Westmont Magazine Redeeming Islam
Followers of Christ have an unprecedented opportunity today to witness to members of the world’s various cultures, religions and languages — including Muslims — who make North America their home. To understand the relationship between Islam and the West, it’s important to recognize the diversity within Islam, which includes well over a billion people worldwide who follow a religious tradition dating back 1,300 years. I chose the title “Redeeming Islam” to encourage readers to have a generous and historically and theologically grounded understanding of Islam. It’s too tempting to succumb to an unhelpful black-and-white categorization of the religion as either totally “violent” or “peaceful.” Correcting Western misunderstandings can help Christians be more sensitive witnesses to the gospel and more charitable neighbors.
A religion that few knew well a generation ago is now one of the hottest book topics. Two of the newest titles include “Islamic Imperialism” (2006) by Efraim Karsh, an Israeli and head of the Mediterranean studies program at King’s College, University of London, and “Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time” (2006) by Karen Armstrong, a prolific writer on religion who describes herself as a “freelance monotheist” because she draws sustenance from all three Abrahamic faiths.
Karsh’s book argues forcefully that Islam is imperialistic in nature, forcing itself on Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt for secular colonialist rewards such as money and territory. He presents Islam as a religion driven by power, materialism and conquest and contends that imperialist ambitions are inherent in its tradition and history. He claims that Muhammad was able “to cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura.” In my view, his thesis is worthwhile and compelling for many reasons, yet it remains overly ambitious. The problem is that Karsh doesn’t take the religious side of Islam seriously. Rather, he paints a picture of militant Arab forces using religion as a guise for world dominance. This monocausal explanation for Islamic expansion focuses almost entirely on instrumental terms and overlooks the religion of Islam.
Armstrong attempts to introduce the life and teachings of the prophet to a Western audience that has little knowledge of Islam. In typical fashion, she aims to take the edge off ideas, histories and practices that moderns may find offensive. By glossing over some of Islam’s more troubling historical moments, she understates the more violent encounters in the early growth of the tradition (such as the beheading of 800 Jewish men in Medina and assassinations of fellow Muslims). Sword and faith were part of the formula for Islamic expansion, but Armstrong tends to spiritualize jihad throughout her book, interpreting it almost solely as an internal struggle for self-improvement. In trying to valorize Islam for a Western audience, Armstrong fails to take Islamic history seriously enough. Whereas Karsh shortchanges the religion of Islam, Armstrong skirts portions of early Islamic history that challenge her thesis.
A third option is to move beyond understanding Islam as solely a religion of peace or a religion of violence. Interpreting the relationship between Islam and the West requires taking both history and religion seriously. While early Islam did in fact use physical force, even employing Quranic injunctions to legitimate such force, the history of Islam in the post-colonial period shows the failure of political Islam and the burgeoning of an immense diversity of Muslim voices that continues to influence the self-understanding of Muslims living under modern social, political and economic conditions.
The first lesson about Islam for many Westerners is that it’s not a single cultural, political or religious entity. Since the beginning of its history, Islam has undergone significant tensions within the ummah (Muslim community) itself. In the modern world identities consist of more than single religious or ethnic selves.
In the post-colonial period, Muslims of all stripes are seeking representation and authenticity in ways that vary according to historical experience, economic, political, and social realities, and the relationship to European colonialism and Baywatch culture. On the one hand, there are strong anti-American declarations and actions from extremist Islamist groups, even though they represent only a small minority of Muslim opinion. All too often the West presumes them to be the legitimate voice of the entire Muslim community.
On the other hand, there are vigorous Muslim condemnations against such violent statements and actions. For instance, The Organization of Islamic Conference, with representatives from 57 Muslim countries, functions as a Muslim counterpart to the UN and issued a formal 17-point Declaration on International Terrorism, which included the following statements:
4. We affirm our commitment to the principles and true teaching of Islam which abhor aggression, value peace, tolerance and respect as well as prohibiting the killing of innocent people;
5. We reject any attempt to link Islam and Muslims to terrorism as terrorism has no association with any religion, civilization or nationality;
14. We reaffirm our commitment to international action in combating international terrorism undertaken in conformity with the principles of the Charter of United Nations, including the principles of non-intervention in internal affairs and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as international law and relevant international conventions and instruments.
How do we make sense of such diverse statements from the Muslim community?
A Brief History of the Encounter Between Islam and the West
Within 100 years of the death of Muhammad, Islam had established an empire greater than the Roman Empire. Muslims, who originated in the Arabian Peninsula, had conquered the empires of the Byzantines (to the west) and Persians (Sassanids, to the east), creating an Islamic Empire from North Africa to India.
The first 500 years of Islam, which correspond to the Medieval period in the West, was the Golden Age of Islam, marked by a robust development of Islamic sciences, literature, arts, crafts and philosophy. Muslims could traverse long distances between Morocco, Egypt, Baghdad, Iran, and Central Asia, where Islam provided the ideological framework for state, society, and political leadership. The world was divided between Dar al-Islam (Land of Submission/Islam/ belief) and Dar al-Harb (Land of Warfare/unbelief), and periods of violence marked Islamic expansion into non-Muslim regions where the conquered were given three options: convert to Islam; become a member of the dhimmi class (protected scriptural class), requiring the payment of a poll tax in exchange for being protected by Islamic; or be killed. Citizenship, taxation, inheritance, and marriage were determined by Shariah (Islamic law), and Jews and Christians were usually designated part of dhimmitude (protected people).
