Editorial: The Two Faces of Islam

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund

Last month I was in Damascus. I had the great privilege of meeting Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria. He is a man of peace who pleads repeatedly for equal and harmonious relations between Muslims, Christians and followers of all religions as members of one human family. Because of this stance, he has endured great abuse and criticism from some of his fellow Muslims and was targeted for assassination by the Saudis. Knowing that he would have good security and protection, the group of Islamist hit-men were instructed that, if they could not kill the Grand Mufti himself, they should kill one of his sons instead. In due course they murdered his teenage son. After some months, two of the perpetrators were caught and imprisoned. The Grand Mufti asked to see them and they were brought to him blindfolded. He instructed their blindfolds to be removed, and the two young men, discovering themselves face to face with the head of Sunni Islam in Syria and the father of their victim, shook with fear. But, to their astonishment, the Grand Mufti gently reached out his hands to them and told them not to be afraid. He said that he did not want their mothers to weep as his own bereaved wife had wept for her son, and therefore he forgave them.

Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria
Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria

Last week I was in northern Iraq and came face to face with the stark reality of another face of Islam, that of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now calling itself simply the Islamic State). The sheer brutality of this face of Islam cannot be comprehended. It kills men, women and children, the elderly, the poor and the weak. It cuts in half little children and commits acts of ethnic cleansing that border on genocide. This behaviour is pure barbarism reminiscent of the early Assyrians and later Babylonians who once inhabited this region and were known for their immense cruelty.

Islamic apocalyptic dimension

ISIS has started to produce a magazine, in English and other European languages, called Dabiq. The name is actually a town not far from Aleppo in northern Syria, which is important in Islamic history because it was the site of a major battle between the Ottomans and the Mamluks in 1516. But, more significantly, Dabiq is mentioned in a hadith (tradition recording the words and actions of Muhammad) that prophesies that a great battle will be fought there in the End Times, in which the Muslims will be victorious over the Christian forces, and which will be the first step in the Muslim conquest of the whole world. In Islamic eschatology, Jesus, whom Muslims call Isa, will descend via a minaret of the Great Mosque in Damascus, and from there he will lead his armies to victory. “Victory” means destroying every cross, killing every Jew and pagan, and either converting every Christian to Islam or killing them. This apocalyptic dimension is now shaping ISIS as it sees itself fighting an End Time battle.

ISIS militants
ISIS militants

In the first issue of Dabiq, ISIS addressed the “return of the Khalifah”, arguing that Islam is now in its final stages as it achieves at last its goal of re-establishing the Caliphate. The Ottoman Caliphate, which collapsed in 1922-23 as the Republic of Turkey was established, is now being reborn in a new Caliphate, represented by the Islamic State.

In the second issue, Dabiq looks at Noah and the flood. An article entitled “It’s either the Islamic state or the flood” begins with the “polluted ideologies that have afflicted people the entire world over” and condemns the idea of leaving people to choose peacefully for themselves what to believe. The only solution, says Dabiq, is to eradicate the principle of free choice and to implement God’s will. Any who oppose this will be punished both on earth and in the hereafter as those who scoffed against Noah were punished by flood and hellfire.

This face of Islam, based as it is on Islamic sources including the Quran and hadith, is as authentic as the peaceful tradition of the Grand Mufti of Syria. Both have existed throughout Islamic history. The Grand Mufti of Damascus has not only been ridiculed and vilified by his co-religionists but also told that he he is not a true Muslim. When he visited the UK some ten years ago, and preached at the Regent’s Park mosque in London and at other mosques, he afterwards had to be protected from Muslim leaders who disagreed with his theology. Today, he cannot return to the UK, being unable to get a visa and opposed by Muslim leaders.

Many “Islams”

The question therefore is: what is true Islam? The reality is that there are now many “Islams” depending on one’s interpretation of the texts and of the history. All can validly claim to be theologically based on the same Islamic source texts. Thankfully the peaceful traditions continue to live on, shaping the minds and hearts of countless millions of Muslims across the world. These are the Muslims who seek only a better future for themselves and their children and grandchildren, many of whom have also a deep desire to live at peace with all humanity, as well as with their co-religionists.

But equally, there is the undeniable rise of radical Islam with an ideology that is propagated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, funded by their vast oil resources, and now effectively reshaping Islam. This face of Islam brings extremists to the forefront and gives birth to movements like ISIS. ISIS has been publicly disowned by Muslim and Western leaders alike, including key political leaders in Britain and other Western countries, who assert that it does not represent Islam. In fact some would go so far as saying that ISIS is not Islamic in any way. But however much one may want to dismiss ISIS as a temporary phenomenon that will soon disappear, or that can be easily defeated, or that is un-Islamic and therefore can be rejected, these concepts may well prove to be nothing more than pie in the sky. Even if these extreme forms were to cease to exist, the ideological underpinning that has produced movements such as these will continue so long as nations like Saudi Arabia, as well as countless individual Islamic clerics and Muslim leaders, continue to use a literalist interpretation of Islam’s source texts. This remains true whether or not Western governments recognise the theological basis of such movements.

How can Christians survive?

Displaced Iraqi Christian children in Dohuk
Displaced Iraqi Christian children in Dohuk

For Christians it is now impossible to survive within the territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State. For those in bordering areas, such as northern Iraq, Baghdad, Damascus, certain other parts of Syria, and Lebanon, the future is filled with terror. Hope seems to be fast disappearing as they see an international community without the will to defeat such an extreme force.

For many the only apparent solution that enables them to retain their faith and protect their families and communities is to leave – to leave their homes and their homelands in search of survival. Countries such as the UK have shown a reluctance either to address ISIS or to protect Christians and welcome them into our land.

Calling for a concerted effort

Before I took my leave of the Grand Mufti, he commented on his last visit to the UK, a decade ago, when he had predicted that there would come a day when many British mosques would become radicalised and where some of their members would become prey to extremist beliefs and go on to do horrible things. Sadly, that day has now come. He asked me whether I could enable him to get a visa to visit the UK again and to teach a peaceful Islam based on tolerance and a common humanity.

If courageous Muslims like him do not come to the UK and other countries, if mosques do not open their doors to him, if the minds of the young do not receive his teachings and are not enlightened by his knowledge and wisdom, then the future of this land and others is increasingly uncertain. Christians in the Middle East, and now farther afield, see a rapidly approaching terror; the same terror may face us in the West before long.

The fearsome Assassins were a ferocious Ismaili Islamic sect that came into being in the late eleventh century and instituted a reign of terror, which lasted for some 200 years. The Assassins were eventually destroyed only when Christians and Muslims joined forces to work together against a group that threatened everyone. Unless a concerted effort is made by governments in the region and internationally too, ISIS will continue to grow and threaten us all.

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