“Answer the call of God and God’s Messenger to what brings you to life.”
“If I asked for people to die for the sake of God, I would have them lining up at my house; but when I ask people to live for the sake of God, I can’t find anyone.”
– Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah
I am traveling to New Jersey next week to present for the Princeton Pro Life lecture series. The topic is being addressed from the perspective of the three Abrahamic faiths. I have been asked to present the Islamic view, so I have been thinking about how to address this topic to an American audience in the context of today’s climate. Unfortunately, so many people in the U.S. now associate Islam with death rather than with life.
Nietzsche, the German philosopher, wrote in The Antichrist that Christianity “cheated us … out of the harvest of the culture of Islam. The wonderful world of the Moorish culture of Spain, really more closely related to us, more congenial to our senses and tastes than Rome and Greece, was trampled down … because it said Yes to life even with the rare and refined luxuries of Moorish life.”
1 Nietzsche’s point was that Islam was more balanced in its attitude (I recognize the reification) toward this world and celebrated it, unlike Christianity, which traditionally was far more focused on being other-worldly to the detriment of people’s experiences in the world.
Why is it that Nietzsche, a leading intellect of the nineteenth century, recognized Islam as a religion that celebrated life, yet so many people today have the opposite view? Perhaps one reason is that Nietzsche lived at a time when the Ottomans still existed and were seen in a relatively good light (emphasis on relatively) by many educated people. Moreover, the Muslim world was still unaffected in its everyday life by the incredible changes that were occurring in the West, and most Muslim countries in the nineteenth century were relatively stable and extremely safe places to visit. A cursory review of Western travel literature to the Muslim world at the time will verify this (see, for instance, Florence Nightingale’s travelogue to Egypt). Muslims had never shied away from the sensual and aesthetic components of life, which re-emerged in the West in spite of Christianity, as Islam was meant to offer a balanced life, and educated Europeans, who were raised with a sense of shame of the senses, were astounded by the celebration of the body and its experiences noted in such places as the hammams and gardens of the Muslim world.
Given this current hatred of Islam and all things Muslim that has arisen, I would argue that Muslims have a great challenge presently to redefine the faith from within here in the West and to stop allowing others who hate us to define it for us. We need to identify enemies out there and allies not to mention potential friends who may appear to be enemies today. Look closely at what they are saying and why. Many of their critiques are the same ones St. John of Damascus articulated in a small chapter on Islam back in the seventh century! We need to also recognize, as Ibn Taymiyyah pointed out in his Jawab al-Sahih, that some Muslims are ignorantly violent in their responses to the critiques of Christians, and this reinforces their very attack on Islam – that it spread by the sword and not by the strength of its Truth. One of the ways to do that is to create a strong and effective internet presence. There are currently several anti-Muslim websites run very professionally, and, in my estimation, they are very disturbing. For example, many of these websites decontextualize Qur’anic verses and invariably use hadith traditions that are sometimes deeply troubling or difficult to square with other aspects of Islam. Most people are unaware that the great hadith collections are only meant for scholars’ reference, and even those that are categorized as Sahih contain many traditions that are not considered authoritative by Ahl al-Sunnah. I do not want to go into a detailed explanation here, as this is not the proper forum, but suffice it to say that Imam Malik did not like excessive use of hadith for the very reason that these websites exploit: the hadith can be very confusing to those not versed in the tradition, as only highly skilled scholars are able to discern what is the relevance of each hadith and which hadith are used and which are not.
In my estimation, most Muslims have not recognized how problematic such websites are. Over time, they attract hundreds of thousands of viewers and have viral impact. They eventually reach millions, and we have a duty to defend our Prophet and clarify obfuscations about our faith as lovers of our Prophet, peace be upon him, and defenders of our faith. A serious effort from a select and talented group of Muslims needs to be spearheaded to address the issues raised on these websites, point by point. Over ten years ago, I met with several American leaders and scholars in Southern California and mentioned that I saw these websites that were spawning at that time as a serious problem that I suspected would grow worse over time, and I felt we must address this serious issue, as I feared that some of these sites would confuse not only people of other faiths but uneducated Muslims also. Unfortunately, at that time, everyone else in the room disagreed, and it was decided that we should not run that route as it was an apologetic position, and it was better to just ignore those websites as they would eventually fizzle away. However, that did not happen, and it is much worse today. The issue of Park 51 is a flashpoint, and though I hate to say this, if 9/11 had happened today – God-forbid – in this current climate, matters would be far worse for Muslims than they were in the halcyon days of this community ten years ago. It is time for Muslims to wake up and smell the qahwah.
1The Portable Nietzsche. Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. (New York, Penguin Books, 1982), 652.