Links and Resources on Islam
Hartford Seminary has been at the forefront in realizing the significance of studying the Muslim world and forming connections with adherents of the faith, the fastest growing religion in the world and a civilization dating over 1400 years. Hartford Seminary pioneered efforts in the late 1800s to dedicating the first of its kind programs to the study of the Arabic language and the Islamic tradition. Among our most prominent scholars who developed the study of Islam at Hartford Seminary was Duncan Black Macdonald, in whose honor the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations would later be named.
As Islam continues to play an increasingly prominent role in American religious life with estimates of the numbers of Muslim Americans ranging from 4 to 8 million while steadily growing, as well as the world becoming closer due to globalization, new modes of transportation, and instant communication the need for mutual understanding has become ever more crucial. Hartford Seminary seeks to continue its mission of forming bridges of peace through education and dialogue among America’s many faith traditions.
Below is some basic information about Islam compiled by the faculty of the Macdonald Center. They are posted not as a comprehensive treatise on Islam but as helpful advice for those looking for answers and guidance.
Links and Resources on Islam
Throughout the following sections a variety of recommended links and resources for further information about Islam will be provided. They have been compiled in this section for convenience.
- Being Muslim: A Practical Guide by Asad Tarsin
- Islam: The Straight Path by John Esposito
- The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson
- The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary
- The Qur’an translation by M.A.S. Abd al-Haleem
- A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russel Webb by Umar F. Abdallah
- Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters by Omid Safi
- In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad by Tariq Ramadan
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told by Alex Haley
- Ummah Wide
- Ta’leef Collective
- Islamic Networks Group (ING)
- Lost Islamic History
- 1001 Inventions
- Nawawi Foundation
Islam as an “Abrahamic Faith” – Basic Beliefs and History
Islam shares Abraham (or Ibrahim) with Judaism and Christianity as its spiritual ancestor. Abraham is regarded to be one of the greatest divinely sent Prophets of God who taught monotheism and living a life of virtue. According to Islamic tradition, his descendants, through his two sons Ismail and Isaac, would become prophets who would remind humanity of the centrality of their ancestor Abraham’s message of devotion to the One God.
In the Islamic narrative of the life of Abraham, the mothers of both Isaac and Ismail are viewed positively as pious women devout in their worship of God. Isaac and his descendants among whom are Jacob (Yaqub), Joseph (Yusuf), Jesus (‘Isa) are loved and revered by Muslims and it is not uncommon to find Muslims throughout the world named after these quranic/biblical Prophets.
Muslims believe that the separation of Isaac and Ismail was part of a divinely ordained plan that would eventually lead to the guidance of a great segment of humanity through their message and that of their progeny who would bear the call to Abrahamic monotheism. Hagar is regarded in the Islamic tradition as a strong woman whose power of faith led her to realize that her separation from Abraham and her relocation to Arabia was part of a divine decree whose purpose she would only later understand. Hagar’s trust in the love and protection of the One God bears fruit in that God empowers her through enabling her to find the well of Zam Zam, which not only guarantees her survival, but makes Mecca into a hub for settlement in which neighboring tribes can flourish and survive through their reliance on this critical water resource under the custody of this influential woman. Her search for water in which she scuttles in the area between the two mountains of Safa and Marwa later becomes one of the rituals of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, reminding believers of the lesson of balancing trust in providential care with the exertion of effort, as modeled by this matriarch of Islam.
Abraham and Hagar’s son, Ismail, marries and becomes assimilated into Arabia. Later Abraham and Ismail build the Ka’ba together in the city of Mecca as a structure dedicated to the worship of the One God. It would be after many generations of Ismail’s progeny prospering in Arabia that what Muslims believe to be the One God’s final prophet sent for the guidance of all humanity would be born in the person of Muhammad.
According to recent polls conducted in 2015 by the Pew Research Center, the population of Muslims in the world is about 1.6 billion or about 23% of the world’s population. Pew polls also indicate that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and by 2050 Islam is projected to become the second largest religious group in the United States. More information on Muslim population trends can be can be found here.
According to the findings of the Pew Research Center, the world population of Muslims can be broken down in the following chart. Further details and citations can be found here.
A common misconception about Muslims is that they are mostly Arab as is the common belief that Arabs are all Muslim. As indicated by the numbers above, Arabs make up no more than 20% of the world’s Muslim population with the three most populous Muslim countries being in the Asia-Pacific region of Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. Over 60% of the Muslim population is from Asia-Pacific and about 15% are from Sub-Saharan Africa.
An estimated 87-90% are Sunnis and the remainder are Shi’as based on the same Pew Research Center polls cited above.
By 2050, the population of Muslims and Christians are projected to even out with the two faiths constituting approximately 60% of the world’s population.
Indeed, American Muslims form the most heterogeneous Muslim community in history. They represent many movements and identities: immigrant and indigenous, Sunni and Shi‘ite, conservative and moderate, orthodox and heterodox. The majority are immigrants or the descendants of those who have come to the U.S. and Canada over the last century from around the world. The rest are primarily African Americans, most of whom are Sunni Muslims.
Members of the Nation of Islam, relatively small in number, are not considered by most American Muslims to be representative of “true” Islam. This is due to parts of the teachings of Louis Farrakhan regarding the “white race” and Judaism. However, given that a Muslim is a person who is defined by their witness that “there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is the messenger of God,” then Louis Farrakhan is defined as a Muslim and thus, by extension, the Nation of Islam is part of Islam.
Muslims in the United States face many issues – religious education for their children, living faithfully in the realm of employment, questions of modes of dress and participation in public life – as they try to observe their faith in the American context. Like other groups before them in America, Muslims are trying to find meaningful and practical ways to live out the precepts of their faith in a diverse, modern, materialistic and sometimes hostile culture. They seek to educate and enlighten the many non-Muslims that surround them, and to make a positive contribution to the greater international Muslim community.
