Rev. Bassam M. Madany
On Saturday, November 11, 2006, The Wall Street Journal published an article under the headline of: “FIVE BEST: Sense of Ummah.*” It listed five books that are “essential to understanding Islam.” The article was written by Karen Elliott House, a former publisher of the journal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Middle East. I am familiar with three of the titles: “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet” by Karen Armstrong (Harper-Collins, 1992), “What Went Wrong?” by Bernard Lewis (Oxford, 2002,) and “The Koran Interpreted” translated by A. J. Arberry (Macmillan, 1995).
I was very disappointed by the choice of Karen Armstrong’s book, “Muhammad.” To be listed alongside books by Bernard Lewis and A. J. Arberry is astonishing, if not shocking! While these two British scholars are well-known for their serious works on Islam, Miss Armstrong happens to be one of several Western propagandists and apologists for Islam!
Here are excerpts from her Introduction to the book on Muhammad.
“Indeed, the Muslim interpretation of the monotheistic faith has its own special genius and has important things to teach us. Ever since Islam came to my attention, I have been increasingly aware of this. Until a few years ago, I was almost entirely ignorant about this religion. The first inkling I had that it was a tradition that could speak to me came during a holiday in Samarkand. There I found the Islamic architecture to express a spirituality that resonated with my own Catholic past. In 1984, I had to make a television programme about Sufism, the mysticism of Islam, and was particularly impressed by the Sufi appreciation of other religions --- a quality that I had certainly not encountered in Christianity! This challenged everything that I had taken for granted about ‘Islam’ and I wanted to learn more” (pp. 13, 14).
After referring to several biographies of Muhammad written in English, Miss Armstrong claimed that “We know more about Muhammad than about the founder of any major faith so that a study of his life can give us an important insight into the nature of the religious experience” (p. 14).
Further on, in Chapter 2, she wrote:
“In the Qur’an, therefore, we have a contemporaneous commentary on Muhammad’s career that is unique in the history of religion: it enables us to see the peculiar difficulties he had to contend with, and how his vision evolved to become more profound and universal in scope. In contrast, we know very little about Jesus.”
To claim that we know more about Muhammad than about the Lord Jesus Christ is pure propaganda for Islam. Certainly, the Qur’an does mention certain episodes in the life of Muhammad, but how could they be reliable when he himself was relating them, while attributing their source to God? As to the various biographies of Muhammad, they were written more than a century after his death, and were based on various accounts taken from the Hadith, i.e. the Traditions. The fact that there were many spurious Hadiths that circulated in Islam, led Muslim scholars to reject a great number of them, and to produce their own versions of what is known as the Sahih (Authentic) Traditions.
In contrast, the Gospels, written within a few decades after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, give us accurate and completely reliable accounts of the person, the miracles, and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
As mentioned above, I was shocked, and extremely disappointed that Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad” was chosen, over against several other books that give a true and accurate picture of the founder of Islam.
Unfortunately, there are other apologists for Islam among Western writers and scholars. For example, on June 5 and 6, 2004, BookExpo America was held at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago. One of the panels dealt with “Understanding Islam: How Books Can Foster Dialogue in a Faith-fractured World.” It was telecast twice on Saturday, June 5 on C-SPAN2.
John Esposito, professor of Religion at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, began by giving an account of the status of books on Islam during the second half of the twentieth century. The Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran (1979) gave a great boost to the publication of many new titles on Islam in the West.
According to Esposito, Islam and Muslims were almost invisible in the 1960s both in Europe and in America, but nowadays, Islam has become the second largest religion in those areas as well as in the rest of the world. Esposito deplored the fact that in the West, the media does not do a fair job in depicting Islam. According to him, this has continued to be the case even after the tragic events of 9/11. While several books and magazine articles on Islam have appeared lately, most of them remain deficient, Esposito claimed, as their emphasis is not so much on “know Islam” but on “know the threat” of Islam, or of Islamic radicalism.
In attempting to understand “what makes John Esposito tick,” I came to realize that the key is to be found in an often repeated theme during his presentation at McCormick Place Convention Center: “The transcendent and the dark side of religion exists in all religions.” This is the basic motif he finds in all religions, regardless of their sacred texts and histories. Actually, this reveals Esposito as having joined the ranks of such well-known Western pluralist theologians as John Hick, W. C. Smith, and Paul Knitter. His pluralist theology allows him to posit equivalence between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The noble and uplifting element in these theistic faiths is to be located in the transcendence they proclaim. However, all three have their dark side, which must be confessed and deplored.
