The Looming Tower – Who Are the Real Muslims?

Stephen Prothero, chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, offers this thought provoking review over at Books and Culture of Lawrence Wright’s new book, The Looming Tower: Al Queda and the Road to 9/11.

In the review Prothero raises the question: who gets to define Islam? It is a difficult question to answer because not even all Muslims agree.

The root meaning of the term Islam is submission, and classically a Muslim is anyone who submits to God by uttering with faith, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Over time, however, many Muslims have developed far more stringent qualifications for the category of real Muslim. Some Sunni Muslims see all Shiite Muslims as pretenders to the true faith. Some Shiites view Sunnis likewise. And some Muslims have even stricter qualifications for their fellow travelers. Members of al-Qaeda, for example, believe that any so-called Muslim who holds views about Islam different from their own is not a real Muslim.

He goes on to discuss the Islamic concept of takfir – the act of proclaiming apostate those Muslims who disagree with your position on Islam.

To understand why this line of thought matters, it is important to note that the Qur’an plainly forbids the killing of other Muslims. As Wright discusses, the Qur’an does not shrink from war with idolaters. “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them,” it reads, and “fight those who do not believe in God.” Yet the Islamic tradition, including its four main schools of jurisprudence, also says that women and children must be spared in combat, and that Muslims must not target fellow Muslims for death. Commit the latter crime and you will spend eternity in hell.

In the World Trade Center, of course, many Muslims were murdered. The killings of Muslims in suicide bombings by al-Qaeda operatives and their imitators in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to mount. And it is the notion of takfir that has made all this possible.

It is a fascinating review that gives the reader a glimpse into the many faceted world of Islam. And of course at the end of the review, the chilling question remains: Who gets to define Islam for the rest of the world?

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