I write these words with an almost indescribably profound sadness. In the few days before finger struck keyboard for this essay, Arabic news channel Al Jazeera announced it had received a videotape apparently showing a hooded man shooting a blindfolded woman, presumed to be Margaret Hassan, the former head of CARE International in Iraq. Mrs. Hassan, British and Irish by birth but who adopted Iraqi citizenship, was a tireless advocate for the Iraqi people, and she had in fact opposed the American invasion of Iraq. That anyone remotely claiming to fight for Islam would kill such a beacon of help and hope is nothing short of scandalous. Indeed, it would not be far to describe such a vile act as "demonic."
From where has this all come? By what stretch of the imagination could the killing of Margaret Hassan, or the attack on the elementary school in Beslan, Russia be deemed as "Islamic"? Where in our ancient and rich scholarly tradition has the murder of non-combatants ever been sanctioned? As I search deep into my soul for answers to these invariably difficult questions, my soul is struck with a deep pang of pain. I fear that the Nation whose legacy to the world had once been Astronomy, Medicine, and Philosophy has devolved into one whose legacy to the world will be suicide bombings, kidnappings, and be headings. I fear that the phrase "parle l'arabe (he speaks Arabic)," once a symbol of elevated social status, will become a stain of shame, worthy of concealment.
Which brings me back to this question: from where has all this come? Certainly not from the Lord our God. The sanctity of human life is paramount in our Creator's eyes: "Come, and I will declare what your Lord has forbidden you. You should not associate anything with God, you should be good to your parents, and not kill your children on account of poverty-We provide for you and for them. And do not approach indecencies, whether outward or inward. And do not kill a person-which God has made sacred-except by justice. Thus has God commanded you, that you may understand" (6:151). In another verse, God reiterates the stern prohibition against killing children for fear of want, further emphasizing the sanctity of human life in Islam: "Do not kill your children out of fear of poverty; We will provide for them and for you. Indeed, killing them is a great sin" (17:31). Also read: "And do not take a life that God has made sacred, except for just cause" (17:33). These verses are absolutely clear: no life can be taken without just cause, without qualification for religious belief or otherwise.
Moreover, suicide is one of the most heinous sins in Islam, and it is prohibited unequivocally: ".And do not kill yourselves; for God has been merciful to you" (4:29). There are a great number of traditions of the Prophet , contained in the most authentic of collections, which unabashedly condemn suicide. In fact, the Prophet said that the one who commits suicide will be condemned to continually repeating the act of suicide in the fires of Hell. This stern stance against suicide is further evidence of the absolute sanctity of human life in Islam. Furthermore, the Qur'an has equated the taking of innocent life with taking the lives of all humanity: "Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person, other than for murder or corruption on earth, it would be as if he killed all the people." (5:32). Although the verse mentions that the Lord ordained this principle for the Children of Israel, Muslims have always taken that principle to be of universal validity. The verse only mentions the Children of Israel to show its earliest use.
Let me, then, ask the question again: from where has all this come? Certainly not from our Master (peace be upon him). From the very beginnings of his ministry, the Prophet was faced with the staunchest of resistance. When Allah commanded the Noble Messenger to proclaim the reality of the One God to his people, the Prophet climbed atop of the hill of Abi Qubays and warned his people of an impending doom if they do not worship the One God alone. Before the Prophet could finish his preaching, his uncle, Abu Lahab, screamed out, "May you perish! You brought us here for this?" With that, Abu Lahab dispersed the people, and they left the Prophet standing alone. Yet, this was only the beginning of the Prophet's troubles.
As the message of Islam spread throughout the alleyways and meeting places of Mecca, the Meccan oligarchy became increasingly concerned about the call to the worship of the One God. At first, they pleaded with Abu Talib to press his nephew to stop, but this proved fruitless. They even offered the Prophet all the riches and glamour of the world in exchange for his abandonment of his call; the Prophet refused even if they were to give him the sun and the moon. When words and exhortations failed to stem the tide of Islam, torture and murder came to take their place. Although the Prophet enjoyed relative freedom from torture and harm, many of his Companions were not as fortunate. Many were beaten, tortured, and maimed, and some were even murdered in cold blood. The situation for the Muslims became so dangerous, that the Prophet sent a band of his followers to seek asylum in Abyssinia.
