A reflection on Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” – Part I: Geographical and historical development of Islam:

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OSAMA BIN LADEN AND ISLAM
Part I – Geographical and historical development of Islam:

In November of 2002, a letter purported to have been written by Osama bin Laden, famous leader of the Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda, was posted in the UK’s Observer. The letter first appeared on the internet in Arabic on websites that support Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network and then was translated and circulated by Islamists in Britain.

The purpose of this letter, according to the author, was to respond “as an explanation and warning” to a question many in the west have been asking for over a year: that being, “On what basis are we fighting?”

Beginning the letter with a benediction to Allah, “the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”, the author clarifies,

”While seeking Allah’s help we form our reply based on two questions directed at the Americans, “Why are we fighting and opposing you?” (and) “What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?”

To the first question, the author explains,

“The answer is very simple: First, because you attacked us and continue to attack us… You attacked us in Palestine, …You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon.” Second, “Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis.”

In answer to the second question, he states:

“The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.” “The second thing we call you to, is to stop your oppression, lies, immorality and debauchery that has spread among you.” Third, “take an honest stance with yourselves … to discover that you are a nation without principles or manners, and that the values and principles to you are something which you merely demand from others, not that which you yourself must adhere to. We also advise you to stop supporting Israel, and to end your support of the Indians in Kashmir, the Russians against the Chechens and to also cease supporting the Manila Government against the Muslims in Southern Philippines. We also advise you to pack your luggage and get out of our lands. We desire for your goodness, guidance, and righteousness, so do not force us to send you back as cargo in coffins. Sixthly, we call upon you to end your support of the corrupt leaders in our countries. Do not interfere in our politics and method of education. Leave us alone, or else expect us in New York and Washington. We also call you to deal with us and interact with us on the basis of mutual interests and benefits, rather than the policies of sub dual, theft and occupation, and not to continue your policy of supporting the Jews because this will result in more disasters for you.”
This is our message to the Americans, as an answer to theirs. Do they now know why we fight them and over which form of ignorance, by the permission of Allah, we shall be victorious?”

He ends the letter with the statement, “we wanted to outline the truth – – hoping for Allah’s reward, seeking success and support from Him.”

In order to understand this mandate, it’s important we explore the history and beliefs of the Muslim world.

Geographical and historical development of this religion:

The ancient Patriarch, Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. The “sons” of Shem are called “Semites” and are thought to include the Elamites, Assyrians, Lydians of Asia Minor, the Armaeans, the Chaldeans (the ruling caste in Babylon), and the children of Eber. The children of Eber are said to be the tribes of Arabia and the children of Abraham (Israelites, Ishmaelites, Midianites, and Edomites). The original home of these people was Arabia.

Semitic society was originally nomadic. Arabia retains that trait even to the present day. The Arabian people were divided into small tribes and lived a very simple life. Due to their long history of activity in a wide but monotonous and secluded peninsula, they have been described as eager and impulsive, but with a narrow focus. Men were good or bad, Blessed or cursed.

Religious, enduring and brave: they existed in tribalism with the clan as the main social unit. There were as many gods as there were clans, and a man’s allegiance was sworn to that god just as it was sworn to his clan. The god took his name from human relationships – “master, lord and king” – and held this relationship to no other people but his own. The gods were territorial, and if one clan conquered another, the god of the winning clan became the god of the conquered. In this way, some territories accumulated more than one god.

All religious acts were clan acts, and a god was worshipped in the area in which he was thought to have manifested power. People would walk long distances to visit a newly discovered spot where they have heard a new sacred act had occurred. A marker was made of the event, frequently a stone, and blood was brought to it in order to renew the blood bond between the god and his people. Religion was very simple and happy. There was no idea of sin. The afterlife wasn’t an issue. Joy came in having many children with which to continue the existence of the clan.

