This article by Hassan Radwan is cross-posted from Atheist Northern Ireland
Firstly, Atheist N.I. would like to express our shock and sympathy; to those in France and Lebanon, and globally to victims of atrocities like those we have witnessed over the last few days. It is our hope that how we respond to such events can bring us closer together, rather than push us apart.
Now let me introduce you to our second guest blogger.
Hassan Radwan was a teacher at Islamia Primary School for 15 years. He has a BA from SOAS in Arabic & Islamic History. He was a devout and practicing Muslim most of his life and was president of the Islamic Society at SOAS and Amir of a Da’wa group in North London as well as editor of an Islamic Magazine “The Clarion.”
The Qur’an is not infallible
Whenever there is an atrocity committed by Muslims as in the attacks yesterday in France, I hear people declaring that these people have “absolutely nothing to do with Islam.” The same was said about the attack on tourists in Tunisia and about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the attacks in Madrid, London, Bali & 911 – the same is said of ISIS and Al-Qa’idah. The extremists behind all these have “absolutely nothing to do with Islam” and furthermore “they are not real Muslims!”
I want to make an earnest plea to all my Muslim brothers and sisters, please, please let’s stop repeating such ridiculous platitudes. Yes, I know the vast majority of Muslims reject such violent interpretations of Islam, but whether we like it or not they do have something to do with Islam and denying that not only makes us look foolish but much worse than that we are ignoring the problem and avoiding tackling how we interpret and treat the Islamic texts. Because only by tackling the very nature of how we understand these texts will we be able to truly confront and defeat these violent & literalist interpretations.
These groups use the very same Qur’an & the very same books of Hadith as we do. Yes, our interpretations differ – but if we keep pretending that what they do has “Nothing to do with Islam” then we will never be able to offer a convincing counter narrative that will truly defeat them.
No-one is fooled by such platitudes anymore – and I’m not just talking about non-Muslims, I’m talking about Muslims themselves. The younger generation looking for for a cause to to fight and a reason to rebel against authority. They are not fooled by our pretence that “It has nothing to do with Islam.”
Most Muslims don’t actually know much about Islam. This is the reality. Youngsters go to their local mosque or onto the internet and are told that the Qur’an says: “Oh you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians as friends.” That it says: “Kill them wherever you find them.” That it says: “When you meet the unbelievers, strike their necks until you have inflicted great slaughter upon them.” That hadith says: “I have been ordered to fight people until they declare there is no God but God” That it says: “He who changes his religion kill him” and so on…
They then take them at face value – and who can blame them? They don’t have the nuanced understanding that we would like them to have. They don’t understand why you are telling them that it doesn’t mean what it plainly appears to mean. They don’t buy our explanation that it needs to be read in its context or that it shouldn’t be taken literally (though of course verses we approve of can be taken literally.) The extremists on the other hand tell them they are fighting to make Muslims great again to bring us back to the “True Islam” of the prophet and his companions & to re-establish the Islamic caliphate which will usher in a utopia of peace, love and justice. All we need to do is return to the “True Islam” and follow it faithfully down to the tiniest detail. Making sure our beard is the right length, our sirwal is raised off the ground and our miswak ready to hand.
I remember when I was about 19 years old I was invited to attent a “Jama’atu-Tableegh” gathering at the main Mosque in Dewsbury. While there I listened to one of the “Maulanas” relate the following story about companions of the prophet during Jihad:
“During the conquest of Egypt, the Muslim army was having great difficulty in defeating the enemy. When Omar heard of this he said it must be because of a deed they have committed. So the Muslim fighters asked themselves if they were neglecting any religious duty, but they found they were not. Then they asked themselves if they had neglected any Sunnah (practice of the Prophet) and they discovered that they had forgotten to brush their teeth using the Miswak. So they got together and started using the Miswak. Once the enemy saw this they thought the Muslims were preparing to eat them alive and so fled!”
