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Anthony Galli ([email protected]) has a degree in psychology, with experience in mental health and education. He currently works for a non-profit corporation. His personal website can be accessed at:

Read the original essay by Ray Harris

The Myth of Islam
as a Warrior Cult

A response to Ray Harris

Anthony Galli


I offer this essay to draw attention to the lack of extensive and balanced analysis of Islamic issues from integral thinkers.

I do not claim to offer the most authoritative statement on Islam. My knowledge comes from books, articles, and essays that I have read which are mostly mainstream in nature, as well as extensive contact with all types of Muslims; a mosaic of personalities, beliefs, and ethnic backgrounds. I am not a professional scholar, just a lay-person with a deep interest in international, religious, and integral studies. I offer this essay to draw attention to the lack of extensive and balanced analysis of Islamic issues from integral thinkers.

Integral Studies focuses a lot of attention on other major world faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. This essay does not situate Islam in an integral framework, vis-à-vis Wilber's four quadrants, vMemes, states and stages of consciousness, etc. Instead, this essay deconstructs some persistent myths about Islam that are causing real damage to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Freelance contributor to Ray Harris has written extensively on Islam, and his assessment is rather grim. As he succinctly puts it - “Islam has been a problem.” Overall, I have found his work insightful and informative. Unfortunately, his essays on Islam employ stereotypes rather than much needed perspective. Seeing how important this issue is, you would think the integral community would offer something better.

Though he has stated that, as a geo-political model, Spiral Dynamics “kinda sucks,” Harris makes much use of it in this area. His method deviates from its current proponents Beck and Cowan, and incorporates an idiosyncratic Jungian system he created called “Temenos.” Harris considers Islam an unhealthy red/blue meme mutation, or a “blood brotherhood,” in his archetypical language. I see Islam as a faith in which different memes are expressed, in both healthy and unhealthy forms.

Harris might ask why we need to be so politically correct. I would answer that Islam is a wisdom tradition. To be sure, there are fascist mutations of Islam, as there were in nation-states in the 20th century. Islam does not have the same tradition of separating religion from politics that the West does because there is no church in Islam, and therefore, no religious institution per se to separate from the state. The fascist movements in Islam center on a religious identity rather than a common race or national citizenry. Despite its transnational affiliations, Islamic fascism is based on a narrow identity that differentiates true Muslims from false, contrary to a traditional injunction in Islam against accusing others of not being Muslims. (Apostasy does not apply here; in the medieval period it was used in wartime to define traitors who aided other militaries or governments. Now that political structures in the world have changed, it is an outmoded concept. It is unfortunate that it is still cited, let alone used, by fundamentalists today). The radical Islamic phenomenon arose for largely the same reasons fascism exploded in Europe after World War I. The challenges that exist for Muslims are obvious. Is there anything Harris find worthwhile in Islam?


Like many who are enamored with eastern thought, Harris floats the idea that Sufism is Islam's only saving grace. Yet, to him, even Sufism is a dicey game because of its association with Islam. Indeed, there have been Sufi fanatics. The leader of Iran's fundamentalist Shi'a revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had a background in Irfan. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a Sufi Sheikh. The problem with this analysis is that it is not always black and white as to who constitutes the peaceful Muslims and who are dangerous. One could cite cases of conservative Muslims who are not involved in terrorism, and there have been Sufis who have used violence to defend their faith.

It confuses the issue to compare Islam and Sufism as though they are separate traditions because Sufism is deeply embedded into Islam. Some Sufis see it is as a universal truth at the core of all religions [1] and for others, there simply is no Sufism without Islam [2]. Of course, saying that Sufism is a universal truth does not necessarily negate its connection to Islam as many Muslims believe Islam itself contains a universal message for humanity. [3] As Muslims encountered other civilizations, Islamic thinkers have incorporated different ideas, something which also affected the development of Sufism. This has led Muslim scholars to debate over what is truly Islamic and what is not. It is still a vibrant debate today because there is no single leader who defines dogma for Muslims.

Sufism likely originated from ascetic practices that pre-date Islam. Supposedly, there were pious clans at the time of Muhammad who rejected the emerging commercialism of Makkah. There were also people called “Hanifs” who worshipped Allah, at the time, the head of a hierarchy of gods. Muhammad went from being an obscure contemplative to a prophet and a leader because the full significance of Allah was revealed to him. Allah is not a god, but the God. The mystical implication is that not only is Allah the one true God, but the one true reality.

The mystics of Islam we now know as “Sufis” may have gotten their name for a variety of reasons. It may be related to certain tendencies noticed by the companions of the Prophet Muhammad - “ahl as sufa” (those in the veranda) or “al sifa” (the row) - as they were known to gather in the front of the masjid and pray in the front row. It may also derive the Arabic “suf,” meaning wool, as in the garments worn in imitation of Christian monks. Other possibilities offered by scholars, though largely discounted, are the Arabic “safaa” (purity) or the Greek “sophia” (wisdom).

For conventional Muslims, the five pillars of Islam are sufficient, but for Sufis, Islam is not just a set of rules (fiqh) but also involves practices (tassawuf) which develop a special attitude - the continual surrender of the ego to the divine. Whatever the exact origins of Sufism, it is historically and theologically rooted in Islam.

Muslims are instructed in the Qur'an to keep constant prayer. There are five daily prayers that are required (salat), and additional prayers that are voluntary (d'ua). Sufi meditation (muraqaba) is based upon “dhikr,” the remembrance of Allah, and involves focusing on the attributes conveyed by the 99 names of Allah in the Qur'an.

Linguistically, Allah is probably a contraction of the Arabic “al-ilah” - the deity. This signifies the unity (tawhid) of God because it has no plural form. Since there is no neuter gender in classical Arabic, this translates into English in the masculine form, but in actuality Allah has no gender. Allah is not he (male), she (female), or it (impersonal object). The Qur'an calls Allah both the manifest (al-Zahir) and the hidden (al-Batin) and thus, Allah is the unity of being and nonbeing. This conception is similar to Plotinus's concept of The One, but it is unclear whether Sufi theologians borrowed this concept during the period scholars translated Greek philosophy into Arabic, or found a likeness with an already existent connotation [4]. Most scholars in the Islamic empire were rationalists rather than mystics, and not all Sufis were literate, so it is difficult to claim there was a linear influence. To suppose that Muslims, or any other people in the ancient world, were incapable of producing a sophisticated metaphysics on their own without relying on the Greeks is a Eurocentric assumption.

