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.

Learning About Islam II

Here are a few more of the things I learned (and re-learned) about Islam from Dr. Todd Lawson, Islamic Studies professor at the University of Toronto. I and several dozen of my new best friends spent some weekend hours in retreat along the mighty St. Lawrence. (Retreat? Advance.) Doctor L was one of our tour guides.

• Not only are we Headline News-infected with our talk of the Problems of the Middle East, but we are geographically self-centred. The “Middle East”? In comparison to what? (Not China or India or South Africa, I’m thinking. I wonder what Australian media call the region, far to the north and west of that European outpost.)

• Knocks on Islam I: Treatment of Women. Dr. Lawson was emphatic. The Qur’án is quite clear on gender equality. The holy book calls for modesty for both sexes, while the custom of veiling has been exaggerated by male domination. (And stems, in any case, from pre-Islamic cultural norms of protection for upper-class women in busy trading centres). And he reminded us not to be too smug about the so-called glory of the lives of Western women, and to remember how recent are the freedoms accorded to women in our own society.

• KOI II: Polygamy. The allowance of up to 4 wives (with the main purpose of protection of orphaned or otherwise disadvantaged women) was predicated upon absolutely equal treatment for all, in utterly practical economic ways, in a cultural context dramatically different than today’s.

KOI III: Conversion by the Sword. This has been much exaggerated by antagonistic Christians trying to win the “my prophet’s better than yours” game. After the ages-old back-and-forth of conquest and loss between the Persian and Greek empires, the peasant populations of a given area were generally relieved by Muslim conquest: they were not forced to convert; there was a relatively just and consistent social order; culture and education became more readily available. Of course the masses of people became Muslims. Life had become better under the spread of Islam.

• KOI IV: Jihád. “Holy War”, it has often been translated, and that idea is certainly propounded by militants and power-seekers. I’ve heard many Muslims translate it, though, as “spiritual struggle” and consider it more of a personal challenge to live up to the standards of their Faith. I hadn’t heard this story, though, which Lawson shared from (I think) the Hadith (traditions) associated with the life of the Prophet. Muhammad, upon returning from a military sortie to protect the “Dar-el-Islam” (the abode, the haven of Islam) from the aggressive surrounding tribes, told His followers, “I have returned from the lesser jihád to the greater jihád.” Mystified, they asked, “Where is this greater jihád?” The Prophet said nothing, but pointed to his heart.

• KOI V: A Religion of the Law. This knock is an odd one, considering that the Dar-el-Islam eventually brought law, order and peace to an enormous number of people across a huge geographical area. It tries to paint Islam as a harsh and judgemental religion compared to that of Jesus Christ (the “Spirit of God” much revered by the Qur’án) and His message of love. (Let’s leave aside the brutal wars and inquisitions undertaken in the name of Christ. They were about as truly Christian in character as suicide bombings are representative of the teachings of Muhammad. Don’t blame the Messengers!) And yet, every single surih of the Qur’án (but one) begins with an invocation of universal love: In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Converts to Islam, a thousand years ago and still today, do so not because of compulsion (“we cannot change a community until it changes itself”, says the Qur’án) but because of loving examples and a compassionate social order.

I could go on. (Yes, I know, I already have. But I made such great notes!) More anon.