was born in Homs, Syria, and came to the United States in 1954. He studied at the American University of Beirut and the University of Southern California. Currently, he is director of Interfaith affairs at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, New York, and also executive director for the New York office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, known as CAIR–NY. Recently, he shared with the Sentinel some of his thoughts about issues that he feels are most important to Muslims in relation to peace in the Middle East. Speaking of our work with him, which we all hope will help to bring peace, he said, "May God bless your efforts."
What attitudes make for peace?
Without justice, there cannot be peace. People have to be fair and just and then pray and work for peace. There has to be tolerance and understanding of everybody's feelings toward, let's say, the city of Jerusalem, which is central to Muslims, not just to Jews and Christians.
Tell us about the Muslim view of Jerusalem.
Many people know why Jerusalem is important for Jews and Christians, but very few know why it is also of great importance to 1.3 billion Muslims in the world—more than 6 million of whom are Americans, in addition to 3 million Christian Arab-Americans.
Jerusalem is one of three holiest cities for Muslims, next to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem is a city sacred to Muslims because many prophets of Islam—including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad—lived, preached, or visited this holy place.
Jerusalem played a very important role in the life of Muhammad. It was the focus of the miraculous "Night Journey," during which he was transported with the Angel Gabriel from Mecca to Jerusalem. From there he ascended with the Angel Gabriel to the Seventh Heaven, where Muslims were ordered by God to pray five times a day. The Prophet then descended to Jerusalem, where he led a prayer and the other prophets of God followed him. By God's power, he was then returned to Mecca from Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is important to Muslims in the practice of their daily prayers and the pilgrimage (Al-Hajj), as well. Muslims believe that Jerusalem's Masjid Al-Aqsa mosque and Mecca's Masjid Al-Haram mosque will be connected on the Day of Judgment. And that The Dome of the Rock mosque is a place in special proximity to heaven. Prophet Muhammad also associated the Rock under the dome with the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. That is why Muslims pray and wish to be buried in its vicinity.
These are some of the reasons why Jerusalem and the holy lands are so important for Muslims.
How do Muslims feel about Christians and Jews?
Muslims believe in and revere all of God's prophets, all the original divine revelations, and they respect their followers. They bear witness that there is only one God, that Muhammad is God's last Messenger and Prophet, that Abraham was the friend of God, that Moses was spoken to directly by God, and that Jesus, the son of the Virgin Mary, was from the spirit of God. This clearly shows the Islamic reverence for all prophets of God.
That is also true for the people who accept the teachings of these prophets. In the Koran, Jews and Christians are called "the people of the book" because of the Torah of Moses and the Bible of Jesus, peace be upon them both. Therefore, we accept and respect them. Islam teaches that we are all brothers and sisters because Allah created us from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve. Naturally, such understanding and respect need to come from all sides.
In our shrinking world, we have to learn to live together in harmony. There can be no occupier by force, no matter who it is. We have to have understanding. When we do not know about each other's faith, then we fear each other, fear creates tensions, tensions create violence, and so forth. We have to learn to live together in a society that respects the rights and aspirations of all, not one to the exclusion of the other.
Do you feel Westerners understand Islam?
Not really. There are so many misconceptions about Islam. One is the way Western media portray the term Islamic fundamentalism as something negative and bad. This term really refers to Muslims wishing to return to the basic, fundamental principles of Islam and to mold their lives accordingly. Islam is a complete way of life based on moderation. God-fearing Muslims cannot be fanatic or extremist. Some media outlets say that Muslims—or Islam—teach violence, terrorism, and extremism. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about Islam because, in reality, violence and terrorism are anti-Islamic acts.
"Spirituality is part and parcel of the Islamic way of life."
—Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan
Many people do not realize that the word Islam itself is based on the word peace. Islam means to submit to the will of God and to live in peace with all of God's creation. The Prophet Muhammad said: "To love each other you must spread (establish) peace." The Koran states that As-Salaam ("The Peace") is one of the 99 beautiful attributes of God.
Can you talk about the spiritual life of Muslims?
Muslims, in general, are very spiritual people. Our five daily prayers are just one of the five pillars of Islam. Fasting, too, is part of our prayer. It is done in obedience to God. It creates a consciousness of God and an awareness of hunger. This sharpens our feeling for the needy. Giving part of our savings, if any, and sharing it with the needy is another form of prayer for peace, because if people are hungry they cannot have peace. They have to be fed and taken care of, health-wise and financially, and have a clean and a safe place to sleep.
All these are part of the peaceful ways of Islam. Before starting to do anything, we begin with the name of God by saying, "In The Name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate." This constant remembrance of God helps us to remain calm and connects us with our creator, for we know that God alone can help us when no one else can. So spirituality is part and parcel of the Islamic way of life.
