Islams: A User’s Guide

by Robert Thompson

The examination of religious belief as cause of international conflict, particularly in the Middle East, and of its possible role in the recent terrorists attacks on New York and America, is often hindered by misinformation and confused thinking. The religion of Islam is all too simplistically blamed (Robert Sandin, Pietisten, Summer, 2001, p. 1).

This opening statement of Robert Sandin’s article, accurately states the case and one can only wish that people in our national media were aware of this as they pontificate on Islam subsequent to the events of last September 11. Islam is a rich and varied tradition, as diverse as Christianity and it is important to be aware of that if we are to build bridges with the Arab world.

The Diversity of Both Islam and Christianity

I have used the plural, in the title of this article to emphasize the diversity of Islam. It should be obvious but Americans are often very insular. Our mindset all too often precludes our seeing the world beyond our noses and has prevented us from seeing that Islam and Christianity are similar and dissimilar in very similar ways.

A fault line in Christianity runs between those who believe that the body of Christ in the mass or communion is his real substance and those who believe it is his transubstantiated substance or something more symbolical. Orthodox and Catholics are those who hold to Christ’s real substance while Protestants are likely to think of Christ’s presence as more symbolical. Yet, within each of these two general communions there are wide cultural variations. The cliche: in Europe Protestants are more like Catholics and that in the US Catholics are more like Protestants, may be more accurate today, thanks to Vatican II, than it initially was. Noting the choice of hymns US Catholics now sing and listening to the Stations of the Mass in English reveals how “Protestant” Catholics have become. And a Catholic in Angola, where they dance up the aisles and use drums and related instruments at Mass, could hardly be further removed from the ways of the Irish Catholic in middle America. Likewise, there is great variety in the Orthodox Communion. The rites of Orthodox Ethiopia are light years away from the rites that characterize Orthodox Russia.

Protestantism is perhaps even more varied. The New England Congregationalists had (and have) little in common with their Southern Baptist Convention counterparts. Not only does theology divide them, history does as well. Our Southern brothers were big time slave owners, rebels in the Civil War, and, until recently, the staunchest of the staunch among proponents of Segregation. Each issue was neatly wrapped and tied together with the tightest of biblical arguments. Our New England brethren in contrast, were first Abolitionists, then Unionists, and, finally, opposed to Segregation in the main. Yet they are all considered Protestants.

Islam is likewise sharply divided into Sunni and Shia Moslems, the latter are heavily concentrated in Iran. One may pray in the other’s mosque with no difficulty should his own “confession” not have a mosque in the immediate vicinity, but the distinction between them is as sharp as the Protestant—Catholic divide. Leaving aside the historical and religious origins of the divisions, it is sufficient, for the point I am making here, to say that Shia Moslems have practices—flagellation among other religious manifestations, that sharply divide them from their Sunni brethren. (Interestingly, Shia practices compare to the practices of the Spanish Catholics during Holy Week.) Just as there is much cultural variation among Catholics and among Protestants, there is great variety within each branch of Islam. Moroccan Moslems have a very tenuous connection with their Chinese Moslem counterparts and Indian Moslem Sunnis, some sixty million strong, are probably closer to the Iranian Shias than to the Egyptian Sunnis. The great Sufi tradition, an offshoot of the Shia tradition, has been the source of much antagonism throughout its history and the Sunnis have persecuted them.

These are but a few instances that demonstrate that in considering Islam, we are dealing with major nuances. There is a definite, coherent theology that underlies Islam just as there is in Christianity; and just like Christianity, there is wide diversity of interpretation and practice.

Jihad and Crusade

Take the example of the idea of jihad. In its fundamental theological definition is an internal struggle to arrive at theological truth. Over the years it has been extended from the internal to the external. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines Jihad as: “A crusade for a principle or belief.” I invite the attention of the reader to the word “crusade.” First, it is ironic that this Western term, the name of the invasions by Christians of Islam, is chosen by the dictionary to define jihad. Second, it is what the jihad has come to mean in popular usage. The two words have become interchangeable as ideas and both are shouted and written indiscriminately. Mr. Eisenhower spoke of a “Crusade in Europe” to describe the war against Nazism. Gamal Nasser spoke of a “Jihad Against Colonialism” with equal authority. But the two words as they used them are mere rhetorical forms. For the record, the last official jihad authorized by Islam is the one authorized by Saladin to drive out the Crusaders! All the subsequent, historical invocations of “jihad,” right up to September 11, have been just that, shouts, with no theological justification. It is the same in Christianity. Although there have been calls for and things named “crusades,” the last one dates from late Middle Ages. A jihad, to be authorized by the body of Islam, the Ullemma, is subject to strict, clear, legal direction, hence no doubt its rarity.

Christian Activity from an Islamic Perspective

Islam means submission which implies abnegation or renunciation; and if we look at Islam over the last one thousand years, it has certainly been very quiet in comparison with Christianity. Leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s incursions into the Balkans, which was a tit-for-tat in response to European attempts to invade the Holy Land, Islam vis-a-vis Christianity has posed very little threat. Europe, in the guise of Christianity, on the other hand, has regularly invaded the lands of Islam over the past one thousand years. From the crusades through the colonial period, religion has been a leit motif of invasion.

Seen from the Moslem side, not surprisingly, this is a sinister history indeed. Moslems have a long sense of history which we Americans appear to lack. How else explain George W. Bush’s blithe use of the word “Crusade” with its potent religious and historical symbolism when he referred to America’s determination to root out terrorism. Ninety percent of the Arab world, I’m told, collectively “twitched” when they heard that word. We were told that our President was unaware of the fact that “crusade” derives from the word Cross, as in the big red cross the crusaders wore during their invasions; the cross which colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries used as a pretext to “civilize” colonial peoples in Islamic countries and, frequently, to exterminate those who refused to accept the civilizing mission.

Tragically, but not surprisingly, we Americans are paying the price of this sinister history, much of which was before our time. We gingerly accepted a lot of historical baggage which we have not examined carefully, baggage passed on to us as a by-product of our super power status. This baggage includes the story of whole peoples who have been emasculated of their indigenous culture and resources by a wealthier West and left only their religion more or less in tack. With only religion to cling to, “Islam” in various forms and definitions, has become a weapon of choice for those groups who are prepared to reclaim what, rightly or wrongly, they believe America has participated in stealing.

Sad to say, in the name of its interests, the US has supported the monarchs and sultans who have been bent on destroying religious opposition to their secular aims in the region. As a result, Islamic fundamentalism, with a repressive code of conduct and intolerant of any change, has emerged and been strengthened. To cite one example, we actively supported those very groups who nurtured, brought forth, and imposed the Taliban because we considered it to be in our “strategic interest.” We were not particularly concerned with and unable to see the long-term implications.

Building Understanding

It should not surprise us that we will be made to pay a price for our political blunders until we begin to understand what honestly separates “us” from “them” and, more importantly, what unites us.

One of the surest links for building bridges between Islamic and Western countries is the fundamental openness of the two religions—what they both are at heart. Remaining open and developing understanding is going to require an heroic effort on our part. But as we are both an offending party and identified with a history of offending, we must make the effort to understand. Let us hope that there is still world enough and time.

Robert Thompson is a retired United Nations Representative who lives in New York City.

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