Q: I am a Christian. When I was studying in the seminary, I had the good fortune to learn about Islam from a Christian priest who had written much on the subject. And so, even as a Christian I began to respect Islam when I was young, and I still do. But I know so many people, supposedly well-educated, who have deep-rooted prejudice against Islam simply because they did not have the privilege to study about Islam.
I think many non-Muslims share this predicament. So, I feel that it is a great challenge for people like you to drive out this darkness. You know what I mean—for instance, this widespread misunderstanding that Islam promotes terror, that it mistreats women, and so on. These are very widespread notions, it seems, among people of other faiths. It’s a challenge, not only for Muslims, but for everyone who has goodwill for Islam.
What do you feel?
A: According to my experience, there are two distinct issues. One is the misunderstandings about Islam. And the other is problems caused by Muslims’ misinterpretation of Islam. For instance, there is a general perception among many people of other faiths that there is no respectable place for women in Islam. This is an example of a misunderstanding. Now, it is true that there are individual cases of Muslim women not being given the honourable place that they deserve according to Islam, but these cases should not be used to generalize for all Muslim women. Take the case of my own home, for instance. Women have always been the boss of this house. First it was my late wife, and now it is my daughter. There’s certainly no gender discrimination in our family.
But there are certain issues that have arisen because of wrong interpretations of Islam by Muslims themselves. I feel that the fundamental reason for widespread negative views about Islam among people of other faiths is the fact that present-day Muslims have taken to violence in many parts of the world—and in the name of Islam.
What is the root cause of this?
The root cause is the political interpretation of Islam, by modern Islamist ideologues, by people such as Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and Abul Ala Maududi, of the Jamaat-e Islami, in South Asia.
This misinterpretation of Islam is the basis for the violence that is taking place today in many places in the name of Islam. It is premised on the erroneous notion that Islam is a ‘political system’ which needs to be imposed, if necessary by force. When advocates of this view want to impose or enforce their political system somewhere, they find that some people hold political power there already. And so they feel driven to unseat these people from power. This leads to violence, to war.
This, it must be clear, is not Islamic thinking. The Prophet of Islam never tried to unseat political rulers. But this is what the so-called Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan, tried to do. This is in total contrast to the method the Prophet used. The Prophet always strove to change people’s minds, and when people’s minds were changed, a system came into being.
This is the approach to change that needs to be adopted.
Trying to impose a political system by force and thinking that through the coercive power of the state you can change people’s minds—which is what these radical Muslim groups are trying to do—is putting the cart before the horse. It is based on a wrong interpretation of Islam.
It is fundamentally this political misinterpretation of Islam and the violence that it has engendered that has given rise to these widespread misconceptions about Islam and terrorism that you refer to.
Q: Many Muslims are accustomed to see Christians as enemies. Does the Quran teach Muslims that?
A: It is true that many Muslims have viewed Christians as their rivals, instead of looking at them as partners. This was a big mistake that they made. For long I used to think about why the Quran advises Muslims to help God just as the disciples of Jesus said that they would be God’s helpers. The verse in the Quran that mentions this is in the chapter called As-Saff:
Believers, be God's helpers, as Jesus, son of Mary, said to the disciples, 'Who will be my helpers in the cause of God?' The disciples said, 'We shall be God's helpers.' Some of the Children of Israel believed in him and some denied the truth; We supported the believers against their enemies and they triumphed over them. (61:14)
On the basis of this verse, I have developed a theme—and that is, that Muslims, throughout history, considered Christians as rivals, whereas actually they should have taken them as partners. This is the message given to Muslims by the above Quranic verse.
Every people has a psyche or mindset. Muslims also have a certain mindset. You cannot change the Muslim mindset unless you explain to them that your point of view has been derived from the Quran. Any other kind of argument is not going to appeal to them. If you want to develop rethinking in Muslims regarding any particular attitude of theirs, you will have to give a message from the Quran which makes them realize that they have deviated from their scripture.
Q: What is this pattern of the Christians that the Quranic verse that you cite says Muslims should follow?
A: It should be noted that Islam began and developed in circumstances very different from Christianity’s. Europe became the centre for the development of Christianity after Constantine accepted the Christian faith. Before this, Jerusalem had been the centre of Christianity. However, the centre of Islam never changed: it remained in Arabia.
God knew that the development of Islam would happen in Arabia, amidst tribal traditions, while Christianity’s later development would happen in Europe, amidst scientific traditions. And so, God advised Muslims to follow the pattern of the Christians, because He knew that the Christians would be scientific in their method. According to me, God knew that the Muslim mindset would be based on and influenced by their centre, while the Christian mindset would be based depending on the place which became the centre for their faith. God knew beforehand that Europe would become the centre of scientific discoveries. The change of geographical centre for Christianity changed the mindset of the Christians, in that they developed scientific thinking. This change in mindset along scientific lines could not be brought about among Muslims, however.
