When it comes to religion, I am a cheerfully godless individual.
I believe that the broad arc of history bends towards both justice and mercy. I find freedom of speech – the clash of ideas in the verbal arena – both essential and intoxicating, if vulnerable to abuse. I have faith in the notion that while not every individual is good, each one of us has the potential to be good, so long as we constantly pass our beliefs through the twin crucibles of empathy and the search for truth.
And yet, the amount of fear, anger and prejudice that I’ve seen levelled at Islam – a multifaceted religion of over 1 billion faithful – would be enough to shake the optimism of any humanist.
In the United States of America, the 45th leader of the Land of the Free has imposed a travel ban on migrants from 7 Muslim-majority countries. In France, attorney and politician Marine Le Pen stokes conservative fear surrounding Islamic migrants and open borders. In Australia, Senator Jacqui Lambie tussled verbally with Muslim activist Yasmin Abdel-Magied on national TV, spouting misconceived vitriol about Sharia.
Perhaps it is because of the global milieu that we live in that a world religion like Islam finds itself under siege. Cultural conflict – once the domain of global struggle and the clash of civilisations – now manifests in our everyday lives. We encounter difference as we jostle with strangers on the trains, queue up at the supermarket, await our turn at job interviews in unfamiliar offices.
It is easy to virtue signal, to mouth platitudes, to espouse tolerance. But tolerance without understanding is a brittle, anaemic thing. When we face differences in beliefs, it is far too easy to fall into one of two extremes: Rhetoric that professes acceptance but avoids difficult questions for fear of causing offence, or reactionary aggression towards difference, which stunts any sort of true understanding.
On a sweltering afternoon in January, I find myself sitting at the patio of Holiday Inn, listening intently to Shaykh Ahmed Saad Al-Azhari, Islamic scholar and former imam. I had asked the founder of Ihsan Institute a question about fundamentalism and extremism, terms that I had used interchangeably in relation to Islam, and which he was gently expounding on.
“Imagine that we’re having this talk in a building in Japan,” Shaykh Ahmed told me. “The building is established to withstand earthquakes. It has been built with that fundamental foundation in mind. The ability to accept diversity comes from being fundamental, while the problem of extremism comes from being non-fundamental, where you think that there is only one way. When you live in a shaky world, you will not be able to accept anything. You will crack right away.”
Shaykh Ahmed Saad Al-Azhari was born in the North Egyptian governorate of Monufia, to a family of scholars that traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). In keeping with family tradition, he enrolled in Al-Azhar University’s Department of Islamic Studies, from which he graduated in 2001. He worked in the Egyptian ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, travelled the world spreading traditional knowledge of Islam, and studied in the US on a Fullbright scholarship, with a focus on Islam studies and religious pluralism.
In 2007, Shaykh Ahmed took on the challenge of becoming the imam of North London Central Mosque. Previously known as Finsbury Park Mosque, it had a notorious reputation as the pulpit for Abu Hamza al Masri, an extremist cleric who espoused support for terrorism, and had been dubbed the hook-handed imam of London by the UK tabloids.
Shaykh Ahmed was invited to transform the mosque, a challenge he readily took on over the course of five years, with communal work, media outreach and an overarching message of peace and interfaith understanding.
In 2012, he stepped down from his role as imam of North London Central Mosque to establish Ihsan Institute. “I wanted to create an institute that challenges the extremist narrative in a deep way,” he tells me, when I ask him about the organisation’s vision. “An institute that empowers Muslims to think independently. Throughout history, Islam has had scholars like al-Ghazali and Ibn Sina; I believe that the tradition isn’t about blindly following the people who came before you.”
It was in this spirit that we undertook our conversation on the complexities of Islam, a religion that avows peace, but has been tragically interpreted by many non-believers to be a religion of war.
Firstly, let me apologise for my nonexistent Arabic; I hope I don’t grossly mispronounce any terms. Also, I may have to ask contentious questions throughout the course of this interview, so that we can tackle them together.
That’s absolutely fine.
What do you think is the most important belief or value system that Islam brings to the world?
I think the most important value system that Islam brings to the world is peace, and accepting diversity. Some people might say it is mercy. I believe that this three values can lead to one another.
The first verse that the Quran starts with is “In the name of Allah the Merciful, the ever-Merciful…” Mercy is an outcome of acceptance, and care, and love. And in essence, acceptance happens when there is diversity.
