RA: In a recent article you argue that just as it would be wrong to judge Christianity on the behaviour of some Christian extremist groups, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda which quotes the Bible, it would be wrong to judge Islam on the violent behaviour of extremists.
JA: Yes, even though they claim to be Muslims, and they are doing this in the name of Islam as they see it, they are not playing according to the rules of the game, and violent attacks is a fundamental area where they are departing from the vast majority of Muslims. No one has the right to just get up and declare Jihad. You’ve got to have the right qualifications and authority to do that.
Jihad is a theory of war very similar to the Christian theory of Just War and for a long time in history Muslims and Christians were not any different in their theories of war and their use of violence to extend their frontiers or their influence. There are very clear regulations about the conditions under which Jihad can be declared and conducted. But these groups are not following the laid-out regulations. Targeting and attacking civilians, women and places of economic interest is a clear violation of the regulations of Jihad.
RA: On what grounds could it be argued that Islam is a religion of peace?
JA: There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today. Now, if Islam was a violent religion, we have 1.6 billion potential suicide bombers, and yet we know that is simply not the case. We know the vast majority of Muslims read the same Qur’an, they recite the same prayers daily and yet they are just going about their ordinary lives, they are concerned about things that you and I are concerned about, their children’s education, jobs, health issues; they are just ordinary people and yet they hold very dearly to this religion also.
We should also remember the Muslim groups who are risking their lives and fighting such terrorists and have been killed protecting vulnerable minorities.
I come from a context where I lived with Muslims, and I have Muslim relations in my family, and they don’t recognise this violent face of Islam as part of their religion.
Of course it is true that while some verses in the Qur’an speak about peace in regard to the relations with people of other religions, there are a lot of verses that also talk about violence – and we cannot run away from that. The Qur’an can sometimes be very schizophrenic. It has some wide mood swings. It says very positive, very compassionate things in one breath; in the next breath it says very contentious, very belligerent things. Therefore Muslim groups, depending on where they are, their social-political context, and their own individual personalities and psychological makeup, tend to gravitate towards one or the other face of the Qur’an.
But it comes down to interpretation. In regard to the Qur’an there are two main principles: one is called the principle of abrogation and the other is called the principle of context of revelation.
The principle of abrogation says that where there are two conflicting texts the later text abrogates – cancels out – the earlier text. And so if there’s a verse, for instance, that says ‘take Christians as your friends’ – and there is a verse like that – and another, later verse, which says ‘don’t take Christians as your friends’ – and there is a verse like that too – this later one is the one that has more authority.
The other way of interpretation is to apply the principle of context of revelation, in which people ask themselves under what context and circumstances was this text revealed. They look at the specific context, time and group of people. Moderate Muslims will insist on considering the context of revelation when interpreting the Qur’an.
The principle of abrogation came to be enshrined at a time that Islam was an empire, Islam was dominant. Islam never saw itself becoming a minority religion, let’s say in Australia, and so in that kind of empire mindset you say things that you never foresee would be problematic. Moderate Muslims believe you can’t apply a seventh century text literally, and they become very historical, speculative and philosophical in the way they look at the text.
The fundamentalist groups tend to be very literalist and, therefore, if you read the Qur’an literally, like the Old Testament, you have mega problems. Unfortunately there are Christians who are just as ‘Biblicist’ as the fundamentalist Muslims. The Bible says this, period. So in regards to interpreting the Qur’an, the fundamentalists are the Biblicists, if you like, of Islam; they take the text very literally.
Part of the problem that Islam is having to deal with – the two faces of Islam – is embedded in Muhammad’s Ministry or Mission. In his Mecca period, which lasted from 610 to 622, he was a peaceful preacher. He encouraged his believers to be steadfast, tolerant, not to fight back, and would just warn people about the consequences of rejecting God’s word. Then in the later Medina phase, when he became a ruler, the Commander-in-Chief, a legislator, the revelations there assumed much more belligerent, militaristic and political undertones.
So you have these two faces of Muhammad’s mission; and the principle of abrogation simplistically put says that Medina abrogates Mecca and therefore the Medina becomes mainstream. However, the context matters and those who argue for the importance of context say that the Medina face of Islam took shape in the context of having to deal with aggression from Mecca. Indeed, some major Muslim scholars have argued for the reversal of the abrogation – that Mecca should abrogate Medina.
RA: You have also said that the battle for the soul of Islam is earnestly underway.
JA: Yes, and I can only see that battle intensifying because there was a time that the moderate progressive liberal voices in Islam tended to be very stunted and very small. Now there is a growing swell of momentum because these moderates are tired and fed-up, and there’s a sense of defiance now.
They believe they now have to speak up regardless of the consequences and they are saying that these radical groups are hijacking their religion. They don’t want to have anything to do with this violence and hatefulness in the name of their religion, in the name of their Prophet, in the name of their God. They refuse that and they want to reclaim Islam back for what they think it should be.
So you have a lot of Muslim scholars now who are genuinely putting their lives on the line, coming out to challenge the extremists because they see this as a battle not just on the battlefield, but an ideological battle for the hearts and minds of people.
And we should not forget that Muslims are the overwhelming victims of the violence. 95% of the victims of Muslim militant violence are Muslims themselves and so Muslims see this as an existential threat to themselves, more than to you and I.
This is not going to be a battle that can be won in the university campuses, in Harvard or Oxford or Melbourne. This battle can only be won in the Madrasa, in the Qur’an schools, and what they teach Muslim young children. It is not what Muslims tell you and I that matters; it is what Muslims tell themselves and what Muslims tell their young people. That is what is going to be crucial in this battle that is going on.
RA: You have said that Islam is not the problem, but it has a problem, and part of this problem is Dhimmitude, and the attitude to women.
JA: Yes, when it comes to Dhimmitude, that is where I think Islam has a major problem. This is the teaching that if you are a non-Muslim in an Islamic State, you are a second-class citizen. It tends to feed the spiritual narcissism in Islam that Muslims are the purist and the elite; all others are not only impure and inferior and they can be disposed of, and that is a very dangerous teaching. But there are Muslim scholars who are engaging with this and who argue for equal citizenship for all citizens. A leading progressive voice on this was a former President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid. He said he did not subscribe to Dhimmitude and preferred the Indonesian constitution which gives equal citizenship to all people.
With women, there is also a serious problem. There are a lot of texts in the Qur’an that talk about women are second-class, and who are subservient to men. Now, again, Muslim women have been challenging this and some of the progressive Muslim men are challenging this and they are saying, look, it’s not just about the rights of minorities, it is also about the rights of women.
RA: What are the conditions which lead to terrorism and to what extent do you believe that the West is responsible for Islamic terrorism? I’m partly thinking, of course, of the invasion of Iraq.
JA: I think that the conditions under which terrorism can really raise its ugly head are quite varied depending on the context that you are talking about, but one of the causes of terrorism is oppressive Muslim governments. In these countries there’s no freedom of expression and Muslims almost feel suffocated, and that becomes a pressure-cooker. And unfortunately, Western governments have at different periods been in bed with these Muslim governments and turned a blind eye to the oppression. So many Muslims do not trust the West.
Another major cause is that Western foreign policies, such as the intervention in Iraq, are very misplaced; the invasion of Iraq just made things worse in the Middle East. At one stage also America supported and provided arms to what became Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, against the Russians.
RA: You were brought up as a Muslim but you became a Christian in High School, which would have been a difficult move to make. What was so powerful about Christianity that attracted you?
JA: There were a number of things. The first attraction was just the way a Christian friend at school lived his life. He was a genuinely compassionate person, very Godly, very prayerful. I watched him pray and read his scripture in front of me every morning, every evening. It was just compelling. I was brought up with all the stereotypes and prejudices about Christians – they don’t pray and they’re not to be trusted – and here I was confronted with a completely different model of Christian who didn’t fit this image in any way.
RA: And that brings us to the final question about the challenges of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Is the Muslim God the same as the Christian God?
JA: I think that Muslim-Christian dialogue is very essential. We cannot afford not to, it’s not an option any longer, we’ve got to learn to talk to each other and to build bridges.
We don’t have to do that, though, by compromising and having theological negotiations and bargaining. I believe that dialogue should be about holding very clearly to our fundamental distinctives; what makes Christian distinctive and what makes Islam distinctive; we should hold to those differences, but also learn to respect and honour them.
As to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, I remember being asked this question back in the mid-‘90s by a Christian friend of mine. He asked me, ‘When you came to faith in Christ, did you feel like you were switching Gods?’ And my instantaneous answer was ‘no’, I just felt like I was watching an image on black-and-white television and now I’m watching the same image on colour television.
I would rather that my God is the God of the universe, the God of Muslims and Christians, and not a tribal God just for me, just for the Christian tribe. I would rather that people excluded themselves from it than I exclude them. I would want my God to be an inclusive God.