Understanding Islam

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“ISIS”, “Al-Qaida”, suicide bombing, “Muslim” intolerance and all the rest of it: anyone with an even elementary knowledge of Islamic learning and culture will know how strange and alien, indeed how “extreme” and unfamiliar the picture so often painted of Islam today is, especially when viewed in the context of the vast sweep of Islam’s great civilisational history, where it has been a paragon of peaceful coexistence, cultural diversity, scientific learning, broadmindedness and deep spirituality quite unparalleled elsewhere in human history.

Inherited and media prejudices

The first obstacle that some people of a “Western” background may encounter in their attempt to try to even-handedly understand Islam, is the problem of inherited or media-rooted prejudices as to the nature of Islam. Some imagine Islam to be antithetical to all that Western civilisation means; given the existence of these false prejudices, for many Westerners Islam becomes a kind of negative self-definition: “it is what Westerners and Westernness are not!”

The truth is Islam has been intimately culturally intertwined with Western civilisation for almost its entire history. It is an incontrovertibly established historical fact that without the works of (amongst many others) the Muslim philosophers and scientists Avicenna and Averroes, the emergence of the university and the development of Western philosophy and science would have been literally impossible (Avicenna is the most cited philosopher in the work of the greatest Western medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, and was the single most important writer on medicine in Europe until the 18th century). The music of Muslim Spain greatly affected “Western” music, not least because that most familiar of instruments, the guitar, is simply a modified version of the Arabic “oud”. The pointed arch, without which the gothic cathedrals that so define Europe would be unrecognisable, is of direct Islamic architectural influence. Carpets, coffee, cheques, chess, soap, shampoo (and regular washing), windmills, the development of love poetry, fountain pens, the “number” 0, three-course meals and algebra are all indispensable elements of Western culture and history, and they are all of Islamic origin. The influence, naturally, runs far deeper than could possibly be illustrated here, but the point is clear.

Psychological obstacles to understanding Islam

Yet media and historical misrepresentations of Islam are also deeply rooted – rooted in the Western subconscious, that is. Many Western people of the early 21st century approaching any traditional form of religion for the first time, and especially Islam, are encumbered with a whole range of psychological barriers stemming from their specifically European post-Christian cultural background. In The Secularisation of the European Mind, the great British historian Owen Chadwick presents an analysis of the many factors that have led to the contemporary Western European “closedness” to religion. Why was it that the Victorian father would go to church, whereas his own Edwardian son would stay at home? Britain’s Victorian “crisis of faith” came about in large part due to the advent of scientific criticism of scripture (which seemed to demonstrate that the Bible could not be the literal word of God), and the impact of Darwinian biology (which led people to doubt the doctrine of the creation of the world by God).

Simultaneously, liberalist philosophies such as that of John Stuart Mill emphasised the moral right of an individual to choose his or her own worldview and system of belief, irrespective of the truth value of that belief. Free individual choice, for its own sake, became more important than any notion of “truth.”

Liberalism, of course (in the sense of a philosophy promoting individual liberty above all else), would go on to become probably the dominant social and political value of modern society.

In contemporary British society, which has a broadly “relativist” character (in the sense of tending to reject the idea that there is in any sense an “absolute” truth), it is sometimes surprising to find how firmly, almost religiously, certain concepts are believed in – concepts the real application and meaning of which are often only half-understood.

In his Secularisation of the European Mind, Chadwick shows that while liberalism as a belief in freedom and liberty certainly seems admirable enough in itself, excessively naive understandings of the meaning and scope of these concepts leads to “general scepticism in philosophy, general agnosticism in religion, and eventual anarchy in politics; scepticism in philosophy and agnosticism in religion, that is, irrespective of the teaching being offered by philosophers or religious men. The truth or otherwise is not here in point. Even if something is true, the ordinary man is put into the situation where he cannot decide.” It is historically demonstrable that liberalism itself arose as a way of dealing with the shock of the new social diversity brought about by the Protestant Reformation – Europe in the Middle Ages was one of the most profoundly religious cultures in the world, and one of the most unified, sharing in common a religion (Catholicism), a system of higher education (that of scholasticism), and a scholarly language (Latin). As Brad Gregory has shown in his excellent The Unintended Reformation, despite its many excellent aspects the Reformation brought that unity to an end, and led to the sudden transformation of Europe on many levels; the new freedom that it offered for the individual Christian believer to interpret religion for his or her own self (a process which would eventually lead to Western Europeans being able to read booklets like this one without fear of persecution) led to a sudden mass profusion of different views regarding fine details of Christian doctrine, each impossible to verify as true. The sheer abundance of irreconcilable beliefs, along with the religious wars that they quickly gave rise to, fostered the twin emergence of both the doctrine of “tolerance” (in order to stem the violence) and of a widespread belief in the relativity of truth. (to account, perhaps, for the unprecedented new profusion of truth claims).

