Islam and Historic Muslim Understanding

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It was once a word unfamiliar to American ears. But in recent years it has become all too familiar. The actions of Muslim militants and terrorists have seared the word into American consciousness.

Yet even with thousands of innocent civilians killed on American soil by Islamic terrorists, the full significance of the Muslim concept of jihad has not been grasped by the American public.

In the days after September 11, 2001, American leaders rushed to portray Islam as a peaceful religion that had been "hijacked" by a fanatical band of terrorists. One hopes that these assurances were merely tactical—that nobody was meant to believe them and that they were meant to assure the Muslim world that the inevitable American reprisals were not directed at their religion as a whole.

If the world Muslim community perceived America as attacking Islam in general then the duty of every Muslim to fight for his religion—the duty of jihad—would have been invoked on a broad scale. The war against terrorism, instead of simmering with occasional flare-ups, like the Cold War, would have boiled over into a global conflagration, with the Muslim countries of the world—1.2 billion strong—mobilizing against America and the West.

Muslim apologists also rushed forward to assure the public that Islam was a peaceful religion. They disingenuously declared that the word Islam means "peace." And they tried to portray the terrorists as a fringe group outside the mainstream of Islam.

These were lies.

The usual meaning of Islam in Arabic is not "peace" but "submission." And if the terrorists were so far outside the mainstream, why did Muslims all over the world burst into joyful, spontaneous celebrations when the hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Why are Islamic governments afraid to show "too much" public support for the war against terrorism? Further, why are all the governments that covertly support terrorism centered in the Muslim world?

The truth is that Islam is not a religion of peace. This is not to say that every Muslim is violent at heart. Many are not. Muslims have the same aspirations for living peaceful lives that people have the world over. But they also have the same potential for violence as others, and Islam as a religion and an ideology seeks to exploit that potential.

Though there are millions of Muslims who want peaceful relations with the West, millions who aspire to live in free societies like America, there nevertheless remains a deep and powerful strain of violence within Islam, and it is important that Americans understand it.

They will have to face it in the future.

The Muslim Worldview

To understand the connection between Islam and violence, one must understand certain facets of the Muslim worldview. One of the most important is the fact that, according to the historic Muslim understanding, there is no separation between religion and government—what in Christianity would be called the separation of church and state.

We are not speaking here of the secularist idea that the state should marginalize religion and discourage people from voting their consciences as Christians. We are talking about the idea that church and state are not the same thing and that they have different spheres of activity.

This idea of a separation between religion and government is not characteristic of most peoples in world history. It is a contribution to the world of ideas that was made by Christians—indeed, by Christ himself. In his book Islam and the West, historian Bernard Lewis explains:

"The notion that religion and political authority, church and state, are different and that they can or should be separated is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced to the teachings of Christ, notably in the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things...
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