I am a German, and I am a Muslim. It would be silly for me to be proud to be a German - did I chose my parents? - but am glad to be a German. In fact, I owe a great deal to having grown up within German culture and with the German language: both are problem-solving kits, so to speak. And yet, I am very glad indeed to be a Muslim. It would be silly for me to be proud to be Muslim - did I chose Islam, or was I not chosen by Allah to revert to His religion? Consequently, I feel quite at home in the Muslim world. In fact, whenever I am not there, I feel homesick for Makkah.
Am I torn between two cultures and two modes of behavior? Is there something puzzling about being a Western Muslim? Is being Occidental by birth and upbringing incompatible with being Muslim? I can answer all these questions in the negative:
Islam from its very beginning was considered a universal religion, valid for all times and all places. Why else would Muhammad (pbuh) have approached all potentates around Arabia, even before the conquest of Makkah, inviting them to adopt Islam? Why would the early Muslims have branched out like bush fire? This was the beginning of the globalization of Islam which only now, in the 20th and 21st centuries, is becoming a reality.
When I attend the annual conferences of the Egyptian High Islamic Council, I run into Muslims from Japan, the Ukraine, Venezuela and Colombia, Canada and Argentina, Korea and Finland, Sweden and South Africa. The cultural plurality there is such that I once counted 47 different head gears, i.e. 47 ways in which men covered their heads.
These nations have never been considered Islamic countries. But had Iran been considered potentially to be an Islamic country before it became Muslim, or Afghanistan, or Turkey, or Morocco, or India? If they were able to turn into Muslim countries after having been for centuries Christian or Hindu or Zoroastrian, why not one day Denmark or Portugal?
Yes, our Prophet was an Arab of the Hashimite clan from the tribe of the Quraysh, and the Quran has been formulated in the dialect of that region. But that does not mean that Allah is Arabophone or that, in order to become a real Muslim, everyone has to turn into a 7th century Bedouin of the Hijaz.
Islam and the Occident are not incompatible as such. But the relationship between the two is neither friendly nor easy. In fact, some of my fellow Muslims in Germany, Britain, France and the United States are rejecting Western civilization lock, stock and barrel, even demonizing it as the land of the kuffaar, where people live in a state of modern paganism similar to ancient jaahiliyyah, the realm of the Great Satan, as Ayatollah Khomeini put it.
Others, in contrast, are virtually enamored with each and every feature of Occidental culture. This is true mainly of Arab, Indo-Pakistani, Egyptian and Maghrebi students in the West, and also of second-generation children of working-class Muslim immigrants. Many of them are ready to totally assimilate every feature of Western civilization, to the point that they are no more than ғcultural Muslims, not practicing Islam any longer but indulging in the seductive consumer paradise of their guest countries. Strangely enough, both groups can advance rather good arguments in defense of their positions.
Those who reject the West point out that Western history has been a series of unique disasters ever since the beginning of the so-called ԑEnlightenment. From the late 17th century, the so-called ґAge of Reason dawned upon a Europe which until then had suffered under the obscurantism and oppression of corrupt clergymen. The leading minds of the day - Descartes, Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Goethe, Frederick the Second - were not preaching atheism when distancing themselves from Christian dogma. As deists, people not believing in the divine nature of Jesus or in Trinity, they basically affirmed what Muslims call tawheed. By emancipating people from the narrowness of their churches and by attributing supremacy to human reasoning, they did not intend to spread atheism.
But that is what finally happened - inevitably. By the end of the 19th century Nietzsche was able to proclaim the ґDeath of God, and the ideology of Marxism had already turned officially atheist. This was inevitable because during and after the Enlightenment people had committed shirk by promoting man as the ultimate measure of all things. Ever since, the Occident has been characterized either by an implicit deification of the State (Man collectively) or by an implicit deification of Man as individual. In that sense, chauvinistic nationalism, Fascism (including Nazism), Communism and Liberalism without limits are all typically Western.
This is the first region and culture in world history which has become agnostic or outright atheist both in theory and practice. The West has entirely lost its transcendental moorings. While still profiting from its Christian heritage, it is no longer Christian in the true sense of word.
