Dr. Farhan Nizami, Lord Mayor, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers and Sisters, Assalaamu Alaikum!
Visiting the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, which is an independent centre of the Oxford University, brings back fond memories of my university days. Oxford University is, of course, one of the oldest centres of learning in the Western world. I had the good fortune of studying at probably the oldest surviving university in the world, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. I need hardly say that Islam celebrates scholarship.
Thank you, Dr. Nizami, for inviting me to speak here today. It is indeed a great honour and privilege. I thank you also for the very kind words that you have just said about me.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I speak today as a Muslim, and as the leader of a Muslim country, I am deeply concerned, as I am sure all of you are, over the state of world affairs and the increasing polarization between Islam and the West. A growing number of people in the West believe, quite wrongly, that Islam is inherently a religion of violence, misogyny and tyranny, and that Muslims are out to subvert their way of life. Equally, a rising number of Muslims believe, also quite wrongly, that Islam justifies violence, misogyny and tyranny, and that the West is out to destroy the very religion of Islam. Both groups view each other with deep suspicion and fear, and with contempt and hatred as well. But, one thing is common to all caught up in this vicious cycle: ignorance of each other. And that, I think, is the biggest tragedy.
Indeed, this polarization fuelled by ignorance, suspicion and intolerance, today threatens the peaceful co-existence of the nations and the major religions of the world. This dangerous trend has become even more so in the last few years, despite the fact that all religions call for peace and mutual respect. They all recognize the common humanity of us all. They all seek the establishment of a just, humane and tolerant society.
There are more than one billion Muslims worldwide. Hundreds of millions of them live in Commonwealth countries. Ten million or more of them live in the West, including over one and a half million here in Britain. Muslims, whether in Britain or in the Maldives or elsewhere in the world, have a significant role to play in promoting the understanding of Islam worldwide, and to strive against misconceptions and prejudice. The role of Muslims in the West is particularly important in this endeavour.
Ever since the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001, Muslims throughout the world have been appalled by the negative media stereotyping of Muslims and Islam. Many in the West have put the blame squarely on Islam for the events of September 11, and for the London bombings of July 2005, and, quite possibly, for the incidents in London and Glasgow during the past few weeks. Islam is being portrayed as a religion of violence and bloodshed that allows the wanton killing of innocent people to achieve political objectives.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Let us be frank. The attacks of September 2001 and the bombings in London in 2005 were indeed acts of terrorism; no doubt about that. These criminal acts were promptly condemned by all the world including Muslim countries, such as the Maldives, as well as by Muslims worldwide. Whoever the perpetrators of those terrorist attacks had been, they were certainly not acting in accordance with the teachings and principles of Islam. Therefore, to point the finger at Islam and Muslims for those acts of terrorism is nothing but a grave injustice to this most humane and noble of religions. Just as it is equally unjust for the perpetrators of such criminal acts to attempt to justify their actions by claiming that Islam calls for, and allows, the indiscriminate killing of innocent people.
If Islam, as I hope to prove in a moment, is a religion of peace and tolerance, why then do groups within the Islamic world act as if Islam justified violence? I believe that the current phase of radicalization in the Islamic world is in part a reaction to the pressures and persecution of outside forces. This is symptomatic of many religious, ethnic, cultural and national groups.
Burdened by a legacy of centuries of colonial exploitation, poverty and exclusion, whole societies in some parts of the Muslim world have long been deeply frustrated in their quest for economic, social and political progress. I agree that no person of reason would condone the resort to violence to achieve political aims. But, it is a historical fact that, more often than not, deprivation and the struggle for survival in the face of oppression go hand in hand with extremism and violence. We must however acknowledge that this phenomenon is not limited to the Muslim world or societies.
The state of current world affairs, including what has taken place in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine for many decades and more recently in Iraq has no doubt contributed to the current rise of Muslim extremism. The situation has been further aggravated by Muslim extremist groups, a small minority of the vast Muslim ummah, who by their criminal actions, are not only destabilizing their own societies but also, by subverting the fundamental principles of Islam, are playing into the hands of those who are determined to perpetuate a negative image of Islam. These groups rationalize their actions by alleging a “clash of civilizations” – that modern “universal” values are a product of the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West, and hence, incompatible with the teachings of Islam.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Our experience in the Maldives has shown this claim to be false. The Maldives is fast becoming a very modern country, embracing the principles of true democracy, and we are constantly pushing ourselves further as we strive for economic prosperity. Yet, our people remain steadfast in their faith, and that faith reinforces our efforts as we work for the better protection of human rights, individual freedoms and social equity.
