Who are they to tell me what my religion is? A series of blog entries on Islam.

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed in this and all my blog entries are my own personal views and not representative of Ashoka, ADEW or any organisation with which I am affiliated.

I am a Muslim woman and I am convinced that Islam is a personal relationship between man and God. I believe that we pray to God to remind ourselves of our blessings and to show Him that we, as individuals and as members of a community, love him. But the secret here is we show Him our loyalty; we do not need to show it to others. Islam is not a boasting religion where we are trying to win arguments or prove to others within our faith or elsewhere that we are better than them or “more Muslim” than they are.

According to the Qur’án, religion serves two essential functions, which are both summed up in the opening Surah. First, to bring people to love and worship the one true God; second, to teach them how to live together according to God’s will. To fulfill this purpose, God has sent innumerable prophets and messengers to deliver the one eternal message of tawhíd (the assertion of the oneness of God), while instituting different laws and principles of social organization to convey their message effectively to communities that change and develop over time.

The first aspect of our religion is eternal and unchangeable. It is this that all the religions of the book have in common, and which the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) alluded to in Surah 42:13:

He hath ordained for you that religion which He commended unto Noah, and that which We inspire in thee (Muhammad), and that which We commended unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying: Establish the religion, and be not divided therein. Dreadful for the idolater is that unto which thou callest them. Allah chooseth for Himself whom He will, and guideth unto Himself him who turneth (toward Him).

At the core of our religion is an idea that is radical in its simplicity and which, if really put into practice, could transform societies and the way we interact with one another: every human individual, female or male, Muslim or non-Muslim, rich or poor, northerner or southerner, has exactly the same intrinsic worth. God has bestowed human life with meaning and value, unconnected to culture, geography, or privilege. The very essence of Islam teaches us that the true measure of a person’s worth is in his or her character and cannot be determined by race, religion or personal wealth. So a progressive Muslim agenda – the only kind of agenda I believe we should be concerned with – is deeply rooted in the understanding that all members of the human race have the same intrinsic worth because each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being: wa nafakhtu fihi min ruhi. (Qur’an 15:29 and 38:72). The emphasis is on recognizing the full and fundamental value of all human beings and this is something that Muslims are exhorted to remember every day as we pray beside each other, without hierarchy, prejudice or privilege. A king may pray beside a beggar; all are equal in the eyes of God.

It astonishes and saddens me when we become apologetic, defensive or aggressive about Islam. If we truly believe, we should not take any of these roads. We should not be judgmental and really we should mind our own business. Life is full of temptations that can make us deviate from the true path to a good and productive life; we should not waste such a scarce resource as time trying to outwit and win victories over everyone, but use that time to apply ourselves, and comply with the core values of our faith.

According to the tenets of Islam, you do not guide those whom you love but God guides whomever he wants: انك لن لاتهدي من احببت و لكن الله يهدي من يشاء   God guides us to surrender our hearts to him, for the idea behind Islam and the word itself means surrender to God, regardless of what others do or think.  And certainly if we believe that our mission is to promote or be the ambassadors of Islam, we will not guide others by violence, burning property, or committing murder. I believe if we want to guide others to our faith, surrendering their hearts to God, it can only be done by being the role models of true Islam.

This series of blogs is targeting both Muslims and non Muslims everywhere. I do not need anyone to tell me what my religion is, or whether I am a true believer. I don’t need this human classification to define who I am and which camp of Muslims I belong to, whether traditionalist, fundamentalist, modern or otherwise. My religion and faith represent a personal relationship I have with my God. If one knows her religion well, she knows what to say, how to act with others, but more importantly with God.

The two main arguments in the eternal debate about Islam, but more so recently within the argument about the clash of civilizations, is whether Islam is a religion of  violence, hatred, murder, as many in the west claim and as is sadly reinforced by the acts and behavior of misled and uneducated Muslims, or whether it is the only and best religion of peace, love, harmony and tolerance, as advocated by Muslims who understand the core and essence of Islam and its message, but also sadly by apologists. I mention the apologists here not because I disagree that Islam does have plenty of evidence of its peaceful and loving nature but because I disagree with the attitudes and manners of some of those who try to defend it. I actually do not think we need to defend it, for I believe that as a strong faith Islam does not need defenders. It certainly does not need those who burn, kill and act violently in its name, nor those who try to defend it by attacking other religions, systems or cultures.

After the latest incidents of violence in reaction to the film about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and also before that in reaction to perceived or overt attacks on Islam, many writers, bloggers and even religious or political leaders (including Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini many years ago) have defended the goodness of Islam by slamming and attacking western systems, their claims that they implement democracy, human rights and justice.  Most of these responses have a common theme of proving that the west is evil, its claim to tolerance a sham and that western nations do not understand the true Islam. Very few if any have addressed these issues and any grievances they may have with western nations or governments by focusing on their own and other people’s understanding of Islam, its history and the Prophet (PBUH).

