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Aqeedah and Fiqh

Ali Shehata | On American Foreign Policy and Answering the “What Can We Do?” Question



I ask Allah that He illuminate our hearts with that which brings benefit to us and to the rest of humanity, and to increase our knowledge. I ask Allah that as He has beautified our outward appearance that He also beautify our manners. I ask Allah for help to do good, protection from wrong and love for the weak; and that He forgives us and has Mercy upon us. I also seek His protection from division, trial and those who stir up enmity between us. Ameen.

There was sadly some confusion that arose from my last post, Saving Our Youth from the Disease of Radicalism, which has prompted me to write this post in clarifiaction. My goal in this post is to elaborate further on some points that were grossly misunderstood in the first post and to re-emphasize the main points that I believe were lost on many people due to the slew of comments. I ask sincere people to please try to read all the way through before jumping to make conclusions that have been already addressed in other parts of the post. Some of my points require a level of reflection and Allah is the best of Helpers.

Is America at War with Islam – Why this is a Central Question?

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The main issue of confusion, of course, was not surprisingly the discussion of American involvement in Muslim international affairs. Before elaborating on my comments, I wish to clarify why this subject ever needed to be discussed in the first place.

There is a movement within some violent extremist groups that believes that our covenant of citizenship, legal residence or visa status is invalidated by America declaring war on Islam. They therefore suppose that since this covenant of security is null and void that this gives them “license” to retaliate and attack Americans in return. If we are going to be serious about our attempts to protect Muslims from violent extremism then we need to address this issue clearly, despite its rarity (all it takes is one nut who thinks this way to create a disaster) and refute it solidly. In my desire to be concise, I did not discuss this premise in the earlier post assuming it to be understood.

So the question that has to be answered then is, “Is America truly at war with Islam, or are they at war with only some Muslims and not others?”  From this standpoint, I think that many of my comments will now make more sense to some of you. For those that still don’t understand the issue clearly, I will further clarify insha’Allah.

In order to prove beyond doubt – as circumstantial evidence is not sufficient – that America is at war with Islam itself, this would mean that America, like the Crusader nations of Europe in the Middle Ages, is out to uproot Islam entirely from the face of the earth. This means that America has abandoned its policy of secularism, and instead, has become a nation whose policy is based primarily upon religious zeal.  A more current example would be the policies of many of the communist regimes that seek to erase all religion. The reality, of course, is far from this.

America, like virtually all other nations on earth today, makes decisions based on national interests, period. True some of their policy makers may hate Islam, but policy is in general created on the basis of interests. This is nothing new in the history of empires. For example, American policy states that it values human rights, and there is no doubt that there are numerous people in the American government who work very hard for human rights. Yet, at the end of the day, they base decisions on their national interests. As a result, they maintain a healthy financial relationship with nations like China, who also happen to be major human rights violators. For many policy-makers, human rights are a nice idea, but certain issues – like trade – trump human rights any day. So where do Muslims come into the picture?

There are times when American national interests coincide with that which is beneficial to Islam and Muslims, and there are other times when their interests create harm to Muslims. Yet, in each case America is only acting in its own interests so as to provide the best life possible for its citizens; whoever is harmed or benefited by these national interest decisions is irrelevant. To understand this better, let us ask ourselves how, for example, the war in Iraq benefits the average American.

In order to better understand this, we have to understand that there is a real concern among many world governments right now, that global oil reserves will run out in the near future. Whenever they do run out, the last place on earth most likely to have oil will be the Arabian Peninsula and its surrounding territories. Far more pressing than that, is the fact that America, in its present state, cannot survive – politically or financially – the shock of an oil shortage. Factor in the reality that this area of the world is very unstable, and without adequate security, could quickly fall into turmoil thereby preventing oil production and resulting in exactly such an oil shortage shock. Thus America has facilitated geopolitical circumstances to ensure it maintains a strong military presence in that area, to ensure the security of its national interests.

