Khadija Hawaja, an Islamic scholar and countering violent extremism expert, was until recently political and gender advisor at the Geneva-headquartered Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) and a member of several other global NGOs working around countering violent extremism including Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) and Women Without Borders.
Here, she speaks exclusively to African Newspage about the tolerant and accommodating nature of Islam, arguing that the abduction of women by terror groups in the name of Islam is ‘ridiculous and an opposite of Islam.’
There are so many narratives which portray Islam as being unable to peacefully coexist with other religions. What is your take on these narratives?
Well, based on my understanding of Islam and especially the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH), there is a sharp contrast between what we learnt about his life and what we today hear some people are saying in the name of Islam. Let’s begin with the Quran, where Allah has categorically given people the choice to believe or disbelieve and that is why there is Day of Judgment – for Allah to reward those who believe and punish those who disbelieve.
Essentially, the Quran has in various verses talk about the freedom human beings have to believe in Allah or in order deities; He says: ‘There is no compulsion in faith” and the practical example of that can be seen in the life of the prophet, his life was what persuaded many people to accept in Islam. Even in Medina [his capital] not everyone was Muslim; he peacefully coexisted with Christians, Jews and polytheists.
The prophet was guided by the fact that Allah enjoined him to be kind not only to humans but even animals; his kindness, tolerance and understanding go beyond humans. For example, there is this story of the prophet being on a journey with his sahaba [companions] and they saw a mother hen with her lovely chicks and the sahaba, who liked the chicks, decided to take away the chicks which made the mother hen restless.
The prophet was so angry with them in a manner they had never seen him being angry before, so he asked them: ‘How can you separate a mother from her children?’ and they had to quickly return the chicks to the hen, you can see love, kindness and compassion which go beyond humanity.
The challenge is that certain people often confuse their cultural traditions with Islam, so even when such people accept Islam they find it difficult to divorce their traditions from the faith which leads to so much rigidity in the way they do things. The Quran is dynamic because Allah says it is the seal of all revelations and the prophet (Muhammad) is the last of all prophets and messengers, it means for the Quran to justify that it has to fit in all circumstances.
Meaning there must be an answer to every little and big question in the Quran unfortunately; people who are ignorant of the Quran follow their whims and caprices and claim it is what the Quran says. The Quran has a golden principle which says: ‘Ask those who know in what you don’t know.’
What specific practical examples can you give of how the Prophet of Islam, Muslim’s biggest role model, exemplified Islam’s tolerance and openness?
There are many such examples. For instance, there was a staunch enemy of the prophet who arrogantly walked into Medina, bearing arms with the sole of purpose of murdering the prophet. He was spotted by Umar [one of the rightly guided caliphs] who realized he was a stranger and asked him where he was heading to and the stranger responded: ‘I am here to kill Muhammad.’ He was seized and tied up by Umar who rushed to inform the prophet about the man.
The prophet asked to be taken to the man, together with all the sahaba, and when they got to the man, to the sahaba’s chagrin, the prophet asked if the stranger was given food. The sahaba wondered why the prophet was asking if the man who came to kill him had been fed. The prophet’s response was: ‘He travelled all the way to Medina; he must be tired and hungry.’ He thus ordered Abu Huraira [his companion] to go and fetch some yogurt for the man.
When Abu Huraira came back with the yoghurt the prophet asked Umar to untie the stranger and personally handed the yogurt over to him. The man took it and drank to satisfaction. Then the prophet asked him: ‘Will you testify that there is only one God?’ He said: ‘No!’ The prophet asked him again: ‘Will you accept and acknowledge that I am the messenger of Allah?’ and the man said no again.
The prophet asked Umar to give him back his arms and asked the man to go freely. All the sahaba were angry. The man turned his back and was already leaving but decided to come back and then stood before the prophet to accept Islam. The prophet said to him: ‘I am surprised, you came here, I offered you Islam twice you refused and now that I have allowed you to go, you are back to tell me you have accepted Islam.’
He said yes messenger of Allah, I feared that if I had accepted Islam when you offered it to me people would have said I accepted Islam for fear of your sword but I waited until you showed your mercy and compassion; now the world will know that I accepted it based on my volition. I want to tell you that before I came to Medina there was no human being on earth I hated like you but now I swear by Allah that there is no human being I love on earth as I love you.’
If the prophet had wanted he would have had the man killed and nothing would have happened, but he didn’t. This is tolerance.
Secondly, when the prophet conquered Mecca with a 10,000 man army, the first person he met on entering Mecca was the person who killed his daughter; the prophet asked the man: ‘What do you think I will do to you?’ The man said: ‘I know you are a great man and you will forgive me’ and the prophet forgave the man. What level of tolerance is beyond forgiving someone who killed your daughter when you have just conquered his city?
History has also reported that there was a time a group of Christians came to visit the prophet in respect of a certain issue of concern to both Muslims and Christians. The Christian delegation was meeting with the prophet at his mosque in Medina and it happened they wanted to excuse themselves to go out of the mosque because they needed to say their prayers. Guess what happened, the prophet asked them to stay and pray within his mosque. Which mosque on earth is greater than the prophet’s mosque in Medina? This is tolerance.
Again, there was a time a non-Muslim man was found urinating in the prophet’s mosque at Medina and the sahaba where screaming at him but the prophet asked them to stop screaming at him. When the man was done urinating, the prophet asked the sahaba to pour water over it and told the man: ‘You shouldn’t urinate here again. It is not done here.’ The man who was unhappy with the way the sahaba treated him said to the prophet: ‘I will always ask God to bless you and no any other person except you.’ That is the prophet for you.
Terrorists groups like Daesh and Boko Haram attack worship places and also kill and abduct women. What does Islam’s rule of engagement in war says about worship places and women?
First of all, the prophet admonished Muslims never to kill women, and never to kill children and non-combatants. He said places of worship including churches, temples and synagogues should not be attacked including the people taking refuge in these places, as long as they are not bearing arms. All the wars fought by the prophet were guided by [these] rules of engagement.
Even the Quran says, during war if your enemies surrender to you and they say they have accepted to live peacefully with you, accept it even if you think they are not being honest. There are so many things we see today that are mystery to us because we know they are not Islam. What guidance does anyone require beyond that provided by the prophet, if they are truly Muslim? Honestly, the killing and abduction of women in the name of Islam is a serious slight on the personality of the prophet of Islam.
I don’t think any other revealed book has done to women what the Quran has done to them. It gives women the right to life, right to self-dignity, right to choose who to marry and right to divorce, right to buy and right to sell, right to own a property and give it out. The abduction of women by this terror groups under the guise of Islam is ridiculous and definitely an opposite of Islam: that is not Islam. I dare say it is not Islam!
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