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“The Muslim Next Door” by Sumbul Ali-Karamali – Book Review (Understanding Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Islam)
This book should be a must read in today’s environment where consistently Islam is pitted against the rest and it should be a must read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Out of the many books that I constantly read, if I were to pick one book from which I have learned a very great deal and where my perspective has been shifted and enhanced, and become broader, than it is from this book.
Qur’an, like any other book of religious preaching, must be understood and interpreted in the historical context in which it was written. Yet, I was surprised and taken aback by how much misunderstood and wrongly vilified are the teachings of Islam today. There is a lot of information shared in the book. I will first mention some factual information about Islamic practices, then discuss the necessity of understanding and interpreting Qu’ran and the Prophet in historical context, and then discuss the many inaccuracies so widely promulgated, in so many ways, that not only does grave disservice to the teachings of Islam (that I now feel blessed to have a broadened perspective on) but is divisive and therefore does grave harm to humanity as a whole.
First, about understanding of simple Islamic practices, the book is a treasure trove of information. For instance, Ali-Karamali explains that frequent prayer in Islam is to serve as frequent reminder of God; the month of Ramadan is celebration of when God first revealed Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad; the special night of the month, the Night of Power (Lilat al-Qadr), usually falling on the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan commemorates the evening the Prophet received the first revelation from God; and prayers on that night are supposed to reach God with more strength and clarity. Eid ul-Fitr falls on the first day of the month of Shawwal and moon must be sighted the night before to determine whether the following day is Eid (hence the popular phrase Eid ka chaand). She explains about religious dictates on dietary restrictions, restrictions on gambling, on giving or taking interest, on loans etc.
Historically, Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad around the year 600 AD. Islam considers Noah, Moses, and Jesus as prophets and reveres them and sees Islam as an extension of Judeo Christian traditions and some of the teachings. Muslims are entreated to treat Jews and Christians with respect in Qu’ran, as indicated in the verse “And do not argue with the Followers of Earlier Revelation, otherwise than in a most kindly manner….”. Further, Qur’an is written in Arabic language, which is extremely context dependent, poetical, metaphoric language – but it is not easy to accurately understand and interpret. God is omniscient, omnipresent, and too grand an entity for humans to comprehend and should not be depicted or represented in any way except through “One God’s” words and teachings brought by Prophet Muhammad, who is only a messenger, not to be prayed to, as a God . Qur’an preaches monotheism (more about that below). Sharia constitutes the set of guidelines of the Islamic Law, derived from the Qu’ran but it is interpreted differently and not everyone agrees on what they are. Two largest groups of Muslims are Sunni and Shi’a, separated from an argument regarding who was entitled to wield the religious authority, after the Prophet’s death. Those who chose Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, later became known as Shi’as. The group that chose the Prophet’s friend Abu Bakr as their leader, became known as Sunnis, and they constitute about 90% of Muslims in the world.
One side note regarding monotheism. While Ali-Karamali rectifies misconceptions about Islam and points out the peacefulness inherent in the Qur’an and point out its many similarities with Judaism and Christianity with the focus on monotheism “One God”, it needs to be pointed out that there are others who adhere to polytheistic faith. At one point, she informs, Prophet Muhammad’s new religion threatened the Meccan polytheistic religion that was symbolized by the Ka’ba which had become populated with idols. The Qur’an had “named the Ka’ba as the direction that Muslims should face while praying and had also designated it as the Muslim place of pilgrimage. It was a powerful symbol, and part of Muhammad’s duty was to restore the Ka’ba to its rightful role”. It made me question, “Rightful” as determined by whom? The belief in monotheism may not be only morally justifiable or “rightful” one and there are close to one billion people in the world today who practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. and believe in Polytheism. While it is a whole different subject, polytheistic belief is linked to the notion that the divine resides everywhere and is manifested in various forms and various places and hence many diverse idols can serve as reminders and evoke the sense of righteousness, the same function that frequent prayers serve in Islam.
Leaving aside that side note, the biggest contribution of the book is in lucidly explaining the verses and information from Qur’an and information about Prophet Muhammad. It sheds light on how enormously forward-thinking, generous, and kind-hearted a person the Prophet was and how Qur’an has been misquoted or taken out of context. Islam and the holy book Qur’an has been frequently criticized and portrayed in the media to be violent. However, there are 47 fighting verses, and out of a total of 6000 verses covering various other subjects, there are 114 verses urging peace. For instance, a fighting verse says “do not take Jews and Christians for your allies”, but then it frequently urges peace with verses like “I do not worship that which you worship and neither do you worship that which I worship… Unto you, your religion, and unto me, my religion” and “If anyone slays a human being, it shall be as though he had slain all mankind,; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as through he had saved the lives of all mankind”. Given the historical context of the time, fighting was sometimes the only way to prevent cruelty, a verse in Qur’an says “How could you refuse to fight in the cause of God and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying, “O our Sustainer!” Lead us to freedom out of this land whose people are oppressors”. And yet it urges peace again and again and again. Another verse says “And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away” but the immediate verse after that says, “but do not attack them if they do not attack you first. Allah loves not the aggressor”. Qur’an insists on peace whenever possible, as in the verse, “Fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for verily, God does not love aggressors” and although a verse says “Slay the infidels wherever you find them”, it also says “but if they desist, all hostility shall cease” and “Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them”. Given the historical context, I am surprised that there is even one verse urging peace. At the time in history, any leader trying to protect the followers, also urged them to fight for righteousness, as in Hinduism, Lord Krishna, like the Prophet Muhammad, preached the importance of doing this duty. But how awesome that during extremely violent times, there were also peaceful Masihas! How wrong it would be to distort their preachings and quote them out of context.
