IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 4, Number 34, December 12- December 19, 2002

UNDERSTANDING MODERN ISLAM

by Peter Haste 
 



Trying to understand the religion of Islam and the mindset of Muslim radicals has become an urgent issue for Christians and non-Islamic governments around the world. More than a billion people are said to be followers of the prophet Mohammed, and the number continues to rise. After the attack on the World Trade Centre and the recent bombing in Bali, it becomes more urgent than ever to understand the modern Muslim mind. Here, the Australian Presbyterian Magazine talks to Zahir Ahmed, the president of Combined Multicultural Christian Community of NSW and pastor to the Christian City Church International (Baptist Churches of NSW), who addressed a public meeting held in the NSW Parliament building on September 11 this year. Third Millennium is grateful for the permission of AP to reproduce this article from their November 2002 issue. Occasional hyperlinks throughout this article were added by Third Millennium.


Can you tell us of your background in Islam?
I grew up as a Muslim boy. My parents were Muslims, although they weren't devout. You'd call them nominal because they followed all the customs that Islam requires. So right from my childhood, as soon as I could read and write, I had to sit with a Muslim priest (or mullah) so he could teach me how to read the Qur'an. He would come every morning. I would sit with him for at least an hour each morning at our home, with my brothers and sisters. My parents paid him. He taught us seven days a week how to read the Qur'an. That was how I learnt Islam.

Does this happen to all Muslim children?
Yes, whether they are nominal or not, it is expected. Some people may not be able to do it due to the lack of money, but nev-ertheless it is a desire. Muslim societies also have something called the madrassa. It's like a theological institution, but not nearly as sophisticated as in the Western world. They are usually set up in villages and in other places where the mullahs come at a specific time each day. On average, 50 to 60 children might come for a couple of hours. The village people find it a relatively easy and inexpensive way to instruct their children. Wealthy Saudis and others pour millions of dollars every year into funding madrassas, particularly in other countries like Pakistan, where they become the breeding grounds of militant Islam.

What's it like to grow up in an Islamic culture?
At the time I loved it. Islam gave me some very strong ideals. As a Muslim boy I had deep aspirations: how can I best serve Islam? How best can I serve my Muslim country? And I decided as a boy that I would be an officer in the army. I wanted to fight for my country and the cause of Islam. Even as a child I believed
that the greatest sacrifice a man can make is to give his life for Allah and his country. I was also taught as early as I can remember that Israel was our number one enemy and that the Jewish people had to be annihilated. My life was lived in this atmosphere. And so you've got specific calls as you are growing up. As you go through school, college and university there is a thread that is tying your life together. For someone like me,who wanted to give his life for Islam and his country, all these things, when you put them together, brought me to the conclusion that I had to join the army and be a career officer and a loyal Muslim.

Why were you so concerned to give your life for your country and for Islam?
You have to understand what it's like to be a Muslim. You can never experience any true peace. You can never be sure that your good deeds will outweigh the bad ones that you have done in your life. The only way that you can be absolutely sure about going to heaven is to die on the battlefield as a warrior for Allah. And so that was one of my regular prayers as an officer, as a soldier, that Allah might grant me the mercy to die on the battlefield for the cause of Islam. I used to pray this every day because I believed that if I died as a martyr, in the cause of my religion, then I would go straight to heaven. This was the way to escape judgment. In my case, I knew that if my deeds were weighed on the balance I would most likely go to hell. So to die in battle and avoid the judgment was a great relief.

Is this the main reason young Muslim men are happy to die in the cause of Islam?
I believe it is. That was what we were taught. It was explained to me that, according to the Qur'an, there was only one sure way to go to heaven, and that was by suffering death in jihad (holy war).