The study of science brings in realistic thinking. God knew that the best pattern, in terms of methodology, would be developed by the Christians, owing to the scientific education and awareness among them, which began after the Renaissance. The Christians flourished in an environment different from that of the Arabs, who developed in the tribal traditions of Arabia. As a result, scientific thinking could not be fostered among Muslims as it did among the Christians. The above-quoted Quranic verse tells Muslims to adopt the pattern of Christians. In this sense, the verse advises Muslims to make Christians their partners in order to learn from them. But if you make someone your rival, you will not be able to learn from him or her. That, however, is precisely what the Muslims unfortunately did.
I’ll cite some examples to illustrate my point. The Crusades were fought between Muslims and Christians, in which the latter suffered a humiliating defeat. Following this, the Christians decided to choose a second option. In life, you can choose a second option if and when the first option fails. The Crusades led to the Christians' defeat, and that made them opt for a second option—abandoning the battlefield, they chose, instead, to study and investigate Nature. As a result of this endeavour, which was initiated mainly after the Crusades, what we call modern civilization came into existence.
In this way, although the Christians had lost the Crusades, in retrospect they emerged as winners, in that they built a whole new civilization. Failure in the Crusades was not the end for the Christians.
Now, this teaches us a valuable lesson—that if one field of work closes, many options still remain that can be explored. The example set by Christians was that if the first option does not work, adopt a second option instead.
So, the model given by Christians to Muslims is: Come to the field of peace, abandoning the field of war. If the first option does not work, adopt the second option. However, Muslims, have not taken this second option and are still continuing with their violence. They must learn from the example of Christians in this regard.
Q: In 2007, a group of around 140 Muslim scholars from various countries sent a joint letter to Christians, titled A Common Word Between Us and You, seeking to promote better understanding between Muslims and Christians globally. The letter was based on some of the things that Muslims and Christians have in common. It mentioned that both the Islamic and Christian scriptures talk about love for God and love for one’s neighbour. Some Christians reacted to this letter, saying that Muslims, unlike Christians, do not talk of the love of one’s enemy. When I pointed this out to some Muslims, they said, “We will love our enemies only when we have subdued them, when our feet are on their necks!”
I was shocked!
How do you respond to how these Muslims reacted?
A: Their reaction is totally wrong. It has no sanction in the Quran. The right Islamic approach is reflected in this Quranic verse (41:34):
Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend […]
Based on this verse, the reaction of those Muslims whom you refer to is completely un-Islamic. According to this Quranic verse, everyone is your friend—either an existing friend or a potential friend. Accordingly, the categorization that X is my friend and Y is my enemy, is wrong. Islam challenges this categorization. This categorization is against Islam, as the Quranic verse I just referred to clearly indicates. Hence, I can confidently say that the thinking of those Muslims who reacted to you in the way they did was completely Satanic. It was Satanic thinking, not Quranic thinking.
There’s another point that needs to be considered here. There is a verse in the Quran (61:14) that says:
Believers, be God’s helpers, as Jesus, son of Mary, said to the disciples, “Who will be my helpers in the cause of God?” The disciples said, “We shall be God’s helpers.”
Here, the Quran refers to Jesus Christ’s advice, and advises Muslims to respond as Jesus’ disciples did. In the light of this, there is no Quranic justification at all for what those Muslims said to you.
Q: I am a Christian. I speak at churches, and there, Christian believers sometimes ask me about the violent verses in the Quran. Once, during a visit to a Muslim country, I met with Muslim religious scholars, who were having a long discussion about whether non-Muslims who have been presented with the message of Islam but do not accept it should be allowed to live or not. Some said they should be killed. Others said they should be allowed to live. Finally, they sort of agreed that they should be allowed to live, but with restrictions. Further, they added, this was an issue that required more investigation!
Based on all this, can you tell me how and what I should tell my fellow Christians when they ask me about the verses in the Quran that call for violence?
A: The verses that you are referring to sanction war or qital, but only in defence. In Islam, no war is permissible except in defence. This is hardly exceptional. Every system of international law allows for war in defence. So, in the event of an attack, the Quran allows for fighting in defence, but only if necessary.
That said, the general policy of the Quran is expressed in the assertion that ‘reconciliation is best’ (Quran 4:128). Here, the Quran advises us to adopt a conciliatory approach, not a confrontational approach. This is the general policy of Islam.
The so-called Muslim religious scholars whom you mention are completely wrong. Islam stands for full freedom of religion—for both Muslims and others. In Islam, one’s religion is one’s personal choice. Islam does not allow you to compel anyone to believe in Islam, or to kill him if he chooses not to believe in it. The Quran (109:6) very clearly states, “You have your religion and I have mine.” Since the Quran says everyone has the right to believe what they want, who are these so-called Muslim scholars to try to rob people of it?
The ‘sword verses’ that you refer to are thus only exceptional. They are definitely not the rule. They were revealed at a time when Muslims were at war, when their opponents had attacked them. At present, these verses are not applicable as there is no attack from outside. Instead, today, in many places, Muslims are themselves the aggressors.
