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An American imam offers answers for today's toughest questions about Islam, and a vision for a reconciliation between Islam and the West.
One of the pressing questions of our time is what went wrong in the relationship between Muslims and the West. Continuing global violence in the name of Islam reflects the deepest fears by certain Muslim factions of Western political, cultural, and economic encroachment. The solution to the current antagonism requires finding common ...
An American imam offers answers for today's toughest questions about Islam, and a vision for a reconciliation between Islam and the West.
One of the pressing questions of our time is what went wrong in the relationship between Muslims and the West. Continuing global violence in the name of Islam reflects the deepest fears by certain Muslim factions of Western political, cultural, and economic encroachment. The solution to the current antagonism requires finding common ground upon which to build mutual respect and understanding. Who better to offer such an analysis than an American imam, someone with a foot in each world and the tools to examine the common roots of both Western and Muslim cultures; someone to explain to the non-Islamic West not just what went wrong with Islam, but what's right with Islam.
Focused on finding solutions, not on determining fault, this is ultimately a hopeful, inspiring book. What's Right with Islam systematically lays out the reasons for the current dissonance between these cultures and offers a foundation and plan for improved relations. Wide-ranging in scope, What's Right with Islam elaborates in satisfying detail a vision for a Muslim world that can eventually embrace its own distinctive forms of democracy and capitalism, aspiring to a new Cordoba - a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace and prosperity.
Many of the earliest civilizations believed in a plurality of gods. From the ruins and temples of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Middle East and Greece and Rome in Europe to India and China in the Far East, the majority of early civilizations worshiped a pantheon of gods, with each god ruling over a sector of the universe and all of them ruled by a greater God. Representing their gods in the forms of statues, early people practiced idolatry, worshiping the gods' physical representations.
HE WHO CARVES THE BUDDHA NEVER WORSHIPS HIM
In such societies, the pharaoh, emperor, caesar, or king was generally regarded as divine, a son of God, and the priestly class (like the Brahmins in India) a privileged one that supported his function as semidivine. Worldly society reflected the structure of the divine court, the pharaoh or king with his consort ruling over society just as the Great God had a consort and children who were gods, ruling over the many lesser gods. As the son of God, the king was God's representative on earth.
Together with such beliefs about the God-human relationship came a belief in the structure of human society. People were born into classes or castes reflecting the structure of the divine court, showing life "on earth, as it is in heaven." In society were found the royal and noble classes, the priestly class, the warrior class, the merchant and farming classes, and all those who did the most menial and undesirable work. Social mobility was not typically the norm; one was born, worked, married, and died within the boundaries of one's class. One's status in life, profession, and choice of spouse were predetermined by the family and class one was born into -- by the social structure -- and one's destiny was deemed in some societies as karmic.
In many of these societies, rejecting the state religion was not a simple matter of exercising freedom of human conscience (something we in America take for granted today). It was typically regarded as treason against the state, an act punishable by death, not to mention a violation of the institutional social structure on which society was built. Literally, one had no place in society, for such a person would be like an ant rejecting the structure of its colony, unprotected by its institutions. The possible freedom one had to exercise such inner convictions and to be true to oneself was to opt out of society and live as a hermit in a cave. Pre-Islamic Arabs called such people, driven by their conscience and desiring to live by its standards, hanif.
Such powerful social constraints may sound strange to the contemporary American reader, but a mere fifty years ago in America, "unless one was either a Protestant, or a Catholic, or a Jew, one was a 'nothing'; to be a 'something,' to have a name, one [had to] identify oneself to oneself, and be identified by others, as belonging to one or another of the three great religious communities in which the American people were divided."
To be independent and step out of sociological norms and deeply embedded thought patterns is very hard for people to do. And if it was hard for us in America, a country where we prize individual freedom, you can imagine how hard it must have been a few thousand years ago in the earliest known ancient Middle Eastern civilizations that straddled the area between Egypt and Persia.
In that region, and in such a society characterized by a polytheistic religious, political, and sociological climate, a hanif man called Abraham was born in a town in Mesopotamia, the area now called Iraq. He found the idea of polytheism unacceptable. Biblical and Islamic narratives inform us that Abraham's father was a sculptor of such idols. We can well imagine the young boy Abraham seeing his father fabricating such statues from the raw material of wood or stone and perhaps occasionally cursing when the material cracked. The reality of the Chinese proverb "He who carves the Buddha never worships him" must have been apparent to Abraham, who probably observed, in the way children see through their parents' absurdities, the creature creating the Creator.