So with their occupation of Iraq, why turn the control of the nation back over to Iraqis – Iraqis who are loyal to American concerns for sure, but Iraqis nonetheless? Why not, for example, force the population into Christianity the way Spanish explorers did to the Native Americans? Why not convert all masajid to churches? Why not burn the Qurans as Crusaders had done before? Why not abolish Arabic and make the national language English? Because Islam is not the issue they are concerned about. When I discussed American military personnel converting to Islam, this demonstrates further the fact that American policy cares not about religion as they left the door open for their personnel to listen to those who wished to call them to Islam. My point is that they don’t care about any religion just as long as you stay out of the way of their perceived interests.

So no one can use American actions as a basis for killing people in America. What citizens of Muslim nations do in their respective countries around the world is beyond the scope of this discussion, and I leave that to their scholars who are more aware of what is happening in their localities to advise their youth. What we are focusing primarily on, is preventing Western youth from rising up and killing their neighbors and countrymen by using such a baseless argument.

Is this my political opinion that I wish to force upon you? No, this is my political analysis, which also happens to be shared by a large number of Muslim scholars – east and west – as well as intellectual non-Muslim scholars. You can agree or disagree and I don’t mind. But if you want to paint America as being at war with Islam then you must also understand that such an analysis is not without consequences, and can result in blood on your hands as people will repeat your analysis as their “evidence” that they have no covenant with anyone and are “just defending their people.” I remain acutely aware of the consequences of this analysis, and I believe that Muslims of wisdom will understand the heaviness of these statements and be wary of giving anyone something with which to harm others.

What about Taxes and the Issue of America Being a Democratic Nation?

An important aside that also frequently comes up, is the argument that some violent extremists have forwarded that since Americans pay taxes and those taxes go to support the American war machine that they are in effect not innocents, but indeed direct contributors to the death of many around the world.

Another variation of this argument, proposed in fact by a Saudi scholar who has never left his region of Saudi Arabia much less traveled to the West, is that America is a democratic nation where the government is elected to represent the people’s wishes, and that voters – as a whole – are thus directly responsible for the acts of their leaders. Thus, they conclude that since America’s leaders have approved the use of deadly force in many Muslim countries, that the people who voted them into office are also guilty by proxy. Again, this argument, representing no understanding whatsoever of reality, results in classifying your average soccer-mom as an evil killer of Muslim children, and that she should be fought.

Deconstructing either of these arguments is not difficult alhamdulillah.  As for the payment of taxes, did not the Prophet (saas) forbid the killing of non-combatants, even though he also predicted the Muslims would fight the Romans, and the Romans paid taxes as is well known? Furthermore, most people hate paying taxes, so in the overwhelming majority of cases, taxes are taken forcibly. He even forbade the killing of women, even though women would at times accompany the armies and sing to the men to motivate them to be brave in battle – an act that some may consider aiding the enemy. It is clear from the ayaat and the authentic hadith on this subject though that fighting is restricted to organized armies on the battlefield. We should not forget the authentic athar of Abu Bakr on this issue as well:

وروى مالك أن أبا بكر الصديق بعث جيوشا إلى الشام، فخرج يمشي مع يزيد بن أبي سفيان وكان أمير ربع من تلك الأرباع، ثم قال له : (إنك ستجد قوما زعموا أنهم حبسوا أنفسهم لله فذرهم وما زعموا أنهم حبسوا أنفسهم له، وإني موصيك بعشر : لا تقتلن امرأة، ولا صبيا، ولا كبيرا هرما، ولا تقطعن شجرا مثمرا، ولا تخربن عامرا، ولا تعقرن شاة ولا بعيرا إلا لمأكله، ولا تحرقن نخلا ولا تغرقنه، ولا تغللن، ولا تجبن

