The Demystification of Islam

By Nethe, Richard H. | The Humanist, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Demystification of Islam


Nethe, Richard H., The Humanist


Slowly but steadily the realization is setting in among Muslims that the glory days of Islam are over--that whereas it once led the world in science and culture, since the Renaissance it has fallen behind drastically. What happened? It now seems clear that Muslims' anxious efforts to keep their faith pure and untouched by outside influences backfired on them. While the other monotheistic religions made some concessions to their constantly changing environment, Islam stayed stuck in the Middle Ages.

Modern theologians within the Christian and Jewish faiths have been debating a demystification of their own ancient belief systems in an attempt to make them more relevant to modern society (see, for example, "The Demystification of Belief Systems," in the July/August 2001 Humanist). Now some voices within Islam are finally being heard, perhaps signaling the beginning of a similar effort. In the October 1956 Atlantic, Ishaq Husseini reported proposals that varied in detail but "advocated moving away from a literal, absolute application of Islamic law to a more liberal interpretation, enabling `a flexibility which allows ... the greatest freedom while still keeping the faith intact.'" Forty-six years later, in the December 12, 2001, issue of the Atlantic, Sage Stossel informs us in his essay "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Islam":

 
   One school of thought that many Koranic scholars have found to be of 
   special interest is that of "Mu'tazilism," which flourished in the Islamic 
   world during the ninth century. The movement's proponents held that the 
   Koran is a historical document rather than a God-given one and "developed a 
   complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal 
   understanding of the Koran." Though Mu'tazilism declined in the tenth 
   century, many scholars and theologians interested in revitalizing Islam 
   today have begun trying to bring the long forgotten movement back to the 
   fore. 

The article concludes that an approach that reassesses the Quran as a historical document may allow Islamic societies to "adapt to such Western concepts as liberal democracy and self-determination."

The terrorism of September 11, 2001 should have awakened most to the fact that a significant number of Muslims are encouraged to hate everything of Western origin--especially if it relates to the United States. One major reason for this antagonism is the frustration that results when people in some Islamic countries of the developing world are poor but have little chance of bettering their lot.

Admittedly, they have some valid reasons for despising the "Western" way of life. Perceived permissiveness and extreme, media-fueled consumerism make us a decadent society in their eyes. Furthermore, in the Middle East contempt of the West goes back to the Crusades and to am-al-nakhbah (the year of the disaster), the year 1920 when the French and the British marched into the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Another thorn in their side is the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which established the state of Israel in Palestine under the guise of providing a homeland for the Jews--"a biblical people like us," as the British populace was told at the time (never mind that the displaced Palestinian Arabs were a biblical people as well). In reality, the purpose of this latter maneuver was (as one can now read in most encyclopedias) to provide a buffer zone for the strategically sensitive Suez Canal.

Worldwide, Muslims represent the largest and fastest-growing religious group. So it behooves non-Muslims to be sensitive to their views. With 1.2 billion practitioners, Islam represents roughly one-fifth of the world's population. The explosive growth of Islam may be explained by at least two important factors: the higher birth rate that is encouraged in most Muslim countries and the requirement that the children of each mixed marriage must also be Muslim. …

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