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Winter 2002
Vol. 64, No. 2

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Rochester Review--University of Rochester magazine

Islam and the Middle East:
Reflections on Religious Intolerance

by Th. Emil Homerin (Copyright, 2001)
Department of Religion & Classics, University of Rochester

For many Americans, the word "Muslim" invokes a host of images: a veiled woman, a robed bedouin on camel-back, an angry black man, and, especially today, an Arab terrorist. Though such impressions have some basis in fact, they are quite limited when we recall that: 1) many Muslim women have never worn a veil; 2) only 2 million of the 180 million Arabs in the world are nomads, and 3) Muslim militants are a tiny faction denounced by most Muslims, too. Further, not all Arabs are Muslim, while most Muslims are not Arabs, nor can the vast majority of Muslims read Arabic. It is crucial, then, that we interrogate our images and stereotypes regarding Muslims, especially in light of the fact that there are over seven million American Muslims, some of whom died as firemen, policemen, and workers at the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001.

Muhammad & the Qur'ân
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad was born around 570 C.E. and orphaned young. He was raised by an uncle and worked with him as part of the Arabian caravan trade. The sixth and seventh centuries were a time of transition for this region that was marked by on-going tribal disputes and oligarchic rule. Muhammad thought deeply on problems plaguing his society, and it was around 610 C.E. that he began to receive revelations addressing these and other matters. Collected together, the revelations form the Qur'ân (the "recitation") in which God speaks to Muhammad through Gabriel, the spirit of revelation, over a period of 22 years until Muhammad's death in 632 C.E. It is difficult to find a sure chronology for the individual revelations, though the Qur'ân's major themes are clear. First and foremost is the notion of monotheism, that there is one and only one god, Allâh, which is best translated as "God" with a capital "G." Surah 112 reads:

"In the name of the compassionate and the merciful. Say: He is God, the one, God the everlasting! He did not beget, nor was He begotten, and to Him there is no equal!"

This early chapter is important, as it declares God to be without equal, and this and many other chapters in the Qur'ân stress that God is compassionate and merciful, in stark contrast to western images of "Allâh" as vengeful. It should be noted that the Qur'ân mentions compassion and mercy 192 times as compared to only 17 references to God's wrath.

Another important theme is social justice. Establishing a just moral order is a point of central concern, for which the Qur'ân gives general principles for guidance. Individuals are, therefore, called to submit to God and His will, hence, the name of the religion, Islam, " to submit," while one who submits to God's will is a Muslim. To believe in the one God and do good works, then, is the covenant each of us has with God, but humanity forgets this charge, not due to any doctrine of original sin, but to more understandable weaknesses such as pride, greed, narrow-mindedness, despair, and summing them all up, selfishness. These human weaknesses are exploited by Satan in order to lead us astray. But God, in His mercy, has time and again sent messengers to humanity to remind us of the good news that God still cares for us, to reaffirm God's will, and to warn us of an impending judgment day. This final judgment, however, should not be regarded as a promise of gleeful vengeance, so much as a present warning to mend our ways, to try to right the wrongs that we have committed and to seek justice in the world while there is still time.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad was the final prophet sent by God to reaffirm what had been declared by all of the other prophets, from Adam to Abraham, Moses to Jesus, namely to believe in God, His angels, and prophets, their revelations, and the judgment day. In addition to these themes and beliefs, the Qur'ân includes important rituals and rules for regulating personal and public life. Restrictions include those against the consumption of pork and alcohol, and the prohibition of gambling, prostitution, adultery, murder, and other criminal offenses. As for religious rituals, Muslim jurists have often referred to them as the "Five Pillars of Islam." They are: 1) the profession of faith "There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the apostle of God;" 2) the five daily canonical prayers; 3) an annual tithe on one's possessions to be used for the good of the Muslim community; 4) the daytime fast during the month of Ramadan, and 5) the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, done once during a lifetime if the Muslim is financially and physically able to do so. Further, the Qur'ân also permits jihâd, literally a "struggle" or holy war in order to defend Muslims from attack or oppression by non-Muslims. However, jihâd is not permissible wherever Muslims are allowed to practice and spread their faith. The Qur'ân also addresses other important communal matters including marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and these and other subjects became the focus of Muslim scholars over the centuries as they have attempted to codify Muslim laws for the community, in accordance with the Qur'ân and the custom of Muhammad (sunnah) and the early Muslim community.

