How to Understand Islam


by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, 353 pp., $26.00


In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, where he told his audience, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith…. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” In Britain his sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat: “There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting.”

However reflective such views may be of the “moderate” Muslim majority, they are not uncontested. As John Kelsay shows in his new book Arguing the Just War in Islam, debates about the ethics of conflict have been going on since the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The scholars who interpreted the Prophet’s teachings addressed issues such as the permissibility of using “hurling machines,” or mangonels, where noncombatants including women and children, and Muslim captives or merchants, might be endangered. In the “realm of war” outside the borders of Islam a certain military realism prevailed: for example the eighth-century jurist al-Shaybani (who died in 805) stated that if such methods were not permitted the Muslims would be unable to fight at all.

There may be a vast distance in time and technology separating al-Shaybani’s authorization of mangonels and the attacks on New York and Washington, but the boundaries of legal discussion remain remarkably consistent. In their 1998 Declaration Concerning Armed Struggle Against Jews and Crusaders following the deployment of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their cosigners belonging to the “World Islamic Front” cited rulings by thirteenth-century scholars including the celebrated jurist Ibn Taymiyya in order to justify their ruling that “to fight the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual obligation for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible.” In a recent video bin Laden invites Americans to embrace Islam, a requirement the classical authorities insist on before a non-Muslim enemy may legitimately be attacked. The critiques of bin Laden’s statements coming from religious authorities focus on the means by which the ultimate objective of a “restored” Islamic polity under Sharia law may be achieved, rather than the objective itself.

For example, in a recent open letter to “Brother Osama,” the prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman al-Oadah makes a scathing attack on bin Laden for the excessive violence and damage to Islam inflicted by his campaign—including the “destruction of entire nations” and the “nightmare of civil war” in Afghanistan and Iraq, with their impact on the surrounding countries. But the sheikh’s quarrel with bin Laden is essentially about means rather than ends. The burden of his attack is that al-Qaeda’s methods—and the…

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