Understanding Peaceful Islam: A Muslim Response to Herb Silverman

It’s a mistake to impugn Islam based on moral or intellectual failings of intolerant and dangerous Muslims.

Last week, I read with great interest Herb Silverman’s column describing six events that led him to believe that “Islam is the worst and most dangerous religion by all human rights standards.” Although I believe Islamophobia to be a real phenomenon, I do not consider Mr. Silverman to be an Islamophobe.Rather, he brings up legitimate concerns with the actions, views, or words of different Muslims, but makes a mistake to impugn Islam and the Quran for the moral or intellectual failings of such people.

I will not defend the Muslims in Mr. Silverman’s six experiences — from their anti-Jewish sentiments to others’ reactions to free speech and views on women, Shariah, and apostasy. These are precisely the subjects I deal with in my new book, Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions, which confronts the views and actions of many Muslims and condemns those views based on Islamic grounds. There are literally millions upon millions of Muslims in this world who agree with me that the Quran champions justice, equity, liberty, peace, and compassion. Although Mr. Silverman claims the Quran causes people to become intolerant, these Muslims accept the Quran in its entirety, which guides them to exemplify peace, tolerance, pluralism, and justice.

There is indeed a problem whereby some Muslims adhere to a hard-hearted and even, at times, dangerous ideology. I would never attempt to sanitize or dilute the atrocities of other Muslims. In fact, as an Ahmadi Muslim, I have intimate knowledge of the effects of such dangerous ideology. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is a peaceful sect of Islam who accepts that the long-awaited Messiah and Mahdi for whom the Muslims wait came 125 years ago. His message was simple: end religious wars, end violent Jihad, rely only on rational discourse through the pen to defend Islam and rid Muslims of the fanatical beliefs that had crept into their cultures over the centuries. Unsurprisingly, irrational Muslims have not taken kindly to such a message of reformation. Having witnessed intolerant behavior on the parts of other Muslims, I will add some experiences to Mr. Silverman’s list:

1. Around 1990, an article was published in the primary Sunni Muslim newsletter in Portland, Oregon calling not only for social boycotts, but also targeted murder of Ahmadi Muslims. Despite the rational, peaceful, and reformative message of Ahmadi Muslims, it claimed they “must be fought or killed if they do not repent to Allah.”

2. On May 28, 2010, terrorists armed with suicide vests indiscriminately opened fire inside two mosques operated by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Lahore, Pakistan. Walking through the mosques, the terrorists fired their weapons every direction, killing 86 people and injuring more than 100 others.I lost family that day as well.

3. Just this week, an American Ahmadi Muslim, Dr. Mehdi Ali Qamar, was gunned down by extremists  two days after he arrived in Pakistan to offer free medical services to those in need. He was shot 11 times in front of his wife and 2-year-old son for the “crime” of being a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

Sadly, the list goes on. But despite these cases of hate, a strong adherence to Islam makes other Muslims better, more tolerant, more compassionate people. Are we really going to believe that only the intolerant and dangerous Muslims accurately understand their faith, whereas the tolerant and peaceful Muslims do not? The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community alone is firmly established in more than 200 countries around the world, and we are not the only peaceful Muslims.

I cannot take anything away from Mr. Silverman’s personal experiences, but he draws regrettably simplistic conclusions.For example, he alleges that Brandeis University reversed their decision to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree simply for her “uncompromising anti-Islam views.” However, her honorary degree was not taken away for such benign reasons.Let’s be honest here.She doesn’t simply raise a voice against violent Muslims. She supports a Western conquest of Islam that results in the literal crushing of Islam and Muslims.Any question why an honorary degree would be revoked?

Mr. Silverman is right about the terrifying statistic that “64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam.” This is a huge problem. It means that 64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support a punishment not supported by Islam or the Quran. He also shared that “75 percent support stoning people to death for adultery,” which again means that these 75 percent support a punishment that is not supported by Islam or the Quran.Millions of us maintain that Islam does not sanction stoning for adultery and death for apostasy.

Regarding free speech, Mr. Silverman referred to the insulting cartoons of Prophet Muhammad as a form of war in Islam.Instead of validating extremists’ views, we should look into Islam’s commandments regarding speech.While it is true that some Muslims lose their minds in response to abusive expressions about Islam, it is also true that conflating words with war has been expressly condemned on Islamic grounds.I agree that Yusuf Islam’s comment about Salman Rushdie was appalling, and I was shocked when I learned of that.Of course, he has clarified his position on this matter and admitted: “I regret giving those sorts of responses now.” Regardless of his comments, Islam and the example of Prophet Muhammad testify that no punishment is prescribed for unseemly speech.

I genuinely request Mr. Silverman to read my new book, as I deal with these areas with honesty. This is not a ploy to sell books, Mr. Silverman. I would be happy to send you a complimentary copy. The root of the problem among Muslims is their literal and narrow interpretation of the Quran. I assure you that the solution is not to selectively accept Quranic commandments.Rather, the solution is to understand how to interpret its metaphoric language, and we have done just that.

You and I may not agree on the belief in God, but I hope we can agree how Islam is to be understood.


The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Image via Shutterstock.

Harris Zafar
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  • John Childs

    Glad you sound like a rational person. Unfortunately throwing acid in the faces of women, shooting little girls in the face for going to school, cutting hands off of hungry thieves, cutting the heads off of young lovers, in the name of Allah is what we see in the news regularly. Nothing new here. Like Herb said if it was 300 years ago he would be targeting Christianity. Burning witches alive in Salem Mass. seems a little extreme but none the less very religious. God/Allah has a bad day and supposedly , no sane people I know really believes it, kills the whole human race because he screwed up the basis design? Israel denying a native populations right to a homeland? Again, very basic old testament. I’ll stick with Herb on this one. Good luck with the peace and I hope your own don’t go after you like they did Rushdie.

  • anamericanundernogods

    Allah, Quran and Islam are the ultimate axes against humanity.

    No doubt that those who call themselves Muslims can differ in the interpretation and/or practice of Islam.
    But Allah and Quran and Mohammad are undeniably swift, brutal and very clear about what they mean.

    So, let us talk about Allah, Quran, and Mohammad and how warmongering they are.

    Mohammad (while in Medina) seized power by attacking and rubbing caravans exactly like Robin Hood did.

    Mohammad wiped out Jewish villages in and around Mecca.

    Mohammad and his son-in-law (Ali) waged numerous wars against non-Muslims.

    Mohammad and his son-in-law (Ali) executed numerous non-Muslims,
    and according to Hadith (Muslim Historians) Ali beheaded 500 non-Muslims in one day.

    After Mohammad died, his followers waged Jihad (Islamic war)
    and conquered countries after countries
    all the way from Spain and Rome to Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, Egypt,
    Libya, and all African Countries to the west of Saudi Arabia.

    In Quran there are numerous anti-human and war mongering versus (along with few loving versus).

    If anyone, Muslim or Non-Muslim raises any question about Quran, Mohammad, or Allah, the order is “Kill.”

    It is in Quran that numerous Killing (Ghataloo) orders are given.

    The logic is that the more nonsense you hide the less intolerant of criticism you are.

    Allah, the Muslim God, has made a good use of Stick and Carrot.

    Quran says “Girls inherit half the boys.”

    Quran says “Man can beat up his wife (Ayeh 34 of Surah AL-Nessah).

    Quran says “A man catching his wife cheating must lock her in the house until she dies.”

    Quran says “Cut the right hand and left foot” and/or “Cut the left hand the right foot.”

    Quran endorses “Stoning.”

    Quran orders that “Non-Muslim in a Muslim society should have fewer privileges than Muslims
    and should pay more taxes than the Muslims.”
    These are only a few of thousands of warmongering orders in Quran.

  • Herb Silverman

    I’m pleased by your simple Muslim message to “end religious wars, end violent Jihad, rely only on rational discourse through the pen….” However, I’m uncomfortable that you seem to accept this path only because it came from your messiah 125 years ago. It sounds like you still follow the Quran literally, though I like that your interpretations are peaceful. You close with, “You and I may not agree on the belief in God, but I hope we can agree how Islam is to be understood.”

    I can’t say how to interpret the Quran or know how Islam is to be understood. But once you grant that all knowledge comes from one book or a messiah, there will always be different interpretations. I’m more comfortable when people find humane reasons to be rational and nonviolent, independent of holy books. Can we agree that behavior (how we treat others) is more important than belief in messiahs or ancient holy books?

    • anamericanundernogods

      I 100% agree with Herb that “behavior (how we treat others) is more important than belief in Quran, Bible, Torah or other ancient holy books.”

    • SecularHumanist199

      I see nothing in this article that disputes in any way the facts that you raised in your article. While there may be Muslims who are not violent, Islam certainly encourages violent and misogynistic behavior.

  • Frederick David

    Talking is a start but until the non-fundamentalist Muslims actually do something your absence of effective action is the same as condoning.

  • RichardSRussell

    When Mohammed comes down from Paradise, points to you, and says “Harris Zafar and the Ahmadiyyans are right; Osama bin Laden and all the other misogynistic, murdering maniacs purporting to be Muslims are wrong”, then I’ll take you seriously. Until then, they have just as much authority to characterize themselves as the “true” representatives of Islam as you do, and I see no reason why I should believe that either of you is better qualified to speak on behalf of Islam than anybody else. If anything, based on majority vote among self-identified Muslims, the murdering zealots are more representative of Islamic opinion than you are.

    That lack of qualification is true of all 50,000 religions, actually. They’re all simply a matter of opinion, and there’s no way to test any of those opinions against any objective reality, so all we’re left with is “Well, I like my opinion better than the other guy’s”, which is worth nothing whatsoever.

    The above essay is just another exercise in the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

  • Alan M Gold

    The only difference between your Ahmadiyya sect and mainstream Islam is that you are in the minority, and therefore get a tiny taste of what all other religions get in most Muslim countries.
    In India, 200 million Muslims live in relative peace. How many Hindus (or Buddhists, atheists, gays, Jews, etc) live in Pakistan, or Iraq, or Iran, or Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, etc? Official and unofficial discrimination and hatred send them packing.

  • Rashid.M

    The comments so far illustrate the point of the author. Using the actions of certain Muslims as the basis for judging Islam is always going to be problematic. It would be as valid as me giving personal examples of my positive witnessing of and interactions with Muslims throughout my life and then claiming that Islam is therefore a good religion to follow. Even for me to claim that the majority of the 1 billion odd Muslims worldwide are peaceful would not be proof that the teachings of the religion of Islam are therefore peaceful. In the end, personal reading and interpretation of the primary sources is essential to make the case for or against. This is the only standard by which such a judgement can be made, and the only standard by which to judge those who claim to follow it. It is the only way to answer charges such as: ‘While there may be Muslims who are not violent, Islam certainly encourages violence’ , or, Muslims who are good are good despite Islam not because of it. To answer simply by inverting, i.e. ‘While there may be Muslims who are violent, Islam certainly discourages violence’, still lacks the required proof of primary teachings.

    My own view is that the very basic human principles for any valid faith based belief system or any non theist code of morality are essentially the same: i.e. do good to others, don’t oppress, don’t kill the innocent, don’t cheat or lie etc., etc. Or as Herb puts it: ” humane reasons to be rational and nonviolent”, albeit with his caveat against scripture and religion. Therefore I agree that it is possible to be good and moral without scripture. Where I don’t agree though is that persons interpreting scripture in contradiction to such shared morals, necessarily invalidates the scripture rather than the interpretation. Just as non theists acting against accepted morality through their subjective reasoning does not invalidate the process of reasoning subjectively, but simply the reasoning itself which led to an immoral conclusion.