During the Crusades (11th-13th centuries) the West, having emerged from the Dark Ages, sought to drive out Muslims from Spain, Italy, and the Mediterranean. When the Byzantine Empire sought assistance against the Muslim advance on its eastern borders adjacent to the Arabian Peninsula, the church was deeply involved, and Pope Urban II called on Christians to fight against Muslims as Crusaders. Muslim forces reconquered Jerusalem in 1187. Eventually, the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell in 1453, and became Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. For many Muslims, the memory of the Crusades lives on as example of militant Christianity, and some Muslims continue to speak of the West’s crusader mentality.
The great sustained encounters between Islam and the West occurred during the era of Islamic Empires (13th-19th centuries). The Ottomans (1281-1923) ruled over Turkey, southern Europe, Greece, and the Balkans, along with western Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. The Safavids (1501-1722) controlled Persia, establishing Shia Islam as the dominant religion in Iran, and the Mughals (1526-1857) ruled most of the Indian sub-continent until the Indian Mutiny in 1857. During this era, Muslims were conscious of regional, linguistic, and ethnic differences, but they were united politically under the empires even though there was no idea of a Muslim territorial state.
The West cannot gloss over the legacy of European colonialism (15th-19th centuries) that Muslim states share. Differing patterns of colonization account for different patterns of responses, from outright hatred to peaceful co-existence. The European colonial project left indelible marks on the economy, social relations, geography, and the political order in areas that it dominated, challenging an Islamic way of life and identity in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This era ended after World War II, when Britain and France withdrew from the majority of their colonial territories. The emergence of Muslim states began about 1947; by the mid-1970s, most Muslim territories, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia, had gained independence from colonial forces and became Muslim states.
A Spectrum of Muslim Voices
Muslim political discourse on the West is uneven. A major concern of many Muslims today is how to respond to Western ideas and economies, cultural influences and religious and ethnic plurality given a history marked by significant periods of social, economic, religious, and political strength later undermined by colonizing forces. Part of the critique runs like this: The notion of the secular state originated in the West. Western colonialism was imperialistic, imposing itself on the economic, political, religious and cultural life of the Muslim world. The West continues to support Israel and its policies, and it enforces an economic open market that is devastating for many developing countries. However, the West supports freedom of consciousness and religion, and many Muslims admire the developments of technology and science that originated in the West. So the discourse is uneven and covers views of the secular order, politics, spiritual themes and nation-making. Generally, the typology of Muslim responses to the West consists of traditionalists, modernists, radicals or Islamists, and moderates/liberals.
The traditionalists are some of the earliest voices responding to colonization, including Islamic forces that colonized other Islamic regions. Common to these voices is a nativistic return to the original sources of Islam, the Quran and Hadith. Traditionalists can be highly puritanical and respond differently according to the context.
Another group of Muslim intellectuals influenced Islamic thought by shaping Muslim responses to modernism in the late 19th century. Known generally as the modernists, they seek to interpret Islam to meet the changing conditions of modern life, and differ from the traditionalists because they permit some flexibility in the interpretation of Islam itself. Although Islamic modernism is not a systematic movement, a common element is their argument that Islam is compatible with reason, science and technology. The crucial interpretive question for Islamic modernists, as well as for traditionalists, hinges on a question of Quranic exegesis. How do Muslims properly interpret the Quran? A critical debate among Quranic exegetes occurs between those who emphasize ijtihad (independent reasoning or independent decision not necessarily based on a traditional school of Islamic jurisprudence) and those who adhere to strict taqlid (imitation; following past decisions and interpretations by Islamic jurisprudence). That is, ijtihad inherently assumes a degree of openness, freedom of thought and rational thinking in the pursuit of truth, whereas Quranic exegetes who advocate taqlid tend toward a closed exegetical approach, affirming that many interpretive decisions have been made by earlier exegetes. Thus, ijtihad is more open, whereas taqlid tends to be more closed to interpretive innovation.
A third Muslim group has been variously called radical, Islamist (Islamiyya), fundamentalist, or advocates of political Islam. Whatever the nomenclature, the Islamists have not sought to interpret Islam in terms of dominant Western values. Here they differ from modernists, who maintain that some good (in fact, many goods) can be adopted selectively by faithful Muslims. Rather Islamists seek to assert the control of Islam by interpreting modernity according to Islamic values. For Islamists, the tension between Islam and the West is essentially a conflict between Islam and the secular order that emerged out of the West. Islamists challenge the state’s control of Islam and seek to Islamicize all aspects of life, including the political and jurisprudential domains. Many Islamists struggle to replace Western values with Islamic ones, repudiating the Baywatch culture of a morally degenerate West. Islamist perspectives are among the most radical, anti-Western viewpoints within Islam.