War and Peace

Islam emerged in a time of expanding empires and revolutionary ideas. Muhammad was truly a man of the times. He was a lot more than a military general, however. For most of his life he was a shepherd, trader, contemplative, and later a clan leader, administrator, and judge. During his time as a prophet, Muhammad's followers spent more time in peace than in war, even in times of heavy persecution.

Calling Islam a blood brotherhood is not only reductionistic, it also ignores the important contribution of women. Muhammad's first wife Khadija was very influential in his understanding of Qur'anic revelation. Their daughter Fatima is called “the lady of light,” and is especially regarded among the Shi'a. In times of war, one of the most powerful leaders in Muhammad's fledgling community was a woman named Umm Waraqa. Among Sufis, Ra'bia of Basra is one of the most revered saints.

I sense that Harris has a strong desire for social justice, scientific advancement, and moral evolution in the world. I share those ideals. I even agree that aspects of Islam, as a social institution, are due for reform. Where I disagree is the assessment that Islam is a pathological scourge.

Harris expresses a fear of Islam that is quite common. Muslims are not totally blameless in this regard, as they should not hesitate to point the finger at the atrocities of some of their own members. But might not the corporate media have something to do with this fear? It is not designed to inspire or educate, though it is manipulated to influence consumer behavior and political viewpoints. The media gets ratings in order to sell advertising, and what better way to do that than to play up our fears and prejudice with scandal and controversy.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a good example. Going by the typical news coverage in the major media outlets, we might assume that Palestinians have nothing better to do all day than kill Israelis and dance in the streets firing machine guns. Maybe we can justify this with PC terminology and call it an “alternative lifestyle.” Or maybe the violence in Israel is not due primarily to the character traits of the Palestinians, but is simply the result of issues all oppressed people face (I do not deny the role of religion in this conflict. Religious Zionists and fundamentalist Christians claim the nation of Israel has biblical authority, which takes precedence over Palestinian rights. Islam is involved in that Muslims are allowed, even obligated, to fight back when their lands or property are stolen). If Palestinians get their own state, there is a fear that they will destroy Israel, a strategic US ally. There is an assumption that the Middle East has always been in conflict, despite periods of peace between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. It is rather convenient to portray a conflict with specific causes as inevitable and unavoidable.

Palestinians have their own proud history. For thousands of years, Semitic peoples in this region have cultivated vegetation with sophisticated farming techniques [5]. Jewish immigrants into Israel would have had to learn from them [6], not unlike how European colonialists learned from Native Americans how to hunt and farm in America. Certainly, terrorism has not helped the situation on either side, but Palestinians are not just a bunch of uncivilized brutes.

Of Myth and Reality

While I admit that this might not be the most mature approach, I feel it is necessary to use a large portion of this essay to respond to some of Harris's statements, due to the sheer volume of errors and inaccuracies.

“In saying that Islam means peace Islamic apologists are simply indulging in word play in order to put as positive a spin on things as they can. It is an attempt to argue that Islam promotes non-violence. As we will see such a peace is only available to one who has first surrendered to Allah and it is denied to those who refuse to surrender. Mohammed would sign his treaty offers with the words, aslem taslam, 'surrender and you will be safe'.”

What he is probably referring to are Muslims who explain their religion to a skeptical western audience. Some practice a tradition of inviting others to Islam called da'wah, so of course they portray Islam in the best light possible. Some educate other Muslims on, what they perceive as, the correct practice of their religion. Others are just looking for acceptance. Lumping them all together under the banner of apologetics, a Christian tradition, might be his own example of word play.

So what does Islam mean, exactly? The root of Islam, s-l-m, primarily means submission, and secondarily implies the peace and well-being which results from this submission. Harris is correct that there is also a connotation of safety. You can find this in the standard greeting between Muslims, “As-salaamu alaikum” where “salaam” means wishing to each other safety, well-being, and blessings.

Muhammad did not see himself as God; he saw Allah as the ultimate authority. He believed that if people submitted to the will of Allah, they would have supreme benefits in this life and the next. The word “aman” (safety/security) elucidates this more clearly than does “salaam.” [7] It would contradict Muhammad's belief system to think that he could personally force others to submit to Allah, as only Allah can do that. He also regarded Allah as the same God worshipped by his monotheistic contemporaries, which was already a growing opinion at his time. His treaties, like his religious sensibilities, were a pragmatic attempt to bring justice to a hostile region. During the first Muslim conquests beyond Arabia, they were not convert-hungry zealots, but actually preferred that others kept their own religions, and at times even forbade others to convert to Islam. [8]

The Qur'an states that Allah sent messengers to all lands. Twenty five prophets are named in the Qur'an, and the Hadith state there have been thousands more. Muslims have no right to consider other religions inferior. This does not mean that all Muslims have followed this injunction, as is typical with socio-centric bias, many can only see others through their own cultural framework, in this case, seeing every religion as a form of Islam, with Islam itself being the standard.

Muhammad felt the Qur'an would bring Arabs to the pure monotheism of Abraham before it split into Judaism and Christianity. Since Allah is considered the only being worthy of worship, all creatures are equal in worth. During his life Muhammad was exposed to Arab paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and perhaps Zoroastrianism, and it was mostly the pagan practices in Arabia that he rejected. However, I speculate that even pre-Islamic elements were absorbed into Islam (for example, the crescent symbol popularized during the Ottoman Empire may have origins in the Nabataean moon god Hubal, a venerated deity at the Ka'ba).

In this worldview, since everyone is a Muslim by default, one does not convert to Islam as in Christianity, with a baptism and having one's soul saved, i.e. not destined for a permanent hell. Rather, one accepts Islam. Most people will make it to heaven, either directly, or will have to go to hell as a sort of purgatory. Only the most evil souls remain in hell. Action and intention are primary as Islam is more of an orthopraxy than an orthodoxy. [9]

“Jihad is sometimes translated as 'holy war'. Again apologists indulge in word play by arguing that the literal translation of holy war into Arabic, harb muqaddasah, gives a different meaning. This is perhaps true in Arabic but not true in English, where holy war is a reasonable translation of 'spiritual struggle'.”

Classical Arabic has two specific words for war - harb and qital. Is “holy war” a reasonable translation? A war is not holy in Islam, it is either permitted or it is not. A war of aggression is strictly forbidden in the Qur'an. Jihad means struggling or striving, and in the Qur'an is often found with the phrase “fi sabilillah” (in the way of Allah). Jihad can be, and has been, used in the context of war. In Islam, jihad is the struggle to align with God's will, which generally means protecting and promoting the greater good. [10] Jihad is sometimes conflated with the Christian concept of a “just war,” and in this context it is similar, though limiting in the full scope of its meaning.

Textually, jihad has several definitions. An armed defense is “jihad bissaif” (struggle by the sword). Ideally this is sanctioned by a Mufti, a scholar authorized to issue fataawa (religious rulings) in order to ensure restraint, such as not killing the elderly, women, or children, and not destroying crops or livestock. “Jihad bil yad” (struggle by the hand) can mean giving alms to the poor, taking care of orphans or elderly parents, or funding another Muslim's hajj (pilgrimage). “Jihad bil qalam” (struggle by the pen) is the advancement of scholarship. “Jihad an-nafs” (struggle against oneself) is the struggle to overcome the desire to sin.

One jihad radical Muslims engage in is the attempt to bring the Islamic world, and eventually the entire world, under the political control of a Caliph. Some attribute this idea to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, but it is also evident in the writings of Ibn Taymiyya, a direct influence on the Muslim Brotherhood in the 20th century. As this jihad can only lead to more hatred and violence in the world, it must be opposed at all levels.

“… it is sufficient that enough Muslims follow the tradition of Ibn Taymiyya to challenge the Sufi tradition. In fact the four schools (madhhab) of Sunni jurisprudence as well as the Shia tradition only refer to the lesser jihad. This means that for many Muslims the concept of the greater jihad is unorthodox and heretical.”

It is also sufficient that a significant number of Muslims do not follow the tradition of Ibn Taymiyya, who was considered a heretic in his own time. In Sunni jurisprudence, the most widely followed madhhab is Hanafi, which is also the most flexible. Of course, it is not uncommon for Sunnis to draw upon all schools. And Sufism is not a separate sect of Islam per se. A Sufi can be a Sunni or a Shi'a, and Sufism itself has a wide array of lineages. Only for some Muslims is the jihad al-akbar (greater struggle) an innovation. Interestingly, one conservative exponent of the greater jihad was Ibn al-Qayyim, who was not a Sufi.

“The language of the Koran separates the world into Muslims and kufir (infidels, unbelievers). It is quite clear about the fate of infidels, they will burn for eternity in Hell.

'…then guard yourself against the Fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the unbelievers.' ” 2:23

Does it state here that unbelievers go to hell for eternity? And who is an unbeliever? Kaffir were those in Arabia who were also called “mushrikeen” (idolaters). This category is pretty much outdated, although sometimes Muslims accuse other sects of being kaffir. Kaffir, a word more accurately defined as lack of gratitude [towards Allah] rather than lack of belief, referred to Arabs in Muhammad's era who: worshipped ancestral gods, neglected the poor, raped, practiced infanticide, were continually involved in tribal warfare, or all of the above. While I do not think the only way to be moral is to specifically follow the Qur'an, its injunctions are no more primitive than that of other wisdom traditions.

“Another influential thinker is Sayyid Mawdudi, a scholar of Deobandism and founder of the Pakistan party Jemaat e-Islamiya (party of Islam).”

Jimaat-i-Islaami has never had a majority of the voting block in Pakistan's parliament, nor has any elected prime minister or president come from this party. Of course, you could argue that Pakistan's military dictators have been Deobandis. However, it is more accurate to say that Pakistan's dictators appeased religious fundamentalists in order to ensure unchallenged rule.

Jimaat-i-Islaami initially opposed the creation of Pakistan for fear that Muhhamad Ali Jinnah was creating another secular state like Turkey, though they eventually accepted the partition. The tension between the secular, educated elite, and fundamentalists, whose support mainly comes from the poor and uneducated, is part of Pakistan's dynamic. But neither group has much political power. Rather, the military forms the backbone of Pakistan, which has always been its strongest bureaucratic institution. [11]

“One of the enormous difficulties apologists have in trying to depict Islam as a religion of peace is the fact that the new religion was born in violence and that its prophet actually fought and killed.”

Muslims do not consider Muhammad their first prophet, but their last prophet (Bah'ais, Twelvers, and Ahmadis even believe in prophets after Muhammad. The point is that all sects hold that there are more prophets than Muhammad alone). This is why Muslims are offended when their religion is called “Mohammedanism.” In fact, Muslims do not see Islam as a new religion, but a summary of previous messages. Some prophets, like Moses and Muhammad, had to resort to violence to defend their followers. Others, like Jesus, did not. In Islam, the message from Allah is more important than the messenger's personality, though each prophet did have exemplary virtues.

“Many apologists will however, argue that Mohammed only ever used violence in order to defend his people. This argument is based on the evidence that Mohammed made a treaty with the tribes of Medina which they later betrayed, thus he was fully justified in waging a war. And according to the traditional tribal rules of Arabia this makes perfect sense. Except that it only tells one side of the story. It ignores the fact that the tribes might have had very good reasons to break the treaty.” 

Muhammad's biggest enemy was the powerful Quraysh, a tribe he himself was part of, though he was born into a poor clan. When he preached the Qur'an, members of his community were tortured, and Quraysh leaders tried to starve them out until they fled to the oasis communities of Yathrib (Medina). Once Muslims settled there, fearing that Muhammad would raise an army against them, they declared war on Medina. How did it come to this? Muhammad was a sharp critic of their way of life. He challenged their status as rulers over the sacred site of the Ka'ba, or even the need to worship at the Ka'ba at all. Since the Quraysh controlled trade and commerce in Makkah, they would lose business and tax-revenue if pilgrims recognized his call to directly worship one God. While the caravan raids did not help him gain sympathy, it should be noted that all tribes engaged in this practice, as it was a common way to distribute goods from wealthy trading parties.

