Vol. 5 Num 40 Tue. July 06, 2004  

Bottom line
The relevance of understanding Islam

Islam is a revealed religion like Judaism and Christianity. All these great revealed religions trace their common root to Ibrahim (Abraham) Khalil Ullah (Friend of Allah) who lived around 1900-2200 BC. According to Holy Qu'ran, Ibrahim had two sons, Ismail and Ishaque (Isaac). Prophet Mohammad (SM) belonged to the family of Ismail while Moses and Jesus to that of Ishaque.

Islam is not a new religion, but reiterates the Divine Message proclaimed by numerous prophets in different places and at different times. It is a universal religion and its adherents currently numbering more than one billion have spread over all the continents. Islam has stimulated thought and action of Islamic and non-Islamic scholars since it was first preached during the 7th century in Arabia.

Islam and Arabs

People of Arabia were steeped in ignorance and Prophet Mohammad (SM) was sent to guide them in their language. About Arab people Surah Tauba, Verse 97 of the Holy Qu'ran states as follows:

The Arabs of the desert
Are the worst in un-belief
And hypocrisy and most of
Them fitted to be in ignorance. (Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

Rift in Muslim community

Although Islam is strictly monotheistic, the monolithic structure of the Muslim community did not survive three decades after the death of Prophet Mohammad (SM). The first rift in the early Muslim community was rather political in character and arose over succession to the Prophet. A section of the Muslim community supported the case of the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Hazrat Ali. Another group endorsed Hazrat Abu Bakr, an elderly close companion and father-in-law of the Prophet. Eventually Hazrat Abu Bakr succeeded the Prophet with the support of the elders.

The group supporting Ali constituted themselves into Shiah-i-Ali (Party of Ali), a term which came to be known simply as Shi'iah. The rise of Shi'iasm bifurcated the Muslim community. The bulk of Shi'ia currently live in Iraq and Iran, while the other group of Muslims who are known as Sunnis constitutes majority in other Muslim countries. As the term connotes, they take their name on the basis of their strict adherence to Sunnah or traditions of the Prophet.

Militant Islamists

Regrettably the militant Islamists have hijacked the essence of Islam. The militants hardly follow the Qu'ranic injunctions. For example, in Surah Nisa, Verse 152, of the Holy Qu'ran , the description of a "Believer" is as follows:
To those who believe
In God and His Apostles,
And Make no distinction
Between any of the Apostles
We shall soon give
Their due rewards.

In the verse the word "Apostles" (plural) is employed and it means that any person who believes in God and his/her apostle, is a "Believer." It implies that not only Muslims, but also Jews and Christians are "Believers." Another verse in the same Surah Nisa (Verse 93) proclaims:
If a man kills a Believer
Intentionally, his recompense
Is Hell, to abide therein
For ever.

This verse makes it clear that if a Muslim kills a Jew or a Christian or any person who believes in God, his only place is in Hell.

Meaning of Jihad

Another fact that merits attention is the true meaning of Jihad (struggle). Jihad does not mean war involving killing people. Many Islamic scholars of repute hold the view that Jihad signifies a physical, moral, spiritual ,and intellectual effort to conquer the forces of evil in oneself and in one's society. They argue that there are plenty of Arabic words denoting armed combat, such as harb (war), sira'a (combat), ma'araka (battle) or qital (killing) employed in the Holy Qu'ran. The word Jihad has not been used to denote an armed combat or killing.

Jihad means struggle within oneself to get rid of vices. It is an on-going inner struggle within oneself to remain away from sins and to move towards approved way of life in this world. Islamic scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872-1953) in his commentary number 1270 of Surah Tauba of the Holy Qu'ran stated that "mere brutal fighting is opposed to the whole spirit of Jihad while the sincere scholar's pen or preacher's voice or wealthy man's contribution may be the most valuable forms of jihad."

Non-Arab Muslims

It is acknowledged by many Islamic scholars that although Islam was primarily preached for Arabs, it quickly spread among non-Arab people who spoke different languages other than Arabic because the simplicity of Islamic teachings together with the concept of equality of human beings was attractive to people in different lands.

