Islam: An Inside and Outside View

Introduction

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Muslims live in an environment of escalating Islamophobia that is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism that was prevalent during Hitler’s Third Reich in 1930s Germany, which eventually led to the Holocaust. Major Western news organizations around the world, and especially in the United States, are constantly demonizing Muslims. It should be noted that this has been a decades’ old pattern where governments and bigoted entities leverage media conglomerates to spread fear of certain ethnic or religious groups, making it more palatable to the population when those groups are attacked or killed by the thousands or even millions. The Nazis used the same tactic which resulted in the Holocaust already mentioned above. Other obscene examples include the internment of Japanese Americans in the US during World War II, and the crippling sanctions that killed over one million Iraqis, more than half of them children. While humans generally like to claim that we have progressed as a civilization, these heinous crimes could very well continue in the twenty-first century if certain groups and institutions get their way.

While much of the conflict in the world today is couched in religious terms, it is almost always political and based on greed and power, as in the colonization of land like the ongoing Israeli / Palestinian conflict, and the fabricated weapons of mass destruction claims to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, presumably to control its oil reserves, or do God’s work, as discussed later in this article (the rationale changed several times as the unwarranted aggression dragged on). Conflicts often result in blowback, as we have seen with the Afghan mujahidin who were freedom fighters with US backing when they helped to defeat the Russians during the Cold War, then later morphed into the Taliban and are now avowed enemies. Similar situations are occurring in the Middle East, resulting in groups like Al Qaeda, ISIL, Khorasan, etc. seemingly coming out of nowhere. Seldom is any analysis done by the media to determine the root causes of these conflicts and spawning of extremist organizations (e.g., Western aggression and occupation of foreign lands to control energy reserves and the resulting blowback), rather these clashes are presented to millions of television viewers globally, using puerile arguments, as a struggle between the forces of good and evil, with Islam qualifying for the latter category.

To be fair, Islam has more or less been in a state of inertia for centuries and is in dire need of reformation and enlightenment, so Muslims have contributed in some measure to the Islamophobia that permeates Western societies especially, and even some non-Western ones. Many medieval Muslim beliefs and practices that are still common today have nothing to do with Islam, but with people’s imported cultural practices or ideas that have been conflated with Islamic teachings. The goal of this article is to highlight some Muslim beliefs and practices that are quite frankly un-Islamic. While news organizations capitalize on the backwardness of Muslims and posit that they are incompatible with modernity and civil society, many Muslims have unwittingly helped due to their lack of awareness of the history behind some of the alien ideas that have been imported into Islam. It is noteworthy that this phenomenon is not specific to Islam only; no religion is untainted by accretions, the most famous example being December 25th which is the birth of the Roman sun god that became Jesus’s birthday (the pagan converts having brought this into Christianity). Another example is the Christmas tree which came from European / German paganism.

Islam currently has over one and a half billion followers and is the fastest growing religion in the world. According to Pew Research, by the year 2030 Muslims will number 2.2 billion and make up 26.4% of the world’s 8.3 billion people. It is quite possible that this growth is driving some of the paranoia and Islamophobia currently prevalent in both Western and non-Western societies. Below are some examples that media organizations often cite to demonstrate why Islam is incompatible with modern societies. As the evidence shows, the origins of these practices have nothing to do with divine revelation and Islamic teachings. Since the focus is on areas related to how Islam is presented in the media, this is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the importations into Islam.

Creed

While some media organizations portray Islam as an “other” or “evil” religion, it is a monotheistic faith and many of the same Biblical prophets and their stories are mentioned in the Qur’an, including but not limited to Noah (Nuh), Lot (Lut), Abraham (Ibrahim), Ishmael (Ismail), Isaac (Ishaq), Joseph (Yusuf), Moses (Musa), David (Daoud), Solomon (Sulaiman), and Jesus (Isa), may God’s peace and blessings be upon them all. Incidentally Moses is referenced in the Qur’an more than any other prophet. The main point of contention between Islam and Christianity is the status of Jesus. Muslims believe that he was no more than a human prophet like all other prophets before him, whereas Christians believe that Jesus was both God and human and part of a tripartite godhead. Unlike Christians, Muslims do not believe in vicarious atonement, each person is individually accountable to God (Allah in Arabic) on some future Day of Judgment.