This task, this burden, has been made all the more difficult in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks where different clothing brings suspicion, different religious architecture invites desecration, and different ideas on the role of the United States in the world are often viewed as politically incorrect. Yet there are many Muslims serving currently in the armed forces of the United States (around 15,000) with Muslim chaplains to help serve their spiritual needs.
In the U.S. the “outward symbol of identification with Islam” focuses primarily on dress (especially head covering) for women, and wearing the beard for men. Increasing numbers of Muslim men feel that the Prophet serves as the visible symbol of the importance of wearing a beard, and that they should be allowed to do so even if working in agencies that traditionally do not allow for that. They are scoring some very interesting successes in this regard. In many places, for example, police, firemen and women, and those in the military are being allowed to wear beards, dress Islamically, and so on. Outside of their professions, some men also choose to wear some kind of non-Western wear, including kufis (small caps, worn especially by African American Muslims) or other forms of dress representing traditional cultures.
There is all manner of “variations on a theme” within Islam. For instance, there developed very early on in Islam a strongly mystical element that emphasizes a personal relationship with God to supplement the normative outward practices and rituals of the community. This mystical impulse developed in reaction against the legalism characteristic of much in conventional Islam.
Mysticism in itself has many varieties: some types of mysticism exalt the personality of the Prophet with celebrations of his birthday. Since anything that makes the Prophet, or any other human, seem to be more than simply ordinary makes conventional Muslims more than a bit uneasy, the place of mystics within the Islamic tradition is not always secure. This veneration does not end with Muhammad, however. Mystics also have many shrines where saints are buried. Believers can go to such sites “to visit” in order to share in some of the same qualities of character that the saint was graced with while alive.
While such beliefs are widespread in the Muslim world, they are certainly not universal. Indeed, this kind of mysticism is banned in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan since such practices are not scripturally based.
Even where mysticism is not banned, it has suffered something of a retreat in the modern Islamic world. Some Muslim political activists contend that mysticism encourages a certain passivity that inhibits their efforts to restore or revitalize the world-wide Muslim community. Other forces in opposition to “reactionary” monarchies have often had to deal with social structures wherein the political establishment is aided and abetted by a social order permeated with mystical orders. This is currently the case in Morocco; only a generation ago, the alliance between the throne and mystics in Libya were not enough to prevent revolutionary forces under Mu`ammar Qadhdhafi from coming to power.
Through the mid-20th century Shi`ites were also generally politically quiescent. Their revolution in Iran in 1979 was accomplished largely through the efforts of Imam Khomeini, who not only had a Shah to overthrow, but also ran into opposition to many old line Shi`ite clerics who were, by tradition, not prone to becoming politically involved.
Cultural and linguistic differences also play their part in Islam: anthropologists and sociologists of religion have noted that the Muslim world, which extends from Morocco to Indonesia, comprehends a number of variations, all of which are recognizably Islamic. There are often discussions and disagreements as to what is “truly Islamic” as opposed to “merely cultural” when identifying any given practice or behavior, not just among social scientists, but among Muslim legal scholars as well.
One example is found in the area of the arts. There is a notion that Islam, due to its rejection of iconography, rejects all artistic representations of human beings. In the Arab portions of the Muslim world, this “prohibition” is largely adhered to. However, when one considers the art of the miniature in Persian and Mughal painting, one finds a widespread use of the human form.
Another more modern example is found in the area of “honor killings.” These are not Islamic; they are cultural. In countries like Jordan, for example, Christians may be as guilty as Muslims of following such a custom, and many Jordanian individuals and agencies are working hard to educate people about the evils of such practices. Like female genital mutilation, which is carried out in some Islamic countries but also in certain African Christian areas, it is essential to distinguish between what is “religious” and what is part of the culture.
It is essential to understand that Muslims all over the world are in different stages of figuring out how to be relevant to the 21st century. This involves not only refusing to adopt indiscriminately entire western systems of thought and behavior. It also includes honoring the sacredness of Islamic scripture and law (shari`a). This is a very complicated process and is influenced by Muslim experiences of western incursion into Muslim territories and the long process of achieving independence in their respective countries. During the 20th century Muslims were engaged in the process of figuring out how to take advantage of the best of western technology and know-how without necessarily accepting everything “western,” particularly those secular ideologies that do not seem appropriate to Islam. So some of what we see as attempts to “re-establish” Islamic law may seem medieval, cruel and unfair to citizens who are not Muslims.
Now, non-Muslims need to recognize that many Muslims also feel that way. It is an enormously complicated process to acknowledge that the shari`a is sacred and, at the same time, to understand what of it is and is not pertinent to today’s contemporary circumstances. Different people in different societies will respond to such issues in different ways. The important point for Muslims is that they are trying to figure out how to live in community as God intends. Exactly what that means is not always easy to determine.
Islamic law (the shari`ah) is a comprehensive legal system based on the sacred words of the Qur’an and the inspired guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunnah). Over 1400 years, since the rise of Islam, Islamic law developed a subtle and sophisticated jurisprudence that was able to provide both continuity as well as flexibility in legal doctrine, so the law remained relevant to widely diverse societies of Muslims.
In order to interpret the law, scholars need to understand, among other things, which statements of the Qur’an are general or specific, abrogated or abrogating, conditional or comprehensive. The same effort is made to understand the Sunnah, which is known mostly through oral and written reports called hadith (literally meaning “report”).
Another important aspect of legal interpretation is determining the weight of any particular order: is an act obligatory, or simply recommended; prohibited or simply discouraged? For example, some scholars say that it is obligatory to pray the five daily prayers in a mosque; others say that while the five prayers are obligatory, they do not have to be prayed in the mosque. Some scholars say that it is prohibited for men to shave their beards, others say it is discouraged, still others say that such an act has no legal importance. Scholars who interpret too many rulings as obligatory or prohibited, rather than recommended or discouraged, are perceived to be too harsh and unrealistic by the majority of Muslims.