The first verse ‘In the name of Allah the Merciful, the ever-Merciful […]’ is repeated in every chapter, so effectively the first verse after that is “All praise belong to Allah, Lord of the World. O Lord of all Creation.”
Because Allah is the Lord of all Creation, we have to understand that there are loads of other creations. All of us – those who believe in God, and those who don’t believe in the existence of God – see God in a different way.
We have to acknowledge this, whether we agree or disagree with each other in terms of our faiths: We have to see the centrality and importance of God in our existence. That we all, in a metaphorical sense, emanate from God.
If we accept that, we will see all these differences as different colours, coming from one truth. These different colours of one truth should be taken care of, should be accepted, because they are the make of God.
And by the way, Muslims can themselves turn into people who don’t accept diversity. That’s where their belief in God goes down. They miss this point: That their belief should make them accept anyone as being of the make of God.
That’s such a different perspective of Islam compared to what’s propagated in the West, where Islam is generally portrayed as intolerant of other religions. Is this a problem of fundamentalism and extremism?
Firstly, let me clarify the difference between fundamentalism and extremism.
Imagine that we’re having this talk in a building in Japan. The building is established to withstand earthquakes, because it has been built with that fundamental foundation.
The Quran teaches us, essentially, to move around the earth, to know and to learn and to reflect; to look at people and to accept their differences .The ability to accept diversity comes from being fundamental, while the problem of extremism comes from being non-fundamental. When you live in a shaky world, you will not be able to accept anything. You will crack right away.
Non-fundamental means you think that there is only one way. When that happens, you become angry when you see other ways of practice. So this is one of the things that contribute to the confusion that is delivered to the media.
Is non-fundamental belief the only reason for extremism?
I believe that there are actually three reasons.
Reason number one: Ignorance. Muslims have been subjected to a specific form of their faith that has been handed down to them, and they haven’t listened to it properly. A lot of Muslims don’t know their religion.
Just as a quick note, many of the extremists who’ve been responsible for explosions in Europe – especially countries like France – have very disturbed backgrounds. Even when Western media investigates their background, they find that they were not practicing Muslims.
I always say that an extremist mentality is a criminal mentality. It wants to justify its criminality by associating it with religion. When you do something wrong, you carry the guilt. If you’ve a dark past, you want to give yourself spiritual relief. The only way to do that is to direct it into a religious cause, and associate it with a religious cause.
How long have we been saying to the Western media: “Listen, this is not Islam. This is not Islam. This is not Islam”?
In Western media narratives, we never hear about Christian extremists. The KKK in America, for example, has existed for ages, and no one associates them with Christianity. Some suicidal cults in Japan are inspired by religion.
Or Buddhists in Myanmar, committing atrocities against the Rohingya.
Yes, Buddhists in Myanmar. But the media never really highlights that. So the first reason: Ignorance. Unfortunately, some Muslims fall into that trap.
The second reason: Interest. And this I find very unethical. The media need to sell. They want to sell. And when you have a bland story, no one would be willing to…’eat it’. So you need to ‘add some spice’: Media that bases its stories on scandals and personal lives – all these things – they sell well.
You can establish a pornography website and have massive traffic on it, but it’s unethical. You can be popular, but being popular doesn’t mean that you’re principled, or moral or true.
We believe that at our publication as well.
And the third reason is exploitation: Exploitation of events in the Middle East; exploitation in the foreign policies of certain governments.
As much as we say that ignorant Muslims contribute to the misconception of Islam, we can also say that an ill-motivated media contributes to making it worse, and we can also say that Western governments needs to readdress their… nosiness. I would call it nosiness.
Going around to promote democracy in Iraq, for example, has not led to anything but the destruction and the crippling of Iraq. The whole narrative of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq has been shown as fake. What they’ve introduced to Iraq is poverty, not democracy.
Many governments are claiming to go out and to introduce democracy, but have turned out to be going around introducing political hypocrisy. Syria has been bleeding for years now, and no one bothered about it. Western governments have been exploiting sectarian disagreements between Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq; exploiting geographical disagreements between countries like Egypt and Sudan, Morocco and Algeria.
There is a long history of exploitation since Western colonialism, or even back with the Crusades. The Muslim world has been subjected to this kind of exploitation for hundreds of years.
And unfortunately, many extremists work on that; they abuse that. You’re giving them intellectual ‘food’ to live on. Some groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir: These people live on an idea that Muslims can relate to in a very passionate way: They do that from perspectives that show the Western exploitation of the Muslim world.
If Muslim scholars are given the opportunity, they will dismantle this narrative very easily, but only if Western exploitation stops.
