To counter Islam’s critics, imam says Muslims need to relearn faith

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Fadil Solimon conducts a workshop with students in Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Center for Cross-Cultural Communication

Fadil Solimon conducts a workshop with students in Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Center for Cross-Cultural Communication

ISTANBUL (RNS) In the bustling conservative Fatih district, Fadel Solimon looks at the floor and nods as a young woman asks him for advice on how to respond to criticism of Islam on Twitter.  

“Ever since these Paris attacks, people have been tweeting at me with all these verses in the Quran saying to conquer land, expand borders, force everyone to convert or pay the jizya,” she said, referring to a tax levied on non-Muslims.

“No, that’s not true, that’s not true,” interjected Solimon.  

“But the verses are there,” continued the woman. “They are in the Quran. Didn’t empires like the Ottoman Empire spread like that?”

“Defending Islam is not defending Islamic history,” Solimon replied. “The Ottomans were not angels. The Umayyads were not angels. The Abbasids were not angels. You shouldn’t defend Islamic history,” he said, recounting three historical Muslim empires.  

Solimon then returned to the verses under examination in the Quran and offered his own view. “The Quran simply says if a neighboring country violates a peace agreement, or they attack you, you can defend yourself. … It does not teach you to conquer for wealth, but to remove oppression, to defend the weak.”

A former imam at American University in Washington, D.C., the now London-based Solimon has spent more than a decade training Muslims on interfaith outreach. He is a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, rubbed elbows with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and spent time advising the group’s members during the short-lived government of Mohammed Morsi.

Solimon is among a growing number of Muslim preachers seeking to change the understanding of Islam and modernity. While much of this internal dialogue is taking place in conferences in Western countries, Solimon is one of a handful of preachers targeting the rank and file, reaching more than 19,000 students seeking the tools to counter Muslim critics, and in the process, relearning the traditional precepts of their faith.

Like other reformers,  Solimon’s views draw criticism not only from those outside the faith who say he does not go far enough in denouncing some Islamic teachings, but also from Muslims who find it difficult to reconcile his pragmatic interpretations with what they consider traditional teachings.

Volunteers with the Center for Cross-Cultural Communication answer questions about Islam from tourists visiting Istanbul's medieval Süleymaniye Mosque. Photo courtesy of Center for Cross-Cultural Communication

Volunteers with the Center for Cross-Cultural Communication answer questions about Islam from tourists visiting Istanbul’s medieval Suleymaniye Mosque. Photo courtesy of Center for Cross-Cultural Communication

The workshop in Istanbul was organized by the Turkey-based Center for Cross-Cultural Communication, a nonprofit that reaches out to the 30 million tourists that visit the country annually. The woman who questioned Solimon is one of scores of volunteers being trained on how to respond to questions tourists ask at Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, such as the ancient Suleymaniye Mosque. The workshop is supported by Turkey’s Department of Religious Affairs.

With their long history with secularism, and recent rekindling of interest with Islam, Muslims in Turkey are at a rare juncture for reassessing Islam, said Solimon.

But challenging widespread narratives among Muslims is not an easy task.


READ: Refugees from war and persecution speak of hopes for 2016 


For example, the idea that the Prophet Muhammad and his followers saw it as their duty to conquer lands, with the eventual aim of converting everyone, is found in textbooks in many majority-Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It is a narrative that makes it difficult for Muslims to argue against movements such as the Islamic State, which aims to pick up where the Ottoman Empire left off a century ago.  

Kubra Somaz, a law student who attended Solimon’s workshop, said a number of her assumptions were challenged in the debate.  

“I know the answer sometimes, but I cannot explain it,” said Somaz, “and that shows me maybe I don’t know the issues deeply.”

For example, she said, when Danish newspapers published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, many Turks felt Muslims were obligated to kill the cartoonists because tradition held that the Prophet Muhammad ordered the execution of a poet. 

But Somaz was surprised to learn some traditional scholars say the poet in Muhammad’s day was killed because he persecuted the nascent Muslim community and posed an existential threat.  

“People think I do this just to enlighten non-Muslims, but actually my hidden goal is to enlighten Muslim youth and strengthen their faith,” Solimon said.  “If you tell them come to a workshop to strengthen your faith, they will not come, but if you tell them to come to a workshop and learn how to talk about Islam to non-Muslims, they come.”

But while Solimon is a reformer, he is far from liberal. Homosexuals can be Muslims, he said, but to actually act on their desires by committing sodomy is a sin. Stoning and amputation are valid punishments under Shariah, or Islamic law, he added, but for most of Islamic history they were never applied because rulers and scholars understood the judicial system to be flawed, and the risk of punishing innocents was too great.

In 2010, Solimon rebutted former al-Qaida spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki, whom he knew from their time in the U.S. together. Awlaki, a Yemeni-American, was a senior recruiter for al-Qaida and had issued a video calling for Muslims to kill all Americans, anywhere.

“He justified terrorism,” said Solimon. “And I couldn’t stay silent.” 


READ: ISIS ‘war spoils’ reveal religious rulings justifying brutality 


But whether Islam needs a reformation is a subject of hot debate.

H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said that more than a reformation, the faith needs a revival of past scholarship.

 “The (previous) ‘reformations’ that took place were more like the birth of the Salafi movement in the 18th century, which was not exactly very positive or progressive,” Hellyer said. “Indeed, it resulted in opening a ‘Pandora’s box’ that led to many perverted interpretations of religion in the Muslim world later on.”

He said that any meaningful change in Islamic thinking will require more scholars like Solimon, who are willing to reach further back, before movements like the Salafi “reformation,” which taught Muslims to disregard centuries of scholarship considered flawed.

