Islam: A Civilization in the Making

INTRODUCTION:  This text was originally presented as a lecture at the invitation of the Virginia Polytechnical Institute’s Muslim Student Association during its “Public Forum on Islamic Civilization” (Blacksburg, Virginia, March 2002). Portions have been updated to reflect events since the lecture was delivered.


Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) tells us in the holy Qur’an:

Verily, Allah does not change [a] people’s condition unless they change their own inner selves (13:11).

We sit this evening at an educational institution.  I point this out because it is only in settings such as this, dedicated to fostering understanding, that real and lasting solutions to the problems now facing the citizens of the world can be developed.  The changes that are necessary to sustain a dimension of safety and security globally must come from well-planned educational and social initiatives based on equity, cultural sensitivity, access to knowledge and technology, economic and financial mechanisms that consider the disparities of resources, means for implementation, and diverse definitions of democracy.

We need a vision for the future that is sufficient to sustain, for at least one and half generations, a major paradigm shift:  a re-orientation of perspective that acknowledges local and national concerns, but equally considers the interrelationships linking global, regional, and national actors.  Issues ranging from technology transfers to debt reduction, from restructuring of currency indexing to the development of energy resources that will leave no one dependent on the singular resources of any country or region, call for sensitive, forward-looking, and multilateral approaches.  All this is our responsibility, for as faculty, advisors, administrators, or students of this university, we have chosen to educate future generations or to be educated in a way that is visionary and practically idealistic. 

If we aspire to a more peaceful future, we must recognize that peace has both internal and external aspects.  The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) taught Umar ibn al Khattab (radiya-Llaahu canhu) to say,

O Allah, make my inner nature better than my outer, and make my outer nature good….  (Tirmidhi)

Lasting success will only be achieved when there is a balance between the outer and the inner dimensions of life.  Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) has given us this physical existence so that we might attain a focus and harmony:  a focus on Allah’s Presence, and a harmony with all of Allah’s creation.  I have spent my life seeking that fine balance between the two—sometimes forsaking one for the other, being more externalized for a period of time, only to re-balance my life’s journey and try to offset the outer events with inner pursuits.  This is the rhythm of life, like the beating of the heart of the lover and beloved:  quickened by nearness at times, and by the yearning born of separation at other times.

Peace (inner and outer) is that dynamic rhythmic beat, the ebb and flow of the challenges and opportunities, the moments of contraction and expansion which characterize the human being’s journey through life, hopefully striving for understanding, knowledge, and wisdom—hopefully more awake than asleep.

Peace is comprised of attributes which enter and exit our hearts and minds throughout our lives—moments of compassion, of peace, of patience, of error and repentance, of forgiveness; bursts of creativity and of awareness of limitations; a sense of destiny.  Our days and hours are interlaced with concern for others and concern for this self we call “I”; with temporary security in the objects of life and temporary insecurities despite such possessions. We are all, in some way, trying to understand, using the latent capability within us:  trying to understand ourselves (a luxury, often, of those who are materially secure), to understand our purpose, to understand our role, our lot in life—and, if not striving to understand, then at least resolved in our beliefs and in submission to our state. 

Opportunities to expand our historical identity or to change our state, place, or means of livelihood are perceived as threats by many.  Any such change demands levels of trust and submission that most people are unwilling to extend.  Yet, as much as we resist conscious change, we live in a world where human roles and identities are constantly redefined.  We are shaped and re-shaped by information technology and media, by corporate ethics that diverge from accepted personal ethics, by marketing campaigns, product trends, and social feedback that stresses outer, individual achievements above inner or collective endeavors.  All such influences affect our ability to interact with others in an honest and positive way that supports not only our inner security, but the security and well being of all members of our human community.

Inner security allows us to respect other people, their choices, and their identities.  Such security cannot be achieved through entrenchment in outmoded ways or through unconsciously conforming to each new wave in cultural fashion.  It stems, rather, from our beliefs.  It comes from strong character and faith, coupled with a willingness to embrace human progress, be it technical or reflective of a higher level of human character.

What do we, who are involved in education and social service, strive to communicate and exemplify?  Is it not degrees and dimensions of freedom, and an individual’s right to strive to achieve an ideal, to achieve success, to achieve a high level of competency in living and working, in taking responsibility for his or her own life while feeling a sense of responsibility for others? 

An education for peace and understanding must be an education that forges and sustains partnerships.  What the West can best offer the rest of the world is not its television channels, but the way to create global partnerships.  What we face today is truly an education issue.  Retributive justice does not characterize Islam, nor is it what the world needs today.  Rather, what is needed is distributive justice, for it alone is based on the deepest principles of equity. 

“Fundamentalism” (as it has popularly come to be known) is basically flawed because it attempts to enforce the ends of a long personal developmental effort.  The lives and teachings of prophets such as Jesus and Muhammad (calayhum as-salaam) exemplify the goal of the individual’s sojourn in this world.  The attainment of this goal cannot be legislated by mere power or edict.  It certainly cannot be institutionalized in a form without regard for the rest of God’s created universe and systems and their interface with human tendencies, circumstances, and levels of consciousness.  What is revealed and taught speaks to the ultimate capability of certain human beings; but also, to be effective and accepted, it must apply in degrees to all people as they journey through life.  Imperfections and barriers, failures and renewed effort are all critical parts of the system of perfecting (in the case of spiritual development) and of discovery (in the case of scientific development). 

