It cannot be over-emphasized that Islam upholds the values of reason, balance and responsibility in the conduct of its worldly affairs. There is nothing arbitrary about its legal provisions relating to matters of war, peace, international relationships and the rule of law. In this area there is considerable agreement between Islamic law and the legal systems currently practiced throughout the world. In addition to the real possibility that these legal systems were profoundly influenced by the legal heritage of Islam, this commonality can be explained by the fact that the protection and endorsement of basic human rights form the cornerstone of Islamic legislation.
The international community has come to agree, through the institution of the United Nations, on a body of human rights and interests which Islam has always endorsed. This ought not to surprise anyone if the basic realism, rationality and pragmatism of Islamic law is recognized.
The critics of Islam, however, insist that Islam and Muslims are openly hostile and intolerant towards communities other than their own. They refer to the Qur’anic verses that exhort the believers to fight the infidels, they point to the battles of early Islam and the eventual confrontation between the Crusaders and the Saracens or Moors, and now, the contemporary stereotype of the Arab “terrorist”.
It must be noted that many Orientalists might object to this characterization of their views on the question. Indeed many of them subscribe to more nuanced positions. More recent scholarship has completely abandoned the emotionally-charged vocabulary of earlier Orientalism. It remains true, however, that Islam is still imagined as threatening, fanatical, violent and alien by significant sections of the world’s media.
In formulating an answer to all of this, it is crucial to focus on a general definition of Islam, so as not to fall into any misunderstanding about Jihad and its place within the Din. The common expression that Islam is a “way of life” has become hackneyed to the point where we can well do without it. Islam is more accurately described as “establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth.”
This latter statement must be carefully understood if we are to avoid the superficial moralizing or equally misleading literalism that characterizes much contemporary thinking about Islam. It is far from desirable to simply quote, as an apparent show of understanding, scriptural support for this or that personal opinion we may have about a particular subject. Neither is it enough to use Qur’anic or Prophetic texts without adequate knowledge of the human situation and cultural milieu in which they were revealed and first applied, as well as the precedence of some verses over others based on order of revelation or abrogation.
In other words, context and circumstance of Qur’anic revelation and Hadith are crucial in coming to terms with Jihad. It is an error to judge Islam and Muslims in the light of the kind of “Jihad” that has fallen victim to ideological tendencies. The critic also has to be wary of the interpretation of “Jihad” which is projected, and sometimes imposed, by the selective “religious reformism” so rampant today. They ignore central aspects of Islam’s intellectual heritage, selectively repress important figures and disregard Islam’s impeccable history of adherence to the standards of law and justice in affairs of state.