So the West also feeds extremism by its own actions.
Of course, and if anyone says anything other than that they would be unfair. I’m not saying that Muslims are completely clean-handed. Muslims have also put their hands and feet in the dirt, but Western governments have contributed to that.
I’ll give you an example: Abu Hamza Al Musri in the UK. He was without a mosque for so many months, but he had a pulpit to address Londoners from with the BBC. They used to come and videotape his sermons, his talks, his Friday prayers.
If you give no podium for rubbish, it will not pollute the city.
This next question is very much related to what we’re discussing. I understand that in Islam, politics and religion are deeply entwined. From my understanding, Islam is not just about personal salvation, but also the creation of the ideal community. Can Islam thrive in a secular state?
We have two meanings of politics. If you mean partisan support when you talk about politics, Islam does not tell us whom to support.
Islam gives us a value system. If that value system is maintained in any country, then that political system is one that we can engage with positively. What is beyond that, we handle ourselves.
Islam is a religion, not dictation. It does not tell you what exactly to do, but it gives you guidelines towards life. So, for example: If you are sick, you need to seek medicine. But it does not tell you which hospital to go to, which medicine to use.
So, can Islam thrive in a secular state? Do you mean by secular an environment where everyone is given freedom to practice his or her faith? Where everyone is offered a free space and diversity? Where religion can be a defining factor of who the person is without causing trouble to society while contributing to the common good? Then yes! Islam can definitely coexist in a society like that.
But if you mean secularism as an environment where secularism stands out as a power on its own, and antagonises and demonises religion, then Islam definitely comes at cross interests with this so-called secularism.
Because in this case secularism is not a common platform, it’s a parallel platform. It’s a platform that has a narrative antagonistic to religion.
I have no problem living with an atheist who doesn’t believe in religion at all. That is his way of life. But if he can see the hjiab of my sister as a problem, and he doesn’t see nakedness as a problem, then I would tell him: “You are being irrational here, while being the proponent of rationality.”
If I see that science is turning into a religion of society, even though science itself is based on conjecture and experimentation, then I would ask: Why is science becoming a new religion?
Religion has a big part of it placed on reasoning, and a big part of it is also based on belief. So why give priority to one value system over another?
So, there’s the possibility of co-existing value systems in a secular society, but it depends on one’s definition of secularism.
Yes. Another thing we need to understand is that Western secularism has ‘grown up’ in a religious context that is completely alien to Muslims. It developed in an environment where the Church assumed the role of the censor over all intellectual products of the human mind.
Historically, Islam would give the key to research and say “Well, go on: Research. Whatever your research leads you to, we can discuss later. But research.” There are no Muslim scientists in the history of Islam who’ve been imprisoned for their scientific discovery.
While in the case of Galileo, for example-
Exactly. It [Western secularism’s stance on religion] is like someone who suffered some domestic abuse and then turned into a hater of everything. A big part of being reasonable is to understand your personal experience as your personal experience. You should not generalise it.
May I go a bit deeper into this question of secularism, with regards to Sharia in Islam? How does it coexist with a secular legislation and constitution?
The word Sharia in general means ‘law’, and means ‘way of life’: It comprises- as one journalist has termed it- the legal code and the ethical code.
The legal code has conditions that relate to it. It cannot happen except in a specific environment, within specific conditions. If this environment does not exist, its application will be very difficult. Islam can respect that completely.
As for the ethical foundation, that is something that completely agrees with modern society. Muslims live in Western countries after all.
Muslim scholars can be seen as minds that make intellectual solutions. They are solution makers. Like Windows and Mac Solutions [chuckles]. In the same way, we have Muslim minds for problem solving. We call them mujtahids. These are people who have itjihad: They have the tools of understanding the law, and the tools of understanding reality.
They have committees of people who can introduce them to the reality as it is – doctors, engineers – and they can issue the decision in a well-informed way. These individuals can – and always have been – finding solutions.
Sharia will never stand between them and their societies, because of what it tells them: Sharia enjoins compassion to the neighbour; sharia enjoins looking after one’s colleagues; sharia enjoins that you speak the truth; sharia enjoins that you engage actively in activities of common good; sharia enjoins that you respect your elders.
I believe that sharia and the value system of sharia can help Western society today, and help mend a lot of values that it has lost: Looking after elders; family as a nucleus of society.
What is the Islamic perspective on governance?
