WHEN WILL WESTERNERS STOP WESTERNIZING ISLAMIC CONCEPTS
By Raymond Ibrahim
While I appreciate Ms. Grossman's initiative, what especially interests me is that her response exemplifies the problems originally highlighted in my article, "The Dark Side of Zakat: Islamic Charity in Context," which Ms. Grossman takes to task.
I had written:
It is, therefore, a bit ironic that Ms. Grossman's entire article is a testimony to this phenomenon. For starters, even though I indicated Muslims are actually forbidden from bestowing zakat onto non-Muslims, her opening sentence stubbornly describes zakat as a "mandate to be charitable." Surely "charity" that discriminates according to religion cannot be deemed all that "charitable," a word that, in a Western context, is connotative of universal beneficence.
Ms. Grossman is also decided that Muslims engaged in that timeless Islamic phrase "fi sabil Allah" — most literally, "the path of Allah" — include "anyone from seminary students to imams to missionaries"; conversely, I supposedly read it "as a straight pipeline to violent jihadists."
Fair enough. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the significance of Islamic terminology, neither her opinion nor mine matters much; how Islam's authoritative schools of jurisprudence (specifically, the four madhahib) have interpreted "fi sabil Allah" is all that matters. And Islam's juridical rulings are such that "fi sabil Allah" is synonymous with the concept of violent jihad.
For example, in its section on zakat, the Arabic-English edition of the standard legal text, 'Umdat as-Salik, translates "fi sabil Allah" as "those fighting for Allah." Next to the index entry for "fi sabil Allah," it simply says "see jihad."
The following zakat-related anecdote from Islamic history is further illuminating: After Muhammad's death in 632, several Arab tribes, while still identifying themselves as Muslims, refused to pay zakat, much of which was being used to fund ongoing military operations. Abu Bakr, the first "righteous" Caliph, responded by launching the Apostasy Wars, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Arabs. In this context, neither the uses of zakat, nor Abu Bakr's murderous response, seem very "charitable." (Whoever heard of killing people for not being "charitable" enough?)
As a result, the same canon of the Sharia (Islamic law) that unequivocally forbids Muslims from giving zakat (financial assistance) to non-Muslims, advocates giving it to what we call "jihadists." This is a simple fact, played over and over again — not my opinion, nor something that is "open to interpretation."
Ms. Grossman's concluding questions are further indicative of the widespread tendency to recast Muslim concepts into Western terms. She asks the reader:
Aside from the fact that — alas, and once again — what any of us "think" is totally irrelevant, these questions demonstrate the all too common inability to transcend one's own culturally-ingrained notions of right and wrong, ascribing to them a universal pedigree. For just as Ms. Grossman's Western sensibilities inform her that zakat, which has to do with giving money, must always be "charitable," so too do they inform her that funding violence, jihadi or otherwise, must always be "nefarious."
Yet, she may be surprised to discover that men such as Osama bin Laden actually see their jihad — yes, with all the death and destruction entailed — as an act of altruism, as an ugly means to a beneficent end (see Koran, 2:216), that is, the establishment of Islamic law across the world (which is, incidentally, another Muslim duty). One of the most renowned Muslim clerics and hero of modern day jihadists, Ibn Taymiyya, has written at great length describing jihad as the ultimate expression of "love." And, at any rate, it seems a safe bet that most Muslims will be inclined to adhere to his opinions, i.e., his fatwas, as opposed to Ms. Grossman's casual thoughts on the matter.
The lesson here? Well meaning Americans would do well to cease interpreting age-old Muslim doctrines — from jihad to zakat — according to their Western epistemology and, instead, rely on the standard rulings of mainstream Islam, as articulated by its authoritative schools of jurisprudence. That is, after all, what Muslims do.
Postscript: As it happens, I recently relayed much of this to Ms. Grossman, and she responded in another entry, the gist of which is that, just because a religion teaches something, does not mean its adherents follow it. She writes:
This is, of course, true; thus one should differentiate between the teachings of the various religions (which are often objective and ascertainable) and the actual practices of their adherents (which are often neither). The natural corollary to Ms. Grossman's Jewish and Christian examples is that, "As clear as Islamic law is on the obligation of jihad and the need to fund it, most Muslims ignore it."
Unfortunately, this position offers little comfort: It took only 19 Muslims to commit the horrendous events of 9/11.
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Raymond Ibrahim, a historian of Islam, Islamism and the Middle East, is the Associate Director of the Middle East Forum and the editor of The Al-Qa'ida Reader, a collection of tranlations of key texts and documents of the Islamist movement. Ibrahim's translations of the religious texts and political propaganda comprising this collection help readers comprehend the origins, development, history, and serious danger of the Islamist war doctrines of Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Founders of Al-Qa'ida and implacable enemies of the U.S.A. and the West.
The foregoing article by Raymond Ibrahim was originally published in the Middle East Forum News, August 25, 2009, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/2441/ westernizing-islamic-concepts)
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