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Islamic Beliefs, Law and Practice
Muslims account for one-fifth of the world's population. What are the basic principles of their faith? What are the tensions between progressive and reactionary forms of contemporary Islam? And how is Sharia (Islamic) law interpreted differently based on local culture and circumstances? Here are excerpts from the full interviews with: Akbar Muhammad, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Akbar Muhammad, and Chandra Muzaffar.

Akbar Muhammad,
Associate Professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University in New York

Can you tell me what the fundamentals of Islam are?

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The fundamentals of Islam -- if you mean by that, the "five pillars of Islam," they are the shahada, which is an affirmation that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet, his messenger. That constitutes the first pillar, or fundamental.

The second is prayer, salat, and then the fasting, according to some, which is sawm, or the fast of Ramadan; and the payment of what I call a social tax, which is called zakat. Others call it charity; I call it a social tax. It is 2.5 percent of what one has had, what one has owned of certain kinds of wealth for a period of one year.

The fifth is the pilgrimage, the hajj. The pilgrimage to the Kaaba -- not to Mecca per se -- but to the Kaaba, which is in Mecca. Those are the five pillars or the five fundamentals.

And there are principles, too -- another set of beliefs?

That's true, and they are: belief in Allah; belief in the prophets [of] scriptures; belief in the last day, that there's a judgment, there's a hereafter and an afterlife; belief in angels, et cetera. Some scholars say there are four, some say five, some say six. Those are pretty much agreed upon. ... I would say the beliefs are not really that much emphasized in Muslim societies, particularly Arabic Muslim societies; not that much. The main thing is the main set of principles are those that we just talked about -- the five principles. ...

Those are the things that you actually had to do, and not so much a way of being?

Actually, you've made a very important statement. If we look at the five principles of Islam, or the five pillars or the five fundamentals, belief practically ends with the first pillar of Islam. In other words, that affirmation that Allah is the only deity and that Muhammad is his messenger. After that, everything is action, is practice. The other four, i.e., praying, fasting, paying the zakat -- what I call a social tax -- and the hajj, involve action. Muslims are very action-oriented.

So what does it take to be Muslim? Is it believing that first principle?

According to widely accepted authoritative hadiths, or sayings of the prophets, Islam is built on five pillars. It's those five pillars we just mentioned. Once one accepts those five principles, one is considered a Muslim. In fact, upon pronouncing the shahada, which is only the first of those principles, a person is considered a Muslim. So it's easy to become a Muslim. It's easier than joining the Republican or Democratic Party. It's very easy to become a Muslim. Technically, it [only] takes seconds to become a Muslim.

But do you have to do all those other things the rest of your life?

To stay a Muslim, I would say, yes, all of those are important. How important those things are, is really, in my view, an academic, a scholarly argument. Why do I say that? Because in a social context, a person may be taken for a Muslim who does not pray; who does not pay any zakat; who does not do many or all of the other four principles of Islam. In other words, there is such a thing as socio-cultural Muslim, a public Muslim. Then there is another kind of Muslim, I would say, who is technically a Muslim, who is legally a Muslim, I'd like to say. And [who] therefore follows the law. ...

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Imam of Masjid al-Farah, New York, New York

What are the fundamentals of Islam? What does it teach to be a Muslim?

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The fundamental idea which defines a human being as a Muslim is the declaration of faith that there is a creator, whom we call God -- or Allah, in Arabic -- and that the creator is one and single. And we declare this faith by the declaration of faith, [shahada] where we ... bear witness that there is no God but God, and that we are accountable to God for our actions.

And that's the bottom line?

That is the universal Quranic definition of a person who is a Muslim. Because God says in the Quran that there is only one true religion, God's religion. It's the same theme that God revealed to all of the prophets, even before Muhammad. They all came to express the truth about ultimate reality. That the ultimate reality, with a capital "R" is God; that God created this universe; and God created humanity for a very specific purpose and mandate, which is to recognize what he or she truly is.

