A former trainee terrorist explains why Muslims need a peaceful interpretation of their Qu'ran.
Dr Tawfik Hamid is an Egyptian medical doctor and Islamic scholar residing in the US. As a medical student he embraced the teaching of radical Islam and joined Jamaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group headed by Ayman Al-Zawaherri who went on to become second in command of al-Qaeda. Now he is campaigning for a reformation of Islam based upon peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic texts. MercatorNet sought his views about violence and Sharia law.
MercatorNet: The interim government of Libya has announced that "Any law that violates Sharia is null and void legally". Is it possible for a country which embraces Sharia law also to support human rights?
Tawfik Hamid: No. The reason is that Sharia law as taught in mainstream Islamic books and by the leading Islamic institutions still teaches anachronistic medieval practices such as beating women, killing male homosexuals, stoning adulterers, and killing Muslims if they convert to other faiths or reject a basic tenet of traditional Islam.
Sharia law has not adapted to the modern world. This explains the absolute silence of most, if not all, Islamic scholars when it comes to denouncing violent teachings. You can see the end of human rights in any place that practices Sharia law such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, or Somalia.
Some countries like Egypt have a secular law built on Sharia principles. This could respect human rights but it is still not the Sharia law itself. At this stage of human history any system that applies Sharia Law itself cannot respect human rights.
MercatorNet: Some people in Britain and the US support a limited acceptance of Sharia law in their own countries. Is this a good idea?
Tawfik Hamid: In theory this sounds great. In practice there are serious problems. Those who claim that Sharia law will be used only to settle family matters are naïve. Polygamy, wife-beating, inequality between men and women in inheritance, and marrying girls as young as nine are all acceptable under Sharia law.
If we allowed Sharia family law, we would countenance discrimination against Muslim women even though secular laws forbid discrimination. You cannot have two contradictory legal systems working in the same country. The complexities involved are mind-boggling. If a Muslim man beats his wife, should police stand by and watch, or arrest him? After all, he is doing nothing wrong under Sharia law.
If a Muslim man were to insist on applying Sharia law so that he gets double the inheritance of his sister, while the sister insists on following a secular law that promotes gender equality, which law will be enforced?
MercatorNet: You are basically living in exile in the United States because of your interpretation of Islam. What caused you to shake off the extremist views of Salafi Islam?
Tawfik Hamid: I was an eager follower of Salafi Islam when I was a medical student in Egypt. But I started to question the radical views 1980 when one of the leaders of Jamaah Islamiyah of Egypt called Ahmed Omar (he was a fellow medical student) asked me to join a group of members of JI to kidnap a police officer and bury him alive. I just could not tolerate this. It was the beginning of the awakening of my human conscience. This gradually led me to withdraw from the radical group until I reformed.
MercatorNet: You have argued that violence against women is an integral part of the conventional interpretation of Islam and a preparation for terrorism. Could you explain this?
Desensitising a human being to the use of violence creates a mindset that accepts using violence against others. For example, if you taught a child to torture cats then you cannot be surprised if he grows up to become violent towards humans. When you teach a Muslim man that it is OK to beat women according to the Qu’ran (Surah 4:34) and use violence against them, you help desensitizing this man to the use of violence towards others, and even to terrorism.
MercatorNet: You contend that almost all approved interpretations of Islamic core text and Islamic jurisprudence books promote violence to spread Islam, the murder of apostates, violence against women, polygamy, and stoning for adultery. But most Muslims would not do these things or even approve of them. Why is there a gap between theory and practice?
Tawfik Hamid: The gap between theory and practice has several explanations.
First of all, many Muslims are only cultural Muslims or ritual Muslims who do not really strongly promote the practice of these values and are satisfied by the cultural and ritual part of the religion. These people usually rely on the peaceful verses of the religion and typically say that the passages which exhort readers to violence have not been interpreted correctly.
Second, many Muslims have been raised in civilized societies and thus their consciences and sense of humanity cannot tolerate violence. However, they are deeply attached to Islam and unable to criticize it or reject its teachings. Because this group does not have a theologically based refutation of these violent principles they live in a process of psychological denial of the violent teachings.
Finally, there are Muslims who strongly believe in these violent principles but do not put them into effect either because they are unable to do so or because they are afraid of the negative consequences.
MercatorNet: You have called upon Islamic scholars to produce an authoritative interpretation of the Qu’ran which rejects violence. Is this possible? The Qu’ran contains many verses which seem to support violence.
Tawfik Hamid: Yes, It is possible to interpret the Qu’ran peacefully. At my website, Islam for Peace, I analyse many of the disputed texts. The most relevant of these is whether the Qu’ran instructs Muslims to kill all infidels. There are several Sura [verses] which are interpreted in this way: The infidels are your sworn enemies (Sura 4:101}; Prophet, make war on the infidels (Sura 66: 9); Never be a helper to the disbelievers (Sura 28:86).
Accepted literally and uncritically these verses support extremism. However, a pivotal matter of linguistic importance is often overlooked: the significance and usage of the definite article, "al" (ie, "the"), which precedes the various disparaging Arabic words (kafirun, mushrikun) that describe non-believers in the Qu’ran and which are often translated as "non-believers," "infidels," "idolaters," or "polytheists."
The use of "al" limits the verse (and thus the commandment) to a specific time and place in history and to a specific group of people who were obstacles to the establishment of Islam in its nascent phase.
Had the intention of the Qu’ran been to universalise the application of these verses, it would have used the expression "man kafar," rather than "al-kafereen". "Man kafar," literally means any one who does not believe in God, while "al-kafereen", the infidels, denotes a specific group of people: those who fought the Prophet Mohamed in the early stages of Islam.
MercatorNet: Who speaks for Islam? This seems to be the question at the heart of your concerns. Which school truly represents the Prophet’s teachings? The Sunni, the Shi’ite, the Sufi?
Tawfik Hamid: It is hard to answer this question as the Prophet is presented in completely different manners by these groups. For example, the Sunni teach that Mohamed married a nine-year-old girl when he was more than 50 years. The Shi’ite teach that she was 18, which seems to be the true version. The Sufi do not focus on these historical stories. Instead they focus on stories about the Prophet that shows his love and mercy for others.
I would like to be pragmatic in this situation as I cannot tell for sure what happened in human history. So, I would say that the understanding of the Sufi school of thought about the Prophet is the most peaceful one and the one which should be followed.
Tawfik Hamid is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is the author of Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam.