Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review: "Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward"

As I said before, I received a review copy of Nabeel Qureshi's latest book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward several weeks ago. I shared a few thoughts on the book then, but I have much more to say now.

Although Qureshi converted to Christianity several years ago, the "question" of Islam and Muslims is no less important to him. As he puts it, "Ignoring the reality of jihad endangers my nation, while responding with fear endangers my Muslim family." Helping others to understand the "how" and "why" of Islamic radicalization isn't just a religious conviction, but a deeply personal matter as well, and it shows throughout the book.

The book is divided into three parts, each addressing a general area of inquiry: The origins of jihad, jihad today, and jihad in the Judeo-Christian context. Each of these sections is then further divided into "Questions," wherein each chapter addresses a specific issue. This makes it possible to jump directly to subjects of interest, such as, "Why are Muslims being radicalized?" or "Does Islam need a reformation?" I still found it most useful to read straight through; Quereshi does a wonderful job explaining the subjects in his particular style, and he builds on each successive topic through the book. You may or may not agree with his answers on some of the Questions, but reading everything will certainly help in understanding how he came to the conclusions he reaches.

It's worth reiterating that the book was written as a primer on these things. Each Question could itself be the subject of a book. One does get the impression of only scratching the surface in each chapter, but Qureshi recommends further resources throughout the book.

The Origins of Jihad

What is Islam? This is the very first question of the book, and it's worth setting the premises up front. Confusion on this question is probably a source of much confusion, as people may be using the same word to discuss very different things. 

Islam takes many forms and functions throughout the world. It is practiced by a billion people across every continent, after all. However, the best way to understand it is to focus on the teachings that unite Muslims everywhere: The life of its founder, his teachings as found in the Quran, and the consolidated traditions of the Hadith. This is the Islam that Qureshi addresses in the book. 

Nabeel takes a systematic approach to this, demonstrating through an examination of the Islamic texts and teachings that violence is at the heart of the faith. It was there in the founding of the religion when Muhammad lead raids against caravans, it was there when Muhammad commanded the faithful to wage war and conquer in the name of Allah, and it was there as the Islamic empire spread across the known world in the course of a few centuries. 

So, why aren't all Muslims taking up arms against non-Muslims? As Qureshi puts it, 
Many Muslims have not heard of a given teaching, some might interpret it differently, and others may frankly do their best to ignore it. For example, even if we were to demonstrate through careful hermeneutics that the Quranic injuction to beat disobedient wives (4:34) is meant to apply to all Muslims today, it would still have zero bearing in my family. My father would never beat my mother. 
This is a critical point. Islamic culture is heavily invested in authority, and deference to said authorities. For many Muslims, all they know of Islam is the faith as received from their parents and their spiritual leaders. Qureshi explains later,
Yet the net effect of all this is that the vast majority of Muslims inherit their understanding of Islam and have not investigated the foundations of Islam for themselves . . . their first foray into the foundations might be somewhat of a shock, and they will probably find themselves either in a defensive position or grappling with significant cognitive dissonance.
While all of the explanation of Islam's history, teaching, and expression is important in this first section of the book, I find this point to be the most critical in building towards the conclusion.

Jihad Today

If Islam has such a blood-stained past, how did it get to the present situation, the putative "religion of peace?" This section is an attempt at addressing the question. I say attempt because it's a critical shortening of very complicated topics: A thousand years of Islamic history, the post-colonial transformation of Islam, the 20th century genesis of radical Islam, the origins of modern radical Islamic groups . . . these are huge, weighty subjects given only a few short chapters. 

Make no mistake, I think Qureshi does a tremendous job of summarizing these complex issues, but this is one portion of the book where a reader would be well served finding additional resources. It's also the most likely portion a critic might point to in order to say, "You didn't give [specific objection] nearly enough consideration! It would change everything!"

Regardless, the conclusions Qureshi reaches are sound, if unsettling.
I have heard many people, frustrated by the increasing frequency and scale of Islamist terrorism, suggest that Islam needs a reformation. What they may not realize is that radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.
Indeed, if reformation means a return to the roots and the primary materials, then it's the violent extremists following in Muhammad's footsteps. You can see how this manifests in various ways, such as the rise of ISIS, or the prominence of Boko Haram.