A being created, as we say in the Judeo-Christian world, in the image of God. The Quran uses a different language, it says, created out of a divine in-breathing, because the Quran says when God created the form of Adam from clay, God says, "When I shall have breathed into him from my spirit." Then he announced to the angels, "Fall in prostration to Adam."

So the defining aspect of a human being is that the human being has within its envelope a piece of the divine breath. This is the Quranic definition of what you might call the quote, unquote, "divine image in the human envelope." And the human mandate is to recognize this essential definition of self, and to acknowledge the very special relationship that exists between that self and the creator.

It doesn't sound so different from Christianity or Judaism.

The Quran does not speak about Christianity or Judaism. You will not find that word once mentioned in the Quran. ... [but] God says in the Quran that there is not a single community on earth to whom we did not send a messenger. So the same message, the same truth, was revealed to all of humanity through a series of prophets; whose complete number, we don't know. The Quran mentions 25 of them by name.

But the message is one: that God is one; that the creator is single; that the creator has no partner; that the creator is described by the perfection of a number of attributes, which Muslims call the divine names. So God is one; God is almighty; God is all-seeing; God is all-knowing; God is all-hearing. God is compassionate, merciful, forgiving, loving. God is just. And so forth.

We are forbidden to ascribe to God attributes of weakness or imperfection. So we cannot say God is one, but God is poor; God is one, but God is blind, for instance, or doesn't have the attribute of seeing. It is equally important for Muslims to assert, not only the oneness of God, but the perfection of his attributes.

And the message, in its substance, embodies what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments. When Jesus was once asked, "Rabbi, or Rebbe, what are the greatest commandments?" He said, to love the lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and all of your mind. And the second, which is coequal with it: that you love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love for your brother or your sister, what you love for yourself. Not to harm them in a way that you do not wish to be harmed.

Which again embodies these two principles: A, that you have to acknowledge the creator correctly. And B, that you are going to be held accountable for your ethical decisions and choices. And the particular form of revelation was a function of society. So every prophet or messenger, every prophet or messenger spoke in his own language to his own community. Some words were spoken Hebrew, or in ancient Egyptian. Every revelation was given in the language of the community to whom it was sent. The rituals may have been a little bit different, but the essence of the rituals were there: prayer, charity, and, and fasting.

If the message is the same, then how come the people don't agree with each other?

Well, God's perennial lament -- not only in the Quran, but in other scriptures as well -- is that people generally do not follow God's dictates and the guidance and the mandate that God has offered to humanity to follow. We tend to be recalcitrant. We tend to be disobedient to divine guidance. And if you look at human conflict, it has even existed within people of the same religious tradition. I don't need to remind you that even among those who call themselves Muslims there has been a lot of bloodshed.

We're finding that it's very hard to define who Muslims are. Every time we figure, oh, that's what it is, or that's who they are, there's an exception to the rule. There's a very traditional housewife-looking lady in Malaysia who's also a doctor who ministers to unwed mothers. We have girls in Turkey who are saying, "We want to cover our hair." And we have a secular government that's discriminating against them -- women who want to cover, women who don't. Men who want to keep women in the house; men who agree that women have absolute opportunity to do what they need to do in society. How does this all fit?

The definition of the faith of Islam that I gave you before is the Quranic universal definition of the human being vis a vis the creator. There is a narrower definition of Islam which is used, which is, those who follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Now, according to that definition, their Islam is defined by what was commonly called the five pillars of faith. This is what theologians call the orthopraxy, or the orthopraxis. It means the practices which define you as a Muslim.

There are also five articles of creed, of belief, which theologians call the orthodoxy. ...The orthodoxy of the Islamic faith is defined as a belief in the oneness of God and the right attitude, the right understandings of God, as I mentioned earlier. A belief in the angels, beings created of light, who convey the divine commandments. The belief that God communicated to humanity via scriptures. And these scriptures are considered to be both oral and written form. ... And the belief that God also communicated his guidance and messages and teachings to humanity via human intermediaries, human messengers, we call them. prophets, or messengers.