Over the first few centuries of Islamic history, Muslim scholars formed schools of law based on their differing methodologies in interpreting the sources. These schools were not sects, but in some historical periods, there was great tension among the schools, especially when states favored certain schools over others. In modern times, there have been attempts to diminish the differences among the schools, and find common ground by reassessing the textual basis for traditional doctrines. This movement has helped unify the Muslim world in many ways, but in some cases, has led to a kind of “fundamentalist” understanding of the legal import of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Traditional scholars complain that ordinary Muslims, with no legal training, quote verses from the Qur’an out of context and give a false impression of Islamic law.
Islamic law encompasses both ritual law and worldly matters, including transactions, family law, criminal law etc. Historically, Muslim governments supported ritual law by patronizing religious institutions, but generally did not enforce one school of law to the exclusion of another. Rulings affecting worship were not brought to state courts. The courts only enforced worldly matters that were in the jurisdiction of the government. This was not understood to be a separation of “church” and “state,” however, for the original sources for all laws were religious texts. Nevertheless, since religious texts gave strong support for consideration of local custom and the common good, judges has great flexibility in continually interpreting worldly laws to accommodate changing times.
Islamic law was struck a great blow by European colonization. The jurisdiction of Islamic courts was severely limited; in most cases, judges were only able to rule on matters of family law. This had two negative effects: first, judges became increasingly conservative in interpreting family law; second, knowledge of the flexibility and subtlety of legal interpretation was lost. As a result, attempts to reintroduce Islamic law as state law have not produced a just legal system. Justice has been thwarted by superficial and rigid understandings of the law. In places like Nigeria, for example, reintroduction of the shari`ah has meant little more than the application of a narrow understanding of criminal law.
One of the things that gives great cause for optimism about the prospects for a just interpretation of Islamic law is the number of brilliant Muslims scholars working in this area. At Harvard Law School, there is a center for Islamic Legal Studies (funded, ironically, by a branch of the Bin Laden family) that is doing very good work. Other good organizations and programs include:
Another area where Islamic scholarship is a work is in the field of economics. Various Islamic “think tanks”, such as the IIIT (International Institute for Islamic Thought, based in Fairfax, VA) have been working for some time now on what is called “The Islamization of Knowledge”. This has included trying to come up with an economics model that is 1) theoretically consistent with Islamic teachings, and 2) practically workable as well. While much has been accomplished in various areas, this “project” can still be considered very much “in progress”.
Part of the basic teachings of Islam with regard to economics is clear: pre-Islamic Arabian society was too materialistic with people too self-centered, to focus on the unseen spiritual realities. Those who were engaged in business needed to be reoriented, and their priorities needed to be changed.
With this background, the basic principle of Islamic economics is that gains from economic activity can be sought only through one of two means: labor or economic risk. Income from activities such as usury, gambling, monopolistic trade practices, hoarding and speculation are therefore all prohibited in Islam. Usury, which is the lending of money on the condition that the original capital plus an additional guaranteed sum is returned, is particularly condemned. Instead, Muslims possessing capital they do not need are urged to extend what the Qur’an calls a “good loan”—lending the money without interest. Debtors should be forgiven if they truly are unable to make payment (Qur’an 2:280).
If a person is unable to loan money freely in this fashion, or wishes to extend loans as an economic activity rather than as social assistance, he or she must form some kind of partnership with the borrower so they share any gain or loss resulting from the use of that capital.
Many people think it is impossible for a global economy to function without usury. This notion of non-interest economics may be especially difficult for capitalistic Americans to fathom, for that’s all the society has ever really known. But Muslim economists say that it is indeed possible to “think outside the box”, and historians have shown that such a global economy functioned for centuries before European colonialism.
In contemporary times, Muslims have formed Islamic banks, investments companies and businesses with the goal of fostering productive economic activity, while avoiding prohibited financial tools. However, not only “secular” governments in the Muslim world, but even those which consider themselves Islamic, have had varying degrees of success in “purging” their economies from western style, interest “oriented” economic practices. While any number of reasons might be cited for this, one factor is that the integration of the world economy makes it hard for any economic activity to be isolated enough to promulgate any theories that are strongly at variance with current global practice.
The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “Shyness is an important part of religion.” Islamic norms of dress and gender interaction nurture and reinforce a sense of physical modesty. The purpose is to allow men and women to interact in a wholesome and productive environment and to support the ability of Muslims to confine intimacy to marriage. Intimate relations of any sort outside of marriage are forbidden in Islam.
Current modes of Islamic dress take many different forms in Muslim societies across the world. Traditionally, women and men’s dress is similar in style, but differs in color, decoration and fabric. For example, Muslim men and women in West Africa traditionally wear billowing robes, in Indonesia and Malaysia, wrap-around skirts and long shirts, in Arab countries, long straight-cut robes. In Pakistan, men and women wear baggy pants and long shirts. In most of these societies, both men and women traditionally wear some form of head covering in public.
In some Muslim societies, women cover their face and wear a lightweight cloak in public. The black chador of Iran, the dark-colored abayas of the Arabian Peninsula and the varied colored chadori of Afghanistan are the most distinctive. Historically, not all women in these societies wore these cloaks, and those who did often did not spend much time in the public sphere.
Many traditional practices of Muslim societies were lost or suppressed under European colonization, after the establishment of modern nation-states, and now, with the spread of globalization. In this new context, many Muslims have abandoned traditional dress for Western styles. In modern times, most religious leaders distinguish between traditional dress — which is not religiously mandated — and “Islamic dress” (modest dress with a head-scarf for women) which, according to scholars, is mandated.
One of the most contested issues in Muslim societies is the role governments should play in enforcing modest dress in public. Most governments in the Muslim world leave the choice totally up to the individual. In these countries, one notices a broad diversity of clothing styles. In radically secular countries, such as Turkey and Tunisia, religious dress is prohibited in the public sphere. This creates resentment among those who choose to wear this dress. In a few conservative or sharply ideological societies, such as most parts of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, police actively enforce compliance with their particular interpretations of modest dress. This creates resentment among those who normally would not dress this way.
