I was born in Islam. I spent the first twenty-three years of my life in the shadow of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem which, according to the Quran, Islam’s holy book, Prophet Muhammad had journeyed to, ascended to heaven and returned home to Mecca in Arabia, all in one night.
Some influential Muslim scholars say that the journey was only a dream. Others, with the Dark Ages mentality, insist that it was physical.
For twenty-three years, without any interruption, I listened to al-Azan, the Muslim call for prayer, five times a day. At age 4, prior to starting public school at age 7, I attended a kuttab, a madrasa, a private religious school. The elderly teacher, a sheikh and a former officer in the Ottoman army, dressed in a long black robe and a white turban, was occasionally paid with a few loaves of bread, eggs or a live chicken. My family couldn’t afford it. I rewarded my sheikh with a daily kiss of his hand and a prayer, asking God to give him a comfortable and everlasting life in heaven. At age nine or ten I was able to recite most of the chapters of the Quran from memory. I studied the Quran, Islamic thought, Islamic history, Islamic culture and Arabic language at all educational levels. I also attended lectures on political Islam given underground by some controversial scholars.
Things, however, have changed. My association with Islam throughout my adulthood has become political and not religious. I don’t go to a mosque. I don’t fast. I have no intention of ever performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. I suspended giving al-Zakat, charity because Bush has designated almost all Muslim charitable organizations that aid orphans and widows in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq as terrorists and forced them to close.
I am not concerned about Islam. Islam has survived all foreign invasions. Bush’s crusade will be no exception. I am, however, concerned about Muslims, as well as Christians, in the Muslim World who are targeted by the West, particularly the United States government.
Usually I don’t defend religion, only people. Religion is faith not science. I insist that every individual has the right to believe or not to believe. Each man or woman has the right to accept a religion or to reject it. A person has the right also to choose to be an atheist. People must be judged by their deeds and contributions, not their faith. I stand for justice, freedom, equality, peace and prosperity for all. I support women and gay and lesbian rights.
I was greatly disturbed by the Pope who, citing the Quran as an obstacle, rebuffed a massive outreach effort by Muslims.
Recently, a 29-page letter was sent to leaders of major Christian dominations by 138 high-level Muslim leaders and scholars representing 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. The letter appeals to religious tolerance, dialogue and understanding. It calls on Christian and Muslim religious leaders to work in unison for world peace, cooperation and prosperity. It emphasizes the similarities between Christianity and Islam as monotheistic religions. It speaks of the affinity between the Bible and the Quran. Both religions worship one God and call for the love of one’s neighbor. Fortunately, the letter titled “A Common Word between Us and You” was welcomed by various Christian leaders and institutions.
However, Pope Benedict’s reaction was negative and arrogant. It is also insulting to Christian Arabs who are culturally Muslims. He chose to close the door to an idea which was very dear to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who, when the Quran was presented to him, bowed and kissed it. Benedict’s hostility to Muslims is nothing new. Last year, in a speech he delivered in Germany, he spoke of Islam as a violent and irrational religion. He quoted Emperor Manuel II of the Byzantine Empire who said that Muhammad had brought only "evil and inhuman" things.
Dr. Karen Armstrong of Oxford, a former nun who is amongst the most renowned theologians and has written numerous bestsellers on the great religions and their founders, disagrees.
“Certainly not. There is far more violence in the Bible than in the Qur'an; the idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, it was Western Christians who were fighting brutal holy wars against Islam. The Qur'an forbids aggressive warfare and permits war only in self-defense; the moment the enemy sues for peace, the Qur'an insists that Muslims must lay down their arms and accept whatever terms are offered, even if they are disadvantageous. Later, Muslim law forbade Muslims to attack a country where Muslims were permitted to practice their faith freely; the killing of civilians was prohibited, as were the destruction of property and the use of fire in warfare.”
The Vatican says, “Muslims do not accept that one can discuss the Quran in depth because they say it was written by dictation from God. With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith.” As a precondition for a dialogue, the Vatican demands that Muslims change their belief that the Quran is the word of God.
I say with a great certainty that the Pope’s action and conduct are not inspired by God, on whose behalf “his holiness” speaks. It is dictated by politics, racism, ignorance and hatred. It is a part of the cruel crusade that George W. Bush has declared against Muslims. Since his ascension to the papal throne, Benedict, a former Hitler youth, has been putting the papacy, as well as Christianity, in the service of the U.S. empire.
Muslims are not asking for a theological dialogue. They are not trying to convince anyone that the Quran was dictated by God himself. Unlike Christians who are asking Jews to come to the Church, Muslims are not calling on Christians to come to the Mosque. Muslims are not demanding that Christians abandon the trinity and recognize Jesus only as a prophet. Though they don’t believe in the crucifixion and vindicate Jews from murdering Jesus, Muslims don’t see any reason for Christians to bring down the cross and raise up the crescent.
Muslims and non-Muslims ought to focus attention on common goals that are more important to humanity than theology such as world peace, justice, freedom, equality, love, understanding, respect for one another, tolerance, cooperation, as well as mother earth.
In Muslim lands, Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived as neighbors for almost fifteen hundred years. They didn’t dialogue. They didn’t debate. They lived in peace and tranquility. The fact that Christianity and Judaism continued to exist alongside Muslims, who were and still are the majority, speaks of Muslim tolerance. The fact that Jews throughout the centuries fled Christian lands and took refuge in Muslim countries demonstrates beyond a doubt Muslims’ respect of non-Muslims’ beliefs.