While Muslim countries such as the Maldives can gain a lot through accession to modern international standards, we must keep in mind the fact that Islam the faith, its history and culture have a lot to offer in the setting of international norms and universal global standards.
What is needed is a sharing of ideas and values. This can only be achieved through a continued process of interfaith dialogue and discourse. There is no place for coercion and violence.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
If the Maldives’ example is of only anecdotal value, I would maintain that when the principal tenets and ideals of the religion are analyzed, Islam is clearly shown to be a religion of peace, tolerance and compassion.
Consider the following points:
(1) If, with an open mind, you read the Noble Qur’an in its proper context, or study the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), or examine the principles of Islam, or, indeed, review Islamic history from its primary sources, the first thing that would strike you is that Islam is not a religion of violence, terrorism or warfare. On the contrary, that exercise would clearly establish the fact that Islam is truly a religion of peace and tolerance, and that it calls for co-operation amongst all nations, and for the pursuit of progress, common interests, and the well-being and happiness of all.
(2) Islam upholds the dignity of men and women, protects human life, and teaches that all humanity is one – descended from one ancestor – and that all should live together in peace and harmony. It stipulates that all people must be treated with respect, and that human life should be safeguarded. Islam promotes peace, solidarity and mutual respect between peoples. It calls upon everyone to work together against aggression and that which is immoral. The Almighty Allah says in the Noble Qur’an:
“Help you one another in righteousness and piety, but help you not one another in sin and aggression.” (5:2)
(3) Islam enjoins Muslims to invoke “mercy” in every action, and “peace” in every salutation. When we meet anybody we say السّــلام عليــكم (Peace be upon you). We are asked to begin every action with the words c (In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful).
(4) To wage war is permitted in Islam only in self-defence. We all know that self-defence against aggression is a right recognized in international law and in all legal systems around the world. It is a right enshrined in the UN Charter as well. The Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:
“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight) because they are wronged: - and verily, Allah is Most powerful for their aid.” (22:39)
This verse makes it abundantly clear that the divine permission to fight was conditional: only in self-defence against aggression. The permission to fight was granted to the Muslims because of their genuine need to defend their lives, their faith and their homes at the time of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In fact, there is no basis in the Qur’an nor in the life and actions of the Prophet which justifies violence or acts of aggression against innocent men, women and children.
(5) In Islam, all life is sacred. It categorically forbids the killing of innocents, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. No human life is to be taken except as prescribed in law. The Almighty Allah says in the Noble Qur’an:
“Take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except by way of Justice and law: thus does he command you, that you may learn wisdom” (6:151)
Indeed, Islam makes the unlawful killing of one human being equal to the killing of the entire humankind. The Almighty Allah says in the Noble Qur’an:
"… if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading evil in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (5:32)
(6) Islam forbids the destruction of homes, property or the environment, even during wartime.
(7) The right to pursue jihad is contingent upon one condition: that it be an act of self-defence in the event of aggression committed against Muslims, or the Islamic State. It is not the killing of non-Muslims who commit no aggression against a Muslim state. The depiction of jihad by the media as such, is often based on ignorance and prejudice. Even in self-defence, it is forbidden in Islam to kill children, women, men and the infirm who take no active part in waging war against Muslims. Torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of individuals is strictly prohibited. In fact, jihad is to wage a moral and spiritual battle against evil, oppression and injustice.
In the light of various injustices committed against Muslims and Muslim countries, Muslim extremists claim that the Muslim world is suffering under the oppression of western countries. Yet, nothing in Islam condones the taking of innocent lives - no matter who does it. To allege that acts of terrorism are a part of a ‘necessary jihad’ is nothing but to misrepresent and pervert the very concept of jihad.
(8) Islam calls for dialogue and mutual respect among different peoples and cultures. It enjoins good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, for knowing one another, for solidarity, for promoting virtue and for achieving justice.