    So when dealing with the question of how should Islam or any other religion be interpreted, I think this could be a basis, i.e. does it uphold these agreed upon basic principles of morality common to us as humans. We can then examine the scriptural evidence against this standard and claim that there is either no interpretation of Islam which fulfils the aforementioned basic criteria, or, we can claim that there is. But at least taking such an approach when interpreting, doesn’t put us in a position where any and every interpretation is considered equally valid.

    • Martin Hughes

      What can be the use of religions or ideologies if we all know the basics of a good life independently of any of them? Presumably because we need in some sense to go beyond the basics – the simple, universally known rules are not quite enough for all problems. But then we compound our problems because the systems of thought that arise among us are so various. The need, then, must be to create the utmost opportunity for all these systems, religious ones included , to coexist. All the major systems, Islam very much included, are capable of interpretations which pose no threat to the peace of society: this is obvious from the fact that most people (most of them by far, far and away) who proclaim loyalty to Islam are not involved in any violent or criminal activity, whereas some people who profess Christianity, Judaism and atheism are. At this rate, none of these basic ideologies are worse (at any rate for these purposes) than any other. So none should be denounced for political reasons in stronger terms than any other: metaphysical or theological arguments are another matter. If the prevalent interpretation of any of them is politically dangerous the task is not to issue polemics (since polemics point to religious war and religious war is probably the worst thing in the human world) which make the adherents of that idea afraid and therefore hostile but to assure them that their idea can, if interpreted peacefully, be accepted in our society. Only if they do wrong and perform criminal acts their ideology will not be accepted as an excuse.

      • Rashid.M

        I agree with much of what you’ve written. The answer to the obvious question of – ‘If the basics of leading a good life can be known independent of religion, what is the use of following religion?’ – is multiple reasons. Apart from the codification of a more comprehensive exploration of morality (i.e. what is right and wrong), religion also claims to answer some of the broader spiritual questions. For instance, speaking personally, Islam answers my questions regarding my life and death. Questions such as Why am I here? What should I be doing and why? Where am I going? etc. Questions whose answers I cannot deduce just through personal reasoning and rationalisation.

        The biggest difference though, between theist and non theist morality, is an accompanying belief or disbelief in God which, by logical extension, accepts or discounts a number of principles. These principles from an Islamic viewpoint include, a belief in every individual having a soul, and a belief that this soul is the basis for life, punishment and reward after death. Further to this is the belief in an ultimate consequence of each individual action in this life through the eventual application of absolute justice, i.e. some sort of final judgement on those actions.

        But differences and disputes in such beliefs aside, there is as I said a common basis for morality which can be agreed upon by theists and non theists alike. And this can be used as a basic standard to judge the actions/interpretations of other humans, including the various shades of Muslims.

      • JoeBillScott™

        I think that any “religion” (whatever that word really means) which has a dogma stating that its approach is the most perfect or will be ultimately victorious (two come to mind immediately) and which therefore is relegating others and other human beings to some lesser degree of validity is absolutely wrong-headed and destructive.

        For instance, Christians who believe that Jews need to be perfected as Christians or Moslems who revisionistically name pre-Mohammedan figures such as Jesus, Moses, and Abraham as actually being Moslem (cf., Issa Al Islam, Musa Al Islam, Ibrahim Al Islam) even on this very superficial level cannot both be right. Indeed by symmetry they are both wrong.

        The concept of Shivim Panim La’Torah or Seventy Facets to the Torah meant to the ancients that there are an essentially infinite number of ways to struggle and grow in our relationships with each other as human beings and within our relationships with God. Each person is really on his own although there is every reason to try to learn from our traditions of inherited wisdom. This is why there are librariesful of books of commentaries and ethical writings and other texts which have been passed down to all of us.

        The ritual observances “orthodox” Jews which seem irrelevant to most people, even most Jews, may simply be the wrapping of a “time parcel” from the past to insure that the message is delivered with fidelity. And though the parcel and those transmitting it have been manhandled and squashed over the years by those who resent its and their simplicity and universalism, the message inside the parcel has not changed. It is still Gratitude, Forgiveness, Generosity and Love.