December 13, 2001
Islam Is the Answer
I was visiting a dear Palestinian Muslim friend in Jerusalem some years ago during the first intifada. I had noticed that he was becoming more religiously observant at the time. His wife had begun covering her hair, and he was more punctilious in his prayers and in what he ate and drank. His cousin and business partner had made the Hajj pilgrimage, and he was also making plans to do so.
During one of our many conversations, he lamented the failure of the world to help the Palestinians create a future for themselves. The West had failed them, as had the communist world. The pan-Arabism of Egypt's Nasser had failed, as well as had other expressions of secular nationalism. It was clear that he was seeking a political, as well as an existential, answer in his return to religious tradition. Islam had become a vehicle for his own personal and communal quest, and he was relieved and comforted by his increased observance.
I also noticed during that visit that many children were running around within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem with a T-shirt that said in Arabic, "Islam Is the Answer." No question appeared on the T-shirt.
Back in the United States today, the public debate is beginning to slow over whether Islam is to blame for the horrific events of Sept. 11 and the great increase in terrorism by Muslims during the past few decades. It is slowing, in part, because Americans are gaining more insight into the complexities of the contemporary Middle East, thanks to the sudden surfeit of articles in the print media and on the Internet.
While much of the material out there is still shallow, partisan or simply full of errors, some excellent essays have been produced that have clearly raised the level of discussion. The debate seems to be concluding with a consensus forming around the position that Islam is not the cause of this terrorism. Rather, the cause is rooted in a complex bundle of factors.
These factors include the failure of the Middle East to compete with the West economically, politically and militarily in the modern era; and more than a century of Western colonialism, imperialism and now globalism that have successfully exploited Middle Eastern resources cheaply and caused great hardship and resentment among the local populace.
Other contributing factors are bad Middle-Eastern governments run by brutal and selfish leaders who have no desire to share the national wealth with their citizens, plus a narrowing of the direction of anger since America has emerged in the last decade as the greatest and most visible world power.
On the other hand, despite our growing realization that Islam is not the cause of this conflict, we have learned that -- at least to those terrorists who justify their violence according to what they interpret as Islamic values -- this is a religious war. We have not taken the bait. In fact, our refusal to target Islam, despite the religious rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, has been exemplary.
It is true that the politics of this war require that we remain careful not to alienate Muslim countries and friends on whom we must rely today. But we have, as a whole, also demonstrated moral and intellectual integrity when we refuse to wage a war against Islam.
There are good Muslims and bad Muslims, just as there are good Christians and bad Christians. We have been careful to separate Islam and terrorism. But many of us still feel uneasy. If there are lots of good Muslims out there, as we suspect, why aren't they standing up en masse and condemning the likes of Osama, Hamas and Islamic Jihad?
This is very troubling. If Islam is not the cause, then why aren't Muslims doing more to separate themselves from the radicals? We just aren't getting what we really want from the "good Muslims" we know are out there. We want them to show us that they are just like us, that they are civilized like we are, that they share our American values of pluralism, universalism and individual autonomy and freedom.
It's not going to happen. Not now and not soon. Oh, there are clearly some Westernized Muslims who have assimilated our core American values, and there are other moderates here and abroad who struggle with the difficult and problematic religious teachings of Islam, just as we do with our own religious teachings. However, modern Islam is different in fundamental ways from modern Christianity and Judaism. We need to know more about this, as well.
While Islam is clearly not the cause of the increase in terrorism, it has been used successfully as a powerful vehicle for it. Islam's holy scriptures and traditions, its laws and its customs, its very self-concept as portrayed in its classic sources provide Muslim believers with a set of assumptions and principles that can easily be understood to justify violence against non-Muslims, and especially non-Muslims who are perceived as threatening Islam or its adherents.
Of course, one could say the same thing about Judaism and Christianity. The Christian Inquisition and Crusades killed tens or hundreds of thousands of people who either weren't Christian or who weren't Christian enough. And although Jews have lacked the political and military power to wage war on non-Jews for thousands of years until only recently, the forced conversions of the Idumeans in the first century BCE and today's vigilante killings of Palestinians by Orthodox Jewish settlers clearly demonstrate that Judaism may also have been recruited in order to justify the persecution and slaying of the Other.
The Hebrew Bible has many passages that call for war against the opponents of ancient Israel. The biblical worldview establishes a universe divided into two social groupings: Israel and everybody else. And the everybody else, the Other, is almost always considered the enemy.
Israel needed to carve out a safe haven for itself, where its unique monotheistic theology could be put into ritual and moral practice, and the political environment was such that it had to do so through military means. God is even depicted in the Bible as fighting on behalf of Israel so that it would succeed. Some verses even call for the complete destruction of certain peoples living in the Holy Land who were obstructing Israel's entry, an act that today would be universally condemned as genocide.
