When Will Westerners Stop Westernizing Islamic Concepts?

by Raymond Ibrahim

Middle East Forum

Recently, Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today wrote an article about Muslim zakat, wherein I was referenced as a “critic of Islam.” She then followed up with another article titled “Critic questions the aims and ends of Islamic charity,” dedicated to examining my views on zakat.

While I appreciate Ms. Grossman’s initiative, what especially interests me is that her response exemplifies the problems originally highlighted in my article, “The Dark Side of Zakat: Islamic Charity in Context,” which Ms. Grossman takes to task.

I had written: “From what American schoolchildren are being taught by their teachers to what Americans are being told by their presidents, concepts unique to Islam are nowadays almost always ‘Westernized.’… [T]his phenomenon has resulted in epistemic (and thus endemic) failures, crippling Americans from objectively understanding some of Islam’s more troublesome doctrines.”

It is, therefore, a bit ironic that Ms. Grossman’s entire article is a testimony to this phenomenon. For starters, even though I indicated Muslims are actuallyforbidden from bestowing zakat onto non-Muslims, her opening sentence stubbornly describes zakat as a “mandate to be charitable.” Surely “charity” that discriminates according to religion cannot be deemed all that “charitable,” a word that, in a Western context, is connotative of universal beneficence.

Ms. Grossman is also decided that Muslims engaged in that timeless Islamic phrase fi sabil Allah — most literally, “the path of Allah” — include “anyone from seminary students to imams to missionaries”; conversely, I supposedly read it “as a straight pipeline to violent jihadists.”

Fair enough. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the significance of Islamic terminology, neither her opinion nor mine matters much; how Islam’s authoritative schools of jurisprudence (specifically, the four madhahib) have interpreted fi sabil Allah is all that matters. And Islam’s juridical rulings are such that fi sabil Allah is synonymous with the concept of violent jihad.

For example, in its section on zakat, the Arabic-English edition of the standard legal text, ‘Umdat as-Salik, translates fi sabil Allah as “those fighting for Allah.” Next to the index entry for fi sabil Allah, it simply says “see jihad.”

The following zakat-related anecdote from Islamic history is further illuminating: After Muhammad’s death in 632, several Arab tribes, while still identifying themselves as Muslims, refused to pay zakat, much of which was being used to fund ongoing military operations. Abu Bakr, the first “righteous” caliph, responded by launching the Apostasy Wars, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Arabs. In this context, neither the uses of zakat, nor Abu Bakr’s murderous response, seem very “charitable.” (Who ever heard of killing people for not being “charitable” enough?)

As a result, the same canon of Islamic law (the Sharia) that unequivocally forbids Muslims from giving zakat (financial assistance) to non-Muslims, advocates giving it to what we call “jihadists.” This is a simple fact, playedover and over again — not my opinion, nor something that is “open to interpretation.”

Ms. Grossman’s concluding questions are further indicative of the widespread tendency to recast Muslim concepts into Western terms. She asks the reader: “Do you think believers may support those ‘in the path of Allah’ in a religious sense, just as Christians might support missionaries evangelizing for Christ? Or do you read that as code for nefarious purposes?”

Aside from the fact that — alas, and once again — what any of us “think” is totally irrelevant, these questions demonstrate the all too common inability to transcend one’s own culturally-ingrained notions of right and wrong, ascribing to them a universal pedigree. For just as Ms. Grossman’s Western sensibilities inform her that zakat, which has to do with giving money, must always be “charitable,” so too do they inform her that funding violence, jihadi or otherwise, must always be “nefarious.”

Yet she may be surprised to discover that men such as Osama bin Laden actually see their jihad — yes, with all the death and destruction entailed — as an act of altruism, as an ugly means to a beneficent end (see Koran 2:216), that is, the establishment of Islamic law across the world (which is, incidentally, another Muslim duty). One of the most renowned Muslim clerics and hero of modern day jihadists, Ibn Taymiyya, has written at great length describing jihad as the ultimate expression of “love.” And, at any rate, it seems a safe bet that most Muslims will be inclined to adhere to his opinions, i.e., his fatwas, as opposed to Ms. Grossman’s casual thoughts on the matter.

The lesson here? Well-meaning Americans would do well to cease interpreting age-old Muslim doctrines — from jihad to zakat — according to their Western epistemology and instead rely on the standard rulings of mainstream Islam, as articulated by its authoritative schools of jurisprudence. That is, after all, what Muslims do.

Postscript: As it happens, I recently relayed much of this to Ms. Grossman, and she responded in another entry, the gist of which is that, just because a religion teaches something, does not mean its adherents follow it. She writes:

As clear as Jewish law is on the dietary rules, most Jews do not keep kosher. As clear as evangelical preaching in many denominations is that Christ is essential to salvation, most people say all good people go to heaven, regardless of their faith or lack of same [italics added].

Thus let us differentiate between the teachings of the various religions (which are often objective and ascertainable) and the actual practices of those who claim to adhere to them. Ms. Grossman’s unspoken assumption, then, appears to be that, even if Islamic law mandates jihad and the need to fund it, most Muslims ignore it.

Unfortunately, even if true, this position offers little comfort: It took only 19 Muslims to commit the horrendous events of 9/11.

Raymond Ibrahim is the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the author of The Al Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.

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