Therefore the emergence, and subsequent character and development, of liberalism had a great deal to do with the specific nature of Europe’s medieval religious uniformity, and the way in which this bubble was burst during the Protestant revolution. In the Islamic world, of course, religious diversity had existed from the very beginning, and the stipulation in Islamic Sacred Law that religious minorities be protected allowed for Christian and Jewish communities to very often thrive under Muslim rule (as in Muslim Spain), without this leading in any sense to a form of relativism, or implying that the truth value of the respective religions was in any sense unknowable, simply because more than one truth claim existed.

Of course, not all of the questions that may arise as a result of the constant barrage of media misrepresentation can be answered here, nor those which arise from the psychological obstacles to understanding Islam which reinforce that misrepresentation, but we have done our best in what follows to give as clear a picture of the real nature of Islam as possible, in a manner that will reveal the now very ubiquitous distortions of Islam to be exactly that, distortions and no more, unfounded, fabricated and quite baseless.

The existence of God

The seven heavens and the earth, and all that is in them glorify Him; and there is nothing but that it proclaims His praise, but you do not understand their glorification. Surely He is All-clement, All-forgiving. (Qur’an, “the Chapter of the Night Journey” 17:44)

He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; … He is with you wherever you are. (Qur’an, “the Chapter of Iron” parts of 57:3-4)

A town cannot be without a mayor, a needle without a maker or an owner, nor a letter without a writer. (Said Nursi, The Book of Light, the Resurrection Epistle)

Islam teaches belief in one god, and that this God is not some arbitrarily chosen god amongst other gods, but the beginninglessly eternal reality, the Only God, Who did not beget, nor was He begotten (Qur’an 112:3). Familiar causal concepts of coming into existence from nothing, and then leaving existence because of physical or other forms of deterioration, apply to us but not to Him, for He is the Author of nature (and thus the Author of causality itself): He is Reality Itself.

Some in modern times may ask “how do we know that such a ‘Reality Itself’ actually exists?” or even “who created God?” Yet only someone who has not understood the fundamental claim of theism could ask the latter question in seriousness, for as we have just seen, God is non-composite, eternal and timeless, and is the source of cause and effect itself – some necessary being must account for the fact that the causal world exists in the first place, and that being is God.

The answer to the former question – that of how we can know that God exists – is that our knowledge of the existence of God has two sources. On the one hand, logic and reason tell us (amongst many other rational proofs) that the physical beings (individually or taken as a whole) in the cosmos in which we live cannot be the source of their own existence. It is no accident then that the great sages of Ancient China and India independently came to the same conclusion as did Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (not to mention Plotinus, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Planck, Gödel and many others): a timeless and infinitely rich Being is the source of the world of phenomena that we are each a part of and that we each experience over the course of our lives. Without a Necessary Being, without there being “Being Itself”, how could there be anything at all? And once we see all of the individual, intelligible, coherently meaningful and beautifully balanced creatures and things around us, how could we possibly ascribe them to unconscious forces? As Imam Nursi says in the “Second Impossibility” of his Epistle on Nature:

If an existent being constitutes a unity [i.e one particular thing – Nursi is here referring to the existence of individuals and individual identities], there is no doubt that it has its origin in one being and one hand; this truth comes  on the authority of the principle that states ‘a unity can only issue from that which is itself unity’. This is especially the case if the specific existent being in question happens to be harmoniously ordered to exceptional perfection, and is sensitively balanced – and if its mode of life is all-inclusive. The ascription of this wondrous, masterful, and finely balanced being to the chaotic hands of a limitless number of inanimate, wayward, unconscious, blind and deaf and brute physical causes is as far from being rationally defensible as one’s assent to a hundred [obvious] logical impossibilities would be. This quite apart from the fact that in their extremely violent state of chaos, the blindness and deafness of these causes becomes even more accentuated, as they become amalgamated and mingle within the endless routes down which possibility may take us. [Each individual] being itself self-evidently shows that it is not the cause of many hands, which would have caused disharmony and chaos, but rather that is issued from one, omnipotent and surpassingly wise hand.

Revelation is the other source of our knowledge of the existence of God. Revelation, a concept which has been central to the majority of human lives for tens of centuries, is the Divine disclosure to human beings of the nature of human existence, the universe, and God Himself.

