So what have I learned from all the lectures on Islam?
Muhammad was a good guy, and he would not be happy with the current reality.
I realize that I can’t speak with enormous authority after only 12 lectures on Islam by Professor John L. Esposito, but I sure know a lot more than I did. And what I did know was mostly wrong.
So where do I begin? In general, there are three discoveries that ultimately surprised me the most. The first discovery is the third pillar of the Five Pillars of Islam. This is the one that establishes the zakat or tithe designed to provide for the poor. As a reminder, it was set at a rate of 2.5% of all wealth, to be paid annually. It is evidence of Muhammad’s apparent overarching objective to create a moral and just society. We all know that such a tax would be very difficult to enforce. However, it is very impressive that a number, a percentage, was set so long ago to provide a degree of security for those in need.
The second discovery that amazed me was how Islam benefited women. In the book accompanying the lectures, Esposito (and he is Catholic, by the way) writes that “The revelation of Islam raised the status of women by prohibiting female infanticide, abolishing women’s status as property, establishing women’s legal capacity, granting women the right to receive their own dowry, changing marriage from a proprietary to a contractual relationship, and allowing women to retain control over their property and use their maiden names after marriage.” The Quran (4:71) made believing men and women auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another.
Fancy that. I had always thought that Muslim women were oppressed, and they certainly are in many communities; but this is apparently where tribal and patriarchal traditions trump Muhammad’s teachings. I had assumed that the long dress and the veils were forced on them, but some modern Muslim women have embraced this dress as a return to tradition and in defiance of our objectification in Western culture. Amazing that a woman would choose to wear the scarf called the hijab instead of false eyelashes, leggings, and stilettos, but there we are.
The third discovery was that jihad doesn’t mean at all what I assumed. Today we automatically associate it with terrorism. The definition of the word is “to strive or to struggle.” According to Professor Esposito, “jihad refers to the obligation incumbent on all Muslims, as individuals and as a community to exert (jihad) themselves to realize God’s will, to lead a virtuous life, to fulfill the universal mission of Islam, and to spread the Islamic community.” At the same time, it means the struggle for or defense of Islam that is allowed within specific guidelines in the Quran (2:190): “And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors.” This is pretty clear, but as Esposito acknowledges, “holy wars” have been launched throughout the history of Islam in violation of this precept.
There is an explanation for this recurring pattern. It is safe to say that the biggest challenge for all three of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) has been the simple factor of change, and it may be more taxing for Islam than the other two. Its history is extremely complex, but there is an overarching memory in the Muslim psyche of its flowering from 750 to 1258 AD when it became “an empire of wealth, political power, and cultural accomplishments” (Esposito). In fact, when Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, it renewed itself through the accomplishments of the Islamic world in law, philosophy, medicine, algebra and geometry, science, art, and architecture.
Muslims regard that golden era as evidence of God’s favor. When misfortune and cultural stress erupted periodically thereafter, as in the intrusions of World War I and II and the ensuing invasion of Western ways including our materialism, that has been interpreted as evidence of God’s disfavor. It is experienced as disempowerment, “an identity crisis,” as Eposito puts it, “precipitated by a sense of utter impotence and loss of self-esteem.”
There is nothing like humiliation to enrage, and this ignites the fire that burns in the soul of extremists. Their response is typically the determination to “purify” Islam to regain God’s favor, and like all religious warriors, they can summon God to justify their attacks. (Remember the battle cry of the English at the Battle of Agincourt, 600 years ago almost to the day: “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George!'”)
Of course, rage that may be understandable in some ways does not justify terrorist atrocities. However, the repeating pattern of Islamic renewal through terrorism has a basis we need to understand through studying history. That will reveal the role the United States has played recently in humiliating the men of Islam who are most entrenched in the old ways of patriarchy and tribalism. One thinks back on the night of “Shock and Awe” in 2003 when Americans watched the bombing of Iraq as though it were an entertainment. The consequences have been horrific.
But there is hope in the Quran in one particular verse that seems especially appropriate in view of the negotiations getting underway in Syria. This appears in verse 8:61: “But if they incline to peace, you also incline to it, and (put your) trust in Allah. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower.”
In summary, a review of history creates a much more complex picture of Islam than will be welcome to Americans who have become totally polarized. And it is only fair to point out that demonizing Muslims serves to make us feel better about our own error in launching the Iraq War. The spirituality of Muslims actually ranges widely, and my next blog will address some of those perspectives.