Islam: Jihad or Reformation?

A sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth, Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church, Jan. 31, 2016


1. From syndicated columnist Gwynne Dyer, “What Is the Terror Threat in the West?” Bangor Daily News, Tues. Dec. 8, 2015:

Before this week [when 14 people were killed in San Bernardino, California] only 16 Americans had been killed on home soil by Islamist terrorists in the past 14 years… That’s an average (including the San Bernardino deaths) of two people per year in the U.S. by Muslim terrorists. So why didn’t [Pres.] Obama finish his speech by pointing out that Americans are 170 times more likely to drown in the bath than to be killed by Islamist terrorists? Because no public figure in the U.S. is allowed to say that the terrorist threat is very small in the West, generally, and utterly miniscule if you live in the U.S.

  1. From Imam Taha Tawil, interviewed on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Tues. Jan. 12, 2016:


Let’s hear from a voter in Iowa. He’s a registered Republican. His name is Taha Tawil. And he is the imam at the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids. Mr. Tawil recently extended an invitation to Donald Trump, hoping the candidate might come to the mosque to chat. I asked Mr. Tawil what motivated him.

TAWIL: We want him to know that we are, you know, with him on so many of his ideas about safety and security for our country. And we want him to know that we are a big resource. So he can use us in his endeavor instead of alienating us and going wild, you know, with those ads that he had. Many people are right now have Islamophobia already. And now with him running and increasing this Islamophobia, now we’re getting back to the ’30s and ’40s in this country. … Diversity in America is the source of its greatness. So the whole idea, I think, it’s like this. It goes, all men are equal. That’s the Constitution. We are one nation under God. And we don’t see him doing that. We are not seeing him applying the Constitution.


In early December, 14 people were killed and 22 injured in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. The shooters were a married couple, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Both were Muslims. Coming soon after a terrorist attack in Paris, the San Bernardo shooting left many people uneasy.

Let’s put the attack into some perspective, however. A Washington Post blog by Christopher Ingraham on October 14 reported that, up to that point in 2015, there were 43 instances of somebody being shot by a toddler 3 years old or younger. In South Carolina a two-year-old, riding in the backseat of a car, found a loaded gun on the seat, pulled the trigger, and shot his grandmother. In Michigan, a three-year-old found a loaded gun in a closet, shot himself in the head, and died before medical help could arrive. “Roughly once a week this year, on average, a small child has found a gun, pointed it at himself or someone else, and pulled the trigger,” wrote Ingraham. Twenty-one toddlers shot themselves, or others, in 2015.

This is tragic, and yet the NRA opposes requiring locks on guns, or the development of smart guns that can only be fired by the owner.

The reason I mention this tragic situation to give us some perspective. In one of our readings this morning, syndicated columnist Gwynne Dyer pointed out that statistically your chances of being attacked by Islamic terrorists in the United States are about zero. In fact, more people die from falling furniture in the United States than at the hands of jihadi terrorists. We panic over Islam, but do nothing about the larger threat of toddlers with guns.

Terrorist attacks are rare in Europe, and even more unusual in the U.S. But certain politicians believe that it is to their political advantage to scare voters into thinking that Muslims in general, and

Muslim refugees in particular, are a domestic threat. Donald Trump says that we should not allow any Muslims into the United States “until we know what is going on,” he says. But when will Trump know what is going on? My guess is, “Not any time soon.”

On Sunday, Jan. 10, the “Doonesbury” cartoon showed a man applying to be a terrorist at an ISIS recruitment center. He says, “Brother, it’s said you seek a martyr to wage jihad in America.”

“We do. Would you be such a man?” “I would. How do I get there?” “There are only two ways,” says the ISIS recruiter. “The first is to pose as a refugee. You have to apply to the UNHCR. You’ll be vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security. Then you go through the enhanced review process. It takes about two years.”

“What’s the other option?” asks the applicant. “You pick up a U.S. Tourist Visa.” “Hmmm…” the applicant thinks. Then he says, “Tough call.” The recruiter says, “Okay, so we’re looking for someone a little brighter.”

