Islam and violence: slurs and myths

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence by Bruce B. Lawrence; Oxford University Press; pages 237, Rs.495.

Muslim Friends: An Introduction to Islam by Roland E. Miller; Orient Longman; pages 429, Rs.375.

IT is painful, but not surprising, to learn that in the wake of the ghastly tragedy on September 11, Muslims, and Arabs in particular, have become targets for abuse and physical attack in the United States and Britain. "In the 1990s most Euro-American journalists continue to echo the sentiments that drove European Kings and their subjects to launch their crusades almost a millennium ago, crusades whose enemy was Arab Muslims. In the aftermath of the Cold War the enemy, once again, has become the one Islam, the Militant, unyielding, violent face of 'Arab' Islam. Whether one picks up a popular book claiming to represent 'Western cultures and values' under attack from Islam, or lead articles of The New York Times, such as the recent Seeing Green: The Red Menace Is Gone. But Here's Islam, the message is the same: Islam is one, and Islam is dangerous."

Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence of Duke University records the myth only to demolish it with a wealth of learning and cogent analysis. His central theses are "(a) that Islam is not inherently violent and (b) that the longer view of Muslim societies offers hope, rather than despair about the role of Islam in the next century... Islam is not violence, nor are Muslims intrinsically prone to violence. The stereotype amounts to a slur, and it must be addressed at the outset if the emerging profile of post-colonial Muslims is to be understood."

THERE is no monolithic Islam; but, as an Indonesian told the author, there are "three Islams" - the popular one which anthropologists study, the "academic" one which historians or religious scholars study, and "the public Islam", which obsesses many journalists, politicians and others "as adversaries. It is the predominance of popular thinking on the last which accounts for the distorted view."

Lawrence is concerned with the invocation of Islam by its practitioners, misguided or other. Dr. Roland E. Miller is concerned with the faith of Islam. From 1953 to 1976 he served as a Lutheran Missionary in India and wrote a fine book Mappila Muslims of Kerala. He is respected as an internationally known Islamicist with a specialisation in Indian Islam.

No Islamic concept is more misunderstood than the one of Jihad. Literally, it means striving. Ijitihad is the exertion of reason and it ranks as one of the sources of Islamic law. An authentic saying of Prophet Muhammad reads: "The highest form of jihad is to speak a just word before a tyrannical ruler" (Al-Fath Al Kabir; vol. 1; p. 208). He said also that "the worst form of class prejudice is to support one's community even in tyranny" and "he who knowingly lends support to tyranny is outside the pale of Islam." Islam denounces oppression and by endorsing revolt against it, provides a core of liberation theology, the kind Christian priests developed against the dictators in South America.

But, as Maulana Azad wrote in a brilliant essay on the mystic Sarmad, whom Aurangzeb ordered to be beheaded, "In Asia, politics has always used religion to cover its designs. Many political sentences were given on the pretext of religious heresy... since the advent of Islam, the weapon of fatwa (edict) has been a naked sword... kings made equal use of both the pen of the Qazi and the sword of the general to bleed to death any who threatened their supremacy."

Mullahs in the pay of the ruler issued fatwas for jihad against political opponents regardless of their religion. "Jihad has become little more than a pejorative codeword for random protest against excesses committed by the regime in power," Lawrence remarks.

Miller points out that "the ordinary distinction today is between the spiritual and physical forms of striving. Spiritually, it means engaging in a battle against sin and Satan in one's own life. This is called 'the greater jihad'. Applied to physical realm, the exertion means righteous warfare. This is called 'the lesser jihad'. A well-known Hadith reports that the Prophet Muhammad gave top precedence to the greater jihad, humanity's spiritual struggle against evil."

He quotes a Beirut professor, Yusuf Ibish, who summed up the concept with brilliant conciseness: "The Greater Jihad is fighting one's animal tendencies. It is internal rather than external: striving in the path of God to overcome one's animal side. Man shares with animals certain characteristics which, if let loose, make him a very dangerous beast. Jihad is essentially against such tendencies.

"The Lesser Jihad - fighting on behalf of the community, in its defence - is a duty incumbent on a Muslim provided he is attacked. A man has the right to defend his life, his property, and he has to organise himself along these lines. Of course, one can produce incidents in history and ask whether in fact the principle of self-defence applies. It is true that Muslims have waged wars; wars of conquest, wars in the ordinary sense, often not at all related to religion or faith. But this indicates that some Muslims have not exercised the Greater Jihad."

BOTH, the bigoted mullah and hostile critics, delight in citing Quranic verses divorced from the context. But the overriding principle is embodied in the verses, "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:25). It declares explicitly: "Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but be not aggressors" (2:190). The Iranian theoretician, Ayatollah Motahari, limited jihad to soldiers on the battlefield and then only if they were aggressors.

As ever, the space is monopolised by the loud bigot. All over the world there are very many Muslim scholars who denounce those who invoke Islam for their own ends. The political context is overlooked as Lawrence notes. The 20th century "more than any that preceded it, will be remembered and portrayed as the Euro-American century. And it is against that backdrop of taken-for-granted hegemony, a kind of blind structural violence writ large, that the relationship of Islam to violence needs to be reconsidered. Muslims in West Asia resent their dependence and have bitter memories of colonial exploitation. To speak of Islamic revivalism is to recognise the ideological reaction of particular Muslim interest groups to the losses that they experienced. Islam became an emblem of protest."

REVIVALISTS attacked moderate reformers because of their cultural affinity with the West. But men of highest eminence began to denounce revivalism. Read this: "The important point here is that the Islam which developed 1,400 years ago on the Arabian peninsula - in a settlement where the people where fundamentally nomads - was a legal code specific to that society. And even that code was promulgated slowly over a period of seven or eight years... Islam... now desires to become the fulcrum of (modern) social administration and (our) nation wants to use this fulcrum (as a weapon) to wage war on the entire imperialist world, testing its mettle by those means. Unique circumstances have arisen during the course of time. How can Islam (without adaptation) cover all these contingencies?" This was said by none other than the then President of Iran, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Recently jihad has acquired an economic dimension. It has, Lawrence notes, "come to mean the advocacy of social justice in a widening circle that also includes economic participation and prosperity for Muslims". Prophet Muhammad said that he is not a Muslim who eats his fill while his neighbour goes hungry. How does one adapt this 1,400-year-old injunction to modern society? It cannot mean the immediate neighbour as in olden times. In this writer's opinion, it enjoins clearly a commitment by Muslims to join the struggle for the economic uplift of India's underprivileged, cutting across the religious divide.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor