A Thumbnail Sketch of Islam for Christians - page 6


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From the Winter 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Thumbnail Sketch of Islam for Christians

by Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D.
Jordan Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College

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  Muhammad wrote, “In avenging injuries inflicted on us, do not harm non-belligerents in their homes; spare the weakness of women; do not injure infants at the breast, or those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance, and do not destroy their means of subsistence, neither their fruit trees, nor their palms.” The Qur’an says that if you kill one person without reason it is as if you slew all of humanity (5:32).
  At the same time, the Qur’an commands its readers to “slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them” (9:5). Some Muslim scholars say this was a command given in the heat of the first community’s struggle for survival. They point to passages in the Qur’an such as the famous one condemning religious coercion in 2:256: “There is [should be] no compulsion in religion.” They also say the Qur’an promotes religious diversity, such as 5:48: “To each of you [peoples] We [God] have given a law and a way and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith). But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you.” This is the translation in the Princeton University Press edition of the Qur’an, and the phrase “professing one faith” is not in the Arabic. This edition’s translator thinks it is implied, and that is the interpretation which El Fadl (see the box) and other Muslim “liberals” see in this and similar passages (11:118–19, 49:13).
   But while many Muslims condemn the terrorism used by their militant co-religionists, there is a historical link between Islam and aggressive military and political action. Muhammad was a military and political—as well as religious—leader. He served as both prophet and commander, preacher and soldier, imam and magistrate. The first community of Muslims was a socio-politico-religious amalgamation, and traditional Islam has taught that government should enforce Islamic law (shari’ah), which is why Islam has usually shown greater organic unity between this- and other-worldly concerns than in Christianity. Muslim leaders have sometimes exploited passages such as the “slay the idolaters” verse (as well as the Islamic teaching that warriors who die in a holy war will go straight to Paradise and skip over years of suffering in a purgatory-like existence) when they have tried to muster a people for war.

Islam and the West

  While some of the strongest expressions of disdain (“America is the Great Satan,” for example) speak for only a minority of Muslims, many Muslims nevertheless regard the West with ambivalence. They appreciate and use its technology but consider Western culture as a threat to their own because it represents modernization without moral control. Muslims place great emphasis on the integrity of the nuclear family and pride themselves on the stability of their families. They see our Western values of atomistic individualism and sexual permissiveness as destructive of family life. They are fully aware of America’s soaring rates of divorce, abortion, pornography, crime, and chemical addiction (much of which is broadcast to their countries through movies, TV, and the Internet) and wonder why Americans regard Muslim culture with self-righteous disdain.
  Muslims also tend to view the West, particularly the United States, as irreligious and godless because of our separation of church and state. If God is sovereign over the cosmos, Muslims argue, then every aspect of life—including the state—ought to come under the rule of his laws. Islamic law (shari’ah) should therefore serve as a set of fundamental principles informing the laws of every nation on the earth.

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