Malik narrates that Abu Bakr as-Sideeq sent forth some armies to fight the Romans in Greater Syria. He went for a walk with Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan who was the commander of one of the battalions. Then Abu Bakr advised Yazid, “You will find a people who claim to have totally given themselves to Allah. Leave them to what they claim to have given themselves and all others who make such a claim. I advise you ten things: Do not kill a woman or a child or an elderly person. Do not cut down fruit-bearing trees. Do not destroy an inhabited place. Do not slaughter sheep or camels except if you must for food. Do not burn bees and do not drown them. Do not steal from the spoils, and do not be cowardly.”  (Muwatta)

As for the argument about democratic societies voting in leadership that represents them, this requires no evidence other than an awareness of reality. How many people vote on the basis of foreign policy and military involvement? As we have already mentioned, many people supported Obama because he was going to get them out of those battlefields. But at the end of the day, people vote with an eye on issues like jobs, healthcare and education (CBS News Poll. Nov. 7-10, 2010). As Bill Clinton’s chief campaign strategist once said, “It’s the economy stupid.” And even after voting for someone, like George W. Bush for example, who entered the nation into two dubious wars, there is still a significant anti-war movement. So just because a nation votes and maintains some semblance of democratic representation, that doesn’t consign everyone to be a replica of the next in terms of opinions and priorities. Of course, it also helps to be familiar with such societies before passing a fatwa.

The Matter of American Foreign Policy – When does it Help to Discuss It?

So now we come to the issue that enraged some people – the issue of my perspective on American foreign policy. Those that have read my other posts – particularly on Gaza – already know that I have sharp disagreement with American foreign policy decisions. Guess what? So does almost everyone else in America. Yes, there are the Sarah Palins out there who believe that America can do no wrong – every decision is blessed by God in their view. But the past few elections – presidential and congressional – have demonstrated a great degree of frustration with American governmental decision-making, both foreign and domestic. In fact, one of the campaign promises with which Obama scored many votes was the promise to get American troops out of Iraq. No surprise, as the anti-war movement is very strong both in the US and the UK. So there are many that disagree with foreign policy, and I am one of them, but that is NOT the issue that should be concerning us here.

So does this mean that I don’t care if Muslims get hurt? That the suffering they are experiencing is not important to me? That I imagine America to be selflessly helping Muslims? No, it only means that I am striving to understand the way the system works, which is a necessity for us if we wish to achieve progress. The reality of my love for this Ummah is nothing that I feel the need to prove to anyone, it is something which is between me and Allah, something I don’t need to express in order to be praised or recognized. The result of my concern for this Ummah, though, is that I will not let their suffering and their deaths happen in vain.

Many of my Islamic teachers have lamented how we have become an Ummah of complainers and complacency. Yet, one of the chief characteristics of the Companions and Tabi’een which allowed them to change the world for centuries to come was that they were people of beneficial action. They did sometimes fall prey to that natural human weakness of complaining at times though, but let us see how the Prophet (saas) responded to that:

Narrated Khabab ibnul Arrat: ‘I approached the Prophet when he was reclining in the shade of the Ka‘bah one day. This was in the days when we had received some harm from the pagans (tortured by them). I said to him: ‘O Messenger of Allah, will you not ask Allah to help us? Will you not pray for our relief from this persecution?” He sat up red in the face and said: “Among the followers of Allah before you were those who were thrown in a ditch and then sawed in half. Yet this did not make them turn away from the worship of Allah. And others had their skin combed with iron combs to the point that the flesh was lifted from the bones yet they too were not swayed from the worship of Allah. For there is no doubt that Allah will cause Islam to spread until a person can ride from San’a to Hadramaut (two distant cities in Yemen) and he will not fear anything except God and the wolf regarding his sheep. Yet you are a people who are too hasty!” (Ahmad – Sahih)

Here we see Khabab, one of the earliest and noblest of the Companions, complaining to the Prophet (saas). If we could translate his concerns into the modern day language of so many angry youth, it would be, “Why won’t you do anything!”  Yes, there are a lot of people suffering today. Yes, there are a lot of Muslims getting abused by security agencies. Yes, there is a lot of death and misery at the hands of non-Muslims. But Allah has promised that Islam will be superior, but we want it too soon. We want it without working for it. We want immediate gratification and we’re not ready to be patient for anything.

How does this relate back to the foreign policy issue that some people went ballistic on? I can’t think of a better way to say it, then how I answered one of the comments. Okay, foreign policy has serious flaws. We all agree, in fact even a lot of non-Muslims even agree. So now what? Dead silence ….

One of the scholars in Egypt asked us this question, and by Allah I wish that you would answer this question yourself. We burn hours every day getting enraged at news and reading stories of suffering, and then we burn even more time arguing on forums and discussing these problems with our friends and family. How much time do we spend reading Qur’an or making du’a though? Tell me by Allah, is the problem going to be solved by arguing with some stranger online or by pleading with Allah for His Mercy. We stay awake until the late hours of the night with these forums but we wouldn’t spend thirty minutes in tahajjud crying to Allah for help. Is the message getting through yet? In case you missed it, listen to what Allah states:

وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ ءامَنُواْ مِنْكُمْ وَعَمِلُواْ الصَّـلِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُمْ فِى الاْرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ وَلَيُمَكّنَنَّ لَهُمْ دِينَهُمُ الَّذِى ارْتَضَى لَهُمْ وَلَيُبَدّلَنَّهُمْ مّن بَعْدِ خَوْفِهِمْ أَمْناً

Allah has promised those among you who believe and do good deeds, that He will certainly grant them succession in the land, as He granted it to those before them, and that He will grant them the authority to practice their religion which He has chosen for them. And He will surely give them in exchange security after their fear if they worship Me and do not associate anything with Me. But whoever disbelieved after this, they are the rebellious. [24:55]

Ibn Kathir states in his tafsir of this ayah,

“This is a promise from Allah to His Messenger that He would cause his Ummah to become successors on earth, i.e., they would become the leaders and rulers of mankind, through whom He would reform the world and to whom people would submit, so that they would have in exchange a safe security after their fear. This is what Allah did indeed do, may He be glorified and exalted, and to Him be praise ….

Ar-Rabi` bin Anas narrated that Abu Al-`Aliyah said, “The Prophet and his Companions were in Makkah for nearly ten years, calling people in secret to worship Allah Alone with no partner or associate. They were in a state of fear and were not instructed to fight until after they were commanded to migrate to Al-Madinah. When they came to Al-Madinah, then Allah instructed them to fight. In Al-Madinah they were afraid and they carried their weapons morning and evening. This is how they remained for as long as Allah willed…” Then Allah revealed this ayah. He caused His Prophet to prevail over the Arabian Peninsula, and then they felt safe and put down their weapons. Then Allah took His Prophet and they remained safe throughout the time of Abu Bakr, `Umar and `Uthman, until what happened happened, and fear again prevailed over them, so they instituted a police force and guards. They changed, so their situation changed.”

Ahh, they changed, so their situation changed – that is the point we don’t want to understand. Ibn Kathir continues in his tafsir:

(But whoever disbelieved after this, they are the rebellious) means, `whoever then stops obeying Me after that, has stopped obeying the command of his Lord, and that is a great sin.’ The Companions — may Allah be pleased with them — were the most committed of people after the Prophet to the commands of Allah and the most obedient to Allah. Their victories were in accordance with their level of commitment. They caused the Word of Allah to prevail in the east and the west, and Allah supported them so much that they governed all the people and all the lands. When the people subsequently fell short in their commitment to some of the commandments, their strength and victory fell short accordingly ….

Why do I believe that foreign policy – unjust as it may often be – is not the issue? Because foreign policy doesn’t affect your personal approach to worshipping and obeying Allah, and our worship is one of the main elements in our weakness and humiliation by the decree of Allah. Is foreign policy and governmental corruption worldwide the source of the rage and frustration of the youth and those who set out on the path of violent extremism? Absolutely, there is no doubt about that. Does that excuse their violent outbursts or their killing of people on subways or airplanes? No.