The assumption that Muhammad's enemies were mainly the victims is an old one. During the Crusades, Europeans were told that it was a just war against the followers of the anti-Christ, a heretical religion founded in blood set out to destroy all that was good in the holy land of Jerusalem.

“The women and children were then handed to the victors as slaves. Now this was rather normal behaviour at the time, but it certainly challenges the idea that Mohammed was a man of peace and compassion.”

Some of the slaves acquired by his army were sold, and some were even freed, particularly those who could teach them to read and write. One of the Hadith states that if one cannot afford to give up a slave than he is required to give the slave employment and humane treatment. The normal response to war orphans in his time was to kill them, as they could later become threats, or keep them in slavery.

The standard refrain is that Muslims give a sacred meaning to what was essentially inter-tribal violence and conquest. However, this is a complete misreading of the significance of Muhammad's actions. What he did was unprecedented in that he went against tribal affiliations, building coalitions on a sense of divine justice for all those willing to enter, rather than loyalty to birth clans. Not only did Muhammad raise the standard of living for people, he was even known for his kindness to animals. In the Hadith he said that Allah rewards those who treat animals well.

But we should be frank that Muhammad killed people. While Muhammad has been an inspiration for Muslims, there remains a thorny issue, given certain conditions of his life and times, of exactly which behaviors Muslims should emulate today.

“Yet neither the Byzantine or Sasanian empires had declared war on Islam, rather the Muslims declared war on them.”

This is a good point. Muslims should not justify what were clearly offensive wars. What happened was a regrettable development in Islamic history. After a new and fragile unity on the Arabian Peninsula, restless warriors, who did not recognize kingship, looked to generals as leaders after the death of Muhammad. Further, their newly structured economy required a surplus to satisfy their needs. The old Arab custom of ghazzu raids thus turned into large-scale conquests. They also happened to find very loyal soldiers in slaves from other empires. Since slaves were now able to enjoy the spoils of war, they helped Muslim generals achieve a long string of military victories.

Of course, this criticism is meant to point out how uniquely ruthless Muslims were, as opposed to others at that time. A cursory glance of Islamic history shows that much of the violence, especially in its early expansion period, was between Muslim rulers rather than directed towards non-Muslims. This is one reason why there is a strong desire among Muslims, to this day, to unify its population (I myself think diversity is inevitable and there are other issues for Muslims to work on).

“However Buddhism has never really been accepted as a legitimate faith. There have been some scholars who have developed a rather convoluted argument to accept Buddhism, but the majority opinion is that Buddhists are infidels. The principle stumbling blocks are that Buddhists worship a man, which is idolatry and that they are declared atheists (for an example of anti-Buddhist propaganda see this link.)”

It is no secret that fundamentalists distort and degrade other religions. But what is Harris doing if not regurgitating anti-Muslim propaganda? The truth is that Muslims and Buddhists have lived peacefully for most of the time they have been in contact.

In India, there is a record of one attack by Muslims on a Buddhist monastery. This incident appears to be an isolated occurrence, not part of a large-scale campaign to destroy Buddhism. Contrary to popular belief, Muslims were not the cause of Buddhism's decline in India or its spread elsewhere. Buddhist missionaries had already traveled outside of India, and Chinese pilgrims had already been in contact with Indians before the 10th century. Hindu sects cross-pollinated with Mahayana, and lay-Buddhists, probably feeling disconnected from the monastic elite, were attracted to different paths. When Muslims rose to power in India, Buddhism was already on the decline as a distinct religion.

Nonetheless, it appears the monks who were attacked were guilty of nothing more than practicing their own religion, so it was clearly unprovoked and immoral. One other example of Buddhist persecution was during the Mughal Empire, a generally tolerant period, when a Buddhist university in Varanasi was destroyed under the tyrannical reign of Aurangzeb. Maybe he thought they were idol worshippers. Maybe he objected to monasteries. Whatever the reasons, they are not good excuses to persecute anyone, just simple bigotry.

The traditional Muslim conception of Buddhism is admittedly eccentric; a means of accepting Buddhism in an Islamic framework. Still, Buddhism is indeed an accepted faith. In fact, some believe that a prophet mentioned in the Qur'an is none other than Shakyamuni Buddha.

“The mid-twentieth century Urdu scholar Abu'l Kalam Azad, in his Quranic commentary Tafsir Sura Fatiha, postulates that the Prophet Dhu'l-Kifl, meaning "the one from Kifl," mentioned twice in the Quran (21.85 and 38,48) as patient and good, refers to Shakyamuni Buddha. Although most scholars identify Dhu'l-Kifl with the Prophet Ezekiel, Azad explains that "Kifl" is the Arabicized form of Kapila, short for Kapilavastu. He also proposes that the Qur'anic mention of the fig tree (95.1-5) refers to Buddha as well, since he attained to enlightenment at the foot of one. Some scholars accept this theory and, as support for this position, point out that the eleventh-century Muslim historian of India, al-Biruni, referred to Buddha as a Prophet. Others dismiss this last piece of evidence and explain that al-Biruni was merely describing that people in India regarded Buddha as a prophet.

Some scholars associate the prophesied future Buddha Maitreya, the Loving or Merciful One, with the Prophet Mohammed as the servant of the Merciful One. Although the truths that Buddha realized under the fig tree are not described as revelation, later great Buddhist masters have received revelations of sacred texts, such as Asanga in fourth century India directly from Maitreya in Tushita, the Heaven Filled with Joy.” [12]

Also -

“In Indonesia, there is a policy that five religions are accepted due to their belief in God: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism. The Indonesian Buddhists had suggested Buddhism's belief in God by speaking in terms of Adi-buddha. This was from the Kalachakra (Cycle of Time) teachings, which had been spread to Indonesia a little more than a thousand years ago. Adi-buddha means, literally, the first or primordial Buddha. The Indonesian Buddhists themselves didn't have a full understanding of adi-Buddha. But without explaining it, they said, 'Here we have the equivalent of God.' Naturally, when I came to Indonesia, the Indonesian Buddhists asked me what Adi-buddha actually meant. I explained to them that you could speak about it in terms of the clear light mind. In each person, this is the creator of our appearances, what we perceive; so in this sense it's like a creator.

