Islam & Modernity: Not All Muslims Think Alike

By Ryan, Patrick J. | Commonweal, September 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Islam & Modernity: Not All Muslims Think Alike


Ryan, Patrick J., Commonweal


Since the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, Americans have been living in a world riven by antagonism between Muslims and non-Muslims, a polarization arguably not seen since the medieval period and the Crusades of Christian Europe. In the face of this antipathy, it's important to acknowledge that just as the West today is more religiously diverse than was Europe when Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade almost a thousand years ago, so too is the Muslim world. Too many talking heads in the American media want to reduce the Islamic tradition to its most politicized and militant version. Such a simplification insults the richness of that religious tradition.

When I recently read through the names of those who died in the World Trade Center that September morning, I was struck by how many were identifiably Muslim. In this regard it seems wholly suitable that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wishes to build, on a site two blocks from Ground Zero, a community center and mosque. Like us, our Muslim neighbors need a place to pray and mourn for their relatives and friends who died on that terrible day. But the willingness, even the ability, to extend sympathetic support for such a need depends on a knowledge of Islam many Americans lack.

To understand Muslims today one needs to recognize three strands of faith--in effect three different cultures--among Sunni Muslims, who account for nearly nine-tenths of the world's Muslims. (In discussing these subgroups, I do not wish to slight the 10 percent of the world's Muslims who are Shiite, nor the 1 percent who are neither Sunni nor Shiite.) First is the relatively small but intense Sunni minority that advocates a radically countercultural understanding of Islam. These are the people characterized in the West as Islamists (formerly referred to as Muslim fundamentalists), and most have been influenced by the conservative understanding of Islam propagated in and by Saudi Arabia. A second, larger population participates in the Islamic tradition but can be characterized as culturally secularized, often more influenced by socioeconomic and political forces than by the Qur'an. Most of these culturally secularized Muslims live in Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Asian republics, and parts of Africa. But the largest bloc of Muslims are people of faith participating in a centrist tradition whose understanding of Islam engages with the many nonreligious factors in their world; they can best be described as inculturating their faith in a world that is only partly Islamic. These are Muslims for whom faith and culture are not completely coextensive. Most Arabs (Saudis excepted) and most South Asian Muslims fit into this category.

The Sunni Muslims I characterize as countercultural sometimes trace their ideas back to key passages in the Qur'an. The Qur'an came to historical birth in the two decades before Muhammad's death in 632, and in its original setting it was in some sense markedly countercultural, critical of Muhammad's contemporaries and their faithless ways. The Qur'an refers derisively to elements of pre-Islamic Arabian culture as jahiliyya, a term usually translated as "ignorance" but more akin to "barbarism." Jahiliyya appears only four times in the Qur'an, each time in a passage of revelation received by Muhammad when he was attempting to establish an ideal Islamic rule in Medina. For instance, during a battle with the Meccans in the year 625, when some of Muhammad's army broke ranks to take booty--standard practice for the pre-Islamic Arabs--many were killed and others wounded; and the Qur'an excoriates them for falling back into pagan Arab ways, "entertaining wrong suppositions about God, suppositions typical of barbarism" (Qur'an 3:154).

The Qur'anic term jahiliyya provided the rigorist Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) with a useful category for condemning the Mongols, converts to Islam who invaded the Middle East, destroyed the ailing Sunni caliphate, and established a rule that owed more to their own legal tradition, the Great Yasa of Genghis Khan, than it did to Islamic sharia. …

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