5 Muslim Thinkers and a Messianic Jew
Most people do not fall into a static category of religion, like my friend who asked me if I think ISIS represents Islam. She did not wish to be misrepresented. Islam is not one thing, just as Judaism is not one thing, just as Christianity is not one thing.
Muslims now number over two billion people, and the number is rising. Often we associate Islamic authority and teaching with the Arab world, but most of the world’s Muslims are far from this region. Eighty percent of Muslims are non-Arab, and the most populous Muslim country is Indonesia.
In honor of Ramadan, may I introduce you to some of the Muslim voices of the 20th and 21st centuries that most challenge, move and inspire me to expand my knowledge, seek change through my faith, persevere in spite of monumental challenges, and create goodness where there is little in sight?
Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an ethnic Pashtun, lifelong pacifist and nonviolent activist against the British, supported Indian independence, and opposed partition. For his choices, he spent 15 years of his life in British prisons. In 1929, he founded the Khudai Khidmatgar movement, and at its peak, led this army of 100,000 members committed to nonviolence. Khan taught that “The Holy Prophet Muhammad came into this world and taught us ‘That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God's creatures.’ Belief in God is to love one's fellow men.” The Khudai Khidmatgar believed that God needs no service, they promised to forgive their oppressors, to devote themselves to social work, to help the oppressed against the oppressor, and to serve all human beings. 10,000 Khudai Khitmatgar engaged in unarmed patrols to protect India’s Hindu and Sikh minorities from attacks and forced conversions by militant Muslims. Many went to their deaths facing an onslaught of bullets bravely, chanting ‘God is great,’ while clutching the Quran to their chests.
Jawdat Said, a Circassian from the Golan Heights in southern Syria, is known as the religious philosopher of Islamic nonviolence today, and some have called him the Syrian Gandhi. Among many others, he was influenced by Muhammad Iqbal who taught that “Allah’s sharia is realized when justice is realized; whatever comes closer to justice is closer to Allah’s sharia.” In 1965, Saeed published his first treatise discussing Islamic nonviolence. In the Quran, Abel refuses to retaliate against Cain with violence and disobey God, choosing instead to become a martyr. Said commented that God’s “praise of Adam’s first son, in the first murder humanity had ever known on earth” indicates that “this first son of Adam becomes an example for all of us to follow.” Said argues that humans must find constructive ways to solve conflicts, free of violence and revenge. He discusses the examples of Jesus and Moses in the Quran, and how they called people to God through their righteous actions instead of coercion or force. He advocates that Muslims must not become preoccupied with blaming others for their ills, but instead seek inward transformation to influence society.
Leila Ahmed was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and Turkish mother. She spent her academic and professional life in Europe and the United States, and her writings evidence her struggle to integrate her Muslim identity with Western values. She is an Islamic scholar and feminist, focusing on Islam and gender. She levels a strong critique at Arab nationalism as cultural imperialism that has eroded the diversity in Middle Eastern Arabic speaking countries. She argues that Islam does not subject women to an inferior status, but patriarchal interpretations do. The Quran is not the source of fundamentalist and extremist doctrine; medieval interpretations of the Quran yielded rigid and inhumane practices. At the same time, European colonialist incursions into the Middle East often included discussions of women’s rights and emancipation, comprising a “colonial feminism” as a type of dominance whereby “progress for women could be achieved only through abandoning the native culture.” Middle Eastern opposition to Western encroachment and colonialism reacted in rejecting Western ideas, including women’s rights. She points to a conflict between written Islam (that which has been given authority and elevates the status of text over other expressions of faith) versus living Islam (the religious ethics and experience of most Muslims with their own religion).
Amina Wadud is an African-American Muslim feminist and Islamic scholar offering progressive Quranic exegesis, particularly related to gender issues. She has challenged traditional norms by leading mixed-gender prayers at a mosque and delivering Friday sermons. She refers to her feminist endeavors as “gender jihad,” and attempts to change Islamic justifications for gender inequality. She argues that Muslim sexism is not from the Quran, but from its interpreters, and she actively seeks to re-read the text in creative ways. She says, “I am operating under the radical notion that women are human beings. I am inspired to think this way because of tawhid. Under one God no one is more important than anyone else. We can only be equal before Allah, who unites all things in creation and is not like things in creation.”
Nurcholish Madjid was an influential Indonesian Muslim scholar and politician who advocated Islamic modernization, acceptance of religious pluralism, tolerance and democracy. He encouraged Muslims to differentiate between the transcendent (unchanging religious principles and concepts of God) and the particular (those aspects like Muslim cultures and traditions that do change). When Muslims make the particular sacred, their worldview becomes static and inflexible, incapable of dealing with modern challenges. Yet this is not what Islam is or should be, Madjid argued, as traditional interpretations are not absolute, but a tool for addressing contemporary challenges. His interest and activism in politics led to his popular slogan “Islam yes; Islamic political parties, no.” He argued that the Quran does not proscribe an Islamic state, and contemporary examples of this do a great disservice to the religion. He encouraged the separation of state and religion, calling for democratization that would manifest itself differently in various environments.
There are many more wonderful, committed Muslims who seek a better world, many of whom are among us in Israel/Palestine. If you don’t know of any or only know a few, then look a little harder. Why aren’t they more visible, many ask? The media focuses on the most explosive stories, particularly the ones that induce fear. The media could focus on the Muslim individuals and movements that seek nonviolent subversive resistance to authoritarianism and occupation, but who wants to spend their evening news considering their complicity in problems? It’s easier to look at the news and think, “They are bad,” and “We’re so much better.” The majority of the world’s Muslims seek grassroots change, reject terrorism and extremism, and seek to live their lives in peace. If you don’t know any, then maybe this Ramadan, make an effort to learn about these neighbors.
Sources for further reading:
Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate
Eknath Easwaran, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badsha Khan, a Man to Match His Mountains (about Abdul Ghaffar Khan). This book has also been translated into Arabic.
John L. Esposito, The Future of Islam
Jeffry Halverson, Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam
Jawdat Said, The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam
Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective