First, I agree to a few ground rules. I will not use the imam’s name until he has a chance to read the interview. I will give him a chance to remove anything that is too risky to put in print. The picture we took together, which I greatly value, will not be published, nor the audio of our talk.
I have met my share of charismatic/ annoying gurus and religious leaders in my day but rarely have I met someone throwing off this much warmth. He greets me at the entrance to the prayer hall with a small entourage, thanking me for my visit. In the course of six hours, I meet a steady stream of mosque clergy and staff. One, in a particularly stylin’ outfit and headdress tells me that there is greatness in my face, and that I must come to Islam. Flattery will get him everywhere.
After the imam leads Friday prayers and counsels families, a weekly tradition, he joins me along with his son, my friend Fawad, his media producer and several staff. Maybe it’s a sort of learning moment for them as well. An American Jew in Kabul, wanting to know about Islam.
The imam admired my hat. “This is a Chitrali cap. You went to Chitral?”
After an exchange of pleasantries, we begin our hour together.
It is a great privilege for me to speak with you, imam. For you, what is the most important teaching of Islam?
We welcome you as an honest and honorable guest. Islam consists of 4 main parts, or columns (pillars). First, faith and belief. Worship and prayers. Moral attitude. And social life, how to build relations with other people. So, it’s not just belief.
The way you live your life, the way you walk in the world.
Yes, Islam has a message for each of these four parts. How we build a connection with Allah, with God. But our sense of worshiping means keeping Him always in mind, having a deep relation with Him.
Personally, how does Islam bring beauty and happiness to your life?
I didn’t follow Islam like a blind man without any research. I have researched other religions, I have compared mine with others and then I came to the conclusion that Islam is the best religion that we can apply in every part of our life. Economic, political, family, social life, psychological life. When I accepted Islam, I felt like I don’t have to worry about anything in life, no stress, no worries. Islam brought calm and happiness to my life. Being kind to any creature in the universe, animal or human.
So a theological question, as a follow up. If your faith is the one true faith, how do you respect other spiritual paths if you believe that in effect they are inferior, not the true path? (He asks his media producer to start recording video and asks if that’s OK with me.)
Humankind from the creation of the universe has passed through many phases. At the beginning, life was simple. Human life was all about feeding ourselves and staying alive. It’s like when someone gets a simple sickness, we need simple medicine. Allah’s books, scriptures and messengers are like doctors and medicines for humanity. In a specific period in history, there was a specific illness, so that prophet was sent to help the people to solve that problem. It’s like when you go to a doctor, he gives you a prescription with a…
…an expiration date.
And when you go back to the doctor, you get the new prescription, and the old ones are no longer usable to you. Allah sent messengers for different periods in history for different problems. Humankind’s problems are like diseases that need deep resolutions and solutions. When someone gets a really serious disease and he goes to a doctor, the doctor doesn’t write all the prescriptions at one time. He instructs the patient to use this medicine for ten days and then come back. After that, he writes another prescription and he says you can’t use the first medicine anymore. After this short period, he writes the permanent prescription that you should use forever. And the last prescription must be complete. And other religions and Islam are like this, the prescriptions that Allah gave to us. And then when the last religion came, the other religions are expired. And this is the new complete prescription.
Humankind’s problems are getting more serious day by day. If we look at the Christian’s bible, you cannot find resolution on the use of drugs. Or Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism. Islam has a resolution for preventing use of drugs and solving this problem in human society. In Koran, in the speech of prophet Mohammed, in Sharia. So we need a religion, a complete religion for our daily life. In the Koran, there are verses about science and technology. The Church, when Galileo spoke about his theory of the motion of the earth…
Yes, they killed him….
But in the Koran, there are verses that indirectly address the motion of Earth. In Europe, in the French Revolution, people were forced to separate law from religion. They left religion just in the framework of a church, nowhere else.
The Enlightenment. Imam, may I say, at that time there were hundreds of years of religious wars, Catholics and Protestants killing each other, and one of the reasons for the Enlightenment was to stop those wars and allow freedom of religion. Do you see any benefit in that or is that an apostacy?
