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Islam, Past and Future

Islam is a vast religion, boasting millions of adherents, spanning large areas of the globe, and encompassing thirteen centuries of history. Muslims are united in their belief in the one transcendent, immanent God of pure singularity. They hold the Qur'an to be the literal word of God, eternally coexisting with God, and transmitted to all the prophets beginning with Adam, but only purely, undefiled, and completely to Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets. Islam spread by the sword, proselytization, spiritual example, and financial incentive.

In its first six centuries, Islam was wracked by civil war, conquest, and invasion. Those first centuries also saw Islamic civilization in its full flower, highlighted by universities, philosophy, law, science, art, and literature. Political instability was no barrier to creativity. For its second six centuries, most of Islam was controlled by two highly centralized and militarized empires, the Ottoman and the Mughal. Although there certainly were exceptions, nonetheless, on the whole, under those two empires, learning declined, tribalism flourished, and a corrupt privileged and quasi-feudal class structure maintained itself in power. During that era, political stability coincided with stultification.

For most of the last two centuries, Western secular forces, beginning with Napoleon, have progressively made incursions into the realm of Islam. Both the Ottoman and Mughal empires expired, and in the twentieth century virtually all Islamic lands came under Western rule. Those historic events triggered a wrenching self-examination within Islam, as various thinkers and movements sought to analyze the cause of Islam's decline and to define what it means to be Muslim. In the current war, the United States is confronting the most extreme and politicized example of Muslim reaction, an example so extreme as to be alien to the great tradition of Islam with its multiple and sometimes problematic strains.

Islam in Flower

According to Islamic belief, Muhammad received his call “to recite” around A.D. 610. He proclaimed that a god, Allah, previously worshipped as one of many pagan gods, was in fact the One God, the only God. His preaching incurred the enmity of the dominant tribe of Mecca (of which he was a member). In 622, he accepted the invitation from a number of his converts to go to Medina, from which he conducted the war against the Meccans and rival tribes. Eventually, he was invited back to Mecca, where the whole city fell under his preaching. Islam then quickly spread throughout Arabia. Muhammad died in 632.

A contest immediately ensued as to who should succeed him. The debate centered on whether a member of his tribe should be elected caliph (successor) or whether Muhammad wanted his successor to be from his familial line (that candidate was Ali, the husband of Muhammad's daughter). Three caliphs from Muhammad's tribe successively became caliph until, finally, Ali was elected the fourth. But a struggle for leadership raged between the relatives of the assassinated third caliph, Uthmann, and Ali. This was the great civil war that ultimately led to the split in Islam between the Sunnis and Shi'ites.

For the next three centuries the contest continued in one form or another. But alongside the political contest, an ideological rivalry began, as Muslims debated the essentials of their faith. In the midst of this debate, the great accomplishments of Islamic civilization came to fruition, including institutional toleration for other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Five of Islam's ideological strains of this era bear noting.

One tradition and theological school was that of the Mutazilites, who stressed reason and rigorous logic. The Mutazilites were readers of Greek philosophy and akin to the Scholastics of Medieval Europe. They believed that, although reason's fallibility required the Qur'an, reason could help one to attain significant knowledge about what was good, providing a sure way of attaining communion and nearness to God. They contested the idea that the Qur'an existed from all eternity, instead asserting that it was a creation of God. Because of the weakness of the human will, revelation was necessary to confirm to humankind what was truly good and to provide them with rules of behavior that unaided reason could not apprehend. Nonetheless, reason directs the understanding of revelation. God would not command that which would be absurd or unreasonable. Today, the Mutazilites are reflected in many Islamic reformers who seek to make Islam relevant to the modern world.

A second group was called the Murjites, who had a simple and straightforward philosophy. They believed that the political leadership of Islam was not worth a war, that peace was incumbent upon all Muslims, that there was no racial or clerical hierarchy in Islam but, rather, that all Muslims were equal. No person, no matter the race or class, had any more or less a right to obtain entrance to Heaven than did anyone else. It is because of the Murjite influence that Islam has a strong egalitarian character. Today, the legacy of the Murjites is seen in the traditional lives of many Muslims: love and brotherhood, respect for equality, religious devotions to attain righteousness, and the benevolence of God.

The third tradition was that of the legalists, who have become a dominant voice in Sunni Islam. They were the ones who eventually formed the Shari'a, the sacred law of Islam, which was over five hundred years more advanced than English common law, particularly in terms of commercial and property law and partnerships. Their rules on commercial law, partnerships, agency, and succession were some of the most sophisticated of any legal system of its day. Where the rules of the Shari'a got in the way of state governance, however, such as in the criminal law, the authorities simply removed the qadi (the religious judge who enforced the provisions of the Shari'a) from jurisdiction and set up their own state courts. That is why the criminal portions of the Shari'a remained undeveloped. Today the legalists are represented more or less by modern fundamentalists, who think that some or all of the Shari'a should be the life and constitution of Islam.