The word Islam is based on the three letter Arabic root “s-l-m,” the fundamental meaning of which is “safe, sound, unimpaired, intact.” Islam also means, “blameless, faultless, established, proven, and it takes on a number of other more subtle meanings as well. The three letter root is also seen in the word, “salaam ‘aleik” (peace be with you), a phrase tied linguistically to the Hebrew word “shalom”. When all these meanings interact, we derive the term meaning of “a surrender to the will of God by which personal well-being is achieved” or more simply, “Submission” (to the will of God).

Islam began in Saudi Arabia in the early 7th century. Its founder, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, was born into the powerful Quraysh (Koraish) tribe in about 570 A.D. His father, Abd-Allah died before he was born. As a very young child he had been sent to a Bedouin woman in the desert to be nursed. This was not an uncommon practice, as the city his family lived in, Mecca, a prosperous trading hub, was not one which children thrived in. But his mother died soon after he was returned to her, and he was sent to live first with his grandfather, then with his uncle Abu Talit (Talib). By the age of six, he was an orphan. His mother’s death had a profound affect on him; throughout the rest of his life he encouraged the giving of alms to widows and orphan’s. As he matured, he was likely involved in shepherding his uncle’s sheep and may have also joined trading caravans as a camel-driver and saw a little of the country. It’s also likely that he never learned to read.

When he was twenty-five, a wealthy widow relative took an interest in him and asked him to transport some goods for her to trade. He did this, and she was so impressed that, although her family was opposed, she offered him her hand in marriage. He accepted, and he and Khadijah, a woman fifteen years his senior, were married. Although raised poor, he was now wealthy and had a life of leisure. Together they had two sons and four daughters, the best known being Fatima.

It is unknown whether he had come into contact with Christianity or Judaism, but it is likely Jewish refugees had run to Arabia following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, and Christian missionaries had by this time made visits o the area. Furthermore, Mecca was active with traders and travelers from near and far. One story says that a cousin of Khadijah was Jewish and read the Hebrew Bible to him.

The Quraysh were an influential tribe that controlled Mecca. Not only was Mecca an economically important city, but it was also religiously important due to the Ka’bah (Kaaba), a cubical structure containing all 360 Arabian tribal deities, located there. Each tribe chose its deity, placed it in the Ka’bah, and then traveled to Mecca each year to honor it. These yearly pilgrimages also benefited Mecca economically. At one point, the merchants of Mecca decided to combine economics with religion and claimed the well as their own, then began to sell the water to the visiting worshippers. However, this had a dampening effect on the devotees, who lost faith in the idols of Mecca and turned to fortune telling and gambling.

Once a year, devotees with spiritual yearnings also retreated to a place of solitude. Muhammad did this for several years, spending a lot of time meditating in a cave in Mount Hira. In the year 610, Muhammad is said to have received his first visitation from the angel Gabriel. This, along with several later revelations, has been compiled into a book known as the Qur’an or “Koran”, meaning “recitations”.

Muhammad’s ideas weren’t totally new though. Pilgrimages to Mecca, prayer, and fasting were already basic practices in Arabia. The god “Allah” had a prominent past in the pre-existing polytheistic religions of Arabia. There were many deities, but Allah Taala was the most prominent. Muhammad clarified the concept of Allah and rid God of “partners”.

Tradition says that Muhammad initially doubted these revelations were from God. He thought that perhaps they were from a jinn, or demons. But his wife, Khadijah, encouraged him that the visions were divine, and that he should teach their message of monotheism to others.

Muhammad began to preach strict monotheism. Initially, his tribe tried to stop him; his message threatened polytheism and therefore their economic livelihood, which depended on the pilgrimages. However, it wasn’t long before he had a following of believers.

As he continued to preach against polytheism, his devotees, now known as “Muslims” (True Believers), began to experience persecution. Some had garbage dumped on their front steps. Others lost business. Eventually, one hundred families were forced to flee Mecca. Shortly after, in the year 622 A.D., after his uncle, his protector, died, Muhammad learned of a plot on his life and he too was forced to flee. He and his followers settled in a city that had opened their arms to him, Yathrib. So welcoming were the people of Yathrib, that they renamed their city Medina al Nabi, meaning, “City of the Prophet”). Their flight is known to Muslims today as the Hijrah (Higira) or “a series of migrations”, and is the first year on their calendar.