Using this general interpretation of Adi-buddha, I was able to enter into dialogue with Islamic scholars in other countries. Islamic scholars have tended to be very open to this because in Islam, Allah is not personified. Likewise, this creative power within each mind – which might be seen as something like a creator god creator found in each person – also is not personified. As presented in the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Adi-buddha is beyond words, beyond concepts, unimaginable. Islamic scholars could relate to this very well. Also, the basic principles of love and compassion inherent to these teachings made Islamic scholars very open to knowing more about Buddhism.

Historically, the Buddhists in areas like Afghanistan, Central Asia, and India were accepted by the Muslim rulers as 'people of the book,' which meant that they could keep their religion, so long as they paid a special poll tax. So, in my dialogues with Muslim scholars, we explored together what is meant by 'people of the book.' I met with one West African Sufi leader from Guinea who explained that 'people of the book' meant people who believed in some higher abstract principle of ethics and morality that, in a sense, created or orders the world. It does not necessarily mean people who accept the Old Testament. Also, in my later investigations, what struck me was that in Sogdian, the ancient language of Uzbekistan and the major language of this whole central Asian area, the term Dharma was translated with the Greek loan word nom, which originally meant "law," but which the Sogdians took also as their word for "book." Later, the word nom for dharma was borrowed into other Central Asian languages into which Buddhist texts were translated, such as Uighur (a Turkic language) and Mongolian. In modern Mongolian, nom is still the word for both 'book' and 'Dharma.' ” [13]

Harris asserts in another essay that:

“The conflict in Kashmir is the result of the original Mogul invasion and Islamicization of the Hindu and Buddhist populations.”

The picture is much more complicated than that. The Moguls under Genghis Khan were not Muslims at the time they created the world's largest land empire. They had been exposed to Buddhism, though they clearly did not follow its moral precepts. The legacy they did leave was the Khanate, a structure based on traveling armies, and the Yasa code, which ended up superseding Islamic paradigms in Central Asia and the Middle East.

To give some historical background on the Kashmir issue, the Islamicization of the population happened from the ground up, as well as the top down. Muslims lived in India as far back as the 8th century CE, mostly in Sindh, due to a variety of factors: Arab trading settlements, the popularity of Sufism, and the invasion by general Muhammad bin Qasim, who came to free Arab captives from pirates under the aegis of Raja Dahir (this may have been merely a pretext for an already planned invasion by the Umayyad Caliphate). The rest of India was largely unaffected until the more aggressive Turkic conquests from the Afghan/Persian region a few hundred years later. Many low caste Hindus turned to Islam. Also, kings made alliances for protection against rivals, and Muslims ended up marrying into royal families, thus extending their base of power. [14]

Looking at the long history of India, it becomes apparent that rarely did its myriad invaders take control through brute force alone, as this land was an amalgamation of kingdoms, religious sects, and ethnic groups, united mainly by a pervasive caste system. Those who entered India, whether by migration or invasion, were eventually absorbed by its culture; a facet of the subcontinent that is a source of strength and pride for its people.

While the British Raj brought some positive developments to Indian society, mainly, democratic institutions, they were also heinous in their strategy of divide and conquer. The British entered as traders, but left as shamed imperialists. The wounds from the Muslim/Hindu divide have yet to heal. Indian history, rewritten at the behest of the British, distorts the historical relationship between Muslims and Hindus. [15]

As the British withdrew from India, the joint rule of Muslims and Brahmins was thrown off balance. Despite Gandhi's high ideals and Nehru's modernism, the caste system was still a reality. Muslims thought they could not prosper in a Hindu dominated India, so the Muslim League shifted from the idea of an autonomous region to a separate state. This especially appealed to uneducated Muslims who feared having the same status as the dhalits (outcastes). The role of Islam in Pakistan and the status of minorities are still debated, and human rights abuses are legion, in contradiction to Jinnah's stated ideals for the country. This is an issue the secular Indian government was fortunately able to by-pass [16], though chauvinism has asserted itself in Indian politics in recent decades. [17]

At the time India was partitioned, Muslims in Kashmir were ruled by a Hindu Raja, and there were regions where Hindus had a Muslim ruler. This led to both ethnic and religious sectarianism. The Pakistani military has manipulated the issue to gain the upper hand over India, with guerilla fighters joining Islamist movements. But the conflict itself is regional, involving issues of nationalism, resources, and ethnicity, in addition to religious identity. [18]

“During the turbulent period of the 60's and 70's in the US many Black Americans turned to Islam. Why? The reasons are twofold:
  1. Islam was held to be non-racist. The notions of Islamic fraternity declare that all Muslims are equal before Allah. Many Christian Churches in the US could be seen to support racism.
  2. The coded Red/Blue vMeme in Islam attracted militant activists who tired of the pacifist policies of the Black leadership.

These same reasons drive the idealism of the terrorists. As one terrorist already in prison remarked, 'You (Christians) say, turn the other cheek. If you strike my cheek I'll punch you in the face.' ”

The Nation of Islam was founded in the US in 1930 and was the only sect of Islam based primarily on racial identity. The Nation of Islam is also unconventional in that its founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, was considered a prophet, and even more unusual, his protégé Elijah Muhammad said he was an incarnation of Allah. To traditional Muslims this is simply shirk (idolatry) as worshipping a human being is forbidden.

During Malcolm X's hajj, he found himself among Muslims of all colors and nationalities. This prompted him to change, or at least soften, his negative view of white people. His break from the Nation of Islam also had a lot to do with Elijah Muhammad's betrayals and cover-ups.