The message of Islam can be thought of as twofold: 1) there is a spiritual aspect that focuses on God-consciousness, involving ritual prayer, fasting, charity, morality, etc., and 2) a practical aspect, the underlying goals of which are social justice and egalitarianism. Muslim doctrine is based on two primary sources: the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is direct revelation from God through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad’s reported sayings and actions. The latter source has been an area of much controversy, having been documented more than two centuries after the Prophet’s demise. It is therefore very difficult to discern which ones / how many of the Hadith are genuine, as explained in this article. As shown below, much of the perplexity among Muslims and non-Muslims alike stems not from the Qur’an, but from the Hadith, which many Muslims believe are on par with the Qur’an. The result is that when the Qur’an differs with the Hadith, which is quite often the case on many issues, Muslims develop creative explanations to reconcile the differences between the two sources, and more often than not end up deferring to the Hadith as their ultimate source of authority.

Sanctity of Life

The Qur’an is emphatic that all life, especially human life, is precious. So for example, suicide bombings or collateral damage from bombing campaigns resulting in many innocent deaths are abhorrent and cannot be justified. The Qur’an repeats a directive to the Children of Israel as follows:

Because of this did We ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being – unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind. And, indeed, there came unto them Our apostles with all evidence of the truth: yet, behold, notwithstanding all this, many of them go on committing all manner of excesses on earth. (Q5:32)

Furthermore, the Qur’an’s overall message when it comes to violence is that it should only be used for self-defense, i.e., aggression is not to be tolerated.

And fight in God's cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for, verily, God does not love aggressors. (Q2:190)

Apostasy

There is nothing in the Qur’an or authentic Hadith that prescribes any kind of worldly punishment for apostasy, leaving such accountability to God. The Qur’an is unequivocal in its declaration that faith is a matter of choice and there is no compulsion in religion.

There shall be no coercion in matters of faith. Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error: hence, he who rejects the powers of evil and believes in God has indeed taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (Q2:256)

Whoever believes, let him believe, and whoever rejects belief, let him reject it. We have prepared for those who do evil a fire that envelops them. (Q:18:29)

In a sweeping 226 page report from the Pew Forum, it was quite disconcerting to learn from a survey that a majority in six Muslim countries support the death penalty for those who leave Islam. It would seem that these Muslims either do not know their religion, or they have confused apostasy with sedition. Punishing people for apostasy is a Biblical notion, in fact, according to the Bible, one can be put to death for disrespecting one's parents.

That whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. (2 Chronicles 15:13)

And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

Shari’a (Islamic Law)

In the same Pew report, most Muslims prefer democracy, however, the same Muslim majority also wants to implement Shari’a, but cannot agree on what that means. It may come as a surprise to many Muslims and non-Muslims that Shari’a law was never implemented during the Prophet’s lifetime, and is a much later development. As the Egyptian scholar Nasr Abu-Zaid observed:

The idea of Islam as a blend of religion and state is a modern concept and was absent from the seventh to ninth centuries. There must be a clear separation between religion and state in order for religion to blossom and progress. In the absence of this, creed becomes a religious and political weapon with which to persecute minorities and those with differing religious and political views. Shari’a law is human law and there is nothing divine about it. The penalties stipulated in the Qur’an for fornication, robbery, murder, etc. predated the Qur’an so they cannot be considered Islamic or divine. Some of these laws are Roman, Jewish, or even go further back.

Shari’a law reached its final expression in the thirteenth century and has not been developed since; moreover, Muslims just parrot their ancestors’ understanding of Shari’a from the thirteenth century. The Qur’anic message has to be continuously discovered and rediscovered in light of culture, society, and human advancement. This idea that religious texts are historically determined and culturally constructed is not only rejected in much of the Muslim world but also condemned as atheism; however, the Qur’an alludes to a metaphoric reading within its own text. Several verses admonish believers to lend to God by way of charity, and it will be returned to them multiplied many times over. So the Jews of Medina asked the Prophet a logical question: “How is it that God prohibits usury and then promises to give it on loans?”

