Coming to terms with Islam in the West

Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society Topics: Islam, Women Views: 9221

When a Welsh resistance leader was captured and brought before the emperor in Rome, he said: "Because you desire to conquer the world, it does not necessarily follow that the world desires to be conquered by you." Today one could offer an echo of this sentiment to western liberals: "Because you wish your values to prevail throughout the world, it does not always follow that the world wishes to adopt them." The imperial voice is based on ignorance of the rich traditions of other civilizations, and on an undue optimism about what the west is doing to the world politically, economically and environmentally.

The entrenched beliefs many westerners profess about Islam often reveal more about the west than they do about Islam or Muslims. The Ottomans were history's longest-lasting major dynasty; their durability must have had some relation to their ability to rule a multi-faith empire at a time when Europe was busily hanging, drawing and quartering different varieties of Christian believer.

Today Islam is said to be less, not more, tolerant than the west, and we need to ask which, precisely, are the "western" values with which Islam is so incompatible? Some believe Islam's attitude towards women is the source of the Muslim "problem". Westerners need to look to their own attitudes here and recognize that only very recently have patriarchal structures begun to erode in the west.

The Islamic tradition does show some areas of apparent incompatibility with the goals of women in the west, and Muslims have a long way to go in their attitudes towards women. But blaming the religion is again to express an ignorance both of the religion and of the historical struggle for equality of women in Muslim societies.

A careful reading of modern female theologians of Islam would cause western women to be impressed by legal injunctions more than 1,000 years old that, for instance, grant women legal rights to domestic help at the expense of their husbands. Three of the four Sunni schools consider domestic chores outside the scope of a woman's legal responsibilities toward her husband. Contrast that with US polls showing that working women still do 80% of domestic chores.

Westerners, in their advocacy of global conformism, often speak of "progress" and the rejection of the not-too-distant feudal past, and are less likely to reveal their unease about corporate hegemony and the real human implications of globalization.

Neither are the missionaries of western values willing to consider why Europe, the heart of the west, should have generated two world wars which killed more civilians than all the wars of the previous 20 centuries. As Muslims point out, we are asked to call them "world wars" despite their reality as western wars, which targeted civilians with weapons of mass destruction at a time when Islam was largely at peace.

We Muslims are un-persuaded by many triumphalist claims made for the west, but are happy with its core values. As a westerner, the child of civil rights and anti-war activists, I embraced Islam not in abandonment of my core values, drawn almost entirely from the progressive tradition, but as an affirmation of them. I have since studied Islamic law for 10 years with traditionally trained scholars, and while some particulars in medieval legal texts have troubled me, never have the universals come into conflict with anything my progressive Californian mother taught me. Instead, I have marveled at how most of what western society claims as its own highest ideals are deeply rooted in Islamic tradition.

The chauvinism apparent among some westerners is typically triggered by Islamic extremism. Few take the trouble to notice that mainstream Islam dislikes the extremists as much as the west does. What I fear is that an excuse has been provided to supply some westerners with a replacement for their older habit of anti-Semitism. The shift is not such a difficult one. Arabs, after all, are Semites, and the Arabian prophet's teaching is closer in its theology and law to Judaism than it is to Christianity. We Muslims in the west, like Jews before us, grapple with the same issues that Jews of the past did: integration or isolation, tradition or reform, intermarriage or intra-marriage.

Muslims who yearn for an ideal Islamic state are in some ways reflecting the old aspirations of the Diaspora Jews for a homeland where they would be free to be different. Muslims, like Jews, often dress differently; we cannot eat some of the food of the host countries. Like the Jews of the past, we are now seen as parasites on the social body, burdened with a uniform and un-reformable law, contributing little, scheming in ghettoes, and obscurely indifferent to personal hygiene.

Cartoons of Arabs seem similar to the caricatures of Jews in German newspapers of the Nazi period. In the 1930s, such images ensured that few found the courage to speak out about the possible consequences of such a demonization, just as few today are really thinking about the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the extreme-right parties across Europe. Muslims in general, and Arabs especially, have become the new "other".

When I met President Bush, I gave him two books. One was The Essential Koran, translated by Thomas Cleary. The second was another translation by Cleary, Thunder in the Sky: Secrets of the Acquisition and Use of Power. Written by an ancient Chinese sage, it reflects the universal values of another great people.

I did this because, as an American, rooted in the best of western tradition, and a Muslim convert who finds much of profundity in Chinese philosophy, I believe the "Huntington thesis" that these three great civilizations must inevitably clash is a lie. Each civilization speaks with many voices; the best of them find much in common. Not only can our civilizations co-exist in our respective parts of the world, they can co-exist in the individual heart, as they do in mine. We can enrich each other if we choose to embrace our essential humanity; we can destroy the world if we choose to stress our differences.

