‘Islam’s real message is peace’, says visiting Imam
Exploring social peace is the focus of a faith-based seminar being held today by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Bermuda, in conjunction with the Anglican Church and CURB at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute.
The event will feature presentations by the Rev Anthony Pettit, vicar at St Paul’s Anglican Church and Dr Kim Dismont-Robinson, Folklife Officer for the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, as well as youth representatives, and will be facilitated by Cordell Riley of CURB.
The key speaker for the event, however, is Imam Azhar Haneef, vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States, who is making his second visit to the island.
Islam, on a global level, has received a great deal of attention in the last few years, both positive and negative, but particularly in the last year in view of the Arab Spring and the persecution of religious minorities in some Islamic countries. In spite of efforts for more positive press, current media portrayals continue to lead many to view Muslims, particularly those of Middle Eastern descent, questionably.
That said, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community globally has continued to press forward to bring greater understanding and awareness of their traditions beliefs and teachings according to the Qur’an.
“First and foremost, we hope to offer concepts from the Holy Qur’an,” Imam Haneef explained of what he hopes to share at the Social Peace symposium. “It is an underlying message that is almost global - they are practical teachings.”
He understands, though, that because of current events around the world, some may have a difficult time seeing that Islam could offer peaceful answers, especially when they view the violence and oppression seen in some Islamic countries.
“I look at it from a historic perspective,” the Imam explained, looking at the growing pains that have been faced by most religious groups through history. “Every group has eras of peace, progress and prosperity, and eras of anger and violence. Don’t look at the snapshot, but the total sum.”
He sees Islam as experiencing growing pains, particularly in how it responds to affronts to its traditions and teachings by outsiders, whether accidental or intentional.
“There is a group [within Islam] that feels marginalized, without a voice and powerless, who have been taught the wrong way to protest - not from teachings of the Qur’an.”
As a result, their response to social injustices seem incomprehensible and intolerant to outsiders, especially when you compare the response of some Muslim communities to strangers burning Qur’ans, with those same Muslim communities seemingly condoning the tearing down Buddhist temples or burning of Christians churches.
“There has been a shift towards these leaders and scholars who are interpreting the scriptures with an intolerant view.”
And the challenge comes from a greater globalisation - in the past, these extremists teachers would never have had the platform that they have today, thanks to the internet. Instead, their sphere of influence would have been limited to their own small communities.
“It stems from a lack of understanding. At the end of the day, we all have differences; you either learn to live with it or destroy it.”
Unfortunately, it is these Islamic communities, which appear intolerant and extreme to outsiders, that get the most press.
“The majority of Muslims are moderates, just trying to make it through the day,” Imam Haneef explained.
“Our counter movement has been to show that Islam’s real message is this - peace.”
For some, the concept that the very word, Islam, is derived from the word peace may seem like a strange concept, especially in light of the persecution that religious minorities experience in some Muslim countries.
“We have forgotten what happened in Europe in the Inquisition,” the Imam shared, alluding to a time when religious minorities, particularly Jews and Muslims, experienced severe persecution at the hands of Christians.
“We have failed to realise our own history of [suffering from] intolerance. To me, the Muslim world is not learning this lesson. I hope that they’ll come back to the message of peace that the Prophet taught. However, this is not the majority.”
When it comes to some Islamic countries condemning those who convert from Islam to other faiths, charging them with criminal apostasy and sentencing them to death, the Imam believes that it is counter to what is written in the Qur’an.
“The Qur’an teaches that judgment is God’s and God’s alone. The Prophet had ample opportunity to dialogue with non-Muslims - it was never a choice of Islam or the sword. The dialogue was open and welcome.”
“According to the Prophet and the Qur’an, people like Pastor Youself in Iran should be protected. We are taught to fight for those who are denied their rights.”
Imam Haneef also believes that the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad and the Qur’an tackle other forms of discrimination, like racism, directly. While not quite the same as today, the Prophet witnessed discrimination amongst the Arabs during his own time, based on class division, economics, shades of complexion within their own people group, and nationality.
“There are differences in humanity, but the greater overriding factor is their spiritual, moral and intellectual abilities. Differences come from our creator for diversity. We are all one creation one essence, one mind, one soul. Within the unity of God is the unity of creation. You cannot connect to God and disconnect from His creation; you cannot love God and hate His creation.”
Tolerance and understanding can only come on the human level and on the spiritual level.
“We tend to try and do it through legislation or persuasion, instead of through the of changing hearts and minds. Our attitude is to stay in our safe zones, but, instead, we need to recognize each other and our differences, break down walls, crossing bridges and removing borders.”
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