Searching for the essence of Islam

There is the Islam of peace and compassion: Christians and Jews are recognised as fellow travellers, human life is precious and attacks on innocents are grave sins. And then there is the extremist Islam of jihad (holy war): unbelievers are to be slayed, violent martyrdom wins a special place in paradise, and the whole world should submit to Allah.

At the same time as Westerners have been confronted with images suspected of being linked to the extremist line, they have also been told that this is not the real face of Islam. Newspapers such as The Age have received deeply wounded letters from moderate Muslims appalled that their faith could be seen as having any role in justifying the mass slaughter of innocents.

For the non-Muslim seeking the truth about the essence of Islam, picking up the Koran is as confusing and contradictory as it would be for a non-Christian to open a Bible, which advocates both love for others and stoning to death for blasphemy. Professor Abdullah Saeed, head of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Melbourne University, says texts from any religion can be quoted selectively or misused as a political rallying point, with people emphasising some elements and ignoring others: “It can
be used like a football; you just play it in any direction you want.”
The first line of the Koran is “This book is not to be doubted.” Chapter nine, Repentance, has many references to the duty of good Muslims to fight for Allah: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.” If idolaters revile the faith, “make war on the leaders of unbelief”.

Those who fight for God are promised his joy and mercy “and gardens of eternal bliss”. And God sent forth Mohammed “with guidance and true faith to make it triumphant over all religions, however much idolaters may dislike it”.

But like any religious text, the Koran suggests different things in different places. It also says: “Whosoever kills a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind; and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” It urges forgiveness of unbelievers and says that even in times of war, Muslims are not allowed to kill anyone except those who have confronted them face to face. There are particular rules against killing women, children, old people and religious figures.

A Melbourne Muslim who did not wish to be named says: “There are two interpretations of the Koran. The first one is literal … and it means kill those who don’t believe in God, who don’t accept your religion. Another possible way of interpreting it is in historical context. Those verses weren’t revealed in a vacuum; they were revealed on a certain occasion. What was their purpose? That was revealed for a particular type of situation faced by Muslims at that time, and we can’t generalise (from that).

“Fundamentalists go for a literal interpretation of the Koran, but this (historical view) is the way of liberal or moderate Muslims.”

According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, an acting professor at UCLA law school in America, Islamic law considers terrorism (hirabah) a grave and predatory sin punishable by death. It forbids the taking or slaying of hostages as well as stealthy or indiscriminate attacks against enemies. “Classical jurists considered such acts to be contrary to the ethics of Arab chivalry and therefore fundamentally cowardly,” he writes in the Los Angeles Times.

But he argues that an “ethically oblivious” strand of Islam has developed since the 1970s that dismisses the juristic tradition and the notion of universal and innate moral values. Instead, it relies on a literal interpretation of texts and the technicalities of Islamic law, and is rooted in the sense of defeat and alienation being experienced by many in the Muslim world.

Professor Saeed says there are many different schools of thought in Islam: “We are dealing with 1400 years of history, almost every single nation, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic group you can think of. It’s inconceivable that all these people would be thinking the same way on these issues.”

Professor Saeed said many Muslims now interpret “jihad” as the struggle against sin and oneself. The notion of jihad as physical warfare is more problematic and is meant to be confined to defending Islam and Muslims against serious, actual or imminent attack. The Russian invasion of Muslim Afghanistan, he says, legitimatised a jihad against the invaders.

Islam does consider itself to be the final word of God, says Dr Sharam Akberzadeh, lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University, but many Muslims acknowledge there are modern challenges not addressed by the Koran, as well as some Koranic concepts that are no longer appropriate. “Very few Muslim scholars have argued that popular will and democratic elections should be abandoned because sovereignty, as suggested in the Koran, resides with Allah.” But it is that principle that government-by-mullah has relied upon, he agrees.

Dr Akberzadeh says the rallying point for those advocating jihad is a growing sense in the Muslim world that Muslim identity is threatened by globalisation and the cultural penetration of western values, and that Islam is under siege.

Professor Saeed says extremists look at many disparate developments – such as the dispossession of Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, or the way women are prevented from wearing the hijab in certain Muslim countries fearful of fundamentalism – and see a pattern of suppression.

But in Melbourne, Muslim students hear little of the concept of war as jihad, says the principal of Minaret College in Springvale, Mr Mohamed Hassan. “To be honest, we hardly touch on it,” he says. “What we are concerned about is teaching our children Islamic morality and to be good Australian citizens.”

Islam in Australia: from the outback to suburbia

Even before the arrival of Captain Cook, Muslims visited Australia’s north coast. Each summer Macassans and Buginese, from the Indonesian archipelago, would travel from west of Darwin to the Gulf of Carpentaria to catch and dry trepang, or sea slug, and trade with local Aborigines. Later, Afghan cameleers and hawkers helped open up the interior and build the overland telegraph.

The past 25 years has seen the rise of significant Muslim communities throughout Australia, with just over one in every 100 Australians now identifying as Muslim.

In the 1947 census, no respondents identified as Muslim. By 1971, there were 22,000 (0.2 per cent of the population) and in 1991, 147,500 (0.9 per cent). At the last census, in 1996, the number had grown by 36.2 per cent to almost 201,000 (1.13 per cent). Of those, 67,047 live in Victoria. Some believe the figures are understated due to a reluctance to identify as Islamic and that the actual number could be as high as 300,000.

While 35 per cent of Muslims living in Australia were born here, the other 64 per cent have immigrated from more than 60 countries.

Muslim migration rose after the lifting of the White Australia policy. Recent immigration patterns have been linked to tensions in the Middle East: the Lebanese fleeing civil war in the 1970s, Iranian refugees fleeing the mullahs’ revolution in 1979, and Iraqi refugees escaping after the Gulf War in 1990-91.

Muslims live in every local government area of Victoria but are centred in Broadmeadows, which has more than 10,000 Muslims, and Dandenong, Preston, Coburg, Brunswick, Sunshine, Keilor and South Whittlesea.

First published in The Age.