Biblical laws and stories clearly depict a historical context in which warring was common and in which violence was a normal part of life. In fact, it seems that it was because of the violent nature of the world in which ancient Israel lived that it longed for a future when violence would cease entirely, even to the extent that a lion and a lamb could lie together in the same field without fear.
The Bible depicts a violent reality, and the religious system of the Bible incorporated that reality into its own ethos. But today, there are no people who practice the religion and mores of the Hebrew Bible. There are no more Israelites. Only Jews and Christians.
Although both Judaism and Christianity accept the divine sanctity of the Hebrew Bible, both religions emerged after the biblical period, during the period of Late Antiquity when the Roman Empire controlled Palestine and much of the Middle East. It is common knowledge that Christianity is different from the religion of the Old Testament, but some are still unaware that Judaism (sometimes referred to as Rabbinic Judaism, as opposed to the religion or the Judaism practiced during biblical times) is a different religion from that of the Hebrew Bible.
What is different about it? Nearly everything: its liturgy, its forms of worship, its codes of laws and its theologies.
Both Christianity and Judaism emerged as weak religious expressions under the yoke of a very powerful and businesslike Roman Empire. This is not to suggest that, in contrast to the Biblical Period, the era of the Roman Empire was not rife with violence as well. It was, although the nature of its violence was different and tended to be directed downward from the top, in contrast to the biblical situation, in which all the actors tended to play on a common field.
The point is that neither Christians nor Jews found that violent actions against the pagan Romans brought it success. The rare times violence was attempted resulted in disaster.
Therefore, although both Judaism and Christianity inherited the violent traditions of the Bible, they buried or ignored the old exhortations to violence as best they could in their newly emerging post-biblical religious literatures. One cannot find a god of war in the religious literatures of emerging Christianity or Rabbinic Judaism, no divine call for war or conquest. Both religious civilizations had to be content with a kind of religion that would no longer be anchored to a land or a polity, as had biblical religion. These vital aspects of biblical religion simply dropped out of the religious expressions of its heirs.
It was always theoretically possible, of course, to make an end run around Jewish or Christian tradition in order to go directly to the ancient texts of the Bible, still held sacred by both new religions. Some Jews and Christians occasionally did so during the long ages from Late Antiquity to Modernity in their attempt to revive certain pre-Christian and pre-Rabbinic ideas. However, it was always a great effort, because it meant countering the new foundation texts of Christianity and Judaism, and it often failed. When Christianity found itself a political and military power as well as a religious system, it was forced to combine Caesar's and God's jurisdictions, and many of its leaders had no problem doing so.
But it was forced to develop a new and innovative system to justify warring. It was not part of the foundation texts of Christianity. Some Jews in Israel now find that they need religious, as well as nationalist, reasons to justify their taking up arms, but they are forced like their Christian compatriots centuries earlier, to develop a justification that ignores much of the foundational messages of Rabbinic Judaism.
Exegesis is powerful. Where there is a will, there is often a way to locate the right sacred texts and then find a way to read them so that they can be understood to support a broad array of beliefs and behaviors. But in Judaism and Christianity, engaging in such activity in relation to warring was an effort and sometimes required real interpretive pyrotechnics. The basic religions themselves and their formative sacred texts did not offer much support.
This is not the case for Islam. Islam emerged out of seventh century Arabia, a place and a time of much physical fighting and aggression. Pre-Islamic Arabia consisted largely of tribes in perpetual war against one another.
Fighting was built into the culture in a complex and integral way, because it served to keep down the natural growth in human population in an extremely harsh physical environment that could support only small numbers relative to area. Warring would distribute and redistribute limited resources (from raiding and plundering) and ensure survival of the fittest.
Raiding between tribes was such a part of the universal culture that three or four months of the year were designated as "time-out" periods, when no fighting was allowed. This was necessary in order to allow trade between tribes that were constantly battling, and to promote mixing of the gene pool between tribes otherwise always separated and in a state of war. Raiding and battling was so deeply imbedded into the pre-Islamic Arabian ethos that the great British scholar of Islam, W. Montgomery Watt, referred to it as the old Arabian "national sport."
Islam emerged out of this environment, which resembled far more the environment of the Hebrew Bible than that of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. And Islam had to fight to survive. It was opposed by powerful individuals and tribes, and it had to defend itself for its own survival. As it evolved into a religious system, that system began to resemble the organization of the tribes of Arabia.
The early Muslim community referred to itself as the Umma, a term that has the meaning of nation, religion and tribe (from the word umm or mother). Muhammad the Prophet was rejected from his own tribe of Quraysh and banished from the community of his birth.
He created a new concept for Arabia in the umma (religious tribe) when he settled in Medina. He found that his religious tribe, like the kinship tribes throughout the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, was in constant conflict with the other tribes in the area. It was only natural and only to be expected that in order for his followers to survive in such a harsh economic and political environment, they would have to fight their way to establishment.