The Qur'an teaches that if a man dies fighting for Allah he is guaranteed the forgiveness of all sins and is assured of a reserved place in paradise (3: 157; 169). Further, he is promised a crown of glory and the sexual pleasures of 72 virgins. He is also absolved from the suffering of the grave and the horrors of judgment. And then there's the added bonus that if you die striving in the cause of
Allah, you can bring 70 of your relatives with you into paradise. I believe this is why so many young Muslims, especially Palestinians, are willing to die as martyrs in the war against Jews and other infidels. You have everything to gain by dying on the battlefield. There's really nothing to lose. It's hard for people in the West to understand this because here we have a completely different outlook on life. But in a genuine Muslim setting all of life is dominated by religion. There is no division between sacred and secular. You don't have a separation between church and state because the interests of Islam and the national interest merge. It is the duty of an Islamic state to further the interests of religion. So it is impossible for the individual to escape from Islam.

People in the West find this difficult to grasp because we experience such tremendous freedoms here. And it is this freedom that so many Muslims resent, particularly here in Australia. I will never forget a meeting where I was speaking in Australia. A young Muslim man about 18 years old came up to me at the end of my talk. He was very passionate. We had an exchange and he finished by saying: "You know the biggest enemy in this country is freedom." This is the normal way to think in an Islamic society. Muslims believe that we are meant to be guided, moulded, shaped by our religious teachers. There is no personal freedom. They believe that the soul is seasoned and grows as it submits unquestioningly to the teaching of the Qur'an.

So did you progress into the army?
Yes, I joined the army. It took me five years to prepare for all the interviews because the tests and competition for a commission were very tough: 20,000 people applied and only 19 were accepted. But the prospects for career advancement were exceptional and so I was glad to get in. My great ambition was to be a general by my mid-40s. So I put everything, every effort, every energy, every thought, everything toward that goal.

And what happened then?
Well, my career came to a grinding halt because of a civil war. And my life became even more complicated because I became a Christian. All these changes took place during a number of years, and I need to explain what happened in my life so that you can see how the Lord amazingly brought me to himself.

Tell us.
While I was planning to join the army, I realised that I would have to learn English because all the interviews were conducted in it. But I had a problem: no one could teach me to speak it. But one day I heard some people singing in English in a church, so I knocked on the door and went inside. It was a Gospel Hall run by the Australian
Baptist Missionary Society and the preacher was speaking in English. So I figured out that it was a good place to come every Sunday to hear English. And I told my parents about it. They were very happy that I'd found a place like that because they wanted me to join the army. And so my parents made sure that no one prevented me from going to church. It's funny that later my father disowned me because I became a Christian. Yet, even he, in the early days, made sure that I was free to go there. So when I went there and I began to meet the missionaries. And I discovered that they were really fine people. And that started me asking questions: Why are these people so different to the impression that I have been given of people from the West?

So what ultimately led you to Christ?
The preaching of Jesus Christ. Though outwardly I was learning English, inwardly my spirit was learning about Christ. So there was a testimony born in my own spirit, if I can put it this way. And then we had a preacher come from Egypt, his name was Mr Girghis, and I was invited to come and listen to him one evening. And his subject was: "How big are you in the sight of God?" And that challenged me because I was trying to join the army to be a commissioned officer, and in those days in my country if you were an army officer you were like a little king; everything was given to you, you were the elite of society. People gave you gifts and did whatever they could to please you. Free tickets, free meals, reserved seats all that sort of thing. But Mr Girghis challenged me about whether it was right to be so proud and exercise such power and authority. And on that night I had a dream. And in that dream I found that I was in the army and I was authorised to go and bring in someone dead or alive. And so I went to this person's place and I said to him: "Come with me or I'll take your body with me." And he refused to come. This is my dream! And I was about to kill him. Then the window in that room opened up and a burst of light came through that window. I fell to the floor (this was in my dream) and I was almost blinded. And then I heard a voice say: "Stand up." And I stood up. And the voice said: "Open your eyes." And I opened my eyes and I could see through the window something like a star (but it was more than a star). I can't describe it, but it was a light. And then the same voice said: "Who are you to destroy my creation?" At that point I woke up. And I began to think about how true it was. You know, if you haven't made something then you have no right to destroy it. And that stirred me up quite a lot. Then we had our civil war. So I had to take a side in that, and I joined the rebels. It's a very long story. As I look back, I can see how God saved my life on many occasions through the help of Christian people and by the Lord directing my circumstances. It was ultimately through all these things that I met my wife too.