In Islam, we see government as a responsibility. It will bring the person to accountability on the Day of Judgement. Therefore a person should never strive to take it when somebody else is actively being encouraged to take it on.
And that fact demolishes all modern Islamist narratives of wanting to use politics to fix problems of society. No… Fixing problems of society comes when you change individuals to be more accepting and virtuous. Not to get to the top. That has never been Islamic.
Unfortunately, the Islam that is being introduced to the Westerner is political Islam –which is not what genuine Islam is about.
I see, but why is there so much fear in Western media when the word sharia is used? Is there a mischaracterisation of sharia? Or is there an integral element lost in translation?
The image of sharia that is being portrayed to the Western mind is actually a small part of the penal code, which can be discussed at length as something that works as a last solution, in case society goes wrong.
It’s not applicable by individuals. It is only applicable by the government. If a government decides to punish a thief by putting him in prison, no one will say this is an unjust government.
Let us give the example of a state that has provided all means of living for its citizens. They live in a very luxurious state. They have no need to steal, no need to covet what others have.
In this society, if someone goes to steal… you have to understand the mentality of stealing: Breaking into somebody’s house, invading their privacy, leaving them with trauma after breaking into their bedroom. If this person has no reason to do so because society is in a good state, then you would want that person to be punished severely.
Islamic punishments, I would say, serve more as deterrence than as applicable actions.
In his whole life of 23 years as a prophet, the Prophet (ﷺ) never applied the punishment of fornication except once. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen; it [fornication] was happening!
One essential value and virtue within the Islamic system is this: If someone has committed a personal crime that doesn’t harm others, he should hide himself, and not disclose it.
Disclosing the crime leaves no space for you to repent and to rectify it. If someone does something wrong, and he apologises to God – he regrets it and takes a different route in his life – he is absolutely welcome.
We are not allowed to uncover and scandalise a criminal. In any crime, especially those that have severe punishments, you need something called ‘witness’.
There is a whole process of procedure that happens before the application of punishment that makes the application extremely difficult… if not – as some scholars says – jurisprudential fantasy.
How are you going to bring four witnesses from different walks of life to witness a man having intimacy with a woman? They have to give four identical accounts while being interviewed independently. And – as the law says – they have to be unable to pass a string between the accused man and woman.
Which man and woman in the world would wait for four people to gather together and conduct something like that? These measures exist as a way of telling people: Listen: If you are not 150% sure of what is happening, you should be silent about it.
I understand that in Orthodox Islam, there is no supreme head of religion. Rather the Quran, hadiths and sharia are taught and interpreted by scholars and religious teachers. Has this led to vastly different interpretations in the modern day?
The foundations of the Faith are essential for the day-to-day life of a Muslim, and for defining whom a Muslim is. It’s something that’s agreed upon by all Muslim scholars, even across different Muslim schools of thought. We have something called Ijmā, which means unanimous agreement of Muslim scholars. This Ijmā is a notion that secures that the foundations are embraced.
This is an essential value of keeping the Muslim community united, and maintaining the definition of Muslim as being accepted across the board.
But beyond that there are loads of different interpretations. For any interpretation to be acceptable, it has to fulfill three criteria. Firstly: it has to be within the scope and language of the Quran, the language of the hadiths.
Secondly: It has to be an expert opinion. And thirdly, it cannot go against what the unanimous agreement has reached.
Has there been a history of dissenting voices among Muslim scholars?
Yes, but if you have a crazy academic coming out saying something that is not scientifically true, you would not accept that, even if he has a big following. That would be a logical fallacy of appealing to the bandwagon.
Appealing to the bandwagon is when you say, “Ok, this person says that and he has got a million followers”. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is wrong.
Secondly: If someone who isn’t an expert in the field reaches an opinion, that doesn’t give any relevance to it. Even if that person is an expert in another field… because that is appealing to irrelevant authority, another logical fallacy.
If you’re an expert in chemistry, and you give me a religious opinion on the matters of jurisprudence, I would not accept that.
If a consensus on religious opinions is reached within these defining lines, the religious view will be accepted as a code of practice within the larger Muslim viewpoint.
Now, what is the value of this? The importance of this is to provide Muslims with solutions wherever they go. Because we believe that Muslims have different challenges based on the context they live in: Muslims in Singapore, Europe, Canada, living in a Muslim country.
Muslims who live under a democracy, constitutional monarch, dictatorship. How do they behave? How do they conduct themselves? Religious opinions are supposed to give them solutions, instead of difficult situations.