In Medina, he and his followers grew in strength. Muhammad was no longer known as just the Prophet and founder of Islam, but as the people’s ruler and judge. Taking control and beginning the task of converting the city to Islam, Muhammad expelled the Jewish citizens. Another group, whom he referred to as “The Hypocrites” (Medinese who resented his influence in the city), was “silenced.”

Next, rituals developed. Initially, he attempted to win the Jewish community over by adopting certain Hebrew practices, such as Saturday worship and facing Jerusalem for prayers. However, the Jewish community wasn’t about to convert, so he dropped the Hebrew practices, turned prayer toward Mecca, and instituted Friday as the Holy Day (Mecca’s market day).

Needing to financially support his supporters and fund their mission of conversion and control of the neighboring areas, he organized an army and they began plundering the passing caravan’s, in particular those from Mecca. In 624, The Islamic army had a minor battle with Mecca traders, and although they were outnumbered three to one, they were victorious. Had they lost this battle, Islam might have died out at the time. But in their victory, more tribesmen rallied to their cause. After several skirmishes, they made a treaty with the Quraysh tribe and in the year 630, he and his army took control of the city. Upon entering, Muhammad personally destroyed to Ka’bah idols.

This was the first time the Muslims converted an area by force, and the expansionist pattern would continue as a part of their mandate. Within a year, Muhammad brought all the tribes in Saudi Arabia under the religion of Islam. To those who were ready to accept Islam peacefully, he sent blessings. To those who wouldn’t, he said, “I, last of the prophets, am sent with a sword! The sword is the key to heaven or hell; all who draw it in the name of the Faith will be rewarded!” He died one year later, on June 8, 632, without having appointed a successor.

After his death, Muhammad’s followers divided over whom would be his successor (caliph). It was at this time that two major sects developed. The Sunni Muslims believed the successor should be elected. The Shi’ite (or Shia’h) Muslims believed the caliph should come from Muhammad’s bloodline. Had this been done, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and husband of Fatima, would have succeeded him. However, the Sunni’s won the disagreement and Muhammad’s assistant, Abu-Bakr, took control.

The Sufi’s are a third Muslim Sect of good size. Islam has given birth to several other minor sects, including the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, the Druze in Lebanon, Syria, and Northern Israel, the Alawites in Syria, and the Ahmadiyas in Pakistan, and contributed to two other religions: Sikhism and Baha’i.

Islam grew and spread through the use of force. Loosely organized tribes were brought together and driven by the desire to do battle with Allah’s enemies. This had strong appeal in the Arabian world. A man became a soldier for Islam and was supported by both tributes (dhimmi) from the conquered people and the plunder received. The dhimmi was a type of “tax price” for not being slaughtered. Women were also imported from conquered countries to serve as slaves and concubines. Arabia became a training ground for army that went out to conquer the world. Conquered countries were felled by the sword, but were peaceful afterward.

Nations were forced to convert, but individuals themselves didn’t always have to. However, the sexual freedom under Islam was a strong inducement for nominal Christian men to convert. Many times if a person wanted to continue practicing Christianity or Judaism, he was allowed to as long as he paid dhimmi, although he might still suffer persecution from those living around him.

The first real defeat for the Muslims was at The Battle of Tours in 732 A.D. Had they not been turned back by King Charles that day, Europe might very well become Islamic.

The Turks made Asia Minor completely Muslim and then turned toward East, capturing one area after another until 1453, when Constantinople fell and the Turkish Eastern Empire came to an end.

The Islamic advance, led by others, then continued through the late 17th century when they were temporarily turned back at Vienna. It began again with the final end of the Muslim advance coming early in the 19th century. The advances had made it all the way into Africa, where the Sahara fell rapidly to Islam, and to the east into the plains of India, and down into central Asia.

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