Interpret for compassion and peace

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 01 May 2019

WHY are certain Muslim groups trying to destroy so much of what our merciful and kind God has bestowed on all of us? Does it really help anyone when suicide bombers die and their families are left behind? Why is so much energy being spent on creating havoc instead of a better life?

Whether it’s from the almost weekly suicide bombings in Pakistan, intra-Palestinian fighting or sectarian violence in Iraq, more Muslims today are dying at the hands of other Muslims than by the acts of white supremacists, Israelis, Americans or any other perceived enemies.

While we mourn with the loved ones of the victims of attacks in places of worship, moderate Muslims should take a stronger and bolder stand against this madness that is purportedly done in the name of Islam.

Moderates need to stand zealously for civilians who are harmed by Muslim violence. We need to reflect on our internal dysfunction.

Religions don’t make choices, individuals do.

Yes, injustices have been done by one country to another, but are we going to hold onto that resentment and hate for the rest of our lives at the expense of creating a religious inclusiveness for future generations?

What about our perception of Islam, of a “Muslim” society and of our “Muslims values”? Do we have the key to knowledge and righteousness just because we are Muslims? Do we practise Islam the right way? And what is the right way? We need to ask ourselves these questions.

This is what ijtihad (independent thought) is advocating – the questioning of our values and practices as rational individuals.

But contrary to ijtihad, jihad now appears to be a term with its meaning taken out of context. In Arabic language, the word jihad basically means to strive and exert one’s utmost effort for any given objective.

In Islam, jihad can be classified into several realms – jihad by the heart, tongue, hand and the sword. Unfortunately, the sword is usually the level of jihad that is most exposed due to its wide misinterpretation and misuse by extremist Islamic groups for their own interest. Their misinterpretation of this term has unleashed far-reaching consequences on Muslims worldwide and even in Malaysia.

According to a study on tolerance and susceptibility to extremism in South-East Asia, conducted by the opinion research firm Merdeka Centre, the main drivers for extremism were religious narratives such as the pursuit of “purist” Islamic goals like jihad or hudud, as well as religious literalism in which respondents take the word of their Islamic teachers literally. The study reported that 28% of Malaysian Muslims demonstrated “violence-receptive” tendencies, meaning that they did not directly reject violence.

Faisal S. Hazis, an academic who co-authored the study, said the respondents showed support for extremism or justified violence in the name of Islam.

The study measured two areas of extremism: violent extremism and “self-sacrificial tendencies” or the willingness to sacrifice one’s life, freedom or belongings to defend Islam. Malaysia and Thailand recorded the highest levels of self-sacrificial tendencies among the countries studied.

Merdeka Centre also found that support for global and regional terror groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah was present across all the countries surveyed, but was highest in Malaysia at 18.1%.

There are many mullahs and prominent Islamic leaders who condemn the extremists, pointing out that the Quran condemns violence against civilians, and that violent acts are against the words of Prophet Muhammad. For them and most moderate Muslims, the hadith does not approve of violence and clearly states that jihad in the sense of physical warfare is only of minor significance as the last resort for self-defence purposes, and for fighting back against aggression.

Jihad in the bigger picture encompasses a wider concept of noble struggle to ensure the wellbeing of the family, community, nation and ummah. The Quran says that if someone kills a person, it is as if he has killed the whole society.

The extremists who lean towards violence read the same Quran as these mullahs and Islamic leaders. So, what went wrong with these extremists’ interpretation of the Quran? Why are they being taught about a vengeful God whereas the mullahs, Islamic leaders or moderate Muslims worship a compassionate and loving God?

If we think the level of education is the cause of such misinterpretations, how do we explain the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombers who were said to be “well educated” and came from “middle- or upper middle-class” families, as reported by the Sri Lankan government?

Chapter Five, Verse 32 of the Quran reads: “If you kill a human being, it is like killing all of mankind, unless you are killing that human being as punishment for violence, or murder, or other villainy in the land.” This verse might be literally or blindly quoted by the extremists as the best citation of the Quran to justify their killing sprees. Hence, mullahs and Islamic leaders need to offer bold and competing re-interpretations of what is actually in the Quran.

The problem is not with Islam as a religion but with us as Muslims. If we go back to all the attacks that have happened worldwide, the people who perpetrated the violence believed they were performing an act of jihad, not an act of terrorism. And if you look at most of the videos uploaded on social media by these terror groups, they were acting in the name of Allah and Islam. All these extremists who lean towards violence operate from religious conviction. Religion was not the cause of their extremism but it could serve either as an enabler or disabler.

Moderate Muslims cannot deny that there is a problem in the way certain Muslims interpret and understand the Holy Book. They cannot condemn violence committed in Islam’s name but reflexively recite that “Islam has nothing to do with it”.

Islam is what Muslims make of it. Just as Christians and Jews have reinterpreted the troubling passages of their scriptures for centuries, Muslims must do the same. Moderate Muslims need to bear the responsibility for reinterpretation. It is not a call to rewrite the Quran but rather to update the interpretations of existing words. This is a baby step to taking away certain malignant interpretations from the terrorists. Extremists need to be reminded of the Quran’s unambiguous remin­der that God alone has the full truth.

Reinterpretation of certain religious narratives to harness the potential for compassion, tolerance and peaceful coexistence within Islam is just one of the tools in the complex, multi-pronged strategy to combat violent extremism.


Kuala Lumpur

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