Having talked about the difficulties Nabeel had with his family after becoming a Christian, I wondered how he felt when he heard some of the terrible news stories that we get now about Isis and other extremist groups – so many of them claiming to act in the name of Islam.
Islam is a very complex entity, and it really depends on how you come at it. Isis, for example, is taking a stance that is very, very reflective of the original traditions in Islam. If you read the Hadith, which are the traditions of Mohammed, if you read the commentaries of [Tafsir?] on the Qur’an, you will see why Isis does what it does. And in fact, they put out a magazine every month called Dabak, which explains why they do what they do – [it] is rooted in Islamic tradition. But the Islam I grew up with is a pacifist Islam, and the motto of our sect is “Love for all, hatred for none”, and so it’s not reflective of what all Muslims believe.
This is so difficult, isn’t it? Because as you explained there, there is somewhere in the writings a justification for what [Isis and other extremist groups] do, and yet you don’t have to go very far at all to find a voice of moderate, modern Islam to say “No, no, this isn’t us at all!” Is there a fixed truth somewhere, or is the problem that it’s all down to interpretation and just which bit you choose?
That’s a great question, and the issue of truth – a lot of people will just assume that there just is none and that it’s a matter of preference. I take the position that Islam is as Muhammad intended it to be. Given that there is a prophet named Muhammad who started the religion of Islam, I think that the real Islam would be what he intended it to be, not what it has become over time. And that is where the real disagreement lies. Those progressive Muslims – some of whom I studied under while I was in university – they will say that Islam develops over time and that the accreted tradition is part of the religion, and they can justifiably say that Islam is a religion of peace. But those who, like Isis, who revert back to the reformists, who revert back to the original form of Islam, they end up being very literal in their reading of the Qur’an and the Hadith, and that ends up looking the way it does today.
Of course it’s fair to point out that if you restrict your biblical readings to the Old Testament, some of it’s pretty brutal too.
That’s true, if we just focus on certain components of the Bible then it can look pretty violent in certain cases. But the difference between Islam and Christianity is that the Christian message – the culmination of the Christian message – is Jesus’ grace on the Cross; his command to love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you; if your enemy is hungry give him something to eat, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. That’s the culmination of the Christian message. Whereas if you look at historical Islam, the last major chapter of the Qur’an to be revealed according to Islamic tradition is chapter 9, and that’s the chapter which says “Slay the infidels wherever you find them. Lay siege to them and take them captive,” or, “Fight the Jews and Christians until they pay the Jizya.” So the chapter that appears the most violent on the surface is the culmination of the Qur’anic revelation.
My reflections on this, from the point of view of one who identifies as Christian…
It can be seen, here, that the source of violence in the name of Islam is in many cases the religion itself (although I’m not entirely convinced that none of the violence in the UK is committed by angry young people who feel betrayed by their country and government and are using the religion as a pretext). Where it is down to the religion, this leaves us to draw our preliminary conclusions. What is the problem here? What do we need to eradicate to safeguard our society from it? A lot of people will point the finger at any form of conservative religion that doesn’t diverge from its roots into a form of liberal progressivism. But I don’t think it’s possible to make a blanket case against conservativism – or even extremism – and Nabeel Qureshi has further convinced me of this.
From a Christian perspective, by being more ‘purist’ in your commitment to the original teachings of Jesus – the ‘Real McCoy’ stuff that you read straight out of the New Testament, not the stuff that people said about it afterwards (if the culmination of Jesus’ teaching is, as Qureshi said, ‘love your enemies’ and the main pedagogical example is the one he sets by dying on the Cross as an act of grace to pay off the debts of infidels and let them live), then you end up with something very different. As a logical extension of this description, Christian extremism would lead to people radically loving their enemies, and extreme devotions to its leader and founder would lead to copycat acts of costly self-sacrifice, rescue and mercy for the undeserving. These things, as I say, were not the things that were written into the Christian religion afterwards by theologians of humanistic or liberal persuasions, but were at the core of the original first century teachings of Jesus: if you read Jesus ‘by himself’, this is largely what you get.