And the last item of the Islamic orthodoxy is the belief in the last day. The last is a compound concept which means that this creation will, in fact, come to an end. So those of us who believe in the big bang theory, there will be a big implosion, in other words, at the end of time, so to speak -- followed by a day of resurrection, where all the souls shall be resurrected; followed by a day of judgment, where all souls will be judged; followed by the obtaining of divine approval or divine disapproval. A pass grade or a failing grade. Those who get a passing grade will be in paradise. Those who get a failing grade will be in what we call hell. And the underlying theme of the last day is that we are all accountable for our ethical actions. ...

That's the orthodoxy. The orthopraxy of Islam is a declaration of faith: the statement that there is no God but God; that Muhammad is the messenger of God; the five-time daily prayer; the giving of alms, typically 2.5 percent of one's income or assets; the fasting of the month of Ramadan; and the going to pilgrimage, or hajj, once in one's lifetime, if one can afford it, financially and physically. Anybody who does these things is within the box of Islam.

There are other things, secondary things. Rules of dress and rules of behavior and rules of what may be considered right or wrong. And these come from cultural norms and from, from secondary sources of jurisprudence. But anybody who believes in these things and practices these things is a Muslim. ...

Could you just explain to us the key things that Islam, Christianity and Judaism have in common -- what they share?

They share geography. They share Jerusalem, which is important to all. We share a common ancestor, Abraham, who was really the founder and the patriarch of all of us. And I think if we can revert back to the Abrahamic foundation, that is [where] we will find our common ground. Our languages are very similar -- Arabic and Hebrew and Aramaic ... . The ideas are very similar; and the fundamental impulse of belief in God, that God is the creator, that we are obliged to act in a way that is ethical and just and right. These are certainly among the important aspects of kinship between these three faith traditions. And I would even go further and say -- apart perhaps from some differences in the notion of God -- but as far as the idea of the common good, the idea of social justice - [that] is shared with all faith traditions.

[Who decides the rules of Islamic jurisprudence?]

The thing about the Islamic situation is we don't have a church. We don't have an ordained priesthood, which makes it a little complicated. But we do have a tradition of scholarship, and rules of scholarship. It's very much like any field of knowledge.

Take any field of knowledge, like physics or biology or chemistry. Anybody can become a chemist or a biologist or a physicist. But there are rules [developed], and a kind of a growing consensus of opinion on how one should think correctly to arrive at what would be deemed a right, a correct decision.

Analogously, there is, in Islam, a tradition of theological interpretation, of [juridical] understanding and knowledge. And as long as you abide by these, the consensus of understanding on how you arrive at a decision, certain differences of opinion are considered equally valid. ...

Can you define "hadith" for an American audience?

The word "hadith" means any report of something the prophet either said or did. That's hadith with small "h.". Hadith with capital "H" is the collection of all these reports.

Which have been carefully substantiated or authenticated?

There are all kinds of grades of hadith, from the most authentic to those that have been forged, and various degrees in between. Islamic hadith scholarship actually is a very fascinating study, because through the hadith collection, you get a slice of Islamic history. The politics of what happened at different periods of time are all manifest in the hadith.

And the Sunna, similarly.

The word "Sunna" is used to mean the normative practice of the prophet. In fact, the jurists have defined the general Sunna of the prophet to mean everything the prophet did or said. The hadith is the report of the Sunna. And of the practice of the prophet, there's a certain class of actions that are normative for Muslims to follow, Sunna which has ... legal value, has a precedent value. And there is Sunna which has no Sharia value. For instance, the prophet prayed a certain way. This has Sharia value, we're supposed to pray that way. The prophet went to hajj on a camel. Doesn't mean that we have to ride a camel from Medina to Mecca for our hajj to be valid. We can take a car. We can take a plane, because that Sunna has no Sharia value.

Can you explain that, Sharia?

The word "Sharia" is the term given to define the collectivity of laws that Muslims govern themselves by. And there is a presumption that these laws recognize all of the specific laws mentioned in the Quran and in the practice of the prophet, and do not conflict with that. So any law, anything studied in the Quran or the hadith, is definitely [Sharia]. The idea is that it is divinely legislated, that the creator also has legislated certain things for us.

