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Standing for Islam - and against Terrorism (Continued III) By: Mustafa Akyol
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 08, 2004

The Jihads That Really Were

Another mistake of Mr. Bostom is to ignore the evidence that contradicts his argument. While defining many unholy campaigns by nominal Muslims as "jihad wars," he ignores some of the most prominent examples of real, legitimate jihad in Muslim history.

Of course, one of these archetypal jihads was the conquest of Mecca by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Mecca was a city in which he and his fellow Muslims were persecuted and had to flee from to save their lives. Moreover, they had several bloody wars with the Meccan pagans during the years 624-630. In one of them, in the Battle of the Ditch, Meccans besieged Medina with the overt objective of annihilating the umma, the whole Muslim community. However when Prophet Muhammad walked over Mecca in 630, with such a huge army that the pagans had no chance to resist, he sought no revenge.  According to Michael Sells, a lecturer at Haverford College:

When Mohammed came into Mecca, he not only did not carry out a bloody revenge, but actually embraced the very Meccans who had fought him for three years and attempted to annihilate him. It was very shocking to the people in his milieu. So within the very founding of a religion, one finds episodes of great generosity, often extraordinary acts of kindness and mercy.[i]

Another important figure in the history of Islam is Saladin. Mr. Bostom dislikes my "highly selective example" of him, but fails to realize that Saladin was in fact the archetypal hero and jihad leader in Muslim history. Encyclopedia Britannica describes him as "of the greatest of the Muslim leaders and a man devoutly religious and deeply committed to jihad against the infidel."


To shed more light on Saladin's concept of jihad, let's be reminded of what he did when he captured Jerusalem after a siege. As British historian P. M. Holt notes, "In contrast to the Crusaders, eighty-eight years before, the troops of Saladin did not signalize their victory by massacre and rapine."[ii] Another British historian, P. H. Newby, describes the details thusly:

The Moslems took over Jerusalem in an orderly, disciplined way with no looting or violence. The evacuation of the Christian population went on for forty days. Ransom was fixed at 10 dinars a man, 5 for a woman and 1 for a child. Thousands who could not find the money were released at the urgings of al-Adil, Geukburi and others. Saladin himself 'made his alms' by releasing all the old people who could not pay. . . There is no doubt that the taking of Jerusalem was affected in a way remarkably humane for the period. . . Saladin's generosity was regarded not only by Moslems but by the less bigoted Christians as extraordinary.[iii]

And of course there is the initial conquest of Jerusalem, by Caliph Omar, one the closest companions of Prophet Muhammad in 638. In Sunni Islam, Omar is the third most respected figure after the Prophet and this is how he conquered Jerusalem:

The Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem mounted on a white camel, escorted by the magistrate of the city, the Greek Patriarch Sophronius. The Caliph asked to be taken immediately to the Temple Mount and there he knelt in prayer on the spot where friend Muhammad had made his Night Journey. The Patriarch watched in horror: this, he thought, must be the Abomination of Desolation that the Prophet Daniel had foretold would enter the Temple; this must be Antichrist who would herald the Last Days. Next Omar asked to see the Christian shrines and, while he was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the time for Muslim prayer came round. Courteously the Patriarch invited him to pray where he was, but Omar as courteously refused. If he knelt to pray in the church, he explained, the Muslims would want to commemorate the event by erecting a mosque there, and that would mean that they would have to demolish the Holy Sepulchre. Instead Omar went to pray at a little distance from the church, and, sure enough, directly opposite the Holy Sepulchre there is still a small mosque dedicated to the Caliph Omar.[iv]

According to Franco Cardini,

When Muslims took possession of Jerusalem, they had the firm intention of respecting the Jews and the Christians . . . From the seventh century to the early eleventh century, life in Jerusalem proceeded peacefully in the main. The Christian pilgrims continued to visit their holy places undisturbed (the many surviving accounts in Latin of the journey testify to this). The partition of the city into quarters was under way, organized so that members of different faiths could live near their sanctuaries . . . Apart from the period of occupation by the crusaders, between 1096 and 1187, this ethno-religious partition of the city has been respected throughout innumerable conflicts, at least the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948-67.[v]

These episodes are much more representative of true Muslim warfare and rule than the other ones quoted by Mr. Bostom. Instead, he neglects all these and presents every act of inhumanness in the history of Islamic civilization as "jihad." One could well do the same thing for Christianity, by focusing of witches burnt at the stake, the torturers of the Inquisition, pogroms against Jews, the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders, the reconquista of Spain, conquistadores in Latin America, St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris, and so on. That these unfortunate events have some association with of Christianity does not change the fact that Jesus Christ preached a Gospel of Love. Similarly that brutality historically has occurred close to Islam does not make it a religion of the sword.


