Looking at a year of beheadings by ISIS, child grooming abuses in the UK, the hanging judges of Iran, slaughtering and enslaving of Christians in Egypt and Africa, and various murders justified in the name of Islam throughout the world, many people are understandably asking: What is the true nature of Islam? Is it that although there are many peaceful Muslims, Islam itself is not peaceful?
If, for us Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace, justice, and mercy, how come the militants, who claim to be staunch Muslims — who are ready to die for Islam and who claim to have established a state in the name of Islam in Iraq and Syria by sacrificing blood and lives — are beheading journalists and aid workers, and enslaving religious minorities, all by citing Islamic Sharia Law?
The Taliban (literally «students») in Afghanistan have persecuted religious minorities and inflicted human right abuses against women — and men who disagreed with them or who have fallen afoul of their laws. Boko Haram has also carried out human rights abuses in the name of Islam and Islamic law. In Malaysia, where «moderate» Islam is practiced, Christians cannot call God «Allah.» In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and supposedly an ally of the U.S., the policies and practices carried out by the state, and the Wahhabi religious scholars in the name of Islam, are woefully anti-humanitarian. Many Muslims from around the world perform the religiously required pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; a number of them are on the dole of the petrodollars provided by the Saudis, but do not show much concern for the human rights abuses carried out in the name of Islam by the Saudi establishment.
Many devout Muslims, like monks in monasteries, are busily trapped in performing rites and rituals, and ceding ever more ground to extremists, without adequately reflecting on the history of Islam, the nature of God and the nature of revelation from God.
We Muslims commonly believe that God sent prophets and messengers to every corner of the world since the beginning of creation to guide humanity, but that most, if not all, of the messages got corrupted and adulterated, one way or another, except the message of Islam. But it seems natural that most people, Muslims or not, also see their own religion as the only true religion. But there are religious traditions, both in Islam, such as many Sufi sects, and in other religions, that affirm the transcendental unity at the core of almost all religious traditions, and that are inclusive and universalistic in nature.
Also, Muslims learn from the Qur’an that hubris, or arrogance, is the greatest sin committed by the Satan, and that it was arrogance that led him to disobey God. God asked him to bow to Adam, the first human, but Satan refused out of arrogance.
The current question seems to be: Did Muslims go astray very early on, when they conquered many lands and developed a massive doctrine and theology of intolerance (it took about 300 years to solidify Sharia after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad), due to pride and quest for power — the very arrogance that is prohibited? Although many conversions to Islam did not occur by the sword, the first four caliphs (the so-called «Rightly Guided») and their successors did in fact send out armies to conquer the world. If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad — and the idea that peace and justice can be achieved only under Islamic sovereignty — with Muslim rulers subjugating non-Muslims, cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful Creator.
The Islamic tradition is not monolithic; there are countless variants. Many of the Islamic Sufi traditions, for instance, that are often relentlessly condemned by the extremists, who likely see them as a threat to their own power — are notable for their pluralistic and humanistic nature, even though, historically, some orders may have been more martial than spiritual.
There have been many individual Muslims throughout history who are truly freedom-loving and who respect the rights of all human beings. Also, historically, a number of Muslim kings, sultans and emperors in Andalusia, Spain — and in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, as well as in Mughal India — who treated their non-Muslim subjects kindly, albeit not with full equality. The Ottoman Sultans established a system of «millet» whereby people of other religious communities were allowed to live in the Empire in peace, although as second-class «protected» citizens, had to pay a head tax called jizya, but were otherwise freely allowed to follow their own personal laws and religions (Canon law for Christians and halakha for the Jews), without attempting to convert them by compulsion.
Maimonides, the early medieval Jewish scholar, for example, makes it clear that even in the «golden age» of Islamic rule in Spain, it could be a bit nightmarish for the non-Muslims; but if the rulers were reasonably kind and tolerant, and if the intolerant religious leaders were not in control, non-Muslims could live restrained but reasonably comfortable lives, as dhimmis (protected people), under Islamic suzerainty.
When Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, died in the year 632 CE, the Qur’an had not been compiled as a book. The messages said to have been revealed from God, or Allah, to Muhammad during a period of 23 years, during his prophetic career, were either orally passed down or written on animal bones, leather and scraps of parchment, without systematic collection or any adequate background or context.
The Prophet Muhammad himself did not provide any authoritative narration or explanation for the Qur’anic verses while he was alive. He also did not provide a method for selecting his successor, nor did he authorize his companions to record the Hadith (his actions and sayings) while he was alive. Later, therefore, subsequent generations would have to sift through mountains of dubious material, in an age of primitive record keeping — and during a period of discord, partisanship and violence, even among those who were close to the Prophet.
In the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE (48 years after Muhammad’s death), depicted in Abbas Al-Musavi’s painting, Husayn, the son of ‘Ali and grandson of Muhammad, was killed along with his family and all his followers by the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate. It was the most crucial moment in the split between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. (Image source: Brooklyn Museum)
The Qur’an and the six canonical Hadith collections primarily formed the twin pillars of the sources from which the scholars of Islam developed the principles of Sharia and the commandments of the Islamic laws. These try to give prescriptions and proscriptions for all human conducts imaginable.
But is it not possible that God wanted humans to use their brains and rational faculties, and that He did not provide step-by-step instructions for all the questions in life simply to be obeyed by humans without reflection or questioning? Although in Islam, there exists an important concept called ijtihad — independent reasoning in legal matters — the literalist, textual fundamentalist scholars declared this principle to be inoperable whenever there are clear-cut, decisive textual statements in the sacred texts on the issue in question. There is also a debate as to whether the gates of ijtihad were closed after the 10th century CE. While most traditional Islamic scholars and jurists still consider ijtihad to be the exclusive domain and prerogative of the preeminent religious scholars (mujtahid), and not for the general public, other scholars do not.
In the early days of Islam, right after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims splintered into many sects and factions. There were endless debates on the issues of religious doctrine, theology, and religious law, due to divergent interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. During that period, a group of theologians called the Mutazila, who based their theology on reason and rational thinking in conjunction with the sacred texts, waged an intellectual battle with the traditionalists, who gave absolute primacy to strict literal interpretations of the revealed texts: the Quran and the Hadith. Unfortunately for the future of the Islamic tradition, the literal traditionalists won the struggle, and went on to establish among the Sunni Muslims the four legal schools of Sharia, which became the dominant form of Islam from then onwards.
This mainstream, legalistic, text-bound, literalist Islam — now the dominant strain and controlled by the traditional Muslim scholars — is a mixture of both humanistic ethical values, combined with supremacist ethos, as it developed throughout the centuries. Due to its literalist tradition, it does not have the flexibility or the ability to overcome interpretations of the scriptures that are inimical to pluralistic and humanistic values.
Many equate this literalist, legalistic, text-bound Islam to be the «true» Islam. But just because it is the dominant form of Islam does not mean that it is the «true» Islam. A careful study of the history of Islam indicates that this view is utterly unwarranted. Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time, based on the understandings, interpretations, and practices of their adherents. Therefore, it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values.
Classical Islamic law is a synthesis and deduction of rulings from the Quran and Hadith by the medieval scholars from when Muslims were powerful. Beheadings and enslavement at that time were widespread among many societies, not unique to the practice of Islam. Muslims believe that in the Quran we have a document from God that provides ethical guidance and moral lessons from the Prophet and his followers in the language many at the time understood. They allude to the practices and conduct suitable for the time and place in which the Prophet lived and was trying to influence people.
There were many actions of the Prophet recorded in the «authentic» Hadith, such as holding slaves, carrying out beheadings and so on, which are not easy to accept according to the present day norms, to say the least. But for the textual literalists, there is no question that whatever the Prophet did, as recorded in the approved texts, must be accepted and emulated without any question or hesitation. And in order to strengthen their text-based legal methodology, the textual literalists elevated the status of the so called «authentic» Hadith to the status of the divine scripture, almost equivalent to the status of the Qur’an, believed by almost all Muslims to be the literal word of Allah relayed to the Prophet.
