Defining Islam

Nabeel Qureshi

Nabeel Qureshi

Last week’s post included an excerpt from Nabeel Qureshi’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (2014), and I would like to include another one here. It is particularly relevant today, with the jihadists being called “radical” and other Muslims being called “moderate” and all of them saying their interpretation and practice of Islam is true to the Quran and the teachings/example of Muhammad. To help put Qureshi’s remarks in context, I should probably explain that his family — both maternal and paternal — are from Pakistan. They are devout followers of the lesser-known (and oft-maligned by other Muslims) Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, with Ahmadi missionaries on both sides. The author’s father served in the U.S. Army and was stationed (with his family) in Scotland for many years, but they moved back to their adopted home of America when Nabeel and his sister were still children.

The excerpt below follows directly after the tragic events of 9/11, just days after Qureshi began his freshman year at college….

“As the days progressed, it became clear that the hijackers were indeed Muslim and that this attack on our nation had been carried out in the name of Islam. But what Islam was this? It was clearly not the Islam I knew. True, I used to hear of Muslims in distant lands committing atrocities in the name of Allah, but those accounts were too remote to create any cognitive dissonance. This hit much closer to home. This hit us in our hearts.

Over the following weeks, news stations mercilessly looped footage of the crumbling towers. Again and again and again, I witnessed thousands of innocents massacred in the name of my God. It finally became too much. I had to learn the truth about my faith once and for all. I had to figure out how to reconcile my Islam, a religion of peace, with the Islam on television, a religion of terror.

In the twelve years since that day, I have learned that the question is far more complex than it first appears. The most important consideration is the definition of Islam. If by Islam we mean the beliefs of Muslims, then Islam can be a religion of peace or a religion of terror, depending on how it is taught.

In the West, Muslims are generally taught a very pacific version of Islam. Just like [my sister] Baji and I, Western Muslims are taught that Muhammad fought only defensive battles and that violent verses in the Quran refer to specific, defensive contexts. Jihad is here defined as primarily a peaceful endeavor, an internal struggle against one’s baser desires. When asked about their religion, Western Muslims honestly report what they believe: Islam is a religion of peace.

In the East, though, Muslims often have a less docile view of Islam. They are taught that Islam is superior to all other religions and ways of life and that Allah wishes to see it established throughout the world. They often define jihad as a primarily physical endeavor, a struggle against the enemies of Islam. When asked about their religion, these Muslims will honestly report what they believe: Islam will dominate the world.

So if we define Islam by the beliefs of its adherents, it may or may not be a religion of peace. But if we define Islam more traditionally, as the system of beliefs and practices taught by Muhammad, then the answer is less ambiguous.”

Perhaps I should interject here to point out that Qureshi is, of course, writing from his experiences growing up. But, as is becoming more apparent every day, not all Western-raised Muslims are taught the peaceful version of Islam. We know that more & more are being radicalized — or, at the very least, taught to hold a rather negative view of the West — in the U.S. and in Europe, even as they reap the many benefits of living here/there.

Qureshi continues here by mentioning something he didn’t realize until he really delved into the actual history of Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam, since most Muslims are taught a rather sanitized version….

“The earliest historical records show that Muhammad launched offensive military campaigns and used violence at times to accomplish his purposes. He used the term jihad in both spiritual and physical contexts, but the physical jihad is the one Muhammad strongly emphasizes. The peaceful practice of Islam hinges on later, often Western, interpretations of Muhammad’s teachings, whereas the more violent variations of Islam are deeply rooted in orthodoxy and history.

Of course, like all people, Muslims in the East and West generally just believe what they are taught. Rarely is there much critical investigation into historical events, and the few that invest the effort usually do the same thing I had done in my TOK class: attempt to defend what is already believed, potentially ignoring or underestimating evidence that points to the contrary. This is only natural, since it is extremely difficult to change beliefs that are dear to the heart.

Such was the case with me. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to know the truth about Islam, but it would be nearly impossible to challenge my childhood beliefs just by investigating them. I would keep finding ways to ignore difficult truths. What I needed was something that would not let me get away with my biases. I needed something that would mercilessly loop my bad arguments before my eyes, again and again and again, until I could avoid them no longer.”

Bible and Quran

Bible and Quran

Intrigued? I certainly would be, if I hadn’t already read the book. Qureshi’s descriptions of his home life, his indoctrination into the Quran (Muslim holy book), the hadith (collection of traditions containing sayings of Muhammad), and the Muslim rituals and way of life are very interesting. He explains how close the family unit is, the ways in which the Muslim beliefs and practices are interwoven throughout their lives from the moment they are born, and the important role of community. The reader is given a slightly better understanding (even appreciation?) of those things that often seem so alien to the non-Muslim. It also helps one to understand the great sacrifices of family and community that a person raised in that culture makes when converting from Islam to any other belief system. It is an extremely difficult choice, despite the positive aspects that may be had.

But, as the author states in the epilogue, “All suffering is worth it to follow Jesus. He is that amazing.” Amen! You can read all about what — or, rather, who — that “something” was that God used to encourage and challenge Qureshi’s investigation into the truth about both Islam and Christianity, as well as the amazing events that helped him finally surrender his troubled heart and spirit into the care of the one, true and Living God. Read the book!


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