Learning About Islam III

Two final points that I took home from a Saturday with an Islamic scholar, Dr. Todd Lawson. We were asked to define “Islam”, and some of us were able to come up with the standard World Religions course meaning: “submission to the will of God”. Dr. Lawson went farther. (I won’t trouble you with the Arabic explanations, which I’d be sure to butcher anyway.) On a personal level, adherence to Islam can be defined as the opposite of those who were (or are) “ungrateful”. Therefore, it signifies a grateful commitment to divine teachings as given by Muhammad. On a societal level, Islam defines itself as the opposite of the ignorance that produces savagery and barbarism and mercilessness. Even today, a genuine understanding of Islam defines it as civilization, enlightenment and peace.

So why do we speak of the “clash of civilizations”? Why does the “war on terror” so easily come to appear as a “war on Islam”? Dr. Lawson was emphatic: “There is a widespread, nearly universal belief among the powers-that-be in the West that we have nothing to learn from Islam and Islamic peoples.” That cultural arrogance, he believes, must be eroded in order for understanding to be created. He reminded us that “certitude – about faith, about the spiritual life – is one of the great enduring treasures of the legacy of Islam.” Such confidence about life’s meaning, at the very least, is one of the things we can learn.

As is this: it was the Qur’án, among sacred scriptures, that first spoke of the concept of humanity, of the commonality of human beings living in a shared world. It also accounts for why the world was made with different communities and peoples rather than united from the start: “that they might know one another,” in the sense of mutual experience and understanding. How modern is that? In a world such as ours, in a country like mine, these encounters happen constantly. We’re learning from Islam, whether we want to or not. We should try to learn the right stuff. Fast.