The consequences are dramatic. On T-shirts you can read a perfect restatement of contemporary hedonist philosophy: ґI want fun-Now. Once the utmost sensual pleasure of the individual is given the highest social priority, economic laws quite naturally become all-pervasive. Occidental civilization nowadays is indeed all about the maximization of profit and the optimization of production. Ironically, in the process, human beings are reduced to no more than irritating, irrational factors, likely to mess up production, statistics and cybernetics. Thus, liberated Western man loses his dignity while, supposedly, ґrealizing himself.
Dramatic also are the consequences in the moral field. Mass consumption, as propagated by the media, breaks down one barrier after the other. Nowadays ғanything goes is an operative slogan. In the process, crass materialism is ruining the family. In the US, currently, only 15% of all marriages are likely to last. Hundreds of thousands of women choose to be single mothers. Can anyone foresee what will happen when so many emotionally disturbed, fatherless kids descend upon society?
Women claim the right of ԓself-determination and self-realization when deciding the death of their unborn babies through abortion. The only difference between this and the ancient jaahiliyyah is that nowadays male offspring are also aborted. Pornography has become all pervasive. It takes you about two minutes to flip through the 30 or so available TV programs on your set. During that short time, on the average you will have seen a couple of murders and a naked woman on your screen.
For Western people, time is money, and life is short, so they seek instant gratification, intensified through drugs. If you admit that cigarettes, alcohol and the Internet are also addictive, Western culture is the first culture in history which has become structurally addicted. Of course, drugs and the sex market lead to crime. Currently, the only big towns where the streets are pretty safe are Muslim cities, like Cairo and Istanbul. In the West, in many places, youԒd better stay home after dark.
The West-in spite of being in such great trouble-has the nerve to offer itself as the obligatory model for every other nation. Cultures not willing to imitate the West are under threat of being marginalized. This was the true message when Francis Fukuyama, in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, proclaimed the end of history.Ӕ What he was saying was that the so-called Project of Modernity, also known as the American Way of Life or Macdonaldization, is the peak of civilization, unsurpassable for all times.
For such people, the future globe will be divided only into the ever expanding West and the rest. Samuel Huntington even predicted bloody clashes between the two realms.
This breath-taking arrogance Muslims call cultural imperialism,Ӕ which is a misnomer because there is no masterplan behind it, only an eternal teenager of genius called Bill Gates. Nevertheless, in its results, the techno-cultural globalization we are all witnessing works like a non-religious, ideological continuation of colonialism. It is at work in the Arabian Gulf just like everywhere else.
Let us now take a good look at the record of that marvelous, self-appointed center of rationality, the enlightened Western world. Since the 18th century, in contrast to the high ideals pronounced and exported, what one discovers in terms of actual behavior is highly disturbing: Slave-trading and apartheid; two savage world wars; Stalinist massacres and the Nazi holocaust; ethnic (in reality, religious) cleansing in Bosnia, and atomic warfare against civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
These disasters were the bloodiest the world has ever seen. But even if Western people were not at war with each other, they have behaved violently against nature: against animals, plants and even minerals-to the point that the destruction of resources and environmental disasters like air pollution threaten the survival of mankind.
None of the bloody excesses I mentioned took place in the Muslim world; and yet the West, in spite of such a record, has the nerve to ask the rest of the world to follow its example and to deny not only the existence, but also the possibility, of an alternative. You will now perhaps understand that I called one of my books, published in 1992, Islam: The Alternative,Ӕ out of sheer disgust with Western hubris!
So there are many good reasons for rejecting the West.
If you remember how critical I was of the West just a bit earlier and how appreciative I have been of the same West just now, you may wonder whether I have been talking about the same phenomenon. Well, I have. The West is simply a very mixed bag of what is terribly wrong and what is wonderfully right. Therefore, Muslims must not treat the West as an alternative, take it or leave it. To reject or to copy is easy. To choose is difficult. But we have to be selective, given what I have described so far.
