Our Chance to Reclaim Islam
By Michael Wolfe
Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, it's clear that it creates an enormous opportunity-and obligation-for American and Western Muslims. We have been trying to reclaim Islam, and now we might actually have a chance.
Ever since September 11, American Muslims-simultaneously appalled at the attacks on Islam and the hijacking of their faith by terrorists-have been doing a great deal of serious thinking. Because the criticisms of Islam became so intense, most of the Muslim voices we've heard have been those defending Islam.
But privately, in our mosques and in our homes-away from the judging ears of the world--we've been talking to each other with an honesty born of urgency. Little by little, we began to arrive at some common ground. We knew something had to be done or our religion risked being tarnished, even corrupted. We talked about our leadership-and how dissatisfied we were with aspects of it. We talked about the role of women-and how the Islam practiced in many lands abroad, lands to which we had looked for guidance, failed to capture the egalitarian spirit of the Islam we knew. We talked about violence-and how painful it was to accept that Islam, a religion whose name means "self-surrender," had been pressed into service by militant causes so often that, in many Western minds, it has become synonymous with violence.
We not only talked about what had gone wrong, but also about how things ought to be. We began to conceive, and then voice and then, finally, put to paper ideas about how we want to define Islam in this century. Since September 11th, American Muslims began to do something extraordinary. We began to take back Islam.
And yet, this historic debate was drowned out. The views of American Muslims were either lost in the din of war preparation or considered marginal because the "real action" is in the Middle East. Who cares if a bunch of American Muslim intellectuals call for democracy, if the Middle East is in the grip of dictators, secular and religious alike?
But the war in Iraq has blown everything wide open. We are now witnessing a debate about the kind of democracy that should grow there. Are Islam and democracy even compatible?
American Muslims can and must play an important role in this debate because, frankly, we actually have the most experience with practicing both Islam and democracy.
Last year, we published Taking Back Islam to help energize the debate. The book is more relevant than ever.
As Ali Minai, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, remarks, the "interpretation of Islam can no longer be left to the most regressive segment of Muslim society. Muslims who believe that their faith is compatible with progressive humanist ideals must express themselves--not as apologists of Islam to the West but as proponents of new possibilities for Muslims." This is what our best-known non-Muslim historian of Islam, Karen Armstrong, means when she asks "ึis this really a case of a faith being hijacked? Not yet. Because in this case, the other people aboard-as it were-can take an effective stand against the moral nihilism of the terrorists."
Taking Back Islam records the latest chapter in a centuries-long conversation that non-Muslim readers may never have heard. For Islam is surprisingly undoctrinaire and open to discussion. And as doctrines go, Islam's is simple-broad enough that 1.5 billion people around the world can agree on it. Only three things are really required to be a Muslim: belief in God, knowledge of his message, and respect for the prophets from Abraham to Jesus to Muhammad. Beyond that, quite a lot is up for grabs.
Muslims in general don't like the word "reform," with its various English connotations. Yet, as Salam Al-Marayati reminds us in "The Rising Voice of Moderate Islam," a kindred word is found in the Qur'an. "In Arabic, it is called islah and is the root meaning of the word maslahah, which means 'the public interest.' Historically, Muslim intellectual leaders such as Farangi Mahall Wali Allah, Jamal Al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh ึ have used reason to create revivalist movements. Wali Allah of India helped to reaffirm the use of reason in legal interpretation and "condemned the blind imitation of tradition. Al-Afghani challenged Muslims to think of Islam as consistent with reason and science. Abduh believed in educational reforms throughout Muslim society."
There is plenty of precedent, then, in Muslim thought for bringing Islam into close accord with people's present needs. Since September 11th, however, a lot of American Muslims have begun to look beyond these classic independent thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to think and write on their own authority.
September 11th forced a reckoning of sorts, and it has led us to be more self-reliant. When any religion is new to a place, as Islam is new to America, the tendency to take one's cues from the Motherland is strong, wherever that Motherland is perceived to be.
And then there comes a moment to grow up. For many American Muslims that moment arrived in the weeks following September 11th, when a substantial number of them grew disenchanted with the habit of looking abroad for leadership. The near extinction of Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban, the abysmal state of education in Pakistan, the murderous mullahs of Al-Qaeda misquoting the Quran on video, along with a host of other glaring moral failures, have led many American Muslims to suspect that Islam's "traditional lands" have less to teach us than they claim.
Ten years from now, this period may mark the time when American Muslims found their real voice. Taking Back Islam is a book by progressive, mostly American, Muslims, people who are in love with Islam, who are proud of Islam, and who are confident enough in its strength to believe that it can stand up to honest introspection. "Speak the truth," Muhammad said, "even if it hurts you." A sometimes-painful struggle of a faith in search of its soul informs our thoughts. We feel an anxiousness for the life of a faith we love. This anxiousness is creative, giving rise to new formulations and fresh answers, and to a strong desire to tap the best traditions of Islam.
Many American Muslims, as they reflect on how to reclaim Islam, often turn, not to questions of power, but to matters of faith and practice and tradition. As Leila Dabbagh writes in "Muhammad's Legacy for Women," "My ancestors faithfully practiced the five pillars of Islam without losing sight of the fundamental requirements of everyday civil and compassionate living." Her words sound a theme we hear often in these pages, of "getting back to basics," of recovering the sweetness inherit in a religion that has been seriously injured from within by extremists and demonized from without, in Western culture.
The Prophet Muhammad once was asked, "What is religion?" He said, "One's regard and conduct towards others." That is the sort of vision American Muslims are trying, God willing, to reclaim.
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