Hamza Yusuf is an American convert to Islam who studied for several years under leading scholars in the Muslim world. He is the co-founder of the Zaytuna Institute in California and has translated into modern English several classical Arabic texts and poems, including the latest rendering of the thirteenth-century devotional poem, The Burda: The Poem of the Cloak (2002). His most recent works include The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (2007), the first text in the Zaytuna Curriculum Series; The Content of Character (2005), a collection of sayings from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, regarding the essence of character and behavior; and Purification of the Heart (2004), a translation with commentary of a nineteenth-century text that examines the spiritual conditions and treatments of the heart.

 


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  22 Comments   Comment

  1. myrna from qatar

    for me whether itis west or south christian or muslim to have all this thing is we should we should educate ourself from god it happened all this thing coz no respect love compassion and faith in god its our obligation to the world to show the love and respectthen there will be at peace

  2. Aliyu from Nigeria

    I am 100% believe with this Article and i am happy to see more like this, because peolpe always try to hide the truth.

  3. mm zaki from india

    I am of the opinion that there are lots of miscoceptions about islamic tenents in the west;these need to be corrected, so that whole f humanity can live in peace-which is the message of islam.All great civilizations have contributed tremendously towards human progress and there is great commonality in thier values and teachings. There is no such thing as clash of civilzations.It is the figment of imagination of the un-informed.

  4. from Brazil

    VERY,VERY GOOD!!!DEEP INSIDE AND VERY UP-TO-DATE TO OUR PLANET. MY WARMFUL AND VERY SINCERE CONGRATULATIONS!!!!

  5. sheena mac brayne from Egypt

    I loved your article for many things but I have to disagree with you over responsibility for the environment. As a teacher here in Cairo I am simply horrified at the ignorance and lack of care of the natural world not just in Islam but in all the major faiths. If Nature is Allah's gift to us why is it being so abused. I hear so much rhetoric about facts and figures but my eyes tell me something different particularly here in Egypt. The planet is in dire trouble and we ignore it at our peril. This is beyond religion.

    We cannot continue with lifestyles that take such a toll on natural resources. Here in the Middle East what you have seems to be more important than who you are inside at a very simple level. What do you do for others and for Allah every day in the little things? I don't see it happening here and that makes me sad because the example of the Prophet Praise Be Upon HIm is the reason I became a Muslim. West and East needs a rethink - neither has the answer on its own. Sheena

  6. Mohamad from USA

    I couldn't agree more, people don't realize that early Muslims not only aknowleged and learned from, but also connected with other civilizations around the world

  7. Zulfiqar from USA

    I fully agree with this article. It makes perfect sense. Education is the only way to make people understand that this world is big enough, and its resources are big enough for all of us. We all can live in peace with one another in neighbourhood if, we wish so.DO NOT impose your value on others. Keep your faith and beliefs with Love and Respect for others.

    Zulfiqar Ahmad, USA

  8. Bernadotte from UK

    I am surprised by that old chestnut about German Islamic links & European wars (WWs). In WW1 Jews fought for Germany in vast numbers & got many medals. In WW2 Jews were at the heart of Nazism e.g. head of the elite SS & Hitler's nomination for the next Fuhrer, RHEINHARDT HEYDRICH, along with many soldiers & even posterboys as evinced by the recent "coming out" in Australia. Furthermore, in Hitler's ally FASCIST Italy, 33% of the Italian Jews were fascist-supporters, including Mussolini's lover & her son the head of an important department. As for the Mufti, a minor political nobody, as even today with the Zionist occupation & the news relaying every little quote, who knows of that post or his statements? Furthermore, how many Arabs, let alone Palestinians heeded his call & fought for the Nazis? This is unlike the Indians with the Indian National army. Likewise, the involvement of many Jews in the rise of the Communist Red threat is well-known. During the wars of Europe the Rothschilds supported different sides making money out of Western blood. One of the only allies of Apartheid South Africa was Israel. In the US, Bush is supported the war-mongering Neo-Con Cabal i.e. Likudniks, the new Fascists, they never learn. In Mandate Palestine terrorism against the West including unarmed civilians e.g. diplomats & policemen, let alone throwing grenades in Arab cafes, was thanks to Jewist terrorist gangs. For PROOF see the UK government archives. Not only that Israel celebrates these JEWISH terrorists DESPITE complaints from the UK, with stamps & residential locations. Even today, the Israel 1strs are using the US e.g. military spies (Pollard etc) & selling weapons to CHINA. Remember the USS Liberty, no I thought not.

  9. ajaz rasool from India

    Alhamdu Lillah,Allah blessed hamzu yousef with islamic light and he is propogating it well.

  10. Aamir from Pakistan

    Excellent article, reflecting a true picture

  11. Muhaideen Batah from USA

    In such a short article one can learn alot. I like the way br. Hamza Yusuf approches those issues we deal with every day.

  12. Jacob Marley from USA

    Biblical Christianity will continue to be spread from the US and elsewhere into the ME and around the world.

  13. paagle from USA

    There's somre real whoppers in here, but I'm going to focus on the biggest: the attempt to correlate Jewish Diaspora experiences with the experiences of modern Muslims in the west.

