‘It’s hard to think of Islam with any goodwill, even at Christmas.’ These words were written by Herald columnist, John Roughan – even now, I find his words hard to read, although I concede they sum up the feelings of many people toward the religion of Islam.
The Paris attacks are the latest in a growing list of terror-related incidents that have taken place across Europe, the Middle East and America. Given these attacks, it’s understandable that many have come to view Islam as being a key motivating factor – after all, the assailants often view themselves as Muslims who are acting in the name of Islam.
The ironies here run deep, the Arabic word Islam is linked very closely with the Arabic word for peace, salam or shalom in Hebrew. Yet today Islam, and Muslims, come across as anything but peaceful. Islam seems like a religion in pieces, rather than a religion of peace, and if Syria is anything to go by, then it seems to be a tradition where it is each against all.
As a person who has reflected long and hard on the tradition of Islam, I would encourage everyone to pause for a moment of thought.
There have been many, and continue to be many, intelligent, morally decent folk who are comfortable with Islam, and are happy to be Muslims who practise the Islamic faith.
On a personal note, if I had come to find that Islam was, at its core, a religion focused purely on military conquest, I would have long ago walked away.
Why then are the heartlands of Islam in such a pitiful state. There are a long list of potential reasons one could offer, ranging from corrupt government, nepotism, sectarianism, biased Western foreign policy, extremist wahhabi ideology, Western military interventions, even perhaps capitalism. What is important to remember is that conflict and bloodshed are not unique to the Middle East; just think of World War II, where civilian casualties were estimated to have been between 25 million to 30 million. The current conflict in the Middle East is a disaster, but it is nowhere near as devastating as past conflicts in Europe. Most Muslims are broken-hearted about the Middle East.
Can there be goodwill toward Islam? I believe there can be goodwill, but this will require us to look beyond the likes of Isis and al-Qaeda. There is a magnificent intellectual and spiritual tradition to Islam.
Consider the likes of Abu Yusuf al-Kindi, who is regarded as being the first Arab Muslim philosopher. He writes: “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign people.” He was writing more than 1000 years ago at a time when Muslim scholars were translating Greek texts into Arabic.
Consider also the poetry of Rumi, whose collections of poems have sold millions of copies, and who, according to the BBC, is the most popular poet in the US. Rumi’s work represents the spiritual dimension of Islam that is obsessed with love, especially the love of God. Writing on love, Rumi declares that, “love is the cure, for your pain will keep giving birth to more pain until your eyes constantly exhale love as effortlessly as your body yields its scent”.
I think we can show goodwill towards Islam, especially during Christmas. The reason for this is that the Koran refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as being chosen by God above all other women. This should give us pause for thought – the central female figure in the Koran is not an Arab, it is Mary, an ethnic Jew who is central to the Christian tradition. There are even hymns that Muslims have written about Mary.
In the spirit of our shared heritage, and on behalf of my family, I wish all New Zealanders a Christmas filled with love, the kind of love Mary would have for her son, Jesus.
Dr Zain Ali is head of the Islamic studies research unit at the University of Auckland.