Nov 2001 Journal

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Islam Hijacked

The queries have come in steadily since the great increase in suicide bombings by Muslim Palestinians during the past year - and since 11 September virtually non-stop. 'Does Islam condone suicide?' 'Does Islam condone killing non-combatants?' 'Does Islam teach that a martyr who enters Heaven has the pleasure of 70 virgins?' 'Does Islam really teach the universal doctrine of "Islam or the sword"?' 'Does Islam hate Jews and Judaism?', or 'Does Islam fundamentally hate anyone and anything not Muslim or Islamic?'

Americans know almost nothing about Islam beyond what they pick up from films, novels and news reports (much of it erroneous). Israelis probably know even less, though many have the bad habit of claiming that they know Muslims because they live with them. The truth is that Israelis hardly know Muslims beyond what they see on their own televisions, and tend to have an extremely distorted view of Islam. Simplistic clarifications by so-called Muslim scholars often confuse the situation even more: virtually any Muslim can claim to be a scholar and speak on behalf of Islam.

Religion and violence
Is Islam a fundamentally violent religion, as its detractors have claimed? Or is it a religion of compassion and reason as its Muslim adherents insist? To answer this question we must first of all look inward. How has Judaism been characterised by its champions and its enemies? We have suffered the abuse of religious character assassination by not only those who have hated us, but also by those who have feared us. Anyone can find excerpts in translation from the Bible and from our Talmud and Midrash that would curdle the blood of any reader who does not know the context of the citations. King David arranged the murder of an innocent man because he lusted over the poor man's wife (2 Sam. 11). Rabbis incinerate their opponents (Shabbat 34a, San.100a). The Torah even calls for mass extermination, for genocide of the native Canaanite inhabitants of the land (Deuteronomy 7). It is just as easy to find violent material in the Qur'an and in the second most important source of Islamic religious teaching, the Hadith. It almost need not be said that one can just as well find material urging compassion for the needy, the poor, the homeless, the orphan and the widow.

Pundits fail to cite sources
One of my criticisms of self-proclaimed pundits of Islam is that they do not cite their sources. Let us take a look at some of the key issues that lie at the core of the questions listed above. About a week before the suicide massacres, the TV programme Sixty Minutes claimed to have interviewed a Palestinian working with suicide bombers intending to kill Israelis. Interviewed in Arabic, the English voice-over translation had the man claiming that a martyr who entered Paradise would enjoy the pleasures of 70 or 72 virgin women.

A number of self-proclaimed Muslim scholars accused Sixty Minutes of distorting the transcript and demanded an apology. They claimed to have heard the original Arabic despite the English voice-over and emphasised that he said nothing of the sort. They even claimed that Islam would never teach such a thing. This was clearly an attempt to avoid public embarrassment, but the truth is that according to Islamic lore and tradition, a male who enters Heaven enters what we in the West would consider a hedonistic paradise full of physical and sensual pleasures. This is simply a fact. The origin of this view most certainly lies in the context of the extremely difficult life of ancient Bedouin Arabia. Since anything as simple as the constant flow of water in a stream was considered miraculous, it would have been natural to imagine Heaven flowing with streams of water under the shade of huge trees.

Entering Heaven
But there are other delights as well, according to a hadith in the authoritative collection Sunan al-Tirmidhi. In my edition, published in Beirut, it can be found in a section entitled 'The Book of Description of the Garden', chapter 23 ('the least reward for the people of Heaven'), hadith number 2562 (Vol. 4, p. 599). The hadith reads as follows: "Sawda [Tirmidhi's grandfather] reported that he heard from Abdullah, who received from Rishdin b. Sa`d, who in turn learned from Amr b. al-Harith, from Darraj, from Abul-Haytham, from Abu Sa`id al-Khudri, who received it from the Apostle of God [Muhammad]: the least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as [wide as the distance] between al-Jaabiyya and San`a." That these 72 wives are virgin is confirmed by Qur'an 55:74 and commentaries on that verse. Al-Jaabiyya was a suburb of Damascus according to the famous commentator Isma`il Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), so one personal jewelled dome would stretch from Syria to Yemen, some 1,600 miles.

Was this tradition intended to be believed literally? This particular hadith has technical weaknesses in its chain of transmitters and is therefore not considered impeccable, though it is listed in an authoritative collection. As a result, Muslims are not required to believe in it, though many inevitably do (but an even more respectable hadith with virtually the same message can be found in Tirmidhi K. Fada'il al-Jihad ch. 25 #1663). I am sure many believe they will experience incredible physical pleasures when they enter heaven. I personally have no problem with that. Religions inevitably expect their adherents to believe things that would seem absurd to believers of other religions.

The author is Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The second and final part of this article will appear in the next issue of AJR Journal.
Reuven Firestone

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