What about Muslim women who do not wear Islamic dress? It is certainly true that not all Muslim women in America or in many other societies dress “Islamically.” Are they looked down for that? As usual, there is a variety of answers. Some Muslim women who dress Islamically may try to persuade others that they should do so also, and that it is God’s will for Muslim women. Others feel strongly that how an individual Muslim chooses to express her or his faith is a personal matter between that Muslim and God. The current president of one of the largest Islamic Centers in the United States is a woman who does not cover her head. While some American Muslims might wish that she did, she and others like her are articulate spokespersons for Islam.
The Muslim religious phenomenon is a complex one that traverses more than 14 centuries of human history, and the Muslim world itself is a multi-ethnic, polyglot and multi-cultural world which has been formed against a number of social, historical, and religious backgrounds. Indeed, from the very beginning, the Muslim civilization responded to a great number of forces, internal and external. In the formative phase of Islam, in the first five centuries or so, the Muslim world was busy assimilating and acting creatively upon the philosophical, scientific, medical, literary, and religious achievements of the Greeks, the Persian, Indians, Christians and Jews. The basic foundations or principles of the Islamic worldview were recorded in this formative phase of Islam. Because of this complex process of assimilation, a huge tension arose in the first Islamic centuries between what we nowadays call Modernity and Tradition, between innovation and traditionalism, or between the old and the new.
In the early modern period, around the 15th and 16th centuries of the common era, the Muslim world responded to a different set of challenges, and in order to meet that challenge the Muslim world created three major Empires: 1) The Ottoman Empire based in Istanbul; 2) The Safavid Empire based in Persia, and the 3) Mughal Empire based in India. All of these Empires were complex manifestations of the Islamic entity. The world of Islam was no longer the pristine, simple world of the Prophet and his disciples. All of these empires were multi-religious, multi-ethnic and polyglot empires; they understood globalization in their own terms. However, these empires still took Islam to be their starting point.
In the modern period, especially in the 19th century, all of these Empires begin to decline, to weaken, to wane. And one simple manifestation of this decline was the Western colonization of many parts of the Muslim world. The Western world penetrated every aspect of Muslim society in the 19th century to the extent that it is impossible to speak of modern Islamic history without speaking about the West at the same time. All the major movements in the Western world from the Reformation to the Industrial revolution to the Enlightenment and the theories of progress current in European societies in the 19th century had an impact on the Muslim world.
The Dutch came to rule Indonesia; British domination of Muslim lands first came to India and later to Malaysia and the Middle East; the French colonized major portions of North and West Africa. The colonial presence is a major fact in modern Muslim societies, a fact that has had a major impact on the Muslim faith, practice, and way of life.
The Muslim response to European colonialism took many forms. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, Tanzimat, or a total modernization of society, was the course taken. However, it was too late to modernize and save the Empire.
Another response took the form of nationalism. Nationalism is a limited imagining of the nation, much more limited, let us say, than Christendom or the Muslim “ummah.” The nationalist movement in the Muslim world struggled against colonialism and led to the creation of several nation-states. In Indonesia, Sukarno was the leader of indigenous forces. In Pakistan, it was Muhammad Ali Jinnah who championed a separate Muslim entity for the Indian sub-continent. In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk created a secularist republic, and in Egypt, it was Jamal Abdul Nasser who overthrew the monarchy.
Most of these personages were highly charismatic figures, figures who fought for political independence, but people who were, at the same time, very impressed with Western notions of democracy, civil society, and modernity. Although they fought the political domination of the West, they opted to model their societies according to Western philosophies of political life.
The third major response to colonialism was Islamic revivalism. One has to consider three types of Islamic revival: Pre-colonial; colonial, and post-colonial. Wahhabiyyah in Saudi Arabia is a pre-colonial Islamic movement which reacted to internal Muslim decadence and sought to revive Islamic practices in the light of a strict adherence to Islamic law and theology. To do so, the charismatic figure Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab allied himself with the ibn Saud family, which led to the creation of the modern Saudi state as we know it nowadays.
The second form of modern revivalism is Islamic reform. The most representative figure here is the Egyptian shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905).
The third is a wedding of Islamic activism and political activism. However, one could see a number of cracks in this alliance between formal religion and state in Saudi Arabia, for example, especially after the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Because of its unlimited oil resources, the modern Saudi nation-state under the leadership of the royal family was able to launch a very ambitious modernization program in the 1970s, creating a new class of Saudi modernizers who opted to Westernize their society.
However, the Saudi royal family created modernization without any indigenous form of modernism, without an Islamic version of modernism. Its version was copied from that of the West. In addition, the religious classes in society began to be wary of the short and long-term impact this program of modernization might prove to have on religious values. Bin Laden was the product of this huge tension between Saudi modernization and Islamic values, between a modernization that was imposed by the power of the tribe, and Islamic values. Although bin Laden was a force in this modernization, he realized early on that it would lead to the destabilization of Islam in Saudi society. Hence his revolt against this historical alliance between the forces of capitalist modernization and a Saudi monarchy that refused to give away its financial and political positions.
Another post-colonial Islamic response is embodied in the ‘Egyptian Jihad’ which grew up in Egyptian prisons in the 1960s. While Islamists in Egypt had not been supportive of the monarchy, they soon fell out with the secularist regime of Gamal `Abd al-Nasir which overthrew King Farouk in the early 1950’s. Islamist figures such as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb became martyrs for an Islamic vision of Egyptian society and state, and the Egyptian Jihad claimed responsibility for the assassination of Nasir’s successor, President Anwar al-Sadat, who made peace with Israel in the Camp David accords. However, the secularist Egyptian regime has survived, though the presidency of Hosni Mubarak is under a continuing Islamist challenge.