God’s own words are revealed to a Messenger that He has appointed from amongst mankind, a person made by God to serve as a perfect example of all that men and women should aspire to, both in terms of the beautiful character and treatment of fellow man that the Messenger embodies (which fulfils mankind’s moral and ethical dimension, and in Islam is formulated through the Sacred Law or sharīʿa) and in terms of the closeness to God with which the Messenger has been personally blessed, and which through his teachings, he makes available to those who follow him. In Islam, this revelation comes in the form of the Qur’an, and the message of the Qur’an is exemplified in the life and person of the Holy Prophet Muḥammad, may the blessings and peace of God be upon him. You have a beautiful example in God’s Messenger, for whosoever hopes for God and the Last Day, and remembers God often (Qur’an, the Chapter of the Clans 33:21). This “beautiful example” is a practical, lived example of a life of both action and contemplation, one of complete devotion to God and dedication to fellow man; a life of spiritual and moral perfection, because it is the life of the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil). Authentic sayings of the Holy Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, indubitably provide great inspiration for Muslim altruism, self-sacrifice and spiritual endeavor, words like “Be joined to those who cut you off, give to those who withhold from you, and forgive those who oppress you.” Yet it is actual examples of the moral conduct of the Holy Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, that are perhaps the greatest motivating force for Muslims. One of his Companions famously recounted, “I served the Prophet for ten years, and he never once said to me “why did you do such and such,” or, “why did you not do such and such?” The Holy Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, never retired for the night while there was still any wealth in his possession; he would not rest until it had been distributed to those in need. And famously, when he conquered Mecca with an army of ten thousands Muslims, after two decades of the persecution, torture and killing of his people at the hands of its inhabitants, he forgave them, and guaranteed them their safety, and indeed comforted them, blessings and peace be upon him.

Yet it is not just the moral conduct of the Holy Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, that is the main human source of inspiration for Muslims; his ongoing spiritual effulgence is also a constant source of comfort and internal joy for believers. All of the Sufi orders – and other sources of Islamic spirituality, such as the followers of the great Kurdish sage Imam Said Nursi – trace their spiritual lineage to the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil). Through the “Prayer on the Prophet” (for which numerous formulas exist, and by means of which a believer sends blessings on the Prophet in accordance with the enjoinder in the Qur’anic verse Verily God and His angels invoke blessings upon the Prophet. O you who believe, invoke blessings upon him and greetings of peace (the Chapter of the Clans, 33:56)), Muslims stay ever connected to the light of the spirit of the Holy Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, who Muslims believe is spiritually alive in the “isthmus” world (al-barzakh) (to which human souls depart after they leave this world, and dwell for a time before they journey to their final abode in the Hereafter) whence he can communicate with and, by God’s permission, provide spiritual support to some of the elect of God’s saints, and even those who although not having attained sainthood, sincerely travel the path of Islamic spirituality.

Islam teaches that Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were all messengers from God (may peace be upon them all!); these and many others are mentioned specifically by name in the Qur’an. Yet the number of messengers sent by God is not limited to those directly mentioned in the Qur’an, for in the Qur’an itself God tells the Prophet Muḥammad, blessings and peace be upon him, We have sent revelation to you just as We sent revelation to Noah, and the Prophets after him. And We sent revelation to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, Jesus and Job, Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and We gave to David Psalms;  Messengers We have already told you of before, and Messengers We have not told you of; and to Moses God spoke directly (Qur’an The Chapter of Women, 4:163-164). Elsewhere in the Qur’an, we are told that all of the nations of the world have had a warner sent to them We have sent you with the truth as a bearer of good news and as a warner; every nation has been sent a warner (35:24).

Islam teaches that Judaism and Christianity were both originally religions revealed by God – they were the “islams” of their own time, but in the course of time came to be distorted. Many of the Jews allowed their religion to become excessively formalistic and legalist; when Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, came to purify and renew God’s religion, and usher in a new dispensation, many Jews disbelieved in him. In time’s fullness true Christianity too would be distorted. It was not until the 4th century that consensus was reached amongst Christians as to the nature of Christ, but for both Jews and Muslims (and until the 5th century, around half of all Christians), the conclusion they reached – that Jesus is God and that God is three persons – is unacceptably polytheistic.

Life after death

Will your consciousness survive your own bodily death? Will there still be a “you” after you die – which is to say, will you continue to have conscious experiences in an incorporeal state (in a similar state, for example, to dream-consciousness)? Moreover, if the “heart” of human consciousness does survive the cessation of the beating of the physical heart, will the state in which it subsequently finds itself be determined by the way that your individual consciousness had, in life, interacted with others in the physical world, and by the way it had used your own body? The traditional monotheistic religions are of course in agreement about the reality of life after death, and they are also in agreement about the intimate relationship that exists between one’s moral conduct in this world and one’s state in the Hereafter – and they thus agree that Paradise and Hell are both real.

Plato argued that since human consciousness is uniquely able to apprehend eternal, indestructible truths, i.e. mathematical, logical and moral truths, personal consciousness itself must be indestructible, because it must be of like nature to that by which it can become characterised, i.e. timeless, incorporeal truth. As fundamentally incorporeal, consciousness is inherently not subject to the physical death to which the body is condemned.

