Wafa Sultan: A lost opportunity

Wafa Sultan: A lost opportunity March 13, 2006
Wafa Sultan

At first, I had hope in Dr. Wafa Sultan and her stinging criticism of the Muslim World. I had hoped she would shed light on the darkness in which the Muslim World today is wallowing and help it out of this darkness by showing it the light of true Islam. I had hoped this international sensation would add to the debate raging within the Muslim World between the extremists who – with their murderous tactics – threaten to destroy the Muslim ummah and the reformers to wish to save it from utter destruction.

Unfortunately, however, I was wrong. As I listened to her speak about the crimes committed by Muslims throughout the centuries, I thought to myself, “Here we go again, another one of those.” Her story is typical: a daughter of a devout grain trader from Syria, Dr. Sultan was raised a devout Muslim and remained one into her adulthood. That is until she witnessed the murder of her medical school professor in 1979 by Muslim gunmen shouting “God is great!”

“At that point,” Dr. Sultan said, “I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god.”

Her search for “another god” has led to her conclude that “The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings.”

Although I hoped she meant that the “clash” we are witnessing is between civilization and religious extremism, in listening to other statements made by the good doctor, I realized that the “Middle Age mentality,” the “backwardness,” the “primitive,” the “barbaric” to which she was referring was Islam itself. Her response to a question about who started the Crusades left me near speechless:

“The Crusader wars about which the professor is talking � these wars came after the Islamic religious teachings, and as a response to these teachings. This is the law of action and reaction. The Islamic religious teachings have incited to the rejection of the other, to the denial of the other, and to the killing of the other.”

Are you kidding me? The Crusades were a response to Islamic teachings? Does not the good doctor remember that the Crusades started more than 400 years after Umar (R) first entered Jerusalem? And to what were the Crusaders – who slaughtered both Jews and Muslims until their blood was knee-high to the Crusaders’ horses – exactly responding? What did the Muslims and Jews who were killed in Jerusalem in 1099 do to those European Knights?

The more I listened to what she had to say, the more I realized that she was simply the latest of a legion of critics who reflect upon the religion of Islam the sins of some of its followers. It is a tired, old tactic, but in today’s age, people who do so are in no shortage of an audience. Dr. Sultan said: “Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies. This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them.” She also questioned why “a young Muslim man, in the prime of life, with a full life ahead, go and blow himself up?”

Good point and good question. Yet, does the good doctor not know that the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world also do not destroy churches, kill people, destroy embassies and burn flags? Does she not know that the majority of Muslims around the world reject the violent rhetoric and tactics of the extremist mutants? Does the good doctor not understand that Islam does not condone suicide terrorism, even if said suicide terrorist claims that Islam is his (or her) motivation? Apparently not.

Does the good doctor not realize that simply because some Muslims horribly twist the faith of Islam for evil ends, it does not follow that the whole faith of Islam is evil? Does the good doctor not realize that simply because some criminals murder in the name of Islam, it does not follow that Islam itself is criminal? Does the good doctor not realize that simply because barbarians have usurped Islam for their bloody barbarism, it does not follow that Islam itself is barbaric? Apparently not, and this makes me truly sad indeed.

Yet, whatever she had to say about Islam and Muslims, the reaction of some Muslims to her comments are nothing short of absurd, immoral, and patently ridiculous. According to the New York Times article, shortly after the Al Jazeera broadcast, clerics in Syria declared her an infidel. The article said that, “one [cleric] said she had done Islam more damage than the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, a wire service reported.”

The other guest on the Al Jazeera program, Dr. Ibrahim al-Khouli, said there was no point in rebuking or debating her, because “she had blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran.” Since then, according to the New York Times, she has received numerous death threats. One message on her answering machine said, “Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see.” An email was sent to her saying: “If someone were to kill you, it would be me.”

Why? Why are some Muslims so threatened by her criticisms of Islam, however misplaced they are, that they are willing to threaten her – a fellow human being, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister – with death? Certainly God is not threatened by her statements. So, why should we be?

Rather than silence her with the threat of death, why not engage her questions in an open, honest, and forthright debate? What if she has some valid points? Wouldn’t the whole ummah be benefited by her insights, if there are any? No, these Muslims refuse to listen to what she has to say and would rather declare her an “infidel” and end the discussion. They are acting like the people of Abraham (pbuh), when they were confronted with the absurdity of their idol worship. Rather than admit that Abraham (pbuh) had a point, they responded by saying: “Burn him and give aid to your gods…” (21:68).

Now, I am neither equating Dr. Sultan with the Prophet Abraham (pbuh), and nor saying these Muslims clerics are defending idolatry. Far from it. Nevertheless, the violent reaction to Dr. Sultan’s criticisms of modern-day Muslims only serves to solidify her apparent point: that Muslims have become a backward, barbaric people at odds with modernity and civilization.

Truth, it is said, does not fear investigation. The Qur’an itself calls upon its readers to ponder and reflect over the Sacred Text: “Do they, then, not ponder over this Qur’an? Or, are there locks upon their hearts?” (47:24). What is essential is that such questioning and pondering be sincere and in good faith. Are the commonly-held beliefs and practices of Muslims truly rooted in the Divine, or are they simply taboos and cultural norms wrapped in the cloak of Islam?

There are many practices that many Muslims deem to be “Islamic” which have no basis in Islam at all, such as the shame of so-called “honor killings.” Yet, this would never be found out if no one was allowed to question such practices free from threat of death. Muslims have to learn how to debate and discuss critical aspects of their faith without resorting to threats and ex-communication. Otherwise, the problems that fester in the Muslim World will never be solved, and the entire world will suffer because of it.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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