One difficulty in making the right choice is due to the fact that seemingly innocuous gadgets-like the car or the mobile telephone-may have far-reaching unforeseen ideological or sociological consequences. Therefore, when you reach your finger out to Western technology, you may be seized by the entire hand. In part, but only in part, this is so because Western technology grew out of a specific civilization with its specific unreligious and amoral assumptions. The car represented the fundamental freedom to which Western man aspires, including freedom from observation by parents. The mobile phone realizes the dream of uninterrupted contactability. But it also obscures whether a wife is at home or not when her husband calls her. See what I mean?
Some machines are constructed in such a way that they must always run if they are to perform efficiently, which implies that men must service their technical servant around the clock, Ramadan or not, prayer time or not.
A second difficulty Muslims have in the West results from the fact that Islam is not only a religion but also a civilization. This does not matter much if one lives in the Muslim world, unless in the true Wahaabee spirit one tries to eliminate certain doubtful innovations which have been absorbed by Muslim societies and become customary, like the cult of Muslim saintsӔ which developed around their shrines, like the ones of Sayyidah Zaynab in Cairo and outside Damascus. In the West, the problem is different. Here, the Muslims must constantly decide whether what they do or are asked to do is Islamic, and if so, whether it forms part of our religion or only part of Muslim culture.
If it is a question of our religion, we cannot and will not compromise. Therefore when shopping for food, we spend an extraordinary amount of time on checking whether ingredients in packages of dried soup contain pork. We will continue to fight for the right of halal slaughtering and for the right to bury our dead our way. This and issues like the right to call the adhaan out loud may seem of secondary importance. But once we start compromising where the Sharee’ah is concerned we enter upon a slippery slope. Where is the end of giving in? No Islamic dress for women? No fasting during military maneuvers? No praying at the workplace?
Some Western governments indeed hope that the immigrant Muslim population-now 2.7 million in Germany, for instance- will assimilate to a point where they pose as little problem as Christian workers from Spain or Italy. If this does happen, the Muslims would have lost their identity and thereby their chance of contributing something essential for the curing of Western cultural shortcomings. Our policy must not be assimilation but normalization. The Muslim must not disappear optically in order to be accepted with their right to be different.
On the other hand, we can compromise in areas which are merely products of civilization or of non-binding parts of the Sunnah. Thus, we need not eat from a mat on the floor if we have a table or clean our teeth with a miswaak if there is water, a toothbrush and toothpaste. We can eat with a knife and fork, using both hands, since we would not actually be touching food with the left hand. We do not have to wear a galabiyyah or thawb. Nor do we have to sprinkle our language with arabisms. In other words, we do not have to turn into an Arab of the 7th century CE in order to be a good Muslim. Islam is not an Arab religion or a religion for Arabs.
According to Islamic fiqh, as Muslims in the West we are allowed, even obliged, to abide by the local law, as long as it permits us to fulfil our basic religious duties. Muslims always acted that way when they had to live outside of the Dar al-Islam. This foreign policy of Islam has always been an advantage for our religion. Today, Muslims in the West can even do Islam an enormous service through helping it to rediscover and revitalize its democratic heritage.
The Khulafaa ar-Rashidoon, each one by a different method, were elected. In the case of Aboo Bakr there had been an open debate on whether the first khaleefah should be from the Ansaar or from the Muhaajiroon, and whether it should be Aboo Bakr or Umar. Nowhere in the world had rulers been determined so democratically at such an early hour. Muslims should therefore not only participate in Western elections, they should accept election processes as part of the Islamic heritage.
Also, Muslims can nowadays understand that shooraa, as consultation between the government and very large populations, requires parliamentary representation and should lead to results which are binding on the government. This, too, is part of the Islamic heritage. Does one not recall that the Prophet (r), against his own misgivings, abided by the majority decision about how to defend Madeenah before the battle of Uhud ?
I fully understand the misgivings attached to the term ёdemocracy, given its ideological claim about peopleҒs-not Allahs-sovereignty, and also because of the role Western democracies played during the era of colonization. If the word is not acceptable, let us talk, like Shaykh Nahnaah in Algeria, of ґshooraakraatiyyah. What counts is that we Muslims, in the West, like the modern Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and the An-Nahdah movement in Tunisia, with its Shaykh Ghannoushi, come out strongly in favor of mechanisms which allow the periodic renewal of governments and their control in office, i.e., democracy in the original sense of the word.