Should foreign policy concerns then be the focus of our writing? I believe that for the vast majority of Muslims it should not and it is for this reason, on a Muslim blog, that I am focused on what I understand from the Qur’an and Sunnah – as presented previously and today – to be the chief source of our misery; our abandonment of our religion on both a personal and societal level. No amount of killing is going to change that and on this point we have to achieve a consensus.

Where do foreign policy concerns actually have value in discussion? They are valuable to those Muslims who have the ability to impact that policy through their political efforts. Some have falsely accused me and other Al-Maghrib teachers as following the idea of, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” yet it was a group of Al-Maghrib instructors who only last month met in Washington D.C. with representatives of DHS and NCTC (National Counter-Terrorism Center) to relay Muslim community concerns that affect us all – both here in the US and abroad. There are also other Muslims who have a passion and skill for the political scene and have succeeded in benefitting the Muslim Ummah in a variety of cases and policies. This is what we speak of when we say beneficial action. The brothers and sisters who are involved in these efforts limit their talk to what is beneficial and practical, and they act upon that in a way that is legal both Islamically and societally. But again, this applies to a small group of people and they are not complainers, but solution-minded individuals.

Answering the Common Question – What Can We Do?

So the answer to, “what can we do?” depends on your skill set. If you are passionate about helping the Muslims of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine – and we should all be passionate about helping the Ummah – there are a variety of beneficial things that you can do. Some have excellent jobs and they can work extra to donate large sums of money to help rebuild broken lives; others have excellent organizational skills and they can be on the ground helping people face-to-face in many Muslim countries with organizations like Islamic Relief, ICNA Helping Hands, Doctors without Borders. These are experiences that will change your life and you will definitely be “doing something.” Others are wonderful speakers and writers and can work to educate people about what is happening because many Americans do care about how their money is being spent and they do care about justice. This can result in policy changes. I have written a post on a similar issue in the past. Lastly, let us not forget about the very real needs in our own communities. We sometimes focus so much on distant lands and forget our own needy.

But the thing that we all need to do, and not enough of us are doing, is going back to our deen to understand it properly and to implement it correctly. This is a big “something,” but because it takes too long to achieve results, many impatient people, particularly youth, have no interest in hearing about it or doing it.

The thing that some of them do pursue, that has absolutely no benefit, is violent extremism. This extremism has been something that some misguided Muslims have been working at now for literally decades, and it has not resulted in anything but further harm. It is not jihad to kill your countrymen whether it be in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, America, Germany or England. These are nations that have a covenant with us. Thus to hurt their citizens in their lands, even if the nation has caused some harm or difficulty for Muslims, carries the great possibility of forfeiting Jannah:

من قتل معاهدا لم يرح رائحة الجنة ، وإن ريحها توجد من مسيرة أربعين عاما

On the authority of Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibnal ‘Aas who states that the Messenger of Allah said, “Whoever kills someone who is protected under a covenant then he shall not even smell the scent of Paradise, even though its scent may be appreciated from a distance of over forty years.” (Bukhari)  And in another narration, “Allah has forbidden him Paradise.” (Albani – Saheeh al-Jaami’)

ألا من ظلم معاهدا ، أو انتقصه حقه ، أو كلفه فوق طاقته ، أو أخذ منه شيئا بغير طيب نفس منه ، فأنا حجيجه يوم القيامة

And it has been narrated from some of the Companions and their children that the Prophet (saas) said, “I will argue on the Day of Judgment against the one who: does injustice to one of the people of the covenant, give him less than his right, ask him to do what he cannot bear, or takes anything from him without his permission.” (Abu Dawood, others – Sahih)

No doubt, a serious concern of today is that young people have become deceived into believing that it is jihad to kill their fellow countrymen. Yet, if they survive this period of youth without dying, they often repent as did many of the leaders of jihadi movements overseas, like Sayyid Imam al-Sharif of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad group, previously a partner with al-Qaeda. In his now famous refutation of al-Qaeda and its methodology, al-Sharif warns,

Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth while living under the protection of intelligence services, or of a tribe, or in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country. They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.

