Leaving Islam






Violence, terror, and Islam: 
A plea to abandon the cocoon

Mahfuzur Rahman

Early in January 2003, in Kashmir, three Muslim women were slaughtered for showing their face in public.

Also in January 2003 three Christian missionaries were gunned down in Yemen. In November 2002 Nigerian Muslims took to the street and at least two hundred people lay dead and hundreds wounded.

In October 2002, in Bali, Indonesia, a bomb claimed nearly two hundred lives. In September 2002, in Karachi, seven Pakistani Christians were gunned down, execution style, at a charity organization.

In January 2002 Daniel Pearl, an American journalist was abducted in Karachi and was later butchered.

In March 2002 five people were killed in an attack on a church in Islamabad, Pakistan.

In October 2001, in the Punjab, Pakistan, sixteen worshippers were killed in an attack on a church.

In September 2001 two aircraft, piloted by suicide bombers, crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, killing three thousand people.

This is not meant to be a catalogue of violence committed around the world in recent years. Such a catalogue would be unconscionably longer than the above account and would, for example, include the Gujarat riots of last year that claimed a thousand lives. Going only a few more years in the past, it would include the massacre of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers in the West Bank of Palestine by a Jewish fanatic.

What, however, distinguishes the events listed above from some of the other acts of violence is their common denominator: all of them were acts by Muslims who were waging war against the infidels or against those fellow Muslims who did not conform to their idea of Islam. This is not to suggest that violence by Islamic fundamentalists is entirely new. In Algeria, dozens of women have been killed over the past decade for not wearing the hijab. State- sponsored terror in various forms to enforce strict Islamic tenets is endemic in Iran and was notorious in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

How does one, especially a Muslim, look at the increasing use of violence and terror, whether to defeat the infidel or to make better Muslims out of otherwise ordinary Muslims? "What went wrong?", a leading western scholar of Islam has asked in the title of his latest book and that question has probably been on many minds. One might even ask whether there is anything "wrong" at all. Among the Muslims themselves a systematic examination of such questions has, however, been rare. It is as if Muslim thinking has shelved itself in a cocoon, from which it is unable to extricate in order to have a better look at Islam in a changed world.

How have Muslims reacted to some of the most recent acts of terror and violence? In most cases, in must be acknowledged, the silence was deafening. Apart from official condolences and assurances that the culprits would be brought to book, few voices have been raised against atrocities committed on innocent non-Muslims and non-observant Muslims.

Newspapers have certainly not filled with protests. People have not demonstrated in the streets, either in the country where the violence was committed or elsewhere. Massive street demonstrations to protest oppression and injustice are a normal feature of the political landscape in most non-Arab Muslim countries.

How many people took to the street in protest in Pakistan, for example, when the Christian worshippers were gunned down or when Sunni fanatics butchered Shias or when Shia extremists murdered Sunnis? Or in Kashmir, when the three women were murdered?

This is not to suggest that nobody worries about the increasing incidence of violence. But the worry is strangely muted and, more importantly, couched in distinctly defensive terms. The dominant reaction to acts of violence by fellow religionists has been to point out that Islam does not approve of them.

It is enough to summarize here the arguments generally put forward. For that purpose I shall use below a newspaper article that I came across immediately after the Bali bombings, and a number of others that appeared since September 11, 2001. These are fairly typical and the arguments can be stated in general terms without attribution.

Islam was never a religion of violence and intolerance and therefore, so the argument went, the Bali bombing and other acts of terror were unIslamic and hence condemnable. The Prophet of Islam himself was a kind and compassionate man and was opposed to any unjustifiable violence. A number of ahadith have been cited to suggest how he abhorred violence and intolerance.

One hadith, for example, states: "He is not one of us who incites class prejudice or fights for class interest or die in its pursuit". In another he said: "Seek refuge from the curse of the oppressed ….for the portals of God are always open to the oppressed and innocent ones". Furthermore, "He who knowingly lends support to tyranny is outside the pale of Islam".

