How I Explained to My Impressionable Student That Islam Is Not Monolithic


Source: Huffington Post


Professor, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Indiana University

On Sept. 29, 2015, President Obama addressed the United Nations summit on violent extremism. He stated that part of the international effort to stamp out terrorism “must be a continued rejection by Muslims of those who distort Islam to preach intolerance and promote violence, and it must also be a rejection by non-Muslims of the ignorance that equates Islam with terror.” The president expressed similar sentiments in a televised speech immediately after the tragic killings in San Bernardino, California on Dec. 2, 2015.

The president was right on the mark. Despite the fact that “Islam” and “Muslims” often make the headlines in our major media outlets, there is still considerable ignorance about both. “Islam” is often presented in Western sources as a frozen, monolithic tradition that incites violence and that remains hopelessly at odds with modernity.

There are also a number of Muslims today of a particular stripe — often termed “jihadist Salafist” — who similarly emphasize an unchanging essence within the Islamic tradition; more dangerously, they understand Islamic doctrine to require Muslims to resort to unending violence against non-Muslims. As a professor of Islamic studies, I very rarely come up against this latter mindset personally; the deleterious effect of such a worldview, particularly on vulnerable Muslim youth, was however brought home to me in a forceful way recently.

A couple of years ago, I had an undergraduate student in my class “War and Peace in the Islamic Tradition” who stood out in a couple of respects. He was an American-born young man who had converted to Islam and had then proceeded to acquire an Islamic education in Saudi Arabia, where he was exposed to Wahhabi ideology. For most of the semester, this young man — whom I will call Fulan — became my sparring partner on most of the issues we discussed in class, especially concerning the meanings of jihad in different historical contexts.

Jihad in its basic meaning signifies ‘struggle’ or ‘striving,’ which can be carried out in different ways.

Unusually for an undergraduate, his acquired Arabic was very good, and he had used that linguistic training to study medieval Arabic texts in Saudi Arabia. Fulan’s favorite authority was a well-known Muslim scholar by the name of Ibn Kathir, who lived in the 14th century during a tumultuous period. Ibn Kathir wrote fiery tracts on the military jihad, which he urged the population in Syria to undertake against the Crusaders who were ravaging the Lebanese coast at the time.

It was during this period that Ibn Kathir highlighted a verse from the Quran (9:5), which states, “When the sacred months have passed, then slay the polytheists wherever you may encounter them.” The verse was directed specifically at the Meccan polytheists who had attacked the Prophet Muhammad and his small community of Muslims in the seventh century. Seven centuries later, Ibn Kathir dubbed it the“sword verse” so as to create a general religious mandate to fight the new invaders of his time.

Ibn Kathir had studied with a famous theologian, Ibn Taymiyyah, who belonged to the Hanbali school of law from which Wahhabism emerged in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century. Ibn Taymiyyah had been traumatized in his youth by the attack of the Mongols on his native city of Harran in the 13th century, causing his family to flee from there and settle in Damascus. In some of his legal opinions, Ibn Taymiyyah forcefully called upon his fellow Muslims to fight the Mongols and rout them from Islamic lands as a religious obligation.

Not surprisingly, Ibn Kathir and Ibn Taymiyyah are quite popular with ultraconservative revivalist Muslim groups today, and their writings exhorting Muslims to carry out military jihad, stripped from their historical context, are often cited by militant ideologues. Fulan was very enamored of these two theologians. He was convinced that other scholars who held diametrically opposed views on jihad were clearly wrong. Fulan would sometimes vociferously complain that I did not accord Ibn Kathir the prominence he deserved in my class.

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