Yesterday, Muhammad Ali, “the face of American Islam,” was laid to rest after public memorial service carried love around the world. Celebrities, friends and family members, religious and government leaders all lauded Ali as one of the greatest men of the 20th Century. The Muslim community in particular took the opportunity to use the spectacle to burnish the very tarnished image of Islam in America. Real Islam, they are saying, produces world citizens like Muhammad Ali, not exterminators of civilizations like the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and other radical Islamic movements.
But how does one define “real” Islam? The Islam of Muhammad Ali is a far cry from the religion of its founder. Where the former boxer became more gentle in his later years, the founder of Islam became more violent. The prophet of Islam taught that life was expendable in the service of Allah; indeed, the life of those who oppose Islam is forfeit. It’s not surprising that in the Muslim world there are many things more important than in individual’s life.
Last week, around the same time as Muhammad Ali’s death in Phoenix, some 7250 miles away in Lahore, Pakistan, another Muslim died. She was laid to rest on Thursday. Her name was Zeenat Rafiq, and she and her husband (Hassan Khan) of one month were in love, ready to launch their lives together. They had loved each other since their school days, and Hassan had sought the blessing of her family several times to marry her, but they had rejected his proposals. As a result, last month they eloped. Not an unusual story of forbidden love, so far.
About a week ago, Zeenat’s mother, Parveen, and uncle came to see her in her new apartment, seeking to convince her to come home so that the family could hold a proper marriage ceremony to restore the family’s honor by erasing the disgrace of their elopement. Fearing harm, she initially refused, but finally succumbed to her mothers’ pleas and assurances.
Once back in the family home, Zeenat’s mother overpowered her, tied her to a cot, poured kerosene all over her body and set her on fire. The neighbors heard her tortured screams and came running to help. Zeenat’s older brother prevented them from entering the house. The screams stopped. When the police finally arrived, they found a charred body propped up near a staircase. Upon further investigation they acknowledged that Zeenat’s body also show signs of beating and strangulation. Parveen, the mother, was arrested.
She quickly confessed that with the help of her son Ahmar she had killed her daughter, and then added, “I don’t have any regrets.” Sadly, this story is not an isolated occurrence in the thoroughly Muslim country of Pakistan. Somewhere close to a thousand women lose their lives annually to “honor killings” carried out most often by close family members or vigilante community leaders who claim that family honor within Muslim society has been blemished by these transgressors and can only be restored through their deaths.
To be honest, orthodox Islam does not command “honor killings.” But it does create a culture in which human life is cheap, especially that of women who don’t play by the rules. The honorable communal behaviors dictated by Sharia’ law surpass in value the lives of those who break the laws of Islam.
So while American Muslim leaders are using the death of Muhammad Ali in an attempt to convince non-Muslims that this famous man’s latter years show the true face of Islam, the short and tragic life of Zeenat Rafiq cries out otherwise.
Who’s to say what true Islam is? The answer lies in a study of the life of Islam’s prophet and the teachings of the Qur’an. Those who undertake such a study discover a religion whose portrait is anything but pretty. Zeenat Rafiq never had the chance to make that discovery.