by Michael Berdine ‘ 68
As-salaam-u alaykum, peace be to you, we say in Islam — much as in the Catholic Mass we say the peace of the Lord be with you, and the responses are similar also: and with your spirit in the Catholic Mass, and wa alaykum as-salaam, and to you be peace, in Islamic culture.
I start with the word peace because I wish to say bluntly and clearly and loudly that Islam is not the twisted creed of the malefactors who perpetrated heinous crimes on September 11, the thugs who have distorted the true meaning and teachings of Islam ever since. The root of the word Islam is silm and salam, which mean peace, and Islam is about living in peace with the Creator, with yourself, with other people, and with all the creation that we have been granted by the One. “If anyone kills a person — unless retribution for murder or spreading corruption across the land — it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind,” says the Al Ma’idah.
Nowhere in the Qur’an (which Muslims believe to be the exact word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad), or in the hadith (the teachings of the Prophet himself), do we read that the ends justify the means. Nowhere. Moreover, if we mistake our motivation and values, attributing false righteousness to ourselves, we will have lost our cause and, perhaps, our souls. So to those who claim to speak for Islam, who claim that terrorism and the murder of innocents is a right path, I say: you do not speak for the faith, and you should beware the loss of your holy soul.
In the Hadith al-Qudsi: “The first of people against whom judgment will be pronounced on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who died a martyr… He will say [to the Almighty]: ‘I fought for you until I died a martyr.’ [The Almighty] will say: ‘you have lied: you only fought that it might be said: ‘He is courageous. And so it has been said.’ Then he will be dragged on his face to the Hellfire.”
The cold fact of the matter when we talk about “Islamic” terrorism is that the murderers, for that is what they are, are not true Muslims. They are mere actors. They commit crimes for effect, to make an impression. They seek to gain their objectives through the manipulation of an audience. But these actors use real bombs, assassinations, murders, rapes, and mayhem to manipulate others to their will. Their agenda is political change, and no matter how assiduously they insist that their motives are religious, they are not the motives of Islam. Do not grant them that which is not theirs to claim.
Even their use of the word jihad is false. There is no such thing as a holy war in Islam. Only God is holy in Islam. The word jihad has a root verb — jahada — which in Arabic means exerting maximum effort or striving. The theological connotation is striving for betterment. Its major form — the “Greater Jihad,” jihad alkhabir — is the struggle within oneself for self-improvement, elevation, purification and getting closer to God. In short, it is a spiritual struggle to do good and avoid evil so one will attain heaven in the afterlife. Another form of jihad is using economic power to uplift the condition of the downtrodden and to finance the struggle for justice and liberation. The last, but not least form of the word, known as the “Lesser Jihad,” or jihad al-Saghrir, is the physical form, where people actually fight against oppression. The principles of that form are stipulated clearly in the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad: Fighting is only to defend against those oppressors who attack Muslims to force them to convert away from their religion or to drive them out of their homes. Fighting is limited to combatants. The Prophet commanded that the lives of civilians are to be protected. The word jihad is an Islamic-Arabic term that has been incorrectly translated and largely misunderstood. There is no equivalent to the term “holy war” in Islamic terminology. There is no mention of “holy war” in either the Qur’an or Hadiths (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad), which are the primary sources of Islamic teachings.
Every aspect of each Qur’anic mandate is aimed at nurturing an environment that will allow peace to emerge and prevail. Recognizing that humanity is flawed and will err, Islam provides a system to eradicate injustice and allow peace to flourish. In the spirit of its universal message of peace and respect for diversity, Islam’s goal is not to impose itself by force or declare war against non-Muslims. For a believing Muslim, specifically one who practices his/her religion according to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and justice are always superior to war for those who are conscious of God.
As-salaam-u alaykum, peace be to you.
Michael Berdine ’68 was the first director of the Cambridge Muslim College in England, where he is now a research fellow.