As we try to find our way out of the present circumstances to the next level (inshaa’a-Llaah) of human potentiality, we must not shirk our personal or community responsibility, our national or our moral and ethical foundation, our duty to look critically at the tracks in the sand before they disappear, to see from whence we came, and to look ahead to the horizon, towards where we are headed.

Islam is dynamic and progressive in its essence.  It must be re-affirmed daily in practice and constantly in understanding.  It fits the world today not because it is or should be monolithic, but because it is dimensional and flexible without losing its firm foundation.  Many examples exist of development and evolution of thought and practice in Islam, some of which we will discuss tonight in considering Islam as a “Civilization in the Making.”

The Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”  Our challenge is to educate—sensitively, respectfully, and humbly—the next one and a half to two generations to the essential goodness and opportunity that life embodies.  We must teach them to look at distributing that opportunity to all peoples, and to affirm the values of cooperation, tolerance, mutual benefit, and cultural diversity.

This is the Islam I know.  In all my travels, I have found enclaves of people with such values:  Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Taoists.  Although it is not my goal to homogenize religion, belief, and practices, I believe it is within the capability of human hearts and minds to affirm and participate together in working unceasingly for a safer, more secure world. 

A Values-Based Definition of “Civilization”

All this sets the stage for discussing “Islamic civilization.”  Civilization could be defined as a manifestation of humanity’s search for a better world, for a society where everyone can enjoy a sustainable quality of life. 

Linguistically, the word “civilization” comes from the Latin civitas, meaning “city.”  Obviously there are problems with saying that only city-based cultures qualify as civilized (Juferi).  Nevertheless, in talking about civilization, it is useful to consider the elements of urban life. 

Cities encompass trade, commerce, transportation, specialized professions, and the integration of diverse services, needs, and technologies into a dynamic whole.  While cynics might say that this mass coordination is just a Darwinian survival strategy, as a Muslim and a Sufi, I would propose that civilizations emerge because human beings naturally seek out a level of collective well-being which allows them to develop their potential based on compassion, based on service to one another, and based on constructive relationships among individuals and groups.  The most successful civilization would theoretically be externally diverse in race, religion, ethnicity and background, but internally consistent in promoting the quality of life of each member of society.

In reality, however, civilizations often seem to have allowed the pursuit of quality of life to “morph” into a pursuit of quantity.  People start focusing on getting more and more of whatever they have or want.  Increasingly, their lives come to center around materialism.

Quality of life cannot be achieved or measured in solely material terms.  Rather, quality of life depends on achieving a balance (mizan) between inner and outer.  Indeed, part of what drew me personally to Islam was that I felt it encompassed a coherent and deep inner dimension, through Sufism, that enabled me to strive with my self and come nearer to a personal and present God/Truth, while at the same time actively fulfilling a role in the outer, physical world. 

A Personal Journey to Islam

As far back as I can remember, I have been searching for something.  I grew up in the fifties, when materialism really took root in this country, and the extended family began to break down.  We found ourselves living far away from our relatives—in my family, my parents were the first generation to live more than 20 miles away from their relatives (except for my grandfather, who immigrated to this country ahead of the rest of his family). 

Then came the sixties, where the emphasis on materiality and the imminent possibility of nuclear destruction helped give birth to the post-modern mentality.  People in my generation tended to reject institutionalized religion, opting instead for “buffet-style spirituality.”  We picked the parts of traditional culture that we liked—a little Zen Buddhism; a little nostalgic, familial Protestantism or Judaism or Catholicism; some time in the Civil Rights or anti-nuclear movement, then a taste of environmental activism—creating our own social/spiritual milieu.

I traveled, spending years in and out of India, exploring yoga, coming to appreciate village life. Like many of people in post-modern America, I ended up looking at traditional thinking, and wondering:  how can we translate the benefits of traditional approaches to today’s world?  It cannot be simply by picking and choosing.  Haphazardly adopting pieces of religions and cultures is like eating at a Mexican restaurant on Monday, an Italian restaurant on Tuesday, McDonalds on Wednesday, and Chinese take-out on Thursday, and thinking that you are the new Renaissance person because you have globalized your diet.  You globalize your diet and destroy your body! 

Yet, we do live in a globalized world, we do have all these options, and we can gain a great deal from them.  The solution is not going back to a time when all restaurants in Virginia served the same food.  We read in the Qur’an:

...If God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community:  but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you.  ...  (5:48)

The goal is not to make all peoples or all societies the same.  Rather, each of us needs to establish an internal baseline, a link to something greater than ourselves, that will enable us to steer a course through the contrasts and complexities of life. 

