Image of Islam in the West

19th Congress of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs – Cairo
27 March 2007


All monotheistic religions come from one source, God, who created the universe, sent us prophets and messengers and revealed scriptures. In all of them He ordered us to worship no one but Him whatever our faith.

Islam teaches respect for the other and belief in all of God’s holy books and prophets without discrimination:

“O ye who believe! Believe in God and His Messenger, and the scripture which He hath sent to His Messenger and the scripture which He sent to those before (him). Any who denieth God, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Day of Judgment, hath gone far, far astray.” (Sura 4 “The Women”: 136)

The greatness of Islam is shown in its call for coexistence and dialogue with the other to bridge differences of opinions, and to spread peace on Earth. The followers of the other monotheistic religions also are asked to spread these values among all people, as God says in The Holy Qur’an:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Sura 49 “The Inner Apartments”: 13)

Islam’s relation with “the other” since the inception of the Islamic state

Since the beginning of the Islamic state, foundations and references were laid out not only for East – West relations, but for dealing with others in general. Muslims were immediately concerned with maintaining equality for all people of the book, especially concerning rights and duties. Prophet Mohamed gave a good example of this when he said that the people of the book have the same duties and rights as Muslims. This helped establish positive relations between the first Muslims and the people they encountered when they emigrated from Mecca to Medina.

Prophet Mohamed was deeply concerned with ensuring positive relationships among the Muhajirun (Muslim immigrants from Mecca), the Ansar (indigenous Muslims of Medina and the Yahud (Jews). So he drafted the “Compact of Medina”, establishing a kind of alliance or federation among the eight tribes of Medina and the Muhajirun. It specified the rights and duties of the different communities of Medina as citizens of the first Islamic state. The people of the book enjoyed their complete religious freedom and had their public interests guaranteed under the umbrella of the Islamic state. This was also clear in the treaty between Al-Faruq Umar ibn Al-Khattāb and the patriarch of Jerusalem, representing another phase of Islam’s relation with the people of the book. It shows the similarity among all treaties made by Muslim caliphs with inhabitants of conquered countries, in particular that it specified the rights of the people of the book without discrimination. For example:

“In the name of God. This was what Amir al-Mu’minin Abdullah Umar granted to the residents of the city of Illia’a (Jerusalem) of security for their souls, wealth, churches and crosses and neither their churches will be inhabited by anybody else or demolished nor their crosses will be destroyed, nothing will be taken from their churches, besides that they will not be forced to embrace Islam or any other religion and they will be safe, also they should pay the taxes paid by other residents of the cities that were conquered by early Muslims and to get rid of Romans and thieves who were there, moreover whoever wants to leave with the Romans with his properties will be permitted as they are all secure, and who ever of the aforementioned wants to return to his family again he will also be permitted, and nothing will be paid by them with regards to the due taxes except after they harvest their crops…”

Unfortunately, many of the organizations working in the field of inter cultural dialogue did not successfully convey that message of co-existence to the broad public. This has mainly attracted the interest and concern of the elite. Therefore, I call for us to work collectively to widen the base of dialogue and transfer its message from the elite to the general public.

While the elite realize the importance of dialogue and speak about it regularly, the general public suffers greatly from sectarian conflicts that no one has been able to resolve. These conflicts create the perfect opportunity for demagogues to promote racial and religious discrimination in order to obtain political gains that have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam or Christianity. In fact, this runs contrary of the words of God in the Holy Qur’an:

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Sura 2 “The Heifer”: 62)

God does not discriminate between Muslim, Christian and Jewish worshippers. All are equal before Him. God also set forth rules that Muslims should follow in dealing with people of other religions and doctrines:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error…” (Sura 2 “The Heifer”: 256)

Islam was determined to treat the people of the book fairly and that was spelled-out clearly in the Holy Qur’an. “Say: “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.” If then they turn back, say ye: “Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to God’s Will).” (Sura 3 “The Family of Imran”: 64) Prophet Mohamed stressed the absolute equality of all peoples regardless of their race, creed or color, in the sacred Hadith:

“All people, right from Adam to this day, are equal like the teeth of a comb. There is no superiority for an Arab over an non-Arab, nor for a red skinned over a black-skinned. The basis of superiority is piety and fear of God.”

