Three Things You Should Know About Islam and Muslims

Aria Nakissa is an assistant professor of Islamic studies and anthropology.

In my research and teaching, I try to address common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. This often involves drawing attention to particular points. I discuss three such points below.

First, in some important ways, Islam resembles Hinduism and Judaism more than Buddhism and Christianity.

Every major religious tradition, including Islam, admits of significant variation across time and space. That being said, different religious traditions tend to be patterned in distinctive ways. For instance, some traditions were more concerned with political life during their formative period. Consequently, they developed a significant corpus of teachings pertaining to law and war — two basic aspects of political life. These traditions might be labeled “politically concerned.” Meanwhile, other traditions were less focused on political life during their formative period. Consequently, their teachings on politics, law, and war are less developed. These traditions might be labeled “politically ambiguous.” 

Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam can be classed as “politically concerned” religions. Thus, all have developed doctrines on law (Dharma, Halakha, Sharia) and war. These doctrines incorporate legal norms and military tactics that were widespread in premodern societies, but which violate modern liberal norms. As such, modern polemics directed against these traditions have often involved citing their legal and military doctrines outside of their historical context.

Buddhism and Christianity can be classed as “politically ambiguous” religions. All premodern Buddhist and Christian societies habitually utilized laws and military tactics that conflict with modern liberal norms. Nevertheless, it can be argued that such laws and military tactics are not based on doctrines sanctioned by the earliest Buddhist and Christian religious authorities. This provides a strategy for defending Buddhism and Christianity from modern polemics, while depicting them as morally superior to politically concerned religions like Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. At any rate, such polemics offer little in the way of religious understanding. Moreover, it is debatable whether modern liberal norms, generated by modern technologies and social structures, are a useful standard for transhistorical comparison.

Second, expansionist jihads came to an end around 1700 CE. In premodern Islam, the term “jihad” generally refers to religiously motivated warfare.

Such warfare can be defensive in nature (i.e., protecting Muslim lands from non-Muslim invasions). It can also be offensive in nature (i.e., extending Muslim rule over non-Muslim lands). From the emergence of Islam (in the early seventh century) until the early eighteenth century, Muslim societies participated in both defensive and offensive jihads against rival political powers. However, offensive jihads came to an end around 1700, following the failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna and the end of Mughal expansion under Aurangzeb (albeit with the partial exception of Usman dan Fodio’s jihads in West Africa).

From 1700 until today, Muslim jihads have been defensive in character, focused either on repelling foreign invasions (usually by Western countries) or establishing borders in disputed territories (e.g., the borders of Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia). Accordingly, since the nineteenth century, virtually all Muslim religious scholars (including the most conservative) have deemed offensive jihad as inapplicable to modern-day circumstances. These points are often overlooked by Western media outlets, which frequently claim that contemporary Muslims are engaged in efforts to conquer the world by jihad.

Third, in matters of “development,” Muslim countries resemble other countries in the Global South.

It is commonly asserted that Muslim countries are less economically developed and less politically stable than Western countries due to the negative influence of the Islamic religion. Nevertheless, such a view fails to explain why other countries in the Global South face similar difficulties, even when they are not Muslim (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America). Hence, without denying that religion shapes social life, it is necessary to consider alternative explanations for conditions in the Global South (e.g., historical patterns of colonization, geography).

Similarly, many criticisms directed at Muslim immigrant populations in the West are also directed at other immigrant populations from the Global South (e.g., welfare dependency, crime, ethnically segregated neighborhoods). However, only in the case of Muslims is there a strong tendency to attribute negative behavioral patterns to religion, as opposed to other factors (e.g., poverty, racism). For instance, according to many media outlets, theft or murder committed by Muslim gangs should be interpreted as military attacks in a jihad conquest. Similarly, when impoverished Muslims live together in a ghetto or banlieue, this should be interpreted as an attempt to establish an Islamic caliphal government in that area. Analyses of this type generate a distorted view of Muslim communities living in the West and abroad.


Headline photo: “Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s copy of the Koran, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford” by Ben Sutherland CC BY 2.0