For example, Muslims may have to deal with a banking system that some may disagree with, or take houses by mortgage. Finding two interpretations within the law – One that says yes you can, and another that says no you shouldn’t – gives the Muslim the option.
We always say that dealing with diversity of opinion happens through three main principles. Firstly, if there is something that’s controversial, we should acknowledge that it’s controversial. We should not censor anyone who takes a different opinion.
Secondly, if you can avoid controversy, stay away from it. But if you have to engage in it, engage in it. It’s healthy!
And thirdly, if you do have to deal with a controversial issue, you will have no problem if you imitate or adopt an opinion that gives you a solution for your problem.
Let’s say you have to stay up at night, because you have a research paper to write, and somebody else has to go to sleep. So even though the doctor might say “Having coffee after 11pm is bad for your health,” you might need to have the coffee to stay up.
You may not develop the habit of having a coffee every night, but it’s good for this situation. In an ideal situation, if you don’t need to have coffee, go sleep. But if you have a need, do it.
It wouldn’t be fair if the person who wants to go to sleep comes and blames you for having coffee, because he doesn’t understand your context.
This is where we need to enlighten Muslims themselves. This is an intra-Muslim affair, something that Muslims need to be aware of. And this is the role of the scholars.
Many Muslims today- and I say this with sadness – have what we call religious illiteracy. Muslims are religiously illiterate: Many don’t know the basics of the Faith. This is because faith has been handed out as a cultural inheritance, rather than an intellectual inheritance.
Young Muslims have been introduced to the religion in a very complicated way: religious teaching has been very dull, boring and irrelevant. Young Muslims who live in open societies like these, they wouldn’t accept someone who dictates to them what to do, rather than asking them: What do you think of your own faith?
They would become very frustrated, decide to just blindly follow the culture, or turn away from the culture completely and run away. We end up with three groups and none of them can help us. We need a fourth group that can deal with the culture, embrace that which is religious, and deal with that which is mundane, and corresponds to the culture of the society.
Could you give me an example of this?
Islam doesn’t dictate specific styles of clothing, for example, but it does dictate essentials of decency. These essentials of decency are to be introduced, interpreted and given to us by agreement of scholars.
Take the issue of hijab, for example. If a woman or a man who is not an expert, comes and says that hijab is not an obligation. I would say, “Thank you very much, but this is merely your own opinion, you are not an expert.”
If one scholar comes out and says, “No, there is nothing that makes hijab a religious obligation,” I would say, “Well, you are an expert, but you are violating the unanimous agreement.”
What applies to hair hijab would apply to a man’s beard, for example. And then we have to work our way out. Either the government can look again into the conclusions of whether it’s hygienic for a person to become a surgeon when he has a beard? Is it conclusive or is it not? And is it the same for a woman who wears hijab?
Or can a Muslim mind – for example Muslim fashion designers -design a hijab that can fit within a surgical cap? Can they invent something that people can wear within a surgery theatre?
All these questions lead to an active society that thinks, rather than a society that engages in argumentation, fighting and blame. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “People will be misguided after they find guidance, if they engage in argumentation”.
We should not engage in arguments that do not lead to action. When we look for solutions, we should look for real, genuine solutions.
Even the Companions of the Prophet, their approach was that when people came to ask them questions about something, they would ask, “Has this happened? Has this scenario happened?” And if the people said no, they would say, “Well, wait until it happens, and we will give you an opinion”.
Fiqh, or jurisprudence, is all about practicality.
Do you think Islam and secular notions of free speech are compatible? Many Western critics say that- because it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet, for example – Islam is not compatible with certain Western values.
I think the biggest problems in the world today are problems of definition. We have to find our way out with Western philosophers and thinkers on the notion of free speech. We have to find the line in freedom of speech.
How do we define freedom of speech? Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to offend; freedom to criticise is secure, but not freedom of blasphemy.
Even what is blasphemy, defining that within a religious context is different from defining it within a social context.
If you know you have a religious community, and you know that this community respects certain notions, and you come and poo in their mosques for example, and you say that is freedom of expression… well, that is not freedom of expression!
By that logic, vandalism is freedom of expression. Writing what you want on the sides of buses, on the streets, on public transport. That’s freedom of expression!
If you take some sprays and make graffiti in Singapore, that’s freedom of expression. So why do you punish them? Eating chew gum and spitting it on the street, that’s freedom of expression.
Part of the belief in Islam is what is called The Unseen. Respecting The Unseen can come in different ways. One is not to represent it in a material way, because that is reductionism, and you would be violating its sacredness.