In my opinion, Islam is at its core a religion of surrendering to God, surrendering to love and harmony and surrendering to the commitment of abstaining from evil. We do not need to prove anything to those who are different from us (whether these differences are cultural, political, social or religious) and we do not need to prove they are bad or false in order to prove that Islam is good. We do not need to prove that Islam is superior to other religions. Only if we feel inferior should we do that, and frankly I think we should not.

Because I do not believe that our religion and faith is in any way inferior.

As with all the religions of the book, Islam was sent to people so they would see God’s blessings which had been bestowed on them and to show them right from wrong.  It is about loving God but also loving God’s creations – all of his creations, including fellow human beings. For the message delivered by the Prophet (PBUH) was concerned with teaching the whole of humanity to live as one nation, with no distinctions of class or race, promoting freedom of thought, the reconciliation of science and religion, justice and peace.

By blindly defending Islam against ignorant attacks we show that we ourselves are ignorant and we undermine our own religion and our belief in it. One of the teachings of Islam is to forgive when you can and if you are powerful.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had the most gentle nature. He smiled and was kind – even to those who hated him. It was said that a woman would wait, every morning, for the Prophet to pass under her window. She would try – every morning – to throw her garbage from the window on him. The Prophet never told anyone about this. One morning, he noticed she was not there. He inquired about her and was told that she was ill that day. So he went to visit her. When she saw him she said: “So, you have come to take your revenge on me”. He said: “No, but God has commanded us to visit the sick”. There and then she believed.

Do I believe that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a terrorist, as the notorious Danish cartoonist alleged some years ago? Do I believe that Muslims are terrorists because of our religion? I certainly do not agree or believe that.

But I do agree that some ignorant and misled Muslims have been pushed to conduct terrorist acts in the name of Islam and based on the misinterpretations of their leaders. Are there terrorists that are Muslims who destroy innocent lives? Yes, we have to acknowledge that this is a fact and the association of these acts with Islam is not a western creation; sadly it is an association created by politicized misleading Muslim leaders seeking personal gain, whether spiritual or material.  To refute this false accusation we should show by action that neither our religion nor our Prophet condones terrorism.

So the response to the Danish cartoon published years ago should not have been burning churches and killing a nun in Somalia. The global Muslim community could have lobbied to produce a law that prohibits such insults or the desanctifying of our religion. We should have taken the road that Jews did to incriminate any disclaimer of the Holocaust or the Armenians to criminalize the Turkish massacres. If we Muslims are guard our religion so jealously, we must realize that we are 1.8 billion and that we have control over oil, land and other riches, which we could leverage to create such a law through international institutions. Even if we have many enemies we should try; after all the Jews turned public opinion in an anti-Semitic western culture to support their laws. It took them decades, but they did it.

Does anyone really think that the Prophet (PBUH) would have himself cared or reacted violently to such accusation? Did any of the people who so violently protest the defaming of him read his life history and see how he dealt with those who attacked him? Don’t they realize that God told him to be easygoing and not harsh, so as to attract people to Islam?

According to Imam Ghazali, the Persian theologian, jurist and philosopher, paraphrasing the hadith:

The Prophet’s expression was pensive and contemplative, serene and sublime.. His expression was very sweet and distinct. His speech was well set and free from the use of superfluous words, as if it were rosary of beads. His stature was neither too high nor too small. He was singularly bright and fresh.

One of the great qualities of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was that he never took revenge on anyone for personal reasons and always forgave even his firm enemies. His wife `Aishah reported that Allah’s Messenger was not unseemly or obscene in his speech, nor was he loud-voiced in the streets, nor did he return evil for evil, but he would forgive and pardon. The people of the Quraysh rebuked him, taunted and mocked at him, beat him and abused him. They tried to kill him and when he left for Madinah, they waged many wars against him. Yet when he entered Makkah victorious with an army of 10,000, he did not take revenge on anyone. He forgave all. Even his deadliest enemy, AbuSufyan, who had fought so many battles against him, was forgiven, as was anyone who stayed in his house.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also pardoned the leaders of Ta if, who had engaged ruffians to pelt him with stones when he visited that town to invite them to join the Muslim community.

Abdullah Ibn Ubayy, the leader of the hypocrites of Madinah, worked all his life against Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and Islam and left no stone unturned in trying to defeat his mission. He withdrew his 300 supporters in the Battle of Uhud, which almost broke the backbone of the Muslims. He engaged in intrigues and acts of hostility against the Prophet of Islam and the Muslims. 