But then in the community of Muslims, it was recognized very early on that the Quran and the hadith do not speak to all issues. And there are many issues which are not necessarily addressed in the Quran and the hadith, that the Quran is silent on. ... There is a recognition in the [science] of Islamic jurisprudence that there are issues which have to be obtained by analogy, by consensus, and other [subsidiary] sources of jurisprudence. But as long as they don't conflict with the Quran and hadith of the prophet, it's considered to be, quote, unquote, "Sharia."

The flexibility built in there, you know, the using of your own common sense, is that what allows different places to apply Sharia differently?

Well, I wouldn't phrase it quite that way. The correct phrasing would be that, when people think about Islamic law, there's a presumption that all of Islamic law is Quranic, or emanates from the Quran and the hadith. The truth of the matter is, what really defines Islamic law [is] the sum total of Islamic law as has been practiced by Muslims throughout the last 14, 15 centuries ... . The Quran and the hadith are a limiting factor and a shaping factor. But any body of laws that includes and embodies the specific commandments and prohibitions mentioned in the Quran and the hadith, that does not violate any of these things, has been considered as Sharia, as Islamic. And this allows a lot of variation of opinion, in things which the Quran and the hadith are relatively silent on as long as the principles are maintained, of justice, et cetera.

My understanding of [the Sharia] rules about punishment for matrimonial infidelity [is that] you have to have four eyewitnesses, or several eyewitnesses to the [act] in order to demand the death penalty. It's almost inconceivable to me that you could ever produce that kind of eyewitness or evidence. But we hear that these kinds of punishments are meted out fairly regularly. Is the law being followed the way it's set [out]?

You cannot judge a whole body of law by one instance of criminal law. When people think about Sharia law, they often think about the penalties for certain crimes. They don't think about the sum total of Islamic law and its jurisprudence, which means the underlying structure and philosophy and understanding of how you arrive at what we call the Islamically correct decision. You do not define Sharia law by just a couple of penalties. ...

Islamic law has a few penalties for certain crimes. But the rules of evidence, as you mentioned in the case of adultery, require either the free confession by the individual and/or the existence of four witnesses who are of sound mind and who fit the description of qualified witnesses, which is very rare to obtain.

Much of what we see when we hear of events that apply Sharia law, what we see in Nigeria, for instance, or even in Pakistan, is a desire by much of the people to see the general principles of justice followed. ... It is a desire by the people to see their system of laws be more equitable. It is a call for correction of the overall system of social justice, of economic justice, which the Quran calls for; and the example of the prophet calls for.

You see, Muslims have an ideal. Part of their ideal is to follow what they call the example of the prophet, the Sunna of the prophet. So at an individual level, and a human being who wants to perfect himself or herself looks to the tradition of the prophet, his individual practice, and tries to emulate the prophet as much as possible.

There is also a collective subliminal ambition that Muslims have, that at a collective level, they also embody the ideals of the community that the prophet developed in Medina. So when Muslims today speak of the attempt to establish an Islamic state, what they are really saying is that they would like to have a community that lives in accordance with the ideals, the relationships, the social contract, which the prophet had developed in Medina with his companions and how they had this amongst each other. ...

Akbar Muhammad
Associate Professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University in New York

...Islam is a very flexible system, and it has been very flexible for centuries. What I mean by that is that differences of opinion have been accepted within Islam and given legitimacy by some of the highest authorities in Islam. Thus in certain areas of the Sharia, one country may differ from another country. One community may differ from another community, even in the same country. We interpret the Sharia in the South, let's say, in Alabama, in this particular area of marriage and divorce or whatever, in this way. You people in New York, in New Jersey, and elsewhere, you interpret it differently. We are all correct. And we have agreed on that.

But that is not strange. Why should it be? Divorce law in various states of the United States differ. The acceptance of homosexuality, legal acceptance of, permission, et cetera, differ from one state to the other. So we can have a national, we can have a federal state, but there are differences within those states. I'm saying, similarly, Islamic law is not one thing. It's not monolithic, as American law is not monolithic, as Western law is not monolithic. So we should be very careful about saying, "Well, this is a violation of the Sharia."