There are certain feelings that you and I will hold dear in our hearts, as long as they are not expressed. As long as they remain feelings… Once you express them in words, they become reduced to words. And the one who reads them will evaluate the words, but not evaluate the feelings.
For example, it is like a woman writing about her experience of giving birth… her experience is so personal that no one can share it. You may enjoy her book, but you’ll never be able to contribute to that experience. Sometimes you may even think ‘what does that mean?’
I talked to my students about a book I read recently called The Year of Living Biblically.
Ah, by A.J. Jacobs?
Yes, it’s a brilliant book, written by an agnostic, who grew up in a Jewish family. And this guy has said something really profound: That after a whole year of trying to practice the literal form of the Bible, being as literal as possible, he came to appreciate people who follow a religion.
Even if it doesn’t mean anything to you, it means something to them.
If anyone comes out here in Singapore and he expresses certain views that would lead to the disruption of social and communal peace, the government will have to step in.
If not, what use is the government? To just provide food for the people? The need for peace comes before the need for food. You won’t be able to live in a society where there is abundant food but you are not safe in your house or in the streets.
It is the role of the government to draw these lines. And try to apply them. And say you are free to express, you can write whatever you want, but you have to keep in mind sacred things, people who hold certain things dear to them.
If you want to write a book about my father, you are free to do so. But what you are not free to do is to slander my father. If you slander my father to my face, and I get angry, emotion becomes an action. Two people can bear the blame, and one of them is you.
I am not saying that anyone who wants to speak about Muslim faith is not allowed to. People can speak as much as they want, say, “This doesn’t mean anything to me” or “I don’t agree with this” or “this religious notion is absurd”. Fine, we can discuss that within academia, or within scholarly circles.
But when it becomes a public festival of offending others, then others will also be triggered. Others here can also include people who are ethical, people who are unethical, people who are religious, people who defend their religion out of passion or culture.
You can’t hold a whole community accountable for what you’ve triggered some of these people to do.
Another concept I’d like to address is the erroneous translation of jihad. I understand that the root word relates to ‘struggle’, but it’s often misused to mean ‘holy war’.
In Islam, war has never been holy. The term holy war is actually is an invention of the Western mind, possibly because some Muslim minds were translating Islamic literature to a different language.
Jihad, as you said, comes from the root word for struggling, and it has various levels. In fact, fighting is not the highest level of jihad. It is the last level, and it has very strict conditions, just as in the penal code that we spoke of before.
Jihad at the level of fighting, is called qital. And the Quran says clearly, “Fighting has been prescribed upon you, while it is something that you should hate”. So you should hate fighting, because it leads to bloodshed. It leads to many families losing their breadwinners. It leads to countries losing many of their economic resources.It is not something that is pleasant or amazing.
In 23 years of being a prophet, the number of mortalities in the battles of the Prophet (ﷺ) did not exceed 760 people in 23 battles.
The huge number of mortalities in World War I and World War II –we’re talking millions of souls – is not an Islamic thing. If we look at the expeditions and the battles of the Prophet, they were either defensive- and I can say that 95% of them were defensive – and the other 5% were pre-emptive: The enemy is about to attack your country and you undertook a raid to stop their army.
It has nothing to do with civilians. In fact, destroying infrastructure – in those days poisoning wells, cutting down trees – or attacking non-combatants like priests, children and women, are all illegal. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Don’t come close to those who are in their monasteries and churches, who are focusing on God.”
If you don’t fight, you shouldn’t be fought. If you run away from the battlefield I shouldn’t follow you. In Islam it is unethical to pursue you. If you are injured I cannot continue to finish your life. If you are wounded, I take you to the hospital.
Even in the Quran, prisoners of war are not to be killed. The Quran gives two options only: Either give them their freedom, or free them in return of something. It could be money, or a service they give to you.
War in Islam isn’t holy, but it is an option. There is no concept called guerrilla war, or militant groups. It has to be initiated by a government, that runs what we call an organised army. It has to be a caused-based war, and there has to be no other option except war.
The Quran says that if there is any initiative of peace, you have to respond to it. You have to accept it, to embrace it. So a concept like jihad has been extremely misrepresented and misinterpreted.
The real jihad is to maintain your faith in these turbulent times: To keep focused when someone offends you, and not to respond to his offense with an offense. That is a jihad: A struggle against your own ego, a struggle against your own desires, struggle against the hatred one finds in society. This is what takes effort. That is what exhausts you.
