At no point in human history have more people across the entire planet asked this question. It was only since the turn of the century that most people developed a conception of Islam. To our discredit, the opinion that most have since formed is negative, according to numerous polls and studies.
In Australia, anti-Muslim sentiment has been recorded among as high as 50 percent of the population. Although, it is well documented that pejorative media and political discourses have for decades been among the main drivers of anti-Muslim sentiment, over the past several years, for the first time in Australia’s history, we have multiple groups and political parties with an explicit anti-Islam agenda.
This contrasts with our everyday experiences, however, in which we see the many successes of Muslim Australians across all sectors of society. Muslims like Anne Aly, Waleed Aly, Randa Abdel-Fatah, Amal Awad, Susan Carland, Nazeem Hussein, Usman Khawaja, quite a few MasterChef contestants and a number of others are household names, valued for outstanding contributions to society. Many non-Muslims around the country would attest to the goodness of their Muslim relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, classmates, workmates and associates.
However, in Australia and around the world, Islam is judged by the actions of those who have sought to harm others. Over the past 15 years, 50 Muslim Australian men have been found guilty of plotting or conducting acts of violence defined as terrorism. The evidence presented in court connects their beliefs about Islam with the commission of their crimes.
There have even been calls for Muslim Australians to disavow verses of the Quran, a matter I address in my latest paper. Upon us is a great responsibility to answer the question asked in newsrooms, courtrooms, classrooms and living rooms around the country…what is Islam? What is it that we Muslims believe and how does that impact on everyone else?
Our response must be from the Quran, which begins in the name of Allah, the epitome of compassion and mercy. From the first pages, we read this is a book of guidance for the muttaqeen (people who have taqwa, the consciousness of Allah). We believe in the ghayb, realities and dimensions beyond those our limited senses and tools can perceive.
We pray to Allah and we share with others from our provisions. We believe in what was revealed to our Prophet Muhammad (s) and what came before him. We live with a belief that this world is not the entirety of our existence, that we will be accountable to Allah, and exist beyond this world is a state determined by Allah’s judgment. Our success results from our belief and good conduct.
When reciting the pages of the Quran, the repeated higher principles are unmissable: compassion and mercy, equity, fairness, generosity, integrity, justice, kindness, love, patience, peace, sincerity, trustworthiness and wellbeing. The Quran also demands that we observe, think, reflect, contemplate and use our reason. From this foundation, Muslims developed the philosophy, mathematics and science that brought Europe from the dark ages to the dawn of the enlightenment.
But what many non-Muslims are concerned about today is whether we are genuine about peaceful coexistence and if this is truly part of our beliefs. Overwhelmingly, we tick the boxes of non-violence, respecting the law, exercising our rights and duties as citizens in a dignified way, and generally getting along with others, respecting everyone’s rights and freedoms.
The Quran provides guidance to live an honest, healthy, happy, honourable life. Its verses and the example of our Prophet direct us towards appreciating the diversity in which humanity is created, accepting religious pluralism and striving for peaceful coexistence.
I am currently involved in a research project examining documents referred to as the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad (s), pledges of protection granted to Christian, Jewish and other monotheistic communities.
These documents reinforce what we already know; the Prophet had trusting, mutually-respectful relations with Christians, including the Askum Negus Al-Najashi, to whom he sent his companions in need of protection, and his wife Khadija’s cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, whom he consulted upon receiving the very first revelation of the Quran.
He also established a Charter of Medina outlining the rights and responsibilities of the city’s various Arab and Jewish tribes, stating that all belong to a single community (ummah).
Furthermore, the Quran calls for the defence of places of worship in which the name of Allah is commemorated, including monasteries (sawami’u) churches (biya’un), synagogues (salawatun) and mosques (masajid) (Quran 22:40).
To this we should add that numerous verses of the Quran direct us towards peaceful coexistence (49:13, 2:62, 2:256, 60:7-8, 3:64, 4:90, 8:61, 109:1-6) and require us to uphold our agreements and covenants (5:1, 8:56, 8:72, 9:4, 4:92, 13:20), which brings to mind our social contract and pledge as citizens of this country.
The Quran’s guidance transcends time and place, not the least of which through its emphasis on wisdom.
We share this island with its traditional custodians and immigrants from all over the world. This is a land of opportunity, governed by the rule of law, where rights and duties are established and we are free to live our respective faiths.
It is not without problems and challenges, however, including those concerning indigenous reconciliation, violence against women, socio-economic inequality, excessive corporate and foreign lobby influence on government, and environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, bad press and political expediency, as well as misinformation and misconduct within our communities, have contributed to the negativity with which Islam is too often regarded, though its principles and wisdom are so needed.
It is our responsibility to right this wrong through our exemplary conduct and constructive engagement with society for the promotion of wellbeing.
Right-wing extremism and anti-Muslim sentiments will not disappear overnight but anti-Islam discourses on which they are based can be challenged through the provision of cogent religious instruction and peaceful coexistence can be strengthened through our social engagement and willingness to know one another.