By Saif Shahin, NewAgeIslam.com
Essential Message of Islam
By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed
Amana Publications, USA, 2009
Untruths about Muslims and Islam have become so pervasive that they sometimes seem like the undead in zombie movies: staring at you from every door and window, coming at you from every nook and corner, bent on tearing you apart. Muslims keep four wives and spend most of their time beating them, you are told, even as you wonder how to keep up with the shopping sprees of your one and only. Muslims are uneducated, unsociable nitwits who puff their chapattis on the wrong side of the pan, you hear, with a smirk on your lips.
While these are relatively harmless myths prevalent among non-Muslims, it is the lies about Islam that many Muslims also believe in which are the most dangerous. Over years, decades and centuries these lies have accumulated, clogging the blood vessels of the religion, wrenching its body from its heart and mind, leaving Islam a hyper-tense version of what it could be.
Essential Message of Islam is a labour of love in which Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Ullah Syed try to expose these lies for what they are by reverting to the Quran, deriving the meanings of its words, idioms, figures of speech and phrases from their usage across its text, and interpreting the message of its suras and ayats from its “broad moral trajectory”.
For instance, Muslims often talk about the Ummah, the brotherhood of all Muslims, but Yunus and Syed say the Quran envisions the brotherhood of the entire humanity. “The Quran recognizes the diversity of human race, language and color (30:22) and declares that if God willed, He would have made humanity into one community (10:18, 11:118), guiding them all (6:149),” they write.
The authors arrive at this interpretation from the way the terms din al Islam and taqwa are used across the Quran. “The Quran describes din al Islam as the universal faith that was enjoined on earlier prophets, who were all true Muslims (2:131-133), and conveyed the same essential message,” they say. The essence of the faith, they add, is obedience to God through service to humanity. Similarly taqwa, which is used in hundreds of Quranic verses in one form or another, denotes “heedfulness of one’s universal social, moral and ethical responsibilities…”
The verses the authors refer to reflect Quran’s universal as opposed to communal character. They also showcase Islam as a liberal rather than an exclusivist faith, which not only accepts but welcomes differences: “O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and communities for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most heedful (atqakum).” (49:13)
Accordingly, the Quran repeatedly forbids any compulsion in religion (2:256, 50:45, 88:21/22) and asks Prophet Muhammad not to force people to follow his way. It also commands Muslims not to discriminate against non-Muslims (4:94), nor insult those whom they invoke besides God (6:108)—though that is not what the Taliban did when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, or as self-proclaimed Islamic Jihadis do when they target temples, churches and synagogues.
A crucial verse (5:48) states: “For each of you We have made a (different) code (Shariah), and an open way (of action). If God so pleased, He would have made you (all) into one community. Therefore vie (with each other) in goodness (so that) He may test you by what He has given you. (Remember, you) all will (eventually) return to God, and He will tell you in what you differed.”
It is within this pluralist framework that Quranic verses urging Muslims to wage war against non-Muslims must be understood. During the 12-year period after the advent of Islam (610-622), when Muslims lived in Mecca, “the Quran repeatedly asked the Prophet and his followers to endure oppression in a non-violent manner. But this proved to be of no avail, and eventually the Prophet and his followers had to abandon their home and exile themselves to Medina to avoid persecution. It was around this time—the first year of the Medinite period (623) that the Quran gives them permission to fight” in the verses 22:39/40.
In the next few years, Muslims fought wars at Badr (624), Uhd (625) and Trench (627). “Each of these events found the Muslims in precarious condition, from moment to moment and for days, and sometimes months together, as their enemies were overwhelmingly powerful, militarily poised to wipe them out”. This implies that war was only permitted when the entire Muslim population risked annihilation.
Some of the Prophet’s followers disliked fighting, but the Quran—in an eerie similarity with Lord Krishna’s message to Arjuna in the Bhagvad Gita—says that “while fighting was bad, religious persecution and forcing people into exile was even worse (2:217, 4:75)”. This verse, too, delineates the specific conditions in which warfare was permitted, besides enjoining Muslims not to engage in religious persecution of others. The Quran further urged Muslims “to keep within limits (2:190) and to cease fighting when there was no more persecution, and the din of God was established, or when their enemy desisted from fighting (2:193)”.
The authors note another significant implication of the verses related to fighting being revealed during the Medinite period. By then, “Muslims had formed an integrated community under the unified leadership of the Prophet, and were in a position to defend themselves in an organized and politically responsible manner. This was different from responding violent against injustice in an individual capacity or a fragmented manner”—as the Al Qaeda and countless other groups that commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam prescribe.
Yunus and Syed add: “The Quran does not furnish any example of a prophet raising arms against his opponents, or inciting his people into violence: one after another, the prophets are shown to have sworn to endure the injustices of their people until God made the truth manifest.”
Read in conjunction with Quran’s pluralist message, these verses make it clear that God wants Muslims to coexist in peace with other communities, give them their rights and defend their own non-violently. It allows them to wage war against oppression, but in an organised and responsible manner and only when the entire Muslim population faces obliteration. In an age when Muslims number nearly 1.5 billion, or a fifth of the global population, and are spread in all parts of the world, any violence in the name of defending Islam will thus clearly be in defiance of the Quran.
The book deals with many other misconceptions about Islam spread among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, relating to education, marriage and divorce, status of women, human rights, the notion of Islamic state and so on, relying exclusively on the Quranic text. It also offers a brief biography of the Prophet—again based solely on references in the Quran. “The work is thus designed to eliminate the influence of the personal, educational, and doctrinal backgrounds of its authors and their choice of source materials.”
The authors appeal to Muslims to “protest the demonization of their holy book by some of their own theologians and jurists, who, in the name of implementing the Quranic ordinances, justify blatantly anti-Quranic heinous crimes”. They conclude with the assurance that “the violent extremists… are bound to be increasingly marginalized and eventually jettisoned from the world of Islam”.
Essential Message of Islam has been approved by the Al Azhar University of Cairo as having “no conflict with Islamic faith”. In his introduction to the book, Khaled Abou El Fadl, a distinguished Islamic scholar and professor of law at UCLA, California, says: “I wish we lived in a world in which this book would become a standard reference source for students of religion who are interested in an accurate introduction to the religion of Islam.”
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.