There is a famous story in Muslim history about when the early Muslim community was starting up; they went through a lot of persecution. The Prophet advised them to seek refuge in Abyssinia which was ruled by a Christian King at the time. That the Prophet would then turn around and want to treat non-Muslims as second class citizens is unthinkable. As such, polemical Hadith like the following must be rejected as fabrications as they are diametrically opposed to the Qur’anic message of tolerance and living in harmony with others regardless of their creed or ethnicity.

Umar heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) say: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims. (Sahih Muslim Hadith 814)

Since most Muslims prefer democracy, they need to realize that means that all citizens are to be treated as equals and there is no second class status for non-Muslims. It would be the height of hypocrisy for Muslims living in the West to demand equal rights as citizens, then turn around and declare that non-Muslims cannot have the same equal rights if the situation was reversed.

Insulting the Prophet

There is no punishment described in the Qur’an for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an actually mentions that all prophets were persecuted when they delivered God’s messages and some were even killed.

For, indeed, We vouchsafed unto Moses the divine writ and caused apostle after apostle to follow him; and We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration. Yet is it not so that every time an apostle came unto you with something that was not to your liking, you gloried in your arrogance, and to some of them you gave the lie, while others you would slay? (Q2:87)

In fact, even the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle and aunt were vehemently opposed to his divine message and sometimes harassed him according to a number of reports, yet the Qur’an prescribed no earthly punishment for them, leaving the matter to God.

Doomed are the hands of him of the glowing countenance: and doomed is he! What will his wealth avail him, and all that he has gained? In the life to come he shall have to endure a fire fiercely glowing; together with his wife, that carrier of evil tales, who bears around her neck a rope of twisted strands! (Q111:1-5)

On the other hand, the Hadith contain the following:

A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet (peace be upon him) and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) declared that no recompense was payable for her blood. (Sunan of Abu-Dawood Hadith 2049)

The whole idea of killing anyone who insults the Prophet is a later development in Islam that is diametrically opposed to the overall Qur’anic message of peace.

Polygamy and Pedophilia

Although polygamy is frowned upon in modern society and there are laws against it in many countries, it was an accepted practice in bygone eras and a number of prophets supposedly had multiple wives and concubines. Below are a few examples from the Bible.

If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. (Exodus 21:10)

And David took him more concubines and wives out of Jerusalem, after he was come from Hebron: and there were yet sons and daughters born to David. (2 Samuel 5:13)

And he (King Solomon) had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. (1 Kings 11:3)

And Rehoboam loved Maachah the daughter of Absalom above all his wives and his concubines: for he took eighteen wives, and threescore concubines; and begat twenty and eight sons, and threescore daughters. (2 Chronicles 11:21)

This practice continued with the Prophet Muhammad, who reportedly had ten wives. The Qur'an eventually set a limit of up to four wives, provided that the husband can treat them all equitably. It also added that no matter how hard men tried, they will never be able to treat all of their wives impartially, seemingly insinuating that monogamy should be the norm. Some Muslim scholars nowadays who do not subscribe to the immutability of the divine text advocate that polygamy is not a rule but an exception based on circumstances. Others believe that polygamy was permitted primarily as a benefit for widows and orphans during times of war, in fact this statement is supported by the fact that most of the Prophet's wives were either divorced or widowed.

The definition of pedophilia is an obsession with children as sex objects. This accusation against the Prophet is undoubtedly related to a number of Hadith claiming that the Prophet married Aisha when she was six years old, and at the age of nine she went to live with the Prophet, at which time the marriage was consummated when the Prophet was in his early fifties. Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's close friend who eventually became the first caliph after Muhammad's death. This story about Aisha's age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet has been accepted without question in much of the Muslim world for centuries. Even today in some Muslim countries, it is not uncommon in some villages for old men to marry teenage or preteen girls young enough to be their granddaughters, under the guise that they are following the Prophet's tradition. In fact, there are Hadith that purport that the Prophet would visit all of his wives in a single night, so there is a myth in some Muslim quarters that the Prophet's virility never diminished during his lifetime.

