Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary Worldby Carl W. Ernst
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Avoiding the traps of sensational political exposes and specialized scholarly Orientalism, Carl Ernst introduces readers to the profound spiritual resources of Islam while clarifying diversity and debate within the tradition. Framing his argument in terms of religious studies, Ernst describes how Protestant definitions of religion and anti-Muslim prejudice have affected views of Islam in Europe and America. He also covers the contemporary importance of Islam in both its traditional settings and its new locations and provides a context for understanding extremist movements like fundamentalism. He concludes with an overview of critical debates on important contemporary issues such as gender and veiling, state politics, and science and religion.
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Following MuhammadRethinking Islam in the Contemporary World
By Carl W. Ernst
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2003 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
PrefaceWhat images are conjured today by the word "Islam"? Walk into any bookstore, and you will initially be drawn to a stack of breathless titles that are truly frightening. These journalistic exposés reveal worlds of terrorist intrigue and plots against the United States. Alongside these instant potboilers are books with a more sober tone, delivering with masterful condescension the verdict of failure upon Islamic civilization, and the promise of an apocalyptic clash between Islam and the West. Tucked into a corner one may find a few academic surveys of Islamic theology and history, written in the tedious and excruciating prose reserved for textbooks. There may also be a couple of apologetics written by Muslims, attempting to defend Islam against any accusations. Finally, and most impenetrable of all, there will be two or three translations of the Qur'an, a foreign text that remains an enigmatic and unreadable cipher. How can anyone make sense of all this?
This book has been written to provide a completely different alternative to currently available books on Islam. What is offered here is a sympathetic yet reasoned and analytical view of the Islamic religious tradition and the contemporary issues that Muslims face. My most radical departure from conventional wisdom is to propose a nonfundamentalist understanding of Islam.
Both the difficulty and the importance of this task are illustrated by two events that took place in 2002. First, it was in the summer of that year that I delivered the completed manuscript of this book to the publisher who had initially commissioned it. To my complete astonishment, after considerable delay, the publisher informed me that the press would not be able to publish the book. There was no question regarding the quality of the manuscript; this was, instead, a matter of personal attitudes among the editorial staff, resulting from the terrorist attacks against American targets on September 11, 2001. I was told that some of the editors were now personally uncomfortable with being associated with any book on a subject that could be used to justify terrorism. The identity of the publisher is unimportant. What is most remarkable about this incident is that it demonstrates the extent to which, even in the world of publishing, the subject of Islam has become so controversial that some people cannot confront it.
The second example was the Summer Reading Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where I teach. Ordinarily this kind of assignment attracts little attention, except as an unwelcome intrusion on students' vacation time. This year, however, the committee in charge of the selection wanted to choose a book that would address some of the issues raised by the September 11 attacks. Having discarded several weighty tomes on Middle Eastern history, terrorism, and similar topics, they asked me whether it would be advisable to assign our first-year students to read a translation of the Qur'an. I enthusiastically recommended Michael Sells's Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, a brilliant multimedia translation that is ideal for introducing this challenging text. While Sells's book was not designed to explain the mentalities of terrorists, it did offer our students a first encounter with one of the most influential books in world history. This assignment attracted national and international attention, as a conservative Virginia-based Christian group sued UNC, arguing that we were infringing on students' religious freedom by trying to convert them to Islam. Members of the North Carolina state legislature reacted with fury to this assignment, seeing it as equivalent to support for Muslim terrorists. Although federal courts dismissed the lawsuit, so that more than 2,000 students proceeded to discuss the book without incident, the outrage over the university assigning a book about Islam revealed once again a deep-seated fear and hostility that opposed even reading a book on the subject.
Under these circumstances-when publishers, religious groups, and politicians are opposed to an impartial and fair-minded discussion of Islam-it is painfully obvious that such a discussion is exactly what we need. The modern debate about Islam in America and Europe has been conducted primarily through sensational journalism and ideological attack. Although excellent scholarship on Islam is available, it is all too often couched in impenetrable prose and buried in obscure academic journals. Following Muhammad is designed to cut through the fog of suspicion and misinformation; it offers readers the tools to reach an independent understanding of key themes and historical settings affecting Muslims-and non-Muslims-around the world today.
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This book is the result of many years of thinking, teaching, and writing about Islamic religion and culture. I was initially drawn to Islamic studies by my personal encounter with the Persian poetry of great Sufis (Muslim mystics) such as Jalal al-Din Rumi. Precisely because of widespread ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam, it occurred to me that the study of the great spiritual and humanistic tradition of Sufism, as a major aspect of Islamic thought and practice, would be an appropriate way to bridge the civilizational gap. I still think this is a good idea; years later, much to my amazement, I have observed the remarkable popularity that Rumi has attained in America, thanks to poets and translators such as Coleman Barks and Robert Bly. In the process of my education, I learned Arabic, Persian, and Urdu and got a Ph.D. in Islamic studies. I spent time overseas, primarily in Eastern, non-Arab countries, particularly India and Pakistan, with research visits to Iran and Turkey.
