Language, Perception, and Reality
During the time of the Umayyad conquests or during the Crusades, it would be difficult to imagine Muslim media campaigns and slogans of “Islam is a religion of peace”. In the context of the modern global, socio-political era, there has been a growing trend within the mainstream Muslim community to portray Islam as “the religion of peace”. With the explosion of Muslim NGOs and non-profit organizations aimed at bridging the gap between America and its Muslim inhabitants, this language is becoming increasingly commonplace. Interestingly enough, right-wing zealots also find themselves using the same language, although for an entirely different purpose. Misrepresenting traditionalist Muslim scholars, out-of-context Qur’anic verses, and traditions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny), Christian extremists and neocolonialists, among others, take advantage of the “language of peace” by attempting to cast doubt and suspicion upon those Muslims trying to create peaceful discourse.
The difficulty that confronts the modern Muslim is the definition of Islam. As a human being whose perception of reality is bound by an almost infinite number of factors and variables, and as a Muslim whose perception of the world is bound by Islam, the question becomes: how does one’s articulation of the reality begin to affect the reality? Even more important, how does the internalized, articulated perception affect the future of the Muslim community? These are in fact only two among many other questions that need to be addressed by each and every Muslim. For example, we may also ask, “Who is to benefit from the various perceptions of Islam that are being promoted today, at the financial, military, and political levels?”
In essence, we are not concerned with the lexicological aspects of the word Islam; rather what is of significance is the perception of the reality of Islam, brought on by the portrayal and articulation of what is known to be “Islam” juxtaposed with what is deemed to be a tolerable level of civility and modernity. Interestingly enough, even from a grammatical perspective, the differences and their effects have been tremendous throughout history, and even today. Some would say Islam means “peace”, while others would lean towards “submission” as a more accurate translation, both offering varying world-views and tendencies. Others would say Islam means “peace through submission”, and some may take this to have esoteric depth, while others would take an exoteric approach to justify the dichotomy of Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) versus the Dar al-Harb (House of War) view.
Nevertheless, what desperately needs to be understood at this juncture in Islamic and world history is the effects on the minds of Muslims of articulating Islam to be a certain way. Today we find that on the tip of every “modern and civilized” Muslim lies, “Islam is a religion of peace.” This undoubtedly has been brought on by the blatant media and political attacks on Muslims, especially those Muslim scholars and community leaders who face fears of deportation. We can say this because rest assured, during the time of the Umayyad conquests or during the Crusades, it would be difficult to imagine Muslim media campaigns and slogans of “Islam is a religion of peace”.
The issue with articulating Islam as “the religion of peace” is not that there is a contradiction found within the statement or anything of the sort. It is that Islam is being articulated as such not in a vacuum or in a purely academic tradition, but rather as a reaction to those who would claim otherwise. As such, the statement as a whole, as well as its individual terms, including religion, peace, and even Islam, take on a variety of pre-conceived notions. When we continuously claim that Islam is a religion of peace, we have to first understand is meant by the term “peace”. In the context of a mainstream world which idolizes nonviolent movements and figures such as the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, while at the same time demonizing others, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, we must first arrive at a common understanding of the word “peace”. Are we talking about a universal peace, or peace that favors certain groups of people while harming others?
What we are finding within the Muslim communities, especially the younger generations, are mental roadblocks which prove to hinder a complete and untainted understanding of Islam. Of course, no human being without Divine purification is completely void of presuppositions and conceived ideas formulated through life experience and inner dispositions. However, we would be doing a great disservice to the growth of the Muslim community if we continue to prematurely bring on these mental roadblocks by insisting on articulating the reality of Islam through a very narrow and reactionary scope.
I cannot claim to have the solution to this issue. However, let us quickly analyze a portion of a very simple, yet profound verse from the Holy Qur’an to help us understand this issue.
“The religion before Allah is Islam.” (3:19)
In this verse, Allah says, “The religion before Allah is Islam”, or simply, “The religion acceptable to Allah is Islam.”
We must realize that as Allah is not defined in any reactionary fashion, or through limited scope based on circumstance and personal opinion, neither can His religion be defined as such. Allah is the Ultimate Reality, the Absolute Truth; His religion chosen for humanity must be carefully understood as a pure phenomenon.
Before concluding, we must now address two issues:
1. In reference to the ideas brought forward about Islam being the religion to Allah, we do not mean to say that as Allah is a pervasive, ever-living omniscient reality, His religion of Islam is as universal in a pluralistic sense. This is absolutely not the case. Although Allah’s reality is everywhere (not in terms of physical space, but in all realities outside of the creations of time, matter, space, and all others), His existence is Absolutely Unified. He is not one in a numerical sense, as opposed to two; rather He stands alone and is Absolutely Unique.
As such, Islam is not a religion of plurality in the sense of multiplicity; rather, it is unique and pure. It is, as the Qur’an mentions, “the Straight Religion” and “the Straight Path”. Allah asks rhetorically in the Holy Qur’an, “Do you wish to teach God of His religion?”
2. Our second caveat is to clarify that Islam is not a religion that is to be defined in a vacuum. It is a not a way of life that can simply be understood void of the realities of life. On the contrary, as Islam is the school of thought and religion that is in fact most comprehensive, its very essence deals with all of the realities of life.
So we do not mean to say that Islam cannot be defined and articulated a certain way, and that it should be understood simply through textbook analysis. Rather, what is to be understood is the danger of internalizing a perceived way of life that has been articulated a particular way, such that it hinders religious responsibility, mental and spiritual growth, and socio-political fortitude.
I will leave the reader with a beautiful quote from Imam Khomeini, “I hope that Muslims, especially their heads (leaders), will forgo voicing Islamic slogans designed to camouflage non-compliance with Islamic decrees and will think of Islam as it is and act accordingly.”