I mentioned that Muslims have something important to contribute to the future of the West through helping it to overcome the moral and societal crises in which the Occident finds itself. I am thoroughly convinced that the West will either learn from Islam to honor again some of the most basic values only recently forgotten there, or that it will collapse in turmoil. You can live against the divine order of things some of the time, but not all of the time.
Let me highlight twelve potential contributions Islam can offer-not for the greening but for the healing of the West:
The West is suffering from racial prejudice almost everywhere. Islam has not managed to eliminate that vice entirely. But there is no other religion which has done as well in combating racism. Islam is a color-blind religion if there ever was one.
The West, in spite of the Christian commandment of ғloving ones neighbor like oneself,Ҕ definitively suffers from a cooling of social relations. Some people do not even have contact with their neighbors. The Muslim Ummah, also in the West, demonstrates the very warmth, friendliness and readiness to help that Western kids miss so much.
Young Western people hate hierarchies in every field, including their job, their church, and their family. Islam is pluralistic and does not even have sacraments which a clergy might administer; no Pope in Islam. Without any possibility for intercession, directly facing Allah on his prayer rug, a Muslim is the most emancipated believer one can imagine; and emancipation is inӔ!
The West cherishes rationality. It is indeed the irrationality of Church dogmas like Original Sin, Trinity, and Divine Incarnation which set Islam apart as the most rational of all religions. Is it not the only one whose Holy Book constantly urges people to think, observe, and reflect?
Muslims are structurally sober people, always ready to appear before their Lord or, if the need arose, to drive drunken people home after a party. In view of the degree of addiction in the West-from crack to TV-Muslims are the only hope for drug infested city quarters, be it in L.A. or in Johannesburg.
No society and no State can survive for long the breakdown of the family. If the family disintegrates, society will disintegrate. In a region where only homosexuals seem to fight for the survival of marriage as an institution (for themselves, that is) the Muslim defense of the family becomes essential.
Western women seek to defend their dignity. In their process of emancipation, through competing with men and copying them, they may have gained job openings and economic independence, but they did not manage to protect their dignity. Women in the West remain sex objects as much as ever, as every beauty contest will demonstrate. Against that background, Muslim women demonstrate how to protect their female dignity effectively.
Western people are constantly stressedӔ and in need of psychiatric help. Every American has his shrink,Ӕ and emotional intelligence is underrated. Esotericism, the Japanese tea ceremony or T. M. do not do the trick. Prayer, a Muslims regular linking up with God, is much more effective in healing modern manҒs feeling of being alone and abandoned.
As Western societies are aging, most capital now being held by widows, the saturated capitalist system is in danger of losing its vitality. Security is valued highest, and there is insurance against every possible risk, including the risk of being blessed with a child. Islam helps to protect and maintain the entrepreneurial spirit by insisting that capital be used not for fixed returns but in a profit-and-loss sharing modality.
At the same time, Islam can reacquaint the West with its obscured aim of putting the interest of man into the center of economic policy, demanding that social justice and human dignity will really be given preference over other economic targets.
Western people are becoming more and more conscious of the risks involved in eating the wrong kind of food. They may discover that the Muslims have been right all along in refusing the unhealthy meat of pigs.
1. In their growing concern for health, based on the control of weight and dietary discipline, Western people might discover Islams pillar of Ramadan, as a very modern thing indeed. These are 12 individual contributions which Muslims can make towards the healing of Western society. Each one may not have much impact; but in their totality, to adopt these Muslims attitudes would amount to a social and moral revolution.
One may argue that some of these qualities or methods are not exclusively Muslim but also Christian. This is true. However, the de-Christianization of Europe-not of the United States-has reached a point where this religion no longer has a chance of bringing about the moral revolution necessary for saving the West from itself. Nor can any artificial ғreligion like modern Shamanism do the trick. Only a partial Islamization of the West could turn the driving wheel sufficiently, steering the West away from its present course towards decline and fall.
So the malady has been diagnosed, and the right medication has been prescribed. The only question remaining is whether or not the patient, the West, will swallow the pills on its night table.
Originally published at http://www.geocities.com/embracing_islam/islam_in_the_west.html and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.