The Taliban is a post-colonial movement as well. Born in the huge vacuum resulting from the disintegration of Afghani society after the Soviet occupation and the American, Saudi, and Pakistani intervention in support of anti-Soviets elements within Afghanistan, the Taliban movement arose in a highly traditional society that never had a chance to modernize. Indeed, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 destroyed the fragile modernizing movement in Afghanistan and ultimately left the door open to the most traditionalist forces, who did not welcome many modernizing ideas. Afghanistan proved to be the last battleground in the Cold War era, in which the United States defeated its historical enemy, the Soviet Union. After that defeat was achieved, Afghanistan was left alone to tend to its profuse wounds. The people of Afghanistan had suffered a great deal in the 20th century, and after the defeat of the Soviet Union, the superpowers forgot about them. Afghanistan disappeared from our globalized mass media.
Ten years ago, only a few people had heard of the Taliban. But as a movement, it arose, not just out of the ranks of traditional Islamic madrasas, or schools, but in response to the violence of the Afghani regime allied to the Soviet Union and the civil wars that followed the collapse of that regime. The Taliban stress in the historical narrative of their origin that their main aims were to stop violence and chaos in the country, to stop any form of foreign intervention, and to restore dignity to the common people, to the masses, refugees, and women.
Ordinary people began to raise their voices in response to this program. Those who were victims of atrocities committed by the Mujahidin turned their attention to those who first issued the Fatwa (religious order) of Jihad, i.e., the religious scholars, and those who led them in the prosecution of this order, i.e., the Taliban. And so these students of religion who thought that learning the religious text was more sacred than martyrdom, took upon themselves the restoration of order in the shattered Afghani society.
Out of that sense of deep suffering resulting from a long period of violence in contemporary Afghani history, the Taliban took a drastic step, which is not Islamic in the view of most Muslims, to order all women to stay at home without having any chance to advance their learning or to pursue any type of work. According to the Taliban, “The Islamic State decided to pay the salaries of these women at their homes, so that they could stay home and take care of their families and children. The purpose of this policy is to help revive the Afghan family and household, as the foundation of the Afghan society, a foundation that was intentionally destroyed by the communist regime.” The Taliban is the only group in modern Afghanistan that has become successful in mobilizing violence to control violence in society and create a new social and political order that is based both on fear of God and the possibility of a fresh of outbreak of violence in Afghani society. They have been able to create ‘a primitive egalitarian society’ that is suspicious not just of communism, capitalism and the West, but of the city and the urban Afghani intelligentsia that was, in their views, responsible for the borrowing of foreign ideas with which it destroyed the traditional bases of Afghani society.
The American interest in the Muslim world goes back to the early part of the 19th century, especially through the efforts of the Protestant missionary movement from New England. Those missionaries believed they heard a divine call to proselytize in the Middle East. However, they soon came to realize that both Muslims and Jews of that region were not particularly receptive to their message. From then on the missionary movement concentrated its efforts on converting the indigenous Christians, such as the Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Melchites, and Chaldeans. They also expended great efforts in building universities and colleges, such as the American universities in Beirut and Cairo. These institutions provided education to many a nationalist figure.
Despite this history, the United States is a late player in the politics of the Muslim world in comparison to other countries’ involvement there. The Second World War had a devastating effect on the traditional colonial masters of the Muslim world: England, France and Holland. The US was poised to inherit the role of the European powers in the Muslim world, especially after the creation of the modern nation-state. During the Cold War (roughly between 1949 and 1989), American foreign policy perceived the Soviet System, and Communism as a whole, as a threat to its interests in the Muslim world. The alliances the United States had with Muslim countries in this period were motivated by this fact. It is a common belief in the scholarly community that American foreign policy in the Muslim world has often aided authoritarianism at the expense of democratic forces.
Muslim intellectuals, in general, have raised the following issues in criticism of American foreign policy in their countries: 1) the US supports the most authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world; 2) the US supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims; 3) the US and Britain have bombed Iraq continuously since 1991 and enforced the UN embargo that has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq.
But there is more than simple politics in the American relationship with the world of Islam in general and the Arabs in particular. Columbia University’s Prof. Edward Said, a Palestinian living in exile in the United States, controversially but perceptively describes the issue as one of “orientalism.” Whether it is in the realm of philosophy, religion, social studies, economics, or political and military sciences, “the east” has generally been seen by Europeans and their cultural descendants as “exotic,” “quaint,” “backwards,” and so on. While this is sometimes blatant, with Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” easily coming to mind as representative of this frame of thought, orientalism can also be subtle, insidious, and very, very modern.
That orientalism has characterized some aspects of American foreign policy, which includes not only political state-to-state relationships, but also economic, social, and cultural connections, is also the subject of much modern controversy. The State Department has been perceived as a bastion of pro-Arabism, at least in terms of its career diplomats and officers, many of whom have spent entire careers in the Muslim world. However, American foreign policy is often not made by careerist professionals, but by an elected President and his appointees who are generally responsible to different constituencies. And, not being as knowledgeable about the Muslim world as they are, say, about Europe, Japan, or Latin America, American policy formulation can suffer accordingly.
On the modern mind in the Muslim world’s relationships with the rest of humanity is the concept of “jihad”. Under the caliphate, a jihad was generally called by the proper authority, the caliph himself. With no caliph to govern in the Muslim world, the role of who may call for a jihad is much less clear.
The question of fatwas also is cause for concern in the minds of many outside the Muslim world. One of the most celebrated was the fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. This turned into a cause célèbre in many parts of the world outside Islam, where the issue was seen in terms of intellectual freedom and the right of free speech. Many Muslims, however, saw the issue in terms of its insult to Islam and the Prophet. While most Muslims would not have sought Rushdie’s death, they certainly were more than disturbed not only by the book’s publication, but also by the reception it was accorded in Europe and North America.
Fatwas are religious opinions. They can be offered by any Muslim jurist. The force they carry is only in the measure of acceptance they receive among the faithful. This leaves a great deal of responsibility upon the individual Muslim, who must sort through the many fatwas that may be issued from time to time in various parts of the Muslim world on a variety of questions. Fatwas do not carry the force of law, nor are they automatically binding upon any Muslim for their execution.