Professor Esposito is impatient with the question that is put to him so often, as to whether Islam is a religion of peace. “How come we keep on asking the same question, [about violence in Islam] and don’t ask the same question about Christianity and Judaism. Jews and Christians have engaged in acts of violence. All of us have the transcendent and the dark side.”
Esposito related how he gave his students at Georgetown selections from the Qur’an regarding violence as well as selections from the Hebrew Bible that dealt with the same subject. Having deliberately chosen those texts out of context, his students would naturally arrive at the same conclusion, that both Islam and Judaism taught and endorsed violence.
He then told of his recent participation at a meeting in London, England, where the subject of Islam and its compatibility with democracy were debated. He deplored the fact that during the conference, several people quoted out of context, certain parts of the Qur’an that dealt with violence. At this point, he became rather emotional and declared that “we have our own theology of hate. In mainstream Christianity and Judaism, we tend to be intolerant; we adhere to an exclusivist theology, of us versus them.”
Not that many people attended this presentation on Islam, judging by the more than half-empty room. However, I felt very disappointed about the whole event. It was marked by a one-sided description of Islam, since the other two speakers, being of the Muslim faith, did their best to present a very tolerant view of Islam. A Canadian Muslim author of a critical book on Islam, while advertised on the schedule of C-Span 2, for some unmentioned reason, failed to appear to present the “other side” of this important subject!
John Esposito’s presentation was actually a panegyric of Islam throughout its 1400 year history. His own brand of pluralist theology places his position outside the mainstream of the historic Christian faith, in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. It is a secular, postmodern, and Western construct that seeks to paint all religions with the same brush; in his case, it is that motif of the existence of the same “transcendent and the dark side” essence in every religion.
As a Christian, I encounter no problem with those parts of Old Testament history which narrate the events of the conquest of Canaan. They do tell of warfare, but they took place at a specific phase in Sacred History, and are not normative for this New Testament age. There is no mandate for the Church to resort to conquest or “violence” in its fulfillment of Christ’s commission. In fact, during the first 300 years of our history, our faith spread through kerygma (preaching), didache (teaching), and marturia (testimony). And as many witnesses sealed their testimony with their blood, the Greek word martur acquired a new meaning: that of a witness who dies for his or her faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
John Esposito fails to represent Islam objectively, in the light of its sacred texts and its 1400 years history. As long as he and other Western apologists selectively tell the story of Islam, ignoring its spread primarily through its futuhat (conquests), and remain totally silent about the devastating effects of dhimmitude on the native populations of the conquered lands, their claim to tell a true story of this world religion cannot be left unchallenged.
Near the end of his presentation, John Esposito got animated when he challenged the audience to be careful when they read certain (unnamed) authors who do not give any references to some of their statements, such as the claim that a great number of mosques in the West are funded by Saudi Arabia.
Had I been in the audience, I would have reminded Professor Esposito that many Internet sources on Islam and the Middle East, such as MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute,) do a good job in documenting everything they place on their site.
Furthermore, I would have asked him whether there was any Western equivalence to the Ottoman institution of “Devshirme” that deprived thousands of Balkan families of their young boys who were forced to Islamize, and become members of that elite army corps of Janissaries.
I would have asked why to this day, Turkey still denies the genocide of the Armenians that took the lives of 1,500,000 innocent men, women, and children during World War I, within the territory of the Ottoman Empire.
Furthermore, I would remind the professor that many Arab writers and intellectuals are much more to be trusted than Western propagandists for Islam. After all, these Arabs write from within Islam, and are honest and objective in describing it in a realistic way. In contrast with the claims of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, I would like to quote from an article that appeared on the Arabic-language Kuwaiti website, Tanweer on June 25, 2006. The topic was, “Is Islam a Tolerant Religion?”
The author was very bold to tackle this subject, since it is taboo anywhere in Islamic lands to suggest the absence of tolerance in the Muslim faith. He set forth his case by asking:
“Is Islam a tolerant religion?” Yes, this is a question being repeatedly asked nowadays, and it requires a proper answer. Now, if it is true that Islam is a tolerant religion, am I then allowed to ask this question? Or, would opening up this subject lead many Muslims to hurl at me all kinds of insults and charges, calling me a kafir, and a heretic?
“I firmly believe that it is high time we face the question ‘Is Islam a Tolerant Religion?’ To call a person who poses this question, a kafir, or an atheist, or participating in Crusader or Zionist plots, is a proof of the inability of most Muslims to face the real problem.