For me, that baseline started to become clear when I began to study Islam (specifically Sufic Islam) with my Shaykh, Hazrat Azad Rasool.  Years spent in meditation by the Ganges River gave way to a life in the world, but not of the world, at the basis of which was the Qur’an.  There I found a Sharicah that was extremely broad (the Arabic word Shaaric means a wide boulevard—or maybe in post-modern terms a superhighway).  In Sharicah, I found a way of traveling that was extremely progressive, that had a longstanding tradition designed to address precisely the questions that human beings are dealing with today.  I found that Islam gave incentive to me to look for answers to social and economic issues.  It was not that I was going backwards to an old-fashioned, institutionalized religion way of thinking.  Rather, I was going forward, past the limitations of my own modern and post-modern conditioning.

In the Qur’an, Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) says:

...they have hearts that do not understand, and eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear…(7:179).

and elsewhere,

...most people do not understand (40:57). 

The paradigms that dominate today’s world have put blinders over our hearts, eyes, and ears.  They have muddied our understanding by compartmentalizing our lives and fragmenting our societies.

Problems of Post-Modernism

These paradigms emerged from modernism, which drew an artificial line between the intellect and spirituality.  Under the modernist ideal, belief in God was replaced by rationalism, determinism, and individualism.

Now scholars are saying we have graduated from modernism into post-modernism.  Post-modernism reflects a reaction against the division of secular and spiritual, while keeping the I-centered world view.  Post-modernists realize that dismissing religion or God has not led to personal fulfillment.  So, they have attempted to re-introduce a sense of hagiography, myth, quasi-spirituality, and a values-based orientation.  But they have also remained skeptical of traditional orthodoxies and of religion’s view of the world as a universal totality.  They applaud spirituality, but dismiss the idea of One absolute Truth (Akbar).

From a Sufic point of view, this approach is sadly lacking.  If you and I both look at this podium,  we are looking from different angles, so we see it in different ways.  The post-modernist would say, “Ah hah!  All perception is relative!  There is no absolute reality to the podium.”  But the fact is, the podium really does exist, and we really are looking at one and the same podium (Lilico). 

The Muslim says, “laa illaha illa-Lllaah”:  there is no god but God.  God exists independent of our perception of God.  Modernists and post-modernists can argue ad infinitum over whether God exists outside our perception.  Islam flips the argument upside down, saying, “There is only Allah, and we do not exist outside Allah’s perception.”

Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) revealed in the Qur’an:

We are as near to a person as his jugular vein (50:16).

The Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:

…worship Allah as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you. 

This level of consciousness—to see the Divine in all circumstances—is a core principle of Islam and Sufism.  Perhaps more than any other concept, it distinguishes the point of view underlying Islamic civilization from the point of view underlying other civilizations.

Scholars and politicians describe the contrasts between today’s major civilizations in many different ways:  as Christianity versus Islam, as the Western world versus the Muslim world, as secularism versus religion, as former colonial powers versus previously subjugated peoples, and so on.  But the contrast that we need to look at is more subtle than any of these labels convey.  The important contrast that humanity needs to consider is the contrast between a paradigm that expresses natural human feelings of love and association, care, concern, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and reasoning in its moral and ethical point of view, and a paradigm that disassociates itself from these feelings in favor of a secular, deterministic way of life.

The Sufi understands that the result of true faith is trust in an absolute balance, a complete reality that extends beyond what is affecting or relevant to the individual in the moment.  The world is one, and humanity is one.  Therefore, any one individual at any place can influence the entire world.  The Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,

The believers, in their mutual love and affection, are as one body.  When one member has a complaint, the rest of the body is united with it in wakefulness and in fever.

A single individual can influence the whole world, although his or her influence may not seem to be measurable.  Once we have realized that we are part of an integrated and integrative system, then we have respect for the Creator and for everything that He has created.  Thus we see that everything in existence is interlinked and interdependent:  the visible forces, the invisible forces, the powers governing the universes.

We live in a world where there are numerous contradictions and dilemmas.  One cannot look simply at any subject.  Modernity has brought complex problems to both the developed world and the underdeveloped world, including Muslim societies.  I am not here to enumerate those problems.  We all have a sense of what they are, and we all know that for every problem, there are disparate points of view regarding its causes and solutions.  Yet, for us to go forward in today’s world, there are certain shared values that need to be affirmed:  values like equity, justice, fairness, brotherhood and sisterhood, sympathy, compassion, tolerance, freedom of choice, responsibility for the community, consciousness, education, and inner, spiritual development.

Principles of Islamic Civilization

These values were taught by the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and have inspired Muslim civilization to this day.  But they are by no means unique to the Prophet. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) made clear in the Qur’an that the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) did not come to bring a new message.

We sent down the Torah which contains guidance and light….  Later in the train of Prophets We sent Jesus, son of Mary, confirming the Torah which had been sent down before him, and gave him the Gospel containing guidance and light….  To you this writ (Qur’an) and a way and a pattern of life, confirming what was revealed before…(5:44, 5:46, 5:48).

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam reflect the same Truth.  Muslims would gladly accept Jesus’s reply to the Jewish religious teacher who asked which of God’s teachings was most important.  Jesus (‘alayhi as-salaam) answered (in a story related in Mark 12:29-34), “This is the first commandment:  Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and with all your strength; and the second is this:  to love your neighbor as yourself.”  The first commandment cited by Jesus (‘alayhi as-salaam) comes from the Torah, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  These are the words that the Jews put on their phylacteries and wear on their heads and on their arms when they pray, and put on the threshold of their houses.  They express a unifying belief and value common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. 

But there are also distinctive differences among these three faiths and their adherents, due to culture, history, misunderstandings, aberrations, and distortions that occurred in each religion over time.  According to the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was sent precisely because errors had crept into the pure messages that gave rise to Judaism and Christianity.  The means through which the message was conveyed again to humanity—and the teaching which became the primary source of Islamic civilization—was the Qur’an.

Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) revealed in Sura Baqara:

This is the scripture of which there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off evil, who believe in the unseen, establish worship, spend of that We have bestowed upon them, and believe in that which is revealed to you, [Muhammad], and in that which was revealed before you.  And they are certain of the hereafter.  These depend on guidance from their Lord.  These are the successful (2:2-5).

This passage describes a process through which humankind may become civilized.  Based on revealed guidance, human beings come to success by combining belief with the active fulfillment of responsibilities in the world.  Muslim scholar M. Cherif Bassiouini observes, “A religion is not what one formally or ritualistically practices, but how one deals with others.”  Living the faith is different than just having faith.  For faith to be living, it must be demonstrated through action. 

...the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) once entered a mosque and saw at prayer a venerable old man with a long white beard.  He was told that the man was in the mosque all day long, worshiping and dispensing the words of Allah to others. The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) then asked how he earned his living and was told that a merchant, not known for his piety, supported him.  The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) remarked that of the two, the merchant was indeed the more worthy (Bassiouini). 

Islamic civilization did not and does not grow through institutionalizing rituals.  Its foundation lies in extending the ethical world view and love that were taught by prophets throughout history.  Through love, through the consideration of others that is expressed in ethical conduct, human beings can aspire to fulfill the responsibility which God entrusted to humanity. 

Lo!  We offered the amanah (trust) to the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it.  And the human being assumed it.  Lo, the human being has proven a tyrant and a fool! (Qur’an 33:72)

Secularized societies tend to focus on the rights, privileges, and services that communities owe to individuals.  Islam, in contrast, focuses first on the individuals’ duties to the community.  An American proverb (coined by Benjamin Franklin) states, “God helps those who help themselves.”  More prevalent in the Muslim world is the view that God helps those who help one another.

Knowledge plays a key role in enabling individuals to assist one another and to better society as a whole.  The Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:

Whoever goes out in search of knowledge is in the path of Allah until he returns.  (Tirmidhi)

He also said,

[The] search for knowledge is compulsory upon every Muslim male and Muslim female.  (Ibn Majah)

No one should sit back and leave it up to the community to civilize him or her.  Rather, the community should be an expression of each person’s efforts to cultivate civilized thought, behavior, study, and teaching.  One Muslim thinker said, “Education makes possible understanding of knowledge.  Knowledge provides correct action, and action secures wisdom” (anonymous quoted in Makhdoom).

Acting with wisdom means knowing how to practice forgiveness, how to practice patience, how to practice empathy, sympathy, compassion, understanding, mercy, and the other qualities that form the foundation for civilized behavior.  Human beings instinctively respond to life’s uncertainties in ways that typically are anything but wise:  reacting without restraint, without compassion, without understanding or the other constructive attributes of which they are capable.  People need boundaries to their reactions and means to restrict their own impulsiveness. 

Shari’ah offers boundaries that enable human beings to rise to more refined levels of response.  In situations where human nature might be to retaliate, Islamic teachings suggest an alternative:

If you have to retaliate, let your retaliation be commensurate with the wrong which was done to you; but if you endure with patience, the best reward indeed is for those who endure with patience. not grieve over them and do not distress yourself because of their plots, for Allah is with those who fear Him and adopt the righteous attitude (Qur’an 16:126-128).

Don’t be silly by saying, “If people do good, we will do good; and if they do wrong, we will do wrong”; but accustom yourselves to do good if the people do good and not to do wrong if they do wrong (the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)).

In situations where zealotry or greed could lead to exploitation and oppression, Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) enjoins careful consideration:

O you who believe!  When you go forth in the way of Allah, use your discernment, and do not—out of desire for the fleeting gains of this worldly life—say to anyone who offers you the greeting of peace, “You are not a believer”:  for with God there are gains abundant.  You, too, were once in the same condition—but God has been gracious to you.  Use, therefore, your discernment: verily, God is always aware of what you do (Qur’an 4:94).

Whoever walks with a tyrant to empower him, knowing that he is a tyrant, has indeed gone out of Islam (the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)).

Beware of excessiveness in religion, for those before you perished as a result of such excessiveness (the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)).

Islamic civilization is subtle.  It depends on being taught how to think, not what to memorize; on learning how to identify with the Shari’ah and Sunnah of the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and how to apply the principles they set forth in a similar way to different topics and circumstances.