In all likelihood, Aisha was at least 15 years old, maybe even 18 years of age when she married the Prophet, we will never know with certainty. Every culture is different, and the Arabs married women within their tribe or from another tribe for a variety of reasons, including maintaining bloodlines, building coalitions, addressing grievances between tribes, and so on. It would seem that age discrepancies between husband and wife were not a major consideration during that period as it is in today's societies. At the other end of the spectrum, it is reported that the Prophet's first wife Khadija was 15 years his senior. It is also narrated that Ali, the Prophet's cousin as well as his son-in-law (who became the fourth caliph after much dissension), gave one of his daughters in marriage to the second caliph Umar, and two of his daughters in marriage to the third caliph Uthman. This would be a similar situation in that both Umar and Uthman, who were the Prophet Muhammad's companions, would have been much older than the Prophet's granddaughters whom they married, however, the authenticity of these reports is contested in some circles. The Prophet's biography, and by extension the chronicles of his extended family and companions, have been retold in many flavors over several centuries, so Muslims would be delusional if they believe that what remains with us today is wholly accurate. Bearing this in mind,
click here for some insightful information about Aisha's age.

Inequality of Women

The Qur’an is indisputable in its message about men and women being equal.

…whereas anyone – be it man or woman – who does [whatever he can] of good deeds and is a believer withal, shall enter paradise, and shall not be wronged by as much as [would fill] the groove of a date-stone. (Q4:124)

Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward. (Q33:35)

On the other hand, as usual the Hadith provide a different perspective on how women should be treated, much in keeping with orthodox Judeo / Christian tradition.

Narrated Abu Bakra: During the battle of Al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a Word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet heard the news that the people of Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen (ruler), he said, "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler." (Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:219)

The Prophet said, "I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women." (Sahih Al-Bukhari 4:464, also 7.125, 7.126, and 8.456 have similar reports)

When it comes to the subjugation of Muslim women, probably no other issue generates more controversy than the hijab (head-covering), which actually predates Islam. As the distinguished intellectual Amina Wadud observed:

The Qur’an establishes a universal notion regarding matters of dress and asserts that ‘the dress of piety is the best.’ However, Shari’a (Islamic law) uses the Qur’anic references to particular seventh century Arabian styles of dress as the basis of its legal conclusion regarding modesty. Consequently, wearing a particular item of dress (for example, the head-covering / hijab) is deemed an appropriate demonstration of modesty. Universalizing the veil also universalizes the ‘culturally and economically determined demonstrations of modesty’ in seventh century Arab society, thus imparting a cultural specificity to the Qur’an’s teachings. Ideas of modesty vary among cultures, and taking the approach of universalizing seventh century Arab culture actually limits the application of the Qur’anic teachings. What the Qur’an teaches and what we need to understand is the ‘principle of modesty, not the veiling and seclusion which were manifestations particular to [the Arab] context.’ Even though the Qur’an offers universal moral guidance, the ‘mere fact that it was revealed in seventh century Arabia, when the Arabs held certain perceptions and misconceptions about women and were involved in certain lewd practices against them, resulted in some injunctions specific to that culture.’

For more information on efforts underway to change patriarchal attitudes in Islam, click here.

Adultery

There have been numerous publicized instances of women being stoned to death for adultery in Muslim countries. Stoning to death for such offences is Jewish law and found in the Bible, not the Qur’an. Not surprisingly, the Hadith prescribe the Biblical punishment for adultery.

And the man that committeth adultery with [another] man's wife, [even he] that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)

There is nothing in the Qur’an about stoning to death for adulterers, the prescribed punishment is as follows:

As for the adulteress and the adulterer flog each of them with a hundred stripes, and let not compassion with them keep you from [carrying out] this law of God, if you [truly] believe in God and the Last Day; and let a group of the believers witness their chastisement. (Q24:2)

It must be emphasized that in order for punishment to be meted out for adultery, there must be four witnesses to the act, something that is extremely difficult if not impossible. This does not mean that people should start peeking through their neighbors' windows and doors to see what goes on in private. The Qur'an's objective when it comes to adultery (and this approach should apply across the board for any perceived Qur'anic rulings) is not to produce four witnesses per se, but to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that an immoral act was committed and publicly observed. Of course with the advancement of technology, photos of the act, DNA evidence, etc. would also suffice as evidence, however, Muslim literalists would argue that we have to follow the letter of the law and produce four witnesses. Regardless, in the King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud interpretation of the Qur’an, which is a plagiarized version of Yusuf Ali’s translation, it has the following commentary on adultery (zina) in note 2954:

Zina includes sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other. It therefore applies both to adultery (which implies that one or both of the parties are married to a person or persons other than the ones concerned) and to fornication, which, in its strict signification, implies that both parties are unmarried. The law of marriage and divorce is made easy in Islam, so that there may be the less temptation for intercourse outside the well-defined incidents of marriage. This makes for greater self-respect for both man and woman. Other sex offences are also punishable, but this Section applies strictly to Zina as above defined. Although zina covers both fornication and adultery, in the opinion of Muslim jurists, the punishment laid down here applies only to un-married persons. As for married persons, their punishment, according to the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is stoning to death.