To convert to Christianity in Islamic culture is a profound religious act with life-and-death consequences. Why did you feel you could no longer continue as a Muslim and you had to be a follower of Jesus?
There are a number of things. As a Muslim you are told from your childhood that you cannot question the unquestionable. And the Qur'an is unquestionable. And my problem was that I was question-ing a number of things. For instance, I had questions about the status of women. I could not accept their status or the way they were treated in Islam. In my country they were looked at as though they were less than human. I found that very difficult to accept. But I was not able to question this teaching because if I asked the mullah, he would say: "Ssh. Hush. You are not to ask that kind of question." The problem is that if the Qur'an says: "The sun rises in the west", and you know for a fact that it doesn't, you've still got to accept that the sun rises in the west. The other problem was that there were all sorts of contradictions in the Qur'an. Some things that Muhammad said at the beginning are contradicted later on. But my problem was this: if the Qur'an is the word of God, then how can there be later revelations that actually contradict the earlier ones? It should be the one, consistent message all the way through. I was also troubled by the blatant homosexuality of many of the priests.

Many of these men knew the Qur'an back-to-front yet they lived hypocritical lives. So those things really hit me hard and made me ask: "What is the alternative?"

Do many Muslims share your spiritual longings?
Yes, particularly Muslims who have had the opportunity to get a good education and have been to university. They have all sorts of questions and spiritual struggles. The problem is that very few Muslims have read the Qur'an. They may have read bits here and there, but mostly they have heard what the priests, the mullahs,
have said. About 80 percent of Muslims have not read the Qur'an right through with understanding. Many mullahs have never read right through either.

Do you think that many Muslims share your views on Islam?
Educated Muslims undoubtedly share some of the misgivings that I have had about Islam. The problem is that once they enter the Muslim community they are not able to have a questioning attitude. One of the problems is that when push comes to shove, moderates usually become fanatics. You can see this tendency quite clearly in the response of many Muslims to the gang rapes that were committed in Sydney over the past few years. While some community leaders have condemned them, the overall effect has been to unite Muslims. I would love to be a fly on the walls of some of their meetings to hear exactly what they are discussing. But if their thinking is similar to the way mine used to be when I was a Muslim, then I know one thing: they will never really feel at home in Australia.

How do Muslims cope with being so different to the rest of Australia?
I think they find it very hard. They feel that they are strangers here. And their religion leads them to them having a "them-us" mentality. I think that's one of the reasons why many Muslims feel that they need to have a part of Australia where they can exercise their faith with-out any interference from Western and non-Muslim influences. I'm not a prophet, but I believe that there are a lot of Muslims in Australia who are hoping that some day a part of Australia will be declared an Islamic state, in say, 20, 30, or 50 years. And their numbers are increasing dramatically. We are told that the Australian families are producing 1.7 children on average; however, Muslim families are having an average five or six children.

Many Muslims are coming here as immigrants. When you look at all these facts in a social perspective, I don't think it's unreasonable to foresee a lot of instability several decades from now. It happened in Lebanon when a majority Maronite population was overtaken by the fast-growing Muslim Druze community. The government needs to be aware of this potential problem.

There seems to be a worldwide resur-gence of Islam at the moment. What's driving it? Is it the wealth of the Arab oil nations?
I don't think it's Arab wealth. It's more a matter of the Islamic worldview. Islam is different to Christianity in that it expands by military conquest. The church is meant to grow through evangelism and conversion. But Islam has grown historically through armed conflict and territorial gain. In Islam, territory is directly related to religion. Islam has not spread by sending missionaries; it spreads through military conquest. Look what's going on in Indonesia and West Papua at the moment. Christian communities are being attacked and murdered by the Laskar Jihad. This is how Muslim influence is growing there; through conquest and fear. As soon as lands are captured, the locals are given an option: "become a Muslim or perish." There is a saying: "It is better for you to die under the sword of the Muslim than to die as an infidel." Muslims also give a choice to the Jews and Christians: "You either become Muslims or you will be put in a class called 'Dhimmi', which means a second-class citizen." In that case, you have to pay an extra tax for the privileges of living in a Muslim country. Muslim scholars see jihad (holy war) as a basic Muslim duty. They are required to wage war as a religious act against all who attack Muslim territory as well as against infidels, apostates and People of the Book (Jews and Christians). They divide the world between what they call the dar al-Islam (land of Islam) and the dar al-harb(land of war). Muslims believe that they must struggle to expand the dar al-Islam throughout the world so that everyone will have the opportunity to live within a just Islamic political and social order. In other words, they want to increase the political territory under their control. People need to know this.

