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Last Updated: Friday, 9 July, 2004, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Analysis: Interpreting Islam
Boys studying the Koran
Rules or guidelines?

The arrival in Britain of the Islamic preacher, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, has sparked controversy because of his views on suicide bombings. BBC Arab Affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi considers what wider Islamic teaching has to say on the subject:

The vast majority of Muslims feel that there is a huge gap between how they perceive themselves and their faith and how the rest of the world views them.

Many blame the discrepancy on the Western media. They accuse it of distorting what is essentially a peace-loving and tolerant faith.

The gap in perceptions has increased dramatically since 9/11.

Palestinian suicide bombings and recent beheadings of foreign hostages in Iraq in the name of Islam have only reinforced the association between Islam and violence in Western perceptions.

Consider for example this query posted on a popular Islamic website:

"Too often, the media in the West presents the image of Muslims as violent, but I know this is not correct. I am a Muslim, but... I will never kill anyone. When I watch the genocide in Chechnya or Bosnia, or the tragedy which unfolds in Palestine, it makes me very angry and very sad.

Jihad is often translated as "holy war". But Muslim scholars describe it not so much as war, but as the right to self-defence.

"I pray that Allah will allow peace to prevail among humanity, between Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I like to think that I and other Muslims can be a force for peace rather than for violence. Am I wrong?... This is really troubling me, and any advice you can provide would be much appreciated. "

The writer is clearly troubled by the difference between his or her personal experience of Islam and Western representations of Muslims. But more crucially, they seem to be seeking reassurance: is it right, in the face of apparent injustices to Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya, that they should "never kill anyone"?

'Holy war'

The writer of the query must be aware of Muslim volunteers who have gone off to Chechnya to defend fellow Muslims against the "Russian oppressors". Is it then legitimate to kill in the name of Islam?

This is where the Islamic concept of Jihad comes into play.

Jihad is often translated as "holy war". But Muslim scholars describe it not so much as war, but as the right to self-defence. Under this interpretation, Muslims are enjoined to take up arms against their oppressors, be they local despots or foreign occupiers. Jihad is one of the fundamental duties of a Muslim.

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.
Sheikh Al-Qaradawi's views on suicide attacks have sparked anger
But does this mean that Muslims who believe that they are engaged in legitimate self-defence or a war of liberation - like the Chechens or the Palestinians - are free to pursue their goals by any means available?

Is the killing of the civilian population of the enemies, for example, permissible?

Most Muslim scholars believe that the killing of civilians is forbidden.

In their support, they cite well-known sayings of Prophet Mohammad that forbid killing the enemy's women and children or burning down their vegetation - what are today known as scorched earth tactics.

But militants like Osama Bin Laden or radical clerics like Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi have a different take on this issue.

Radical interpretations

Under the assumption that the US is the enemy of Muslims, Bin Laden defended the 9/11 attacks on the grounds that the civilians who were killed contributed to the American war machine by paying taxes.

Although Sheikh Al-Qaradawi denounced the 9-11 attacks, his controversial justification for suicide attacks on Israeli civilians is strikingly similar.

Sheikh Al-Qaradawi believes, for example, that it is right to target Israeli women, on the assumption that they could be army reservists who can be summoned to active duty at any time - an argument that is also used by Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas to justify suicide attacks.

Palestinian militant holding the Koran
Many see the Middle East conflict as a holy war
This is a controversial interpretation of Islamic principles and appears to be dictated by political convenience rather than rigorous adherence to the literal meaning of the Koran.

Strictly speaking, Islam bans suicide. But scholars like Sheikh Al-Qaradawi redefine suicide bombing in terms of a sacrificial act for a greater good, i.e. defeating the enemy.

This license to re-interpret the Koran and Islamic tradition is known in Islam as 'ijtihad'. Roughly defined, ijtihad is the right of Muslim scholars to develop original interpretations of the Koran with the aim of formulating religious edicts on matters that were unknown in the time of the prophet more than 1,400 years ago, such as cloning or organ transplant.

In this sense, they can wield enormous power on matters of life and death.

Rules or guidelines?

But in areas such as politics and social conflict, the boundaries between what is acceptable or not from an Islamic point of view can vary a great deal.

Take, for example, the controversial issue of whether Muslim women should wear the veil. The passage cited in support of an injunction to wear the veil is couched in language that is open to varying interpretations:

"And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and protect their private parts and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent and to draw their veils all over their Juyubihinna".

At the heart of the disagreement between the two groups is the question of whether the Koran lays down specific rules, or general guidelines.
The edition I am using refrains from translating the word "Juyubihinna", because it is ambiguous. Should the veil cover the entire body, or just the head and the hair? Other editions translate it as "bosom".

Some liberal scholars and Muslim feminists have also argued that the injunction applies only to women at the time of the prophet.

Such a reading questions the orthodox view that rules of behaviour laid down by the Koran are applicable anywhere and at any time. This is the view held by most Islamist movements who want to create an Islamic state ruled by Sharia (Islamic law).

Freedom of choice

At the heart of the disagreement between the two groups is the question of whether the Koran lays down specific and binding rules, or general guidelines. For the literalists, it lays down concrete rules.

The liberals believe that it only contains general principles, and that it is up to Muslims to interpret them in accordance with the needs of the society and the times they live in.

This exegetical dispute is not dissimilar to the one surrounding the ordination of gay priests in Britain. If the message of Christianity is interpreted as one of love and inclusiveness, then a person's sexual orientation should not really matter.

Similarly, if Islam - as most Muslims believe - is about tolerance, peace and freedom from oppression, then it is up to individual Muslims to make choices that do not infringe on the rights of others.




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