A serious problem within the Muslim community today is the mistaken idea that returning to the teachings of the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), the salaf, means returning to the linear dictum of the Prophet, rather than affirming the heroic, compassionate, loving, tolerant, patient, open-minded, and liberal example of the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).  Some of the greatest threats to human understanding and harmony from within religious communities lie in movements that strive to make that which is broad into something narrow. 

Discrepancies between Islamic Teachings and Muslims’ Practice

Often, narrow points of view are part of the backlash against modernity.  Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed explains: “Where nothing is sacred, every belief becomes revisable.  Thus [religious] fundamentalism is the attempt to resolve how to live in a world of radical doubt.”

Muslims who have adopted an extreme and narrow approach reject not only modern and post-modern thought, but different schools of thought within Islam.  Their teachings tend to be exclusionary, rather than reflective of the harmony, balance, mercy, and tolerance that are at the root of Islam. 

Recent decades furnish ample evidence of the contradictions inherent in their teachings.  For example, the Taliban forced women to give up their professions, abandon their educations, and spend most of their day confined to their homes.  Yet Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) proclaimed the equality of men and women, saying: 

O you who believe, it is neither lawful for you to inherit women against their will, nor is it lawful to restrain them in order to take away a part of that which you have given them, unless they are guilty of flagrant lewdness.  But live with them on a footing of kindness and equity… (Qur’an 4:19).

Many women numbered among the Prophet’s most dedicated followers.  The first person to affirm the truth of the revelation received by the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was his wife, Khadija (Allah’s blessings be upon her).  The first person killed for professing Islam was a woman.  At a critical juncture in one battle, women archers helped save the Prophet’s life (Lings 183).  In the late 7th and early 8th centuries C.E., Muslim women were active in the fields of scholarship, business, trade, and law (Mayer).  Today in Iran, many women hold seats in the legislature (majlis).  Some have dubbed the expansion of women’s influence in Iran the “Hijab Revolution”:  women put on the hijab, ran for and were elected to seats in the majlis, and have backed legislation that gives Iranian women some of the best benefits of any country, including a lengthy paid maternity leave. 

Why do discrepancies exist between the actions and attitudes of groups like the Taliban, and the genuine teachings of Islam?  A number of factors are involved.

1. Historically, as Islam spread to different countries, its teachings and practices often became mixed with existing customs.  Sometimes, these customs gave rise to distorted interpretations.

For example, the complete covering of women in public reflects Persian customs that pre-date Islam.  In the Qur’an, Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) enjoins both men and women to dress modestly.  The Qur’an does not specify that women must cover all part of their bodies, including their faces.  This is a cultural practice that has been grafted onto Islam.

2. In addition, passages of Qur’an or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) which addressed particular historical needs have sometimes been taken out of context, leading to misunderstandings and misapplications. 

For example, the Qur’an generally presents Jews and Christians favorably as fellow “peoples of the book.”  It does, however, include some negative statements about both groups.  These statements need to be understood within the historical context of events at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).  Some Muslims, out of ignorance or expediency, treat the more negative statements as if they were meant to apply to all times, and overlook the Qur’anic enjoinders to practice patience, tolerance, mutual respect, and peace.  In addition, there is confusion or just plain arrogant disregard regarding the distinction between sahih (or sound) hadith, and athar hadith—which actually are not hadith of the Prophet (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) at all, but rather sayings or practices of his companions.  The word athar itself tells us of the relative weights of the two, for it means “trace.”

To counteract both cultural overlays and misinterpretations of Qur’an and hadith, it is essential that Muslims and non-Muslims alike educate themselves to what the teaching of Islam really say.  When we come to controversial statements, we must look into the historical circumstances surrounding those statements, and understand that guidance intended for a specific situation, time, and place does not apply across the board, but only to similar or identical situations.

3. Another factor that has contributed to discrepancies between Islamic teachings and the actual behavior of Muslims is politics.  Consider, for example, the history of the Middle East over the past century and a half.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of Muslim governments, including the Ottoman empire, Egypt, and Iran, undertook Western style modernization efforts—often with negative results.  Some governments took out large loans from European nations, defaulted on their debts, and ended up forfeiting their autonomy to creditor nations.  In addition, European interests in the region did not necessarily coincide with economic or democratic reforms.  For example, a 1906 revolution in Iran compelled the shah to enact a constitution, but thanks to interference by the British and Russians, the constitution was soon revoked (Armstrong xxvii-xxx).

Where modernization efforts “succeeded,” they often alienated observant Muslims.  Ataturk is hailed as the model of a Muslim leader who transformed his society along Western lines.  But by “closing down all the madrasahs, suppressing the Sufi orders, and forcing men and women to wear modern Western dress,” he compelled Muslims to go underground, thereby fostering more reactionary forms of Islam (Armstrong 158).

Gamal Abdun-Nasser’s sweeping reforms in Egypt drew from Western principles of socialism.  Although Nasser’s efforts failed, they, like Ataturk’s, turned portions of the Muslim population towards extremism. 

Extremist sects also received a boost from Europe’s strategy of playing different national groups and religious sects off one another.  In World War I, the British allied with the Saudis to battle the Ottomans (who had sided with Germany).  The Saudis believed that following the war, they would be free to establish a united, independent Arab state.  Instead, Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman territories and assumed control over them (Godby).

