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By Riad Saloojee, The Globe and Mail, 1/16/2002

An enduring aftermath of Sept. 11 is the continued spotlight on Islam. Almost daily, self-declared experts dissect Islam in articles, commentaries, political prognostications, and, too often, the apocalyptic scenario of a clash of civilizations. Some of these attempts at understanding Islam betray a shocking and simplistic method. Two fallacies — one textual, the other sociological — seem to predominate.

First are those whose analysis reflects their own cultural, historical or political prejudices. They utilize a crude, cut-and-paste analysis that uses Koranic texts self-servingly without concern for context. Verses discussing the combative aspect of jihad figure prominently and demonstrate, we are told, Islam’s dark side.

It is forgotten (or conveniently ignored) that one tenet of Islamic interpretation, as in Talmudic interpretation or Christian scriptures, is that a verse cannot be explained apart from its context. Verses on a given topic must be read together, holistically, for only then can their intent be gleaned. In Islamic law, rules pertaining to human interactions always have a rationale or understandable cause, which, if absent, renders the legal ruling inapplicable.

Take one oft-quoted verse: “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them.” It usually escapes mention that the intent behind legislating the combative aspect of the jihad here is self-defence. Specifically, this verse refers to a situation of war at the beginning of the seventh century, when the tribal elite in Arabia had persecuted the nascent Islamic community unrelentingly for 15 years, intent on eradicating it.

To read this verse as requiring that all non-Muslims are to be killed runs counter to verses that prohibit killing civilians or non-combatants, or to this important verse: “God does not forbid you with regard to those who do not fight you or your faith nor drive you from your homes from dealing kindly and justly with them; for Allah loves those who are just” (Quran, 60:8). It is worth noting that the Arabic word for “kind” in the verse, birr, is used to express the affection and gentleness mandated to parents.

…History has recorded the full entitlements of citizenship granted by the Prophet to non-Muslims in treaties, the amnesty he gave to those who persecuted him, and his moral exhortations to maintain justice: “On the Day of Judgment, I will be the advocate of non-Muslim subjects who were oppressed” and “Observe scrupulously the protection accorded by me to non-Muslim subjects…”

…To be fair, there is sometimes another cause of misunderstanding: Muslims themselves. Too easily, some Muslims blame modernity for their own malaise, and all too often act contrary to the universal constants of justice, moderation and mercy, which are the essential animating values of any Islamic individual or social action…


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