The Quran quotes Abraham as debating with his contemporaries: "Do you worship that which you yourselves sculpt -- while God has created you and your actions?" (37:9596). After going on a spiritual search, and after rejecting the sun, the moon, and the stars as objects of worship (objects his community worshiped), Abraham realized that there could be only one creator of the universe -- one God (Quran 6:7591 describes Abraham's search for God). Today Muslims, Christians, and Jews regard Abraham as their patriarch, the founder of a sustained monotheistic society subscribing to the belief that there is only one God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
The monotheism that Abraham taught was not only theologically radical, in that it decried the plurality of gods as false, it was also socially radical. The idea that God is one implied two significant things about humankind.
First, it implied that all humans are equal, simply because we are born of one man and one woman. "O humankind," God asserts in the Quran, "surely we have created you from one male [Adam] and one female [Eve] and made you into tribes and clans [just] so that you may get to know each other. The noblest of you with God are the most devout of you" (Quran 49:13). This meant that all of humankind is a family-- brothers and sisters, equal before God, differentiated only by the nobility of our actions, not by our birth. Showing preference for one human over another on the basis of accidents of birth, like skin color, class structure, tribal or family belonging, or gender, is unjust and therefore has no place in a proper human worldview. Although it grossly violates reason and ethics, showing preference on the basis of these categories is the very way people traditionally judged others and structured their societies.(Continues...)
Excerpted from What's Right with Islam by Rauf, Feisal Abdul Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|Introduction : a cordoba lost||1|
|Ch. 1||Common roots||11|
|Ch. 2||What's right with Islam||41|
|Ch. 3||What's right with America||79|
|Ch. 4||Where the devil got in the details||113|
|Ch. 5||We're all history||173|
|Ch. 6||A new vision for Muslims and the west||251|
|Conclusion : on pursuing happiness||281|
|App||Fatwa permitting U.S. Muslim military personnel to participate in Afghanistan war effort||287|
At the beginning of the twentieth century, almost every single Muslim intellectual was in love with the West. They wanted their countries to look like Britain and France, at that time the leaders of secular, democratic modernity. Some even went so far as to say that the Europeans were better Muslims than the Muslims themselves, because their modernized societies approached the egalitarian ideals of the Quran more closely than anything that prevailed in traditional, Islamic countries. Muhammad Abdu (1849–1905), Grand Mufti of Egypt, was profoundly disturbed by the British occupation of his country, but was well versed in European culture and felt entirely at home with Western people. After a trip to Paris, he is reported to have said: “In France I saw Muslims but no Islam; in Egypt I see Islam but no Muslims.” In Iran, mullahs fought alongside secularist intellectuals for democratic, representative government. When the new parliament was established in 1906, Shaykh Muhammad Husain Naini (1850–1936) argued that it was the next best thing to the coming of the Shiite Messiah, who was expected to establish a rule of justice in the last days, because it would curb the tyranny of the Shah.
It is important to remember this early enthusiasm. When Muslims first encountered the modern, democratic West, they did not recoil in visceral disgust, but recognized that it resonated with their own religious traditions. Today many Muslims and Westerners regard one another with deep distrust. After the atrocities of September 11th, many in the West have come to believe that, as Samuel P. Huntington had predicted, there is indeed a clash of civilizations, because their religion renders Muslims unfit for modernity. Many are convinced that “Islam” somehow compels Muslims to commit acts of terror and violence, that it applauds suicide bombers, and is inherently incompatible with liberal, Western democracy. This is understandable, since most American and Europeans have very little understanding of either Islam or the political conditions that have contributed to our present perilous predicament.
If we are indeed fighting a “war against terror,” we need accurate information. We cannot afford to remain in ignorance because the stakes are now too high. It is vital to know who our enemies are, but it is equally important to know who they are not. Only a tiny proportion of Muslims take part in acts of terror and violence. If our media and politicians continue to denigrate Islam, accepting without question the stereotypical view that has prevailed in the West since the time of the Crusades, we will eventually alienate Muslims who have no quarrel with the West, who are either enjoying or longing for greater democracy, and who are horrified by the atrocities committed in the name of their faith. We urgently need to build bridges with the Islamic world. I can think of few projects that are more crucial at the present time.
That is why this book is so important. Instead of concentrating on “What went Wrong?” like Bernard Lewis, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf shows what Islam has going for it, and what it has to offer the West. He is himself a bridge figure, because he has deep roots in both worlds. He was educated in Egypt, England, Malaysia and the United States, and his mosque in New York is only a few blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center. After September 11th, people often asked me: “Where are the moderate Muslims?” “Why are they not speaking out?” In Imam Rauf, we have a Muslim who can speak to Western people in a way that they can understand.
One of the most important assets of the United States in their struggle against terrorism is the Muslim community of America. Many American Muslims have long been aware that they can practice their religion far more creatively in the United States than they could in their countries of origin. Years before 9/11, they were trying to build a vibrant and strong “American Islam,” bringing up their children to be good Muslims and patriotic Americans. When I visited such a community in 1999, I suggested that they should ~ at least in some respects ~ look at the example of American Catholics. At the time of the War of Independence against Britain, only one percent of the colonists were Catholic. Catholics were a hated and despised minority: they were thought to be in league with Antichrist, to be ruled by a tyrannical Pope, and to be indelibly opposed to freedom and democracy. Nobody would have dreamed that a Catholic would one day become the President of the United States. These were bad times for American Catholics, but in the Nineteen-Sixties, it was the bishops of the United States who were largely instrumental in pushing forward the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Their faith had been invigorated by the American ideals of freedom, equality, and transparency in leadership and, like Pope John XXIII, they wanted the bracing air of modernity to sweep through the musty corridors of the Vatican. Had this spirit prevailed, the Catholic Church might have avoided some of its present problems.
American Muslims could exert a similar influence on the Islamic world, and prove that it is indeed possible to live according to the ideals of the Quran in the United States. But they cannot do that if they are shunned as potential terrorists and feel constantly on the defensive. It is vital that Western people realize that Islam is not an alien creed, but that this tradition is deeply in tune with their own ideals. In these pages, they will see that for centuries, Muslims created societies that were far more tolerant and pluralistic than European Christendom; that there are important principles of Muslim law that are highly congenial to democracy; and that the Quran stresses the importance of justice and equity that are so central to the Western ideal. They will learn that Muslims helped Europeans to rebuild their culture after the long trauma of the Dark Ages, by reacquainting them with the philosophical, scientific and mathematical heritage of ancient Greece.
But herein lies the rub. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while European scholars were sitting at the feet of Muslim scholars in Spain, the European Crusaders were slaughtering Muslims in Palestine and Syria. There was, at this formative period of Western civilization, an unhealthy imbalance. In their efforts to build a new identity, Western Christians saw Jews and Muslims, the two victims of the Crusades, as a foil, a symbol of everything that they believed they were not (or feared that they were). They tended to project buried anxieties about their own behaviour onto these two “enemies of civilization.” Thus it was during the Crusades that scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Islam as the religion of the sword, even though Christians had themselves instigated brutal holy wars against Muslims in the Middle East. During the Crusades, hatred of Jews became a chronic disease in Europe, and this shameful tradition led to some of the worst crimes of Western history. But our Islamophobia is equally engrained, and the cruel atrocities of September 11th have confirmed many in the old crusading prejudice.
We now need to cultivate a more just and balanced view of Islam. The old medieval hatred was fuelled by denial. It is always difficult to forgive people we have harmed. Crusading Christians found it impossible to appreciate the strengths of Muslim civilization, because at a subconscious level, they knew that they had sinned. Jesus, after all, had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. Today Western people must become aware that during the last century, their foreign policy has contributed to the present crisis. As Imam Rauf shows in these pages, by supporting undemocratic regimes in the Middle East, for example, Britain and America have not only failed to live up to their own ideals, but have unwittingly fostered the growth of extremism. Nothing can excuse the massacre of September 11th or the suicide bombing in Israel and Palestine. Imam Rauf explains the causes of the malaise and abuse of religion in some parts of the Muslim world. Western people rightly demand that Muslims become more openly self-critical, but they cannot therefore turn a blind eye to their own shortcomings.
Imam Rauf’s book has a positive message. It helps Muslims and Western peoples to see a way out of the present impasse, in which atrocity leads to retaliation, attack to counter attack, to pre-emptive strike and a new spate of terror. If we are to break out of this vicious cycle, we must learn not simply to tolerate but to appreciate one another. The West has lost much of the admiration that it enjoyed in the days of Muhammad Abdu, partly because of its own misguided policies. In the middle of the twentieth century, the Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith issued a solemn warning. A healthy, functioning Islam is crucial for world peace, because for centuries it helped Muslims to cultivate values and ideals that we in the West also share, because they spring from a common tradition. Muslims must learn to accommodate the West, and not fall prey to the lure of extremist rejection of Western power. But the peoples of the West must also realise “that they share the planet not with inferiors but with equals.” If they fail, Smith concluded, both “will have failed to come to terms with the actualities of the twentieth century.” The blazing towers of the World Trade Center symbolize, perhaps, our collective failure to pass this test. This book shows that the only possible way forward is by the assiduous cultivation of mutual respect. It should be read, but then ~ even more important ~ it should be acted upon.
Posted May 13, 2011
No text was provided for this review.
Posted September 11, 2011
No text was provided for this review.