In the noble Koran, Allah said there is no pressure to force someone into Islam. (The imam starts to speak in English and his son interrupts him. I congratulate him on his English and say he’s doing fine). It is totally wrong that people in the West believe that Muslims only want Islam on Earth. That is a totally wrong idea. Islam has two kinds of citizenship. One is for Muslims who live in an Islamic state and the other is non-Muslims who live in Islamic states and those who live outside Islamic countries. The policy of Islam and its citizens is equal about their rights and laws, for Muslims and non-Muslims. An example of this equality is if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, he will be punished according to the laws of Islam and he must be killed. Muslims and non-Muslims must be treated with respect.
There are radical Islamist groups in the world now, the Taliban, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al Qaeda that seem to justify violence against non-believers or Muslims who don’t measure up to their standards. Why does this kind of radical, more violent understanding of Islam seem to be spreading?
You started our conversation by asking me about Islam. Islam totally differs from what these Muslims are doing today. Those Taliban, radical groups, they have their personal ideas, you should ask them why are they doing such things. Is what they are doing in the Koran, did Allah say so, to kill people, to murder non-Muslims? You should ask them. (I am not looking forward look forward to that opportunity…) It’s all a reaction against global policies. For example, I ask you, do Palestinians have the right to live in their territories?
Yes, and I think there is a similar issue with Jewish fundamentalism, Jews in Israel saying something very similar to Muslim fundamentalists. There is a song, Exodus, that goes, “This land is mine, God gave this land to me.” They believe that God gave this land to them. So they owe Palestinians nothing, This seems a big problem in the world, where people are saying I have the truth and you don’t, so I have a divine right to oppress you.
The world accepts that Palestinians should live with them, they should make a state, Germany agrees with them, France, England, Russia, but the United States doesn’t accept them. The US accepts and supports Zionist policy. Why are they doing so? If they are doing so, Muslims must react. When the US attacked Iraq, what was the reason that they destroyed the Iraqi government? And now, they are seeing the reaction (ISIS) to what they did. There is no problem in the world between people and religions. The problem is the wrong ideas and the wrong policies against Muslims, against humanity.
What change would you like to see in US foreign policy, in terms of the way the US approaches the world?
The Afghan nation is thankful for the help and support the United States gave in its struggle against the Soviet Union. During the Soviet-Afghan war, American had a goal of defeating the Soviet Union but after the battle was finished, the US policy toward Afghanistan changed. For example, Osama bin Laden was traveling to Pakistan and Islamic groups were active. America was supporting them. But after the US achieved its goals, why did US policy change and become against Muslims around the world?
Many Americans think the US made a mistake by failing to assist Afghanistan in the years after the Soviets were driven out. You said two things, One, you said the US should have continued to help Afghanistan. Two, I’m curious as to why you believe the US was against Muslims. Is that because of the Iraq war? I don’t think American policy changed toward Muslims. The Persian Gulf is a major source of oil, and when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, many Muslim countries opposed Iraq. The second Iraq war is widely viewed as an inexcusable mistake.
That was all about the battlefield, the field of war. But in the political field, with American policy in Algeria, there was a democratically elected government. Islamists were elected to run the government. Why were America and European countries opposed? The same in Egypt, when Mubarak fell, there was a peaceful and democratic election, why did the the US support Sisi, Israel helped the government and the Muslims were ruined there. Why did America do that?
Well, you are talking about Algeria and Egypt. In Egypt, I agree that it is problematic to promote democracy and then bring down the democratically elected government. But while the US provides military aid, it did not invade Egypt. The Egyptian people felt there was chaos and Morsi was bringing the country to a bad position, they protested in the streets and wanted him out and there was an undemocratic solution, and yes, the US did not prevent it, but this was Egyptians coming to a political resolution in their country.
The muezzin begins the call to prayer. The imam apologizes that he must go and asks me if I need more time. I tell him I have a few more questions. The final part of our discussion will be posted shortly. And, for an excellent interactive look at the Egyptian revolution, check this out from Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2013/07/20137493141105596.html