Saturday, April 04, 2015

Talking about Islam

A lot of times I see on the Internet, or when I have discussions with people, this notion that Islam is some kind of monolithic religious entity and that all Muslims are more or less the same in how they practice and interpret the religion. With attacks by groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabab and Boko Haram getting more frequent and receiving a lot of attention many in the West conclude that is how Islam works, and Muslims are somehow inherently violent. When I explain I've lived in an Islamic country for almost 9 years without incident some people don’t want to hear it, it challenges their notions that Islamic countries are fundamentally dangerous places. Instead a quick read of some passages in the Qur’an supports their view (“See, the Qur’an says X, therefore Muslims must do X”). Such analysis is simplistic and misleading, not only does it not explain why the vast majority of the billion+ Muslims are not conducting their lives like members of terrorist groups, it leads Westerners to sweeping conclusions about the religion and could be a stepping-stone to outright Islamophobia.

Last Ramadan I spent a lot of time reading a book on Islamic Jurisprudence, and discovered that, not surprisingly, interpreting Islamic scripture is complicated. One can't simply just read a passage in the Qur’an and figure they’ve understood what's going on. There’s a lot more to it than that, which is why becoming an Islamic scholar takes many years of study. But it was a concept I really struggled to explain, given I’ve only scratched the surface myself.

Well someone pointed me to a recent article in Salon by Dr. H.A. Hellyer that does a great explanation of this when discussing how ISIS in the context of Islam. It really is worth reading to get a basic idea of how Islamic scholarship works and why it is dangerous to interpret things yourself (both by Muslims and non-Muslims).

Here’s some excerpts but really, read the whole article.

[There are around 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. The vast, overwhelming majority of them, needless to say, are not members of ISIS — and, in fact, Muslims actually make up the majority of ISIS’s victims, its most active enemies on the battlefield, and its most prominent detractors.]

[. . . if the Islamic credentials of ISIS were so widely considered as valid, even if most chose not to actually follow them, surely there would be a large numbers of Muslim jurists and theologians that would vouch for as much. In reality, the vast majority declares in no uncertain terms that, indeed, those credentials are void and invalid . . .]

[These are rather complex systems of establishing religious authority via processes akin to academic peer review. Indeed, parts of these systems of transmission, especially with relation to jurisprudence, have become crystalized in various curricula and schools of law (madhahib) . . . . . Modern radical tendencies within the Muslim community do away with such systems. For them, the Muslim community has gone awfully wrong – and they’re going to put it right. In short, they create a do-it-yourself kit of interpretation.]

[When ISIS claims book “A” written by author “B” says “C,” any Muslim can find that book, and see if it does. If this new interpretation appears credible, then readers are often stumped — because they, like ISIS, have generally not been through a seminary education that would put such books into context, according to the systems of transmission mentioned above. While it is welcome for all sorts of reasons that religious authorities stand up and say “ISIS is not Islamic and these actions are forbidden” and the like, that doesn’t address the basic issue.]

[Religious authorities need to do far more than simply say “this is un-Islamic” when faced with a crime ISIS or others carry out. Fully comprehensive refutations of why these things are un-Islamic need to be forthcoming – and put into terms that are comprehensible to the layman.]

I hope Salon keeps the article online, I think in the future I will use it when trying to discuss with Westerners the complexities surrounding Islam.


Anonymous said...

The degree of Islamophobia in the US is frightening. There are many who believe that Islamic Terrorism is synonymous with Islam, that all Muslims are inherently violent and hate the west. That the US is at war with Islam. Sometimes it rises to almost laughable ignorance, saying things like Muslims pray to Allah instead of God. I try to explain that "Allah" is Arabic for the God of Abraham, the same God Christians and Jews pray to. You may remember attending a Catholic mass in Amman conducted in Arabic, the one word recognizable in the prayers was "Allah". It's hard to fight such overwhelming ignorance.

Glen McKay said...

Yes, but people have to try. One of the most frightening comments on the net that I read some years ago was an elderly Jewish person pointing out how the fear and misinformation was not unlike what started happening in Germany in the 1930s. Yikes!