One such case is that of Israel-Palestine. Israel is not the aggressor here. Why? Because an international body (the United Nations) gave a verdict, known as the Balfour Declaration, according to which Palestine was partitioned. Roughly half the land was given to Israel and half to Arabs. The Arabs should have accepted this decision.
Why, you might ask?
This is because in the Bible, Palestine is declared as the Promised Land for the Jews. The same thing is mentioned in the Quran. According to the Quran, Palestine is for Jews an assigned land. Thus, the Quran (5:20-21) says:
Remember when Moses said to his people, “[…] O my people! Enter the holy land which God has assigned for you. Do not turn back, or you will be the losers. ”
You know that the Prophet Abraham had two sons, Ismail (or Ishmael) and Ishaq (or Isaac). The Prophet settled Ismail in the Hejaz or Arabia, and Ismail’s descendants are the Arabs. His other son, Isaac, was settled in Palestine, which was given to Isaac’s descendants, the Jews. So, the Muslims are wrong in claiming Palestine for themselves.
Given this, it was more than good for the Arabs that they were given around half of Palestine under the Balfour Declaration. They should have accepted this. But they refused to. Instead, they launched a war against Israel, and Israel sought to defend itself.
Israel is not the aggressor in this case. Rather, Arabs are the aggressors. I say this openly.
There is another point to consider in this regard. The Suez Canal, that passes through Egypt, was on lease, but several years before the lease was to expire, the then Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the canal. This was in 1956. And that move led to a deadly war.
At that time, all the Arabs and all Muslims were rejoicing, because of what Nasser had done—all Muslims except for myself. I was very sad. I felt Nasser should have waited till the lease had expired. That would have been in conformity with the law.
There’s a parallel case that shows what the right approach in such matters is. Britain had taken Hong Kong on lease from China. China had become a mighty power, but still it waited for the lease on Hong Kong to get over. Only when that happened did it take over Hong Kong. In this way, it abided by its treaty obligations and international law.
So, while China abided by international law, the Arabs acted against international law. So, it is the Arabs who are guilty, not Israel. I don’t blame Israel. Rather, the blame goes to the Arabs.
Q: I think dialogue between Muslims and Christians is very important. But when I advocate this sort of dialogue, some of my fellow Christians bring up the question of the law against apostasy from Islam in certain Muslim countries. According to this law, if someone abandons Islam, he should be killed. This law, which its advocates claim is sanctioned in Islam, doesn’t help Christian-Muslim dialogue. In fact, is a major obstacle to such dialogue.
Catholics have now accepted the right of people to choose to follow their conscience. And so, if a Catholic converts to some other religion, he won’t be killed. His right to follow his conscience will be respected. What are your views about the apostasy law in some Muslim countries?
A: The true Islamic position on apostasy is reflected in this verse of the Quran (2:217):
Whoever of you turns back from his faith and dies as a denier of the truth will have his deeds come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and he will be an inhabitant of the Fire, to abide therein forever.
This verse refers to someone who abandons Islam and dies. It mentions how he would be dealt with God after he dies. His verse indicates that such a person dies a natural death, and is not killed for apostasy. So, this verse clearly shows that capital punishment for apostasy from Islam is not sanctioned by the Quran. It was only later, maybe two hundred years after the Prophet, that Muslim fuqaha or jurisprudents devised a law that says that apostates from Islam should be killed. These fuqaha emerged in the Abbasid period, in the period of Muslim empires, a period of Muslim political hegemony. This law that they devised has no sanction in the Quran. It was formulated by the fuqaha, and I don’t believe in the fuqaha on this matter. I believe in the Quran and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet. Since this punishment is not sanctioned by the Quran and the Sunnah, it is un-Islamic.
There is total religious freedom in Islam, and you are free to opt for any religion you like. If you are a Muslim and you choose to abandon Islam, you are free to do so.
So, the law on apostasy is a violation of this Islamic freedom. I’ve written a book in Urdu on this subject of the law of apostasy, and also on the issue of abuse of the Prophet. In that book, I have shown that the punishment of death that is prescribed by fuqaha for apostasy and for abusing the Prophet is not Islamic. Rather, it is an innovation, and has no sanction in Islam.
Q: Many Muslims, and not just radical Islamists, quote, among others, this Quranic verse to seek to justify hatred of non-Muslims: “Believers, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies. They are allies with one another. Whoever of you takes them as an ally shall become one of them. God does not guide the wrongdoers.” (5:51)
How do you see this?
A: The argument of these Muslims is completely wrong. The Quranic verse that you cite refers to those groups who were at war with Muslims at the time of the Prophet. This verse neither applies to all Jews and Christians nor is it a permanent teaching. It is a temporary teaching and was applicable only to those who were contemporaries of the Prophet and were at war with him.
(Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a well-known New Delhi-based Islamic scholar, heads the Centre for Peace and Spirituality (for more details, see www.cpsglobal.org). He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)