October 26, 2020
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A Crisis Of Perception

Neither side understands the other's values and intentions, causing resentments to build and spiral out of control.

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A Crisis Of Perception

It is true that the Quran is invoked for militancy but let me explain the nature of Islam from my book Islam Today (1999). Islam has not turned increasingly militant. It has merely been misinterpreted. Consider how many ways Islam is viewed. Islam is not only attractive mystical poetry, superbly symmetrical architecture and esoteric Sufi thought: Islam is also mobs in the street, young men attacking embassies and images of self flagellation on the television screen. Islam has become all things to all people. It is not only theology; it is also polemics, debate, media images, conflict and a point of view. In our world, Islam is a challenge, a mystery, an enigma.

In becoming all things to all people, the word 'Islam' has lost its refinement and has been mistakenly used as the most recognizable term to categorize a small group of militants in the Middle East. This then throws billions of innocents in with the workings of a relatively tiny group of extremists, greatly clouding the issue.

Islam is a religion of compassion and wisdom. This is evident in many of the verses of the Quran. For example: 'Be foremost in seeking forgiveness'. (Surah 57: verse 21 ); 'Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord' (Surah 3: verse 133); and the next verse, 'Restrain anger and Pardon men' (Surah 3: verse 134). 'When they are angry, even then forgive', advises the Quran (Surah 42 verse 37). These beautiful verses finely illustrate how the Quran is misunderstood by those using it to spread violence and hate, and as a tool to vent their resentments.

Another factor clouding the issue is the media has mistakenly depicted Islam as irrational and violent culture. Rather Islam values intellect as one of its most cherished tenets. In Islam, human beings are God's finest reflection, the culmination of creation. The title of vicegerent is an extraordinary vote of confidence and is bestowed on the species because of its capacity to think and reason. It is to fulfill this destiny that ilm, knowledge, is emphasized; ilm is the second most used word in the Quran after the name of God. Human beings are told to use their mind and to think, in at least 300 places. Numerous sayings support this. The prophet said, 'The first thing created by God was the intellect' Ali is quoted as saying: 'God did not distribute to His servants anything more to be esteemed than intelligence'.

More confusion arises when the western media uses terms incorrectly. A common concept that is widely known but usually incorrectly applied is that of jihad. The concept in Western literature and usage has come to mean holy war, or Muslim fanaticism. In fact Jihad means struggle, and there  are various forms of it; physical confrontation is just one. The holy Prophet identified the greatest Jihad as the struggle to master our passions and instincts. It is therefore a much more complex and sophisticated concept than that bandied about the media.

Consequently, we find ourselves in a crisis of perception. Neither side understands the other's values and intentions. This causes resentments to build and spiral out of control. The major problems that cause so much anger and distress among Muslims are those of the Bosnians and Kosovoans in Europe, the Palestinians in the Middle East and the Kashmiris in South Asia, for example. The routine beatings, torture and killings must stop. Life has become hell on Earth for these Muslims. The West must illustrate to the Muslims that justice will be done in these cases; that the United Nation does not act only to hammer its enemies (as in the case of Iraq). 

In turn, the Muslims must convince the world that the media images of them as law breaking and violent are not true, that foreign embassies diplomats, travelers and non-Muslims are safe in their countries. These acts are one way of capturing the headlines but they are not Islamic in content or spirit. The fight against injustice and oppression must continue but must take other forms. In this way we can progress towards a peaceful and rational dialogue between the West and Islam. By focusing on common goals and altering our ethnocentric viewpoints, we can lessen conflict and facilitate discussions towards peace and tolerance.

(The author is Ibn Khaidun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, USA)

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