Do those differences come from the cultures?

Yes. Absolutely. The Sharia is definitely affected by local cultures, regional cultures. We cannot really talk about national cultures. But we can talk about regional cultures, and we can talk about local cultures. There are different schools of thought within the Sharia. ...

We also are in the setting of America, where a lot of people are frightened. What they may know about Islam is that Muslims flew into the World Trade Center. I think for Muslims, that's rather perturbing.

I can understand why. Part of it is because of American ignorance of Islam, on the one hand. On the other hand, from a Muslim perspective, we have to understand why such people would have acted in that way. And if I might use a term that I don't really like, I think the Muslim world must understand what produces such persons. Muslims have to help Westerners understand that such person may not be acting in a widely accepted Islamic manner. But at the same time, Muslims need to try to understand such persons against a large corpus of Islamic writings, thought, et cetera. Because such persons are saying that what they did, what they do, is justified in Islam.

Is it [justified]? How do they justify it?

They draw on a body of literature which is primarily interpretive, in my view. It's primarily interpretive. In other words, how does one interpret a text? If the text says, "Cut off the hands of the male and female thief," one might interpret that particular text as applicable in a situation of one stealing a pen as well as one stealing a million dollars.

What I'm saying here is if we take the text literally -- without knowing the Summa, without knowing the hadith, what was the prophet's practice, what did the ulema, the scholars say after that -- if we don't have a good view of the variety of interpretations of the text, then we cannot stand and say that those people are necessarily wrong within the context of Islam.

For example: "Fight those who fight against you." Some of those people who Americans call terrorists consider that they are fighting against those who fight against them; [that] the fight started long ago, and the fight continues. So they don't have to have a new justification. In their view, they don't need a new justification.

To which fight are you referring when you say, "It started long ago?"

The Crusades, for example. There are a lot of Muslims who consider the Crusades as a continual process, and then the whole idea of that disastrous thing called colonization or colonialism. Muslims have been batted around. Muslims continue to be batted around.

Now, if we consider, on the one hand, the concept of umma -- that is that all Muslims belong to a community, a nation, called the umma -- and this nation is extraterritorial in modern terminology, i.e., a Muslim could be in Greenland and still belong to the umma, because he or she is a Muslim. From a point of view of Sharia, if a part of that umma is attacked, then all of the umma is responsible for the defense of that area. This means that if the Palestinians are attacked, if the Iranians are attacked, if the Iraqis are attacked, indeed, if Muslims in this country are attacked, then Muslims elsewhere should come to the aid of those Muslims.

So as long as Muslims continue to be attacked -- and they have been attacked throughout, for centuries, et cetera -- then the fight continues. The struggle continues. That could be a justification for those who say, "Wherever I attacked you, and whatever Western interests I attack, are covered. I'm doing this with the blessings of the Sharia." This is one way of interpreting. No, it's not widely accepted amongst the generality of Muslims. I don't think so. But it is a way of viewing the text or interpreting the text.

Which means that this could go on ad infinitum?

Absolutely. It does mean that. ... I'm saying here that we have a problem of interpretation. I don't want to stress this too far. But we do have a problem of interpretation. A text can be interpreted differently by different people. Those interpretations become legitimate to those who interpret the text in that manner. So we have several interpretations. Who's to say who's right?

Chandra Muzzafar
President, International Movement for a Just World and Professor at the Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Can you describe for me in more detail the progressive, reformist vision of a universal form of Islam [that you espouse]?

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If one tries to understand that vision in terms of very specific concerns, the more universal approach to Islam would see as immutable, as perennial -- not laws pertaining to criminal punishment, nothing of that sort. What they would see as immutable would be the laws of life and death and growth and decay; laws of that sort which are universally acceptable. In other words, they will not be wedded to a certain interpretation of Islamic law. ... [such as] "You prove your Islamic credentials by chopping off the hands or stoning the adulterer and adulterers" and all the rest of it, ecause that is not what defines Islam. At the same time, the more universal approach would regard women as equal.