But if Muslims are religiously at odds with societies that are non-Islamic, why do they go to live in them?
Sometimes they may not have a choice. They may be forced into these countries by circumstances beyond their control. But if they act consistently with their beliefs they will have to struggle against the culture and religion of the society where they find themselves. And this doesn't mean that they have to move away. Look what's happening in Nigeria and Sudan. There, various parts of the country have been declared Muslim and they come under the Shariah law as the Muslim proportion of the population grows or gains political power. The Islamic worldview will ultimately present Western nations with a huge political problem. Muslims don't send missionaries like the Christian church. They just send floods of people. And once their numbers grow, then they begin to exert political pressure. They have already asked the British parliament several years ago for the right to set up an Islamic parliament to govern the affairs of the Muslim community there. They were
turned down. It's possible that a similar request could be made in Australia in, say, 30 years time. I have a friend who went along to a mosque in Sydney. The people in the mosque embraced and welcomed him. They even offered him a Turkish girl that he could marry and who would take care of him very well. They said to him, "Brother, you should join us. This land is ours. And it will be ours." And he said, "Well, we're only a small group now." And they said, "Oh, maybe today we are 300,000 but give us a few more years and we'll be 3 million." That's the sort of aspirations that many of them have. Unfortunately, many Australians with whom I speak are completely na´ve in understanding the religious and political ambitions of Islam. If they bothered to look on Islamic web-sites they would see what I mean (www.islam.org.au ).

Why do Muslims have such a problem with Western culture?
Because they believe that Western culture is completely corrupt. For instance this comment about Australia came off an Islamic web-site: "It is therefore inevitable as long as we live here, that we will, through a process of cultural osmosis, take on some of the characteristics of the kafirs (unbelievers). The comparison of Islam to the kafir is like that of fresh, clear spring water and water brought up from the bottom of suburban sewer. If even a drop of the filthy water enters the clearwater, the clarity diminishes. Likewise, it only takes a drop of the filth of disbelief to contaminate Islam in the West. If we have it within our means we should therefore consider moving to a Muslim land whereby we can at least live amongst our brethren and within an Islamic society free from the contamination of the unbelievers" (www.islam.org.au Preserving the Islamic Identity in the West: Threats and Solutions).

I think this explains why Muslims have such a difficult time accommodating themselves to western culture. Their religion sets up a barrier.

Why is America the object of so much Islamic hatred? The Americans helped Muslims in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and give billions of dollars to Egypt.
The problem with the Americans is tied up with the Muslim hatred for Israel. If America did not back Israel it would be a totally different situation. However, because America backs Israel, Muslims refer to it as the "greater Satan," and Israel is known as the "little Satan". Of course, the tension between Israel and Islam goes all the way back to the hostility that arose between Isaac and Ishmael in the time of Abraham. And Israel's strength is America. America has put its money, wealth, armour, technology into Israel. And Israel is a reflection of the West in the middle of an autocratic, dictatorial, Islamic world. And so in every way Israel is an offence. Israel's problem goes back into Abraham's days because, again in tradition, it says that the Jews were Allah's biggest enemy.

Why is Islam more militant than other religions? Is there something in its theology?
Yes, there is. One of the central concepts of Islam is jihad. Jihad literally means "to struggle". It is a Muslim's duty to struggle in the path of God and in the example of the prophet Mohammed and
his early companions. While jihad has been interpreted in a number of different ways, in recent years growing numbers of Muslims have maintained that it's a universal religious obligation for all true
Muslims to join the jihad to promote a global Islamic revolution. Some of the more vocal and radical groups combine militancy and messianic visions and call upon their followers to take up armed struggle to subject the world to Allah. I was taught as a small boy that I must engage in jihad against Israel. I learned from my mullah and family to hate the Jewish people. I was told that the number one enemy of Allah is the Jews and they are to be annihilated; the state of Israel was to be destroyed. All Muslims are taught this.

