Misconceptions feed fanatic view of Islam
By Dr. Syed Amjad Hussain
At a recent speaking engagement in a church, I was asked the inevitable question that somehow always finds its way to the podium: Why does Islam teach intolerance and militancy? I would have liked to ask the questioner, just to prove a point, if he still beat
his wife. I was, however, amused by the widespread assumption that Islam is inherently a violent religion and Muslims are a fanatic bunch. This and many other similar questions have been raised rather frequently in the post-9/11 climate in the
These assumptions also include that Muslims keep their women under wraps, they
look down upon all other religions, and they believe it is against their religion to have non-Muslim friends. These are legitimate questions and Muslims ought to address them not with a knee-jerk defensive response but with knowledge of their sacred text, the Qur'an, and understanding of their surroundings. The Qur'an is the compilation of divine revelations that Prophet Muhammad received over a period of many years from 612 to his death at age 63 in 632. Most of the revelations came in response to a
particular need of the nascent Muslim community, first in Mecca and then in Medina.
While certain passages are eternal, others are topical and dated. The latter were revealed to address a certain situation and their presence is only of historic significance and thus cannot be applied to current times. Of particular interest is one passage (5: 57-58) that when read without proper context appears to prohibit Muslims from having friends among non-Muslims. There are many xenophobic Muslims who still think
that this injunction holds true today. They ignore the fact that it was directed toward those who were determined to wipe out the new religion at its inception. Had this injunction been meant for all times the world would have not seen the great flowering of the arts and sciences that happened through interaction of Islam with Christianity and Judaism in Spain under the Moors (711-1492) and in the Ottoman Empire under the Turks (1342-1924) and also with the Hindu religion in India during the Mughal period
(1508-1857). Another misconception still being perpetuated by many Muslims and non-Muslims is that the Qur'an condemns and rejects all other religions. There is an all-encompassing and clear declaration in the Qur'an that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). This should have put to rest the controversy about the Afghan man who
converted to Christianity and any Muslim who chooses to leave Islam for another religion.
Religion is a personal and private matter and the society or the state has no say in anyone's personal religious preference. Perhaps Islam is more tolerant and accepting of other faiths than some of them are of Islam. Why then do such misunderstandings continue in the present? The fault lies squarely with the Muslims themselves. Instead of adopting a more reasoned approach toward their faith, many Muslims are comfortable in accepting centuries-old commentaries and explanations even
though they are repeatedly reminded by the scripture to think and understand the world
around them. Saudi Arabia is a good example where school textbooks still teach
superiority of Islam over other religions and advise Muslims not to have non-Muslim friends. No wonder such intolerance was the incubator for the self-righteous and xenophobic beliefs of the 9/11 hijackers. There is an interesting debate going on among the Muslims in the West. A good many of them still believe in literal
interpretation of the sacred text and are content in living in their comforting and
comfortable self-created cocoons. Others with a more moderate and pluralistic attitude want to look at their faith and understand it according to the times we live in. This debate that is rather familiar to other religions is relatively new for Muslims. Time will tell whether Muslims will want to live in the soothing world of the status quo or forge ahead as confident citizens of this world at ease and at peace with themselves and
with the followers of other religions. Their faith will not diminish by being inclusive.
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