Islam enjoins tolerance to ensure the protection of life and for interacting among the followers of different faiths in a mutually beneficial way. The Noble Qur’an says:
“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other [not that you may despise each other]” (49:13)
(9) Islamic tolerance includes the acceptance of the religious freedom of non-Muslims in a Muslim state, and it covers the protection of their rights. Non-Muslims are to benefit from measures generally applicable to all, as well as from arrangements designed specifically to address their needs. Under the right of religious freedom of non-Muslims, the following are particularly noteworthy.
a) Islam does not permit coercion in the choice of religion. The Almighty Allah says in the Noble Qur’an:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.” (2: 256)
b) Islam recognizes that the People of the Book, namely Christians and Jews, living in Muslim societies have a right to express and practise their religious beliefs. Their churches or synagogues must not be destroyed; their crosses must not be broken, nor must the Torah or the Bible be harmed. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) had said:
“Let them (The People of the Book) follow their religion.”
c) Islam protects the dignity and the rights of the people of other religions, and gives them the right to engage in discourse and debate with Muslims without violence and abusiveness. The Almighty Allah says about their rights in the Noble Qur’an:
“And dispute you not with the People of the Book except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury); but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and that which had come down to you; our God and your God is but one; and it is to Him that we bow (in Islam).” (29:46)
d) Islam promotes interaction of Muslims with non-Muslims, including commercial transactions, the development of friendships and social-relations, visiting with each other, calling on the sick, and giving and receiving gifts.There are many instances that prove this. When the Holy Prophet passed away, his shield was found to be mortgaged with a Jewish lender. Some of the Companions of the Holy Prophet, would instruct their servants to distribute the meat of a slaughtered lamb starting with their Jewish neighbours.
Islam was revealed at a time when tolerance and peace was at its lowest and where cruelty, oppression and prejudice were widespread. Islam provided an antidote to these social evils, to purify hearts and minds and to build a society of justice and equality, of peace and tolerance. The actions and conduct of the Holy Prophet Muhammad are described in the Qur’an as the paragon of excellence to which all Muslims must aspire to. The community which the Prophet established in Madina provides us an insight into a society that was built on the principles of equality, freedom and tolerance which are widely accepted as democratic ideals today.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Now I come to another gross misconception about Islam – that Islam oppresses women and denies them their rights. That is, perhaps, because extremist interpretations of gender relations have, in fact, restricted women’s rights in some Muslim countries and communities. The global media has also played a role in perpetuating Islam as oppressing women. Qur’anic injunctions and the example of the Prophet’s life prove that Islam established spiritual and moral equality between men and women. Indeed, Islam did not oppress women, but ensured their rights and dignity at a time and age when they had been treated as less than human. Islam put an end to female infanticide, gave greater rights to women in marriage and divorce. It also guaranteed women the right to inherit and bequeath property.
Islamic history and social practices of Muslims provide outstanding examples of Islam as a religion of peace and compassion. From the life of Prophet Muhammad, from the actions of the Guided Khalifas, military commanders, the Companions and the followers of the Holy Prophet, in the execution of treaties, and in seeking peace and reconciliation, tolerance and compassion were evident as foundations of their actions. In fact, non-Muslims so valued the compassion with which treaties with them had been implemented, that they reciprocated in the same manner in their dealings with Muslims.
In the conquest of Makkah in 630 AD, the Holy Prophet’s treatment of the non-believers of that city,who had been captured and brought before him, provides a shining example. Although the non-believers had for many years tortured and persecuted Muslims in Makkah, Allah inspired compassion in the heart of the Holy Prophet, so that he did not mete out their deserving punishment. He set them free.
Other such outstanding examples of compassion include the entry into Al-Quds of Khalifa Umar in 638 AD, and Salah-el-din Al-Ayyubi’s liberation of Al-Quds in 1187. Khalifa Umar guaranteed the safety of the people of Elia as well as their property. He further ensured that their churches were not destroyed, and that they were not compelled to join Islam. Salah el-din al-Ayyubi, protected the lives of the crusaders and their leaders by escorting them to safety. This was despite the atrocities committed by the crusaders against Muslims when they had earlier invaded Al-Quds and various cities of Syria including Damascus. It is a historical fact that the crusaders had committed major war crimes against the Muslims, slaughtered thousands of men, women, children, and elderly and helpless people, and had looted their property and possessions.
It is also a historical fact that Islam inspired societies that were tolerant and pluralistic. During the Abbasi caliphate, many Christians and Jews held important posts and served the state with distinction. From 800 to 1200 AD, the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain amid a rich flowering of art, culture, philosophy and science. Many Jewish and Christian artists and intellectuals emigrated to Cordoba during this period. This and many other examples demonstrate that Muslims pioneered pluralistic societies that respected religious, racial and ethnic differences, while including them all within the greater community. For example, they often included a court system that decided cases according to laws of different religions. In these instances, laws were applied based on the litigants’ beliefs especially in matters of marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. These offer models and examples that are instructive for modern societies today.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I come back to the Maldives again. The Maldives is a country with a proud Islamic heritage stretching back over 850 years. Islam has being practised in the Maldives for centuries as a peaceful and tolerant faith. Indeed, the only war that the Maldives entered into in its history had been for self-defence. In the sixteenth century a young Maldivian, Mohamed Thakurufaan, led the fight for the independence, self-determination and faith of the Maldivian people, and liberated the country from the Portuguese colonial rule.