Do all Muslims believe it?
As far as I am aware. It's an essential belief of Islam because I've quoted to you from the Qur'an just now: "The stone will say: 'There is a Jew hiding behind me. 'A tree will say: 'There is a Jew hiding behind me. Kill him!'" Here the stone and the tree are talking to Muslims! And this is just one quotation. There are many other quotations in the Qur'an (see www.islam.org.au, The Termination of Israel: A Qur'anic Fact). So when, and I will be honest with you, you read the Qur'an from the beginning to the end, it is not a book that propagates peace. It is a book that propagates war. Having been a devout Muslim myself, I cannot understand the ignorance of people in the West who say that Islam is a religion of peace. How can they say that when it is used by the people to drive planes into towers and to kill people throughout the centuries? All I can say is that they have not studied the Qur'an and that they are ignorant of history.

Could attacking Iraq unite the Islamic world against the West and renew persecution against the Church?

Most certainly. The church is already persecuted, and it will be even more so. In Pakistan, as you know, numbers of Christians have been deliberately murdered in cold-blood in recent months. In other places around the world many Christians are being martyred every day in places like Ambon and the Sudan. In Islamic countries you cannot practice Christianity openly. While the West gives Muslims the right to freely practise their faith, Muslim countries do not extend the same privileges to Christians or other religious
minorities. For instance, in Saudi Arabia it is impossible to meet publicly for Christian worship. If you did so, you could risk the death penalty. Christians are forced to meet underground.

Do you think that bin Laden is trying to trigger a massive confrontation with civilisations that ends in war?
That's right. I think he is trying to issue a world-wide call to Muslims to rise in jihad. The World Trade Centre attack was meant to be a trumpet call to Muslims to unite and to conquer the West. He wants to give Islam new strength and focus. Bin Laden's activity will probably be the catalyst for a new wave of militancy. His aim is to eradicate Jews and Christians. It's an historical fact that wherever Muslims conquered, gradually Christianity disappeared. For instance, in the Byzantine Empire the church played a major role; well, that came to an end with the Muslim invasions. Now that part of the world is completely dominated by the mosque. That's the story wherever Islam went. And now in the West I hear old church buildings are being purchased by Muslims who are turning them into mosques. And this is happening rapidly here as well as in other Western countries. I heard just the other day that when the mosque at Regents Park opened in London, one of the speakers said: "If we can win London, we can win the whole Western world." I attach great significance to that statement. It shows an aspiration and a desire to control and dominate the West. They believe that since everyone will become a Muslim at the end of history, why not become Muslims now?

We are commanded to love all people and to share the Gospel with them. How do Christians go about witnessing and sharing the love of God with Muslims? Is it possible?
It's possible, but you have to remember that it can only be done in the power of God. You will come to nothing unless there is a supernatural breakthrough. Every conversion story that I've heard of Muslims has been different. And I've come to realise that every one of them has a supernatural intervention. You can read books like I Dared To Call Him Fatherand The Torn Veil and a number of other testimonies. Every one of them is different.

Christians must rely upon the power of God in reaching Muslims. Muslim out-reach is 75 percent praying and 25 percent witnessing. The spiritual veil that covers their eyes can only be removed by God himself in his sovereign will and purpose, and that's where the problem lies. We must love and respect them but that will be ineffective unless we pray for them. We must ask God to give them open minds because one of the problems is this that the moment you talk about Christ as the Son of God, you commit the unforgivable sin. And so we've got to love them, we've got to know as much as possible to start with, but never to enter into an argument because if you enter into an argument you will only create wars. If I sense there's an argument developing, I deliberately stop. I say: "Please, no more. I don't want to argue with you. Leave it for another day." Once you argue with anyone, that's it, nobody is going anywhere.