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CCADD meeting, 6th December 2006
Speaker: Dr. Chris Hewer
Subject: ‘Understanding Islam’
Dr. Hewer was formerly at the Islamic Studies Centre in Selly Oak, Birmingham, and is now a full-time teacher concerned with the understanding in Britain of Islam. He is associated with St. Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate and is the author of Understanding Islam (SCM Press, 2006).
This was an elaboration and explanation of the second paragraph of the Chapter by Abolfazl Ezzati in the CCADD book Witnesses to Faith? It began by pointing out that ‘Islam’ means existing in harmony with, and submission to the will of God, i.e. living in the world as God meant it to be. Islam is God’s revelation of guidance to humanity, and of His will. But Islam is not the only such revelation, but is simply the definitive and final one. Because this revelation is of divine authority the Qur’an which embodies it is immutable.
Islam has a high doctrine of prophethood: Muhammad was infallible and impeccable. As such he was the perfect witness, or martyr, to God (shahid). Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, designed to be God’s loving servants. They must live as God’s regents on earth, cherishing the rest of creation. Their task is both spiritual (for their own perfection) and social (for others). But human life is a struggle (jihad) to submit to the Divine will by being a witness to it (martyrdom). This ‘witness’ may lead to death, but not necessarily. But it does mean that suicide cannot be acceptable, since my very existence is not at my own disposal, but is God’s.
The struggle (jihad) of life is a constant battle against temptation by backsliding. We have constantly to recommit ourselves to the pursuit of life as God wants it to be: hence the 5-times-a-day prayer of recommittal. We must seek mercy and forgiveness by i) acknowledging our sins, ii) ceasing to commit them, iii) avoiding the occasions of sin, and iv) offering restitution for them. Avoiding the occasions of sin implies removing ourselves from them, not just inwardly but also, if necessary, by physical self-removal, or ‘migration’ (hijra: Qur’an 4.135). For example, since usury is a sin, the Muslim may decide to remove himself from the banking system. But it harder for the Muslim restaurant owner to remove himself from the sin of encouraging, by selling, alcohol.
As a social matter, commanding the good and avoiding the evil involves implementation of the law (sharia) but this needs the counsel of wise judgement. If it is possible to change things this must be done. Hence the existence of various Islamic ‘movements’ active in the political sphere. These should pursue their objectives by serving the poor. (This is likely to explain the success of Hamas at the Palestinian ballot-box).
Islam is not pacifist: it teaches the right, even duty, to resist evil, as a last resort, by force. But the chapter of the Qur’an in which this matter is raised does not begin, like the rest, with an invocation of God: for the use of force is not itself good. The rules for use of force are a kind of ‘just war theory’: only as a last resort, with good prospect of success, under legitimate authority and avoiding targeting non-combatants (women, children, the sick, soldiers who have surrendered their weapons). There must be no poisoning of water-sources, cutting down trees or destroying food. These restrictions cause difficulty in Pakistan because of its weapons of mass-destruction. Originally the authority for legitimate war was the supreme Caliph: but now this is impossible. For the Shia authority lies with the collectivity of the Ayatollahs because they stand in for the occulted last Imam.
There is no justification in the Qur’an for suicidal attacks, and suicide is forbidden. Hence the justification for them is either: i) because there is no other means of obtaining justice eg against the far stronger Israel (Y. Qaradawi, whose views are fairly widely accepted by Palestinians), or ii) on ‘kharijite’ grounds, as with bin Laden and Al Qaida.
Questions and discussion:
1. Is Islamic extremism taking hold in the UK as the media seems to suggest?
Ans: the overwhelming majority are in the ‘mainstream’, although sympathy with Al Qaida is growing. This is because i) the moribund state of genuine Islamic scholarship in UK – the educationally fortunate tend to be scientists, accountants, engineers etc.; ii) relatively poor conditions of most Muslims in UK make them susceptible to extremism; iii) lack of people prepared to stick up for Muslims on the international stage.
2. Is Islam hostile to Christianity?
Ans: no. Christians and Jews have a right to worship in their own ways within Islam. Islam permits use of other religion’s rules where necessary (eg over ‘halal’ meat – ‘kosher’ is OK if no alternative).
3. Contemporary history does not seem to allow for an Islamic culmination: rather the modern spirit is enquiring but sceptical. How can Muslims admit this?
Ans: Yes, there is a tension here for Muslims. But perhaps the hedonism of today has the seeds of its own destruction. It is perhaps fair to see the West as comfortable but decadent. But ‘dialogue’ with the West is possible if it is ‘Socratic’, i.e. mutually searching for the truth, not just an ‘exchange of views’. (It was pointed out here that the West’s understanding of Aristotle and the pre-Socratics emerged out of mediaeval Islamic sources).
4. Does the Islamic suicidal-martyr have to consider the consequences of his action? Ans: Yes: he is accountable for what he does. But in the case of Israel, every Israeli can be accounted a legitimate target for everyone is a would-be soldier (including children). Furthermore, the disparity of power suggests there is no alternative. Hence such acts tend to become self-sacrificial.
5. How does the late Zaki Badawi rate among scholars?
Ans: extremely highly. He was a very sophisticated and powerful scholar, and may be irreplaceable in the UK. However, a majority of British Muslims are from the Indian sub-continent, whereas Badawi was Egyptian.
6. Why do Muslims often talk as if they thought Trinitarian Christians believed in three gods?
Ans: perhaps because a lot of Christians seem to talk this way! Anyhow, they are talking about something they can’t really explain.
The meeting ended at 14.15 with very many thanks to the speaker for a highly informative talk. Several people at the meeting bought a copy of his book, Understanding Islam directly from him.