Mr. Trump wants to stop all Muslims from coming into the U.S. But the Constitution, in several provisions, establishes the U.S. as a land of religious liberty. I’m certain that the Supreme Court would strike down as unconstitutional any attempt to ban a particular religion. And how can we gain Muslim allies in the fight against terrorism if we demonize Muslims?

Ted Cruz says he wants to carpet bomb areas held by ISIS, but he doesn’t seem to understand that in military terms, “carpet bombing” means bombing everything, including the civilian population. Chris Christie wants to send in the troops, like George W. Bush did. But then what? Do we occupy Syria? For how long? Once we get in, how do we get out, Gov. Christie?

Was Jesus a Muslim?

Should we be fearful of our fellow Americans who happen to be Muslims? How fearful are you of basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar, retired boxer Muhammad Ali, or Congressman Keith Ellison? Imam Taha Tawil, in Iowa, says that the way to stop radical Islam is not to demonize Muslims, but for non-Muslims to join with the great majority of moderates in the Islamic community to fight radicalism.

Last week we talked about some Muslim beliefs. For instance, that “Allah” is simply the word for God in the Arabic language, and even Arabic-speaking Christians call God “Allah.” And that Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet, born of a virgin. Why do Muslims hold Jesus in such high regard, since he was a Jewish man, who is the focal point of the Christian religion? Well, to Muslims, Jesus was neither a Jew nor a Christian! They say he was a Muslim!

Dr. Ahmed Azfaal, of the Fiqh Council of North America, writes, “If asked the question, ‘Was Jesus a Muslim?’ Muslims would immediately and emphatically respond in the affirmative. Of course he was a Muslim, they would say, since he was a noble prophet and a messenger of Allah (SWT). Indeed, they would see this question as a typical ‘nobrainer,’ for even a Muslim child could answer it correctly without too much thinking.”

How could Jesus have been a Muslim? Islam teaches that God has sent many prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. If Jesus was a true prophet, he had to be a Muslim. The prophets all preached Islam, but their followers misunderstood and corrupted the message. And that is why God sent a final prophet, Muhammad, and a correct Scripture, the Qur’an.

Jews and Christians, of course, don’t think that they have corrupted the message. Jews say they got it right the first time. Christians say that God sent a new message, God himself walking on Earth in the form of Jesus. Muslims respect Jesus but say God is One, not three.

Then, do Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God? There is no definition of

God that everyone agrees on. But Jews, Muslims, and Christians all say they trace their beginnings to the belief in one God, the God of of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Diversity and extremism ~

Let’s also consider the challenge posed by violent extremists within Islam. But first, remember that just as there are many kinds of Christians, there are also many kinds of Muslims. The two main groups are the Sunnis and Shiites, and there are also Sufis, Whahhabis, Ismalis, and others. There are modernist Muslims, humanist Muslims, and fundamentalist Muslims. And just as some Christians think they get it right and other Christians are wrong, there are those within Islam who think they get it right and other Muslims are wrong.

Just as Christians disagree with one another how to interpret certain passages in the Bible, Muslims disagree with one another on how to interpret certain passages in the Qur’an. So much depends on what you decide to look for in the Bible, or in the Qur’an. Right-wingers cherry pick the Qur’an to find the worst verses. You can do the same with the Bible. But I will say this: I’ve read the entire Bible, and the entire Qur’an, and I consider the Bible to be the more violent of the two Scriptures.

Yes, there are many examples of violence being perpetuated in the name of Islam. What is going on? Reza Aslan, in his book No god but God, says that Islamic idea of jihad (which means “struggle”) was originally meant by Muhammad to set ethical rules for warfare. “Thus,” he writes, “the killing of women, children, monks, rabbis, the elderly, or any other noncombatant was absolutely forbidden under any circumstances. Muslim law eventually expanded on these prohibitions to outlaw the torture of prisoners of war, the mutilation of the dead, rape, molestation, or any kind of sexual violence during combat…” Aslan says that according to the Qur’an, war is never “holy.” Consequently, the classic rules around jihad are to make war only for self-defense, and as humane as possible.