The fourth tradition was called the Kharijites. These were the radicals—one can fairly call them the fanatics. The Kharijites had a violent, politicized notion of Islam, and they committed frightful massacres as a result. Their view was that God would reveal the true leader of Islam on the battlefield and that any Muslim who did not obey the religion exactly as the Kharajites understood it was an apostate that can and should be killed. They made war on every other Muslim who did not follow their exact version of Islam. At one point, they even assassinated Ali, the fourth caliph. Their objective was to exterminate any competing version of Islam. It took the rest of Islam two centuries to put down that heresy.

The fifth tradition—called Sufism—came two centuries later in reaction to the dominant legalists. The Sufi were mystics, believing that they could gain oneness with God through the inner life and moral purification. The Sufi tradition and the legalistic tradition have frequently been in severe tension over the centuries.

Islam in Decline

It may seem strange to call Islam in decline during the period of the Ottoman Empire when its armies reached the gates of Vienna or when the Mughals dominated the great subcontinent of India. Yet even though the Ottomans reunified much of Islam following the disastrous Mongol destruction of the thirteenth century, Islamic culture as a whole became moribund, particularly when contrasted with the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance of the West. In Islam, the dominant intellectual element became the ulema, the legal and religious scholars, who became, in fact, the court party of the empire. Self-perpetuating, the ulema constituted a class of partisans of a rigidified Shari'a. The law, which had been a liberating and creative element of Islamic civilization in its first three centuries, became a weight allied with tyrannical leadership.

In reaction to the dry legalism of the ulema, the Sufis offered a spiritual alternative. Thus, during the period when independent scientific and philosophical enquiry was discouraged, the mystical element of the religion could not be contained, and it flourished. Sufi orders and devotions spread throughout the Muslim world. Nonetheless, this was also the era of political tyranny, forced conversions, a vigorous slave trade, rigid legalism, tribalism, and military elites.

Islam in Disarray

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, reactions to the corruption and, later, to the decline of the Islamic empires grew apace. Two forms of Muslim reaction argued that the Islamic world had strayed from its origins. One group believed that the empire had tolerated Sufi mysticism too much. They held that the empire had not been legalistic enough. This group sought to impose the details of the Shari'a in all its rigor, as codified some centuries previously. They were what are now appropriately termed the fundamentalists. One of the most important of the early fundamentalists was Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, who railed against Sufi devotions. Allied with the Saud faction, Wahhabism eventually established one of the most strict and intolerant versions of fundamentalist Islam on the Arabian peninsula.

Another group of thinkers, coming to prominence in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, believed that the ulema were part of the problem. Many believed that Islam in its creative era, free of the legalism that later concretized around the religion, was what should be revivified. They held that the law should be thought anew, leapfrogging past the later codifications and finding its source in the Qur'an and in those actions of Muhammad (the traditions of the Prophet) that could be validated. These reformers included men such as Muhammad Abduh of Egypt and Muhammad Iqbal of India.

A third group, small in number, accepted the post-Enlightenment West. As in the West, they span a variety of positions, including socialism, Marxism, liberalism, and capitalism.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Islamic world was divided into separate modern states that were part of the contemporary international order. Most states followed the practice of Islamic rulers in the past by limiting the extent to which Islamic law ruled the society. Even today, most Islamic states are ruled by Western forms of law with some Islamic elements intermixed.

Beginning in the 1920s much of the Islamic fundamentalist revival was politicized into a new phenomenon: Islamist extremism. Influenced by modern Western notions of state power and of the force of political ideology, thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Abu Al-Mawdudi of Pakistan held that the Islamic world had fallen into a state of pre-Islamic “ignorance” or worse, of apostasy. Consequently, a vanguard of true believers was necessary to take power by violent means and to attack those leaders that had fallen away from Islam, no matter how much they claimed to be Muslims. Although the Satanic West was proclaimed the enemy, the true objectives of the extremists were to change Islam into a modernized ideological force. Although they would never have claimed that the Kharajites of early Islam gave them their inspiration, in many ways the modern terrorists of Islam replicate the attitude and tactics of that despised sect.

Islam Today and Tomorrow

The war against terrorism today is also a war to free Islamic civilization from the baleful actions of extremists and to give that area of the world a chance to experience liberty, for liberty is the only medium by which religion can truly flourish.

Liberty successfully defeated Nazism and Communism, far greater threats than Muslim extremism today. Germany, Russia, Japan, Eastern Europe, and Latin America all now embrace the good of liberty in some form or another. Liberty has natural allies in the Muslim world. We can see it in the young men of Kabul who shaved their beards in defiance of the Taliban, in writers in Egypt who brave an autocratic state and murderous fundamentalists, in women who dare to show their individualized faces.

The West has learned that intolerance and violence do not advance any religion in the true sense. We have too long connived with states that have appeased extremists within their borders. If we offer more than television shows and blue jeans to the Middle East, if we instead offer a genuine respect for religion and support those elements there that hunger for freedom, we shall find friends and allies throughout the region.

Islam has in its history great traditions of tolerance, learning, and spirituality. We should all hope that Muslims can once again enjoy those marvelous fruits of their Abrahamic faith. Liberty is the only sure way for that hope.