text. The Democratic Constitution is the written Constitution as interpreted by centuries of interpretation, especially in the last 40 years. They don’t need to change the text, they just change the meaning through judges. With Islam the fundamentalists are trying to go back and recapture what they believe is the original Islam or what they wish it had been. For the religious parties in Israel the Tora is the Israeli constitution. For Muslims the Koran and Hadith are the constitution. So with that much power at stake of course people are going to fight about the meaning and anyone who wants change will claim that it is hidden in the meaning of the Koran and find a few verses to justify that.

  3. Khaled Elgindyon Aug 10th 2010 at 1:06 pm

    So, what exactly is your point? If, as you say, there is no single Islam, how is that any different than Judaism or Christianity (or any other faith)? Moreover, you seem to be saying that both opponents and proponents of the Cordoba Initiative are justified in their positions because “both” types of Islam (“moderate” and “extremist”) do in fact exist. In other words, opponents of the mosque are not motivated by bigotry and/or ignorance but out of some legitimate security concern. This claim is offensive enough, but you don’t stop there. On top of it all, you suggest that Imam Abdul Rauf and/or Cordoba are not being truthful (perhaps even lying) about the “true” nature of Islam. These overly simplistic dichotomies you’ve laid out – “moderate” vs. “extremist” / “inner” jihad vs. “violent” jihad – are totally misleading and false (not to mention at odds with your own assertion that there are multiple Islams – i.e., more than two). The fact is that most Muslims can and do assimilate both meanings of jihad, simultaneously and without contradiction – the inner struggle with the self, as well as the outward struggle against injustice (which can but need not necessarily manifest itself in the form of a military campaign–but even then a military jihad is highly proscribed by Islamic law and limited to certain conditions such as self defense, not harming non-combatants, etc.). Thus, Abdul Rauf and others are wholly justified in claiming that those who ignore the normative rules of Islam are indeed promoting a “false” understanding of Islam.

    Does your analysis apply to all other religions as well, or just to Islam and Muslims? Have you also called on “moderate” Christians who do not bomb abortion clinics and “moderate” Jewish rabbis who do not condone the killing of non-Jewish children – both of which can and do find religious justification in their respective scriptures – to come clean about the “more extreme versions” of their faiths as well? Or are you content to let them “whitewash” these aspects of their faiths which are less-than-friendly to non-Christians/non-Jews? You are absolutely correct in saying in that most Americans, Europeans, and others do not understand Islam; unfortunately, it seems that you fall into this category as well.

  4. Michael Thomason Aug 11th 2010 at 4:02 am

    Let me first agree strongly with your admonition that we all need to learn much more about the various forms of Islam, at a time when many are using the violent acts of a few hundreds or thousands to slander well over a billion other Muslims. Given the wide acceptance of the leaders of the Cordoba project as advocates for tolerance and education, we might start by joining Mayor Bloomfield in welcoming their effort.

    Given Rauf’s reputation, your accusation that he finesses “inconvenient truths” suggests you don’t trust any Muslim to tell the truth about the religion. I don’t know him, but I expect he describes the Islam he believes in, not the ones he finds abhorrent. Judaism as described by the settler movement yeshiva leaders who condone killing non-Jewish children if they are raised by enemies of their project would not be recognized as a valid expression of Judaism by the vast majority of Jews either in Israel or elsewhere. Certainly there would be an understandable public reaction in New York if such Jews sought to build a Yeshiva where the Cordoba project is going.

    I just completed a week studying terrorism with Dr Mark Radford at Christ Church Oxford. Radford is former Parachute Regiment, former RUC, has fought terrorists in several countries, and advises the SAS. He has done extensive study of the Koran and various forms of Islam with a Malaysian imam. He refuses to call al-Qaeda and other terrorists who act in the name of Islam “jihadis,” because he understands that to be a term of honor, and the terrorists to be heretics. He calls them “takfiri,” a term originally referring to the seldom-used procedure to excommunicate Shiite Muslims. Al-Qaeda and their ilk now assert the right and duty to kill those who reject their views of Islam, including their views of jihad.

    By all means, New Yorkers and others should learn everything they can about Islam, from Rauf and others, and (should criminal violence be taught by some such teacher) should curtail their outreach as necessary. Your message gets murky and unhelpful, however, when it suggests that benign forms of the religion are simply not to be believed.

    Finally, I can’t let Dr Mitchell get away with his GOP advertisement. It is true that four members of the current Supreme Court profess to be “originalists,” and that they generally rule in ways that conservatives applaud. But there is a strong argument (with which I agree) that Scalia et al find what they want to rule in fictional views of what Madison et al might have intended in often intentionally vague language. The current court is in fact a radical one, to the extent that it follows the lead of the myth-making originalists. Constitutional religion is as disputable as any other kind.