Like everyone else in the small group of American scholars who work on the study of Islam, I have found my humanistic goals running afoul of political events again and again. I had air reservations to go to Tehran for dissertation research in the fall of 1978, but the Iranian revolution forced me to switch to India instead. In 1985 I had a Fulbright Islamic Civilization Research grant to study in India, but someone in the Indian government thought that my research on medieval Sufis was too controversial to permit a visa; consequently, my family and I spent a wonderful year in Pakistan. For a change, I had just finished my research in Istanbul when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. In the fall of 1998, though, I was forced to postpone a research trip to Pakistan when the U.S. government fired cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for embassy bombings in East Africa. And I began to write these lines in the wonderful city of Seville, once a center of the Moorish culture of medieval Spain, in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The educational task faced by specialists in Islamic studies is enormous. There exists, on one hand, a tremendous ignorance and suspicion about Islam in much of Europe and America, now considerably enhanced by recent tragedy. On the other hand, there are extremists from Muslim countries who have used the language of Islam to justify horrific acts of mass violence. Lost in this confrontation are hundreds of millions of Muslims who inhabit the world today who have been classified as outsiders to Western civilization but who do not share the apocalyptic and fanatic vision of an Osama bin Ladin. Those of us who have studied the text of the Qur'an, the writings of the great poets, and the history of Islamic civilization feel very keenly the distortion and perversion of Islamic symbols and authority perpetrated by these modern extremists. How much more anguish is felt by the vast majority of Muslims, who loathe acts of terrorism at the same time that they deeply resent the continued imposition of neocolonial influence over their countries?
Despite these extraordinary challenges, the task of Islamic studies could also be described as minimal. In 1992 I participated in a workshop discussing images of Islam in America. The educational goal that we finally settled on in the workshop was very basic: to convince Americans that Muslims are human beings. This might sound like an absurdly simple point, but the Islamic religion is perhaps the one remaining subject about which educated people are content to demonstrate outright prejudice and bias. Ten years later a workshop on critical issues in Islamic studies came to the same conclusion, but more forcefully: the real issue is to humanize Muslims in the eyes of non-Muslims. I will discuss the nature of anti-Islamic prejudice in detail in Chapter 1, but it still amazes me that intelligent people can believe that all Muslims are violent or that all Muslim women are oppressed, when they would never dream of uttering slurs stereotyping much smaller groups such as Jews or blacks. The strength of these negative images of Muslims is remarkable, even though they are not based on personal experience or actual study, but they receive daily reinforcement from the news media and popular culture.
The arguments presented in this book are designed to bring the reader into a new relationship with the subject of Islam by providing critical and independent access to key information. In my previous books, I have developed a method of explaining unfamiliar religious subjects that avoids the jargon of specialized scholarship. I believe it is possible to write clearly and directly and to engage the reader in the subject, not by authoritarian pronouncements, but by clarifying the debates and showing what is at stake. I draw particularly on religious studies and on historical context to bring out detailed meanings and comparisons. Approaching the subject from religious studies, I draw attention to the important role of modern Christianity, particularly Protestant thought, in shaping modern interpretations of Islam. These interpretations are found in the writings of non-Muslim European and American experts on Islam (the so-called Orientalists), and they also occur in works by modern Muslim authors and critics. By paying attention to historical context, I bring out the political, economic, and social factors behind phenomena sometimes thought to be exclusively religious.
Using these methods, I initially planned for the book to revolve around major Islamic religious themes, with an emphasis on the little-understood role of the Prophet Muhammad as the central figure defining Islamic religiosity. That still remains the basic underpinning of this book. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, however, has created an environment in which we can no longer afford to neglect the problem of religious and civilizational confrontation mentioned above; for many people, confrontation is the only way they have ever heard Islam described. The main difference this has made for the book has been to highlight how we have constructed the notion of religion in recent history around the ideas of competition and confrontation, since all too often this modern world-imperial concept of religion is allowed to pass unexamined.