Moreover, despite the protection of Abu Talib and the clan of Bani Hashim, the Prophet himself nevertheless was molested, beaten, and nearly killed. When even the threat of physical harm proved useless to prevent more converts to religion of Abraham, the Meccan oligarchy contrived a general boycott of the Prophet , his followers, and his family. It was perhaps the first regime of economic sanctions ever witnessed by human history. And even though three years of starvation and deprivation did not destroy the nascent community of faith, their toll ultimately led to the destruction of two of the Prophet's most beloved: his dear wife and companion Khadijah and his stalwart pillar of protection: his uncle Abu Talib.
With Abu Talib safely under ground, the Meccans attacks on the Prophet only increased in vileness and intensity. It was quickly becoming clear that Mecca would not open her heart to the message of Islam. Thus, the Prophet set his hopes on Ta'if, not far from Mecca. After first being graciously received by its leaders, the Prophet , after explaining to them his mission, was spurned. Worse, the leaders of Ta'if sent the street urchins after the Holy Emissary, pelting and bloodying his feet with stones until he was expelled from the city completely. The situation had become so dangerous for the Prophet that he could not re-enter the city of his birth without a pact of protection by one of Mecca's Pagan noblemen.
Just when it seemed that all was lost for Islam and its Prophet , a glimmer of hope came from the North. The inhabitants of Yathrib had accepted Islam and came to Mecca to pledge their allegiance to the Prophet . Not only this, they vowed to protect him against all those who opposed Islam. Thus, the Prophet, along with all the Muslims who could do so, emigrated to Yathrib, which later became the city of Medina. Meccan hostility, however, did not relent. As soon as the Muslims left Mecca, the Pagans seized the considerable amount of wealth left behind by the Muslims and used it to line their caravans. The Prophet's efforts at retrieving this wealth led to the epic Battle of Badr, where the Pagans were handily defeated by the ill-equipped and numerically inferior Muslim forces.
Mecca, however, did not stop. It sent three times as many men to destroy the Prophet at Uhud. The Muslims, although initially triumphant, disobeyed the direct order of the Prophet , and the Meccans regained the upper hand on the battlefield, killing 70 Companions, including the Prophet's uncle Hamza, and seriously injuring the Prophet himself. Less than two years later, the Meccans gathered 10,000 men, the largest known army at that time, to finish off the Prophet and his faith once and for all. The effort ended in abject failure. In addition to all these hostile actions by Mecca itself, many of the surrounding tribes also joined in the hostilities.
Despite all of this, however, the Prophet never once contemplated attacking non-combatants. As he laid siege to Bani Qurayza, the Jewish tribe of Medina that broke the non-aggression pact against the Prophet during the pivotal Battle of the Trench, one Jewish man came to the Prophet and asked for amnesty because he claimed that he was the only one who opposed breaking the treaty with the Muslims. The Prophet let him go. The Prophet would not have attacked Mecca after the Treaty of Hudaybiyah was signed if the Meccans had not treacherously aided in the attack of Khuza'ah, in clear violation of the treaty. Once he marched on Mecca, he did not slaughter the inhabitants of Mecca as the Crusaders did to the inhabitants of Jerusalem more than 400 years later. Blood did not run knee-high to the horses in Mecca in 631, as it did in Jerusalem in 1099. After Mecca was conquered, the Prophet took the oath of allegiance from both Wahshi and Hind bint Utbah, the murderer and mutilator respectively of Hamza, the Prophet's uncle.
After the battle of Badr, the Prophet sought his companions' counsel on what to do with the 70 Meccan captives. Umar ibn al-Khattab (r), proposed killing them, because they will probably fight the Muslims again. The Prophet was taken aback by this advice, and he decided to ransom them instead. During one of the battles before the conquest of Mecca, one of the Companions recounted to the Prophet how he killed someone who, when the sword was lifted above his head, uttered the shahadah. Just moments before, this same pagan had slandered the Prophet . Upon hearing this, the Prophet was shocked and rebuked the Companion. He told the Messenger , "He only said it out of fear of the sword," a most probably true statement. The Prophet replied, "Did you open his chest and examine the contents of his heart?" He then continually repeated the phrase, "Where will you go from 'There is no god but Allah' on the Day of Judgment?"
