Volume 17 Number 3
Islam and the Middle Way
01 June 2004
Extremism is a betrayal of Islam’s essence,states Abduljalil Sajid.
Most people treat Islam and Muslims as synonymous and mutually inter changeable terms. In my opinion the word ‘Islam’ should be used exclusively for the way of life based upon the Qu’ran, the word of God, and Sunnah, the proven practices of the Prophet. ‘Muslims’, as human beings, are free to abide or deviate from Divine Guidance.
Islam has never claimed to be a new faith. It is the same faith that God ordained with the creation of the first man sent to earth. The only difference is in theology, concepts and practices.
In the Constitution of Medina (Sahifat al-Madinah), the Prophet Muhammad legislated for a multi-religious society, based on tolerance, equality and justice, many centuries before such an idea existed anywhere else in the world. Under the terms of this document each religious group enjoyed cultural and legal autonomy. The Jews and Christians were equal with Muslims before the law, in what Murad Hoffman calls the ‘true Islamic model of religious pluralism’.
The Qur’an not only conveys a message of peace, tolerance and compassion; it provides mankind with a global framework for cooperation and a charter for interfaith dialogue. It repeatedly stresses that all peoples have had their prophets and messengers, and that multiplicity of every kind is part of God’s magnificent design: ‘Among his wonders is... the diversity of your tongues and colours.’
This means that prophetic guidance is not limited to any one community, period or civilization. So Muslims—if they are true to their faith—do not claim a monopoly of the truth or of revelation.
The actions of a few Muslim fanatics have been interpreted as vindicating the old idea that Islam promotes violence. All too often in the media the word ‘terrorism’ is coupled with the adjective ‘Islamic’. If Islam were really, as some suppose, a religion of fire and sword, why would ‘the true servants of the Most Merciful’ be defined in the Qur’an as ‘those who walk gently on the earth and who, when the ignorant address them, say “peace” ’?
According to the Qur’an, ‘God does not love aggressors’ and war is only permitted in self-defence, or in defence of religion. When the opportunity for peace arises, Muslims are encouraged to be forgiving and to seek reconciliation, for mercy and compassion are God’s chief attributes. War in itself is never holy, and if the lesser jihad of war is not accompanied by what the Prophet Muhammad called ‘the greater jihad’, the struggle to control the lower instincts and the whims of the ego, then war may be diabolical.
The following principles may be derived from the Qur’an:
Muslims should not ridicule the beliefs of others.
Muslims should not associate with those who ridicule our faith.
When Muslims address those who do not share our beliefs, we should speak with courtesy.
Muslims should invite people to use their reason, appealing to the intellect to interpret God’s words, because there is no contradiction between faith and reason.
Above all, there must be freedom of opinion and discussion both with those who hold other religious views and with those who share our faith—for if we cannot appreciate diversity within our own community, we will certainly not be able to value religious diversity.
If Muslims were to follow these principles, they would become once again a ‘community of the middle way’ (Qur’an 2:143), exercising moderation and avoiding all extremes.
However, before one can begin to apply these principles there has to be the willingness to listen and to engage in dialogue, and there has to be some degree of mutual respect and equality between the two parties. When there is a gross disparity
of wealth, power and privilege, such as exists between Israel and Palestine, dialogue is very difficult. The arrogance and selfishness of the rich nations, and the everwidening gap between them and the rest of the world, generate feelings of resentment and discontent. In Islam a rich man does not merely have a duty to distribute some of his wealth to the poor, but the poor have a right to share in his wealth.
We have to make a choice—individually and collectively—between confrontation and dialogue, destruction and construction, war and diplomacy. True global cooperation will not be possible until we recover an awareness of the ecumenical, ecological and ethical principles which are at the heart of every spiritual tradition. In most of the world’s trouble spots, Muslims have been massacred and tortured and denied their most basic rights. Thousands of innocent people have died in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War. Not unnaturally Muslims feel that they have been treated unjustly by what is euphemistically called ‘the world community’.
As the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, ‘No one creed has a monopoly of spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind’. Those who share this view, and see religious, cultural and ethnic diversity as a blessing, must find the middle way between religious fanaticism and fanatical secularism.
It is essential, as Prince Hassan of Jordan has said, that we promote a dialogue of civilizations, and that we should not allow extremists to hijack Islam or any other religion. It is vitally important to refute those shallow secularists who regard religion itself as inevitably divisive, and to rediscover the ethical principles upon which all the great spiritual traditions are based. It is not simply a matter of respecting religious differences; we have to recover the practical spiritual wisdom which unites us and makes us human.
The Holy Qur’an commands believers ‘to come to common grounds’ (3:64) for interfaith cooperation. Can we find a common ground on which Muslims and non-Muslims stand comfortably in a democratic and pluralistic society? My answer is a resounding yes.
Religious conflict, particularly between Islam and Christianity in the past, or the more recent conflict between Israel and Palestine, more often than not rose out of human excesses and the desire to stir religious passion to support political goals. Muslims, Jews and Christians share similar core values of respect for human life and dignity and profound commitment to charity The Jama Masjid mosque, Delhi, India
and the common good. In fact all religions cherish honesty and sincerity, compassion and love, sacrifice and selflessness, justice and fairness, patience and perseverence. There is no religion that does not regard human dignity and mutual respect as vital aspects of a flourishing civilization.
Islam is a religion of peace. The terms ‘Islam’ and ‘peace’ have the same root, ‘salaam’. Whenever Muslims meet they exchange the greeting, ‘Peace be unto you’. The Muslim also utters this statement at the end of every ritual prayer.
In history, whenever Muslim armies entered a country they would give guarantees of life, property and honour to all the non-belligerents. Even in war Muslims are not allowed to kill an old person, a woman, children, or those who are crippled or disabled. Not even trees and crops may be destroyed.
When the Holy Prophet entered Mecca as victor, everyone was offered amnesty. When Caliph Umar entered Jerusalem he was not even prepared to pray in a Church for fear that those who came after him might treat the place as a mosque and take it away from the Christians. But when the Crusaders took Jerusalem, there was a total massacre of the population.
Islam condemns and rejects all forms of terror. I feel ashamed when I hear that Muslims are breaking the Law of Islam. I sincerely apologize to those who have suffered due to any senseless actions of so-called Muslims.
Islam is firm in asserting that the end cannot justify the means. ‘Good and bad are not equal,’ states the Qur’an (41:34). ‘Replace evil by good.’ If you fight falsehood with falsehood it is falsehood which prevails. If you change evil by evil, it is evil which is victorious. Islam says that evil is to be eliminated by good. This strikes at the roots of fanaticism.
We must address the root causes of terrorism, hatred and hurt. Unless we do this, irrational people will continue to commit heinous crimes against humanity. We must eliminate injustice and exploitation, pray to overcome hatred and violence in ourselves, and rededicate ourselves to peace, human dignity and the eradication of injustice.
There is a famous saying in Islam: ‘Remember, remember, remember. Evil is not in the body. Evil is in the mind, therefore harm nobody. Just change the mind.’
Imam Abduljalil Sajid is the Chairman of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, UK.