Prophet Muhammad lived in a violent society, and served as a political leader of over 10,000 people. As a leader, he sought to bring stability and peace to the people. In an environment of lawlessness, bloodshed, and tribal warfare, he sought to bring about the rule of law and specified in detail the pious and peaceful behaviors, revealed to him by God. One needs to appreciate how hugely difficult this task would be in a climate where men often beat their wives, often proclaimed them to be not their wives and yet not free to marry again, where women were beaten, and female infanticide was common. Prophet Muhammad himself is strongly criticized for having numerous wives, although polygamy was a common practice in many parts of the world and often rulers married for political alliances, including Hindu kings who frequently took many wives; and all royal alliances in England and Europe were for political reasons. The prophet himself was married to his first wife Khadija, whom he married at the age of 24 and remained married for almost 25 years. This was a time when men often died in wars and were scarce and many women and children were left orphans, without any means to provide for themselves and to take a wife was to provide for her. Almost in his fifties, when the Prophet was emerging as a religious and political leader, and after his first wife Khadija passed away, he then took 9 other wives, 8 of whom were widows and some of those marriages were in order to form political alliances. The Qur’an officially allows a man to take up to four wives and urges a man to treat them with equal fairness and it further says “and it will not be within your power to treat your wives with equal fairness, however much you may desire it”, which could be interpreted to mean that men better not take more wives than one.
This was a time when women would understandably not prefer to be divorced. And yet forward-thinking Qur’an makes allowances whereby not only men can obtain divorce, but also women. Men retained the previously existing unilateral right to divorce but were required to follow certain procedures including saying talaq (I divorce thee) three times at separate intervals, allowing for changing the mind. Wife could keep her dowry if her husband divorced her and she received automatic custody of small children and received the right to maintenance payments. A wife can also divorce her husband if any of the two predetermined conditions entered during the signing of the marriage contract were violated or by applying for a judicial divorce. It is amazing how forward thinking this was – when hardly any women would actually want a divorce, except under absolutely unbearable conditions. Keeping in mind the historical context, when men were allowed to beat their wives according to Christianity, and where women did not get any property under the English law, for instance, the Bennett sisters tended to loose their dad’s estate in England, in Jane Eyre’s Price and Prejudice, the Qu’ran gave women a right to inherit property, to keep property upon marriage, right to not be forced into marriage, and right to testify in court. It is often cited in the media that under the Islamic law, one man’s testimony was equal to two women’s. However, understanding this in the historical context when women needed the support of other women in the court, this was the most perfect arrangement. It is indeed sad that some countries continue to practice some of the laws that made such perfect sense at the time and may not be useful now.
Severe punishment by stoning for adultery and by amputation for theft is cited as further examples of violence preached and practiced by Islam. It was therefore, very illuminating to learn that the punishment is so highly circumscribed with restrictions and conditions, that it would be practically impossible to fulfill, and therefore only meant to highlight the moral severity of the crime. For instance, amputation is to be applied for theft only “in a world where hunger and want no longer existed” and moreover if the person committing any crime ever repents then he or she is to be pardoned, with the emphasis that forgiveness and waiver of the punishment is always the best course. In Old Testament, death penalty was the recommended punishment for stubborn and rebellious children, which was never meant to be carried out, and in England, as late as nineteenth century, some 200 crimes were punishable by death. Adultery is also incredibly difficult to prove under Islamic law and if even by some freak coincidence it is proven, the mitigating factors severely limit the application of its punishment. The prosecution must produce four reliable eyewitnesses who have seen the act of sexual intercourse itself. Further, falsely accusing someone of illicit sexual relations is itself a serious crime, and if one witness retracts his accusation, all four witnesses are liable for the penalty for false accusation. Again it is so carefully worded as to prevent the penalty from taking place. Only Yemen and Saudi Arabia try to apply classical Islamic law and some countries like Libya, Pakistan and Sudan have inserted Islamic provisions into their codes. But Qur’an after all was written at a different time in history and forward thinking as it was, the Islamic Law derived from it, cannot be meant to be applied literally today.
Islam is consistently portrayed as being violent and equated with Taliban etc. despite the fact that there are over 1.5 billion peaceful practitioners of Islam. While most countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and groups like Hizbullah condemned 9/11 attacks, the media rarely focused on that kind of coverage. Media often omits peaceful progress in the Islamic countries and also often omits Muslim identities when the victims of violence are Muslim. On the other hand, Islam and Muslim are frequently associated with terror and hate, as in references to “Islamic terrorists”, “Muslim fundamentalists” and so on. As the world becomes more divided on this issue, Muslims are frequently targets of aggression. For instance, villages after villages of Bosnian Muslims were massacred in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia; ethnic cleansing is ongoing by Russia in Chechnya; also in 2002, in the Indian state of Gujrat, over 2000 Muslims were murdered in ethnic cleansing campaign, where the government willfully neglected to intervene; and then there was the horrific massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. Also frequently repeated are statements that encourage the lazy mentality as in “Muslims will always fight”, Muslims and Jews have been ancient enemies, Hindus and Muslims have old hatred” etc. But in fact, contrary is also true. Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully together for long period of time in India; Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in a multicultural, multireligious society for 800 years in Europe, before the Spanish inquisition in Spain; Albania with 70% Muslim population refused to give up their Jewish citizens to the Germans; and many Jews and Palestinians are working toward peace today.
Ali-Karamali asserts what should be obvious, that the Muslim mind is not a single, solid, tangible object filled with hate and bigotry but that Muslims constitute a thriving, growing, dynamic, multi-faceted population that has historically made many contributions to the advancement of knowledge in science, mathematics, art, and poetry. Majority of Muslims today believe strictly in the spirit of Islam, of peace, tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion.