Muslims who do not support the terrorist acts committed by others who claim the same faith are quietly beginning to move, and in a direction that intends to transform Islam.
Muqtedar Khan is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and either a member or leader in a list of groups that work and comment on relations between the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Khan is no supporter of the current U.S. approach toward the Middle East and is as Muslim as you could ask a Muslim to be. He agrees fundamentally that, for him at least, the ideal society looks to Islam for its principles. But from that basis he proceeds to conclude there is a way for Muslims to live comfortably and cooperatively in what we call a pluralistic society.
In a posting on the Islam for Today Web site, Khan writes about an Islamic principle called Ijtihad, and it is best to let him explain it: “Ijtihad . . . allows independent reasoning to articulate Islamic law on issues where textual sources are silent.”
Why is Ijtihad important? “Increasingly, moderate Muslim intellectuals see Ijtihad as the spirit of Islamic thought that is necessary for the vitality of Islamic ideas and Islamic civilization. Without (it), Islamic thought and Islamic civilization fall into decay.”
So far, so good. But how will it help us – “us” including Muslims – resolve differences and live cooperatively in the same space, a goal that seems to be slipping further from us each day? “Ijtihad,” Khan writes, “allows Islam to reign supreme in the heart and the mind to experience unfettered freedom of thought.” It means a Muslim can aspire for change, “but through the power of the mind and not through planting mines.”
The result would be a truly moderate Islam, whose Muslims seek a society in which “(t)here will be no room for political or normative intimidation” that “will treat all people with dignity and respect.”
That sounds like the ticket, and Khan delivers it more or less in a nutshell on the Islam for Today site. He delivers more good news in that he is not alone in his thinking, and names influential Muslims who are working to promote Ijtihad. One is former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami, who became the first official from his country to speak in the U.S. earlier this month at a convention of the Islamic Society of North America earlier this month in Chicago.
However, Khan’s discussion does not include examples of directions or changes for Muslim thought that Ijtihad might bring about. So here is a suggestion.
A range of Muslims, from moderates to hard-line Islamists, use the term “martyr” as an identifier for Muslims who commit suicidal murder or, at least, accept intentional death in violent action on the behalf of their understanding of Islam.
The term finds its roots in the acts of a Christian philosopher and writer named Justin Martyr, Palestinian-born in what is now Nablus, and who was beheaded in Rome under the government of Marcus Aurelius for his refusal to renounce his faith. Though he was hardly the first and certainly not the last to lose his life because of steadfast belief, his name became attached to the acts and status of others who did the same.
Thereby Martyr set a standard. The only violence was done to him and those who stood with him, only their faith was defended, and death, while not resisted, was not sought. And Martyr and countless others who followed his example took no thought to destroy others.
Thus his name, an Anglicized version of the Greek marturia, meaning “witness,” became the identifier for those who lost their lives – without claiming those of others – because of their faith.
The word “martyr” has been applied, generally by Arab media, in translations from Arabic of accounts that use the word shahid in reference to Islamist suicidal bombers. Shahid also is a noun for “witness,” so the use of the term can be defended technically. But in connotative and cultural terms, the difference could hardly be broader.
Stephen, whose fearless preaching to the council in Jerusalem led to his death by stoning, is known as a martyr, even if his story predates Justin Martyr’s by more than a century. Samson, who the Book of Judges records as having brought down a pagan temple to kill himself and his captors, was a desperate prisoner of war whose circumstances might have been different had his relationship with God been more like Stephen’s. So Samson does not necessarily fit in the same category as Stephen.
If Ijtihad is to lead to treatment of all with “dignity and respect,” then to insist upon respect for the term “martyr” as it is best understood among Christians would be a fine first step. It would be a real demonstration of the sincerity of real, faithful Muslims like Khan.
Stan Nelson is a news editor at The Pueblo Chieftain. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Published in the Pueblo Chieftain, September 16, 2006, http://www.chieftain.com/life/1158398560/5.