Still, the Quran and Hadith remain as they were for ages. Why do we see a sudden rush towards violent extremism in so many young Muslims? In short, the collision of an ancient faith with modern resources:
The Internet has made the traditions of Muhammad readily available for whoever wishes to look them up, even in English . . . thus bringing average Muslims closer to the canonical texts of Islam than ever before, allowing them to bypass their elders and the centuries of interpretive tradition they may be passing down. It is greatly facilitating the reformation of Islam and the radicalization of Muslim youth . . . by allowing Muslims to see the foundational texts of Islam for themselves. 
The issue goes beyond just those Muslims willing to take up arms in the name of Islam. If one considers those who would support the fighters and the ideals they promote, even if they themselves don't pick up arms themselves, then the scope of radicalization becomes daunting. Of course, they may not realize what it is they're actually supporting; The Muslim Brotherhood may have seemed like a romantic choice for Egypt in 2012, for example, but the reality of their rule was quickly rejected.

Jihad in the Judeo-Christian Context

The prior sections of the book could be useful to any audience, as they address questions about Islam and Muslims. The third section of the book is explicitly written for a Christian audience, as it covers matters Christians often ponder in relation to Islam, and likely will need to be ready to answer when discussing spiritual matters with their Muslim friends, the explicit purpose Qureshi builds towards for his conclusion.

The comparison between Islam and Christianity, both in historical terms and in matters of doctrine, are presented in a manner that highlights their importance. This is especially evident when comparing the views of Jesus by the two religions.
On account of these verses, the Quran is understood to teach that Jesus is currently in heaven, awaiting his return to earth, after which he will initiate the latter days and then die before the final day of resurrection. This belief is nearly universal among Muslims . . . Regardless of the specifics, however, it is a common Muslim view that Jesus will engage in jihad at the end of the world.
. . .
In Christianity, Jesus shows Christians how to answer persecution with love. Although this suggestion might seem impossible to some and ridiculous to others, Jesus' teachings were always radical, and they are only possible to follow if the gospel message is true. If we will live eternally with God in bliss, then we can lay down this life to love even our enemies. In the face of jihad, the Christian Jesus teaches his followers to respond with love. 
This answer, more than any other, is essential to a Christian witness to Muslims, and is responsible for the flourishing of Christianity throughout the Muslim world. It's everything Jesus taught us about living in this world, and is demonstrated by his own actions in laying down his life for others.

A Better Way Forward

The conclusion Qureshi builds towards takes us back to where all of this began: A young man seeking deeper answers about his own faith and finding the pages of history dripping with blood.

As he describes his own journey, this leads Muslims to a fork in the road: They can radicalize, following in the footsteps of Muhammad; they can ignore these teachings, and hope the cognitive dissonance remains bearable; or they can become apostates, sacrificing traditions, their family, and maybe even their lives. It's not an easy place to be.

Unfortunately, we've seen all too often the results when Muslims choose the former. In the aftermath of terror attacks in the West, those who knew the attackers often lament that they seemed normal. These were their coworkers, their neighbors! The problem is, when a Muslim comes to this fork in the road, there is no flashing light that goes off, no posted notice that one is wrestling with a spiritual crisis.

This is why it's so critical for Christians to stand in the gap, to be friends to Muslims, to be ready with answers to their questions, to be truthful about the nature of Islam, in a spirit of love and compassion.
As Muslims make that choice, it would benefit the whole world if they did not make it alone . . . We need to show compassion for Muslims and befriend them, not only because they are people who are inherently worthy of love and respect, but also because we can only speak into their lives and decisions if we have earned the right.
The information presented throughout the chapters is helpful and well summarized, but it is there to serve this point. If Christians reading this book take away any message, it should be this call to walk alongside our Muslim neighbors, to be ready to give an answer for the hope we possess, to show them the love of the God who died on their behalf. That message has transformed lives and societies for centuries, and it can, and does, continue to do so with Muslims today.

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