In the media, and in the world at large, we are fed many narratives about the unique propensity of Islam towards violence. We see arguments for apocalyptic, creeping, stealth Jihad conspiracies on a regular and incessant basis in the Islamophobesphere and beyond. Little mention or attention is paid to the peacemakers, the voices seeking transformative change, from norms of vengeance and retaliation to ones of reconciliation and peace–Arsalan Iftikhar is one such peacemaker.
We discussed with Iftikhar his book on the topic of “Islamic pacifism,” a hitherto almost alien concept to many minds but one that Iftikhar believes is an important imperative for what he calls our “millennial ‘farewell to arms.’” The book describes “Islamic Pacifiscm” as,
…a humanitarian ethical platform rooted within the general concepts of nonviolence and basic Muslim ethical teachings of mercy and compassion towards all of humanity. From the global Muslim response to September 11 to analyzing the concept of ‘The Golden Rule’ within Islamic tradition to highlighting the contributions of historical Muslim pacifist giants from our recent past, this book ‘Islamic Pacifism’ shall offer young girls and boys of all colors and religions around the world a nonviolent antidote to many of our shared social and political issues affecting our globe today.
We also discussed the increasing fear-mongering about “Sharia,” and the notion of “Jihad” and how that fits in with pacifism.
LW: Islamic pacifism will probably strike many as a novel idea, yet you point out in your book there is a long history of pacifism in Islam. You mention several historical figures, including Abdul Ghaffer Khan. Khan was a friend of Gandhi, and was referred to as “Frontier Gandhi” in his day. How have the teachings of Gandhi, Khan, and other historical pacifists influenced your work?
Iftikhar: Mahatma Gandhi once beautifully said that, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” The important take-away from that sentiment is that the concepts of nonviolence and pacifism are as old as humanity itself. For Gandhi, he attained his inspiration from previous pacifist luminaries like Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. Just like Dr. Martin Luther King adapted his own version of Christian pacifism, by highlighting the lives of prominent Muslim pacifists like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and others, I am hoping to help shift the global narrative on Islam in a more iconoclastic direction.
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LW: The word “jihad” has entered the Western vocabulary as a synonym for “holy war.” In sharp contrast, you’ve called for a “love jihad.” In practical terms, what does that mean?
Iftikhar: For young pacifists around the world, our millennial ‘farewell to arms’(or ‘love jihad’) will be a very simple global pacifist philosophy based on the ethical thesis that every single geopolitical issue in existence today (and from this day onwards) will only be resolved through diplomatic, peaceful, and nonviolent means. As millennial pacifists of all colors, we must help to elevate and enlighten our next generation by finding innovative, humanitarian ways to positively contribute to our respective societies and not be bogged down by the political baggage of our older generations.
LW: What is the “Clash of the Knuckleheads” and how does it relate to the “Clash of Civilizations”?
Iftikhar: Well, my book ‘Islamic Pacifism’ highlights the last interview ever of Samuel Huntington (author of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory) with our Islamica magazine. In his interview extensively mentioned in my book, I write that most people would agree that the vast numerical majority of the human race would obviously prefer ‘peace’ over ‘war’ on any given day of the week.
Following suit, this would necessarily (and mathematically) make the warmongering knucklehead dinosaurs (on both sides of the global political velvet rope) among the infinitesimal minority of the world’s total numerical population. Thus, since many of our global political problems today revolve around extremist ‘knuckleheads’ on both sides who are not even close to representing the majority of any given ‘civilization’ around the world, this global political hypothesis should probably tweak Huntington’s theory to be renamed ‘The Clash of Knuckleheads.’
LW: The next time there is a provocation, like the Danish cartoon controversy, you said before responding, Muslims should ask themselves, “WWMD?” What would Muhammad do?
Iftikhar: The next time there is one of these geopolitical flashpoints, we should be reminded of a well-known Islamic parable that tells the story of the Prophet Mohammed and his interactions with an unruly female neighbor, who would curse him violently and then dump garbage on him from her top window each time he walked by her house. One day, the prophet noticed that the woman was not there. In the spirit of true kindness, he went out of his way to inquire about her well-being. He then went on to visit his unfriendly neighbor at her bedside when he found that she had fallen seriously ill.
