Javeed Akhter, M.D.
International Strategy and Policy Institute
The International Strategy and Policy Institute (ISPI) was established in 1994 by a group of American Muslims in the Chicago area. Its objective is to promote correct understanding about Islam in the United States and to explain the moral and ethical positions of Islam. It seeks to bring those positions to bear on the formulation of public policy. The institute is motivated by the belief that great nations like the United States should not just have interests but ideals. Islamic ideals promote justice and advocate a middle of the road approach and would be a positive influence on the United States and the world.
One of the means of achieving these ideals is the publication of position papers on selected topics of public policy in which Islamic solutions might play a constructive role. This essay by Professor Ralph Braibanti is the first of this series. A condensed version was delivered as a lecture at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago, march 31, 1995. The essay is necessarily broad in scope as it seeks to establish the contextual framework for the subsequent papers. These will deal with the specific issues such as justice, environment, family values, personal health, spiritual life and relations between Islam and other religions particularly Judaism and Christianity. One basic objective of the Institute's efforts is to promote understanding and harmony among all the religious beliefs. Therefore the emphasis is on similarities of religious views and practices rather than on differences.
Muslims are approximately 27 percent of the world population, have a rich civilization and a distinctive perspective on life. They are a significant and growing minority in Europe and North America, yet they are not properly understood. Ignorance about Islam results in widespread stereotyping of Muslims frequently leading to racial and ethnic distortions. This first position paper is designed in part to stratify these misconceptions and offers methodologies for correcting them. Professor Braibanti's explanation of the origins of antagonism towards Islam and the distortions implicit in the term "fundamentalist" is a necessary first step in promoting an understanding of Islam in the West. Regrettably, distortions of Islam are not limited to popular culture but equally permeate scholarly literature as the work of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington suggest. Even a cursory view of the Muslim world and Muslim history belies the notion that Muslims are violent extremists. From the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 to the current "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs, the massacres of Chechnya by the Russians, or the atrocities against Kashmiri Muslims by Indian security forces, Muslims have and continue to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
Knowledge of fundamental Islamic principles and moral values would clarify many misunderstandings. These moral values drive decisions that many Muslims make as individuals and are the ideals that guide policy in Muslim nations. These beliefs would be catalysts for equity and socio-economic justice and may stem moral decay in American society. In an abbreviated form, these are the quintessential of the Muslims belief system.
Muslims believe in one transcendental God, Allah. The belief in one God is called Taw'hid. The Arabic word Allah is grammatically unique, as it has no derivatives. It is neither plural nor gender specific; thus it emphasizes that the one and only God is neither male nor female. God's omnipotence and omnipresence transcend space, time, and gender.
While acknowledging the prophets of the Old Testament and the prophethood but not the divinity of Issa (Jesus), Muslims believe that Muhammad, (peace be upon him - PBUH) was the final prophet of God. Muslims believe in the eternal message of their scripture, the Qur'an, and in the historical and theological relationship with other related scriptures especially the Old Testament and the Bible. The Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and remains the same today fourteen centuries later.
Muslims believe in individual responsibility and accountability. All humans start with a clean record and with the freedom and capacity to choose between right, halal, and wrong, haram. They are answerable for their own deeds without any intermediary between them and God. Through the Qur'an mankind is the recipient of divine wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is glorified in Islam. The first word revealed to the Prophet was Read, Iqra. The acquiring, expanding and spreading of knowledge is considered a sacred duty.
Like many other faiths, Islam believes in devotion to one's parents, goodwill, kindness, forgiveness towards others and self-restraint. However, the practice of self-restraint is not to be stretched to the extent of practicing monastic life. It is recommended that individuals get married and that they participate fully in both the joys and tribulations of life on earth. The institution of marriage is at the core of family life of Muslims. A Muslim marriage is a contract rather than a sacrament. Civility between spouses is mandated by the Qur'an and reinforced by the Prophet's own life. In case of marital discord arbitration and counseling is highly recommended. Divorce is permitted only as a last resort.