John Esposito, probably the most prominent American scholar on Islam, repeatedly reminds the basic Islamic rule of war: "You cannot kill non-combatants".[vi] However, as Bernard Lewis reminds, "Muslims, like followers of other religions, did not always follow their own principles, or even obey their own scriptures."[vii] And that was the problem behind the most of the violent episodes of Islam. That still holds true today.


Where Do We Go From Here?


What I am trying to accomplish is to show that terrorists such as al-Qaeda are indeed the hijackers of Islam, as President Bush once labeled them. If Mr. Bostom were right, then moderates would be defined as the real hijackers and al-Qaeda and its ilk would be its heroes. But, thank God, that is not the case, and what Westerners call "moderate Islam" is indeed the legitimate expression of our faith in the modern world.


Nevertheless, it seems to me that this all gives rise to a most disconcerting question here: What is the objective of Mr. Bostom? To de-legitimize moderates and to sanctify terrorists? Surely not. Although this may be an unfortunate by-product of what he says, I suspect his motive is much different: From his whole argument about Islam's supposedly inherent violence, there seems to derive implied appeal for full-scale secularization. This is very evident in Mr. Bostom's leniency to Ibn Warraq, an ex-Muslim who is now a fierce atheist and anti-Islamic polemicist. According to Ibn Warraq, as Mr. Bostom delightfully quotes, "There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate" and "Islam need [to] be marginalized for liberty to flourish."


What Ibn Warraq does is to reiterate the dull atheists mantra — that religion shrinks our liberties and instead we must shrink religion to save them. From Epicurus to Nietzsche, from Freud to Richard Dawkins, this is the unholy crusade whose political fruits included mass murderers such as the Jacobins, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.


And I am firmly against that secularist agenda.


But let me make myself perfectly clear: By secularism, I don't mean the separation of church and state. I fully embrace that principle as the underpinning of a democratic society. The modern state must be neutral with respect to all faiths, because to do otherwise would be imposing a particular faith on society destroying religious freedom —the only medium within which true faith can flourish.

The secularization at issue here, and that I object to is the total expulsion of religion from society and the building of a completely profane culture, devoid of all religious values and sentiments, a Naked Public Square as wisely described by Father Richard John Neuhaus in the American context.


My firm conviction is that this is a tragically erroneous path to follow.


That conviction, of course, comes firstly from my faith in theism. But beyond this subjective view, there is also an objective — and quite pragmatic — reason to oppose the secularist agenda: It won't work and will even backfire. Secularization is the grand project of the modernist dream, based on the Enlightenment and the subsequent positivist thought. That is a dream, however, that failed. In our de-secularizing world, as social scientist Peter Berger calls it, religion is destined to live and grow even stronger.[viii] Some argue that we are indeed moving towards a post-secular era.[ix]


Thus the question is not whether religion in general will be eroded and Islam in particular will be marginalized, but rather it is whether they will be defined from a tolerant and peaceful perspective.


That perspective has to be a genuinely religious, devout one. Therefore, while opposing the hijackers of Islam, it must also counter Islam's unfair critics. And that's why I am determined to do both.


Mustafa Akyol is a political scientist, columnist and writer from Turkey. He is also a director at the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, based in Istanbul. He can be reached at akyolmst@superonline.com

[i] From Michael Sells' commentary on the PBS documentary, The Empire of Faith.

[ii] P. H. Holt, The Age of The Crusades, p. 56

[iii] P. H. Newby, Saladin in His Time, Faber and Faber, London, 1983 p. 120-121

[iv] Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, Anchor Books, New York, 2001, p. 46

[v] Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam, p. 55

[vi] See, Esposito's interview on the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs site:

[vii] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, p. 229

[viii] For de-secularization, see: Peter L. Berger, "The Desecularization Of The World: Resurgent Religion And World Politics", The National Interest, No. 46, Winter 1996/ 97

[ix] For post-secularism, see: Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence, The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World, Prima Publishing, California, 1997

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