View from the Pew
Searching for true jihad
Terrorism is a political strategy, a tactic of radical Muslims; "it is not an ideology," a visiting Islamic scholar told a Honolulu interfaith gathering Wednesday.
Yes, there are passages in the Quran about slaying the enemies of God, but Islam does not teach the concept of "perpetual, indiscriminate warfare," said Mohamad Abdalla, director of the Islamic Research Center at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. "The notion that Islam is the new communism, locked in a life-and-death struggle with the West, is fundamentally flawed and could lead to disastrous consequences for the West and the Muslim world," he told the monthly meeting of Open Table/Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii.
He led the early morning audience of about 50 people on an academic exploration of the concept of jihad, which has become the evil monster word of this century. He cited passages of the Quran and numerous scholars and jurists from 1,400 years of Islamic history to underline his theme that scripture needs to be studied in context.
Some passages he quoted were these:
» "So kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man. But spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves."
» "I tell you, to everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived of even what he has. As for my enemies who do not want me for their king, bring them here and execute them in my presence."
» "When the sacred months have passed, slay the polytheists wherever you find them, take them captive, besiege them and lie in ambush for them everywhere."
That last passage from the ninth chapter of the Quran is known as the "verse of the sword." It's not just Osama bin Laden and his ilk who quote it to stimulate their rabid recruits.
"Non-Muslims use it to say Islam has a perpetual war against non-Muslims," Abdalla said.
As for those other scriptures, isn't that stuff about sparing the virgins exactly what people believe about the reward suicide bombers expect in paradise? Nope, it's from the word of God as told to Moses, the Old Testament book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 17-18.
As for the rich getting richer and the enemy getting executed, those are the words of Jesus as recorded by Luke in Chapter 19, Verses 26 and 27. The Muslim teacher used those biblical expressions to illustrate the importance of understanding the context of another faith's teachings.
Abdalla blamed the media for the widespread belief that jihad means holy war, an expression that did not originate in the Arabic text.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mohamad Abdalla, director of the Islamic Research Center at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, has visited Honolulu every year since his first talk on humanities at an international conference in February 2002. October is traditionally the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn until sunset for one whole lunar month.
"Jihad is the No. 1 question" he is asked, said the youthful professor who has been on a continuous speaking circuit in Australia since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The "linguistic meaning of jihad is to strive to make a difference," he said. "A woman in childbirth is in jihad. A person working at a lawful livelihood is in jihad.
"Theologians and jurists say there is no single meaning; the meaning depends on the context. There are various means of striving ... struggles of the heart, the tongue, the soul.
"To speak a word of truth in the face of a tyrant or an oppressor is a great jihad," he said.
Rabbi Peter Schaktman of Temple Emanu-El questioned why the Western world seldom hears Muslim teachers rebuking what Abdalla called the "twisted" interpretations of radical Muslims.
"Many of us look for public expressions of 'No, that is not who we are, you have to stop saying that,' not just in private, but in the greater community where it is more risky.
"Sometimes it appears there are too few Muslims willing to make the effort to put that into context. They allow the misconceptions to persist, which is not good for any of us," Schaktman said.
He said Judaism has a "tradition of rebuke. We are commanded, if we see others in the community behaving in a way inconsistent with God's covenant with the Jewish people, it is not only our right, but our obligation to call them on it, publicly if need be, to remind them of their misinterpretation of God's word."
The Honolulu rabbi applauded the Muslim's expression supporting "a viable, independent democratic Palestinian state existing side by side with a viable, democratic Israeli state."
Abdalla said, "There is a similar notion in Islam of ordering the good and preventing the evil." It was the prophet Muhammad's style to avoid shaming someone with a public rebuke, he said, "unless when it is transgressing again the rights of others, one is obliged to speak up and try to stop them."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Abdalla blames the media for the widespread belief that jihad means war, an expression that did not come from the Arabic text. He says it instead means to strive to make a difference.
"Muslim leaders do practice this today. I keep getting asked, 'Why didn't Muslims speak out against atrocities?' I find it a bit simplistic."
Abdalla said the rebukes issued against terrorism and radical teaching do not generate coverage on the evening news. But "when you look at fatwas -- authoritative religious rulings -- not one leading jurist in the world has not stated that unconditionally, the violent acts were not Islam.
"We do have a problem in Muslim society: There is no centralized body" to respond to violent activities in several nations.
Abdalla stressed that Westerners need to look beyond the religion to understand the "radicalization" of Muslims today. "Radicalization is a political response to the deepening economic, political and social and cultural crises in the Muslim world." Poverty in the Middle East, inadequate education, unemployment and discrimination against Muslim immigrants in Europe, the United States and Australia all set Muslim youth up to feel "a failure of a sense of belonging coupled with a desire to rebel."
Abdalla is in Hawaii for the month of Ramadan. He is teaching at the Manoa mosque nightly about the life of Muhammad.
Besides his teaching role at Griffith University, he is an imam -- prayer leader -- at the Kuraby mosque in a suburb of Brisbane, one of 16 mosques in the state of Queensland. The mosque was burned to the ground on Sept. 22, 2001. The culprit was caught and is serving a prison term, although mosque leaders opposed his imprisonment: "He was just a foolish young man."
The violent crime "turned out to be a blessing in disguise," he told the Hawaii audience. It generated a flood of support from the broader community. It opened up opportunities for him and other Muslims to meet people and become active in interfaith activities. There is now a regular schedule of visits by school classes to the rebuilt mosque.
He said the federal government of Australia has committed $8 million to fund a national Institute of Islamic Studies. Three major universities will collaborate in the project, which will begin offering a bachelor's degree program next year.
"We live in a time when it is necessary to talk about the similarities that we share as human beings, as people of faith and as civilizations," Abdalla said. "Let us be frank that we all need each other."
Schaktman said, "What ties us all together is that although we may express it differently, our traditions all share a notion of citing a human role in divine revelation."