FAITH and POLITICS: A VOLATILE MIX.
FOR NEARLY 1,400 YEARS ISLAM,though diverse in sectarian practice and ethnic tradition, has provided a unifying faith for peoples stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Starting in the 1500s, Western ascendancy, which culminated in colonization, eroded once glorious Muslim empires and reduced the influence of Islam. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the decline of European colonial empires following World War II, Muslim nations adopted Western ideologies—communism, socialism, secular nationalism, and capitalism. Yet most Muslims remained poor and powerless. Their governments, secular regimes often backed by the West, were corrupt and repressive.
Muslims looked to their religion for answers, sparking an Islamic revival—whose proponents are known as lslamists —that has taken different forms in different countries. Westerners often call these movements ‘fundamentalism and assume they are antimodern. However, not all Islamists, who range from moderate to militant, support rigid approaches to their religion, the universal imposition of sharia (Islamic law), or a return to pre-modern ways. Instead they struggle to resist what they see as an invasion of Western culture and to find an Islamic way to re-order the institutions of their societies.
When, in the 1970s, the movements began in earnest, Islamism drew its members mainly from the young and poor, the uneducated and uprooted. Today Islamism reflects mainstream Muslim thought. Initially inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have become potent political forces secular governments must contend with. lslamist groups have never been allowed to gain control of governments through elections; many, however, are represented in legislatures. A few, starting in Iran, have established Islamic states. Most of these regimes, like their secular predecessors, have failed to establish democracies or uphold human rights. The age-old Islamic vision of a peaceful, just, and humane society remains unfulfilled.
T HE TERM ITSELF, ISLAM, IS AN ARABIC WORD MEAN-ING “SUBMISSION TO GOD,” with its etymological roots firmly plaiited in salam, or peace. That may come as a surprise to many non-Muslims, whose perceptions of the faith have been skewed by terrorists, many from the Middle East, whose unspeakable acts in the name of Islam have been condemned by leaders everywhere.
“Peace is the essence of Islam,” says Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, brother of the late King Hussein and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Prince El Hassan helps lead the World Conference on Religion and Peace and spends much of his energy building bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West. “Respecting the sanctity of life is the cornerstone of our faith,” he says, “and of all great faiths.”
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam traces its lineage to the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham*), a wandering Bronze Age shepherd with whom God (Allah in Arabic) made covenants that became the foundation of the three faiths. Muslims revere the Heb -rew prophets, including Moses, and regard the Old and New Testaments as an integral part of their tradition. They disagree with Christians about the divinity of Jesus but honor him as an especially esteemed messenger from God. The ultimate messenger for Muslims is the Prophet Muhammad.
Born about A.D. 570 at Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was an orphan raised by his grandfather and uncle. He grew up to he a modest and respected businessman who rejected the widespread polytheism of his day and turned to the one God worshiped by the region’s Christian and Jewish communities.
At about age 40 Muhammad retreated to a cave in the mountains outside Mecca to meditate . There, Muslims believe, he was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who began reciting to him the Word of God Until his death 23 years later, Muhammad passed along these revelations to a growing hand of followers, including many who wrote down the words or.committed them to memory. These verses, compiled soon after Muhammad’s death, became the Koran, or “recitation,” considered by Muslims the literal Word of God and a refinement of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
THE KORAN consists of 114 suras, or chapters, and covers everything from the nature of God (compassionate and merciful) to laws governing the mundane affairs of men. Do not usurp one another’s property by unjust means, it commands. Kill no game while on pilgrimage.
Its underlying message is “a prescription for harmony in everyday life,” says Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Dar aI-Hijara Mosque just outside Washington, D.C. “In the Koran, God commands us to be merciful with one another, to live an ethical life. These concepts are not new, of course; the Koran confirms many of the teachings already laid down in the Bible. In many ways God’s message in the Koran boils down to ‘treat others better than they treat you.’” For Muslims the Koran is also a poetic touchstone, a source of the pure Arabic language memorized by Muslim school children and recited by Muslim adults on every important occasion—weddings, funerals, holidays. In a religion that forbids statuary and icons, this book is the physical manifestation of the faith, and small, tattered copies of it are found tucked into the pockets of every shopkeeper in the Muslim world.
Just as verses of the Bible can be pulled out of context and made to march to a zealot’s cause, so is the Koran subject to distortion. A verse that counsels women to adopt modest dress and behavior is widely read as good practical advice; other interpretations supply the Taliban with a rationale to imprison Afghan women in their homes. Verses prescribing jihad, or struggle, against the enemies of God are
usually taken to mean the internal striving of each individual for spiritual purity and enlightenment. Others describe Muhammad’s armed struggle against his enemies and give the radicals of today a pretext, however twisted, for waging a holy war against nonbelievers.
Such interpretations cannot be overruled, because Islam is a faith without an estab-lished hierarchy; there is no Muslim pope, no excommunication of heretics. So while an imam can offer his congregants guidance and scholarship, in the end Islam’s authority resides in its scripture, freeing individuals to interpret the Word of God in their own way . The Koran itself acknowledges this dilemma in Sura 111:7: “Some . . . verses are precise in meaning—they are the foundation of the Book—and others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief follow the ambiguous part, so as to create dissension . . . no one knows its real meaning except God.”
God forbade religious coercion but directed Muhammad to declare his new faith among the people of his region—no small task, given the vicious tribal warfare and idol worship rampant in seventh-century Mecca, much of it focused on the Kaaba. This cube-shaped shrine was used for pagan rituals to honor a pantheon of deities. Muhammad and his followers were ridiculed and violently attacked for their belief
in a single, unseen God.
