How will Islam respond to the challenge of the 21st century? To the spread of democratic values in a post-communist world, to the sweep of the information age? Many suspect that, for the West, more may be riding on the answer to that question than at any time since Ottoman armies camped before the gates of 16th-century Vienna.
It could hardly be otherwise with the world's predominately Muslim nations forming a nearly continuous geopolitical band from the Atlantic Ocean across Africa, the Middle East, and southern and central Asia to the Pacific, and with a growing Islamic presence in Western countries themselves. Said to be the world's fastest growing religion, there are about 750 million Muslims worldwide, although some estimates put the total even higher, at nearly 1 billion.
There are a variety of reactions to the phenomenon of a renascent contemporary Islam. Much of it is negative. From academics who worry that a so-called “green menace” of spreading Islamic militancy will replace “red” communism as the primary threat to Western security, to the popular media that portrays Muslims as terrorists and fanatics, Islam and much of the modern world harbor deep suspicions of each other.
There are grounds, of course, for some of these suspicions. The West, which, since Napoleon's invasion of the region in 1799, has been a dominant force in the Middle East, brought with it not only notions of constitutional law and individual liberty, but a climate of moral license as well. For Westerners, news reports from the Middle East remain dominated by reports of Islamic militants killing their way to paradise.
Nevertheless, in one of modern history's most dramatic surprises, a coalition of largely Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, Arab Gulf states, Syria and Egypt, agreed eight years ago to follow American-led forces in a campaign to expel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. While much of the promise of Operation Desert Storm has clearly faded since then—especially hopes for democratic-style political reforms in the Arab world itself, cooperation and dialogue between Islamic and non-Islamic worlds has become a feature, however fragile, of the post-Cold War world.
More importantly, there are new signs of attempts at religious reform within Islam— from Iran's Abdul Karim Soroush to Tunisia's Rashid Ghannouchi to Egypt's Hassan Hanafi, to name a few—scholars who are attempting to construct a framework for reconciling traditional Islamic values and the best aspects of modern thought.
One thing is sure: Islam today is anything but a monolithic reality. In fact, it never has been.
If you have the opportunity to travel in the Arabian peninsula, there are two things that strike you right away: the great and strangely captivating emptiness of the landscape, and how remarkable the simplest interruption in that simplicity seems. An outcropping of rock, or a lone tree is immediately invested with significance.
For the early Bedouin nomads who made this wilderness their home, long before the arrival of Islam, the meteorite (the so-called “Black Stone”) in the Kaaba (or “cube”) at Mecca was the holiest of such desert relics, around which, eventually, a great trading and caravan center emerged.
Traders, carting their goods north and south, brought news from the cities beyond the desert, including rumors of a belief in a single deity. By the seventh century, the time of Mohammed, Arabized Jewish tribes lived nearby, there was an ancient Christian community in Najran, and non-Chalcedonian Syriac-speaking Christians, fleeing persecution from the Byzantines, were venturing ever more deeply into Arabia.
(As Lebanese scholar Philip Hitti once wrote, “There were Christian Arabs long before there were Muslim Arabs.)
It was into this seething, charged world that Mohammed (the name means “highly praised”) was born in 570 A.D. in Mecca, according to the Koran, Islam's holy book, the orphan child of an impoverished family. The clan into which the founder of Islam was born, the banu-Hashim, had fallen on hard times, excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by the Quraysh, the tribe to which it nominally belonged.
Throughout the drama of Mohammed's life, there is the mark of an orphan's keen sense of wounded dignity.
By the time Mohammed was 25, his prospects had decidedly improved. He had married his employer, a wealthy Qurayshite widow who was 15 years his senior and owned a lucrative trading concern. As someone who had once been poor, Mohammed took note of the widening gap between Mecca's urban commercial “haves” and its nomadic “have-nots.” This Meccan underclass would provide the future prophet with some of his first followers.