Many Islamic scholars believe that the principle of Ijtihad, the use of reason to apply Qu'ranic injunctions to contemporary values is almost absent in most Islamic countries. Muslim people live within a given social, economic and administrative structure of a particular time and place. Accordingly, many Islamic scholars hold the view that Islamic precepts and practices are to be adapted to meet the needs of the day.

I would argue that non-Arab Muslims in general have a different approach in understanding Islam. Many factors have a role but a few in particular deserve mention.

First, Islam in non-Arab countries is influenced by indigenous culture and customs of the people. Furthermore Persian and Turkish influence is visible in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh because at one stage they ruled the undivided India prior to the British rule. Accordingly, in non-Arab Muslim countries, Islamic day-to-day practices often vary from those of Arab Muslim countries. Let me cite an example, the religious ceremony of Milad Mahfil or Milad Sharif is found common in non-Arab countries, while such ceremony does not exist in Arab Muslim countries. In fact Arab Muslims get surprised when they find out that many non-Arab Muslims perform such religious ceremony

Second, Arab culture is predominantly tribal and is rooted in desert environment. Many Arab Muslims consider Arab culture as Islamic culture. This has created confusion among non-Arab Muslims. Many of them argue that Arab culture is rooted in the land of Arabia and does not reflect Islamic culture. Islamic culture is wider than that of Arab culture. For example, food habits are different in every country and all Islamic countries do not follow what Arab Muslims eat. The mode of Arab dress applicable to a desert environment cannot be followed in a humid and rain-drenched country, even though they are Muslims by faith

Third, Arab nationalism is based on Arab race and non-Arabs are not included. The Arab League consists of Arab nation-states. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, most Arab nations supported Arab-Iraq against non-Arab Iran, while most non-Arab states remained neutral.

Fourth, except within the framework of the UN, Arab Muslim states have little opportunity to interact closely with non-Muslim states in view of the fact that most Arab countries have hardly any non-Muslim states as neighbours. On the other hand, non-Arab Muslim states have non-Muslim neighbours. For example Bangladesh's neighbours and near neighbours are all non-Muslims states. Furthermore, non-Arab Muslim states belong to regional inter-governmental organizations, such as, ASEAN or SAARC. They interact with non-Muslim states within the regional organisation to address regional issues where religion does not play a part.

Fifth, understanding of Islam is different among non-Arabs and this is manifested in the fact that people of non-Arab Muslim countries are willing to elect women as their heads of state/government, but the idea of women running a country seems to be an unacceptable idea in Arab Muslim countries. Conservative Muslims maintain that women have no role in politics, let alone running a country.

Sixth, most Arab Muslim states have small minority communities of other faiths. Whereas many of the non-Arab Muslim states have sizeable religious minority communities. This being the case, often many non-Arab Muslims do not hesitate to participate in festivals of other faiths as social and cultural traditions, just as many Muslims participate in Christmas festivities without being Christians. The interaction of non-Arab Muslims with people of other faiths has given an opportunity to respect other religious faiths. The result is that non-Arab Muslims tend to be less dogmatic or rigid in their views of non-Islamic faith.

Finally, all Arab Muslim states (22 in number) are being ruled by political institutions, such as monarchs, Emirates, Sultans, and Presidents. The Presidents in some Arab countries are elected thorough a process that can hardly be called fully free and democratic. While in most non-Arab Muslim states, people elect their governments through fair and free elections (monitored by foreign observers) once every four or five years.


It is reported that 80 percent of the Muslim population live in non-Arab Muslim countries, and the overwhelming majority of them have tolerant views of Islam. It is noted that extremists in Islam are much fewer in number than the moderates, but their voice has not kept pace with that of extremists. It is a challenge to be taken up by moderate Muslims. It is heartening to note that Bangladesh has joined as one of the moderate Muslim states invited by Singapore Prime Minister to provide moderate and tolerant views of Islam across the world.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.