Over the centuries, thinkers of all stripes and from all religious traditions have discovered hundreds of reasons to believe that consciousness will continue after bodily death. Said Nursi is especially distinguished in this domain, as he wrote a whole book, entitled The Resurrection Epistle, to prove the immortality of the human self.

Since beauty is endless and eternal, it requires the perpetuation of the existence of those who yearn for it

Beauty involves a relation – there must be an observer to perceive it. God, Who is Absolutely Beautiful, could never be “content with a transient yearner”, that is a transient yearner after beauty – thus, God will cause human consciousness to endure eternally.

Another of Said Nursi’s arguments starts from the preservation of information that we see throughout nature: the memory of a human being, the kernel of a fruit and the seeds of a flower “all indicate the sublimity of the all-encompassing nature of the law of preservation”.

Do you not see that all flowering, fruit-giving beings in the vast spring, and the scrolls particular to them of their actions, and the laws governing their creation, formation and the samples of their forms, are all written and preserved within only a limited number of tiny seeds? The following spring, in spreading open the scrolls of their actions within the account particular to them, with perfect wisdom and order He forms another vast world of spring … Now, if such preservation takes place within such temporary, run-of-the-mill, transient, trivial things as these, is it conceivable that … the actions of man would not be carefully recorded – actions that bear important fruit in the unseen world, the world of the Hereafter, the world of spirits and in universal lordship?

Now, this preservation points to the fact that a momentous accounting book of actions is going to be opened, recording especially the great deeds and pivotal actions of man … how could man possibly depart to non-existence, thereby fleeing from the Almighty Possessor of Majesty whose past actions – miracles of His power – testify that He is able to create all of the possible beings that are going to come into existence in the future? He that brings into existence the winter and the spring, both of which greatly resemble the Resurrection  – how could man flee from Him, and go into the earth and conceal himself? Since he is not taken to account befittingly in this world, he must therefore be going to a supreme court of justice, and ultimate felicity.

Moreover, man has an innate sense of his capacity for eternal life, of the fundamentally indestructible nature of his consciousness, and this is why (as the history of human societies proves to us) he expects to live on forever in an afterlife.

It is because of his capacity that the hopes of man extend into endless eternity, and that his thought encompasses the whole universe, and that his desires stretch out right unto the many varieties of the future happiness [that he anticipates]. All of this indicates that man has been created for eternity, and that he will move away to eternity – and that this world is [merely] a guest house for him, and a waiting room for his [life in the] hereafter.

That it is to say, just as we have been blessed with proper objects corresponding to each of our senses, spectacular sights for our eyes, sublime fragrances for our sense of smell, stirring music for our sense of hearing, and so on, so does our natural “sense of eternity” require a corresponding object – and this will be actualised in the realm of the Hereafter.

The prevailing general attitude today in most parts of Western Europe, regarding the idea that human life continues after bodily death, tends towards a scepticism ostensibly derived from a scientifically-guided, if grim realism, and common sense Is there any evidence that this default scepticism is in fact justified? The idea that human consciousness ends at death necessarily involves the assumption that consciousness is entirely rooted in and dependent upon the physical body: that our sense of our selves as well as of good and evil, and abstract concepts like mathematical entities, universal concepts (like “necessary”, “possible”, “unity” and “beauty” and so on), are all merely incidental by-products of electrical neural impulses, transmitted by chemical changes taking place in the brain.

This profoundly unattractive worldview (known as “epiphenomenalism”) is happily completely lacking in any scientific evidence whatsoever, and enjoys very little support amongst the vast majority of scientists philosophically-minded enough to understand the absurd implications of the theory (which involves the complete subjectivisation of human knowledge, therefore rather putting the objective credibility of the theory itself in danger!). What is touted as evidence – the fact that there is an empirically-verifiable link between brain events and conscious experience – only proves that in so far as consciousness inhabits a body (i.e. during one’s lifetime), it is linked to the body (which is surely obvious in any case). On the other hand, it does nothing whatsoever to indicate that consciousness itself arises out of, or is “reducible” to electrical events in the brain. Indeed, matter and physicality are so radically different to “intelligible” entities (by which I mean the objects of conscious experience) that it is extremely difficult to see how consciousness could simply “emerge” from matter – it seems about as likely as the ocean floor being the origin and fundamental nature of the ocean’s water, or fuel of fire, and so on. Of course, these things seem to be inextricably linked to one another, but this does not mean that they are reducible to one another. Of course, water can be taken out of the sea, but innumerable testimonies of both out-of-body spiritual experiences, and of near-death experiences, provide strong indications that it is also possible to take consciousness out of the body (and consequently, out of the brain).