Finally, there are several voices that can be described as moderate or liberal. Prominent among them is Abdurrahman Wahid who served as the president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001. Wahid is neither modernist nor traditionalist and exhibits a surprisingly open honesty about his own struggle with important Quranic injunctions. He suggests that Islam should not be the state religion, at least of Indonesia, and that Islam should be inclusive, democratic and a pluralistic force rather than a state ideology. In Wahid’s view, “There is no need for a nation-state with Islamic law.” Wahid, then, advocates a dynamic, open, creative society where all religions can participate. Furthermore, “All that the West sees in Islam is radicalism and its incompatibility with modern, open, democratic politics. Indonesia, however, has the opportunity to show that politics based on confession — as it is in Algeria and Iran — is not the only way. Not only can modernity and open politics exist in a Muslim-majority society, as it can here in Indonesia, but it can be nurtured so that democracy can flourish well in Islam.”
Some Topics to Keep in Mind
Islam is not monolithic and exhibits significant tension and variety within itself and among its interpreters. Religious people are embedded in social, cultural and political systems that complicate attempts to construct an overly simplistic view of a religious tradition as a single entity.
Given that understanding, what is the relationship between Islam and territory? Mecca is off-limits to non-Muslims because it is considered sacred territory. The pattern of historical development of Islam began in Mecca and was linked with a desire for world empire. Islam is a missionary religion that calls its followers to prayer toward Mecca (i.e., Ka’bah) five times daily. The pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) is an obligation of all faithful Muslims with the financial resources to make the trip, raising Mecca above all other domains. Islamic expansion moved out from Mecca, spreading out in wider and wider circles, pointing the faithful back to Mecca, the epicenter, for spiritual sustenance and corporate identity.
The history of Christianity, by contrast, is marked by accession and recession at the place of its origins; no geographic location is more holy than any other. The territoriality principle is so embedded within Islam that Olivier Roy, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and scholar of Islam, argues for deterritorialism as a root cause for current tensions between some Muslims and the West. Roy contends that Muslim immigrants to the West struggle in part because of the disjunction they experience between their religion and the space (nation) they inhabit where the principle of territoriality has broken down.
Do Muslims have endless rights on claimed territory? How painful is the deterritorialization of Islam in the West? As Islam continues to grow rapidly in the United States, how will Muslims continue to interpret and engage civil society, local neighborhoods and participate in national politics?
Second, what are the implications of the valorization of Arabic as the language of Allah and the sacred text (Quran) over all other languages? Yale historian and mission scholar Lamin Sanneh raises this issue throughout much of his work. Because of the inseparable connection between language and culture, coupled with the untranslatability of the Arabic Quran (any translation out of Arabic is automatically considered an interpretation and of much lesser value), Arabic language and culture is given priority as a medium of religious faith and knowledge. Although diversity exists within Islam, Arabic language and culture is given special worth because it was through the Prophet Muhammad that the message was revealed, with the attending call to adhere to the literal language of the revelation itself: Arabic. What’s remarkable about Christianity, in terms of language, is that all translations of the Bible are equally authoritative for the believing community.
Christianity relativizes culture and language, making all equal carriers of the gospel message, thus dignifying cultures in general without privileging any in particular. That fact speaks volumes to the way Christianity endorses local cultures and languages worldwide without calling fissiparous cultures and peoples to unity based on a particular language or cultural interpretation of the faith. The cultural and linguistic mandate of Christianity prevents followers of Christ from making their own culture or language, or any other particular culture or language, the final authority or litmus test in matters of faith.
In her book “A New Religious America: How a ‘Christian Country’ has become the World’s Most Religious Diverse Nation” (HarperSan Francisco, 2002), Harvard professor Diana Eck argues persuasively that the United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Emphasizing the so-called religious diversity in the nation, which describes only a tiny fraction of the overall population, belies the clear numerical predominance of Christians. A 2001 demographic survey by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York notes that 76.5 percent of the U.S. population self-identify as Christian, with Jews, Muslims and Buddhists making up only 3.7 percent of the population. Although the overall percentage of American Muslims is fairly small (less than 1 percent), there’s no reason to believe that Islam will decline in the United States. Growth patterns point to the real possibility that Islam will soon be the second largest religion in the United States.
How should Christians respond to the changing social and religious conditions in the United States? It’s important to remind ourselves that followers of Christ are called in all times and places to be witnesses and that our commitment and general life orientation will necessarily challenge the powers that be, whether personal, political or religious. Undoubtedly, we would discover aspects of our own cultures and priorities that need to be transformed by Christ. Redeeming Islam entails at least two calls: First, to be more nuanced in how we understand such a multifaceted tradition, which can help eliminate misunderstandings, and second, to seek the redemption of Muslims under the banner of Christ, which can only begin as followers of Christ know Muslims. These challenges are no different from any other encounter where Christ calls us to love others while bringing his light to bear in all circumstances — so that Christ will be preeminent.
Charles Farhadian joined the Westmont faculty in 2005 as assistant professor of world religions and mission.