As the Middle East dilemma continues to worsen, the pressures increase to choose sides and resort to sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. Indeed, members of the domestic foreign policy academy like Amos Perlmutter, editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies, are busy promulgating the view that the U.S. is in the midst of a "general Islamic war waged against the West, Christianity, modern capitalism, Zionism and communism all at once." Perlmutter cast Iran and Libya in the same conspiratorial political roles as the Soviet Union and Cuba, and advocates that the U.S. "wage limited was against Iran's surrogates, clients and allies in much the same way we can battle the surrogates of the USSR and Cuba." ("Containment Strategy for the Islamic Holy War," Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 1984)
Islam, like communism, is thus being cast as a hostile, amorphous Other with which we have little in common and to which our best response is war. No matter that it is hardly clear whether what we are defending is something vague like "the American Way of Life" or more specific, like the U.S. government or U.S.-based multinationals. All that seems certain is that "They" (vaguely defined) are out to get "Us" (vaguely defined).
With the administration in Washington already inclined to present complex phenomena in black and white term, and its national constituency ever sensitive to humiliation, it is high time to examine whether Islam is indeed the Enemy, or perhaps a kind of mirror with which the West can evaluate its own fears and values.
To presume to speak of Islam or any other religion or ideology with millions of adherents is, at best, to risk incoherence. As Edward Said underscores in Covering Islam, Islam is not a monolithic entity for which a few pat generalizations are a sufficient description. Rather, there are a multitude of Islam: Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the U.S.; Sunni Muslims, Shi'ite Muslims, radical Muslims, conservative Muslims, Muslims now and Muslims 1,000 years ago.
All Muslims "submit to Allah" (which is the meaning of the Arabic word 'Islam"), and are members of the Ummah, the universal body of believers. But they are also variously affected by local customs, different schools of Islamic law, competing leaders and political crises. Once this fact sinks in, the prospect of providing a meaningful overview of Islam seems difficult indeed. Yet, despite their differences, 800 million Muslims do hold enough in common that a general discussion of Islam is not totally pointless.
The first step toward understanding something alien is the discovery of some common element shared by both you and the Other. In my own case, there were at least two instances of stumbling upon aspects of Islam that made me stop in my tracks and take a second look. The first of these was my reading of some of the writings of Sufism, the mystical current within Islam. These documents - stories, biographies, poetry, and sermons - had a universal quality which leapt across the centuries and oceans separating them from me. They provided a hint that there was more to Islam than I had originally thought.
The second instance was more recent and not connected to spiritual matters at all. This was my coming upon an issue of Inquiry, a British magazine published by and for Muslims. Once I got past the occasional slips in grammar and proofing which reminded me that English was not the first language of most of the journal's writers, I found an intriguing window into the heated discussions going on in Islamic intellectual circles.
Much to my surprise, as I explored back issues of the magazine, I discovered articles on Nuclear Winter, appropriate technology, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Club of Rome amidst more likely articles on subjects like Iran's revolution, Lebanon, Islamic calligraphy, and Pakistani banking.
Though Inquiry, like Sufism, should not be taken as representative of everyday, mainstream Islam, it was apparent to me that there are currents within that ocean of believers that run close to our shores. This is particularly difficult to keep in mind when kidnappings, car bombs, and civil wars shape our usual news of matters Islamic. That the Ayotollah Khomeini has cast the U.S. in the role of the "Great Satan" is not to be ignored, but neither is the whole picture.
We would do well to remember that attacks on 'the West' or the U.S. are not attacks on us personally - and are not necessarily attacks on everything Western. Upon further investigation, it turns out that much of what is most objectionable to traditional Islamic cultures are those aspects of modern life which many American readers are also likely to criticize: rampant materialism, the whirlwinds of fashion, hedonism, the economic exploitation of the Third World, and the intervention of the Superpowers in local political disputes.
This is not to say that if you scratch a mullah you'll find an unreconstructed granola-head underneath. Nor is it to condone desperate measures like plane hijackings or suicide attacks which grow out of local politics. Still, I can't help thinking (to turn Amos Perlmutter's quote on its head) that a worldview that is accused of waging war on "the West, Christianity, modern capitalism, Zionism and communism all at once" must have something worth listening to.
If a vital mystical tradition and a wariness of rampant modernization are the aspects of Islam that are most immediately appealing, what of other aspects that are more threatening?
In confronting Islam, the Westis, above all, brought face to face with its own past - echoes of earlier centuries when the eternal took precedence over the temporal, and religion was central to social existence, interpenetrating the rhythms and gestures of daily life. Such immersion in the humble satisfactions of religion is reminiscent of both the Church-dominated Middle Ages and the colonial days of Puritans and Quakers, neither of which is likely to produce much nostalgic enthusiasm these days.
Islam, which eschews monasticism, nevertheless instructs its followers to pray five times daily at prescribed times, a schedule of devotion paralleled in the West, these days, only at monasteries and convents. The average Westerner, witnessing the ordinary spectacle of a crowd on the street stopping on schedule to kneel and pray, is brought up short - as if having wandered by mistake into a convention of monks. The unselfconscious faith of the crowd contrasts with our own sophisticated faithlessness, making us ill at ease.
Or again, in our meeting with Qur'anic morality, where specific acts are forbidden in no uncertain terms and strict punishments spelled out, we're flung up against the very foundations of the modern, mobile West where freedom consists of keeping as many constraints as possible at arm's length. No alcohol? No pork chops? No bikinis? One can feel the shudders reverberating off the walls of shopping malls across the nation.