The Balfour Declaration, the establishment of Israel, and the subsequent conflicts in the Middle East deepened many Muslims’ ambivalence (if not outright animosity) towards Europe and the United States, and made extremism an even more potent force in the politics of the Muslim world.

It is against this backdrop of colonialism, abortive modernization attempts, and superpower politics that the Wahhabis came to the fore.  Their movement took its name from Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who lived in the eighteenth century and whose teachings included denunciations of the spiritual or mystical teachings of Islam (particularly those of the Sufis); an emphasis on narrow, rigid rules which he equated with “pure” Islam; and declarations that any Muslims who disagreed with his interpretation were apostates.  Abdul Wahhab’s teachings did not represent mainstream Arab thought at his time.  In fact, his own brother and family rejected him.  However, he succeeded in joining forces with an Arabian ruler, Ibn Sa’ud (who married Abdul Wahhab’s daughter, mother of the celebrated Wahhabi chief Abdul Aziz who in 1765 became the leader of the victorious army that conquered Arabia).  This liaison gave raise to a puritanical state in the Najd region of central Arabia.  To this day, Abdul Wahhab’s brand of orthodoxy is the state religion of Saudi Arabia (Armstrong 135, Hodgson 160, Merkt). 

The teachings of the Wahhabis and similar groups have never appealed to the majority of Muslims.  In Pakistan, parties associated with these doctrines have yet to win more than 10% of the vote.  In Egypt, they are a significant but by no means dominant force (Zakaria, “Hate,” 40).

Nevertheless, this version of Islam has exercised disproportionate influence.  Its impact stems in part from geopolitics.  Britain not only supported the Wahhabis, but later sponsored the growth of the extremist Deobandis in India (Koshen).  When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the United States allied itself with both Wahhabi- and Deobandi- trained forces.

The discovery of oil also assisted some extremist groups.  Suddenly wealthy, they were able to establish schools and mosques around the world.  At home, they built universities for the training of new generations of imams, and provided all-expense-paid scholarships for Muslims from around the world to study orthodox teachings before returning home to spread them (Zakaria, “Foes”).

The educational opportunities, social services, and reactionary rhetoric offered by such movements have found a ready audience in poorer Muslim nations, particularly those that face intense demographic pressures.  Many Muslim societies are confronting a “youth bulge” in their populations.  For example, on average, 65% of the Arab world’s population is under the age of 18 (Zakaria, “Foes”).  Countries lack sufficient schools and jobs for this mass of young adults.  Parents are sending their sons to extremist-sponsored schools because there are no other educational alternatives.  Meanwhile, the numbers of unemployed youths are swelling.  Scores of young men from rural areas have flocked to the cities in search of work.  In the cities, they confront the vast chasm between traditional ways of life and the Western ways of life that are pushed on billboards, in advertisements, in the media—ways of life that can only be enjoyed by people with money.  For pious young adults, the apparent lack of moral limits on Western pleasures is shocking and offensive.  Secular young adults may simultaneously be attracted to Western lifestyles, and resentful of those who live them.  The luxuries enjoyed by the upper classes are just a dream to an uneducated, unemployed sixteen year old.

Young people caught between old and new, East and West, Islamic and secular have found a voice and promise of future power and security in the simplistic world view offered by extremism.  Frustrated by the inequities of a materialist world, and bolstered by personal experiences of discrimination or humiliation, young people find a common enemy and thus a common cause in attacking the Western influences—indeed, the Western world.  Often they do so at the expense of betraying the essential tenets of Islam, and permitting themselves to be misguided by leaders with multiple and personal agendas, who believe that Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) needs them more than they need Allah.  The God of Islam is Merciful, Compassionate, Forgiving and Loving far more than revengeful and punishing.

One other factor contributing to extremist forms of Islam are oppressive governments.  While the past thirty years have witnessed the strengthening of democratic governments elsewhere in the world—in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and Latin America—in the Middle East, many countries now are less democratic than they were in 1970 (Zakaria, “Hate,” 27, 35). 

Under regimes that discourage political participation, fundamentalism has provided a forum for expression.  Without a free press, without meaningful political parties, without a strong non-profit sector or other venues for activism, mosques have become centers both of social services and of political dissent (Zakaria, “Hate,” 33-34).

Oppressive regimes have not only helped to radicalize Islam, but helped to foster anti-Western sentiments.  To enable citizens to “let off steam” without upsetting the domestic political order, they often allow the media to harshly criticize Western countries.