It is particularly important to clarify the interplay between religion and history, because the culture of mass media today tends to create the notion that the present is the only time worth considering. The flood of advertisements and entertainment that we all endure on a daily basis encourages amnesia about the past and reinforces contemporary ideologies as if they were eternal. Knowledge of the past, however, can be an important tool for liberating oneself from the tyranny of the current climate of opinion. Words and concepts do not simply grow on trees; they have been invented for specific purposes, and the history of their changing use reveals the crucial issues that define our world. Knowing the origins and transformations of words allows us to decide which of their implications we wish to endorse, and which of our predecessors' objectives we can still subscribe to. Approaching religion from the perspective of history also reveals that behind the apparently seamless unity of religious concepts lie major debates and differences, signs of irrevocable pluralism, and multiple perspectives within every religious tradition. Although it is tempting to listen to voices that claim undisputed authority pronouncing blanket approvals or condemnations on all kinds of subjects, that seduction is open to charges of prejudice and bias. I invite the reader to take on instead the excitement of discovering how rich and varied the changing history of a religion such as Islam has actually been.
This book is not meant to be an apologetic defense of Islam against criticisms; I myself am not a Muslim, and I am not offering preferential treatment to anyone. This book does offer the thesis that Muslims are human beings-meaning that they have history and that they live in multiple social and historical situations defined by economic class, ethnicity, gender, and all the factors that ordinary human beings have to deal with. On a very basic level, I feel personally compelled to make this minimal argument because of the profoundly human relationships I have established with Muslims over the years, with people who have invited me into their homes and welcomed me into their families. Although years ago I originally envisioned my professional task as educating non-Muslims about a foreign culture, the growing presence of Muslims in America and Europe has created a new constituency urgently committed to thinking through what it means to be a Muslim today. Muslims constitute nearly one-fourth of the human race, and that proportion is not likely to change; so it is simply a fact that non-Muslims need to come to terms with Islam as a part of our common humanity. It is also a fact that Muslims who are not satisfied with authoritative pronouncements will need to come to terms both with the history of their predecessors and with the history of the modern world. This book is written for both these audiences rather than for scholars, and it aims to be illustrative and provocative rather than comprehensive or exhaustive.
The basic method of this book is therefore descriptive and interpretive. It intends to provide the reader with the key concepts and questions necessary to understand contemporary debates about Islam. I do not wish to privilege any particular position, but an approach based on religious studies and historical context is bound to give a critical treatment to the issues. That is, as explained above, religious claims are not accepted at face value, and appeals to authority are not allowed to trump rational argument or to ignore history. Instead, everything is evaluated in terms of the elements of historical context that can be discussed by anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, regardless of background or precommitments.
To make the book more accessible, I have written it in the form of an essay, only lightly burdened by notes except to give due credit or pointers to additional sources, including materials available on the Internet. As I have discovered in the past few years, Internet sources increasingly provide access to an astonishing range of materials relating to Islam that were previously almost impossible for the average reader to find. For the convenience of readers, I have set up a website (http://www.unc.edu/~cernst/islam.htm) containing all the Internet references in this book, which will be regularly updated and expanded in an attempt to keep up with the growth of these resources. Contributions and suggestions from readers will be welcome.
While this book aims primarily to reveal the human face of Islam, it can only do so by removing the veils of ignorance that have cloaked this subject for centuries in the minds of Europeans and Americans. Restoration of anything like an honest picture involves two kinds of mental operations: one is the complication of the cartoonlike stereotypes that dominate our current perceptions, giving Muslims a full three-dimensional human complexity; the other is the revival of memory, to replace the selective amnesia that has blotted out subjects such as colonialism from our common memory even of the recent past. The method that I use is to provide real human examples, which require the reader to construct a narrative that will help to explain how such things have come to be. In this way the reader participates in the creative act of reimagining as human an immense group of people who have been demonized. The reader should not feel, however, that he or she is being blamed for the prejudices that we have inherited. Some audiences to whom I have presented this analysis have reacted with surprise, frequently commenting that they had absolutely no concept of Islam whatever, that it was a great big blank in their minds. While acknowledging the truth of these reactions, I still wish to point out the surprising ways in which the dominant self-conception of Euro-Americans is in conflict with the actual history of our predecessors' engagement with Islam. Restoring a human face to Islam also means coming to a better knowledge of who we all are.
Excerpted from Following Muhammad by Carl W. Ernst Copyright © 2003 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Following Muhammad is the book I recommend first for the nonspecialist interested in Islam. It is readable, broad in historical and geographical sweep, and successful in avoiding overgeneralization. It employs specific incidents in a highly effective manner to illustrate wider concepts and seamlessly integrates Islamic history, thought, and practice into a thoughtful engagement with contemporary controversies over Islam. I also recommend the book to the scholar in Islamic studies, for the sheer pleasure of seeing so many points expressed with such concision and eloquence.Michael Sells, Haverford College
Meet the Author
Carl W. Ernst is W. R. Kenan Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he maintains the website www.unc.edu/~cernst/islam.htm, which provides up-to-date links to resources for learning about Islam. Ernst is author of Sufi Martyrs of Love: Chishti Sufism in South Asia and Beyond, among other books.
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