The Koran, the divine revelation sent down by God to Muhammad through the intermediacy of the angel Gabriel, confirmed the need for fighting. In some verses it gives permission to the early Muslims to fight in defense; in others it encourages the Muslims to go out and initiate the fighting.
In fact, many verses urge the early Muslims to go to war when they didn't seem to want to: "Fighting is commanded of you even though it is hateful to you; but it may well be that you hate something that is good for you, and it may well be that you love something that is bad for you; God knows, but you do not" (2:16). Dozens of koranic verses promote fighting against unbelievers -- that is, those Arabs in the vicinity that were organized around kinship tribes rather than the new religious tribe-community of Islam.
The second most sacred religious literature in Islam, the Hadith, comprising the sunna (words and behavior of the Prophet Muhammad), also has a great deal to say about warring. Entire books of sunna, with such titles as The Book of Jihad or The Book of [military] Campaigns, contain the record of anything Muhammad said or did in relation to war. In the later legal literatures, this material was systematized and formed the basis of treatises and law codes about war and fighting.
Warring thus became deeply integrated into the Muslim self-concept, and this occurred quite early on in the emergence of the religious civilization of Islam. As is well-known, the early Muslim community became extremely successful at fighting, and within a generation after the death of Muhammad, succeeded in conquering the great Persian Empire and pushing the Byzantine Empire off most of its Middle Eastern holdings.
This incredible and quick success also became integrated into the Islamic worldview. Muslims, like Christians before them when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, saw history as proof that God loved the religion of the victors. The astonishing success of the conquest demonstrated the truth of Islam. Islam was held up by its followers as the perfect religion, the best expression of monotheism.
As in the case of biblical religion, Islam soon saw the world in the binary terms of believer/non-believer, but because it had become a great world power, it established this worldview in relation to a much larger piece of world geography.
The binary nature of the Islamic worldview is best- expressed by the two terms, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. The former is the world of Islam, in which Islam is the hegemonic religio-political system, where Islamic law obtains and where Muslims and non-Muslims live under Islamic rule.
The Dar al-Harb is the world of war. This is the rest of the world not yet under Islamic rule. Muslims have interpreted the meaning of world of war in two basic ways: it can refer to an uncivilized world where lack of good government and religion cannot avoid constant warring among its own peoples, or a world in which Islam is in a state of constant war. This binary worldview is deeply ingrained in the religious civilization of Islam.
As the scholar Majid Khadduri, put it in his opus on war and peace in Islam, "The Islamic state, whose principal function was to put God's law into practice, sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world." But like all empires, the caliphate could not expand ad infinitum, and it eventually weakened and disappeared.
The religion was forced to come to terms with the failure of the universal state. It did so in a variety of ways, but it never severed itself from the combativeness of the Koran and Hadith, as did Judaism and Christianity from the martial worldview of the Bible.
No New Testament or Talmud mitigates the militancy of the foundation texts of Islam. It is still there and largely unchallenged, and it still infuses the worldview and self-concept of Islam.
Neither did the discourse of modernity enter Islam as it did Christianity and Judaism. Islam had its reformist movements during the first part of the last century, to be sure, but they have become largely discredited because of their close association with the West and the activities of first colonialism and then imperialism. Muslims may choose to ignore or moderate the militant nature of classical Islam and its binary division of the world, but this takes some effort and must be a conscious act.
Such an approach is much more likely when Muslims are living in a pluralistic Western society than when they are living in the Dar al-Islam. It is easy and natural for Muslims in the Islamic world who are unhappy with their lot to observe the West as a world of infidels who, indeed, had a part in bringing on their suffering. It also is easy and natural for Muslims in the Islamic world to long for the good old days when the Islamic state provided adequately for the physical and spiritual needs of its citizens.
Islam, like all world religions, is an extremely complex phenomenon. It has its ascetics and mystics, as well as its militants, moderates and radicals. Most Muslims are neither ascetic nor militant. They are simply people who try as best they can to live out their lives fully and happily within the framework of a deep and wise religious civilization. Like most people, they abhor the death of the innocent, they believe in fair play, and they long for compassion as well as justice.
But with all this, Muslims who have grown up within the framework of Islamic civilization tend to see the world in certain ways that are fundamentally different from most Westerners. Especially among the angry and disillusioned, Islam has become the answer. The problem is that there are just not enough questions.
Dr. Reuven Firestone will be teaching "Introduction to Islamic Civilization," beginning this January. For information, call (213) 749-3424 ext. 4242.
Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Islam and Judaism at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He has authored "Jihad: the Origin of Holy War in Islam" (Oxford University Press, 1999), "Journeys in Holy Lands: The Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis" (State University of New York Press, 1990), "Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims" (Ktav, 2001) and dozens of articles on Islam and its relations with Judaism and Christianity.