Islam and West

I’ve stated many times that I hold no set religious belief — I can’t fit myself into dogmas and theologies created by other humans trying to understand something that remains at least in part a mystery.  I am heartened by similarities across faiths, and a sense that there is a spiritual, even divine side of existence, even if God — or Allah or Brahman — remains incomprehensible to the human mind.  I believe in a unity of experience — or Tawhid or Nirvana or union with the Holy Spirit — that transcends our daily travail.  I’m convinced that this world is only a reflection of something spiritual and transcendent.

Yet we are in this world, at a given time and place in history, and we have to deal with the problems of our experience in the now in the world at hand.   I suspect that if we try to escape it through mystical retreat, drugs, fantasy or even suicide, we’ll just re-experience the same sorts of problems until we confront them.

After the 9-11 attacks  I decided to learn as much as I can about the Islamic faith.  I expected to find something extremely harsh and rigid.  Instead, the more I learned, the more I came to respect and admire Islam, its teachings and its history.   At its best, like Christianity, Islam is a beautiful and exquisite faith.   Islam unites a community in a sense of belonging and caring that is to be admired and respected.

Last summer this led me to start a blog series called “Islam and the West,” which had six posts between mid-May and July 17th, when part six appeared, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  By July the excitement of the 2008 election and the subsequent economic crisis drew my attention away from that task, and I even took the “page” off my index (it’s back on there now).   As we grapple with economic woes and serious problems in the West, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that our future success is predicated on our ability to forge a respectful partnership with the Muslim world.   So I am restarting that series, hopefully to regain the pace I had last year of about a post a week dedicated to the series (in general I aim for four to six posts a week).

Islam began as a movement to reform Arab customs and replace a harsh polytheistic cacophony with a clear monotheistic faith.  Muhammad’s work is impressive.  Either he was divinely guided as Muslims believe, or he was a genius who brought together aspects of Christian, Jewish and Zorastrian thought, but his teachings were clearly designed to produce a social revolution in Arabia, benefiting especially women and the poor.  Even the poorly understood and often misrepresented concept of jihad was meant primarily as a personal struggle against temptation, akin to St. Paul’s admonition that Christians “fight the good fight of faith.”

Yet as beautiful and profound as each faith may be, religion is something that can be manipulated by the fanatical or ambitious to get people to do their biding.   It might be the Christian televangelist who hauls in massive donations — and then is caught with prostitutes or engaged in corruption.  It could be the angry Arab Muslim who believes his land is being controlled by greedy westerners — and then supports violence and terrorism.    It might be the sociopathic US Congressman who advocates hitting Mecca with a nuclear bomb should al qaeda hit us with nuclear terror.  That was Tom Tancredo, who apparently feels just as comfortable in the soulless extremist role as does Bin Laden.

These people do not reflect the true wisdom and virtues of their respective faiths.  Throughout history people have used the beauty and intuitive pull of spiritual faith to propagandize and warp religious expression.  It could be the Christian Salem witch trials, the Arabs undercutting Muhammad’s reforms in their interpretation of the Haditha, Savanarola in Florence or Cromwell in Great Britain.  It could be Arab Kings who used Islam to justify expansion of their empires, or the Ottomans who embraced Islam to lend legitimacy for their military dictatorship.  As I noted in the a post last year “The Violent West,” no one in the West has any justification to feel our culture superior to that of the Muslim world.  No culture has a history of such violence and lack of concern for other cultures than the West.

That doesn’t mean the West is uniquely evil, as a Bin Laden would claim.   The West also brought about the enlightenment, individualism, and certain notions of universal human rights.   Scientific progress blossomed in Europe, and the West ultimately overcame slavery, the lack of rights for women, and an early capitalism that was originally oppressive and vile.

So I ask readers of all faiths — Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, whatever — to endeavor to put aside the cultural arrogance that so often leads people to think “we” are somehow better and closer to the truth, while “they” are strange and warped.   That kind of thinking creates biased interpretations of reality which foster miscommunication and misunderstanding.  Rather, let’s start from the assumption that while there are evil and ignorant people in all cultures and societies, most of us are good people, want to live in peace, believe that love is more important than theological differences, and hope for a world of cooperation.

If the good, peaceful people across the planet can reach out to each other and cooperate, then the evil, fearful, hateful folk don’t have a chance to succeed.  I’m under no illusions that my blog’s exploration of these issues makes a huge difference, my readership is small.  But we all know the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can ultimately ignite a series of changes that alter weather patterns.  If we all do our part, whether in blogs, donations, community events, efforts in mosques, churches or synagogues, teaching, and reaching out to others, then who knows how the world might change.

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on April 24, 2009 - 14:14

    Very well thought out post, Scott. I’m actually surprised that your blog would have a low readership. I guess I figured that with all the students you teach, and from your travels, that your network would eventually encompass your blog world as well. And now, for the closing comments on my commentary:

    “to endeavor to put aside the cultural arrogance that so often leads people to think “we” are somehow better and closer to the truth, while “they” are strange and warped. ”

    Yes….and as long as you agree with me, all will be right and good in your life! LOL, I kill me!

  2. #2 by Salman on April 27, 2009 - 21:02

    A very well-written thought-provking post. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  3. #3 by henitsirk on April 30, 2009 - 03:14

    Well, I believe we’re all separated from the divine, because of the veil drawn over us in incarnation. (I believe this is what is meant by the Fall of Man — that being cast out of the garden is really that we no longer can perceive the spiritual world with our day-to-day consciousness.) So, we mess things up. We become dogmatic and judgmental. How many times did Jesus have to say, “Do you still not understand?” I think Christians tend to forget that wonderful parable of the Good Samaritan — the Jews were not supposed to like the Samaritans because they were “different,” and yet Jesus cast a Samaritan as a truly loving, Christ-like person.

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