But it’s not exhausting at all to kill when you are angry. That’s the easiest option. It feeds your ego, but the difficult option is not to feed your ego. It is to aim for a higher cause of action.
In many religions, literalism and fundamentalism often go hand in hand. Radical Christians, for example, are often portrayed as those who follow the Bible to the letter in a literal way. When it comes to radical Islam, are these extremists perverting the fundamentals of Islam, or are they more dogmatic about following it to the letter?
Well, I would say that for any book, there are parts of the book that can never be taken literally. Metaphor is a human trait. We have to employ it in certain places.
A.J. Jacobs, who I mentioned earlier, tackles this issue tactfully. And he mentions that taking the Bible to the letter can be quite problematic.
For example, when you say “I will forgive you if you do this 490 times”. Well, what happens if you it 491 times? So what this actually means is: I will forgive you as many times as you do it.
Taking things literally is dangerous. So why do we take things literally? Because of the limits of our knowledge.
There are texts in the Quran that are explosive when you see them from outside. When you take them literally, they are very explosive. But when you take them to an expert and he shows you how to conduct them, that can be much easier.
I’ll give you a very simple example. Someone reads in a book of jurisprudence that when you are taking a ritual bath, you should deliver the water to the inside of your ear. This is what the text says.
If you take the text to a scholar, he will say delivering the water means dipping your finger in water, and just wiping inside [your ear]. But what has happened is this guy, who wanted to read the book and depend on his own interpretation, told me that he placed his ear underneath the running water of a shower, and filled his ear with water.
So what does he end up with? Ear infection. That’s a real story that I came across. I asked, “Where did you get this infection from?”
And he said, “Delivering the water to my ear. I want to take it to the letter.”
Well, this is what happens when you take something to the letter!
And there are many examples of literalism in virtually every religion.
We have loads of examples in the Quran, and in The Bible and in other scriptures. The problem of literalism has affected many communities, not only Muslims. It’s been affecting the Jewish and Christian communities for ages.
Violating the Sabbath, for example, in Judaism. I have myself seen a Jewish group in Argentina, whose members go to celebrate the Sabbath in somebody’s apartment. They have a lift in the building that people can use only on the Sabbath. They don’t have to press any button; as soon as they walk in, the lift door closes and goes to the 9th floor.
The owner of that flat would leave his flat door open from Friday night. He doesn’t want to open the door [on the Sabbath], because that would be a violation.
So look at the amount of literalism! I would respect that sort of literalism because it doesn’t harm people. If it harms you, I would tell you “Look, God doesn’t want to make things difficult for you.”
In Islam, we have a notion that has been handed down from generations: That there is no harm, and there is no acceptance of harm. You can’t inflict harm on yourself or others. So you can’t cause or commit harm. Religion removes the stress and difficulty from the lives of people. These are essential notions in understanding the religion, which would demolish any literalism.
But someone who has not learned anything, who has not come in contact or studied with scholars, he will make everything difficult for himself, and others as well.
A famous scholar, in the 2nd generation after the Prophet’s (ﷺ) time – by the name of Sufyan al-Thawri – said, “Jurisprudence is a solution give by an authentic scholar. And as for rigidity? Everyone can be rigid.”
The easiest thing to say is ‘No. It is filth. It is prohibited. It is innovation. It is bad. It is heresy.’ It’s easy to say that, because man is the enemy of what he doesn’t know.
I think there is a quote by Martin Rees, in Six Numbers…he says: “The higher you go, the better the view”.
But if you can’t climb, and you are at the bottom of the mountain, and you say, “I can see the view of the other side better”? No way!
What specific verses of the Quran are extremists perverting?
Any text in the world, even this interview [can be dangerous]… If you decide to take a small clip, and cut it from its context and link it to something else, you might create a very explosive text of it.
We understand that the Quran is a universal message, but some parts of the Quran came to tackle a specific problem, introducing specific notions at specific times.
So, understanding the context will enlighten on you about how to handle this text. The amount of explosive religious text amounts to not even 5% of the Quran… maybe not even 2-3%; the so-called ‘verse of the sword’, which extremists use to say that we have been commanded to use violence against anyone who doesn’t believe in our faith [Ed’s note: To read more about the misconceptions surrounding the Verse of the Sword, visit this link].
This is quite a striking fact: The word “sword” has never been mentioned in the Quran. There is no word for ‘sword’ or ‘rifle’ or ‘gun’ or any form of weapons in the Quran.
