An urgent encounter with Islam

An urgent encounter with Islam

A reading list in the aftermath of 9/11.


Even though Islam is this country's fastest growing religious community, few of us were curious about it before September 11. Now that our need to know is urgent, the bookstore shelves are overflowing with histories, biographies, and reportage about Islam, the Taliban, Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular. We can't read everything, but a few books deserve our attention.

Karen Armstrong has never pleased the purists among religious historians. Her books, elegant narratives that weave an engaging thematic story of religious ideas and passions, stop short of the standards held by more rigid academics. But Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, does not write for the academy. She writes for the rest of us, and her small but vital book, Islam: A Short History, should be first on any reader's list in these times. In 222 pages, she sketches a clear outline of the development of the Islamic faith and the many people and nations that have been drawn to it. More important, she recreates a world view that allows us to glimpse the honest differences in religious outlook between Western and Islamic peoples. As Armstrong points out in her preface:

In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Qur'an, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. . . . The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine. . . . A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well-being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. . . . An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore, be of mere secondary interest . . .

This is a heads-up for those of us whose religious commitments have their roots in the hard won separation of church and state. In our efforts to understand Islam, it would be a mistake to see it as simply a religious practice, one layer among many layers of a culture. For Muslims, as in few other faith traditions, religion is a way of life, and followers of Allah were meant to build a community, or ummah, based on justice, equity, and compassion: a principle that will sound familiar to Unitarian Universalists.

Armstrong traces the development of Islam from Muhammad through the eventual split between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects, the growth of Sufi mysticism, and the spread of Islam out of Arabia and into other parts of the world. She explains the importance of Sharia, or Islamic sacred laws, and their importance to the entire community. These laws are derived from the Qur'an, Islam’s sacred scriptures; the sunnah, (customs of the Prophet Muhammad himself and regarded as the Islamic ideal); and the ahadith, or the documented teachings of the Prophet as recorded by friends and observers. The Sharia, properly observed by Muslims, was believed to "create a counter culture that would transform . . . corrupt political order . . . and make it submit to God's will."

Such context is vital for a Western understanding of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, which Armstrong discusses in the last third of her book. Thankfully, she begins not by singling out such extremism as unique to the Muslim world but by drawing a portrait of the common values of fundamentalisms across religious lines—their critical stance toward democracy and secularism, their regressive treatment of women, their shared qualities of fear and their "deep disappointment and disenchantment with the modern experiment." Most importantly, she writes that fundamentalisms of all kinds are "essentially rebellions against the secularist exclusion of the divine from public life, and a frequently desperate attempt to make spiritual values prevail in the modern world. But the desperation and fear that fuel fundamentalists also tend to distort the religious tradition, and accentuate its more aggressive aspects . . . . Muslims are in tune with fundamentalists in other faiths all over the world, who share their profound misgivings about modern secular culture."

Given the events of September 11, likening Muslim terrorists to other fundamentalist groups throughout the world seems inappropriately naïve, even taking into account the book’s release more than a year before the tragic day. Yet Armstrong is correct to remind readers neither to demonize a "foreign" people of a different faith, nor to exempt from appropriate scrutiny our own homegrown fundamentalist sisters and brothers. (Anti-abortion Christian fundamentalists on our own shores have been held responsible for several murders and the bombings of dozens of abortion clinics since abortion became legal in the U.S.)

Her synopsis of anti-Muslim bias since the Crusades, the growth of capitalism and the current effects of globalization provides a summary answer to the now ubiquitous question of why many Islamic nations, even before September 11, had such contempt for the West. "The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of religion," she says at the book's end. "But the West has certainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam. . . ." Complete with an extensive timeline, a handy glossary, and pages of suggested further readings, Karen Armstrong's book is essential.

So is an understanding of the group of men we know as the Taliban. Any writer who has ever been to Afghanistan has been herded off to a computer keyboard in the weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, so a glut of books are in the pipeline. But, like the Armstrong book, Ahmed Rashid's book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, preceded the tragedy by a year. Rashid, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, has covered the Taliban since their emergence in 1994; his persistence has paid off in this well-written, exhaustively reported, and in some ways alarming book. He paints a vivid portrait of a devastated land—245,000 square miles of stark mountains and arid plains, split geographically and ethnically, and a battleground for centuries for warriors from the Persian Saminid dynasty to Genghis Khan to the creation of the first Afghan empire in 1761. But it was the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that helped to create the climate for the birth of these so-called "students of Islam."

From the chilling introduction, which describes a 1997 Taliban execution in Kandahar, through the 16 chapters that range from the Afghan heroin trade to the struggle to control oil reserves in Central Asia, the author places in context the long battle for domination waged both within and outside Afghanistan.

One of the book’s most compelling chapters outlines the disappearance of women from Afghan life under Taliban rule. The work of what was once called the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the death of women’s freedom, already under siege, came swiftly after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996. Rashid reminds readers that the Taliban recruits, "the orphans, the rootless, the lumpen proletariat from the war and the refugee camps, had been brought up in a totally male society. . . . control of women and their virtual exclusion was a powerful symbol of manhood and a reaffirmation of the student’s commitment to jihad." In analyzing his many interviews on the subject, Rashid writes: "Taliban leaders repeatedly told me that if they gave women greater freedom or a chance to go to school, they would lose the support of their rank and file, who would be disillusioned by a leadership that had compromised principles under pressure. They also claimed their recruits would be weakened and subverted by the possibility of sexual opportunities and thus not fight with the same zeal. So the oppression of women became a benchmark for the Taliban’s Islamic radicalism, their aim to 'cleanse' society and to keep the morale of their troops high."

Rashid is not one of the rare correspondents who has ever interviewed Osama bin Laden. But the book's chapter on his rise from earnest student to international terrorist is chilling, and not just because of bin Laden. The author details the Cold War machinations of our own government's support of the Taliban at a time when we still thought of them as anti-Soviet freedom fighters. To know our government worked with Pakistan "to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujaheddin" is one thing. But to consider the result is quite another: "None of the intelligence agencies wanted to consider the consequences of bringing together thousands of Islamic radicals from all over the world. 'What was more important in the world view of history? . . . A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?' said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Adviser." Residents of New York and Washington may have a different view since September 11, but anyone reading Taliban will come away from the effort with tools to think more clearly about the dilemma facing our world.

Amid the fear surrounding our country's sudden interest in Islam, it is all too easy to forget that it is one of the world's great religions, and that those of us with Jewish and Christian roots are seen by Islam as brothers and sisters, as people of the book. One last book to consider is 366 Readings from Islam: The Global Spirit Library. Edited by Robert Van de Weyer, it is one of several volumes meant to provide a comprehensive collection of the world's spiritual literature. In fact, similar books exist for Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths.

This book of daily readings serves not only as a meditation manual, but—for those of us with little exposure to the life and thought of Muslims—a short course in classical Islam as well. In addition to excerpts from the life of the Prophet Muhammad and a section of daily readings from the Qur'an, readers will encounter the Sufi mystics, including Ra'bia, a woman who was one of the earliest Sufis, and Islamic philosophers, including Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, a keen student of Aristotle. These 366 pages provide scant biographical information, and can only be a tease for those of us who want to probe more deeply the complex faith and culture of Islam. But they remind us that this faith tradition is more than the screaming headlines we have seen. Islam is a faith of justice, beauty, dignity, and power of which we are sadly unaware. May the day come soon when we see more clearly than we do today.

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