Mohammed, the trader, also had opportunities for contact with Syriac and Abyssinian Christians and with the Jewish traders who were a feature of life in neighboring Medina. From these sources, he discovered the existence of “scriptures” that revealed the mind of God and elevated the culture of the peoples who possessed them. (Not that most scholars think that Mohammed read the Bible. Muslim tradition has it that he was illiterate; but, in any case, the Judaism and Christianity he seems to have been familiar with was drawn more from apocryphal and legendary sources.)
Increasingly tormented by the gap between his own tribe's idolatry and the faith of the Jews and Christians he admired, Mohammed isolated himself for long periods in the hill caves outside the town. (Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis has suggested that Mohammed's spiritual origins may well lie with the Hanifs, a group of pagan Meccans who eschewed idol worship and sought a purer religion, but were unwilling to submit to either Judaism or Christianity.) On one of these retreats in the year 610, according to the Koran, the trader heard a voice “like reverberating bells” commanding him: “Recite (qur'an, in Arabic, hence the Koran, or “recitation”), in the name of thy Lord who creates, who creates man from a blood clot. Read out! For the Lord is the most Munificent who teaches by the pen, teaches man that which he knew not” (Surah, or chapter, 96:1-5).
Eventually, the mystic came to identify the voice as that of the angel Gabriel, and Islam, and its holy book, the Koran, was born. He understood the ultimate source of the revelation was not an angel, but Allah, a name that is formed from the Arabic contraction al-illah, “the divinity,” a designation used in pre-Islamic times, according to some scholars, by Syriac Christians. Interestingly, Mohammed's father, who died before the founder of Islam was born, bore the name Abd Allah, or “servant of Allah.”
The revelation, which concerned itself with everything from lore on biblical figures and warnings of judgment to jurisprudence, continued sporadically for the next 22 years until the prophet's death in 632. Historically, Mohammed's messages divide easily into Meccan and Medinan phases, after his two principal bases of operation, and reflect the prophet's evolving understanding of his mission and of the specific problems he was forced to address.
(Compromises are not lacking, either. In a weak moment, the prophet recognized three Meccan goddesses as intercessors with Allah, only to withdraw the favor shortly afterward [surah 53:19-23], blaming the gaffe on a Satanic deception. The prophet's attitude toward alcohol also underwent modifications: from approval [16:69] to caution [2:216] to hostility [4:46].)
Arranged in 114 surahs, some with colorful titles such as “The Bee,” “The Spider,” and “The Cow,” the Koran is written in an Arabic style reminiscent of the pre-Islamic saj, or prose poem, and is a complex blend of biblical pastiche, Arab national epic, mystical treatise, and law book.
While the Koran contains much material familiar from the Hebrew Scriptures (accounts of the Creation, stories of Adam, Noah, Moses, Solomon), it puts a surprising “spin” on many of its narratives: Ishmael, for example, from whom Arabs trace their lineage, would appear to be the Abrahamic “son of the promise,” not Isaac. In the case of New Testament echoes, the Koran's nebi Issa (“Jesus the prophet”), while the Messiah of the Bible and the Nicene Creed's “judge of the living and the dead,” is also a Gnostic Christ who does not really die on the cross.
Initially, it would seem, Mohammed had no intention of founding a new religion. What he believed he had received was an Arabic version of the same revelation that had been granted to Jews and Christians in their own languages. But opposition from Meccan authorities, eager to protect the local shrine and its lucrative revenue, from the prophet's crusade against idolatry, led Mohammed to migrate with his followers to Medina in 622 (the so-called hegirah, or “migration,” the event from which the Muslim calendar dates). There he consolidated his movement, attracted followers, and tried, unsuccessfully, to convert the local Jewish community to his cause.