But wars against crusaders and colonial powers put those rules to the test, and today some Muslims take a harsher view of the rules of warfare. Ayatollah Khomeni in Iran relied on a militant view of jihad. Al Qaeda, and now ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State,” have further radicalized the notion of jihad. They make no discrimination between combatant and noncombatant, and indiscriminately kill men, women, and children, Muslim and non-Muslim. Reza Aslan writes, “they fall far short of the regulations imposed by Muhammad for a legitimate jihadi response, which is why, despite the common perception in the West, they are so roundly condemned by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims.”

Jihad or reformation? Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born a Muslim, but she has rejected Islam, and today is generally regarded as a critic of her former faith. In her book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, Ali points out that too many Muslims believe they have a right to enforce Islamic doctrines and practices by violence. And, she says, unlike Christianity, Islam has never had a Reformation. She says that Islam, as it is generally practiced, needs reform. What would such a reformation look like? Briefly, she says that there are five areas of reform needed:

1.) Islam, while regarding Muhammad as a human prophet, treats him like a semi-divine and infallible person who cannot be criticized. He should be understood as the human person he was. Critique and criticism both of Muhammad and the Qur’an should be allowed, she says;

2.) Islam must give priority to this life, not the afterlife, she says; 3.) Secular law must take precedence over Sharia law; 4.) End the practice of enforcing religious law through violence. People must not be intimidated or killed simply because they challenge dogmas, or violate religious rules; and

5.) Abandon the call to violent jihad. She says that while the clear majority of Muslims around the world are peaceful people, their loyalty to the core beliefs of Islam often puts them in an uneasy tension with modernity. The rational, secular, and individualistic values of modernity are a challenge to traditional societies. Because of

advances made in Europe during the Renaissance, Christianity faced a similar challenge when it was about 1400 or 1500 years old, and the challenge of modernity led to a Christian Reformation. It was a time of turmoil, turmoil included the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants.

Today Islam is about 1400 years old, she says, and we have religious turmoil as Islam, in turn, deals with modernity. But maybe the challenge of modernity can bring about a reformation within Islam. Can her hope of reformation bear fruit? I share that hope, but if Islam is to make peace with modernity, it is Muslims themselves who must lead such change.

Lamentations ~

In conclusion, I feel great sadness about the unwillingness of so many Americans to try to understand Islam. There is too much bigotry, too much demonizing of Islam, too much slander of Islam coming from preachers and politicians.

In this election year, the naysayers don’t want to admit that we are largely safe at home, that fewer American soldiers are being killed overseas, or that ISIS is gradually being rolled back. Perhaps most of all, the naysayers don’t want to admit that most American Muslims are like the Muslim woman who runs the cash register at my local Price Chopper supermarket. Or my Muslim friends who are going to work and raising families like anyone else. Or the Muslim woman I knew in Maine, who, when people tell her, “Go back where you came from,” she wants to say, “I’m an American. I was born here. This is my country, too.”

When I look at the mess the world is in, sometimes I despair. I lament over the anger and fear, but we cannot simply despair. It’s important to believe that there can be something different, that there can be change. And it is important that we be a part of that change. In order to not be stuck in despair, we must be among those who build relationships across religious divides. We must be able to see what change will look like, tell the world what it should look like, move as if it is going to happen, and be part of that change. We must build bridges and speak out.

I’m confident that change can happen, that we can be an inclusive society, that we need not fear other people simply based on religious differences – that we can help our nation live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all of us are created equal, the promise of the Constitution that there will be no discrimination based on religion, and the promise of the Statue of Liberty that lifts her torch in welcome. I give thanks for the promise of America that we are an open society, a compassionate nation that welcomes people from all over the world, a nation of religious liberty.

We can live up to that promise. This is my hope and my faith. …Amen.