The problem of evil

The problem of evil (the part of theology that deals with this problem is known as theodicy) is viewed by many contemporary thinkers in the West as far and away the single most powerful argument against the existence of God. How could a god, who in the Christian conception loves his creation, does not want evil to happen and yet has the ability to stop it (being omnipotent), nonetheless allow so much evil to reign throughout so much of his creation? In other words, a “good” god who allows this to take place cannot really be “good”, in which case the “good” god must not exist.

For Islam, this view of God suffers from the defect of making the moral law more absolute than God Himself, Who in the Islamic conception Himself created the moral law. Moreover, in the Islamic conception, the created world is the manifestation and “theatre of the Divine Names.” In His nature, God is both beautiful and majestic; what we call “evil” is only so from our own limited personal realities – and rightly in so far as the word applies to human actions, just as we call a murderer “evil” and he is rightly punished; yet the evil can be properly ascribed only to the murderer, not to God Himself. In The Thirteenth Flash, Imam Said Nursi says:

the creation of evil is not itself evil, but the “human acquisition” (kasb – meaning free human actions) of evil is evil. This is because [God’s] creation and existentiation anticipate all of the consequences [of a particular thing], and since the existence of a single evil sometimes precipitates a great many good things, the existentiation of that evil, with respect to its consequences, is itself good. For example: Fire has hundreds of beneficial effects, and if people make it a means to evil for themselves, they cannot thereby claim that the very fact of fire having been brought into existence is itself evil … Now, since human acquisition is a particular initiation [of an action], it becomes the cause of a particular evil consequence, and that acquisition becomes evil; bringing into existence from nothing, on the other hand, pertains (yataʿallaq) to all of its consequences, and this is why [God’s act of] bringing evil into existence is not itself evil, but good.

In his Signs of Miraculousness Imam Said Nursi explains that created beings are each possessed of two dimensions: that which is mulk, or this-worldly, and that which is malakūt, or manifest in the spiritual world. Some aspects of destiny can seem cruel, but this is because if we are in a state of inadequate spiritual realisation, we are able to see only the former, outward dimension; were the inner dimension of apparent “evil” to be shown to us, we would discern the Divine compassion and wisdom underlying all things and events. Elsewhere in The Thirteenth Flash Imam Nursi further explains what it is about the nature of things that necessitates the existence of evil:

The Majestic Creator of this universe has two types of Names, those of beauty, and those of majesty; now, these Names of beauty and majesty demand that their spheres of influence (aḥkām) become revealed in particular, independent manifestations. It is for this reason that the Majestic Creator has mixed opposites in the universe with one another, and has placed each one facing the other, and in a state of [attempting to] outdo one another, and of pushing one another back, and made them to exist in a state of wisdom and profit-bearing competition with one another, and then caused the opposites to each overstep one another’s limits

The misrepresented image of Sharīʿa in the West

Ever since the tragic events of the beginning of the new millennium, 9/11, “Sharia” has become a popular anti-Islam buzzword, that immediately evokes images of draconian punishments, and horrifying scenes of abuse and oppression – a Medieval system of law, apparently, that Muslims wish to impose on the West; the antithesis of all that is free, liberal and democratic.

The extraordinary thing (at least for those who enjoy memories that stretch back slightly longer than 15 years) is that the numerous “organisations” around the world currently providing Western media with abundant gory material to use as ammunition against “Sharia”, the “Shabab” (founded no earlier than 2004), “Boko Haram” (2002), and, of course, “ISIS”, did not exist until long after the attacks on New York; and before 9/11, even “al-Qaida” was barely more than a vague rumour – in fact, most people, both East and West, had never even heard of it. The phenomenon of suicide bombing, today tragically thought of in connection with Islam by people of a more limited level of historical consciousness, is so bizarre precisely because it directly contravenes fundamental and basic Sharīʿa principles. Even Bernard Lewis, the veteran British-American historian of Islam who is famously both pro-Israel and generally seen as significantly biased and “anti-Islam”, admitted in his recent book Islam: The Religion and the People.

Muslim fighters are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged unless they attack first; not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners; to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities or their resumption after a truce; and to honour agreements. … At no time did the classical jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism as it is practiced nowadays … the practice of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century that has no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition … generally speaking, Muslim tolerance of unbelievers was far better than anything available in Christendom until the rise of secularism.

