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GUEST COMMENTARY: What Do We Know of Muhammad and Islam?

Posted by kinchendavid on August 12, 2006

By Jan Shrem

Calistoga, CA  — On reading Karen Armstrong’s “Islam” (Modern Library, 2000) I was astonished how opposite to what she writes my perceptions of the subject had been, influenced as I was by H. G. Wells’ belittling of the Koran. In truth, her admiration has almost no relationship to the way Islam is practiced today. The writer is one of the world’s foremost scholars on religious affairs, a nun for 7 years, and author of the celebrated “The History of God.”

Here are my notes:

In the modern West we have made a point of separating religion from politics, seen as a means of liberating religion from the corruption of state affairs. In Islam politics is a sacrament, which enabled the divine to function; religious pursuits sprang from the Muslims’ contemplation of the political current affairs of Islam.

Muhammad died in 632 C.E., only 20 years after he begun to preach. He saw the inequality among the tribes of Mecca in which a few had become very rich, and he believed that it was wrong to build a private fortune, that wealth should be shared to create a society where the weak were treated with respect. Over the next 21 years the Koran was revealed to him, verse by verse, in response to a crisis or question. He evidently perceived the great problems confronting his people at a deeper level and that as he “listened” to events, he had to delve deeply into his inner being to find a politically viable solution that was spiritually illuminating; it was a new literary form, A MASTERPIECE OF ARAB PROSE AND POETRY WHICH CONVERTED BY THEIR ELOQUENCE IN THE MANNER OF GREAT ART. (Yet some historians consider Muhammad to have been illiterate!)

The new sect would be called Islam (surrender). A Muslim was someone who made his/her submission to Allah’s demand that human beings behave to one another with justice, equity and compassion. Social justice was the crucial virtue of Islam. The Koran points out that Muhammad had not come to cancel the older religions, (Arabs had 600 gods), his message was the same as Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon or Jesus (“the people of the book”), and commanded Muslims to respect the beliefs of Jews and Christians. This was designed to bring the Arabs into the monotheistic family.

Muhammad wanted the emancipation of women, and the Koran gave women inheritance and divorce rights centuries before the West. There is nothing in the Koran that requires the veiling of all women; these customs were adapted generations later, copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium who had long veiled and segregated their women; actually the Koran makes men and women partners before God with identical duties and responsibilities. His aim was to create a community living in peace; this he sometimes accomplished by a special treaty and punished those tribes that violated it by exterminating all the men and selling the women and children as slaves; or by peaceful coercion like when he marched at the head of an army of 10,000 men. By the time he died, he single-handedly had brought peace to war-torn Arabia. Since members of the community could not attack one another, the ghastly cycle of tribal warfare, of vendetta and counter-vendetta had ended.

Under Umar, the second Caliph, the Arabs burst into Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Persia with astonishing victories; they encountered stiffer resistance in the Byzantine Empire, but conquered Jerusalem in 638 and then seized the North African coast. Within a century of the Prophet’s death Islam extended from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, the success not being religious but pragmatic: they wanted plunder and a common activity that would preserve their unity. They were helped by a power vacuum, with Persia and Byzantium having become exhausted by long wars with each other.

Under the Abbasids’ Harum al Rashid, Muslim scholars made more scientific discoveries than in the whole of previously recorded history; industry and commerce also flourished. However, the regime was in no way Islamic, the Caliph and his entourage living in splendid isolation, a contrast to the asceticism of the Prophet and his teachings.

With the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Muslims were on the brink of a new age. They had survived the Mongol trauma and by the end of the 15th century, Islam was the greatest power bloc in the world: it held Eastern Europe, the Eurasian steppes, sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, South Arabia and the Indian sub-continent. Muslim merchants, everyone a missionary, settled in Malaya; they controlled the high seas and seemed invincible, ready to establish new empires, and indeed in the 15th & 16th centuries Iran, India’s Moghul Empire, the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia, Syria, North Africa, Arabia, Uzbekhistan and Morocco were added, but all seemed to turn their backs on the egalitarian traditions of Islam and set up absolute monarchies which were fundamentally opposed to the spirit of the Koran.

But modernization in the West begun to change the tide; now a nation required to use all its human resources to enhance its productivity and to bring groups who had hitherto been segregated and marginalized, such as the Jews, into the mainstream; an increasing number of people were needed to become part in various scientific and industrial levels, i.e. printers, clerks, and factory workers, who had to receive some education. Since more people were needed to buy the products, they had to live above the subsistence levels. Democracy, pluralism, toleration and human rights were dictated by the needs of the modern state; and in order to be efficient and productive, a modern nation had to be secular, which had fatal consequences for the Islamic world. The western states begun to colonize the agrarian countries in order to draw them into their commercial network.

The Islamic world saw convulsion in this modernization process; the West could only see the backwardness, inefficiency, fatalism and corruption of Muslim society, which had become dislocated by the collision with Europe and the colonial experience. It was hard for Muslims to know how to respond to the West where it was necessary to separate religion and politics in order to free government, science and technology from the constraints of conservative religion. This was the antithesis of what Islam stood for, enveloping all in one, politics being the theater of their religious quest, salvation not meaning redemption from sin, but the creation of a just society leading to the quest for ONE Islamic state.

In the Islamic state, secularization has worked differently than in the West, where it freed religion from coercive state control. For example, Turkey’s Ataturk closed down madrasahs, (religious schools), suppressed Sufi orders and forced men and women to wear modern dress; such coercion became counter-productive as Islam simply went underground. In Iran, the nationalism of the Pahlavis was directly hostile to Islam, which led to the revival of fundamentalism. In Islam it is God, not the people, who give the government legitimacy; thus democracy can be viewed as an usurpation of God’s sovereignty.

It is not correct that Islam has within it a militant fanatic strain that impels into a violent rejection of modernity. Fundamentalists exist in other faiths, including Jewish and Protestant, sharing these profound misgivings about modern secular society. Muslims saw the mighty power of the West crushing Islam and fundamentalists argued that they must band together to fight this encroaching secularism to save their religion and culture; revolution against the colonial powers was not just a right but a duty. This threat led to a more extreme and potentially violent distortion of the faith, of both the message of the Koran and the Prophet’s life. The Koran adamantly opposed force and coercion in religious matters and this vision was tolerant and inclusive.

Many Islamic fundamentalists, including the Taliban, pervert the faith and turn it in the opposite direction of what was intended and making religion a tool of oppression and even violence. The specter of Islamic fundamentalism sends a shiver through western society; six million Muslims reside in Europe and seven in the U.S., the latter, with more education, faring better but still subject to suspicion because of the Nation of Islam and 9/11. Yet we forget that in history the Crusaders massacred some 30,000 Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem, turning it into a stinking charnel house with a stench that lasted five months.

The myth of the intolerance of Islam has become one of the received ideas of the West. Yet only in the last century have some Muslims lived up to this Western perception and for the first time have made sacred violence a cardinal Islamic duty, which offends every central tenet of Islam.

* * *

Jan Shrem was born in Lebanon, raised in Jerusalem and educated in the U.S. as well. He is the founder/proprietor of Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga, CA.

Clos Pegase Winery.
P. O. Box 305, Calistoga, CA 94515
707.942-4981 Direct 737-1407 Fax 942-4993
jshrem@clospegase.com http://www.clospegase.com

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