I am not sure that the ahadith cited are strong evidence of indictment of violence and terror in the present context, and those who cite them have probably not done a good job in scouring the relevant literature. But I shall leave it at that for the present and move on to the Qur’an. Among the verses of the Qur’an that have often been quoted to show that Islam does not condone violence are the following:

" Let there be no compulsion in religion "[Sura Baqara. (II.256). (Translation by Yusuf Ali in this and in the rest of the quotations from the Qur’an)]; " Those who believe (in the Qur’an) and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians….shall have their reward from their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" [ ibid. II:62]; "Thus have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced…." [ ibid. II: 143]. In some translations the last citation is "We have made you a moderate sect", the emphasis here being on moderation. It can be argued that all of these statements can be interpreted in ways other than in defense of Islam as a religion of peace, but this need not detain us here.

In one of the latest writings (after Bali) I also found this quotation: " O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other" [Sura Hujurat. (XLIX: 13)]. Also cited as codes of modesty and decorum required of a Muslim: " When a (courteous) greeting is offered to you, meet it with a greeting still more courteous, or (at least) of equal courtesy" [ Sura Nisa. (IV:86)].

The idea behind the last citation is, of course, to suggest that a people who are required to be so polite cannot be expected to be violent or cruel at the same time.

Perhaps more immediately relevant to the issues of intolerance, the breeding ground of violence, is this verse: "To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but (His Plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues." [ Sura Maida. V: 48 ]. This has been seen as an affirmation of pluralism.

On the other hand, Muslims whose acts of violence the above quotations are meant to decry can come up with an array of quotations from the Qur’an and hadith as well as instances from Islam’s history to bolster their point of view. They could, for example, cite the following from the Qur’an: "….fight and slay the Pagans whenever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)" [Sura Tauba. (IX:5)].

There is, in the same verse, advice to relent but only if the adversary becomes true Muslims, " if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity…." . A comparable verse is: " Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued" [Sura Tauba ( IX:29)]. It is easy to bring in more quotations in the same vein but this is unnecessary. This also ends my reference to recent writings.

The history of mankind is spattered with blood and religious wars have been among the bloodiest. The wars among Catholics and Protestants in Europe and the Inquisitions stand out in the history of man’s cruelty to man for the sake of his soul. Islam’s history was no exception. And, again, those who wish to find support for their cult of cruelty can find a great deal of it in history. That history, for example, tells the story of the massacre of the entire male population of Banu Quraiza believed to number between 600 and 700, soon after the Battle of the Trench in the year 627 AD/ 5 AH.

There have been differences of opinion on the circumstances of the massacre, but the magnitude of the blood bath has never been in question. The enormity of the massacre was such that some Islamic commentators have found it necessary to point out that it was done according to Jewish law. This is a reference, specifically, to Moses’ command to his people in the Old Testament: "And when the LORD thy God hath delivered [the besieged city] into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword.[ Deuteronomy:20:13 ]

Those who are willing to murder for religion can also find sustenance in what I believe to be the first assassination in Islamic history. The Jewish poet Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf , of the tribe Banu Nadir, was a sworn enemy of Islam and was writing slanderous poems about the religion and its prophet. He soon become insufferable to the Muslims and a group of assassins, led by Muhammad b. Maslama, and with the express blessing of the Prophet (SM), tricked him out of his house at night and murdered him. Ibn Ishaq ( d. 622 AD/ 151AH.) the Arab historian, describes the assassination in gory detail.[ Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, English translation entitled The Life of Muhammad by A. Guillaume. Oxford University Press, Karachi. 1967.p.368.] The Sahih Al-Bukhari [ Sahih Al-Bukhari, Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Darussalam Publishers, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Vol. 5. 1997. pp. 221-223] fully confirms the story.

A Muslim who does not condone violence would of course point out that Arab society, both Pagan or Jewish, in the early days of Islam was a violent one and that certain events and Qur’anic statements should be judged in their historical context. That violence is easy to illustrate, and some of that were meted out to the Muslims in the early days of Islam. For example, the Prophet (SM) had sent a group of six Muslims to some Bedouin tribes of Najd, at the latter’s request, to instruct them in practices of Islam. All of them were brutally killed. Two of them were sold to the Quraish in Mecca and were killed by crucifixion, a practice not considered unusual in those days.