This genteel act of prophetic kindness toward unfriendly or overtly hostile neighbors is the Muslim “Ubuntu” standard that we should all aspire to, not irrational threats of violence in response to some silly, sophomoric cartoons aimed at inciting a provocative response around the world. If we ask ourselves the simple question “What would Mohammed do?” about this, the even simpler answer would be two words: “Absolutely nothing.”
LW: You have called for abolishing the death penalty. Why is this so important to you?
Iftikhar: By following the brave political lead of the European Union and every other major industrialized nation in the world (with our United States being the tragic lone exception), the diverse spectrum of 56 Muslim nations can finally start to show to the rest of the world that our millennial global Muslim community are helping to improve our respective legal, political and human rights frameworks to comfortably fit within our global village’s accepted standards of current international humanitarian law. As a proud Muslim death penalty abolitionist, aside from our own disastrous death penalty experiment here in the United States, it is important for every reader to again remember that every single other country in the entire global community of modern-day industrialized nations has already outlawed the death penalty from their respective legal and judicial systems.
LW: As a devout Muslim and a strong advocate for women’s rights, why do you think Islam is widely perceived as inherently misogynistic?
Iftikhar: Notwithstanding the Western media’s obsession and fixated lens on global Islamic feminist issues like the hijab (head scarf) and other compelling (albeit fringe) media stories of (dis)honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM) and/or the absurdity of ‘morality police’ anywhere around the globe; any knowledgeable observer would also have to unflinchingly concede that Muslim women around the world today have suffered the vast majority of these disparate sociopolitical impacts primarily because of anachronistic medieval cultural tribalism and ridiculous un-Islamic legal edicts (a la ‘women are not allowed to drive’ laws) aimed at continuing patriarchal hegemonic societies clinging onto their dinosaur mentality from their own tortured historical pasts.
In fact, any truly holistic reading of the Quran (or any other religious holy book) actually reinforces the divine idea that males and females are all created by God as equal human beings meant to be inseparable and complementary to one another – to coexist with mutual love and recognition.
LW: Many states in the US are considering legislation to ban Islamic Law in response to fears of “creeping Sharia.” As a human rights lawyer, what would you say to people who feel Sharia is a genuine threat to the American legal system?
Iftikhar: The “supremacy clause” of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) states quite clearly that the “Constitution and the laws of the United States … shall be the supreme law of the land” and that no other law (foreign or domestic) can pre-empt or supersede it. Any idiot who says that Islamic law is about to take over America should retroactively fail 9th grade civics class.
LW: Thank you for taking your time out and discussing some of these very important ideas and issues.
Iftikhar: You’re welcome and it has been my pleasure.
His book is available at Amazon.com, or signed copies can be purchased here from Islamica Magazine.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, global media commentator and author of the book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era. Arsalan is a regular contributor for National Public Radio (NPR) and his ‘on-the-record’ media interviews, commentaries and analyses have regularly appeared in virtually every major media outlet in the world.
Excerpt: Iftikhar, Arsalan (2011-10-04). Islamic Pacifism (Kindle Locations 1911-1952). Booksurge. Kindle Edition:
Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as ‘The Frontier Gandhi’)
In March 2005, I was honored to give a keynote speech in my home state at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was even more humbled by the fact that the person who was officially introducing me to the college audience that evening was Professor Rajmohan Gandhi; a former Indian politician and well-known grandson of the legendary pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi. In addition to being a lifelong peace activist like his well-known grandfather, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi had also written the seminal biography on the life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan; the famous Muslim pacifist contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi known around as the world as ‘The Frontier Gandhi’ and the ‘Nonviolent Badshah [King] of the Pashtuns’ within the geographical region known today as modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a December 7, 2001 column for The New York Times entitled “The Peacemaker of the Pashtun Past”, Karl Meyer of the World Policy Journal wrote that Abdul Ghaffar Khan was “renowned as ‘the Frontier Gandhi’…His [Muslim pacifist] followers…all had to swear: ‘I shall never use violence. I shall not retaliate or take revenge, and shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses against me.’” Furthermore, for over two decades of his life, “Ghaffar and his [supporters] dominated the North-West Frontier [Province of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan] without resort to violence, enduring prison and torture.” In response to this political campaign of Islamic pacifism, Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s dear friend and pacifist contemporary, Mahatma Gandhi, once called Khan’s non-violent political feat “a miracle”. In Professor Rajmohan Gandhi’s seminal biography entitled Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pashtuns, one of the central theses of the important life history of this Islamic pacifist was the notion that: “To this Muslim, forgiveness was [an integral] part of Islam.”
