Islam and the West: From Discord to Understanding

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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Islam and the West: From Discord to Understanding


Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review


THE spread of Islam has had an impact on the globalisation of culture. Islam has spread not only as a religion but has also helped to give birth to languages which are spoken by many more non-Muslims than Muslims. Kiswahili in Africa is today the most important indigenous language to have emerged out of Africa -- but its origins lie in the interaction between Islam and African culture. Islam and the Arabic language have bequeathed the Arabic alphabet for languages like Farsi, Urdu, Old Hausa and others. The Arabs have given the world the so-called Arabic numerals through which the twentieth century has computerised the human experience. Today the Quran (Koran) is the most widely read book in its original language in human history. Muslims are expected to read the Quran in the original Arabic and not a translation that may change the intended meaning. The Bible is the most widely read book in translation.

As the twenty-first century begins, almost one out of every five human beings is a Muslim. In the course of the 21st century a quarter of the human race will probably be Muslim. The new demographic presence of Islam within the Western world is indicative that Islamisation is now a major globalising force.

Perspectives on Islamisation/Westernisation

In the second half of the twentieth century both Muslim migration to the West and conversions to Islam within the West consolidated a new Islamic presence. In Europe as a whole, there are now 20 million Muslims, eight million of whom are in Western Europe. These figures exclude the Muslims of the Republic of Turkey, who number some 50 million. There are new mosques from Munich to Marseilles.

Also as a manifestation of the demographic Islamisation of the Western world, there are now over a thousand mosques and Islamic centres in the United States alone. And the country has professional associations for Muslim engineers, Muslim social scientists and Muslim educators. There are some six million American Muslims -- and the number is rising impressively. Indeed, the American society in general is now coping with this issue, which creates cultural tensions between Islam and the West, as some observers have noted.

Currently Islam is the fastest growing religion in Central Asia. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., all five states of Central Asia -- Kazakhastan, Kyrghystan, Uzbekistan, Turkemenistan and Tajikistan -- made an official place for Islam as the dominant religion. In France, Islam is becoming the second most important religion numerically after Catholicism. In Britain Muslims have been demanding state subsidies for Muslim denominational schools. In Germany it has been belatedly realised that the importation of Turkish workers in the 1970s was also an invitation to the muezzin and the minaret to establish themselves in German cities. Australia has discovered that it is a neighbour to the largest Muslim country in the world in terms of population (Indonesia). There are new mosques, Islamic schools and Quranic centres from Brisbane to Perth.

Westernisation, on the other hand, is also a major globalising force. In the first half of the twentieth century, the West had colonised more than two-thirds of the Muslim world, from Africa to Asia. The first haff of the twentieth century also witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the complete de-Islamisation of the European state-system. The aftermath included the abolition of the caliphate as the symbolic centre of Islamic authority. The ummah (Islamic community) became more fragmented than ever and became even more receptive to Western cultural penetration. Other forces which facilitated the cultural Westernisation of the Muslim world included the replacement of Islamic and Quranic schools with Western style schools; the increasing use of European languages in major Muslim countries; and the impact of the Western media upon the distribution of news, information and entertainment.

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