As for the sentiments of a criminal, how this relates to a broad religious agenda is less clear. Muslim behavior is bound by protocols of courtesy (adaab). Violence is allowed to protect one's family or fellow Muslims more than for the sake of the individual.

A very brutal form of this communal ethos requires that when family honor is at stake, men murder their own sisters, wives, or even mothers. Not only is adultery, or merely its rumor, treated in such a way, but even rape, in which the woman is the victim, renders her “damaged goods.” This should be condemned entirely, and there is no scriptural basis for this, but is one of many cruel patriarchal practices that need to be abandoned. Traditionally, the example of the Prophet and his companions are the guide (sunnah) for Muslim behavior.

There are instances of turning the other cheek. For example, it is said that when Muhammad and his companions prayed in Makkah, a woman would throw garbage at them, so they would have to do the ablutions again and start the prayers over. One day she was missing, so he went to where she lived and remarked that she did not harass them that day. Her family was scared that he would retaliate, so he explained that he was concerned that something happened to her. When they told him she was ill, he offered condolences and helped to take care of her.

The idealism that Harris is commenting on is largely a reaction to modernity, something all fanatical ideologies have in common. The failures of communism and capitalism to respond to the needs of the poor, the alienation of the masses from impersonal bureaucracies, often seen as not sharing their values, the preeminence of science over mythology, the lack of an absolute to guide for behavior and to give meaning to life, etc. have led many to look for solutions in a fundamentalist religion that tolerates no distinctions within it or exceptions to it.

“Some of his [Muhammad's] visions may indeed have been somewhat psychotic. And people caught in the Purple/Red vMeme can easily mistake manic psychosis for religious insight and fervour.”

This is stated after explaining in the same essay that there is a lack of primary source material for historians to analyze. He is actually correct on that score, and in light of that, I might be just as misinformed as Harris. But I wonder if we modernists too easily dismiss religious insight as a byproduct of insanity.

It would be a good idea to utilize Wilber's concept of the pre/trans fallacy. Psychosis is ego breakdown. Elements of the higher Self may or may not emerge in this state, but it is primarily dominated by gross elements. Couching primitive psychological processes in spiritual terms is the first fallacy. The second fallacy is to collapse higher to lower, that is, to pathologize mysticism itself. Shamanic vision quests, for example, are dismissed as crude vestiges of our ancestors. As these religious practices involve methods such as starvation and the use of psychotropic plants, certainly there is a potential for inducing psychosis. But some of the visions resulting from these rituals are also clearly spiritual in nature (at least I think so). Hinduism's early sacred texts were created in this climate. In addition, the rich Yoga tradition of the subcontinent has origins in India's prehistory. Would it be fair to reduce Hinduism's religious insights to insanity?

There is a theory that Muhammad had epilepsy. That could be true, although it is difficult to make a medical diagnosis 1,400 years after the death of a person whom we know of mainly through religious scriptures.

“Unlike any other religion Islam expressly forbids any representation of the person of Mohammed (there have been a few, rare exceptions). This includes the representation of his person in writing (outside official history). Coupled with absolutism this has led to a situation where Islam has not critically examined its own beliefs or critically examined the life of the Prophet. The West developed the discipline of history and began to examine the truth claims of its dominant belief systems. Judaism and Christianity, despite pockets of resistance, were eventually dragged kicking and screaming into such self-examination. Not so with Islam. Both Judaism and Christianity have produced a vital industry of critical research. Islam has not. Any critical research has been very sparse in comparison and has had to contend with hostility from Islam. But even if such an industry were to develop, which I argue it should, it has to contend with the absence of primary and secondary material caused by this injunction.”

Early Buddhism had the same injunction, since the “person” of the Buddha, if he could be said to exist at all, is in a state of parinirvana beyond perception or conceptualization. Early Buddhism's material existed as an oral tradition hundreds of years before being written down, a common obstacle in religious studies.

It is worthy to note that archaeologists in Yemen a few years ago discovered what they believe to be a very old, and different, version of the Qur'an in its original Arabic, a finding that could make historians reevaluate their assumptions on Islam's origins.

“The Koran is, in essence a pre-modern, pre-rational text. No matter what gloss moderate Muslims place on it, the text speaks for itself. This is the problem. No matter what a moderate council of clerics may say, there has always been a fundamentalist council who have been able to provide unambiguous quotes from the Koran and the Hadith.”

The same can be said about the Bhagavad Gita or the Kalachakra Tantra. Indeed, some critics see them as an inherently feudal, martial set of teachings, which may be justified by certain passages. However, many Hindus and Buddhists interpret these sacred texts in terms of liberation, sublimation, compassion, and pacifism. What do we make of this difference? Religion can mean different things based on the values people hold.

“In many respects the fundamentalists are right in their interpretation.”


“There is no 'true' Islam, no more than there is a 'true' Christianity or a 'true' Judaism. Islam is a complex of competing sects, all laying claim to be the 'true' Islam.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. If Muslims claim that terrorists do not represent the true Islam, the response is that either there is no true Islam, or if there is, then the fundamentalists are more correct in their understanding. Either way, it is impossible that both critics and fundamentalists distort Islam, because the underlying assumption is that Islam is basically intolerant and violent. One can see this mentality in the shoddy scholarship that passes for erudition on Islam. (See this critique of Sookhdeo -

“It is not a case, as with Judaism, that there are contradictory injunctions that lend themselves to various interpretations, or in the case of Christianity expedient interpretations of clearly pacifist teachings, no, the Koran and the Hadith are unmistakably clear about the use of violence.”

The Old Testament seems pretty clear about the use of violence. Here are just a few examples:

  • the courts must carry out the death penalty of stoning (Deuteronomy 22:24),
  • the courts must hang those stoned for blasphemy or idolatry (Deuteronomy 21:22), 
  • destroy the seven Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:17)
  • and do not let any of them remain alive (Deuteronomy 20:16),
  • wipe out the descendants of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19),
  • do not offer peace to Ammon and Moab while besieging them (Deuteronomy 23:7) 
  • and do not panic and retreat during battle. (Deuteronomy 20:3).

Now this can and should be put into historical context. There is a strong Judaic tradition of scholarly debate and elaboration that counteract these injunctions.

As far as the New Testament is concerned, while its teachings are widely seen as pacifist, some Christians have a different idea. According to dispensationalists, the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelations predict the coming, and second coming, of Jesus Christ. In the end of days, the true believers will be taken directly up to heaven, and those left on earth will be in the midst of an apocalyptic war of staggering proportions in which the armies of God, led by Jesus himself, will destroy Satan and his followers. Of course, who exactly constitutes Satan's followers, and who the anti-Christ is, or will be, is a matter of dispute.

“… the Islamic world was steadily loosing its own empires, most notably India to the British and Indonesia to the Dutch, and so on.”

Except that these rulers were native to their own lands. Not even during the height of the Ottoman Empire was there a single ruler over the Islamic world analogous to a Pope, and the only time the Islamic world was united under a single Caliph was in the 8th century during the Umayyad dynasty.

Further, colonial powers undermined their traditions. Islamic control of non-Muslims was mainly political, and in most cases, the host cultures and religions remained (provided they pay jizrah, an additional protectorate tax levied by the imperial powers, which made up for the deficit in zakat). It is disingenuous to imply that European colonizers and Muslim rulers were on an equal footing at this time. 

“Nor is it a question of the radicals being a minority, for even if they are a minority they are an influential minority. In fact they are actually a majority in some countries (the majority of any population are usually not involved in politics anyway and tend to passively follow political groups who promise a better future).”

If the majority of practicing Muslims do not lead violent lives, they are justified in saying their religion is peaceful. If Harris is going to stigmatize an entire population, the question is quite relevant.

I am not trying to whitewash a very serious issue. Terrorism directly affects millions of lives, including Muslims, who themselves are often targets. One problem I have noticed is that Muslims spend too much time defending Islam's image, done perhaps out of pride or insecurity. Their condemnations of terrorism are often implicit, almost like a syllogism: 1.) Islam is against terrorism 2.) We follow Islam, ergo 3.) We are against terrorism. Rather than leading to good PR, it actually causes more frustration because their statements sound ambiguous.

“They [Islamists] will not stop if the US withdraws. If they can control Iraq they can control substantial oil revenue and then have a geographical and financial base from which to wage jihad on the other countries in the region. The final goal is to set up a regional Caliphate.”

The resistance, from both secular and religious factions, will not stop if the US military stays. The majority of the insurgency consists of native Iraqis, not invading terrorists. Al Qaeda's foothold in Iraq can only strengthen with prolonged occupation. I do not totally fault him for this line of reasoning, and it is good that he saw the situation clearly enough to conclude that, despite all its hype, this invasion was not in the best interests of Iraqis.

We are not facing a country or a political party, but something akin to an international crime syndicate.

What I want to point out is that Islamists use a modern strategy of imperialism. We are not facing a country or a political party, but something akin to an international crime syndicate. Al Qaeda appeals to Muslims through propaganda. Money is funneled through legitimate charities, businesses, and the illegal drug trade. In addition, they are aided by defectors in the Saudi kingdom and other Muslim countries. Defectors are easy to come by as many are sick of the corruption in their governments. Suffice to say, stopping al Qaeda requires tackling all of these complicated problems.

A successful tactic used by al Qaeda is their co-option of guerilla fighters who have, dare I say it, legitimate aspirations. While we should certainly condemn the means these groups use, they do have a right to independence. (We saw this recently in Chechnya with the hostage incident in which roughly 400 Russian children were killed. Though shocking and appalling in its brutality, it is a response to decades of greater human rights abuses committed by the Russian government.) Some low-level fighters actually resent al Qaeda leadership, but the tension is proportional in relation to mutual goals. Al Qaeda present themselves as the only group that truly stands up for Muslims.

If the West tells the Islamic world that it must change its religion or accept military or economic domination, might Muslims have a reason to object? What are their choices?

  1. Renounce Islam entirely
  2. Alter Islam to accommodate crony capitalism
  3. Accept secular dictators who torture, kill, or imprison dissenters, or
  4. Follow passionate clerics who instill a sense of traditional pride, however warped the theology.

Perhaps Muslims should have some more options. How about:

  1. A modern Islamic identity that is not based on a superficial imitation of Western Europe or North America.
  2. Successful models of non-violent resistance and political reform. If we doubt that a religion with no historical model of pacifism can achieve this, we should note that Mahatma Gandhi, in addition to his other influences, drew inspiration from the Qur'an, and millions of Indian Muslims joined in his non-violent campaign for independence.

There are major stumbling blocks to my humble proposals. If we measure European modernity from the enlightenment age on, it took Europe over 200 years to get where it is today, preceded by a renaissance that itself took hundreds of years to develop. During this time European countries engaged in an accelerated colonization, and it took two world wars, the bloodiest in human history, to slow it down. It is unrealistic to expect to build stable democracies in a few years, or even a few decades.

And what about those who live in occupied areas? Even George Bush admits that people do not like to be occupied! Some Palestinians have tried non-violent protest against the Israeli government without success. It is the violent groups such as Hamas, Hezbolllah, and Islamic Jihad that get a response. Lest we blame this all on Muslims, let's not forget that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by a Christian doctor, is a secular organization, as is the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, drawn from the Fatah party. Furthermore, it was Israel that initially supported Hamas over other alternatives.

“We should articulate a fair, free and fearless critique of Islam. We must identify those progressive Muslim voices that are calling for a reformation. And we should continue to refuse to 'surrender'.”

In America, there is a perception that Islam is the root of most, if not all, of the world's problems, just as communism was during the Cold War. A lot of Americans feel that our society is the model the rest of the world needs to emulate, and that the war on terrorism is a “clash of civilizations,” with our free lifestyle under attack from Muslims.

In America, there is a perception that Islam is the root of most, if not all, of the world's problems, just as communism was during the Cold War.