Note that the italicized part of the above commentary was added by the Saudis. Since many Muslims believe that there is little to no contradiction between the Qur’an and Hadith, even the so called “Muslim scholars” twist God’s words to suit their whims, as depicted in the following verse.

And behold! There is a party of them who distort the Scripture with their tongues, that you may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture. And they say: It is from God, when it is not from God; and they speak a lie concerning God knowingly. (Q3:78)

Honor Killings

There is no such thing as honor killings in Islam. This gender homicide is an aberrant relic of a feudal patriarchy that is alien to Islamic teachings and the Muslim way of life. It is a cultural practice that is barbaric, wholly illegal, and without scriptural basis. Click here for an excellent analysis on this subject.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

As with honor killings, FGM is another cultural practice that has no basis in religion. In fact, it is a custom that is practiced primarily in Africa not only by Muslims but also non-Muslim tribes. Even when it comes to male circumcision, there is very little in the Hadith collections on this procedure. For more on FGM, click here.

Apocalypse

Much of the above subject matter is related to controversies surrounding interpretation of divine texts and the authenticity of reported Prophetic traditions. Where things get really loony for both Muslims and non-Muslims is on the subject of end times, especially with the influence of Judeo / Christian ideology. An article in the Guardian claimed that George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian, wanted to invade Iraq because he saw the work of Gog and Magog in the Middle East. It is unfortunate and alarming to hear of leaders in such powerful positions who are supposedly well-educated believing in such balderdash. Notably one Pentagon Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, a fundamentalist Christian, remarked about a Somali warlord: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Maybe these are the kind of Christian soldiers George Bush had in mind when he exclaimed that he was embarking on a new crusade in the Middle East. Many Muslims also have apocalyptic ideas, the Hadith have several alleged sayings of the Prophet Muhammad about Jesus and a Mahdi who will apparently solve all of the world’s problems when they supposedly emerge sometime in the future.

Conclusion

For the inquisitive mind, research proves that many creedal beliefs and practices in Islam are primarily Judaic in origin, so it would not be a stretch to say that Muslims are doing a better job of practicing Judaic law and custom when compared to their Jewish brethren. Based on a global survey of Muslims, in his book “The Future of Islam,” John Esposito revealed that American Muslims are generally better educated and more affluent than their Muslim counterparts anywhere else in the world, and this is also true when American Muslims are compared to non-Muslim Americans. Any kind of Islamic renaissance requires education and a drastic re-evaluation of traditionally accepted dogma. Given the state of affairs in much of the Muslim world, where illiteracy largely prevails, reformation will have to come from American Muslims. While this is not an insurmountable endeavor, it will be a significant challenge primarily for a couple of reasons:

1) There is no centralized clergy or authority in Islam, so it is pretty much like the “wild West” so to speak when it comes to interpreting divine revelation and doctrine.

2) Even though Muslim institutions are being built, especially in the West to bring some sort of order to the chaos, the people in charge are largely traditionalist-minded and perpetuate the status quo. This is not to say that there aren’t Muslim academics who advocate reform and a comprehensive rethinking of Islam, however, the intelligentsia are either unheard of or marginalized as pariahs in much of the Muslim world.

Webmaster's Note: While there is no shortage of Islamophobia in the media along with demands for Muslims to apologize for "Islamic terrorism," what is largely ignored by the bigots disguised as news analysts are the numerous scientific and cultural contributions by Muslims throughout history. The following graphic speaks volumes about 20th century deaths, and this trend seems likely to continue unabated in the 21st century (Juan Cole is a Professor of History at the University of Michigan). It should be noted that the graphic below does not include the genocide of tens of millions of native peoples in previous centuries due to European colonization.

Posted November 3, 2014