After a decade of persecution Muhammad and his followers migrated to Medina, a city some 200 miles from Mecca, where the Prophet won more converts and eventually came to govern the town. After several years he and a small army of the faith-ful returned to Mecca, took the city, destroyed the idols of the Kaaba, and rededicated it to the God of Abraham. From that time to this, pilgrims have revered the Kaaba as the holiest shrine in Islam, reenacting the Prophet’s journey to Mecca in the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, which draws as many as 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world to circle the Kaaba in the footsteps of Abraham and Muhammad.
One of the Five Pillars of Islam (along with fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, prayer, charity, and profession of faith), the hajj is required of all who can manage it at least once in a lifetime.
“I am now a hajji! beamed Hamoudi bin Nweijah al Bedoiil, a Bedonin man of middle age living in the rock-strewn deserts southeast of the Dead Sea. His reaction was typical of Nluslims returning from the hajj for the first time. “It was me and my mother, and a million people just like us. We took a bus for a week, all the way to Mecca. My mother cried the whole way back.”
By the time the Prophet died in A.D. . 632, Islam was established throughout the Arabian Peninsula, bringing peace and unity to the tribes for the first time in memory. Within a century of his death the armies of Islam, empowered by faith, had conquered a vast swath of territory stretching from India to the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal, including North Africa and the Middle East.
This Islamic world built on the intellectual achievements of the Roman and Persian cultures it usurped, sponsoring an explosion ot learning unparalleled until the Renaissance. According to historian Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, Islam’s unsung heroes included its translators, who preserved the classics of the ancient world in “epoch-making Arabic versions of Greek texts on “mathematics and astronomy, physics and chemistry, medicine and pharmacology, geography and agronomy, and a wide range of other subjects including, notably, philosophy.” At a time when Europe was languishing in the early Middle Ages, Muslim scholars and n thinkers were giving the world a great center of Islamic learning (Al-Azhar in Cairo) and refining everything from architecture to the use of numbers. At the same time, sea-going Muslim traders were spreading the faith to southern Asia, China, and the east coast of Africa.
Flourishing by the end of the first millennium , the realm of Islam was tested as western Europe, spurred by its contact with the Islamic Near East, awoke and lashed out, launching a series of armed Crusades to wrest the Holy Land, including the Christian shrines of Jerusalem, from Muslim control.
Though fragmented and initially overcome, Muslims rallied to ultimately defeat the invading Christian armies, whose blood-soaked legacy—the indiscriminate killing of thousands of innocent Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, as well as the Jews of Jerusalem—lives on in the minds of Middle Easterners to this day.
As Europe rose to glory during the Renaissance and beyond, the Islamic world continued to thrive after the creation of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1200s. This powerful state fell at the end of World War 1, resulting in the subdivision of its mostly Muslin lands into the Middle Eastern countries we know today.
Although a few Muslim nations are wealthy from oil resources, most are poor and increasingly demoralized by their position in the world . Few Muslim societies enjoy the range of civil liberties that Western nations take for granted, such as freedom of expression and the right to vote in a fair election. And their populations are booming: Four people out of ten in Muslim countries are under the age of 15.
Disaffected and disenfranchised, many people in these societies are turning to Islam, and to Islamic political movements, to assert their identity and reclaim power over their own lives. In addition many Muslims, especially in the Arab world, are angry at the United States for its support of Israel, its military presence in Saudi Arabia, land of Muslim holy places, and its continuing economic sanctions against Iraq, which are widely perceived to have spared Saddam Hussein but hit the people of Iraq—fellow Muslims—right between the eyes. Muslim societies also have a long-standing love-hate relationship with U.S. popular culture, and these days those intense feelings may be closer to revulsion than respect.
“To many Muslims, especially those in traditional societies, American pop culture looks a lot like old-fashioned paganism, a cult that worships money and sex,” says Imam Anwar al-Awlaki. “For such people, Islam is an oasis of old-fashioned family values.”
Some Muslim nations, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, today base their governments on sharia, or Koranic laws and teachings, which are themselves subject to debate and interpretation . Others, like Malaysia and Jordan, combine these traditional prin-ciples of justice with more modern, secular forms of government and society.
F or most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, Islam is not a political system. It’s a way of life, a discipline based on looking at the world through the eyes of faith. “Islam gave me something that was lacking in my life,” says Jennifer Calvo of Washington, D.C. Calvo is 28 and looks as if she just stepped out of a painting by lBotticeli, with aquiline features and striking blue eyes, set off by a white head scarf tucked neatly into her full-length robe. Calvo was raised Catholic and works as a registered nurse.
“I used to get so depressed trying to conform to our crazy culture and its image of what a woman should be,” she said, “the emphasis we put on looking good— the hair, the makeup, the clothes—and our hunger for material wealth. It left me feeling empty all the time.”
Two years ago, as people have done for 1,400 years, Jennifer became a Muslim by simply declaring the words: “La ilaha lila Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah ------ There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.”
“Everything is so much simpler now,” she said. “It’s just me and God. For the first time in my life I’m at peace.”
For Calvo and most Muslims on Earth, that is what Islam’s call to prayer represents. Kneeling to God five times a day, in unison, facing Mecca from wherever they happen to be, they find peace in an act of surrender.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Magazine
Washington, D. C. January 2002. (Pgs. 78-85)
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