Tensions Among the Shifting Sands of Islam

Conflicting Tendencies Battle for Influence

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LAGOS, Nigeria, MAY 4, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The Sept. 11 attacks riveted Western attention on the Islamic world as never before. What Westerners quickly learned is that Islam is a complex phenomenon, with no centralized authority and with roots in a wide span of cultures and nations.



What is clear, however, is that there are tensions within Islam between those who reject the outside world and those who seek some type of conciliation with other cultures and beliefs. A case in point is Nigeria.

Last month, Nigerian Muslim prosecutors in the state of Zamfara asked for the death penalty to be applied against two men accused of converting from Islam to Christianity, the British agency Ananova reported April 24. Lawali Yakubu and Ali Jafaru were accused of joining the Great Commission Movement, an international evangelical church with a strong following in Nigeria.

A few days later the Lagos-based Daily Champion newspaper reported that the two men escaped the death sentence, thanks to the presiding Islamic court judge.

The judge, Alhaji Awal Jabaka, explained that while the Koran and several other Islamic books stipulate death for any Muslim who converted to another religion, the local Shariah code had no provision on such a punishment, according to media reports.

Disputes over Islamic law in Nigeria extend to the national level, noted the April bulletin of Compass Direct. Justice Minister Kanu Agabi declared as illegal and unconstitutional the Islamic legal system now in operation in 12 northern states. Agabi made the declaration in a March 18 letter addressed to the state governors who implemented Shariah.

He said that while the federal government appreciates the motives of Muslim governors in implementing the Islamic legal code, they should not allow their "zeal for justice and transparency to undermine the fundamental law of the nation, which is the constitution." Agabi added: "A court which imposes discriminatory punishments is deliberately flouting the constitution."

His declarations met criticism from the secretary-general of Nigeria´s Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. Lateef Adegbite said that by declaring Islamic law unconstitutional, the government was becoming coercive and dictatorial.

Divisions over suicide bombers

Another divisive issue centers on the suicide bombers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the new mufti of Egypt, supports the bombers, the Financial Times reported April 5. His predecessor, Farid Nasser Wassel, also praised Palestinian suicide bombers -- no matter what their target -- calling them "martyrs."

Tayeb, who was appointed to his post directly by the Mubarak government, is the second highest religious authority in Egypt. His authority is exceeded only by that of Muhammed Sayyid Tantawi, a moderate who is the Sheik of Al-Azhar, head of the mosque-university.

Previously, Tantawi, also a political appointee, had ruled that all attacks on civilians were forbidden. He received support from the most senior cleric in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh, who ruled that most of the kamikaze attacks carried out by Palestinians and others are suicidal in nature.

Islam of whatever stripe is explicit in forbidding suicide. Only God can give and take away life. As such, the attacks are forbidden, according to Al ash-Sheikh.

But an April 15 report in the Israeli newspaper Ha´aretz indicated that Tantawi supported suicide bombers in some circumstances. "I´m still saying that no Muslim should intend to blow himself in the midst of children or women, but among aggressors, among soldiers who sabotage, kill and attack," Tantawi told reporters.

Meanwhile, the Saudi ambassador to Britain praised Palestinian suicide bombers and criticized the United States, in a poem published in a London-based newspaper, according to the Washington Times on April 16. "You died to honor God´s word," Ghazi Algosaibi wrote in "The Martyrs," a short poem on the front page of the Saudi-owned Arabic daily Al Hayat.

That same day, Reuters reported that Iraqi Muslim religious leaders decreed that suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israelis were a virtuous act of jihad, or holy war. "Muslim clerics in Iraq bless these suicidal acts and call upon all Muslim clerics to support and back the fighters with their fatwas," said the decree.

On May 1, Reuters reported that Iran´s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised suicide bombers who have claimed dozens of Israeli lives. "Palestinians are standing up to the pressures on them and the height of their resistance is manifested in their martyrdom-seeking operations which make the enemy tremble," Khamenei said. "Sacrificing oneself for religion and national interest is the peak of honor and bravery."

Cultural divides

A graphic example of the divisions between the Islamic world and other cultures was recounted April 9 by the Wall Street Journal. Saudi Arabia employs 5.4 million foreigners, a quarter of its total population, to keep its economy running. At the same time, citing its status as the home of Islam´s two holiest shrines, the kingdom outlaws public worship of any other religion.

This exclusion of other religions goes to the point of requiring nearly all non-Muslims, once deceased, to be sent abroad for interment. The Saudis fear that burying them in the kingdom would encourage alien faiths. More than one-quarter of Saudi Arabia´s foreign work force is non-Muslim, the Journal reported. The workers range from Indian Hindus and Thai Buddhists, to Philippine Christians.

But Islam is more than Saudi Arabia. Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, in an essay of his published April 10 in the Australian paper The Age, stated: "Most Muslims are strongly opposed to acts of violence, in any form, undertaken in the name of religion. Consequently, it hurts us to constantly see the name of Islam, ´the religion of peace,´ linked with international terrorism."

The ex-leader of the most populous Islamic nation admitted, however, that "within the Muslim world we do have groups that justify violence on the grounds that they are defending Islam against the tyranny of the uncivilized West."

Wahid called for reforms to Islamic law, such as an end to the death penalty for Muslims who convert to other faiths. He also recommended that the next generation not adopt a simplistic or formulistic method of thinking about their faith; he pointed out that adapting documents from the seventh- and eighth-century desert kingdoms to modern circumstances is a "subtly nuanced task of interpretation."

So any judgment about Islam has to take into account its shifting sands of doctrine and interpretation. Political factors have to figured in, when gauging Muslim hostility toward the West, particularly the United States. All of which demands an informed, ongoing dialogue between Islamic and Western cultures.