What Is Islam?

What Is Islam?


Its name implies peace, but it preaches Holy War - so

what kind of religion is it?

by Paul Vallely

20 September 2001

It seems a long time now since the American political

scientist Francis Fukuyama announced the End of

History. It was not long after the Berlin Wall had

fallen. The Cold War was over. Capitalism had

triumphed. There were to be no more conflicts, just

the playing out of humankind's increasing prosperity.

Even then there were sceptics. Another American

theorist, Samuel Huntington, pronounced that the great

conflict of the 21st century would in fact be played

out along the fault line of the tectonic plates on

which Islamic and Western civilisation co-existed so

uneasily. In the search for a new enemy after the

collapse of Communism, the alien dispensation of

Mohammedanism ? to use a term which Muslims hate ?

appeared as promising a candidate as any.

To non-Muslims, time has only seemed to give

additional credence to the notion. First there was the

Rushdie affair which raised the spectre of Islam as a

threat to hard-won post-Enlightenment Western liberal

values. Then the expressions of support by some

British Muslims for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war

went further, creating the image of the UK's two

million Muslims as potential subversives ? a deadly

time bomb ticking in our midst. And now Islamic

fanatics have perpetrated the biggest terrorist

atrocity of modern times.

Extremists, terrorists, fanatics ? the descriptions

vary ? but the constant always is the adjective

"Islamic" which precedes them. So is there ?

non-Muslims wonder ? something fundamental about Islam

which makes it incompatible with Western values of

democracy and freedom? Are Muslims inevitably more

likely to be, in the vocabulary of cosmic good and

evil so beloved of President Bush, "the bad guys"?

Certainly one might think so from the questions which

one now hears being asked about Islam by nervous

observers of current events. Many are questions born

of ignorance; but, for that very reason, they are

worth answering. Here are six of the most common.

Why does Islam seem so confrontational, aggressive and


The sword has always figured prominently in Islamic

history. Christianity may have been inaugurated by a

man who seemingly failed in his worldly agenda, but

the seventh-century Arab who founded Islam, the

Prophet Muhammad, was a man who vanquished his enemies

on the battlefield. In the centuries which followed,

military conquest was the means by which Islam spread

rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the

Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula, and China.

The traditions and law of Islam were thus formed

during an era of success. Programmed for victory, it

has no theology for failure ? or for being a minority.

This undoubtedly heightens the sense of humiliation

Muslims feel in an era of globalisation when Western

power ? cultural, economic and military ? is

increasingly unchallenged. Having said that, for

almost half a millennium, under the Ottoman empire,

the tone of Islam was one of civilised consolidation.

It was also far more tolerant, of both Jews and

Christians, than Christian Europe ever was of its

minorities. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Muslim

philosophy was the most sophisticated in the world. In

Moorish Spain the governing mood was one of

co-operation. In the centuries after, the attitude of

Muslim conquerors to Hindus in India ? moderated by

the growth of Sufism ? was far less narrow-minded than

is often claimed. It is only with the growth of

fundamentalism that the tone of intolerance has

heightened, and many modern Muslims insist that the

new practices of death-sentence fatwas and

book-burning are unIslamic.

Why is Islam so inflexible?

Muslims believe that the Koran is the actual words of

God, as dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel

Gabriel. As such, not only is its Arabic language

thought to be unsurpassed in purity and beauty (to

imitate the style of the Koran is a sacrilege) but it

is also the infallible word of God. That means that

there is no room for the kind of interpretation common

in Christianity and Judaism which sees the Bible as

the revelation of God's purpose through the

experiences, minds and pens of men. The Koran cannot

have been influenced by the circumstances under which

it was revealed. It can contain no mistake. And it

cannot be mitigated by any new discovery. What has

been revealed by God is fixed and immutable.

In the three centuries which followed the Prophet's

death, attempts were allowed to interpret the Koran in

the light of a changing world. The practice was known

as ijtihad. But by the end of the ninth century Islam

had been codified in legal manuals of The Shari'ah

(The Way), a comprehensive code of behaviour that

embraces both private and public activities. The

"gates of ijtihad" were then closed. Islam became a

rigid and static system in which society could not

shape or fashion the law, but instead became

controlled by it. The word islam means submission.

Some change has taken place. Several prominent Sunnite

scholars, such as Ibn Taymiah (1236- 1328) and Jalal

ad-Din as-Suyuti (1445-1505), dared to reopen the

gates. And Shi'ite Muslims ? a minority branch who

split from the Sunni majority in the seventh century

and who predominate still in Iran and parts of Iraq ?

believe that ijtihad is still allowed. But in general,

attempts by Sunni modernists toward the end of the

19th century to reopen ijtihad to reconcile Islam with

what they found valuable in Western scientific

traditions have not been widely pursued.