When there are calls for jihad against the “west”, or fatwas are issued against non-Muslims (or even Muslims) that strike Americans as extreme, such perceptions are often formed with the mind-set of the traditional orientalists, who framed so much of Europe’s and America’s ideas about not only the Muslim world, but also about the Far East, Africa, and other areas. This can lead to the idea that there are few, if any, “moderates” in the Muslim world.
This is compounded by the problem that when moderates speak out, it is not “news” so it is often not reported in the press. For example, a broad spectrum of Muslim leaders has issued many anti-terrorist statements in the wake of the events of September 11, but such are not covered in the American press. If the majority of Muslim leaders were not speaking out against terrorism and hate in their mosques and communities throughout the Muslim world, the world would be witnessing not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of Muslims in the streets calling for jihad against the United States.
Belief in angels is an article of faith in Islam. The Qur’an states that angels were created by God from light. They transmit His messages–although He is in no need of “help”–He has chosen, in His wisdom, to include angels in His creation. Angels record the good and bad deeds of humans, they pray for humans that they will move from darkness (unbelief and evil) to light (belief and goodness), and they remove the souls of humans at their death. The angel Gabriel is particularly significant for Muslims, because he transmitted the message of the Qur’an from God to the prophet Muhammad.
The Qur’an indicates that God protected Jesus from death on the cross (4:158) by “raising him up to him” while making it appear to observers that Jesus was killed. Most Muslim theologians therefore believe that Jesus is still alive, and, according to a number of statements by the Prophet Muhammad, will return to the earth at the end of time to call people back to the worship of the One God.
Muslims are required to love and revere all the prophets. The Qur’an states: “The Messenger [Muhammad] has believed in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the believers. Each one of them believes in God, his angels, his scriptures, and his messengers [prophets]. [They say:] We make no distinction among any of His messengers, and they say, we hear, we obey, we seek Thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to You is the end of all journeys (2:285).” However, Muhammad has a special role for believers because God ensured that his message remained pure and intact. We simply no longer have completely reliable scriptures to access the original messages of the other prophets.
Islam grants a special position to monotheists, particularly Christians and Jews. The Qur’an even gives conditional permission for Muslims to marry Christians and Jews. Polytheists and non-theistic communities do not fall in the community of monotheists. Nevertheless Muslim scholars determined early on that as long as a community living within the bounds of an Islamic state did not rebel against the government, and payed a military exemption tax, they would be protected by the state and free to worship as they pleased. This is why, after centuries of Muslim rule in India, the vast majority of Indians are still Hindu, and their ancient temples still exist. Unfortunately, every once in a while, state power was seized by ignorant or militant people who used their power to oppress both their Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. The Taliban are a contemporary example. Islam has been the dominant religion in Afghanistan for over one thousand years, yet only the Taliban felt it was a religious duty to destroy ancient Buddhist statues.
Over the centuries, different Muslim groups developed their own ideas about “saints” and intercession. If we look to the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and reliable sources about his relationship with his companions, we do not find any basis for many of these ideas. Many scholars of religion trace the development of some of these ideas to the influence of eastern Christianity on Muslims in certain regions–especially Syria.
There are authentic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that the Prophet Muhammad will intercede for his followers on the Day of Judgment, but that does not mean that people who have not exerted an effort to be close to God themselves will have a “free pass.”
The problem with using the term “intercession” is that it means different things in different faiths. In Catholicism, for instance, in my understanding, you can pray to dead saints to ask them to ask God to forgive you. This is prohibited in Islam. Muslims must pray to God alone, not to other people. This does not mean that the prayers of good people for others are not permitted. Muslims should always be praying for other people, and God can accept those prayers if He wants to.
A detailed explanation of prayer can be found here.
Traditionally Muslims have operated in contexts in which they interact primarily with Muslims. So the zakat, or requisite “alms-tax,” is designed for taking care of Muslims in the community who are in need. Today, however, because so many Muslims are living in communities that are not Muslim by definition, the whole idea of giving is being rethought. Many Muslims in America want to concentrate on providing financial support for other Muslims, but increasingly others are thinking about their “giving” in much broader contexts.
The Qur’an is the Muslims’ scripture. However, the Qur’an is supplemented by a much larger body of literature called the Tradition (“hadith”) which reports what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said and did. Not all hadith are “sound”, and they are ranked according to reliability. But, of course, there is sometimes disagreement in these areas (for example, between Sunni and Shi`i, among others).
The Hadith give the “rules” for many kinds of behavior: what to say before eating, what one has to do to become ritually “pure” or “clean” before worship, and so on. There are literally thousands of hadith addressing hundreds and hundreds of topics and issues.
These hadith provide material for Islamic Law in a process that is, well, fairly complicated. Add to that the fact that there are four major schools of law: each has its own “spin” on all this (the four schools all recognize each other’s “prescriptions” as valid, however).
There is more than the Qur’an that governs “Islamic” behavior, such as the relationship between the sexes. How the law is interpreted, and the extent to which these laws are adhered to, vary from here to there to everywhere.
The Prophet Muhammad was ordered by God to ensure the security of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula by subduing any power that threatened it. Just as the United States maintains a right to fight any power outside of the U.S. if that power threatens the security of the state.
And Abu Bakr fought the Arab “renegades” because they were trying to secede from a state they had joined. The situation was similar to the American civil war, when a certain part of the country suddenly declared itself no longer under the jurisdiction of the national government.
The ideal, always, is peaceful resolution of conflict. The Qur’an says, “If the enemy inclines towards peace, then you must incline towards peace and trust in God.” (8:61)
This does not mean that war is not permitted in Islam. In fact, war is obligatory in Islam in certain circumstances. Islam is not a pacifist religion. Islam regulates war in all its aspects: who has the authority to declare a war (i.e., only the legitimate head of state, not an independent person or vigilante group), for what reasons war can be conducted (to defend innocent people and their property, etc.) and what means may be employed in war (no killing of civilians, no wanton destruction of property or agricultural land, etc.).
