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Islam and Muslims

This is the second of a four-part interview with Nabeel Qureshi, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Qureshi's newest book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, releases March 8.

Are there different kinds of followers of Islam?

Muslims interpret Muhammad’s teachings very differently, often along partisan lines of authoritative interpreters and cultural boundaries. That is why, in very broad strokes, Shia Islam looks different from Sunni Islam, why Bosnian Islam looks different from Saudi Islam, why folk Islam in the outlands of Yemen looks different from scholarly Islam in the halls of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Although the core of Islam is centered on the person of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, the expression of Islam reflects local customs.

That is one reason why it is important to remember that Islam is not primarily a religion of Arabs. The country with the most Muslims in the world is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, India, and then Bangladesh. None of those nations are Arab, and local customs manage to find their way into Islamic expression. In addition, no two Muslims are exactly alike, and that is another reason why the expression of Islam is so varied. My sister and I were raised in the same denomination by the same parents, but her practice and interpretation of Islam looks very different from how mine looked. Her leanings were far more Western and pluralist than were mine. I was more interested in learning about Muhammad and his teachings than she was, while she was more interested in American pop culture than I was.

What’s the difference between Islam and Muslims?

Especially because of the great diversity of Islamic expression, it bears repeating that Islam is not Muslims, and Muslims are not Islam. Though Muslims are adherents of Islam, and Islam is the worldview of Muslims, the two are not the same, as too many uncritically want to believe. On one end of the spectrum, many assume that if the Quran teaches something then all Muslims believe it. That is false. Many Muslims have not heard of a given teaching, some might interpret it differently, and others may frankly do their best to ignore it. For example, even if we were to demonstrate through careful hermeneutics that the Quranic injunction to beat disobedient wives (4:34) is meant to apply to all Muslims today, it would still have zero bearing in my family. My father will not beat my mother. On the other end of the spectrum, criticism of Islam is often taken to be criticism of Muslims. That is equally false. One can criticize the Quranic command to beat disobedient wives without criticizing Muslims. Islam is not Muslims, and one can criticize Islam while affirming and loving Muslims.

What does it means that Islam is a religion of peace?

In our Islamic community, we were taught that the “surrender” of Islam was a submission of one’s will and life to God, which I would argue is noble and does not connote violence. But to contend that the word “Islam” signifies peace in the absence of violence is incorrect. “Islam” signifies a peace after violence, or under the threat of it. According to Islamic tradition, that is how Muhammad himself used the word. His warning to neighboring tribes is famous: Aslim taslam, “Surrender and you will have peace.” It was a play on words, as aslim also connotes becoming Muslim: “Convert, and you will have safety through surrender.” So the word “Islam” refers to the peace that comes from surrender. Peaceful Muslim communities today present that imagery as a spiritual peace with Allah, but records of Muhammad’s life indicate that the notion of submission was also used in military contexts.

Those who study Islamic history and continue to say Islam is a religion of peace mean it in one of two senses: a spiritual sense or an idealized sense. In the spiritual sense it is understood that Islam brings peace to a person through personal discipline, a right relationship with other Muslims, and submission toward the Creator. This sense of the slogan is irrelevant as a response to violent jihad. In the idealized sense, it is generally meant that Islam brings peace to this world. Though battles have been fought, they were fought out of necessity. Ideally, the goal that Islam strives for is peace throughout the world. Neither of these, though, means Islam is a religion devoid of violence.

You believe that the implication that Islam is a religion devoid of violence is simply false?        

Yes. The frequent proclamations by leaders and media members of Islam’s peacefulness may be well-intended, but more is needed than good intentions. Instead, we must open our eyes and not allow ourselves to remain blind to evident facts in our attempts to either protect or sway Muslims. Though violence is writ large throughout the pages of Islamic history, including in its foundations, that does not mean our Muslim neighbors are violent. Muslims deserve to be treated with the kindness and respect due to all people. This intrinsic worth means we need not distort the truth about Islam to respect Muslims.

Why would a person move from moderate Islam to radical Islam?

There is a consistent thread running through each and every example of such radicalization. The radicalized Muslims were explicitly introduced to violent traditions of early Islam, they became convinced of their authenticity, and they intentionally chose to follow them. Whether or not this is always the defining factor for radicalization should not cloud the fact that it is a universal factor. There is no need to remain bewildered when mujahideen themselves often tell us their reasons for becoming radicalized. If we would listen carefully to what they have to say, we would find this to be true without exception.

Whatever the additional factors might be, however, the foundations and history of the religion do more than simply enable the use of violence for Islamic dominance; they command it. Nevertheless, most Muslims in the world are not violent people because of the centuries of tradition and layers of interpretation that separate them from their foundational texts. That is why I hope to also explain their perspectives, so we can understand our Muslim neighbors and show them the love and compassion that all people deserve, devoid of unwarranted fear and mistrust.
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