To Muslims living in non-Islamic countries eager to wage “jihad,” he advises:

I say it is not honorable to reside with people – even if they were non-believers and not part of a covenant, if they gave you permission to enter their homes and live with them, and if they gave you security for yourself and your money, and if they gave you the opportunity to work or study, or they granted you political asylum with a decent life and other acts of kindness – and then betray them, through killing and destruction. This was not in the manners and practices of the Prophet (saas).

His age cooled many of his raging emotions that many of our youth suffer from today. It also allowed him to apply wisdom in evaluating the consequences of actions. This is what we are saying now – agree or disagree about the evidences from Quran and Sunnah, you cannot ignore the consequences of your actions:

[Many] people hate America, and the Islamist movements feel their hatred and their impotence. Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy’s buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours?

The Etiquette of Disagreement

Lastly, when we disagree as Muslims we cannot use emotion and anger as evidences for anything. Our evidences as Muslims are the words of Allah and His Messenger, as they were understood by the generations whom Allah praised. Abandoning these and replacing them with misguided emotion and stories does nothing but lead many people astray, and there is no doubt that too many Muslims have gone down the road of violent extremism because of emotion combined with a superficial understanding of the religion.

There is a wisdom that the people of knowledge have gained in their studies over many years that will be hidden from you if you cannot be patient enough to hear them out. As ibn Abbaas once said, two types of people who will never gain knowledge, “the shy and the arrogant.” Too many comments on these forums demonstrate a great arrogance towards the people of knowledge and dispelling their words without giving them even the chance to explain or to elaborate. May Allah give us manners so that we may benefit from that knowledge before it leaves this world.

I also wish to remind everyone that we are all Muslim and I have no doubt that if you read this article carefully, hoping to benefit from it that you have the good intention to benefit your Ummah. As your brother, I have certain rights and one of those is that you give me the benefit of the doubt and speak to me with the politeness due to any Muslim. I have not given any indication to being an innovator or a corrupt Muslim, and it is only disobedience to Allah that you speak to me this way. I do not claim any right beyond that which any other Muslim commands. I say this for myself and for the other authors who spend a great deal of time working to help this Ummah.

I have not spoken ill of anyone else, and even in regards to Anwar al-Awlaki, I have not insulted him or called him disrespectful names. I have only described him as one who has subscribed to the path of violent extremism and I had enough respect to call him to repent with the best way that I could, reminding him of all the good he has done and saying that we all believe him to be an intelligent Muslim who no doubt wants good for the Muslims but has lost his way in this path. It benefits no one to use rude language and insulting names, and certainly the one who is sincere is his desire that his fellow Muslim turn away from sin would never use this manner. Do not allow Shaytan to come between us for indeed he has already come between us far too much and created too much enmity between us.

In conclusion, I ask Allah to make this article and the one that preceded it of benefit to the Muslims and that whatever mistakes I have made therein will be shown to me in a good manner so that I may improve upon them. I ask Allah to secure this Ummah from destroying itself from within and to protect us from attacking one another like wild animals, spilling each other’s blood and violating one another’s honor. I ask Him that He protect our youth from rage, anger and misguidance of all forms. I ask Him to give us the wisdom to educate them and to guide them to actions that are of benefit to them and to the rest of humanity. And lastly, I seek Allah’s protection from being a source of fitnah to anyone else. Ameen.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Dr. Ali Shehata is the author of Demystifying Islam: Your Guide to the Most Misunderstood Religion of the 21st Century. Dr. Ali is an Emergency and Family Medicine physician currently living in an area of central Florida. He was born in Maryland to parents who had immigrated to the US from Egypt. He has studied Islam mainly through traditional methods among various scholars, du'at and students of knowledge here in the US.