“There is nothing surprising about a Muslim like me subscribing to nonviolence,” once said Abdul Ghaffar Khan during a personal meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. “It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet [Muhammad], all the time he was in Mecca…But we [Muslims] had so forgotten it that when Mahatma Gandhi placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a new creed or a novel weapon.” For Abdul Ghaffar Khan, this pacifist doctrine of Islamic nonviolence (or adam tashaddud in his native Pushto language) was considered to be the “twin of patience [or perseverance], a virtue stressed again and again in the Quran.” A true sociopolitical visionary during his lifetime, in response to the blatant historical mistreatment of Muslim women within our own Islamic societies, Ghaffar Khan was once known to have said to all the women of his region:
“In the Holy Qur’an, you have an equal [human] share with men…You are today oppressed because we men have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet [Muhammad]…Today, we are the followers of [tribal] custom and we oppress you.”
Mahatma Gandhi was once known to have famously said that, “I claim to have as much regard in my heart for Islam and other religions as for my own.” Furthermore, during a personal conversation between the two dear pacifist friends, Mahatma Gandhi once told Abdul Ghaffar Khan: “Look, nonviolence is not for cowards…It is for the brave.”
To exemplify the profound impact of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s life on the millions of people of South Asia, in a June 19, 1947 personal conversation with his own grand-niece, Mahatma Gandhi once uttered these amazing words about the Islamic pacifist known around the world as Abdul Ghaffar Khan:
I cannot sleep…The thought of him has robbed me of my sleep…I cannot cease thinking of Badshah Khan…He is a prodigy…I am seeing more and more of his deeply spiritual nature daily…He has patience, faith and nonviolence joined in true humility…He is a man of penance, also of illumination, with love for all and hatred for none.
At a time when there was great communal bloodshed between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs during the fight for independence from British colonial rule, Abdul Ghaffar Khan always commanded nonviolence to India’s Muslim populations in the name of Islam and the Holy Quran. “If you plant a slap after having been provoked by a slap, then what is the difference between the followers of the Quran and the evildoer?” once asked Badshah Khan on the need to peacefully respond to any grievance in the name of the basic Islamic ethical teachings of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. In 1984, on speaking to the pure divine simplicity of his own Islamic pacifism, the ninety-four-year-old Abdul Ghaffar Khan once said as he tapped his own chest: “What else can I do…if Allah has placed this feeling [of love] for all people inside here?”
Whether one is a Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jewish pacifist, the tremendous ninety-eight-year human legacy of global pacifism exemplified by Abdul Ghaffar Khan showed our world that “the naturalness of his Islam, his directness, his rejection of violence and revenge and his readiness to cooperate with non-Muslims add up to a valuable legacy for our angry times.” Named in 1957 as Amnesty International’s ‘Prisoner of the Year’ for his nonviolent protests, the world-renowned human rights organization said at the time that, “His example symbolizes the suffering of upwards of a million people all over the world who are in prison [simply] for their conscience.” As the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the seminal biographer of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, my dear friend Professor Rajmohan Gandhi finally noted that the most important legacy of the Islamic pacifist known as Abdul Ghaffar Khan was the simple historical fact that “his bridge-building life is a [direct] refutation of the clash-of-civilizations theory.”
In summarizing the overall historical significance of the amazing life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, The Washington Post once noted that his life exemplifies the greater need to tell the world “about an Islamic practitioner of pacifism at a moment when few in the West understand its effectiveness and fewer still associate it with anything Islamic.”
Finally, the Christian Science Monitor once beautifully summarized the overall global contribution of this Muslim pacifist giant quite perfectly when it simply stated:
The essence of Khan’s story…is that the true nature of Islam is nonviolent.