Two religions, one set of challenges

Muslims and Christians should join in jihad against common problems
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Bismillah'h Ir Rahman-ir-Rahim, these words are used by millions of Muslims every day, that is, millions of times a day we hear the words that Allah - or God - is the Beneficent, the Merciful; this in essence is the spirit of Islam.

In spite of what you may read in the papers and see on TV, Islam is a religion of peace and compassion. Indeed the word Islam derives from the word for peace. Shortly before his death the prophet spoke at Arafat. He emphasised the unity of humanity and the need to respect others: "God has made you brethren one to another, so be not divided. An Arab has no preference over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor is a white one to be preferred to a dark one, nor a dark one to a white one."

Many people do not appreciate that there is a close ideological and theological relationship for Muslims between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The basis of belief is the same. All three religions believe in the notion of the one divine God; they also believe that we are mortals temporarily put here on earth and that there is accountability for our actions, an afterlife. The Koran repeatedly points out that both Jews and Christians are "people of the Book". Indeed, for Muslims the prophets of Judaism and Christianity are also their prophets.

It is well to remember that when Muslims are being persecuted in Makkah in the early days of Islam, the holy Prophet sent them to the Christian land of Abyssinia, confident that they would find hospitality there. Late in the 20th century many Muslims again find refuge in the Christian - or at least partly Christian - land of Britain. These days I often wonder about the fate of those Muslims if a Michael Howard had been waiting for them in Abyssinia.

There are many steps that can be taken to help understanding between Islam and the West but the effort needs to come from both sides. A basic knowledge of Islam could be taught in Western schools so that children do not grow up in ignorance of it; ignorance breeds fear and prejudice. Conversely, Western values, like democracy, need to be explained in Muslim schools; also that the West has more to offer them than just sex and violence, the Muslim stereotype of the West.

Muslims must convince the world that the media images of them as law-breaking and violent people are not true, that foreign embassies, diplomats, travellers and non-Muslims are safe in their countries. These acts are one way of capturing the headlines but they are not Islamic in content or spirit. The fight against injustice and oppression must continue, but must take other forms. There are also too many stories of human rights violations in Muslim lands. Minorities feel threatened and vulnerable. This is not in the spirit of Islam.

How many know (and this question is also posed to Muslims) that the notion of the greater jihad, commonly misunderstood as an aggressive act of religious war in the West, which derives from the word to strive, was explained by the Prophet as the attempt to control our own base instincts and work towards a better, more harmonious world? The lesser jihad is to battle physically for Islam; that too only against tyranny or injustice.

The common problems in our world need to be identified: drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, teenage violence and crime, ethnic and racist prejudice, the problems of the aged and the poor; the challenge of the growing sense of anarchy and rampant materialism; the sexual debasement of women and children; the depletion of our natural resources and ecological concerns. On all these issues, Islam takes a strong, enlightened position. This is the real Islamic jihad and, if it is properly harnessed and understood, it can provide fresh, sorely needed strength to these most crucial of global issues.

This article is excerpted from a sermon preached last night at Selwyn College Cambridge. The writer's book 'Living Islam: from Samarkand to Stornoway' (1995) is published by BBC-Penguin.