Now I have no doubt that this story is a complete fabrication. But as a young 19 year-old eager to follow “True Islam” faithfully I and other youngsters there, were taken in by such nonsense. I stayed two weeks in the mosque and soon found every second of my day was now controlled and defined by this or that Sunnah. When going to the toilet I was taught to clean myself in a certain way and utter a certain prayer (du’a) when entering and leaving the toilet. There were du’a for almost every move I made. I was told that Islam even regulated the way I slept and on my second night I was rebuked by the Amir for sleeping the wrong way! He explained that a Muslim should never sleep with his feet pointing towards Mecca. I must sleep facing Mecca. I wasn’t sure if he meant my head should be pointing towards it or my face should be. To be on the safe side I kept my face in the direction of Mecca and prevented myself from turning side to side as I normally did, which made it very uncomfortable and difficult to sleep.
I became increasingly concerned that such a high level of attention to form and detail was not sustainable outside the sheltered environment of the mosque and worried about my salvation if I was unable to maintain it. But it was difficult to voice this concern in an atmosphere where group mentality strongly disapproved of any failure to live up to the standards set. The Maulana seemed to take pride in how hard and difficult it was to practise Islam properly and said that Prophet Muhammad had said:
“A time will come upon people wherein the one steadfast to his religion will be like one holding a burning coal.”
The sheikh explained that in this day and age to be a good Muslim is like clasping hold of a red hot piece of coal. One instinctively wants to throw it away, but one must resist the instinct and grab it tightly if one wants to achieve Paradise and avoid Hell. A ‘true’ Muslim had to sacrifice the comforts and pleasures of the world for austerity and hardship in order to gain the comforts and pleasures of paradise. He must expect to be thought of as a weird and strange by non-Muslims and suffer ridicule from the society around him, as the prophet said:
“Islam began as something strange, and it will revert to being strange as it was in the beginning, so good tidings for the strangers.” Someone asked, “Who are the strangers?” The Prophet replied, “The ones who break away from their people for the sake of Islam.”
Although we had only stayed in the mosque for two weeks, it seemed much longer, and I felt apprehensive about returning to ‘the real world’ with its evil temptations ready to entice me away from God. It was a disorientating feeling and I can see how easily young Muslims can fall into a very literalist and extremist mindset. Fortunately for myself I soon found that returning to the ‘real world’ and my university studies gave me back a balanced perspective and I realised that Jama’atu Tableegh’s obsession with form and ritual was a distorted perception of Islam. I thought of the verse that says: “God does not task a soul beyond what it can bear,” and how my father always taught me that “religion is ease and not hardship.” The needs of the next world did not have to be in conflict with the reality of this world. I sought a more sophisticated and deeper appreciation of Islam than my brief encounter with Jama’atu-Tableegh offered.
But the experience made me realise how easy it was for youngsters to slip into a very obsessive mindset and lose touch with reality. How once they go down that road it is very hard to come back. Some eventually do realise how shallow and superficial such a literalist understanding is as they mature & gain a deeper appreciation. I remember Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad even coined the term: “Salafi Burnout” to describe this phenomena. Sadly too many only realise the falsehood of such narrow literalism far too late and after doing much harm to themselves, as well as others.
At the heart of the problem is a battle for “True Islam” and one often hears people saying things like:”That is not true Islam” or “They are not real Muslims.” Ironically I even hear it from right-wing bigots & xenophobes who rather perversely seem to want to convince everyone – including Muslims themselves – that peaceful forms of Islam are wrong and that “True Islam” is the harsh literalist version followed by groups like ISIS. The reason they do this is because they want to justify their hatred towards Islam & Muslims and convince people that Islam must be destroyed.
However Muslims are most guilty themselves of playing this game of “True Islam”. Every Muslim will tell you, “Yes! There is a “True Islam!” So if you ask them which one is it? They’ll tell you: “It’s the one I follow, of course!”
But is there really such a thing as ‘True Islam’?
The fact is Muslims differ widely about Islam and always have done. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact it is a very good thing. Even Prophet Muhammad himself did & said different things at different points of his lifetime and in reaction to and according to the circumstances he faced.
Islam has always been a multitude of interpretations, schools of thought, groups, parties and sects each laying claim to “True Islam”. Mystical traditions as well as literalist traditions. Liberal traditions as well as conservative traditions.