The aloofness to traditional Islamic scholarship helps extremist groups recruit, said David H. Schanzer, an adviser to the U.S. government on counterterrorism policy and an associate professor at Duke University. Extremists, he said, “aren’t well-versed in Islamic theology or jurisprudence.”

For Solimon, correcting misinterpretations goes beyond addressing terrorism. “Extremism,” he said, “is usually the first step toward leaving the religion.”

He gives the example of a Danish convert who confronted him at a 2005 lecture about why 9/11 was not justified in Islam.  

Years later, Solimon learned the man was Murad Storm, a former extremist who abandoned Islam and then helped U.S. and European intelligence agencies track down Awlaki in Yemen, where the cleric was killed by a drone strike.

“When people like (Storm) hear criticism of Islam for the first time, they are not able to handle it,” said Solimon. “They become violent and try to defend what they think is Islam. (Eventually) they actually leave Islam.”

 (Umar Farooq is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @UmarFarooq_)

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  • Önder Üçüncü

    Nice article with several feedbacks from different organizations. Mr Soliman is a successful trainer in his field. However, I did not quite get the following sentence: “It is a narrative that makes it difficult for Muslims to argue against movements such as the Islamic State, which aims to pick up where the Ottoman Empire left off a century ago.”

    What does the writer mean with the abovementioned part?

  • a guest

    What I understood was; according to Mr. Solimon, expanding the borders of Islam and making everyone convert was rightfully done via conquests and this was the Prophet’s and his companions’ teaching, and, this is written in many textbooks in Muslim-majority countries. By ‘this narrative’, he means the traditional understanding of spreading Islam by means of conquests and converting everyone, which is what the Islamic State is claiming to do. It is therefore difficult for Muslims to argue against Islamic State from this particular aspect, since they claim to actually follow the way of the Prophet. However, I do think that Mr. Solimon implicitly remarks that this understanding of the ‘narrative’ is a false interpretation of the Sunnah.

  • “But the verses are there,” continued the woman. “They are in the Quran. Didn’t empires like the Ottoman Empire spread like that?”

    THANK YOU, DEAR WOMAN!
    Yes – this is exactly the conversation within Islam which must happen. Challenge your religion in the same way we in the west are challenging Christianity. We will find out the truth. None of these religions are true and humanity can finally begin to advance without them.

    “Defending Islam is not defending Islamic history,” Solimon replied. “The Ottomans were not angels.”

    I can hear a priest saying the same thing about the Crusades. ‘Don’t blame the humans for doing Christianity wrong!’
    Yet this is nonsense.
    “Execute them” – JESUS (Luke 19:27) is doing Christianity exactly as written in the same way “Slay Them” (Surah 9:5) is doing Islam as written.

    Religions are man made dogmas. failure is inevitable. Deeply flawed philosophies!

    YES, THANK YOU DEAR WOMAN!

  • Bob

    Great post, Max. I’d push the Like button on it if there was one, and I share the hope that broad movement toward searching for truth and for real answers will eventually destroy religion and other superstitions.

  • Doc Anthony

    Don’t forget to look in Stalin’s mirror, atheists. See how many tens of millions of people failed to survive your belief system.

    And take a peek at the officially atheist government of China while you’re at it. The Chinese Christians and Tibetan Buddhists — the ones who aren’t dead or disappeared or imprisoned, anyway — have some information they’d like you to know about.

  • @Doc,

    “Stalin’s mirror…”

    Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao were not examples of Agnostic Atheism. They were Messianic Cults with enforced dogma. America does not need that.

    The USA is the only Agnostic Atheist country in the world:
    “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion, nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.”

    That is Agnostic Atheism. May the whole world one day see the wisdom in it.

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  • Bryan Winters

    Ah Max, you make me laugh. You write about how Christians and Muslims make excuses for past (and present) events, but when faced with the Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot atrocities, you conveniently separate your, undoubtedly purer atheism, from theirs.
    Made my day.

  • westcj

    I find Atheist Max comments refreshing. I have got nothing against religion but someone needs to question some of the ridiculous statements that come out of religious leader’s mouths. Case in point here is Fadel Solimon and his defence of Islam

  • Bob

    Bryan, your laughter is the laughter of a fool. Max as usual is being factual, and furthermore, atheism is not a belief system. It does not prescribe killing or other atrocities the way your foul bible, that horrid book, so frequently does. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in a deity -a lack of belief, for example, in foolish and plainly false fictions such as the Christian ones. Stop trying to paint atheism as what it clearly is not.

  • Bob

    What westcj said. Exactly. Atheist Max rocks.

  • Ralph Simon

    sabeltod2,..I really like Atheist Max. I’m fed up with belief being the default position. I mean who can believe some of this religious stuff? when some Christisns object to his comments they swing hard. But Max has really good arguments. Jesus has nothing on max.

  • @Bryan,

    “but when faced with the Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot atrocities, you conveniently separate…”

    No. I never denied they were Atheists. Stalin was a Seminarian and Pol Pot was a Theraveda Buddhist – But what do I know?

    I vehemently deny their fascist policies were were Atheist. They commanded universal adherence to their dogmatic religious cults, Agrarian/Proletariat MESSIANIC fascism.

    That is NOT Atheism.

    Donald Trump is similar. He is not religious (he might even be Atheist) but a large percent of the Republicans are accepting him as MESSIANIC – a religious approbation which Trump encourages:

    “You are America’s savior”
    – Trump supporter in Worcester, MA, November 2015
    “God hears you”
    – Donald Trump

    Religion is first the insistence a Savior exists.
    And second, the injunction you are obligated to ‘seek and find’ him!

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  • West, Bob and Ralph,

    You rock. Happy New Year! much love,
    <3 <3<3 <3 <3 <3<3 <3 <3 <3<3 <3<3 <3<3 <3
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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