The same principles that govern private conduct between individuals also govern societies. The use of alcohol and drugs are forbidden as they are both personal addictions and are harmful to the society. Gambling enterprises including State lotteries are practically nonexistent.
Justice is another value that Islam emphasizes at the core of a healthy and peaceful society. Islam's messenger, Muhammad (PBUH), exhorted his followers to stop injustice actively or at the very least not to rationalize it. In extreme cases of injustice, Muslims believe in the right of self-defense. To struggle against an unjust cause or personal temptation is referred to as a Jihad. Jihad, unlike the Crusades, is not equivalent of Holy War. Jihad in the deepest sense is the eternal struggle in human life between good and evil forces.
Principles of justice and equality also govern gender and race relationships. Men and women are considered equal in the eyes of Allah. Religious responsibilities are largely the same for men and women; each must pray, fast, give alms and go on pilgrimage to Mecca. While men and women are seen as complementary roles, modesty of clothing and behavior is encouraged for both men and women. The intent is to create an environment in which the spiritual rather than the sensual qualities of men and women are given prominence. Over time, this idea has been corrupted by various cultural forces and has been made to appear as religious sanctions for discrimination against women. The concept of equality applies to all classes and races. A dramatic example of this is seen during the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca called Hajj where all Muslims, rich and poor, black and white, wear the same clothing as a sign of universal brotherhood. This concept of racial equality is one of the most deeply rooted principles of Islam.
This egalitarianism and emphasis on human dignity carry on into the notion of self-respect and freedom from blasphemy and false accusations. In Muslim law the penalty for bringing a false accusation is a severe as the alleged crime. Human rights are an original Islamic concept. European crusaders learned principles of humane treatment of prisoners of war from their contact with Islamic jurisprudence.
Muslim jurisprudence is based on rights and principles called the Shar'ia. Individuals have a right to life, dignity, family, knowledge, property and freedom from coercion in matters of religion., Crimes are regarded as violations of divine law not human law. Islamic punishments (Hudud) have received much criticism in the West for being harsh. These punishments are effective because they are tempered by a rigid judicial process and by compassion, forgiveness and general God-consciousness in the society. Even in the case of the death penalty for murder, relatives of the victim are encouraged to forgive and accept fair restitution. Islam believes strongly in the sanctity for human life and does not allow for its destruction including suicide and most cases of abortion.
In Muslim law the right to own property and generate wealth is tempered by an acute sense of fair dealing, equitable distribution of wealth and socio-economic justice. One of the major tenets of Islam is Zakat, a compulsory sharing of wealth with needy members of the society. A productive economy free of exploitation is required and encouraged.
Concerning public polity Islam stipulates only the guiding principles of "government by the righteous" and "governance by consultation." No specific governmental structure is recommended. The result is a wide spectrum of political systems. As Islam is a holistic belief system there is no separation between church and state.
The prevailing perceptions of Islam in the West are so unfair and divorced from reality that Muslims understandably feel frustrated. The result is cynicism, anger, and a tendency for Muslims to isolate themselves. If the media gave more attention to educating themselves and the public about the fundamentals of Islam through presentations like Dr. Braibanti's paper rather than chasing such phantoms as "fundamentalism," "green menace" and "Muslim rage," we could begin to reverse some of these erroneous perceptions. Many western paradigms do not apply to Muslim societies. "Fundamentalism" and "holy war" are both western paradigms with no equivalence in Islam. Extremism in many Muslim countries should be understood for what it is, namely a reaction to repressive dictatorial regimes. An unbiased and balanced study of Muslims would be the morally correct and intellectually honest stance that would further bond Muslims and the countries that they have chosen to live in. Thus, the richness and rectitude of the Muslim value system would contribute positively to the maintenance of a just and harmonious social order. As Dr. Braibanti points out, "...at this moment in history the dynamics and clearly defined values of Islam have the potential for resuscitating the western world's decline.