“I do expect to get responses from those who claim that Islam is a tolerant religion, and who would refer me to several religious texts, in the Qur’an, and the Sunna, that prove their point. On the other hand, there are many more texts that prove the very opposite. So, the problem that faces Muslims today is that those who yield authority in Muslim countries refer to the second set of texts, namely to those that advocate intolerance vis-à-vis the ‘Other,’ or, the ‘Different.’ Furthermore, there has always been a great gulf separating words from deeds throughout the history of Islam; and this gulf has widened in recent days.
“It is a well-known fact that Islam has a different position, for example, regarding the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, even though most Arab and Muslim states have signified their agreement with the declaration. The UN speaks about equality between human beings, and condemns any discrimination based on religion, sect, or gender. However, most Muslim states have declared their opposition to such UN positions, on the ground that they are incompatible with their religious texts. For example, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians have faced clear discrimination in Islamic countries, even though these groups happen to be the original inhabitants of the lands conquered by Islam! Muslims regard them as ‘Dhimmis’ who live now within Islamic states, and who must pay the Jizya, ‘an yadin, wa-hom saghiroon,’ i.e. ‘they pay the tribute readily, being brought low. (9:29)
“There are also certain Hadiths that approve of this discrimination against Dhimmis. We mention one that purports the Prophet as saying, ‘Don’t initiate a greeting with Jews and Christians, and if you happen to pass by them, force him to walk on the narrowest part of the road.’ Another hadith attributed to Muhammad is: ‘There can be no two religions in Arabia.’
“On the other hand, there are those wonderful Ayas (Qur’anic texts) that call for tolerance, pluralism, and the right of dissension, such as, ‘Had Allah willed He could have made you (all) one nation, but He sendeth whom He will astray and guideth whom He will, and ye will indeed be asked of what ye used to do’ (16:93)
“‘And if thy Lord had willed, He verily would have made mankind one nation, yet they cease not differing.’ (11:118)
“However, what is taking place in the Muslim world, is exactly the very opposite of the texts quoted above. Intolerance is spreading in most Arab and Islamic countries for the last two decades. It has led to the assassination of tens of Arab intellectuals who were advancing the cause of democracy. Not to forget the murder of about 250,000 people in Algeria alone due to the acts of the Islamists since the early 1990s. Around one thousand Iraqis are assassinated every month by jihadist. Doubtless, those who are on the side of jihadism and intolerance chose some of the following sacred texts in support of their views:
“‘Make ready for them all thou canst of (armed) force and of horses tethered, that thereby ye may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others beside them whom ye know not. Allah knoweth them. Whatsoever ye spend in the way of Allah it will be repaid to you in full, and ye will not be wronged.’ (8:60)
“‘Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not.’ (2:216)
“‘Fight in the way of Allah, and know that Allah is Hearer, Knower.’ (2:244)
“‘Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.’ (9:29)
Thus far my quotations from the Arabic article on “Islam and Tolerance.” I consider the appearance of this article to be an extremely important event. It questions the much-vaunted claim that Islam is tolerant, or that Islam is a religion of peace. Here was an honest Arab Muslim intellectual issuing a clarion call to his fellow-Muslims to deal with the problem of intolerance in Islam. What I especially appreciated in his article is the fact that he did not hesitate to refer to the history of Islam and its sacred texts, as he dealt with this crucial topic. When that history is read objectively, and passages from the Qur’an and Hadith are allowed to speak for themselves, one can hardly substantiate the claim that Islam is a tolerant or peaceful religion.
The most salient point of the article is the admission of its author that the Qur’an is filled with exhortations to kill, or persecute the Infidels. Thus, since no religious authority or leader in Islam has declared the Medinan** texts of the Qur’an (that advocate war and violence) as no longer normative, the problem for Islam will persist. These texts are part and parcel of the one Qur’an, and their teachings are just as authoritative as the rather peaceful chapters that came earlier in Mecca. **
So, I would like to plead with Western leaders and academics that make comments on Islam and its relation to the rest of the world; please don’t make facile and uninformed statements such as “Islam is a peaceful religion.” I would advise you to consult the articles and testimonies of insiders, like the ones that are posted on Arabic-language websites; they tell the real story of Islam, and not those embellished ones, dished out by the likes of John Esposito and Karen Armstrong!
*Ummah is the Arabic name for the worldwide Islamic community of nations.
** Meccan and Medinan Surahs: Islam teaches that Muhammad received revelations from Allah in Mecca, beginning with 610 A.D. After he migrated to Medina in 622, the revelations continued until his death in 632. The tone of the Meccan Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an is rather peaceful; however, after Muhammad organized an Islamic state in Medina, the Surahs began to exhibit an intolerance aimed at pagans, Jews, and Christians.