For eight centuries and more, Islam has been an important part of the Maldivian identity, and we have been proud to be known as a 100% Muslim country. Yet, this does not mean that we have not been tolerant and respectful of other faiths. Non-Muslims in the Maldives have always been free to practise their religions. There are over 50,000 expatriates working in the Maldives, and over 600,000 holidaymakers visit us every year. All these people are free to observe their faiths while in the Maldives.
I have recently launched a wide-ranging political reform agenda to bring the Maldives in line with modern democracies by a clear separation of powers, consolidating the accountability of political leaders to the parliament and the people, and strengthening human rights and ensuring complete media freedom. Our vision is to create an open society in the Maldives without compromising our religious faith and our unity as a people. The new draft penal code submitted by the government to the parliament is a very progressive piece of work, drawing on Islam and the Shar’ia, and in line with international norms and standards. Just last week, we took the historic step of appointing our first women judges.
In the wider Muslim world, Muslims and non-Muslims have lived together in peace and harmony for almost 14 centuries, as they do even today. In recent times, it has been Muslim communities living in other societies, that have been subjected to persecution, or been victimized by acts of violence, terrorism and ethnic cleansing. Co-existence requires a culture of tolerance, compassion and a commitment to justice. It also needs viable democratic institutions and the determination of all communities to live side by side as equal citizens striving together for the further progress and prosperity of their one nation.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I hope that what I have said today has demonstrated that Islam is a faith that promotes peace, and calls for tolerance and mutual respect among peoples of different faiths, ethnicity and cultures. This is clearly established by the Holy Qur’an, the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), Islamic history and social practice. Therefore, the association of Islam with terrorism does not hold up to scrutiny, whether historically, or at the present time. It is high time that the world made an effort to ensure that over one billion Muslims all over the world are understood free from prejudice and hatred.
The Muslim ummah is today facing a critical test of its character and inner strength. Our jihad or struggle today is not one of fighting the people of other faiths, but one of claiming people’s hearts and minds through dialogue and engagement. Muslims have a duty and a responsibility to show the world through their words and actions that Islam is a great religion that calls for friendship and peace. We need to show that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding citizens.
We need to show also that Islam is well and truly a thinking person’s religion. There are several hundred verses in the Holy Qur’an which call on the people to use logic, reason and the intellect. Islam is not about blind faith, but about judgments of reason, of individual accountability, while upholding pluralistic community values. No nation or people that had abandoned reason or scholarship or the ability to think have ever prospered. The Almighty Allah says in the Noble Qur’an:
“The likeness of the life of the present is as the rain which We send down from the skies: by its mingling arises the produce of the earth – which provides food for men and animals: (It grows) till the earth is clad with its golden ornaments and is decked out (in beauty): the people to whom it belongs think they have all powers of disposal over it: There reaches it Our command by night or by day, and We make it like a harvest clean-mown, as if it had not flourished only the day before! thus do We explain the Signs in detail for those who reflect.” (10:24)
The Noble Qur’an also says:
“And in the earth are tracts (diverse though) neighbouring, and gardens of vines and fields sown with corn, and palm trees – growing out of single roots or otherwise: watered with the same water, yet some of them We make more excellent than others to eat. Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who understand!” (13:04)
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I believe, based on the Maldives experience, that there is a need to open up Muslim societies and ensure democratic reform, so that extremism can be tempered. Muslims should stand ready as world citizens to promote a just and pluralistic order. We should strengthen our resolve to work together with peoples of all faiths to solve the global problems facing our world. We need to strive towards fairer wealth distribution, for the rule of law, for security and freedom and for broader public participation in our countries. We need to take a firm stand against violence. We need to espouse international human rights standards.
In closing, I would like to call upon all people of reason to help in the process of ensuring mutual understanding among different faiths in the world. Together we can build bridges of understanding, set up centres of dialogue and research, so that we know each other better, and emancipate ourselves from fear, suspicion and ignorance. You in the West can support the building of democracies, not through intimidation or force, but through peace and dialogue. You can assist us, not by aggravating our social or political problems, but by promoting the social, economic and political development of Muslim countries.