[Often there is confusion between] “fiqh” (Islamic positive law) [and] “Mohammed’s interpretation”. In fact, fiqh (which literally means “understanding”) is the result of Muslim scholars’ attempts to understand the Qur’an, the Aunnah (normative practice of the Prophet Muhammad) and their attempts to derive new norms from these fundamental texts. No scholar ever claimed infallibility for his or her interpretation. The concept of “dar al-harb”–“abode of war” is not found in the Qur’an and is not found in the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. It is a political category developed by scholars, and is not an article of faith or a legal absolute. Even before modern times, classical Muslim scholars, such as al-Razi argued that non-Muslim lands which were not hostile to Muslims could be considered “dar al-dawa” (the land where Islam could be peaceful preached) or “dar al-ahd” (the land which has concluded a peace treaty with Muslims.)
Jihad is not one of the central pillars of Islam, but its two forms have deep roots in the religion. The Higher Jihad, which is the nobler of the two, is the individual’s internal struggle against the innate human weakness for sinfulness and even evil (there is no concept of “original sin” in Islam). The Lower Jihad is the Islamic community’s collective struggle in self-defense against its enemies. As such it has been invoked repeatedly, notably at the time of the Crusades as well as during the modern era.
The status of martyr is bestowed upon those who die struggling “in the path of God” when they do so with pure and total devotion. Martyrs are not to be considered dead; their reward is to continue to live in the presence of God. While martyrdom is considered noble, a suicidal death is considered among the most grievous of sins. And the Prophet (peace be upon him) admonished his followers “you should not long for death”.
Traditionally, the Lower Jihad is thought of as “armed struggle”, with the world being divided, according to Islamic Law, into two spheres: the Abode of Peace, and the Abode of Conflict. The Muslim ummah, by definition, is the Abode of Peace. The task of Islam is to turn the entire world into the Abode of Peace. But this, according to mainstream Islamic interpretations, is not done by force of arms, which are to employed in defensive measures only.
(Of course, one may define “defensive measures” in a variety of ways — consider the wars of 1956 and 1967 in the Middle East, in which the country initiating hostilities did so claiming the right of self-defense through pre-emptive strikes).
Contrary to popular opinion, Islam did little of its “spread” by force of arms. Extending the Abode of Peace is the task of da`wah, or “mission”, which by its nature is accomplished by persuasion rather than by imposition. “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, chapter “al-Baqara”, verse 256). For further reading: Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam by R. Peters, 1996.
The Qur’an considers Christians, along with Jews, to be “People of the Book” who together with Muslims were the recipients of God’s revelation. Nonetheless relations between the communities have often been strained and are very tense today in many parts of the world.
The Crusades, which took place nearly a millennium ago, are cited in the rhetoric of both communities during periods of strife, and are seen by some conservative Muslims as illustrative of a long-standing Christian hostility against Islam.
Efforts to promote better mutual understanding and dialogue, often initiated by Catholic and Protestant Christians, have been going on internationally and in the U.S. for many decades. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks many Muslims and Christians in America have come together to share their grief and work for better interfaith relations.
Suggested reading: The Crusaders’ Giant Footprints
Resource information: The Crusades
Karen Armstrong’s book, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, gives a good account of how the Muslim attitude towards European Christians was changed as a result of the Crusades. The Crusaders used Christianity to justify their invasion and brutal massacre of thousands of Muslims, Jews and even Orthodox Christians throughout Palestine and Syria.
European colonialism of the Muslim world made matters even worse of course. The fact that the British used their colonial powers to take land from the Palestinians and give it to European Jews to establish a Jewish state made it seem to many Muslims that now Jews were collaborating with Christian Europe to oppress them. Unfortunately, the inability of Israel to grant equal rights to non-Jewish citizens has not alleviated the situation. But in Israel, both Christian and Muslim Palestinians do not have rights given to the Jewish citizens. For many of the Palestinians, therefore, the goal is to secure the rights of Palestinians–Christian and Jewish. Besides, Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs have, for the most part throughout history, gotten along well. Most Muslims recognize a difference between the European Christians who came to their lands as Crusaders and Imperialist, and their Christian neighbors with whom they have lived for centuries in peace.
John Esposito’s, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, or his book with John Voll, Makers of Contemporary Islam are two good books for someone with more time to read about the relationship between modern politics and Islam. A bibliography of academic books and articles on jihadis can be found here.
Despite some popular images of Muslim women as repressed and oppressed, many women today are actively affirming the rights and responsibilities that they believe the Qur’an affords to them. The Holy Book affirms that men and women are created from one soul to be partners to each other, that males and females have the same religious responsibilities, and that both genders will receive like rewards on the day of judgment. In only a few instances are circumstances for men and women notably different in the Qur’an, and these verses are being seriously studied and interpreted by both women and men today. Passages that seem to affirm male authority over women are based on the Islamic understanding that men are responsible for the financial support of women. Some Muslims argue that they should be reinterpreted in cases where women are now the financial providers.
Traditions that have circumscribed the full participation of women in society are being scrutinized and challenged as antithetical to the practices of Prophet Muhammad. Wives of the Prophet, known as the “mothers of the faithful,” serve as models for those Muslim women who want to legitimize female activity in all ranges of society. Historians differ in their explanation of why the freedoms available to the earliest Muslim women were soon denied to most of their successors. In many area of the world through which Islam spread, and for much of its history, a general patriarchy prevailed. Although it is still the norm in many Islamic countries, in recent years there has been a great deal of discussion about the necessity of reclaiming women’s participation in the public realm.