They would regard the woman as calipha or viceregent and allow her to perform her role, both within the sphere of the home and the public sphere, without restricting her in any manner. The more universal approach to Islam would regard minorities, for instance, as groups that have the same rights as the majority community. They wouldn't make a distinction between the two. They wouldn't, for instance, say that certain offices are barred to the minorities or that they can't participate in certain spheres of society. They wouldn't adopt that sort of approach.

The more universal approach to Islam would emphasize values -- universal perennial values which others can also identify with. And through that, they would establish a bond with the other. And the other would cease to be "the other" within that more universal perspective on Islam. The only identity that will count is one's human identity. That would be the real Islam. Because the whole purpose of Islamic seems to me is to enhance one's humanity, to discover one's humanity.

To get to that point, there has to be a process of interpretation of sacred texts?

That's right.

Can you explain how that process has evolved, and how Muslims do that today?

In some respects, the clerics, the ulema in Islam, are stuck in a rut. What is important is to look at the methodology behind interpretation, and use that methodology in a very creative manner. This is what is required. In other words, you go back to fundamental principles. See how they apply to the present. Look at the present in a very critical manner, and see how one has to perhaps bring about changes in one's environment, so that some of these values and principles would flourish.

But that sort of creativity is not there amongst a lot of the clerics. What they have done is to take laws from the past and say, "Look, let's apply them today without thinking about the contemporary situation." This, I think, is a product of a certain trend in Muslim history. After the ninth century, one gets the impression that this particular approach to law, to rules, to regulations became stronger and stronger. And because of some of the convulsions that Islamic civilization went through before colonialism -- I'm referring to the invasions from the Mongols, for instance, that destroyed some of the major centers of Islamic learning -- that trend became even more powerful within Islam.

They became very, very conservative, because they felt that they had to conserve whatever little they had, because huge centers of learning were destroyed. Baghdad was destroyed in 1258. Other places like Bokhara, Samarkand, all those places were destroyed as a result of these invasions. I think this is one of the reasons why the conservative approach to Islamic jurisprudence has become so strong. And this is the approach adopted by the vast majority of clerics today all over the Muslim world.

So who is leading this [more progressive] form of interpretation?

I see it emerging from three sources. Number one, I see women playing a very important role in the reinterpretation of Islam. Because if you look at some of the positions taken by women theologians, you'll see that they are very concerned about, not just the role of women, but the larger challenges facing the Muslim world. And they want this process of reinterpretation to take place now.

It is significant that there are women theologians who are doing this, because what it means is that you have a whole gender community which would support this process of change. For changes to take place, you need that sort of force behind it. If you look, for instance, at the way in which ideas on social welfare and social justice emerged in the late eighteenth century, nineteenth century in Europe, you had a working class that was behind these changes, which intellectuals nowadays are articulating. So I think something like that has to happen within the Muslim world. You need a whole group, a gender community, as it were, behind this movement for change.

Number two, I see it emerging within Muslim communities in the West. Why in the West? Because in the West, you're challenged intellectually. You have to define your position. You have to try to understand some of your own precepts and principles. And that sort of intellectual challenge is very, very important. It's something that is not happening in the Muslim majority societies where you have this very sort of complacent attitude, where thought has stultified. You find that creativity is no longer there. It's all ossified. But in the West, it's different. They're challenged; they'll have to respond to it. So that's the second source.

And the third source would be elements within the middle class and amongst the professionals. You would find them all over the Muslim world. They have to rethink their positions, too. They just can't accept the theology that is handed down to them by the clerics. So these are the three very important sources which, to my mind, will bring about this new change.

But at the same time, there will be individuals from a clerical background who will also play a role in this. If you look at what's happening in Iran and even if you look at some of the other Sunni-majority Muslim countries, you find that there are theologians who are very, very open-minded. And when they lend their weight and authority behind these changes, it gives a tremendous boost to the movement for reform.

Is it possible at this point to predict how that tension, the struggle between [the progressive and conservative] approaches to Islam will develop in the near future?

In a sense, globalization and the changes that are being wrought in the larger environment would favor the progressives. ... As a result of globalization, societies everywhere are becoming heterogeneous. In other words, "the other" is no longer some theoretical construct out there. The other is a living reality. You have to relate to the other. That's bound to change your thought processes.