At every opportunity, the Prophet tried to avoid conflict. When the Muslims were encamped at Hudaybiyah, the Prophet accepted seemingly humiliating terms in order to secure ten years of armistice and peace. The terms were so lopsided in Mecca's favor that, for the first time in Islam's short history, the Companions--out of anger and frustration--blatantly disobeyed the command of the Prophet to shave their heads. This did not, however, deter the Prophet from signing the Armistice agreement. In fact, before the agreement was signed, he sent back a crying Amr ibn Sohail ibn Amr, a believer being tortured for his faith, back to the chains of Meccan captivity. All in the cause of peace and the end of armed conflict.
Furthermore, the Qur'an is clear in its prohibition of aggression, which clearly includes the killing of non-combatants: "Victims of aggression are given license [to fight] because they have been done injustice; and God is well able to help them. [They are] those evicted from their homes without reason except that they say, 'Our Lord is God'." (22:39-40). Also read: "And fight for the sake of God those who fight you; but do not be brutal or commit aggression, for God does not love brutal aggression" (2:190). If the enemy inclines toward peace, however, Muslims must follow suit: "But if they stop, God is most forgiving, most merciful" (2:192). Also read: "Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing" (8:61). Moreover, God insists that the Muslims should incline towards peace if their enemies do the same, even though the possibility might exist that the enemy is deceiving them: "And if they mean to deceive you, surely you can count on God, the one who strengthened you with Divine aid and with the believers" (8:62).
With this overwhelming evidence from the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet , how can anyone justify killing nearly 3,000 Americans in New York and Washington, D.C.? Or schoolchildren in Beslan? Or women and children in Tel Aviv? Or Margaret Hassan and Ken Bigley in Iraq? From where has all this come? From the concept of "an eye for an eye." As Osama bin Laden has said in his statements and videos, "As you have killed our women and children, we will kill your women and children." Indeed, the Qur'an does say: "The prohibited month for the prohibited month,- and so for all things prohibited,- there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him..." (2:194). Yet, I have noticed that those who cite this verse frequently neglect to cite the remainder of the verse: "...But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves." In his commentary on this verse, Muhammad Asad wrote, "Thus, although the believers are enjoined to fight back whenever they are attacked, the concluding words of the above verse make it clear that they must, when fighting, abstain from all atrocities, including the killing of non-combatants." Precisely.
This "eye for an eye" justification contravenes our tradition. Islam is indeed a religion of peace, but it is also not a pacifist religion. Islam does sanction the taking up of arms, as a last resort, in self-defense. Nevertheless, we are not to transgress, even in self-defense. When the Muslims mistakenly killed Amr ibn Al-Hadrami during one of the sacred months, the Meccans accused the Prophet with defiling the sacred months. Allah responded with this verse: "They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: 'Fighting therein is a grave (offence)'..." (2:217). Allah did not condone the murder of Amr, even though the Meccans plotted to expel the Messenger , fought him at every chance in Mecca, and even tried to assassinate him at least twice. The Qur'an said it best: "O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do" (5:8). We must never let the evils done to us lead us to do evil in return.
This does not detract from the fact that there is evil done to us. The Muslim world is fraught with tumult, oppression, occupation, and injustice. We Muslims, especially Muslims in the West, must work ceaselessly to help end the injustice rampant not just in the Muslim world, but throughout the world. When we end injustice, the suicidal militants will be isolated and seen for what they are: murderous fanatics who have deviated far from the path of righteousness. Furthermore, American Muslims must continue to try to bring justice and fairness to both American domestic and foreign policies. As the Defense Science Board report stated, "The critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim world is not one of 'dissemination of information' or even one of crafting and delivering the 'right' message. Rather it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none - the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam." Once our policies are fair and just, then not only with American credibility rebound, but there may be justice restored to the world. We cannot shirk this responsibility; we simply cannot.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is author of "Why I Love the Ten Commandments," published in the book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (Rodale Press), winner of the prestigious Wilbur Award for 2003 Best Religion Book of the Year by the Religion Communicators Council.