The first Muslims, following after Muhammad, fought for a world where Islam was allowed, not imposed. The world they won was a world with religious liberty, not a world with one faith was forced on everyone else.
The religion of Islam, the Faith of Abraham as proclaimed by Muhammad -- peace be upon them both -- is all about relationships: our relationship with our Creator who made everything informing the way we relate to everything. Muslims are God's servants, tasked to live our lives for the sake of you all.
So how does the so-called Islamist world-view, one that puts promoting Islam (and generally, one specific sort of Islamic ideology alone) ahead of egalitarian justice, or freedom, or sometimes human life itself -- one that's shared by those misguided criminals behind the killing of innocent Christians in Pakistan, innocent Muslims in the Middle East, innocent believers of every faith anywhere, innocent shoppers in Kenya, for God's sake! -- make any sense, from an Islamic perspective?
I've read a vast array of definitions for what "Islamist" really means, just as I've read a vast array of ideological descriptions for every group of Muslims currently killing each other (and others too, compounding the tragedy) over who should be in charge of our beliefs and real estate. And while each group believes they're fundamentally different, I think they're really the same, and fundamentally opposed to the Islam proclaimed by Muhammad.
Islamists -- no matter whether they belong to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran's Ulema and Republican Guard, Egypt's Army, or the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Muslim group with aggressive political aspirations -- want to be in charge, and they think that when they are then their own version of Islam must be imposed. Muhammad -- on the other hand -- didn't think he was in charge (because he knew God was) and he lived his life as a leader of equals.
And once he began following the path of Islam he didn't impose it on anyone.
Now, I know there are some who will take immediate issue with that statement, because of the actions he was forced to take in Medina, after Medina's diverse communities (defined by tribe, blood and religion) joined together in a sovereign constitutional state with Muhammad at their head.
In a nutshell, what happened is that some -- not all -- of Medina's Jewish tribes betrayed that state to outside forces, and were punished for it.
However, like it or not, the punishment inflicted upon the Banu Qurayza wasn't decreed by Muhammad, or Islamic law.
Instead, it was decreed by Sa'd, an arbitrator requested by the Banu Qurayza themselves. And as he'd already warned them ahead of time, when asked, Sa'd declared that because they were Jewish, they should be punished according to the Torah.
At Hudabiyyah when Muhammad first returned to Mecca, he could have conquered it then and there. Instead, he accepted the terms the Meccans offered and humbly left, because he knew God had a plan. And for the rest of his life he promised to protect the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims too, and declared that Muslims who followed after him should do the same. He created a place where Islam was allowed -- not imposed -- and he allowed and protected other faiths besides: Christianity for Christians and Judaism for Jews. He politely discussed religion with anyone, even those who disagreed with him, and he followed a faith that honored the faithful observances of others. In fact, Medina's Constitution even made provisions for the inclusion of polytheists and unbelievers!
When Muslims took over Jerusalem, they left the Christians in charge and only forced them to let the Jews they'd evicted back in. In Egypt, they made sure Christians received the same rights, freedom and justice as Muslims. In Persia, faced with a tribe that followed sexual practices condemned by the Quran as sinful, Muslim judges declared that since they weren't Muslim, Muslim laws couldn't be applied to them. And in the Middle East, when villages that had pretended they'd joined Islam -- thinking they'd gain an advantage, which they didn't -- wanted to change back without consequence, they did.
For decades now, as a convert Muslim --who joined because I know it's right, and because I truly love and honor Muhammad, his example, and the example of those who knew and followed him-- I've watched Muslims here, there and everywhere struggling with freedom, and the fact that freedom sometimes means choosing to do things you know are wrong. I've always asked them a simple question: If God didn't intend us to have the right to make even bad choices, why did He give us free will at all?
I've listened patiently to others who struggle with what they perceive to be their responsibility to impose their choices upon others, things like the Hijab: and while no-one has ever been able to explain to me when Hijab became a head-scarf (in Islam's earliest history it wasn't an article of clothing at all. Instead, it was an attitude of modesty, or a curtain) I've always pointed out that even regarding the Islamic principle of modesty, the Qur'an's not telling us to make other people do good things, it's telling us to do good things ourselves.
Perhaps the reason why the Qur'an condemns coercion in matters of religion so explicitly is because anytime you try to impose something -- even something good -- you make sure that it's opposed. Human nature being what it is, imposing "good" actually promotes the opposite.
- How is God served by condemning, opposing or killing people who aren't actively trying to condemn, oppose or kill you? Especially when the Qur'an so clearly specifically condemns violence, murder and killing? It even condemns unkind words, feeling too much suspicion of others, and mean-spirited argumentativeness!
- If God wants someone dead, don't you think He's more than capable of looking after that Himself?
- When the Qur'an so specifically commends the protection of Mosques, Churches, Synagogues and each individual person's religious freedom, don't you think that means Muslims should do the same?
Medina under Muhammad was a marketplace for more than goods and services, it was also a marketplace for ideas. Muhammad's Islam flourished there because people thought it was better, not because they were afraid to do anything else. Under him, the rules were simple, and the same justice, freedom and rights linked to responsibilities applied for everyone.
Back then, if Muslims knew they had to do something they knew was wrong -- like killing, oppressing or coercing other people, or lying, cheating or stealing -- in order to achieve a worthy goal they just didn't.
Muhammad and the first and best Muslims who followed after him lived their lives to serve the common good, and left things they couldn't control -- things like the lives of others, and the future -- up to God, because in their Islam power, ultimate authority, ultimate responsibility, and glory belonged to God alone. Perhaps the greatest Islamist tragedy is just how many Islamists today honestly believe that those things should belong to them because they think God gave it to them.
My Islamist brothers, if you really believe that's true, then I think you need to know more about a wonderful man I know, named Muhammad.