So is the Sharīʿa really as it is today portrayed by the likes of ISIS, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others? What is the Sharīʿa, and how has it been formulated and applied by the majority of Muslims over the past one thousand four hundred years? The Sharīʿa, which in Arabic literally means “a place to which people come to drink therefrom and to draw water”, as well as “a way to water,” refers to the Sacred Law of Islam, based upon the Qur’an and the Sunna, that was traditionally seen by Muslims as a practice and a way of life by which human life could be sanctified, by which the individual human being might become closer to his Creator. Yet it was also a system of law by means of which Islamic societies throughout the history of Islam were governed, political entities like the Abbasid Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, right up until the beginning of the 20th century. Now, the modern states that form part of “the Muslim world” do not govern by Sharīʿa as traditionally understood; the vast majority are West-imitating nation states with secular constitutions, that may periodically pay lip-service to Sharīʿa in order to present themselves to the general population in a more pious light; if at all, most will apply a version of sharīʿa only in determining personal status issues (marriage, divorce, child custody etc.).

Only about 5% of the content of a Sharīʿa text deals with punishments (ḥudūd) for adultery, murder and other crimes, and yet this is the only aspect of Sharīʿa that most Westerners are familiar with – and even then it is a very distorted image. What of the other 95%? What of the fact that the Sharīʿa itself deliberately makes ḥudūd convictions contingent on incredibly stringent conditions, such that it is almost literally impossible for someone to be convicted? In order for someone to be convicted of and stoned for adultery, for example, four reputable, law-abiding citizens have to actually see, directly with their own eyes, the actual reproductive organs of the guilty parties during the act of intercourse! It is no surprise, then, that in the whole 600 year history of the Ottoman Empire, which took Sharīʿa very seriously, precisely one (1) adultery conviction was ever made. That is, the very heavy punishment was meant to be a deterrent, with a vanishingly small chance of ever being applied. The same goes for the crime of theft; contrary to the completely unprecedented brutality of groups like the Shabab with their absurdly wanton and random acts of violence, a thief’s hand was almost never amputated by the state, because the law only applied to a very specific form of theft, and conviction was contingent upon two reputable, law-abiding citizens having witnessed the crime. As Dr. Umar F. Abdallah explains in his Mālik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period:

Islamic law ordained that a thief’s right hand be cut off if he or she were sane, of age, and not compelled to steal by intimidation or dire circumstances such as poverty. The stolen goods also had to have a certain minimal value and to have been stolen from a protective enclosure (ḥirz) that was adequate to protect them. Stealing a purse of gold coins that had fallen on the street would not be punished by amputation but by some other interpretatively based punishment (taʿzīr) such as imprisonment because the purse had not been removed from a protective encloser.

Another unsurprising concern, given the brutality of ISIS and their outlandish “interpretations” of Islam (which arise more than anything else from their adoption of Wahhabi Islam, which rejects the vast majority of principles in Islamic Sacred Law as traditionally understood) is the status of slavery in Islam. Does Islam really permit slavery? Before answering this question, let us make it absolutely clear that ISIS’ enslavement of the Yazidi community in Iraq has absolutely no basis in Islamic Sacred Law – first of all, because ISIS have, by consensus of Muslim ulama, absolutely no legitimate authority to fight a war on behalf of Islam, and secondly because even if ISIS were a legitimate entity, the Yazidis were not engaged in aggressive operations against them; and thirdly and most importantly, the Yazidis have protected status under Islamic law (as attested to by Islamic history).

The Prophet Muhammad himself, blessings and peace be upon him, is thought, alongside his Companions, to have freed literally tens of thousands of slaves. Indeed, his practice was to free all of the slaves that were in his possession or whom he had been given, such that when he died, blessings and peace be upon him, he had no slaves to be inherited.

The fact of this mass freeing of slaves indicates first of all that slavery was an extremely prevalent social reality in 7th century Arabia, just as it was across the vast majority of the rest of the world; moreover, that one of the aims of the new Islamic dispensation was to release as many people as possible from their status as slaves. But did Islam not abolish slavery all together, and if not, why not? The truth is, Islam did completely forbid slavery, at least in the sense in which it is usually understood. Descending with armed men upon a village in Africa, and forcing men and women onto boats under pain of death, to be shipped away in chains to work for their new masters (the last slave born on African soil to have been enslaved by the United States of America, Cudjoe Lewis, died in 1935) is completely and utterly forbidden in Islam, across all four of the schools of legal thought (madhāhib). Of course, notoriously, 12-15 million slaves were shipped to the Americas in this way between the 16th and 19th centuries.

In point of fact, anyone seeking to discover the Sharīʿa laws pertaining to slavery in classical works of Islamic Law is bound to be thwarted by the fact that no chapter on slavery exists. This is because the only type of bondservants legally acknowledged in the classical texts is prisoners of war, and are thus only discussed in the section on “captives”.