By the same token, Muslims believe that God appointed 124,000 prophets before Muhammad. This number is so large that none can claim that they have no knowledge of God's commandments to humanity on the Day of Judgment. So there is a responsibility to be conscious of and obedient to God's commands.
You have been active in establishing relationships with Christians and Jews. Please describe some of this work.
Understanding is a two-way street. We encourage all Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, and others to engage in dialogue. These discussions must continue and develop further. Presently, this is being done on a private basis between groups. I believe it should be extended to a public level through radio and television, where people of diverse backgrounds could discuss their beliefs with each other. To speak to each other, not at each other.
Interfaith dialogues such as the Islamic-Roman Catholic Dialogue, the American Muslims and Jews in Dialogue, the Multi-Faith Forum, and so on, are conducted through the Islamic Center of Long Island and the Council on American Islamic Relations–NY. In the MultiFaith Forum, we have had 12 different religious groups working together for the last 6 years, not only talking to each other but also going out and speaking through our Building Bridges program to churches, synagogues, schools, and women's and men's clubs. We are now preparing for our third Multi-
Faith Festival, to be held in the fall of 2001 on Long Island.
I think this is one aspect of our activities that should be duplicated all over the country, even the world, because the misconceptions that we have about each other's religious beliefs are so many.
Many people are surprised to find Muslims and mosques in the United States.
Some people think of Islam as a foreign entity in America. To those who think so, we should ask, "Where did Judaism and Christianity come from? From Paris, London, Washington, D.C., or New York?" I don't think so.
God's message to humanity is one: to do the will of God and to live at peace with all of God's creation. Monotheism was revealed to the prophets in the area of the Middle East, and therefore people in the United States should not consider Muslims and Islam as a foreign entity. Otherwise, Jews/Judaism and Christians/Christianity would also be foreign entities in America.
What light can you shed on the jihad or the "holy war" that we hear so much about?
I often am asked, "Why do you believe in Islamic holy war?"
I say: "Where do you get this from?"
They say: "We read in the paper, it says, 'jihad is a holy war.' This is, of course, based totally on a misconception. There is nothing holy about wars. Literally, jihad means to strive, struggle, and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes:
• struggle against evil inclinations within oneself through self-purification and piety.
• struggle to improve the quality of life in society, promoting goodness and resisting evil.
• struggle in the battlefield if absolutely necessary for self-defense (e.g., having a standing Army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression. Even here, strict regulations were given by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to avoid hurting non-combatants and prevent destruction of property. These regulations automatically exclude all acts of individual, group, or state terrorism. Such acts are alien to Islamic teachings.
The equivalent of the term "holy war" in Arabic is harb muqaddasah, a term that cannot be found anywhere in the Koran or the Prophet's sayings (Al-Hadeeth), the only two authorized sources of Islamic teachings. There is no such thing as "holy war" in Islam, as some mischievous or careless translators may imply. It is rather a loaded concept created by medieval crusaders. It did not come out of the Muslim community. But, because of the frequent repetition of this myth by the media, most people in the West accept it as if it were a fact.
The aspect of jihad that entails military action is what legitimate states carry out to defend the weak, to protect the society, and to establish justice. In the Koran, Islam's divinely revealed text, we find: "Dispute not with the people of the book (Jews and Christians) except in the politest way, unless it is with those of them who do wrong. But say: We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you. Our God and your God is One: and to Allah we submit ourselves" (Q29:46).
It is reported by Muslim scholars that when a man approached Prophet Muhammad asking to join his troops in battle, the Prophet asked if his parents were alive. The man said they were. The Prophet told the man: "Then strive in serving and providing for them." This was to be that man's jihad, or struggle. Another tradition quotes the Prophet as saying that one of the best forms of jihad is "a word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler."
Anyone, even a Muslim, who translates jihad as "holy war" is making a linguistic and historical error.
Do you see any common ground on which peace can be built?
Our experience has shown that the basic beliefs of Jews, Christians, and Muslims have much in common. All of us believe in one God and in the Ten Commandments. I would say 99.9 percent of religious teachings are really the same. Do you know why? Because the source is one. It is God Almighty, who does not give contradictory teachings.
It is people who have created those differences in religion. The basic teaching from God is the same.
It is people who have created the differences, and so different religious views have developed. The basic teaching from God is the same. But in time, people have, unfortunately, revised and rewritten the Holy Scriptures so many times that the human element got involved, and the original teachings have been obscured.
In our interfaith dialogues, we concentrate on the similarities and respect the differences, without saying, "You are wrong and I am right. You're going to hell, and I am going to heaven." We can speak in a civilized manner and explain our viewpoints without having to point fingers at anybody. Human beings are wise enough to see which is logical and which is not, which explanation makes sense and which does not, without having to be confrontational.
In the end, such dialogues will lead to better understanding and respect among all peoples, God willing, and bring the long-awaited peace to the world.