After the recent terrorist attacks in London, and since we’ve been living in Muslim countries for 10 months, perhaps now is an appropriate time to discuss what Muslims believe.
I (TP) will start with an anecdote. This morning I hopped in my cab to the library. My driver was Mohd Idris, a guy whom I’ve ridden with before. He’s a devout Muslim, he’s been on the hajj and everything, and he remembered me as the white guy who learned Malay in Indonesia. We got to chatting about politics, and he told me that it’s very important to realize that when it comes to politics, it is imperative to keep politics separate from religion, and the other way around. Politics is for development and justice for the entire country, and religion is personal. He says that people must always treat each other with respect, no matter what their religion is.
This is not the first time that I’ve heard a Muslim say this in this part of the world. I always react the same way: gee, didn’t someone inform the Taliban? How about American talking heads to tell us that Islam teaches us that politics and Islam are inseparable for Muslims?
Here are the fundamentals. All Muslims believe that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last and greatest prophet. This is the first of the five pillars of Islam; the other four are giving alms to the poor, praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadhan, and going on the hajj at least once, if possible. Another belief considered fundamental to Islam is that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, divinely revealed to Muhammad.
Beyond these big six beliefs, there is little real consensus. Take the example of sharia law–Islamic law. Sharia has been implemented in many parts of the world, but its implementation has varied strikingly, from Nigeria to Afghanistan to northern Malaysia. There is no one view of sharia law that all Muslims can agree on. In Malaysia, for example, there are groups that claim that sharia law cannot include punishments for the consumption of alcohol by Muslims, for the Qur’an does not make it clear what this should be. When developing punishments for alcohol consumption and other "Islamic crimes", Islamic legal scholars have looked to hadith, reports of the life of Muhammad made by his contemporaries. There is loads of controversy among different Muslim groups across the world as to whether or not all hadith are equally valid, or whether or not they should even be a source of sharia. The argument is naturally that hadith are not divine, but created by humans, and should not hold the same weight at the Qur’an.
We might continue with our politics example. We’ve often talked about the system of positive discrimination in Malaysia that gives preferential treatment to Malays, who are by definition Muslims. It turns out that the mainstream Islamic opposition party here, PAS, has campaigned in the past that this
system of preferential treatment for a Muslim group runs counter to Islam, for Islam teaches Muslims that they must treat all citizens of a country equally, justly, and fairly. Huh, that’s not the type of view that you often hear about Islam from Western commentators. And of course, not all Muslims seem to agree with it. But it is worth noting that a group that prides itself on its rigorous interpretation of Islam has made such claims. This, of course, is the same party that once issued a fatwa that all Malays who ran under the ruling party were apostates, but still. I have often seen talking heads on CNN or FoxNews make grand statements that the Qur’an teaches that active resistance to infidels is necessary. Yet just the other day, in the Islamic Arts Museum bookstore in KL, we read a book that said that the Qur’an forbids Muslims from confrontation on religious matters. According to this book, the Qur’an stipulates that in a discussion about religion, a Muslim may only respectfully describe his adherence to the teachings of Muhammad.
So here’s a bit of homework for our readers. Next time you hear someone on TV, in a bar, at a family reunion, whatever, say something that begins with "Islam teaches that…", you need to intervene. The odds are almost 100% that unless that person is referring to the five pillars plus Qur’anic divinity, that person is making a statement that is empirically untrue. Spread the word: religion is complex.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows any comparative doctrinal history of Christianity, Judaism, etc. Do Christians believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation? Do Christians take an eye for an eye or turn the other cheek? Does Judaism require segregation of men and women for worship? When it comes to most things, it is impossible to pin down what any particular religion teaches. More specifically, religion X may seem to teach Y, but large portions of those who practice religion X may view such a teaching as wrong or even contradictory to their understanding of their religion. In the West, we have an easy time understanding that about Christianity and Judaism, but a much tougher time remembering that Islam is the same way.
Across Muslim Southeast Asia, the governments of Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia have strongly condemned the terror attacks in London. More than that, throughout local civil society Islamist groups–such as the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia, PAS (the stringent Malaysian Islamic opposition party), all Islam-oriented Indonesian political parties, and Muslim Indonesian social organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have issued statements deploring these acts of terrorism. Maybe some people will find this surprising, but we don’t.