Where the oppression and violence of the Church has exploited the powerless and laid communities low (as all institutions of centralized power tend to do as a natural consequence of the social make-up of the human creature unless this tendency is checked by the Holy Ghost or by human safeguards and interventions or a mixture of the three), I would wager that this was not because the Church was too radical or too extremist about Jesus. It was not because of an extremist approach to Jesus that the Church was an oppressive and destructive power in the world. Rather, I would like to posit that it was for the opposite reason: it was because the Church was not radical or extreme enough about the way it handled Jesus’ original teachings and example. It was that the Church did not allow for an extreme commitment to Jesus to inoculate it against the natural forces of the human condition by which it was otherwise bound to become an oppressive power. Although the New Testament variously depicts Jesus denouncing the religious leaders of his day for arrogantly flouncing around in their fine clerical robes whilst bleeding the poor dry, the Church for centuries seemed to have forgotten to check itself in the mirror. As far as I can gather according to what I’ve read, it was too busy hating its enemies. I would say that in those instances where the Church did not apply Jesus’ teachings back on itself, it was being too extremist about itself at the expense of its own ostensible object – an object that could have prevented it from becoming the tyrant that it was if only it had listened to him.
Humbling yourself under the authority and reign of a self-crucifying and self-emasculating God-man, making such a God-man the model and ruler of your life and the dictator of your conduct in the knowledge that he expects your conduct to imitate his; ascribing total glory, honour and power to such a God, and standing up for his cause through the insults, derision and persecution of the world around you which you have a duty to respond to with love at the expense of your dignity – it takes a self-crucifixion in kind to even be able to worship a self-crucifying God. There can be no room in this extreme sort of worship for the tyrannical behaviour that critics of the Church wheel out as ad hominem attacks against the person, work and teachings of Jesus Christ. It is this game-stopping imitatio of self-crucifixion – a divinely modelled drama of death to self and death to ego – that Islam lacks, because, it seems from conversations I’ve had with individual Muslim apologists, the notion of God becoming man and crucifying himself is aberrant to what the Islamic idea of God is about. They do not believe that God did become a man, because that would mean that he would have to humble himself to the level of his creation and become as weak as a man and this would dishonour him; and they do not accept that he was crucified for the sake of the world, because they perceive crucifixion to be too great a dishonour for even a prophet, let alone a god. It is essential that their god’s honour not be compromised; it is essential that he remains in heaven, untouchable, and at a remove from sinful human beings. And yet for Christians, the willingness of God to become weak, to condescend to the level of his own creation and live among it, to be dishonoured by it, to be killed by it, and to die and rise from the dead that it might live again – is precisely his glory, because condescending to come down from his heavenly throne and get his hands dirty for the sake of the world and bleed and die for it tells of the intimate, interested and passionate kind of love that he has for it. I may be wrong in my assertions about Islam, but self-sacrifice seems contrary to all that I have heard of the Islamic notion of what a loving god is like, whereas to the Christian notion it is central. The Church, unlike the Islamic faith, had no excuse not to imitate this kind of love. Insomuch as the Church is self-seeking, greedy, violent, deceptive and oppressive, it is not merely at fault for being these things, but it betrays its own object of worship, the very heart of its foundation.
I should now like to look away from the Church and towards the global situation – the bombings, the atrocities of the present day. I don’t think the problem, ultimately, is extremism itself. I think that there are good extremes and bad extremes, and that the goodness or badness depends on the object of that extremism, not the fact that it is extreme. Nourishing and caring for your enemy is extreme. Giving up your life for the sake of someone who doesn’t deserve it is extreme. It takes something extreme to counteract the raw will to power of the natural human self. If the world’s social ills are ever resolved, which I believe they will be one day, it will be a result of something regarded as extreme, radical and different; not because of something comfortable, mediocre and much like what we have now. In ousting extremism itself, I feel, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that where there is a problem with extremism, the problem lies in the nature of the thing that people are being extreme about.