There is plenty of freedom to criticize Islam, fairly or otherwise. Still, conservative pundits say there is not enough criticism, especially from unpatriotic liberals who sympathize with the terrorists. Anyone who defends Islam from criticism gives “aid and comfort to the enemy.” This is not just social ostracism, but can be legally prosecuted as high treason, as in the infamous case of the army chaplain Rodney Yi. Even some on the left fearlessly criticize Islam, though usually for different reasons as the right. In news reports, terrorism done by Muslims is prefixed by the word “Islamic,” which is not true of other terrorist groups, even when other religions are involved (though I view all such terrorism as a misuse of religion). Even the nuclear weapon in Pakistan is called Islamic! Browsing through chain bookstores you will often find large sections devoted to Judaica, Christianity, or Eastern Thought, but scant material on Islam, even though Muslims constitute the third largest religious minority in America. Invariably, sections on Islamic studies contain books with anti-Islamic viewpoints.

It is simply a convention to portray Muhammad negatively. One would have to ask why, in contrast, are America's founding fathers, some of whom also led wars and killed, portrayed as heroes. Or why is Oliver Cromwell, a military leader and Protestant fundamentalist, portrayed positively as a reformist who overthrew the British monarchy.

As an aside, it would be quite arrogant of me to go on a lengthy rant about Australia, as my knowledge in this area is limited. What I can comment on is Harris's apparent attitude that Australians are more enlightened than Americans, even though his writings demonstrate some of the same tendencies I notice among my fellow compatriots. It is entirely possible that Harris's perspective on Islam is influenced by prejudice within his own society. While Australia's government is rather progressive, we cannot ignore the fact that it is a former British colony and has its own legacy of racism. Even if we discount its past, Australia is currently an ally of the US government, and that association itself is enough to cloud judgment. Unfortunately, one must always contend with bias, regardless of his or her country of origin, including this writer.

As for the proposition that “we should continue to refuse to surrender,” I am not quite sure what he wants us to do. Should western countries make it illegal for non-Muslim citizens to become Muslims?

The caricature of Islam as a plot to force everyone to worship a warrior god hinges not only on perceptions of current events, but also on history. Whereas I see the historical development of Islam as a complex phenomenon, just as other religions, Harris apparently sees it as a dark menace that has taken the West too long to overcome.

As far as sh'ariah is concerned, perhaps it does not occur to Harris that a lot of Muslims disagree with it. It is drawn from implications in the Qur'an and Hadith, and the gates of ijtihad for Sunnis (the struggle to reason) need reopening. There are many situations sh'ariah does not cover, so it makes no sense to apply the reasoning of a patriarchal past. We can discard the use of harsh punishment, the master/slave dynamic, and simplistic trial procedures. What Muslims would like to continue is community consensus.

What Lies Ahead of Us?

“Radical Islamism is doomed to failure, but it will sadly be a bloody fight that will take decades to complete.”

The anger that many Muslims have towards the US has a lot less do with its internal policies (“hating our freedom”) and much more to do with its post-World War II foreign policy. America's cultural influence is a mixed bag. Some look to America as a symbol of liberation, while others see its individualism and materialism as a sign of decadence. Just as there is a widespread fear of the Talibanization of Muslim countries, many also fear a McDonaldization that wipes out local culture and stimulates base desires to fuel consumerism.

Whether the Qur'an is used as a guide for individuals, or a loose blue-print for society, it should not stand in the way of political reform. Secular laws upheld in western countries have roots in Christian thought, whether as an extension of it or a reaction to it. There is a subtle difference between modernization and westernization. A democracy can exist among practicing Muslims. If Muslims reject their faith, or replace it with something else, they should at least do it on their own terms.

Islamic extremism will surely fail, we can all rejoice at that! Do we know how long it will take? I think Harris would agree with me that we need to focus on how to stop this bloodshed now, though we may disagree on exactly how to go about this. After the war with al Qaeda ends, there will likely be other wars and other forms of terrorism. War is not enough to end war. Harris frequently, and correctly, points out that people must meet their core needs or else they get nasty. It is not only terrorism, WMD's, or religious fundamentalism that we should worry about, though these issues should definitely be at the forefront of our worries. We should also look at ways in which everyone this world can meet their needs in the fairest, most equitable manner possible. This is a struggle all wisdom traditions, including Islam, can engage.


1. I believe we are all biased, to a certain extent, by national mythology. Ethnocentrism can lead to stability and cooperation or, in times of resource scarcity, conflict and xenophobia. The global economy and the information revolution are shaking things up. Nations are seeking to define, or redefine, themselves. Businesses are less loyal or accountable to national governments. With the world's population steadily increasing, people are immigrating and emigrating in large numbers. These developments are putting a lot of stress on democracies. Consequently, citizens can become decidedly undemocratic and give in to negative stereotypes of foreigners, while at the same time romanticizing their country and having an overblown sense of entitlement and superiority.


[1] Shah, Idries. The Way of the Sufi.

[2] Helminsky, Kabir. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path of Transformation.

[3] Esposito, John L. Unholy War: Terror In The Name Of Islam.

[4] Watt, Montgomery W. Islamic Philosophy And Theology

[5] Qumsiyeh, Mazin B. Who Made the Desert Bloom?

[6] Khalidi, Walid. Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians 1876-1948.

[7] Wolfe, Michael (Editor). Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith

[8] Aslan, Reza. No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

[9] Karen Armstrong. Islam, a Short History

[10] Quinlan, Esther Sakinah. The Jihad Question, Tikkun, September/October 2002, Vol. 17, Number 5

[11] Ali, Tariq The Colour Khaki, New Left Review 19, January-February 2003

[12] Berzin, Alexander. Buddhism and Its Impact on Asia. Asian Monographs, no. 8.

[13] Slightly revised from the original published version: "The Dharma of Islam: A Conversation with Snjezana Akpinar and Alex Berzin." Inquiring Mind (Berkeley, California), vol. 20, no. 1 (fall 2003).

[14] Ali, Asghar Engineer. Islam and Muslims in India – Problems of Identity and Existence.

[15] Puniyani, Ram. [India] Erasing the Past for Present Political Agenda.

[16] Ali, Asgar Engineer. Democracy, minorities and identity.

[17] Bigelow, Anna. Hulladiya Hanuman: the Return or the End of History?

[18] Behera, Navnita Chadha. Kashimiri Identity.

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