For the rest of us, however, first, we need to realize that the «approved» texts were recorded by early methods and at least after a century or two after the passing of the Prophet in an age of violent sectarian conflicts. Therefore, it might be wise to take with a big grain of salt, the accuracy of these so called «approved» texts. Second, if the actions of the Prophet were so important as exact examples, then, why didn’t he or his God make sure that authoritative, unambiguous, contemporary recordings of the actions were written down for posterity to follow? Either the Prophet or his God, or both, did not have foresight, or more than likely, these actions were not meant to be exactly copied and emulated, especially in different times, different places, and under vastly different circumstances.
While it is true that there are eternal principles in the Qur’an and the Hadith, such as peace, justice, and mercy, which are universal values, and therefore, incumbent on everyone to believe and practice at all times and at all places, it is also true that it is a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam to assume that God wanted Muslims to follow the Prophet blindly, slavishly, without thinking and reflecting. Is it possible, therefore, that the close-minded, literalist and text-bound tradition is a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam?
The pitfalls of the literalist methodology can be illustrated by looking at any textual document. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, affirms freedom of speech. But we know that, to «shout fire in a crowded theater» (when there is no fire), for example, endangering public safety, does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Any text by its very nature is finite and limited, and therefore cannot be comprehensive. Therefore, to be a strict literalist is to live in constant conflict with common sense and with practical reason. According to the literalist classical scholars of Islam, «justice» is achieved only by being obedient to God and reason by itself is not to be trusted to decide what is just and unjust.
For these literalist, text-bound scholars, there are no objective standards of right or wrong by using reason alone. In the mind of the literalists, the killing of innocents, for example, is wrong not because we learn from experience or reason, but because that is what God says in the Qur’an and the Hadith. According to them, God could just as well have said, for example, in the scripture that the killing of innocents is right, and therefore that makes it right.
The god of these scholars is not therefore a merciful and rational God but a god of power whose motto is: «Might is right!» In order to preserve the absolute omnipotence of God, these scholars sacrifice rationality as an essential attribute of God.
As Prof. Robert Reilly writes in the article, «The Formidable Philosophical Obstacles to Islamic Constitutionalism«:
«There is a realm within which man is legitimately semi-autonomous and sovereign. Through his reason, he is called upon [to] figure out how to rule it and himself … God [in the Judeo-Christian tradition] speaks to man with equal force through his reason, as He does through revelation. Reason, therefore, is morally legitimate as a source of law. What is reasonable is morally good.»
If we Muslims want to stand up and challenge the literalism of the text-bound scholars and the militants who are beheading, enslaving and persecuting people around the world alike, we need to develop an interpretative methodology that balances revelation with reason as in other rational, religious traditions.
The militants are idealistic and impatient, and part of an ideology that has essentially become frozen in time, while the other Muslims are more careful, patient and circumspect, and dwell in a tolerant society without resorting to violence.
That is why many of these literalists believe that peace, justice and mercy (all interpreted according to the classical Sharia) can be achieved only under the sovereignty or hegemony of Islamic rule. And that is also why the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference, since renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), in 1990 came up with its own version of a human rights declaration, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam — based on Sharia law — to supersede the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the UN in 1948.
So the vital question is: Can’t we Muslims also learn from all of human history and all of nature — the arts and the sciences — which are also created and originated from God, as in «the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,» as stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence?
There are signs and hints in the natural world that provide guidance from the Creator on a continuing basis, even after all the textual revelations. Although God has stopped sending His messages (revelations) through human messengers, He is still providing messages, in the form of natural phenomena in the world He created, so that human beings can experiment and learn, and benefit — using reason and reflection.
Slavery and beheadings may have been suitable at some time in human history. But just because it is in the scriptural texts, it does not mean that we need to follow them to the letter so literally, for eternity — unless we happen to agree with the literalists, and reject using reason and thinking to learn from the natural sciences and the experiences of human history.
A religion that prescribes killing or criminalizing apostates; condones institutionalized slavery, stoning, beheading, flogging, and amputations; which restricts and criminalizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion; commands the stoning of adulterers; develops a theory of constant state of war with non-believers; discriminates and demeans women and people of other religions is not only «The Religion of the Bigots» but it is also the Religion of the Bullies.
Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suitable for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny such as Islamism and jihadism.
If we Muslims believe that «true» Islam, which is genuinely aligned with the will of the Creator, must be fundamentally peaceful, comprehensively merciful and objectively just, then it is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.