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Muslims Speak Out

In this interview with the Washington Post, Habib Ali answers brilliantly questions regarding the very controversial topics of Jihad, suicide bombings, and womens rights in Islam.

What is Jihad? Under what circumstances does Islam sanction the use of violence? What would you tell would be suicide bombers who would invoke Islam to justify their actions?

The Islamic tradition inequivocally condemns any type of aggression toward innocent civilians.

Islam does not sanction armed struggle except when opposing an aggressor who occupies another’s land or in order to help remove oppression from oppressed peoples.

The concept of jihad in the Islamic tradition carries the meaning of exerting all of one’s resources and energies in order to arrive at the realization of truth, preparedness to make sacrifices for the sake of
doing good, and reaching out to others with goodness, seeking nothing in return save the contentment of God.

The root of the word “jihad” in Arabic is to struggle or endure hardship; expending energy & resources. When this is applied to the Islamic context it becomes the effort to advance goodness and
enlightenment. This is the doctrinal understanding found in the original and defining religious texts.

The greatest expression of jihad is the struggle (Ar. mujahada) against the ego in order to bring about its spiritual purification and growth. This jihad is known as the “Greater Jihad” amongst Muslims.

Other forms of jihad are: the Jihad of “word”; the Qur’an tells us: {and struggle against them with it (i.e. with the Qur’an)} (Qur’an, Chapter: 25, verse: 52). The Prophet (peace & blessings upon him) said “the best jihad is that of speaking a word of truth to an unjust ruler”. Other forms include the jihad of educating, the jihad of building functional economies and eradicating poverty, and the jihad of politics, diplomacy and constructive policy creation. However, it is the jihad against injustice, which can include armed struggle as a last and conditional resort, that has dominated the spotlight in our times. As the reality of Jihad has to do with reaching the truth, doing goodness, and reaching out to others with this goodness, armed struggle really has no place here except in two circumstances:

  • Defense against an aggressor (conditioned by right ethical conduct); or
  • To secure for people the freedom to choose their own path to religious truth.

The Islamic tradition forbids suicide; it forbids any form of harm to innocent people. The Islamic tradition advocates the rule of law in the strongest terms.

Islam forbids the taking of life so what drives the suicide bombers to just that? The question about suicide bombings is misleading in that it tends to be framed in such a way as to focus on the “suicidal” nature of the act alone. However, there is something worse at the heart of this.

It is the issue of the treachery, the betrayal of the trust that all innocent people must be permitted to assume as part of a mutually dependent social order. This observation in turn, leads into another question. Is this any more or less horrific than a person who sits behind a button which he presses – bringing death and destruction to thousands – and then returns to his routine without an afterthought? No, both are horrific, and both require humanity to wake up and take responsibility for its actions.

Two things tend to be confused here, one of them is agreed upon, the other is a point of difference.

  • The one we all agree upon is that the crime of these people is that of taking innocent lives, as well as the additional devastation that it brings. This is something which was forbidden by Islamic Law 14 centuries ago, only later to become rejected by modern human conscience.
  • The point of difference here is in the silence of the unasked question: who is responsible for these young people reaching such a point of despair that they would actually want to blow themselves up and others along with them?

Are they alone in the perpetration of such acts? Or can we add to the list of responsible parties the absence of mature and holistic Islamic learning. An absence that has left gaps in people’s understanding of their religion, gaps which extremists are all too quick to fill with disinformation which perpetrators then proceed to act upon. One of the teachings of Islam (which the perpetrators of such acts have missed) is that no matter what hardships and afflictions a person experiences, it can never justify doing anything which contradicts Islam’s ethical framework.

Will it ever be possible to reach a point where people can feel safe from the specter of being accused of “terrorism” for simply positing questions about the extreme injustices and oppression experienced by societies in the Developing South? Injustices driven by pressure from quarters which exert an undue influence on the international community and its institutions rendering them incapable of protecting citizens from such iniquities to the point that young people despair of having a fair legal system, or fair international institutions. These young people may then find themselves listening to the voices which call for vengeance justified by misinterpretations of sacred texts; giving young people promises of paradise in exchange for their miserable situation. Wherever injustice reigns supreme, and hope is lost you find suicide.

In normal criminal cases we give a lot of importance to the forensics and the background of the crime and hold accountable the society which gave rise to the criminal personality; while still holding the criminal responsible for his actions. In the case of the crimes perpetrated by these bombers our accountability is even greater; and the need for investigation and analysis greater still. It is a sad situation that we have arrived to; rectification and healing will require maturity and courage from all communities.

I repeat: Islam categorically condemns the acts carried out by the bombers on the Twin Towers of New York, the Trains in Madrid, the London Bombings and all other attacks aimed at innocents.

Lastly I am grateful for those who have opened a channel of dialogue for individuals seeking to work together and extend bridges between people of sagacity, for the purpose of reclaiming the mantle of leadership from the hands of extremists on all sides who would lead our world into discord and instability. Increasing the circle of dialogue, understanding, and the clarification of differing viewpoints is a reassuring indicator for the future of our small and intimate world.

What are the rights of women in Islam? How does Islam’s view of male and female equality differ from the Western view?

Fairness takes precedence over token forms of quality.

The mistreatment and abuse – mental, physical, and social – of women takes on multifarious forms. Some of those forms are based on a misunderstanding and misuse of religious teachings; while it should be known that any person who mistreats a woman or girl in any way is not called anything but a criminal in our Shariah legal framework.

However, there is a conflation that takes place between the oppression of women versus the philosophy of radical equality on the one hand and the detailed differentiation between a mono-onesize- fits-all gender equalization along with a complete disregard for the immense role that women play in society as mother, educator, caregiver, and homemaker on the other. Real equality is to pay the same due respect to the roles that only a woman can play in society that is granted to other sociopolitical roles; roles that she very often maintains the capacity to perform also if provided the same opportunities. It remains one of the injustices of our age that the criteria for “success” and “worth” have been centered on everything except the qualities and accomplishments of our mothers and those who care for us, imbue us with our identities, and raise our children. We must however, not eglect the situation of many, many women worldwide who have no choice except to play the role of both mother & father, nurturer & provider because of the extreme difficulty of their circumstances. For these reasons I find myself in need of emphasizing that it should be mutual completion of one-another that should be the foundation of the relationship between genders; rather than the cacophony of wrestling voices that we hear today in the talk of gender rights.

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