The idea that in a war situation the captor has the right – rather than to kill his enemy-combatant prisoner or to set him free – which from a blunt military perspective carries the risk of increasing the strength of the enemy side – to put the captive into service in unpaid work, is normative in human history, across cultures.  Prisoners in War, the 2010 book edited by Sibylle Scheipers, confirms this:

Slavery had long been a major feature of captive- taking in the ancient and medieval world. It continued in the Mediterranean, Balkans, and Eastern Europe throughout the later Middle Ages, though on a reduced scale. The rise of two powerful, universalist empires at either end of the Mediterranean—Spanish Habsburgs in the west and Ottomans to the east— prompted a resurgence around 1500. One estimate places the number of Muslim slaves in sixteenth-century Italy at around 40,000 (…)

More than that, until very recently, most important moral and legal philosophers have considered this “law of war” to be also a feature of natural law, amongst them the famous Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius, widely seen as one of the fathers of International Law.

In his great work De Jure Belli ac Pacis, Hugo Grotius (who had direct experience of prison and of escape therefrom) entitled a chapter ‘Moderation in regard to prisoners of war’, but the definition of prisoners of war was vague, apparently encompassing ‘the captured subjects of the enemy’, and the default assumption about them was that captivity normally meant enslavement. To modern eyes it is not one of Grotius’ better chapters, and it is seldom cited today. Yet it is a true reflection of the fact that our assumptions today about how prisoners should be treated were not shared in earlier centuries (Scheipers (Ed.) Prisoners in War).

Some pre-Islamic practices – the custom of female infanticide, for example – were directly abolished by the Islamic revelation. The Qur’an says, regarding the onset of the Resurrection, that the buried infant shall be asked for what sin she was slain (Qur’an, the Chapter of the Overthrowing, 81: 8-10) Elsewhere it condemns the extreme sexism of pre-Islamic Arabia whenever any of them is given the news of the birth of a girl, his face darkens, and he is filled with gloom. In his shame he hides himself away from people because of the evil news which he has received: Shall he keep her and suffer contempt – or shall he bury her in the dust? How ill they judge! (Qur’an, the Chapter of the Bee, 16:58). Other practices, like captive-slavery, however, while in desperate need of reform, were too deeply-rooted in society and, perhaps, a sense of natural law, to be simply abolished all at once – it would have turned the social order on its head.  What the Islamic revelation did, then, was to legislate to improve the situation of bond-captives, by demanding they be given certain rights; and at the same time Islam gave intense encouragement to those responsible for them to free them, linking the expiation of a great many crimes and sins to the freeing of slaves. Accidental death (Qur’an, the Chapter of Women, 4:92), and the breaking of oaths (Qur’an, the Chapter of the Table, 5:89) are both to be expiated in this way, to give just two of a great many examples. As Imam Said Nursi says in his Munāẓarāt:

The rulings of the Sacred Law are of two types. The first type are those rulings that the Sacred Law has itself instituted, and these are pure beauty and absolute goodness. The second type are the laws prevalent amongst humankind, which Islam has regulated and adjusted. That is, Islam takes a practice from a specific time and place and reforms it, eliminating its barbaric form, and putting it into a form that can be applied in accordance with humankind’s innately good nature, making it the lesser of two evils, and using it as a means of reaching a good that is complete and real. For all of a sudden completely abolishing a practice that has sway over human nature itself, entails suddenly turning human nature on its head. The Sacred Law did not institute captive-slavery; it transformed it from its barbaric manifestation, to a form that leads inevitably to complete freedom.

The Qur’an (the Chapter of Mankind, 76:8) praises those who give food, for the love of Him, to the needy, the orphan, the captive. The traditional exegetes on this verse note that it guarantees an inalienable right to captives, namely that of being fed. Hadith reports (that is, the collections of the narrations of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad blessings and peace be upon him) also show that he provided for the clothing of captives, and indeed specified that they must be of the same quality as the garments which one wears oneself. Islamic history is full of reports of extraordinarily kind treatment of captives; when a foreign ambassador came to visit the second Caliph ʿUmar Ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, the Companion of the Prophet Muḥammad, blessings and peace be upon him, he thought ʿUmar – then one of the two or so most powerful men in the world – was a bondservant, because of the manner in which he was dressed, and until he was made aware of his mistake, the ambassador sought for “the Caliph” amongst people who were in fact bondservants, because of the rich clothes in which they were dressed. Because of the strong enjoinders from the Prophet Muḥammad, blessings and peace be upon him, to treat captives well, the Meccan polytheists taken captive after the Battle of Badr were embarrassed to find themselves given better food by their captors they their captors ate themselves. After all, a famous hadith states:

Your bondservants are your brothers whom God has placed in your care. Anyone who has a brother in his care should feed him with what he himself eats and clothe him in what he himself wears. Do not oblige them to do what is too much for them. If you do, then help them! (Bukhari).

