Aug 2nd 2009

Can Fresh Interpretations of Islamic Text Prevent a Possible "Clash of Civilizations?"

by Tawfik Hamid

Dr. Hamid, a former member of an Egyptian Islamist terrorist group, is an Islamic reformer and senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Since 9/11, the possibility of a clash of civilizations has become an unavoidable area of discussion among intellectuals as well as the general public. The inaction of Islamic scholars around the world to those who incorrectly interpret the religion's sacred texts to further the influence of extremism undoubtedly increases the likelihood of such a clash. The war declared by jihadists on the free world has resulted in the killing and torturing of thousands of people. This has ranged from terror attacks, and the murder of innocent victims in the name of Islam, to paralyzing vital cities such as Mumbai. All such events share the common involvement of Islamic groups that are fueled by ideologies of hatred and violence.

The passive attitude of many Muslims and Islamic scholars has aggravated the problem because this passivity is interpreted by the jihadists - correctly or incorrectly - as a permission for terrorist activity. What message do these scholars convey when they issue a fatwa of apostasy against Salman Rushdie for writing a novel or when they issue other fatwas against many modern Islamic reformers without issuing a similar one against Bin Laden and the terrorists? As an ex-jihadist, I believe that such a fatwa labeling terrorists as apostates can prevent many young Muslims from pursuing the path of terror.

In addition, Islamic scholars need to start teaching certain phrases in the Quran differently. As a Muslim who is dedicated to telling the truth, I must admit that there are certain phrases and expressions in the Islamic text that have the capacity to encourage violence unless that text is taught in peaceful way. For example, there are verses in the Quran about killing infidels and idolatries, as well as fighting Jews and Christians. These include the well-known verse of the sword that says "...slay the Idolatries wherever you find them" {Quran 9:5}. Jihadists simply use such verses to create a mindset of hatred and violence toward others.

Current books of Islamic jurisprudence add more fuel to the fire by noting that it is an obligation for the Muslim Umma to declare wars on non-Muslim nations until the people of these nations convert to Islam. According to ALL accepted schools of Islamic jurisprudence, non-Muslims are to be offered conversion to Islam, to pay a Jizzia (humiliating tax), or to be killed. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was therefore not inventing a new rule when he offered the US subjugation to Islamic rule in order to stop terrorism.

The jihadists are responsible for their acts of violence, but so too are our Islamic scholars for teaching such jurisprudence and not changing it. These same scholars, who loudly proclaim that "Islam is a religion of peace," still teach that Jews are pigs and monkeys. For example, in Friday prayer service on Jan 9 2009, inside the al-Azhar Mosque, a 1,000-year-old center of religious learning, the preacher Sheik Eid Abdel Hamid Youssef described the Jews as: "... a people whom God has become angry at and whom he cursed so he made monkeys and pigs out of them. They killed prophets and messengers and sowed corruption on Earth. They are the most evil on Earth." This anti-Semitic view is not solely that of this preacher, but rather is a widespread teaching articulated by many Islamic scholars that is derived from mainstream Islamic books.

One of the ways to solve some of the aforementioned theological problems is to look deeply into the Quranic text itself. ALL verses that order believers to declare wars on non-believers or to use violence against infidels use the suffixes Al or Alazhina (meaning "The") before the word "Infidel." The use of this expression really applies more to a certain stage in history when early Muslims were fighting with other tribes. The difference in Arabic between kill "Man Kafar" (any Infidel) and Kill "Al-Kafereen" (the Infidels) is like the difference between visiting "a white house" and visiting "the white house" in Washington!. Therefore, emphasizing the meaning of "The" in the Quranic verses can serve to better prevent many young Muslims from pursuing the path of generalized violence. Without teaching the text in this manner, we actually allow radicals to use such texts to win the hearts and minds of young Muslims.

It is hard to deny the presence of inflammatory statements against the Jews in our Islamic text. The Quran uses at least 5 different expressions that describe certain groups of Jews in different historical contexts. The first of these is Yahood {Quran 5:64; 9:30}, or certain tribes in the Arabian Peninsula during the early stages of Islam who, according to Islamic history, had a conflict with Mohamed. Others are AlaZhina Hadu, which are those who returned back to God {Quran 7:156}, and Bani Israel, which refers to Children of Israel {Quran 44:30}. The fourth is Ashab Al-Sabt {Quran 4:47}, which was a village that disobeyed Moses and the Torah, and the fifth is Ashab Mosa {Quran 26:61}, Israelites who crossed the sea with Moses.

All of these Arabic expressions are interpreted and translated simply as "Jews" However, this incorrectly targets all Jews throughout history, even those in the present day. It is essential to teach the proper context of any text in order to better curb the influence of radical Islam. For example, most of the criticism in the Quran is directed toward the "Yahood" and to "Ashab Al-Sabt" rather than to the Children of Israel.

In fact, Muslim scholars who insult the Children of Israel must realize that most of the messengers described in the Quran belong to these Children. Therefore, insulting all the Children of Israel by labeling Jews as pigs and monkeys is an insult to these messengers. Such an insult is considered a grave sin in Islam. In fact, the Quran actually has positive verses about the Children of Israel {2:47; 44:32; 45:16}.

In addition, the Quran forbids judging someone by the mistakes of someone else {Quran 6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7}. Therefore, judging and hating the current Jews based upon possible historical conflicts between some of them and Mohamed is - in actuality -un-Islamic. The same goes for judging all Jews based solely on the grievances many Arabs have with the Israeli government. Applying the verses about the Yahood or Ashab Al-Sabt to all Jews and, on the other hand, limiting the usage of the more positive ones about the Children of Israel in Islamic religious textbooks, has resulted in an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.

In short, if Islamic scholars issue a fatwa labeling the terrorists as apostates, start limiting the use of "The" in violent Islamic texts to ONLY a historical context, and stop cursing all Jews as well as calling them pigs and monkeys, a possible war of civilizations can be better avoided.

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