When liberal Muslims accuse the literalists of being myopic & selective in how they interpret Islam they are right, but they forget to mention that they are also very selective. Each chooses to see what they want to see and interpret verses the way that suits them.
It’s time we stopped playing this game of “True Islam” We are just reaffirming the same simplistic dichotomy of the extremists – the “Us verses Them” mentality. “I’m right you’re wrong, so go to Hell!!” We are validating the very mentality that is the cause of our crisis.
From our human perspective truth is relative and often subject to perspective, context, environment & a hundred and one other factors. As the Greek philosopher Protagoras, said: “Of all things the measure is Man.” In other words truth as we human beings perceive it is relative to individual experience, judgement and interpretation. From our imperfect perspective truth is elusive and amorphous. It is often subject to nothing more than skilful persuasion & victory in argument – as the sophists of ancient Greece showed us.
You might think that if truth is relative then ISIS have a perfect right to interpret the Qur’an the way they do and go around slaughtering people. Well in case you hadn’t noticed they already do! Insisting there is only one “True Islam” – and it’s the one you follow – has not made and will not make any difference to such groups as they will simply claim that it is their version – not yours – that is the “True Islam.” – and so it will go on. They call you apostates and you call them apostates. They say you are going “completely against Islam” you say they are going “completely against Islam.”
Let us stop all this nonsense and stop playing their game. We need to move away from this exclusivist mentality – this “Us & Them”. The idea that there is one “True Islam” and if you don’t fall into the definition then you are an unbeliever or an apostate. Rather than desperately trying to silence those who disagree with us, we need to allow an open and honest discussion. We need to do some genuine soul-searching and introspection.
Yes we can – and will – defeat groups like ISIS. But they will not be defeated by guns. You can’t kill ideas with guns. They only re-emerge with a different name. Bad ideas will only be defeated in the long run by offering better ideas. By offering better solutions. This is how you defeat bad ideas – by opposing them with better ones. Letting them die a natural death from within, rather by force from the outside – which often only makes them stronger because they can focus on external threats rather than having to face internal realities.
To do this we need to widen the debate beyond traditional boundaries to allow fresh thinking and new perspectives. Our traditional scholars are stuck within narrow, worn-out dogma that belong to another age. They are trying to defeat the extremists using the same paradigm, by playing by the same game. Rather than fundamentally differing they only offer a slightly different emphasis or a more nuanced interpretation. We need to offer a completely different narrative. A universalistic and inclusive narrative. A pluralistic narrative that opens up what it means to be a Muslim to a much broader and humanistic understanding.
Muslims like myself need look again at how we view the source texts of Islam and challenge old and rigid perceptions such as the infallibility of the Qur’an because it ties our hands prevents Islam evolving and meeting the changing conditions. The Qur’an must be subject to human reason and not the other way around. Of course we know that human reason is also flawed and man will always find excuses to fight & oppress each other. But once you remove: “God said it,” then you allow good ideas to battle it out with bad ideas on a level playing field, rather than protecting bad ideas on the excuse that: “God said it.”
We must kick down the door to this time capsule that we retreated to over a 1000 years ago. We need to be far braver than we are in tolerating and accepting criticism. Again I am not only speaking about criticism from non-Muslims – but much more crucially criticism from Muslims themselves. We must accept that Muslims can reject traditional views without calling them unbelievers, apostates and excommunicating them.
Let’s stop blaming others and burying our heads in the sand. Let’s open our eyes and ears and start listening to what others have to say from all sections of society including the minorities that we treat so badly. Let’s start an honest dialogue with those with different views, with Ex-Muslims, Christians, Jews, Agnostics and Atheists too. Let’s really engage with with the world and open up Islam to honest debate and scrutiny.
This is the only way we can truly defeat the narrow, exclusivist and literalist views of the extremists. They depend on fear – the fear we have of challenging what they claim is sacred and untouchable. The last thing they want is for us to kick down the door and allow the light of reason to shine onto them, for it will expose them for what they are. We should not fear challenging anything – even the so-called sacred. Who decided that this or that is sacred and untouchable? It’s long overdue for us to reassess this false dichotomy between the sacred and profane, for in the imperfect and flawed human world, such a division does not exist.