Therefore, I can say in good faith that there can be

– No monopoly on faith in God

– No monopoly on the words of God

– No monopoly on the interpretation of the words of God

– No monopoly on knowing the position of any group of people with relation to God

Dangers threatening dialogue between Islam and the West

When I speak of generalizing judgments, I mean by this a situation in which some followers of a religion or group commit a mistake and the reaction is to launch an attack against all the followers of that religion, perhaps even extending the attack to the religion itself. This generalization of judgment is a grave danger to relations among people. In the Qur’an God says:

“Nor can a bearer of burdens bear another’s burdens if one heavily laden should call another to (bear) his load. Not the least portion of it can be carried (by the other). Even though he be nearly related. Thou canst but admonish such as fear their Lord unseen and establish regular Prayer. And whoever purifies himself does so for the benefit of his own soul; and the destination (of all) is to God.” (Sura 35 “The Originator”: 18)

An example of generalizing judgments is if the Taliban or Bin Laden’s followers commit violence in the name of extremist beliefs as a way to attain their targets, it would be illogical and completely unfair to generalize that all Muslims are violent extremists.

The same applies, for example, if we believe that the Catholic pope made mistakes when he spoke about his interpretations of Islamic doctrine or Prophet Mohamed. This is not a reason to generalize judgment and denounce all Christians, for not only are there Eastern Catholics who do not follow the Roman Catholic pope, there are many Roman Catholics who expressed reservations about the pope’s comments.

If we go back in history, we find that the Catholic Saint Francis of Assisi, who established the Franciscan religious order, was a vocal opponent of the Crusades. And we will never forget the humanity of the late Pope John Paul II, who called upon representatives from the entire religious spectrum to come to Assisi for one common goal – to pray together for peace, love and co-existence.

When the Israeli army launches an attack on Lebanon or Palestine that is morally, intellectually and religiously wrong, we must not forget that there are Jews and Israelis who vehemently oppose such aggression and violence. Therefore we must never denounce all Jews.

Generalizing judgment is perhaps one of the gravest dangers to peaceful co-existence and communication among human beings. In the Qur’an God says in this respect:

“Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds.” (Sura 74 “Shrouded”: 38)

Another Qur’anic reference about Islam’s rejection of the generalization of judgments describes the idea of divine justice, the idea that everyone will be held accountable individually for his own deeds:

“On no soul doth God Place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns.” (Sura 2 “the Heifer”: 286)

In other words; God has granted to each of us according to our personal capacity and endurance, and everyone is rewarded for his own virtuous acts, and punished for the vices he alone commits.

Globalization from an Islamic perspective and the importance of international media

Among the public misconceptions about globalization is the belief that it aims at to obliterate traditions, habits and even religions. However, the sort of globalization that Islam invites would bring cultural, economic, scientific and social opportunities for all people – opportunities for everyone to share the best of their ideologies, cultures and civilizations for the good of the entire world.

Personally, I prefer the expression “internationalization” to “globalization”, as the word globalization has became a magnet for conflict, with some using the platform of international conflicts to define globalization as the dominance of the strong over the weak.

When we speak about “internationalization” with reference to religious beliefs, it is clear that the precious values of all three Abrahmic religions are addressed equally to the entire world. There is no doubt that when Islam deals openly with the other and is keen to achieve peace as expressed through confronting repression, establishing justice, and spreading awareness and enlightenment to the entire human race, Islam is particularly suited to play a vital role as regards “internationalization”.

Still we should add that all the thoughts, principles and examples we speak about here are threatened and distorted by the regional and international media, for sometimes the international media prefers sensationalism to attract the biggest number of readers or viewers at any cost, thus generalizes judgments upon an entire group or religion when any number of followers of that group or religion commit a mistake, with complete disregard of the dangerous consequences.

In previous conferences, I have regularly emphasized the importance of holding a round table discussion among some wise media professionals from the west with some counterparts from the Islamic world, so as to discuss the urgent topic of finding a compromise between the freedom of expression, and a sense of responsibility which protects and respects other’s rights, especially when the later becomes a victim of the kind of expression that ignites sensitivities for financial gain.

I prefer a round table of professionals to a general conference because conferences have a tendency to be full of rhetoric in defense of the opinions of the attendees, whereas a well-organized round table discussion among professionals could result in potential solutions to this increasingly debated issue for which Islam has paid a high price.

In conclusion, I pray to God that I’m not mistaken when I say that there are no religious conflicts, rather there are conflicts among political forces that take religions hostage and use them as a tool to control and destroy others.

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