The Prophet (ﷺ) says that in every generation, the most apprised scholars inherit this fate: They have a responsibility to show the genuine face of the Faith. Their work will be to handle, deal and free the Faith from three groups: First, extremists who want to twist its words, to manipulate and hijack the narrative for their agenda.
Second, non-specialists who try to abrogate the position of scholarship. People who want to evacuate religion of its content. How do they do that? By saying that Islam is a faith that’s accessible to everyone, so therefore everyone can interpret the Quran.
Well that’s a fallacy: Islam as a faith is accessible to everyone, but Islam as specialism, as knowledge, is not accessible to everyone. You can have knowledge of health, but you cannot claim that you are a doctor. You can know how to lead a healthy life, but you can’t write prescriptions for others.
Writing prescriptions in Islamic scholarship is like that, studying and understanding the ingredients that make the prescription. So you take this ayyah, this saying, this rule, and in understanding them, you make something specialised and you give it to the person.
And the third group of people?
Ignorant people, who don’t know and are happy with their ignorance.
There’s a story I always quote in my public talks, about knowledge. How dangerous it is not to know, but how much more dangerous it is not to know that you don’t know.
There was a Copt who lived in Egypt in the 8th century, whose name was Tomaz. He was a very lazy boy who inherited a big library from his father, a very famous physician.
Because the boy was born into money and had a very good life, he didn’t have to work or study. When his father passed away, he was asked, “What about working or studying now?”
Tomaz said, “No, I don’t need to learn anything, for my father has left a big library, and I can be a physician, just like him.”
His friends told him, “You will have to spend a number of years to learn to be a physician.”
Tomaz replied, “No, I can just pick up a book and apply what is in there.”
He picked up a book, one of the sayings of The Prophet. It has a title that goes: “Black seed is medicine for everything.” The Arabic word for ‘seed’ is habba. But if you add just one more dot to the ba, it becomes hayya, which means ‘snake’.
So Tomaz read the book’s title as, ‘Black snake is medicine for everything’.
He decided that this made a lot of sense. Possibly, if people were ill, and he showed them a black snake and they would be so terrified it would make their sickness go away. (Chuckles) Perhaps he believed in natural healing or something.
Tomaz went hunting for a black snake, which he kept in a basket. And he got on a donkey and used it to visit the sick, trying to treat them by showing them the black snake.
Some people asked him, “What is that?”
And he replied, “Well, the book says ‘Black Snake is medicine for everything’.”
Tomaz is using a text, and to him, the book’s title says ‘black snake’. The problem is not in the book. The problem is in the eyes that are unqualified to read the text.
One of the scholars of his time tried to convince him of this, but he was not willing to be convinced. The scholar then wrote philosophical lines from the tongue of the donkey.
The donkey of Tomaz the physician said, “As a donkey I don’t know, but my owner doesn’t know he doesn’t know. If things were in their right place, I would be riding my owner, and not him riding me.”
(Laughter around the table) Thank you for that. Since we have turned to stories, I was wondering if we could end our conversation on that note. Could you share a story from The Prophet’s life, that best encapsulates the values of Islam?
Yes, I was just sharing this with my students yesterday: The first speech that the Prophet (ﷺ) gave when he came to Medina.
When the Prophet (ﷺ) came to Medina, he became the leader of a diverse city of Jews, Muslims, non-Muslims, indigenous and foreigners.
Before he sits down and writes the laws, he establishes the essentials of Medina’s Constitution. And he said: “O people, spread peace, and offer food, and keep your relations with one another, and pray at night when other people are sleeping. And then you will enter Paradise in peace.”
These foundational values are so important. Hamza Yusuf, from the States, actually talked about this recently. He compared these prophetic words with the hierarchy of human needs by Doctor Maslow, and he mentioned that in Doctor Maslow’s theory, physical needs comes first.
Well, no. The Prophet (ﷺ) reordered these needs, way before Doctor Maslow, and he said that peace comes first. When you live in a society where you are fearful, you will not be able to enjoy anything; you will not enjoy the food you want to eat.
So the first value of society is maintaining peace, and then securing people’s physical needs, and then securing their social needs.
If people have peace in society, things will flourish; people will have sufficiency in their earnings. And then they will have time to maintain relations with their kith and kin and neighbours…forty neighbours on each side, as the Prophet (ﷺ) advised.
And if that happens, then the next step is to pray at night when people are asleep, which means: Turn to God – whoever you worship – to keep this blessing of peace and sufficiency in society. If that happens, you will enter Paradise in peace.