Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Crisis of Islam

From The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis

Page 136

Most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists are not terrorists, but most present-day terrorists are Muslims and proudly identify themselves as such. Understandably, Muslims complain when the media speak of terrorist movements and actions as "Islamic" and ask why the media do not similarly identify Irish and Basque terrorists and terrorism as "Christian." The answer is simple and obvious ---- they do not describe themselves as such. The Muslim complaint is understandable, but it should be addressed to those who make the news, not to those who report it. Usama bin Laden and his Al-Qa'ida followers may not represent Islam, and many of their statements and their actions directly contradict basic Islamic principles and teachings, but they do arise from within Muslim civilization, just as Hitler and the Nazis arose from within Christendom, and they too must be seen in their own cultural, religious, and historical context.

Page 139

A revealing example of such deviation was the famous fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, against the novelist Salman Rushdie because of his novel entitled The Satanic Verses. In the fatwa, the Ayatollah informed "all the zealous Muslims of the world that the blood of the author of this book..... which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an, as also of those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, is hereby declared forfeit. I call on all zealous Muslims to dispatch them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctities again. Anyone who is himself killed in this path will be deemed a martyr." To supplement and anticipate the rewards of paradise, an Islamic charitable trust in Tehran offered a bounty to anyone who killed Salmon Rushdie consisting of 20 million tumans (at that time about $3 million at the official rate, about $170,000 at the open-market rate) for an Iranian, or $1 million for a foreigner. Some years later the bounty, still unclaimed, was increased by the trust.

Not surprisingly, many uninformed readers in the Western world got the impression that "to issue a fatwa" was the Islamic equivalent of "to put out a contract" ---- i.e., to target a victim and offer a monetary reward for murdering him. Like madrasa, the word fatwa has acquired, in common international usage, a wholly negative connotation. This is in fact a monstrous absurdity. Fatwa is a technical term in Islamic jurisprudence for a legal opinion or ruling on a point of law. It is the shari'a equivalent of the responsa prudentium of Roman law. In using a fatwa to pronounce a death sentence and recruit an assassin, the ayatollah was deviating very considerably from standard Islamic practice.