Yet here, too, the popular cliche is not always accurate. The Chador (full-body veil) worn by women in Iran is not a universal Muslim custom, for instance, and both the Qur'an and the Sharia (Islamic Law) turn out to have sufficient room for a variety of interpretations on numerous points. Nevertheless, the situation of women in Islam is perhaps the main sticking point for most non-Muslims.
While anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli sentiment is not inherently Islamic, it is nearly universal as a component of foreign policy for most Islamic countries and is echoed in most Muslim publications that touch on political issues. This can be another sticking point for Americans who have grown accustomed to supporting Israel in any and every conflict.
If Islam were solely a foreign phenomenon thousands of miles away, it might be possible to not in abstract appreciation (or hostility) and let it go at that. However, in recent years, Islam has seen significant growth in North America itself. A small portion of the growth could be attributed to domestic interest in Sufism, and a larger portion to the immigration of Muslims from abroad. But the most significant home-grown brand of Islam has been what began as the Black Muslim movement.
Originally founded by Elijah Muhammad as an organization espousing an unorthodox blend of black separatism, radical politics, entrepreneurship, and Islam, the Nation of Islam proved puzzling to orthodox Muslims abroad. Malcolm X, the most famous leader in the movement, eventually abandoned the Nation of Islam for a more traditional Islam after travelling to Mecca and being impressed by the unity of Muslims irrespective of race. When Elijah Muhammad died and the movement's leadership fell to W. Deen Muhammad, the latter began to slowly make changes to the group along more orthodox lines. Meanwhile, a section of the followers of Elijah Muhammad organized themselves behind Louis Farrakhan, who continues to follow the teachings of his mentor.
In 1985, when W. Deen Muhammad disbanded the American Muslim Mission (formerly the Nation of Islam) and instructed his followers to consider themselves members of the world Islamic Ummah (body of believers), he put the finishing touches on this process - taking the Black Muslim movement away from separatism and away from defining itself according to race. The new decentralized mosques across the U.S. may still look to W. Deen Muhammad for guidance, but they are financially and organizationally on their own. This marks a new stage for a movement which has succeeded in bringing Islam to inner cities and prisons where other religions were encountering stiff resistance.
With the barriers now down between the followers of W. Deen Muhammad and other American Muslims, it is likely that Islam will continue to grow here at home. I hope that our understanding of it keeps pace with that growth.
Key Terms and Names
In order to understand Islam it is necessary to know the meaning of certain key terms and the identity of some proper names. Most of them are in the Arabic language, and there is often no equivalent in English or in other tongues.
Islam means submission, that is, submission to the will of God, the characteristic attitude of members of the Islamic faith.
Muslim (also spelled Moslem) is based on the same Arabic root as Islam (s-l-m) and means 'one who submits to God', that is, a believer in Islam. It is incorrect and objectionable to call members of this religion Muhammadans, as they do not worship Muhammad in the way Christians worship Christ.
Allah is the Supreme Being, the one and only God. According to Islam, Allah is the same God as that worshipped by the Jews and Christians, and Arabic-speaking Christians also use this name when referring to God.
Muhammad is the prophet or apostle of God to the Arabs.* He was born in Arabia about 570 and died in 632. According to Islam, he was the last of a line of prophets, including many of those of the Old Testament and Jesus.
The Qur'an (also spelled Koran, Coran, Alkoran, etc.) is the holy scripture of Islam, revealed by Allah to Muhammad. The word "Qur'an" means "readings" or "recitations."
Makkah (also spelled Mecca) is the caravan town where Muhammad was born and raised. It is near the west coast of Arabia, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) from the seaport of Jeddah, and about midway between the northern and southern ends of the Red Sea.
Ka'ba, meaning "cube" in Arabic, is the principal shrine of Islam, located in Mecca. It is the center of the Muslim pilgrimage and the point towards which all Muslims the world over face in prayer.
Sunna means "tradition" and is the sum of the sayings and actions of Muhammad as recalled by his companions and followers. As such it is second only to the Qur'an as a source of Islamic belief and practices. Sunna (adjective "sunni" or "sunnite") also denotes the mainstream or "orthodox" body of Muslims as opposed to "Shi'a."
Shiga (adjective "Shi'i" or "Shi'ite.") is the minority division (10-15 percent ) of Islam, consisting of scores of dissident sects opposed to Sunni Islam and to one another. The name means "party" in the political sense and comes from Shi'at Ali, the party of Ali.
Ali was a cousin of Muhammad and was married to the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. He was elected fourth caliph of Islam - conflict between the followers of Ali and the Umayyads split Islam into the sects that exist today. His followers are called Alids.
Hadith, meaning communication or narrative, is the record of an individual saying or action or approvals of Muhammad taken as a model of behavior by Muslim.
Caliph, from the Arabic "Khalifa," means deputy or successor and is the title of the theoretical leader of Islam. The caliphate is now vacant in Sunni Islam. The Shi'ite sects have complicated beliefs concerning it.
- from Islam: A Primer, by John Sabini
* According to the Qur'an Muhammad is the Prophet and Messenger of Allah to all mankind not only to the Arabs. (III&E)
Mr. Jay Kinney is the editor of "Gnosis Magazine"
"Islam Beyond Stereotypes", published in Whole Earth Review in Winter, 1985. This article, "Islam as Other" is reprinted with slight revision by Jay Kinney himself.
Published with permission of:
Mr. Jay Kinney, and Whole Earth Review
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