SHAFAQNA – One of imam Mustafa Khattab’s favourite sayings goes something like this: A person who claims to be Muslim but still harms other people is like someone who claims to be vegetarian but eats beef and chicken every day.
His point: Muslims are peaceful, non-violent people. Their religion, Islam, does not endorse gratuitous violence.
“And we, as a community, must learn to separate Islam-the-religion from violence done in the name of Islam. And Muslims from terrorists who wear the costume of Muslim, yet represent everything a real Muslim is not.
If we cannot make that distinction, if we continue to believe that the violent acts of a few speak for the 1 million Muslims in Canada, then the frenzy of stereotypes will continue,” he says.
For his part, Khattab is trying to educate. When he came to St. Catherines, Canada, in 2013, he became the first full time imam for the Geneva Street mosque, the Masjid An-Noor.
He is also working on a modern Arabic-to-English translation of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. He can recite it verbatim, from beginning to end. All 114 chapters, 600 pages and more than 77,000 words.
His version, when it is complete, will be called The Clear Qur’an. He hopes it offers a contemporary interpretation, more meaningful and relevant for today’s Muslims .
Indeed, an out-of-context passage from the Qur’an – or any scripture — can easily be manipulated to promote any cause. Terrorists use it to justify their crimes. Others use it to spew hatred against Muslims.
“It’s easy to dig into the Qur’an and take a verse out of context,” says Khattab.
Add to that a universal confusion between culture and religion. Many traditions, especially ones that promote inequality between men and women, are not based on Islam, but on the cultural traditions of a country, most notably Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
Islam is one religion. Yet, it is practised by 57 Muslim countries around the world. And each of those cultures is steeped in its own interpretation, values and attitudes, says Khattab.
And so, he tries to educate. Tries to bridge a cultural gap between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Here are his thoughts on some common stereotypes.
The most often quoted passage in the Qur’an, Chapter 2, Verse 191: Kill them wherever you come upon them.
Out of context, it’s the ammunition used to justify terrorism in the name of Islam. The so-called sword verse. A call to violence. And, it’s often cited by non-Muslims as an example of how the Qur’an encourages violent acts, he says.
Yet, understood with an historical frame of reference, and in context of the before-and-after verses, it has a far less nefarious meaning, he says.
The before verse talks about fighting only people who wage war against you, and not exceeding limits. The verse after, tells people to stop fighting if the enemy stops or declares peace.
Indeed, in all the verses that deal with violence, there are three main themes: Fighting back in self-defence; making peace if attackers declare peace; and resuming fighting if the truce is violated, he says.
In general, “If someone is good to you, be good to them. If they attack you, you can attack them.”
As for historical perspective, remember that violent passages in the Qur’an talk about conflicts more than 1,400 years ago. He suggests people to take a look at their own history.
“If you look at history as a whole, you will not find a culture or ethnicity who doesn’t have blood on their hands.”
At the Masjid An-Noor men and women do not pray together. Men are in a large, front room. Women in a smaller, adjoining space.
In other mosques, they might pray in the same room, but men are in front, women behind or beside.
The reason? Men can focus more when they don’t have the distraction of women, he says.
Prayer involves prostration – kneeling while placing your body is a submissive position, hands and head to the ground. Essentially, with your butt in the air.
If women were in front, that would not only be a distraction for the men, but awkward for the women.
In a separate room, it allows women the privacy to breastfeed, or wash themselves for a ceremonial ablution before prayer, he says.
At Mecca, considered the holiest city in Islamic faith, men and women are allowed to pray together. Side by side, they pray around the Kaaba, a small cube-shaped building in the centre of the most sacred mosque in Saudi Arabia.
Men and women are equal in the Qur’an and in front of God, he says.
Allah is neutral, seen neither as a man or woman. In the Qur’an, Allah is referred to as “He” only because there is no neutral translation other than “it”.
And there are no passages in the Qur’an that condone violence against women. Khattab cites the verse, which tells men to treat women with respect no matter their relationship: “Keep them with dignity or divorce them with honour.”
Khattab has another favourite saying. One that promotes understanding and acceptance, and encourages people to see Muslims as no different than any other person trying to do good in the world.
Don’t judge Islam by what Muslims do, but judge Muslims by what Islam teaches. Islam is perfect; Muslims are not.