Thursday, May 05, 2005

Islam: A Short History

I just read a good book: Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History. It's not new; I just happened to stumble over it while dropping off a relative at Heathrow.

Here's a random, and by no means complete, list of things that struck me while reading:

- Muhammad was excited about working closely with Jews at the beginning, even scheduling the services at the Mosque to not clash with preparations for the Jewish Sabbath. It was only later that Muhammad had his followers pray toward Mecca instead of Jerusalem, and it wasn't until the 20th century, after the creation of Israel, that anti-Semitism became a real movement among Muslims. It was a prejudice they had to learn from the West.

Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to accept Islam, unless they particularly wished to do so, because they had received perfectly valid revelations of their own. The Quran insists strongly that 'there shall be no coercion in matters of faith,' and commands Muslims to respect the beliefs of Jews and Christians, whom the Quran calls ahl al-kitab, a phrase usually translated 'People of the Book' but which is more accurately rendered: 'people of an earlier revelation.'

- The similarity between the sudden explosion of the Arabs into a powerful force in the world to the just-as-sudden explosion of a backward group of tribes in Northern Europe (i.e., us). They came out of nowhere, and so did we, completely taking the then dominant civilizations by surprise.

- The sensitivity of Muslims to politics and the condition of the ummah -- the community of Muslims. The Quran teaches that following God's word and being faithful leads to health, happiness, etc. When Muslims are under pressure, it leads some to feel that the ummah must not be living up to God's word.

- The fundamental difference between Muslims and Christians:

It must also be recalled that beliefs and doctrines are not as important in Islam as they are in Christianity. Like Judaism, Islam is a religion that requires people to live in a certain way, rather than to accept certain credal propositions. It stresses orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

Basically, if you followed the five pillars -- believed that `There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet,' pray five times daily, pay alms, fast during Ramadan and (if you can) make the hajj once in your lifetime -- you're a Muslim. ``Anybody who remained faithful to the Pillars was a true Muslim, whatever his or her beliefs.''

- That the religion (given the above) is at its heart individualistic, and designed to be tolerant of many ways to God. For example, the initial military expansion of Islam had very little to do with the religion and subjects were not required, or even encouraged, to convert. The expansion came more from Arab culture, which was violent for centuries, and as a way to keep the ummah together and focused on something other than killing each other in traditional vendettas. Raiding your neighbors is what you did to survive in the desert. The Quran taught them that every Muslim was their neighbor. Hence, they had to go further.

- Ms Armstrong also looks at the formation of fundamentalists, but in a broader way than I've seen elsewhere. Fundamentalism is common across almost all religions, and in fact began in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century. It's a reaction to modernity, when people feel they've been left behind or are being forced to give up their beliefs or culture. In almost all cases, the religion is distorted and made into its opposite -- intolerance and hatred. To believe Islam is fundamentally violent is the same as believing Christianity is fundamentally racists because of the Ku Klux Klan.

- She discusses the mistakes, blunders, missed opportunities and the distortions of Islam from within that turned an initial welcoming of Western ideas among Muslims into a defensive stance. And as the West grew stronger, the Muslim empires fell further and further behind:

To beat Europe at its own game, a conventional agrarian society would have to transform itself from top to bottom, and recreate its entire social, economic, educational, religious, spiritual, political and intellectual structures. And they would have to do this very quickly, an impossible task, since it had taken the West almost three hundred years to achieve this development.

And the West spent these years basically occupied with killing each other, in more and more horrific wars, pogroms, terrible government and economics experiments and much angst. Why would we expect the Islamic world to be any better at this transformation?

- She finds some positives in recent developments in some Muslim countries. For example, women who are highly educated and in professional jobs are wearing the traditional clothes not because they are required to, but as a way to bring their culture to the modern world -- to meet it half way. The Muslim world is adapting with the West, in fits and starts, on its own terms.

- The final chapter was written after the Sept. 11 attacks and notes that the trend toward such an attack, and the ideology that spawned it, was brewing for many years. But reconciliation is also brewing.

To cultivate a distorted image of Islam, to see it as inherently the enemy of democracy and decent values, and to revert to the bigoted views of the medieval Crusaders would be a catastrophe. Not only will such an approach antagonize the 1.2 billion Muslims with whom we share the world, but it will also violate the disinterested love of truth and the respect for the sacred rights of others that characterize both Islam and Western society at their best.

Next up is her book on Buddha. At least I'm using my three hours on the tube everyday productively.