When talking about Islam, we easily see it as a monolithic phenomenon. Knowing the philosophical and theological tradition of Islam gives less justification for fundamentalism, Islamophobia and deliberate social confrontation.
A fear of Islam is a personal feeling which entails a societal dimension as well. This fear – and the fomenting of it – benefits above all right-wing populists and Islamist radicals.
Jari Kaukua is an internationally renowned researcher of medieval philosophy specialised in Islamic philosophy. Here he examines some common claims about Islam.
Statement 1: Islam is an unchanging and reactionary religion.
From the viewpoint of the history of ideologies this is absolutely false.
Islam has no single explicit dogmatic authority, and traditionally the religion has tolerated wide dogmatic disagreement within it.
The theological dogma of Islam underwent major changes from at least the 7th century until the 17th century. During this period there was discussion about big questions such as the unity of Allah, the relationship between Allah and the created world, and the ethical responsibility of humans. At the same time, Islam was actively adopting elements of the Greek scientific and philosophical tradition.
Islam is essentially associated with the conception of religious law and ruling human communities through decreed principles. But even in the Sunni interpretation of law there are four recognised schools of thought, and their differing interpretations are not a problem. One of the starkest divisions of our time is that between the Shia and Sunni Muslims, but the reasons for the escalation of this arise more from political than ideological history.
Of course, there is no use in deny the significant role of fundamentalism today, but from a historical perspective it is a fairly new phenomenon. In its current form it can be traced back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Statement 2: Islamic values are different from those of other cultures and religions.
Every religion has its own distinctive features; otherwise there would be no different religions in the first place. However, the main values of Islam are essentially the same as in most religions in the world. These values include a conception of a good life which encompasses respect and caring for others as well as personal development in terms of ethics and knowledge.
There can, of course, be differences. Consider the idea of charity, for example.
In Christianity, if we interpret the teachings of Jesus literally, we should give up everything for the benefit of our neighbours. Yet in Islam consideration for others is less absolute and closer to the life model of a person acting justly in his or her community.
For example, gathering personal wealth is favourable, as long as one avoids any wrongful deeds and gives the poor their share.
The issue of equality between the genders is on the agenda of present-day Islamic discussion as well. A typical argument in favour of Islamic feminism is that the prophetical decree meant a significant improvement to women’s position in the Bedouin society of the 7th century. If Muslims follow the spirit of the law and not the historically determined legislative phrasing, they must advocate for equality also today. This issue is controversial, however, and women’s position varies significantly in different Muslim communities.
The stance on violence also differs from Christianity. Whereas the teachings of Jesus forbid it altogether, Islam has no such requirement. The use of violence in order to defend one’s community and its members is allowed – is, in fact, even one’s duty.
In this sense, the Islamic view on violence is closer to the later standpoints of churches than to Jesus’ teachings.
Statement 3: Islam is a violent religion that encourages terrorism or killing.
In the context of terrorism, people often talk about jihad, one meaning of which is religiously justified warfare. In all four judicial schools of thought within Sunni Islam the term refers to a defensive war of a Muslim community against an external threat.
In Islam, jihad is a matter of the community: no individual is entitled to start gathering troops for war but the defensive war must always be led by those holding political power in the community. In principle, the justification of terrorist action is therefore problematic in the light of classical interpretation of Islamic law.
Furthermore, the use of civilian casualties as a means of warfare is explicitly condemned.
Modern jihadism deviates strongly from traditional thinking. According to the Islamist thinker Said Qutbin, who was active around the mid-20th century, terrorism is justified because there is no such administration anywhere that would be acceptable from the Islamic point of view and that could direct the use of force. Therefore, it is inevitably a matter of individuals.
By the same token, all people living in Western countries are involved with the injustice these countries pursue in the Muslim world. This makes every one of them a justified target. With these radical interpretations, Qutbin deliberately diverted from classical Islamic thinking.
Statement 4: Islam does not accept criticism or humour.
Humour rarely plays a central role in the dogma of any religion, I suspect. But in various cultures within which religions exist there is also humour related to religious matters and people tend to laugh at holy things as well, and Islam is no exception. Just as there are Christians with whom you cannot joke about theological matters, there are certainly also Muslims of this kind.
A related but different question concerns those cases where joking about Islam has led to violence. Here, religion has been used as a device to provoke people to action. But it is not the only explanatory factor.
If we think about the way Western foreign policy appears to an ordinary citizen of in the Middle East, the impression is rather easily a hypocritical one. In such a setting, true or alleged religious insults are easy to use for demagogic purposes.
On the other hand, if we look at those European Muslims who have committed terrorist attacks, their background is often characterised by unemployment, marginalisation and racism. It is clear that these can by no means justify the criminal deeds, but if we wish to genuinely understand the phenomenon of jihadist terrorism, these factors should be taken into account.
The jihadist message can only gain strength and flourish if there is suitable ground for it.
4 responses to “Four questions about Islam”
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