By John Alden Williams
I have been given the theme "The Message of History" today.
A message is delivered to a place and time. Our Creator has
delivered us to this day, through centuries of history, to
begin the year 2004 of the Common Era. We, our successes and
our failures, are a message people need to take to heart. I
must be brief, and I want to talk about the most serious
religious crisis of our time. It is the rift that certain
fundamentalists--Christians, Jews and Muslims--are trying to
open between Christianity and Islam, the two largest
religions on the planet. Sadly, some people are seeking to
foster hatred and religious war on both sides. The sort of
misinformation that is being disseminated among Christians
and Jews is quite alarming and distressing. Some of it is
For example, one thing you may hear today is that Muslims do
not worship God, they worship something else called Allah.
But Allah is simply the Arabic word for "God." It is closely
related to the word for God, Alaha, in Aramaic, the language
that Jesus and his disciples spoke, a language still spoken
in a few areas in the Middle East. If you are an Arab
Christian, or Arabic speaking Jew or Muslim, you pray to
Allah. To question that is like arguing that French speakers
don't worship God, they worship something else called "dieu".
Muslims worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and
anyone who opens an English translation of the Qur'an will
Jerry Vines, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention,
has described the beloved Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, as a
"demon-obsessed pedophile." Franklin Graham, son of Billy
Graham, who also gave the invocation at President Bush's
inauguration, describes Islam as "a very evil and false
religion." Jon Hanna, an evangelical minister from Ohio who
edits Connection Magazine in that state, also describes
Islam as "false." He cited the 1st epistle of St John (2:
21): "The one who denies that Jesus is the Christ, he is the
liar. He is the Antichrist." Mr Hanna then concluded: "The
Muslim religion is an antichrist religion."
Yet this is a barefaced lie. The Qur'an, or Recitation of
the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, the holy book of
Islam, always refers to Jesus as "the Messiah." Christos or
Christ is only a Greek translation of the Aramaic and Hebrew
word, "messiah." The Qur'an also refers to Jesus as the word
of God and spirit from Him, born of the sinless virgin Mary,
"purified above all women," and it gives more space to Mary
than the New Testament does. I know a number of Muslims who
ask "our Lady Mary" for her intercession every day. There
are several shrines in the Middle East where Christians and
Muslims honor Mary side by side and ask her to pray for
them. I have never heard, and never expect to hear, any
Muslim insult the name of Jesus. It would be a rejection of
what Islam has taught them, that he was the promised
messiah, that he ascended to heaven, and that he will come
again before the world ends.
Still another word you often hear is that Islam fosters
hatred, violence, and religious warfare. I want to spend a
bit of time on this, because it is so widespread a
misunderstanding. Jews are told to take an eye for an eye, a
tooth for a tooth. Christians are told that when smitten,
they should turn the other cheek-although I have met very
few of them who actually do that. Muslims on the other hand
are told in their revelation to resist oppression, even at
great personal cost, because otherwise one is only assisting
the oppressor to oppress, and God hates oppressors. This is
basic to Islamic ethics, and we need to understand it.
A related matter much misunderstood is the doctrine of jihad
in Islam. It means "virtuous striving," and that is a matter
the Qur'an lays great stress on. "Did you suppose that you
would enter Paradise without God knowing who among you have
striven and are patient?" (Qur'an 3: 147).
Living a good Muslim life, praying ritually five times a
day, keeping the hard fast of Ramadan, going on the arduous
Pilgrimage to Mecca, giving generously to the poor, rearing
one's offspring in the fear of God, is all of it a jihad.
"You shall believe in God and in His messenger, and strive
with your possessions and with your selves. That is better
for you, did you but know" (61:11). "O you who have faith,
fear God, seek means to come to Him, and strive for His
sake; so may you prosper" (5: 54).
The early Muslims had to strive also in battle against
attacks by their enemies. The Qur'an states the
circumstances in which and Islamic state ruled by Islamic
law, or an imperiled Islamic community, may resort to war.
1. When there is a grave and sudden threat to religion. "And
if God did not repel some people by others, then cloisters,
churches, synagogues and mosques wherein God's name is much
remembered would have been pulled down. And surely God will
help one who helps Him, surely God is strong and mighty"
2. When Muslims are subjected to oppression. "And what
reason have you not to fight in the way of God, and of the
weak among the men and women and children who say, 'Our
Lord, take us out of this city, whose people are oppressors.
Grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a
3. When Muslims are forced out of their land. "And fight in
the way of God those who fight against you, but begin not
hostilities. Surely God loves not the aggressors" (2: 190).
"Whoever retaliates with the like of that with which they
are afflicted and are again oppressed, God will surely help
him" (22: 60). "To fight in the Holy Month is a serious
matter, but to bar from God's way, and the Holy Mosque, and
to expel its people, is yet more serious in God's sight; the
disorder is worse than slaying" (2: 217).
4. When political entities commit deliberate breaches of
treaties and pacts. "Those with whom you make an agreement,
who then break their agreement every time, and keep not
their duty. If they break their oaths after their agreements
and revile your religion, then fight the leaders of
unbelief- because surely their oaths mean nothing-so that
they may desist" (9: 12).
Can you understand that in the eyes of many Muslims,
Palestinians (for an example) have now been put in that
position where they must resist? Suicide is forbidden in
Islam, and very rare in Islamic societies, but if one must
sacrifice one's life in order to help the oppressed (and
when one reaches that point is a matter of interpretation),
most religions consider it an heroic action.
Muslims are also explicitly instructed in the Qur'an that
all acts of war by them must cease immediately if their
enemies sue for peace, pledge to end persecution and
oppression, and sincerely undertake to abide by their oaths
and covenants. "But if they desist, then surely God is
Forgiving, Merciful" (2: 192). "And if they incline to
peace, then incline thou also to it, and trust in God.
Surely He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing " (8: 61).
The issue of deterrence is also discussed in the Qur'an.
"And make ready for them whatever force you can, and [have]
horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy
of God, and your enemy, and others beside them, whom you
know not-God knows them" (8-60). Thus Muslims are ordered to
be ready for war, not in order to start it, but to keep
their enemy from disturbing the peace.
So far as war for the propagation of faith is concerned,
such a thing is not mentioned even once in the Qur'an. This
fact should be a revelation for those who think that Islam
requires its followers to fight for the spread of their
This is something we and our statesmen need to be aware of:
over a billion Muslims believe that they are divinely
ordered to refrain from aggression, and also to resist
attacks and oppression. Islam is the world's fastest-growing
religion. If Muslims continue to be misunderstood and
slandered, they can cause great pain to the world's
John Alden Williams
Retired Wm R. Kenan Jr Professor of the Humanities in
The College of William & Mary in Virginia.