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ISIL violence against Christians dishonors Islam’s earliest history

Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
Women pay their respects to Father Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Yesterday (July 26) in the northwest of France, two Muslim terrorists attacked a Catholic church, taking nuns hostage and killing an elderly priest, before they themselves were shot dead by police. It certainly fits the pattern of ISIL violence: vile, shocking, made for media, and—something we talk about less—standing in stark opposition to the very religious tradition they claim to represent.

Violence against Christians isn’t just un-Islamic: It dishonors the earliest history of Islam.

The Prophet and the King

When he first started preaching Islam in the year 610, Muhammad attracted very few followers. One was his close friend, Abu Bakr, another was his young cousin, Ali, and the first Muslim was his wife, Khadija. By and large, the new faith attracted lowborn and the marginal people who belonged to minor tribes or, worse, had no tribal affiliation. When the predictable backlash began, these newly minted Muslims were especially vulnerable. Most had no patrons to protect them.

Desperate to find his followers a safe haven, Muhammad dispatched the most vulnerable Muslims across the Red Sea to what is now Ethiopia, where he promised they would find refuge under a just and Christian king. He believed that because Islam and Christianity emerged out of the same Prophetic tradition, the king would show mercy. And he was correct.

History has shown that Islam and Christianity can exist in harmony.

The king’s act of accepting the Muslim refugees provoked a minor diplomatic incident among wary Meccan elites. The upper class feared that Islam and Christianity had much in common. Now Islam had a head of state as a potential patron, making it potentially even more influential. But despite the best attempts of the Meccan establishment, the Ethiopian king refused to hand over the refugees.

The resonance of this historical anecdote should not be lost on us today. Irrespective of the propaganda produced by a political ideology masquerading as a religion, history has shown that Islam and Christianity can exist in harmony. The Prophet Muhammad believed that fairness and decency weren’t the property of any one community, and several of the Prophet’s companions are still buried on Ethiopia’s Christian land.

A tale of two Caliphs

When Muhammad died in the year 632, his best friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph, ruling until 634. The office he held, the Caliphate, is an Anglicization of khalifat Rasul Allah (p. 115), meaning “the successor to (or deputy of) the Messenger of God.” Sunni Muslims believe Abu Bakr was vested with the power to succeed Muhammad, not as Prophet, but instead as the faith community’s leader. Over the decades, this office now seems inseparable from the Sunni tradition.

The Caliphate is to the Muslim political imagination what Rome is to the Western imagination. When the Ottoman dynasty was finally undone in 1924, the last holder of the office of the Caliphate was gone, but the title was resurrected less than a hundred years later.

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has managed to violate nearly every Islamic prescription.

When ISIL leader Ibrahim al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph—a label unrecognized by almost every Muslim on earth—he knew he was reigniting a political tradition that hadn’t been around for a long time. Perhaps that is one reason why he chose to call himself “Abu Bakr,” after the actual first Caliph.

The two could not be more different. The original seventh-century Abu Bakr directed his army to, “Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted themselves to monastic services—leave them alone.”

ISIL considers itself Islamic, of course. And yet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has managed to violate not just the spirit but also the letter of nearly every Islamic prescription.

The Muslim community’s path forward

When I read the most recent news coming out of France, I was just waking up in Jerusalem.

I came here as part of a program that aims to help North American Muslim leaders better understand American and Israeli Jewish narratives. We hope to find ways to respect one another’s concerns, to establish a basis for principled collaboration, and, perhaps most importantly, to model sincere difference.

The greatest challenge of our time is how to disagree. If the world currently appears to be going mad, it is because we have too few leaders who are capable of bringing people together.

The greatest challenge of our time is how to disagree.

There will be no truly peaceful planet unless there are substantial communities committed to the common ethics of pluralism. If I feel I have been wronged, what are the ways in which I can seek my rights? If I disagree with your politics or have been harmed by them, how can I oppose them? If we have different beliefs and ideas, how shall these coexist in a way that neither asks us to deny our unique identities, nor tempts us to impose our perspectives on others?

ISIL is likely the world’s most extreme example of an organization that does not adhere to this mode of thought.

Muslims are sometimes accused of insincerity when they claim that ISIL is un-Islamic, or when they insist “Islam is a religion of peace.” I have little interest in coddling Muslims who believe extremism is not a problem—but neither do I believe that Muslims can, or should, accept the idea that just because ISIL calls itself Islamic means that it actually is.

In what moral universe is the execution of an aged religious faithful to the Islamic tradition?

Muslims seek to model themselves after Muhammad in the belief that Muhammad models the way to God. I can hardly think of a more devastating dismissal of ISIL’s perverted Islam than the vast contrast between its actions and those of Muhammad’s closest friend and successor, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. After all, who do we think understood the Prophet better?

In what possible moral universe can the execution of an aged religious man be conceived of as faithful to the Islamic tradition?

While ISIL seeks to destroy—for only on ruins can its Caliphate stand—Muslims worldwide must build. We must outline, fund, and sustain spaces where thoughtful, committed, and sincere Muslims of diverse backgrounds and religiosities can engage the diversity within their own communities, discuss their most pressing concerns, and shape the Islam of years to come.

We must do much more than condemn terrorism. We must offer Islam’s answer to the great question of our time, which may well be: How would Muhammad deal with difference, both internal and external? How can we pursue our values while respecting the rights, beliefs, and aspirations of others? How can we build the kinds of societies people would want to live in?

Better the rule of a Christian king than al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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