Much of the conversation about women’s rights has been based on issues of legal reform as new nation-states have tried to work out the particulars of Islamic family and personal laws. In recent years it has focused on such matters as education, activity in various ranges of the workforce, political participation, dress, and the assumption of new roles and responsibilities for women in the practice of the faith. Of course there is not universal agreement on these issues. Many traditional Muslims either actively or passively still affirm the necessity of women remaining at home and publicly inactive. The most extreme form of the segregation of women is displayed in the determination of the Taliban to prohibit women’s education and to promote an exclusion that is neither suggested nor supported by the Qur’an. Most Muslims condemn this treatment of women as intolerable and incompatible with a truly Islamic system.
Muslim women, like their sisters everywhere, differ widely in their interpretations of appropriate attire, behavior and attitude within the Islamic context. Some insist on so-called “Islamic dress” and others do not. Some want to work in the public realm and others do not. Some consider themselves “feminist,” but their definition is usually different from the western understanding of the term. For those who wish to take advantage of them, women’s regional and international networks are growing and are helping Muslim women together to raise appropriate questions and find Islamic answers.
Muslims fast because it is required by God. One of the five religious expectations for Muslims is that they fast for one month of every year. It is done during Ramadan, an Islamic month that operates on a lunar calendar. There is a lot written about Ramadan every year in the press, and most of it is fair and helpful. I’m sure there will be even more this year. Important to know is that while it is of course individuals who fast, there is a strong communal element to doing it “together” and breaking it each day together. Mosques and Islamic centers in America are serving the function of “extended families” for Muslims who want to eat in community with other Muslims at the end of the fast each day.
To the issue of fighting during the holy month. First I want to say that while there are some basics about God, the Prophet, the Day of Judgment, etc. that are common to all Muslims, there have been and still are many different interpretations of what it means to be a faithful Muslim (as is true in all religions). Islam does not permit this or that — God does. The problem is that humans do not always know exactly what God intends for them so they do their best to understand and try to act on that understanding. Then of course there are people who “use” religion, Islam included, for their personal ends. Over the more than 14 centuries of its existence Islam has meant many different things to many different people, and still does so today. Have Muslims ever killed people of other faiths during holy days? No doubt. Should there be fighting during holy months? In the best of worlds there should never be fighting at all (the Qur’an justifies fighting only as a response to attack), especially during holy times, but reality often seems to necessitate something different.
One of the basic beliefs of Islam is that God has sent His revelation through a series of communications to humans in many ways and times. The recipients of these communications are referred to as both prophets (to specific communities) and messengers (with a universal message). Jews and Christians recognize many of the prophets and messengers mentioned in the Qur’an, the sacred scripture of Islam, for their role in Old Testament history. In Islam Jesus generally is considered to be the greatest of the prophets of Islam before Muhammad, although in no way divine. Muslims believe that with the final communication to Muhammad, considered the “seal” of the prophets, God concluded the process of revelation. The message given to Prophet Muhammad, contained in the Qur’an, is God’s final word to humanity.
The Islamic theory of knowledge rests on two primary sources, the Qur’an and Hadith. Muslim scholarship considers the Qur’an to be of divine origin, whereas the Hadith is considered to be the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, considered by the Qur’an as the seal of the Prophets. Because of their centrality in the Islamic religious discourse, both the Qur’an and Hadith have played a pivotal role in the formation and expansion of the Islamic traditional disciplines such as theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, mysticism, and history. The Qur’an has been preserved in the original language of revelation, and it is taught and recited all over the Muslim world.
Sufism posits a direct personal relationship, and even union, with God. This has sometimes aroused varying levels of discomfort among more conventional Muslims. Sufis have made religious statements that some Muslims find disturbing, if not shocking, and have developed various practices for cultivating mystical ecstasies (chanting and “whirling”, inter alia) which, it is alleged, all too easily supplant traditional Islamic practices. In addition, some forms of Sufism seem to encourage a certain passivity vis-à-vis this world among its practitioners, earning for mystics a bad reputation among many modern Islamist political activists.
Historically, Sufism was a major factor in the peaceful spread of Islam. For example, the populations of the Indonesian archipelago had strongly developed mystical traditions when Islam arrived. Thus its mystical form had natural points of contact with the older indigenous religious tradition. Sufism has also been a factor in the development of some of the highest forms of Islamic culture, especially poetry and music.
For further reading: Essential Sufism by James Fadiman (editor), 1999.
Islam is not monolithic. Persisting to this day is a division arising from an early controversy on who should lead the umma (the greater Muslim community), and how that leadership should be chosen. Close to 90% of Muslims are “Sunni” (traditionalist) while about 10% are “Shi`i” (factionalist). The Shi`i believe that ultimate leadership is limited to the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) close family members who, by definition, have unique insights into divine truth, while the Sunni chose leaders from a wider population. Shi`ism is highly organized, with a hierarchy of clergy culminating (in one of its branches) in the office of Ayatollah (“sign of God”). Strictly speaking, there is no formalized clergy among the Sunni. Given their extreme minority position in Islam, Shi`is have often lived (with good reason) in fear of persecution. Today, Shi`ism is concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and parts of Lebanon and Pakistan.
For further reading: Authority in Islam by Hamid Dabashi (1989, 1996).
 Ian Markham, Dean of the Seminary, Jane I. Smith and Ibrahim Abu-Rabi`, co-Directors of the Seminary’s Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Ingrid Mattson, Professor at the Macdonald Center specializing, inter alia, in Islamic Law, Steven Blackburn, Adjunct Professor of Arabic at the Macdonald Center. [return to text]
 Muslims are thought to make up about 2% of the population of the United States. Since the national census is forbidden to ask questions of religious adherence, figures are approximate. [return to text]
 Hartford Seminary in 2001 came to an agreement with both the U.S. military as well as American Muslim organizations to assist in the training of Muslim chaplains for active duty service. [return to text]
 Islamic scripture does state in any explicit term the type of government Muslims should have. However, scripture is clear to point out that the welfare of the people should be protected when a government is established. Islamic political theory arose in the first five centuries of Islam, and it is quite detailed in describing the duties of the rulers and ruled. [Cf. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1988]. [return to text]