Finally, to the argument that the “Modern world” has moved on, and that all other systems of law should thus now be let go in favour of the adoption of the principles laid down by the Geneva Conventions, one might respond that one difficulty with the Geneva Conventions is that governments which themselves officially endorse them often feel the need to come up with “moral” arguments for contravening them (e.g. post-9/11 USA, the UK, Israel). More realistic approaches to these moral questions, while perhaps less idealistic and sentimentally gratifying, certainly ensure that moral hypocrisy is avoided.

The five pillars of Islam

The first of the Five Pillars is the necessary condition for the spiritual validity of all of the rest, for through it, one becomes a Muslim. This is the Testification (shahāda – lit. “witnessing”) that there is only one God, that is, that there is nothing worthy of worship other than God. In practice, many human beings worship – in the sense of maximal devotion and adoration – imagined perfect worldly, material circumstances – the perfect home, career, spouse and so on; they worship the people in whose hands their material prosperity lies, they worship being seen a certain way in the eyes of others, and a kind of material vision of happiness – which can however never be true happiness. Islam teaches that this form of maximal devotion and adoration should never be directed towards material things; it should be solely for the Creator of those things, Who brought them and the whole world into existence, a world the structure and interrelationality of which bears the mark of His wisdom and compassionate plan for humanity. All that we know and love and desire in this world and throughout our short lives is good when it is sought after and enjoyed for His sake, and – as He has prescribed – for the common good of our fellow human beings. Yet in themselves, without reference to the meaning bestowed upon them by the Source of their being, material things are of no value – how, after all, can something that is devoid of all meaning be valuable? As Imām Nursī says in the First Word:

It would be foolishness to kiss the feet of a poor man coming to give you a gift from a king, without recognising who the gift has been sent by. Praising and showing affection for the people apparently bestowing blessings, while forgetting the ultimate, real Benefactor, is, however, an example of foolishness a thousand times more extreme.

The Testification, saying there is nothing worthy of worship but God, then, is recognition, adoration and devotion to the Source of all being, Reality Itself, Who gives and takes away as part of His plan for the human soul; we human beings who, through the ups and downs of the test of our lives, develop and grow, and mature in soul, such that in the Hereafter we can bear the fruits concealed in the seeds of our life and actions, and fulfil, for all eternity, our true natures.

The second pillar is prayer, or more properly, the Prayer, a Muslim’s spiritual link with his Lord; five times a day, all Muslims, men and women, turn to Mecca in a rhythmic series of prostrations and recitations that are as it were the meditative eye of the storm of the hectic bustle of daily human life; an internal oasis of calm and spiritual light, through which Muslims refocus, take stock and remind themselves of the purpose of the lives that they return to at the end of the Prayer.

The third pillar is the giving of charity – what is called the poor tax (zakāt); that the more fortunate give those less fortunate some of the wealth that God has given them. And give them of God’s wealth, which He has given you (Qur’an, the Chapter of Light, 24:33) – the wealth is fundamentally God’s – He is its Creator and Bestower – and He tests the rich by asking them to give 2.5 % of their wealth (required to be given to the poor by individuals who have had over a minimum amount of money saved for an entire year) in order to completely abolish poverty. Islamic societies were the first “welfare” societies; where the poor were entitled to have their difficult circumstances alleviated. It is the sharīʿa that guarantees this – money is to be taken from the rich, if they will not willingly give it, in order to be given to the poor, because receiving the poor tax is seen as a right granted by the Divine, the Bestower of wealth. The fourth pillar is fasting in the month of Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’an was revealed, in solidarity with the poor, and as a spiritual exercise cultivating qualities of discipline, self-denial and non-indulgence. This is the month in which Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual activity between dawn and dusk, and busy themselves with the practice of the Divine Remembrance (dhikr), and reading and reflecting upon the Qur’an. Yet it is also a month of material blessings and joy, and after dark, a festival month of gatherings of families and friends, and of true appreciation of the gift of food and drink. As a hadith states “a person who fasts has two joys; joy when he breaks his fast, and joy when he meets his Lord” that is, in the Hereafter. The last pillar is that of the Pilgrimage (ḥajj) to Mecca. Let us leave it to Malcolm X to describe it to us with his superlative eloquence; in a letter that he sent from Mecca – for Malcolm, the ḥajj was the ultimate affirmation of the true spiritual equality of man before God:

Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colours and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colours.

I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca. I have made my seven circuits around the Ka’ba, led by a young Mutawaf named Muhammad. I drank water from the well of the Zam Zam. I ran seven times back and forth between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. I have prayed in the ancient city of Mina, and I have prayed on Mt. Arafat.

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.

You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)–while praying to the same God–with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.

We were truly all the same (brothers)–because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behaviour, and the white from their attitude.

I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man.”

2 thoughts on “Understanding Islam

  1. It is really inspiring to read such post. Islam as a perfect religion and a way of life gives us the best direction on how to invite people to Islam in the most effective way.Muslim scholar

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