Facing increasingly bitter opposition from both Jews and Christians— communities he had hoped would legitimize his mission—Mohammed began to accuse the two rival faiths of falsifying their scriptures in order to conceal the truth of the Meccan prophet's claims. Mohammed initiated the expulsion of Jewish tribes from the environs of Medina, and after defeating his Meccan foes militarily in 624, Mohammed clearly saw himself as the head of a new, now strictly Arab, religion, with the ancient Kaaba in Mecca as the principal site of pilgrimage. The aging leader referred to himself as the “Seal (khatam) of the Prophets,” that is, the one who sums up, and therefore, supplants all previous dispensations.
By 630, Mohammed's forces had captured Mecca itself, cleansed the Kaabah of idols, and forced the Quraysh to submit to the Prophet and his message. Barely two years later, June 8, 632, Mohammed was dead.
The death of the would-be prophet in the wilds of Arabia in 632 went largely unnoticed in the capitals of Zoroastrian Persia and Christian Byzantium, the seventh-century's two reigning superpowers—but not for long. In 636, largely disorganized Islamic armies, inspired by Mohammed's message, swept out of the peninsula and defeated the Byzantines at the Yarmuk River, captured Jerusalem in 638, overran Christian Egypt two years later, added the Persian empire to the list of conquests in 642, and within 70 years of the prophet's demise had broken into Spain and were marching on the borders of China.
What accounts for this astonishing turn of events?
Supernatural explanations aside, scholar Lewis thinks “Mohammed did not so much create a new movement as revive and redirect currents that already existed among the Arabs of his time.”
The fact that his death was followed by a new burst of activity instead of by collapse, “shows that his career was the answer to a great political, social, and moral need.”
But Mohammed had bequeathed something more substantial to his followers than marching orders. In the Koran, the Meccan prophet had left them, and, as history would later prove, much of the Mediterranean world, a way of life.
The dogmatic requirements are fairly straightforward. Muslims believe that God is the one, unique, supreme reality (in the Koranic formula, “there is no God whatever but Allah”); that “Mohammed is the prophet, or better, messenger of Allah”; that the Koran is the Word of God. Adherents also believe in angels, the reality of sin, final judgment, and the life to come.
However, Islam, like Judaism, centers less on theology and doctrinal formulations than on the performance of basic religious duties—what in the Muslim world are called the five pillars, or “supports,” of faith
(1) The shahadah, or Islamic “profession” that affirms that Allah is the only God, and that Mohammed is his messenger. The formula is so important that muezzins, the chanters who call the faithful to prayer from minarets in Islamic countries, begin their calls with the shahadah, and that a non-Muslim who makes the declaration with faith becomes at least a nominal Muslim on the spot.
(2) Salah, the five daily ritual, or canonical, prayers. This largely memorized set of prayers glorifying Allah and praising His unity and power is recited five times a day at specified times (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and early evening) and accompanied by a medley of gestures, including full prostrations. Not incidentally, the Arabic word for mosque is a corruption of the word masjid that means “place of prostration.”
(3) Zakah, the giving of obligatory alms, fixed by Islamic law at 2.5% of the individual's income, is considered by the Koran not only as a social obligation, but as a means of self-purification. In pre-Islamic times, the zakah was the tithe that Arabian merchants paid to the local deity before they could sell their wares.
(4) Sawm, the requirement to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Clearly borrowed from the Jewish fast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and customs associated with the Christian Lent, sawm involves abstaining from both food and drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a month set aside to prepare for the Laylat al-Qadr (“The Night of Power”), the culmination of the season, commemorating the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed.
(5) Hajj, the performance of the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime for those physically and financially able to do so.
As many commentators have noted through the centuries, Islam's relatively straightforward requirements and its vivid memorable formula, have made it one of history's most “portable” and flexible faiths. It is easily passed on within the context of family life, possessing, for a religion so rooted in the cultures of the Arabian desert, a remarkable ability to adapt itself to the challenges of quite different civilizations and times.
Nextweek: Islamic Fundamentalism: Fact and Fiction
Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.