At the same time, you have the role of women, and that's again part of the whole process of globalization. Women in Saudi, for instance, know what is happening to their Muslim sisters in, say, Malaysia or Indonesia. As a result of that, they'll have to think about their own situation. They are exposed to television. Internet is part of their lives. These are changes that one just can't stop. So I see globalization as a process which will aid the movement for change within the Muslim world.

Of course, it can also lead to very reactive stances. But in the long run, as has happened in other societies at other points in time, the reactive approach would lose out to the more progressive, open, inclusive approach. ...

Some Muslims seem to turn to violence and to terrorism. Explain to me how the thinking that has led some people in that direction, how they've managed to justify it with a faith that seems to be predominantly about peace and justice.

This is something which is the product of a variety of factors. Sometimes it's just sheer desperation and frustration emerging from a situation which is totally out of their control. If, for instance, Palestinians resort to violence, it's largely because of the situation that they're in. And I would distinguish that sort of violence one has seen in other parts of the world, while not justifying violence as a mode of political action, which is my own ideological position.

I don't think violence is justified under any circumstances. Whether it's violence of the victim or the violence of the oppressor, I don't think there is any justification at all for violence. But the sort of violence which has come to be associated with certain groups in the Muslim world which I personally abhor would be like the violence of the Abu Sayyef in the southern part of the Philippines. They loot, they kidnap, they blackmail people, they target innocent civilians and all the rest of it. I see this as a tendency that exists in all cultures and civilizations.

There are groups like that in Japan, in Italy, in Germany. It's not confined to the Muslim world in any way. The reason why they do this and try to justify this in the name of Islam is because they need an ideological basis. And what better ideological justification than something which is linked to religion? Because that carries with it a very powerful emotional thrust. And they need that emotional thrust to justify what they're doing.

It's also a way, I suppose, of squaring with their own conscience. They do all these killings because they see it as something which is justified in the name of religion. It brings merit to them from a religious point of view. ...

How do you think Afghanistan and the Taliban fit into this tension between progressive and literalistic interpretations of Islam?

I don't know whether the long drawn-[out] war in Afghanistan has had a certain impact upon the psychology of the community as a collectivity. After the Soviet invasion and the defeat of the occupying forces, one would have thought that they would have rebuilt their society. But that did not happen, because the various factions began to fight with one another. As someone once said, the Afghans are such good fighters that they just can't stop fighting. And this is what has been happening.

And now you have a situation where the Taliban has emerged from the refugee camps of Pakistan, actually, and consolidated their position. And I suppose for a war-weary people, the Talibans, with their very strict interpretation of Islamic law and the capacity to enforce the authority, they have managed to win quite a few adherents within the country. But I don't see that sort of approach to Islam gaining the support of Muslims in other parts of the world.

You'll find that whenever the Taliban has done something which is outrageous, other Muslims have spoken out against them. On the question of women, women being denied the right to work outside their home, a lot of Muslims came out against it.

When they destroyed those statues, not only Muslim movements, but Muslim governments came out openly against the Taliban. So the Taliban, in a sense, would be an aberration, as far as the Muslim world goes. And I hope that's the way the West will look at the Taliban -- as an aberration. Such aberrations have existed in other cultures and traditions at other points in history. So it's basically an aberration. I mean, I would like to regard the Inquisition as an aberration as far as Christian history is concerned. And I think the Taliban would be an aberration as far as contemporary Muslim civilization is concerned. ...

How would you sum up your vision of Islam as a spirituality, a way of life, culture and possibly a renewed civilization?

The essence of Islam's mission, as I see it as an individual Muslim, is to elevate our humanity, to make us more conscious of justice, to make us more conscious of the unity and the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human family. This, I think, is the mission of Islam: to restore to humanity that principle that is repeated over and over again in the Quran, to believe in God and to do good. And this is all there is to it. All the other schisms and divisions that we see, to my mind are the products of the human being's own failing, his or her own fallacies. But the strength of Islam lies in this -- in making us more human.

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