There is a lot of nonsense talked about Islamic Terrorism, the most irritating is the confusion over the use of the word “fundamentalist”. All Islam is “fundamentalist” because Islam insists on the literal meaning of the words of scripture, the Koran. That said, in fact, there remains room for balancing one statement against another, but the 19th Century criticism that dominates Biblical scholarship is completely foreign to Islam- source criticism and form criticism, the idea that a story may be mythological, or not literally true. This is not a part of Islam. It is so much a part of Christianity that sometimes we impose our methods of interpretation and our expectations wrongly on one another.
As 300 years separate the active ministry of Jesus from the establishment of the canon of Christian Scriptures, there is alot of room for embellishment and textural variants. In the case of Islam, there is very little time between the institution of the Religion and the writing and dissemination of the Koran. The text of the Koran remains broadly what it was, and there is a tradition in Islam of resisting translation, and translation for all its advantages and disadvantages is something that Christianity embraced right at the beginning. So Jesus spoke in Aramaic and his words are printed in Greek, and in the UK at least, best remembered in an english translation fro the 16th Century littered with acknowledged errors.
The Jihad is a fight, not a war- the word (al-Harb) literally means “struggle”. Because of its use in modern terrorism, the word and the concept is often misunderstood. It can mean the “Great struggle”, the personal effort to conquer sin, or the “lesser struggle”, the Holy War or military Jihad. But even in this secondary meaning, the rules are very clear: Holy war must be declared by a proper authority, must not harm children, women or the sick and all peace offers from the enemy must be accepted. The Jihad should not be against Jews or Christians who are “people of the book” and must be protected and respected. At the end of a campaign, the Prophet told his followers, “This day we have returned from the minor jihad to the major jihad.” In other words, now the military campaign is over, we must get back to the proper business of fighting sin, battling our own personal daemons. That is the more important struggle and the real jihad.
Now, while the text of the Koran is a solid and authentic text, the hadiths are not and some hadiths are judged to be more important than others. In the same way, some opinions of Islamic jurists are considered more important than others. Imran Shafi’i believed that Sura 9.5 and 9.29 permit a war against non-muslims until they repent and accept Islam. The corresponding Hadith sums this up- Here we are: “I have been ordered to fight the people until they declare that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, establish prayers, and pay zakat. If they perform all that, their blood and property are guaranteed protection on my behalf except when justified by Islamic laws. Then their accounts will be done by Allah.” Fairly scary. But these verses must be seen in the context of 9.6 which proposes an alternative that non-muslims, living in an Islamic community, and therefore receiving the protection of that community, might not convert to Islam but might pay a tax instead, as compensation: “and if anyone of the polytheists seeks your protection then grant him protection…” (9:6) The next verses stress the importance of keeping the promises made to non-muslims and respecting the treaties established. Moreover, when we look at this verse from the hadith in more detail, the first sentence should be clarified because it says “I have been ordered to fight the people until they declare that there is no God but Allah”. The word fight (saws) used here is significant. It does not use the word “kill”- it is about defence against someone who is attacking the religion; it does not sanction execution, and is at a far remove from the savagery of ISIL.
In other words, while scary verses might be worrying, reading the whole Sura puts them in context. The Prophet never forced conversion and nor did his immediate successors.
Since the Iranian Revolution, there has been a rise in Islamic-sponsored terrorism. This may in part be coincidental. There are a number of purely secular organisations that have adopted suicide as a weapon of choice- the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), who used suicide bombs in their war against Sri Lanka and who famously were behind the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kuridstan), the Kurdish party in Turkey though it only seems to have used the suicide option 15 times; and the pro-Syrian rebels in lebanon in the 1980s. These groups had embraced a variety of political ideologies and the works of Mao, Lenin and Guevara are significant.
But it is in Iran where the real problem lies because the Ayatollah Khomenei returned from exile in Paris, fuelled by a passion to interpret the Koran according to the political ideologies he had discovered in Paris. This led to the death of 13 year old Hossein Fahmideh in 1981, the first Suicide bomber in modern times to be hailed as a Shahid, martyr. Posters appeared throughout Iran of the boy shown together with Khomenei and the Ayatollah said that Hossein had “the keys to the kingdom”. There is nothing at all in the Koran to suggest that a suicide bomber gains automatic entry to Paradise, and indeed there is alot of very specific information to say that a suicide victim is automatically excluded from Paradise.
Today, there are ideologies that mix politics and religion- so the Muslim Brotherhood looks to the works of Sayyid Qutb, or Hasan al-Banna and Palestine to Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam, a man who significantly influenced bin Laden. It is not possible to divorce modern Islamic terrorism from religion, but it is certainly not true to say that Islam supports or even condones this activity. My understanding is that islam is in a process of change, embracing the challenges of the modern world. One of these is that texts can be open to a variety of interpretations, something that Islam had tried for a long time to prevent. One of these interpretations, for instance would be Wahabiyism, and another are the terrorist dictats imposed on Islam by Ayatollah Khomeini. I am sure, in time, other interpretations of Islam will emerge, many more favourable to Western values, and I am also sure that, in time, the terrorists will fail both in their overall mission and in their interpretation or hijacking of one of the world’s great faiths.
Suicide in Islam:
The body is sacred to Allah and it is God’s will alone that dictates when we live and when we die. There is, in contrast to the scriptures of both Christianity and Judaism, a clear statement against suicide in the Koran:
“And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you.”
Suicide, moreover, is regarded as murder in Islam. There is even debate about whether the funeral prayers (janazah) can be said over the body. The image presented of the afterlife is not so different to that envisaged by Dante (canto XIII). There, the suicides occupy a circle of violence and they are denied even the dignity of human form, growing into trees and tormented by the Harpies who fly through the forest and “rend the branches off the trees”. At judgement day, the suicides alone will never be reunited with the body they once abandoned. “Wrong it is,” says Dante, “for a man to have again what he once cast off.” Instead, their bodies will be draped over the trees, to be forever a sign of what they failed to treat properly.
Suddenly, it becomes clear why anyone might encourage a small child to die – if that means that poor child can sort out the salvation of his older sister who has gone astray and of his father who has fallen foul of alcohol and so on. This is a detergent with a particular and pernicious strength.