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Muslims must reclaim religion from own extremists

Feb 04,2015 - Last updated at Feb 04,2015

Throughout history there has been no shortage of groups who cloaked themselves in the mantle of religion to commit the most horrific acts of violence, sometimes even among people of their own faith.

Today, Al Qaeda and most recently IS continue to misrepresent and manipulate what is basically a religion of peace and tolerance, Islam, for their own political and social ends, most recently manifested through the barbaric burning to death by the so-called Islamic State of the Jordanian pilot it had captured.

In the West, and particularly in the United States, political commentators and experts on the political right gleefully capitalised on the butchery of Al Qaeda and IS to present Islam and Muslims in general as violent, incompatible with Western values and a serious threat to the Western way of life.

Most recently, following the massacre at Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, notorious Islam-basher Steve Emerson appeared on Fox News to criticise Western Europeans for not dealing with their Muslim “menace”, claiming incorrectly that “There Are Actual Cities Like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in. In parts of London Muslim religious police that beat and wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according in religious Muslim attire.”

After an avalanche of criticism of Emerson, including from British Prime Minister David Cameron who labelled Emerson “a complete idiot”, Emerson retracted his statements with an apology.

The irony is that without IS and Al Qaeda’s own extremist misrepresentation of Islam, the Emerson types would find little reception for their bigotry.

Instead, not only does this extremism play into the hands of those eager to vilify a whole religion, it also sows confusion about what the true tenets of Islam are among many Muslims who may not have read every passage of the Koran to know better.

The Hebdo massacre by Al Qaeda and the IS atrocities in Syria and Iraq illustrate how the questions of blasphemy, jihad and pictorial representations of the prophet Mohammad have been completely distorted by Muslim extremists.

After shooting the Hebdo staffers, the gunmen were heard shouting “the prophet has been avenged”, for what they considered insulting cartoon images of the prophet that the satirical publication had ran over the years.

What is little known, however, is that the Koran itself does not forbid representing the prophet in image form.

Furthermore, if we look at Islamic law, according to Professor Christiane Gruber, Islamic Book Arts scholar at the University of Michigan, “there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the prophet”.

In fact, the prophet Mohammad has been depicted in beautiful historical and poetic texts over the past seven centuries in both Shiite and Sunni traditions and in varying manifestations.

It is only in much more recent history that Salafist and extremist interpretations of Islam, presenting themselves loudly as the “true, pure Islam”, have endeavoured to ban images of the prophet and to violently attack those who continue to do so, especially if in a mocking way.

The “punishment” the Hebdo gunmen considered themselves to have meted out was for the sin of blasphemy. 

In reality, however, there is no punishment for blasphemy in the Koran. 

As explained by CNN commentator and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, “like so many of the most fanatical and violent aspects of Islamic terrorism today, the idea that Islam requires that insults to the prophet Mohammad be met with violence is a creation of politicians and clerics to serve a political agenda”.

There are more than 200 verses in the Koran in which contemporaries of the prophet Mohammad commit acts that would be considered blasphemous, yet nowhere does the Koran recommend punishing these individuals. 

Nor did the prophet himself, according to the Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiddudin Khan, protest the abuses he received. 

Muslim extremists consider killing blasphemers as jihad, one of the most highly misunderstood Islamic concepts.

The ignorance surrounding the true meaning of jihad is shared by both the extremists who kill and maim in its name, and by the Western media.

In Arabic, the word “jihad” does not mean fighting or killing or war. The word for war in Arabic is “harb”, whereas fighting or killing means “qital”.

The correct translation of the word jihad is struggling, striving, or exerting an effort.

The main jihad that Islam promotes is the inner jihad, an ongoing battle against the self. 

It is a struggle for the strength and willpower to refuse to give in to base desires and whims, to exercise morality and self-discipline.

In the Hadith (the recorded sayings and teachings of the prophet), the prophet said: “The real jihad is to strive against the ego in order to obey God.”

The outer jihad, fighting the enemies of Islam, exists too, but only under very strict and clear conditions. It must be agreed upon by a unified Muslim nation under a knowledgeable leader, and strictly prohibits the harming of women, children and invalids, the demolishing of houses and even the burning of trees.

Responsibility for correcting misrepresentations of Islam falls primarily on moderate Muslims themselves, who are the vast majority of Muslims.

This must include understanding their religion thoroughly in order to authoritatively counter extremist interpretations, speaking out against governments or groups that misconstrue Islamic concepts for political or social reasons, and engaging the Western media as full citizens of their adopted Western countries.

The writer is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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