Acknowledging the Causes of Anger towards U.S. Policies

It is not just extremists who have mixed feelings towards the West.  To fully understand Islamic civilization and its role in today’s global civilization, we need to acknowledge the difficulties the many Muslims have with the American brand of civilization, at least as it has been expressed in United States foreign policy. 
• The United States, having supported extremist Muslims during the Soviet-Afghan war, cut off its assistance when the Soviets withdrew.  Civil war erupted.  Eventually, the Taliban emerged as the party strong enough to bring order to the country.  The Taliban resented us for being “fair weather” friends, while moderate Muslims felt that our departure had opened up the power vacuum that enabled the Taliban to take control.
• When Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions.  The Pakistanis and their allies wondered:  “why does the United States permit Israel, and South Africa to have nuclear weapons, but not…Pakistan?” (McDermott).
• The United States’ 1998 bombing in Sudan destroyed a facility that produced about half of the pharmaceutical supplies for Sudan, including 90% of the anti-malarial drugs.  Tens of thousands of people may have died as a result (Chomsky).
• A 1999 UNICEF report estimated that 500,000 children had died as a result of economic sanctions against Iraq.
• In Iraq, resentments are building over delays in restoring electricity and water, as compared to the prompt restoration of oil exports to the West. Questions regarding the United States’ intentions have also been raised by the minimal representation of other Arab nations in efforts to restore order and develop an autonomous government.

Atrocities have been committed on all sides.  Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein employed chemical weapons against his own people.  Palestinian suicide bombers target innocent civilians in public places. Israeli tanks and gunmen kill people trying to get to the hospital or seeking safety in their homes. These situations are not black and white.  But they look black and white to some people:  particularly to people living under oppressive regimes where the press is a mouthpiece for the government—and where, as I have pointed out, extremism is most likely to flourish.

All parties must take account of themselves, ask what their real long-term vision and goals are for humanity, and apply all their resources to achieving those goals—providing that they are (as I hope and pray they are) for the benefit of all.

Islam in the United States:  Merging and Emerging Civilizations

Islamic civilization today stands at a crossroads.  Drastic misinterpretations notwithstanding, the purpose of life, according to Islam, is not to repel people, but rather to invite them into community and enable them to engage in the ongoing process of building and renewing civilization, based on the development of moral character and the belief in the Unity of Allah.  Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) revealed in the Qur’an:

Truly one succeeds that purifies [the self], and one fails that corrupts it (91:9-10).

In addition, Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa) enjoined: 

Let there be of you a community (ummah) to call to the good, to enjoin virtue and forbid vice… (Qur’an 3:104).

Perhaps the best hope for realizing such a community in this day and age lies in the United States.  Several facets of American society support this hope.

One of the reasons cultural overlays have been able to inhibit and distort the natural development of Islamic thought is that many Muslim societies have been monocultures.  Monocultures tend to engender ethnocentricity; and ethnocentricity is a powerful suppressant of change.  The United States, on the other hand, is by definition multicultural.  Here Muslims of all nationalities are interacting with one another and with the trends that are shaping global civilization.  In America’s mosques, schools, and organizations, Muslims from Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, the United States, and other nations—Sunni and Shi’i—Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i—are working, learning, and worshipping together.  Some are discovering that differences in perspective, as well as culture-specific practices and customs, are less important than the values and principles of faith that all Muslims share.  Some are living the ideal that Islam has always affirmed:  a transcultural, trans-nationalistic way of life, in accordance with the Truth of the Prophet Muhammad’s statement:

God says: “Verily in [My] sight, the most honored among you is the most God-fearing.”  There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white, except in piety. 

Elsewhere in the world, the concept of piety has itself become grounds for exclusionary, extremist movements, as I have discussed.  Again we find signs for hope in the United States.  While up to half of the mosques and Islamic schools in this country have been built with financial assistance from orthodox sects abroad, foreign largesse has failed to win over American Muslims (Harden).  Mainstream American culture values co-existence and moderation.  Its political and social structures support movement towards the center, resonating with the Qur’anic statement:

Thus we have made you an ummata wasata [a community of the middle way, or a justly balanced community]...  (Qur’an 2:143).

Vociferously dogmatic forms of Islam are rightfully deemed unacceptable by the general populace, and among Muslims will never be accepted here past the first generation of immigrants. Young Muslims in the United States today are aware of—and generally unsympathetic to—narrow-minded, dogmatic, exclusionary, accusatory forms of belief.  They recognize that whatever the faults and misguidance of this nation’s policies might be, the domestic mindset overall still affirms freedom of choice and mutual respect.  Whereas some Muslims might crave acceptance, and some others see themselves as warners who are going to change the American civilizational landscape through force or doctrinal argumentation, most see themselves as either American Muslims or Muslim Americans with a role to play in contributing to the future through their knowledge, their faith, and their creativity. 

Like Islam, the United States is in transition as a civilization:  hopefully not as an empire, but rather as a genuinely civilized, humane civilization.  For this transition to proceed in a positive direction, Americans of all backgrounds must work together to protect values of pluralism, democracy, civil society, equal opportunity, economic security, equality before the law, and minority rights.  These values are as fundamentally Islamic as they are American.  Islam and the United States affirm many of the same core principles.  Yet, assumptions of incompatibility remain. 

Americans, known for their welcoming attitude towards people of diverse backgrounds, should in theory be readily able to appreciate the values that Islam holds in common with their nation’s founders.  Muslims, whose civilization respected and built upon the achievements of the Greeks, Persians, Byzantines, and others, should in theory readily recognize and participate in upholding the values embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  But cross-cultural contacts do not always foster tolerance.  They may also fuel suspicion:  especially suspicion towards any group or community that holds itself apart from the principles of participation in the system.