This, however, is unlikely to sway those who see themselves as custodians of ‘true’ Islam which to them is unvarying and eternal, and to whom there is no ‘historical context’ to necessary cruelty. They would only point out that the six murdered Muslims were among the early martyrs of Islam and would commend them. And they could claim to be able to reel off from history a whole series of events and actions, which are cruel only to the infidels and today’s Muslim bleeding hearts who do not want true Islam established. They could, for example, cite the following punishment meted out by the Prophet (SM) himself as an example of legitimate cruelty:

A group of people from out of Medina lived in the city for sometime and then expressed their desire to return home. The Prophet (SM) provided them a shepherd on their return journey. At one point these ungrateful people killed the shepherd. According to the Sahih Al-Bukhari, "When the news reached the Prophet (SM), he sent some people in their pursuit. When they were brought, he cut their hands and feet and their eyes were branded with heated pieces of iron". [ibid. Vol.7. p.329]

It is impossible for two opposing points of view of Islam -- one that sees only peace, harmony, and humanity in Islam and the other that legitimate violence and even cruelty -- both to be right. This also makes it impossible to take a dispassionate look at violence that uses religion as its springboard through the lens of religion itself. Religion, or rather its standard bearers, when it sought peace in its dealings with people of other faith, has done so only on its own terms. Islam, the newest of the great monotheist religions was no exception.

Some of the quotations from the Qur’an given above illustrate this. To attempt to examine the violence we have been talking about from an ‘Islamic’ viewpoint alone would be to entangle oneself in the cocoon I alluded to above. Muslims who protest against violence, cruelty and terror and believe in non-violence would do far better to look at these issues through other lenses as well.

It is all too easy to forget that, in large parts of the world, society is more humane and tolerant today than it was only a couple of hundred years ago, and that this had little to do with religion. Neither is formal religion the only or even the main fountain of morality and human decency. The abolition of slavery was brought about by voices of protest that drew their strength from liberal thinking, as well as by changing economic necessity. Formal religion never called for its abolition.

The Quakers had a role in the abolition of the institution, but they were themselves persecuted by mainstream Christianity, which was more concerned with the soul of the slave than with his status. While Islam has called for treating slaves humanely and in some cases encouraged freeing them, the abolition of the system was never the idea. It certainly was no sin, either in Christianity or in Islam, to own slaves, and the institution flourished throughout the ascendancy of both religions.

Back in Bengal, to two great Bengalis belong the credit for the abolition of the suttee and the introduction of laws that allowed young Hindu widows to marry. Both of them held unorthodox religious views. In fact, both Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Ishvar Chandra Vidyasagar had to fight the bigotry of their co-religionists to bring about the two great reforms in eighteenth century Bengal. In both men their religion paled beside their humanism.

It is through the lens of what is broadly called secular humanism that Muslims who are against violence and terror waged in the name religion has to look at the world and the place of Islam in it. Not incidentally, this is also the most effective way one can stand up to bigotry that undoubtedly exists among people of other faiths as well. Secular humanism might mean somewhat different things to different people but its broad features are too well known to need elaboration here. It suffices for me to conclude by illustrating what it is not.

In the month of Ramadan last year, I read a brief article in a premier newspaper in New York. It was written by a young Muslim woman, an immigrant brought up in America, and an ardent new lover of Islamic ideals. Dwelling on the beauty of fasting, she pointed out that giving in charity was its most glorious complement. And she went on to narrate how moved she was by the idea, put to her by an Islamic charity foundation, that only a modest donation could feed a Muslim family in Bosnia for a month. The idea that there were, in that same holy month, millions of other hungry human beings around the world, but who happened not to belong to her faith, probably never crossed her mind. That was NOT secular humanism. 



The article, written some six weeks ago, was originally meant for the print media and was sent to a leading English daily newspaper in Dhaka to which I occasionally contribute. It was not published for reasons not made known to me. Past experience tells me, however, that any writing that even remotely looks ‘critical’ of Islam stands little chance of acceptance in the print media in our society. ]

So much for our freedom of thought! It saddens me to publish an article on a particular strain of violence, just as the violence of a war rages. I almost wish I had published this article in quieter times. But the issues raised here remain valid even as a war is being waged and will not go away after it is over. ( Author )


Author Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations official. 

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