    One important point is that the view of Jews as "parasites on the social body, burdened with a uniform and un-reformable law, contributing little, scheming in ghettoes" has been a mainstay of Jewish life in the historical and current Islamic world as well as in the historical West. Jews in America are, fortunately, largely free of this evil stereotype, and in Europe it is immigrant Muslims that are its primary propogaters.

    Thats nothing next to the crazy association with Diaspora Jews yearning to return to a tiny sliver of to Muslims who yearn for an ideal Islamic state because they feel out of place in the West. Muslims who hold themselves appart and claim supperiority to westerners, whose men date and marry western women but whose women are kept appart from western men (often on pain of death!), who desire their theologic law apply in their host country, are free to return to any number of states that manifest Islamic norms (even if they are not "ideal"). For centuries Jews had no state to return to, never mind dozens!

    Further, the primary Muslim holy cities are not only in Muslim hands, it is illegal for non-Muslims to enter them! Compare that to the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem, which is open to most and would be open to all if not for terrorism. Finally, note that the "Dome of the Rock" was deliberately built on top of the site of the Jewish Temple - an example of the Muslim tendency to appropriate other faith's holiest sites and turn them into mosques (see Hagia Sophia and the Ayodhya mosque).

    Religion of peace indeed! Religion of submission is far more appropriate: as in you'll submit to God as described by Muhammed or you'll submit to those who have.

    This assertion of likeness between the Mulsim and Jewish experiences is Chutzpah of the highest

  14. Olga from Switzerland

    The author does not know the history of the world wars!Ottomans backed Germany in the World War One, and there was a Nazy-Muslim connection. One should also remember the Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini before pointing fingers at these BAD BAD Westerners.

  15. mona from us

    No matter how its explained this is a male shovenist religion.

  16. Munim Ali from Sudan

    While I fully support the views expressed here by the writter, I agree, as well, with Mr. Kirana on the need to demonstrate the ideals of Islam which are unfortunately can never been seen in practice in any Muslim country. They don't look in our books, they see the proof of their "misconceptions" about our relgion in our practice.I don't blame them.

  17. John Smith from USA

    Biblical Christianity does not compromise it's beliefs or it's superior position just for the sake of peace. coexisternce, or interfaith dialogue.

  18. Babandi A. Gumel from U.K

    Surely the men who submit and the women who submit and the believing men and the believing women,the obeying men and the obeying women and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women and the humble men and the humble women,the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women,the fasting men and the fasting women and the men who guard their private parts and the women who guard and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember (Him) Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. This Verse from Surah Ahzab clearly defines what you may want call the progressive Islamic tradition the title adopted. Whenever it mentions men it mentions women as they are both obedients mentioning their special qualities 10 in total. Rasulullah and his Companions were the best role models.If we want succeed in Duniya and Akhirah we have to follow them as they were the best examples for the whole humanity.

  19. AS from UK

    Surely the title would be better stated as Muslims have a progressive tradition too? Islam is transcendental, the Deen has been perfected & is the final revelation. Obviously those US-based think tanks & Orientalists working to advance the MIC (military Industrial Complex) want to CHANGE Islam to suit their capricious whims & desires. Naturally there have always been self-loathing MUNAFIQs overawed by material strength. Progressive implies a regressive tradition, & those calling for change/reformation are gullible enough not to see the euphemism meaning destruction. The US Jewish revert Margaret Marcus (Maryam Jameelah) wrote incisive books on the honeyed poison of change. The fetishisation of pathological need for constant change implies that the previous state was imperfect & not of lasting eternal value i.e. not transcendant but immanent. If this is the case, then Islam is not what it claims to be.

  20. Kirana from Malaysia

    I am a Muslim who is culturally not Middle Eastern. My people were a maritime nation and thus have had contact with the oldest cultures of the world since almost the very beginning of our statehood, long before the first Europeans arrived. Cultures like those of China and India are almost as old as the oldest Middle Eastern cultures, and comparable to that of Egypt. Each of their accumulated millennia of histories have gone through many revolutions, enlightenments, declines and resurgences while Europe essentially has only gone through one, maybe two such key periods: Roman Catholicism, and the Renaissance. Puberty is only a big deal to teenagers, and maybe young adults. Grandparents have gone through many more challenges since then, compared to which puberty probably doesn't even rank near the top key events. Much can be learned from the philosophies of others. Islam, for instance, appears on the surface to be a young religion, if you count it from its last prophet. But Muslims count it from its first, and consider it to be the distilled and completed form of the oldest message to mankind.

  21. Saad Haleem from USA

    I am confused by this article, it seems that those who carry and use the label "progressive" Muslims or advocate for a "Progressive Islam" are those that support:

    * women led prayer

    * recognition of homosexuals and homosexuality among Muslims

    * the necessity of 'reforming' Islam so as to make it compatible with modernity and secularism

    * the fact that those who do not profess the shahadah or don't believe in following any of the five pillars of Islam can still be called Muslims.

    this article seems to be saying much of the same thing or at least is cited by those who claim to be advocating as "progressive Muslims"