The United States cannot afford to be divided into pockets of micro-societies separated by mutual distrust.  To create a more cohesive society, both Muslim and non-Muslim Americans need to overcome the habit of presenting Islam in the United States as an immigrants’ religion only, rather than as a faith that is deeply rooted in American values and history.  There are African Americans of Muslim ancestry who trace their lineage back 400 years in this country.  European American Muslims also have longstanding ties to our nation’s heritage.  My own family on my paternal side has been here for two hundred years.  My assistant, a reverted Muslim, traces her lineage back to the Mayflower. 

Recognizing our shared history is a step towards working together in constructing the future.  If Muslims are to revivify Islamic teachings of tolerance, justice, open-mindedness, and respect for diversity, then it stands to reason that the best if not the only environment that would be conducive to that effort would be the United States, which espouses the same principles.  Unfortunately, we see today that even the most immutable principles may be compromised if they are not continually affirmed.  Principles of democracy, civil liberty, and civil rights—the foundation that makes this country unique as a bastion of freedom and equality—are being abrogated as I speak. 

No matter how pure and worthy the principles that underlie a civilization, they have to be sustained on an ongoing basis.  They must be upheld under the most adverse circumstances, even when it seems expedient to abridge them.

Islam is an ongoing process, based on essential principles that have to be continually maintained in consciousness and in practice.  Islam cannot be a political movement.  It cannot be opportunistic.  It cannot be reactive.  It has to be internally consistent and externally responsive.  No matter what the circumstance, there has to be an Islamic response that is constructive.

So, too, no matter what the circumstance, there must be an American response that is democratic, fair, and just. 
No matter what the circumstance, the solution does not lie in knee-jerk reactions, in re-writing the rules of the game, in revising the principles by which a country or a religion is defined while asserting that nothing has been changed.  A country can be called the United States, a religion can be called Islam, but it is not the United States and it is not Islam unless it has certain basic principles and ground rules that are preserved.  Those principles and ground rules are well defined in this country in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and in Islam in the Shari’ah. 

Historical as well as recent events have shown the degree to which groups may differ in their interpretations of principles.  But differences in interpretation should not obscure teachings that have the potential to facilitate humanity’s continuing refinement of civilization.  Now more than ever, we need to insist that “...a believer is one in whom people place their trust in regard to their life and wealth” (the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).  We need to heed the concern expressed by the Prophet (peace be upon him) when he exclaimed, “By God, he does not believe!  By God, he does not believe!  By God, he does not believe!”  Someone asked, “Who is that, O Allah’s Apostle?”  He said, “That person whose neighbor does not feel safe from his evil.” 

Islamic civilization today stands at a crossroads.  In steering a course into the future, all Muslims in the United States would do well to remember the value of upholding the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and of ensuring that others do the same, for herein lies Muslims’ guarantee of fairness for their own religion.  The United States, too, stands at a crossroads.  Its leaders and citizens can gain much from acknowledging the values that they and Muslims share—and, building on those common values, supporting moderates who now strive to reclaim Islam. 


To conclude, I would like to share a story that encapsulates some of the issues touched on this evening. 

The story is set thirty years in the future, at a time when scientists have learned everything there is to know.  They have conquered the genetic code, created DNA-based computers, and performed many other miraculous scientific feats.  All knowledge is available to any person in nanoseconds.

A group of scientists gets together and decides that in light of human beings’ accomplishments, they no longer need God.  The scientists select a representative to inform God of their conclusion.

This scientist tracks God down in heaven.  With the lack of adab (courtesy) typical of her era, she greets Him with, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you.  We know how to clone people, how to cure all diseases, how to adjust the DNA code.  We know all that there is to know.  So, why don’t You just go on and get lost?”

God listens patiently and kindly.  When she is finished, He replies, “Very well, how about this?  Let’s have a scientific challenge:  a human making contest.  If you can make a human being as fast as I can, I will leave quietly.”  The scientist says, “Okay, great!”

God says, “But, we’re going to do this like I did in the old days with Adam.” 

“Sure,” says the scientist. 

God bends down and takes some damp earth in His hands.  The scientist stoops and grabs a handful of dirt, too. 

God looks at her, chuckles, and says, “No, no, no.  This has to be done scientifically.  You go get your own dirt.”

Clearly, the dialogue between God and humanity is far from over.  The events of September 2001 have cast a dark shadow over Muslims’ contributions to that dialogue.  But true Islam—now, as throughout the history of Islamic civilization—offers a world view based on universal values coupled with practical, useful, and experientially-proven methods of self-reflection.  It enlivens, revivifies, adapts, and adjusts without compromising its basis in Shari’ah and Sunnah.  In the past, Islamic civilization has repeatedly brought correctives from the root of human souls and hearts to the issues of each day and age.  Let us affirm that it may do so again—not just for the sake of Muslims, but for the sake of all humanity.  For the Prophet Muhammad (salla-Llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,

By One in Whose hand stands my life, nobody [truly] believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.  (Bukhari, Muslim)

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—————.  “Why Do They Hate Us?”  Newsweek, 15 October 2001, pp.22-40.