An Abyssinian slave who had killed Prophet Muhammad s (peace be upon him) beloved uncle Hamzah in the Battle of Uhud was also forgiven when he embraced Islam after the Conquest of Makkah. The wife of Abu Sufyan, who had cut open Hamzah s chest and torn his liver and heart into pieces in the Battle of Uhud, quietly came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and accepted Islam. He recognized her but did not say anything. She was so impressed by his magnanimity and stature that she said, “O Allah’s Messenger, no tent was more deserted in my eyes than yours; but today no tent is dearer in my eyes than yours.”

Habar Ibn Al-Aswad was another vicious enemy of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and of Islam. He had inflicted a grievous injury on Zaynab, daughter of the Prophet (peace be upon him). She was pregnant when she emigrated from Makkah to Madinah. The polytheists of Makkah obstructed her and Habar Ibn Al-Aswad intentionally threw her down from the camel. She was badly hurt and miscarried as a result. Habar committed many other crimes as well. He wanted to run away to Persia but then he came to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who forgave him.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was always in support of forgiveness and no amount of crime or aggression against him was too great to be forgiven by him. He was the complete example of forgiveness and kindness.

Will a true Muslim, who believes wholeheartedly in Islam and the messages of the Prophet have a change of heart because he watched a stupid film?  And if such a film about the Prophet did change the heart of any Muslim, then he was not a true believer and good riddance to him. We do not want him in our community of true believers.

The teachings of our religion emphasize and advocate a culture of communication and dialogue as a means to knowing the truth. They explicitly state that “there shall be no coercion in matters of faith”:

لا إكراه في الدين” (Qur’án 2:256)

And they ask the rhetorical question “do you then think that you can compel people to believe…?”

“أفا أنت تكره الناس حتى يكونوا مؤمنين؟” (Qur’án 10:99)

The true issue is that very few of us really know our religion, very few of us learned religion from its main sources and very few are well versed and well read. Most Muslims learn about their religion from secondary sources, even those of us who are literate. We are too lazy to delve into the different and diverse fields of our religion and interpretations of the Holy Qur’án. We are too lazy to go beyond what despotic regimes have made available of the knowledge supplied by selected thinkers and Ulemah of Islam. Most Muslims refer to a very limited number of interpretations and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence, an extension of Islamic Sharia law) from thinkers who might be conservative and who may have lived under political and economic conditions that influenced their interpretations of Islam. Very few have been exposed to thinkers and interpreters who were banned by the despotic regimes at the end of the Abbasid caliphate, when our real Islamic renaissance was declining.

When you think of the huge number of practicing Muslims there are in the world, shamefully comparatively few seem to realize how much there is in our history to be really proud of. The Islamic Golden Age, or the Abbasid historical period, lasting from the middle of the 8th Century (81 AH – 184 AH) until roughly 1258 (about 650 AH), was characterized by a love and respect for science, philosophy, medicine and education. The Abbasids prioritized knowledge and hadith such as “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr”; at the “House of Wisdom” established in Baghdad, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars worked alongside one another to gather and translate all the world’s knowledge into Arabic. The Islamic world of that time has been described as a “cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Byzantine civilizations”.

Two great scholars of this age, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, were instrumental in preserving the works of Aristotle, whose ideas have permeated and shaped the non-religious spheres of Christian and Muslim heritage. Throughout this period of intellectual flourishing, the Islamic world was a melting pot of cultural and academic development. Islamic scholars absorbed ideas from China, India and the Ancient Greeks; non-Muslim philosophers such as Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Andalusia, thrived in harmony with the intellectual liberalism of the era.

Some of mankind’s most profound academic advancements were made during this period. Islamic scholars and scientists were responsible for the development of trigonometry into its modern form along with significant advances in astronomy; meanwhile Islamic physicians developed a large body of medical literature based on the knowledge of Greek, Roman and Persian scholars, then extended this with discoveries of their own.

All of these achievements are things that we as Muslims can be justly proud of in our heritage and civilization and show why Islam has traditionally been a religion that prioritizes education and enlightened thought. Why then, we should be asking ourselves, do so many modern Muslim nations not promote critical thought and independent reasoning? Why is our state education system in Egypt based on rote learning rather than comprehensive understanding of ideas and concepts?

Among the main reasons cited for the decline of the Islamic Golden Age are political mismanagement, invasions by other empires including the crusaders, the destruction of libraries and madrassas (schools) and most of all the suppression of Ijtihad (independent reasoning) by autocratic regimes. We should be teaching our children to think and reason for themselves to keep this part of our heritage alive and we should recognize that independent thought is more than compatible with our religion – it is an essential component of Islamic culture. The people who use religion as a political tool – to confuse those who have not been educated to think for themselves – they are not being true to the expansive and generous spirit of Islam.


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