Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, self-reflection, and prayer (and, I’m given to understand, wonderful night-time meals with family and friends) will begin soon — and that seems like an excellent excuse to give Muslims a chance to speak for themselves.
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the world’s Muslims have been called upon to address the issue of violence perpetrated by other Muslims. On the one hand, this strikes me as unfair — why on earth should person A have to explain person B’s behavior? — but on the other, it also strikes me as pretty human. That day of horror seared us all, and for non-Muslims, the question seems to boil down to: “Hey Muslim person, why I shouldn’t fear you?” Unfair, perhaps, but human.
So, I often write, here and elsewhere, in defense of Islam and Muslims — or, as I see it, in defense of the American values of equality, liberty, freedom of religion, and so on. I have a Masters Degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and have read and reviewed several shelves-worth of books about the faith and the lands in which Islam is the majority religion, and all this provides me with some useful background. But bottom line: I’m not Muslim, and can’t represent the faith.
Actually, even if I were a Muslim, I doubt that I could “represent the faith” — I don’t imagine, for instance, that I can represent Judaism, Jew though I may be. But of one thing I am certain: As I don’t represent Islam, neither do al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or the Revolutionary Guard.
The voices of extremists may be the loudest emerging from the Muslim people, the ummah, right now — or: these voices may be the best amplified by our fears and the people who have reason to feed them — but they don’t represent the ummah.
And here we arrive at my point: Don’t trust me — trust the Muslims who say so in their own words.
Consider first this passage from Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed:
Only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified”…. Contrast this with data taken the same year  from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.
And then consider the following, a small (very small) compendium of Muslim responses to extremism that I have found. You’ll note that some are recent, and some date back — because even though we don’t hear much about it, the world’s Muslims have been continuously condemning extremist violence for some time.
- This past March, a leading Pakistani theologian, known and revered around the world, issued a positively scathing fatwa against terrorism: “Terrorism is terrorism,” Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri wrote, “violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it, or any kind of excuses of ifs and buts.” I posted about this fatwa at the time; you can read about it here.
- Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Shaykh Muhammed Sayyid al-Tantawi, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo (one of the Muslim world’s oldest and most influential institutions) said: “Attacking innocent people is not courageous, it is stupid and will be punished on the day of judgment. … It’s not courageous to attack innocent children, women and civilians. It is courageous to protect freedom, it is courageous to defend oneself and not to attack.”
- Twenty North American imams issued a fatwa against terrorists this past January, equating attacks on North American targets with attacks on Muslims themselves: “These attacks are evil and Islam requires from Muslims to stand up against this evil…. Muslims in Canada and the United States have complete freedom to practice Islam…. In many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice Islam here in Canada and the United States than many Muslim countries…. There is no conflict between the Islamic values of freedom and justice and the Canadian/US values of freedom and justice. Therefore, any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on the freedom of Canadian and American Muslims. Any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on thousands of mosques across North America. It is a duty of every Canadian and American Muslim to safeguard Canada and the USA.”
- In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, British-Muslim author Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad published an essay called “Recapturing Islam from the terrorists,” in which he wrote “Terrorists are not Muslims. Targeting civilians is a negation of every possible school of Sunni Islam. Suicide bombing is so foreign to the Quranic ethos that the Prophet Samson is entirely absent from our scriptures.”
- Professor of Islamic Law Khaled Abou El Fadl wrote in late 2001: “It would be disingenuous to deny that the Qur’an and other Islamic sources offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation. Clearly these possibilities are exploited by the contemporary puritans and supremacists. But the text does not command such intolerant readings. Historically, Islamic civilization has displayed a remarkable ability to recognize possibilities of tolerance, and to act upon these possibilities…. [T]he burden and blessing of sustaining that moral trajectory—of accentuating the Qur’anic message of tolerance and openness to the other—falls squarely on the shoulders of contemporary Muslim interpreters of the tradition.”
- In response to an al-Qaeda bombing of a centuries’ old synagogue in Tunis in 2002, Islamic scholar Dr.Youssef Al Qaradawi told the press: “Anyone who commits these crimes is punishable by Islamic Sharia and have committed the sin of killing a soul which God has prohibited to kill and of spreading corruption on earth.”
- In 2005, Muslim scholar Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti issued a fatwa against the targeting of civilians, pointing out, among other things that “there are more than 100 Verses in the Qur’an commanding us at all times to be patient in the face of humiliation and to turn away from violence, while there is only one famous Verse in which war (which does not last forever) becomes an option.”
- And this, my personal favorite: American Muslims speaking directly to American Muslims, rejecting extremism of all kinds: “Injustice cannot defeat injustice.”
For many, many more sources on Muslims speaking out against violence and extremism, I highly recommend this site, The American Muslim, starting in particular with this post, “Selective Hearing of Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism.”
We have collected 105 fatwas from Islamic scholars, 75 statements by Islamic Organizations (many of these signed by anywhere from 50 to 500 scholars from around the world), and 142 statements by individual Muslims. These are from 30 countries including: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Britain, Chechnya, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, New Zealand, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, U.S., Yemen.
They speak clearly against terrorism, suicide bombing, kidnapping, harming civilians, harming places of worship, weapons of mass destruction. They clarify the Islamic position on minority rights and apostasy. Some directly condemn al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and specific acts like 9/11 or the Madrid bombing.
Finally, it seems I should spare some space for the Qur’an itself, and for the Prophet Muhammad:
By God, he is not a true believer, from whose mischief his neighbors do not feel secure. (from the Hadith [sayings] of the Prophet Muhammad, transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim)
Goodness and evil are not equal. Repel evil with what is better. Then that person with whom there was hatred, may become your intimate friend! And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but people of the greatest good fortune. (Qur’an 41:34-35)
Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Qur’an 5:32)
To any and all Muslim readers, I wish you a Ramadan Mubarak. To my Jews, Shabbat Shalom. And to all of us: Peace.
8/8/10 Update: I got badly confused about my dates last week, which led to not one but two mistakes in the very first paragraph about the start of Ramadan. Rather than load down the text with two strike-throughs, I decided to simply correct the first paragraph to reflect the fact that Ramadan hasn’t actually started yet. My apologies.