How does Islam justify the notion of Holy War?

There are five "Pillars of Islam" ? practices which

anchor the Muslim community. They are: the profession

of faith ("There is no god but God, and Muhammad is

his prophet"); five daily congregational prayers, with

bowing and prostration, preceded by ritual ablutions;

zakat, an obligatory charitable tax to provide for the

needy; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and to

travel, at least once in their life, on the hajj, the

annual pilgrimage to Mecca. But to these some Muslims

add a sixth pillar: the jihad.

There is much debate in Islam as to what this Holy War

means. All agree it means "active struggle".

Muhammad's followers in the early years took it to

mean military advance, not to enforce the conversion

of individuals ? the Koran forbids compulsion in

religion ? but to control the collective affairs of

societies to run them in accordance with the

principles of Islam. After the Muslim empire was

established, however, the doctrine of the jihad was

modified. More spiritual interpretations took over.

The struggle became an internal one of moral struggle

against temptation.

So where does the notion come from that suicide

bombers go straight to heaven?

There is nothing about this in the Koran. But Islam

also has many books of hadith ? sayings which were

attributed by others to the Prophet. It is here that

it is stated that martyrs, among the host of heaven,

stand nearest the throne of God. Tradition also

provides other details about a paradise of milk and

honey with 72 beautiful virgins to every martyr. Yet

many modern Muslims dismiss these notions as Arab

hyperbole. Taken in context, they say, the practice is

unIslamic. The Koran clearly states that "If anyone

murders an [innocent] person... it will be as if he

had murdered the whole of humanity." And Muhammad is

recorded as saying that Muslim rules of engagement

forbid attacks on non-combatants, women, children and

men of religion; they outlaw attacks on the "means of

subsistence" of those who "offer no resistance". No

miscreant should be given succour or refuge by

Muslims. Moreover there is a Koranic insistence that

only God at Judgement Day should punish. And there are

many fatwas (the word merely means Islamic legal

judgment) which pronounce suicide to be illegitimate.

How can a British Muslim say, as one did this week,

that his religion is more important than his


Muslims believe they are bound by their common faith

into a single community ? the umma ? all of whom are

"brothers unto each other". This explains the

particular solidarity Islam creates, regardless of

national boundaries. Nevertheless, most British

Muslims insist that they can hold their religious and

national loyalties together without any sense of

conflict, though many feel that they get a rough deal

as far as education, housing and job opportunities are

concerned. Which creates additional tensions.

How can Islam, with its Barbaric code of criminal

punishment and its treatment of women, be reconciled

to modern Western notions about human rights?

The veil, the Taliban's refusal to allow women

education or hospital treatment, the widespread

practice of female circumcision ? all mean that Islam

is frequently accused of treating women as

second-class citizens. Muslim apologists suggest that

these are cultural practices not religious ones. But

the Koran and hadith contain provisions which make a

prima facie case for misogyny ? ruling that a woman's

testimony is worth only half that of a man, that her

inheritance rights must be lesser, and that woman is

to be seen as Satan when a man is sexually tempted.

And the Koran lays down punishments regarded in the

West as barbaric ? cutting off the hands of thieves

and stoning adulterers to death. Yet many British

Muslims, including white women converts, insist that

they have found embracing Islam to be a liberating

experience which has brought them inner peace. It is a

reconciliation which continues to mystify most


Even so it is difficult to spend any time looking into

Islam, and meeting modern British Muslims, without

concluding that often it is our questions which tell

us more about the problems we face than do their

answers, even where they fail entirely to convince. It

is clear that much of our contemporary secular mindset

about Islam is about as accurate as an assessment of

Christianity were to be if we made it on the basis of

the rhetoric of the Rev Ian Paisley or the actions of

the IRA in its terrible heyday. The 1,000 Muslims who

were reported to be among those who died in last

week's attacks on New York would doubtless tell us so,

if only they now could.

The issue, of course, is not Islam but fundamentalism

? a tendency which is as evident among Christians,

Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even Confucians. Academics

argue that it makes no sense to talk of Muslim

fundamentalism ? for if you don't believe that the

Koran is literally the inspired word of God, you're

not a Muslim. But fundamentalists in all religions

share common characteristics beyond the fact that they

interpret symbols literally. All are highly selective

in "the fundamentals" they chose to return to, and in

what part of modernity they accept. All take

traditional texts and use them out of context. All

embrace some form of Manicheanism ? seeing themselves

as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil in

which they have to find an opponent and demonise them.

The danger in the days in which we non-Muslims now

find ourselves is that we too will succumb to some of

the same temptations.

If so, it may be that there is indeed a time-bomb

ticking away at the heart of our society. But it is

ignorance of Islam that may prove to be the deadliest

thing we have to fear. 


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