Seeds of Violence
This early community also severed as the foundation for an ever-expanding empire, beginning in the 7th century when Arab Muslim armies seized political power and established their rule, which stretched from Spain in the west to India in the east. Islam became the religion of state and, though few were forced to convert, non-Muslims were clearly second class citizens. Continuing into the Middle Ages, Islam loomed large as a threat to Christian Europe. While European powers struggled, Islamic civilization flourished, fostering the study of science, medicine and philosophy.

Yet by the 18th century, political fortunes turned, and with the coming of colonialism, European's fear of Islam was displaced by contempt. Over the preceding centuries, the conviction had firmly taken hold that Muslims, in character, appearance, and lifestyle, were so different to be almost non-human. This made an imperial relation easy. Western scientific and technical advances produced a strong belief in cultural superiority and a distinct sense of moral excellence that veiled ignoble intentions. Rich and powerful became synonymous with good and right. Arabs, Muslims, and other colonized people were regarded as backward, lazy, and licentious, children in need of discipline, wild animals to be domesticated. So many in Europe were stunned in the early twentieth century when Arabs and others had the audacity to demand their independence as equals in a world free of colonial oppression.

Though most Third World nations today have been independent since 1948, they have inherited colonial legacies including economic dependence on the West and an enduring Western discrimination against them, whether based on color, ethnicity, religion, or, in the case of many Muslims, all three. Further, due in part to the Iranian revolution, the Palestinian movement, and the immoral actions of militant extremists, the overwhelming majority of Western images of Arabs and Muslims today are as raging, reactionaries who wield power to seize political control and oppress others.

However, and this is a crucial point, Arabs and Muslims have their "others" too, their notions, fantasies, and prejudice which, more often then not, focus on the "West." Khomeini denounced the great Satan of the United States, while radical Arab ideologues, including Saddam Hussain and Usama Bin Laden, have long rallied against the corrupt, imperialist and Zionist West. Much of the Arab and Muslim hostility toward the West undoubtedly stems from colonial experiences but, by no means, all of it. Over the centuries, many Muslims have viewed non-Muslims as not only spiritual inferiors, but as deviants to be regulated and controlled. Further, from the outset, Muhammad was inextricably both prophet and statesman, and Islam's political and material success over the centuries gave Muslims little reason to doubt the truth and supremacy of their faith. Although there was often a tacit separation between the ruling and religious elites, various Muslim dynasties looked to Islam for their legitimation; it led them on to victory and supported their domination and rule over non-Muslim subjects. Riches and power were proof of what was good and right.

But, beginning in the 18th century, new Western nations grew in power and formally victorious Muslim armies fell in defeat. Colonialism and its persistent legacies have continued to push Muslims deeper into a defensive position such that, today, many feel impotent and humiliated. Thus, while Muslims in a dominant position were able to tolerate other faiths, many now are inexperienced in respecting others as equals in a world that they no longer control. To take one example: it has recently come to light [NYTimes 10/19/01] that in the rather affluent Saudi Arabia-- our ally against Iraq-- 20% of 10th grade religion text books repeat the medieval dictum: "It is mandatory for Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy." And who are the "infidels?" For one conservative Saudi cleric they are "Jews, Christians, and atheists." Other Muslims in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere dispute this view, yet the religious curriculum of some Muslim countries is undeniably both anti-western and extremist. As a result, many Muslims, and the youth, in particular, are threatened and very much afraid of a Western culture they believe to be totally materialist, morally corrupt, drug infested and sexually perverse, where many men are homosexuals and all but a few women, lewd and wanton breeding grounds of venereal disease.

And this may give us a clue to our most recent tragic events. It is all too easy to explain away these acts of terror as the result of "Islamic fundamentalism," without asking why individuals would turn toward such violence, in the first place. I have been struck over the past few weeks by answers to the question: "What can we do to prevent terrorist acts in the future?" Most of the responses that I have heard focus on intelligence and security, which are valid concerns. Yet, only a few people seem to be able to think outside of the box and propose that the developed world address seriously the problems that cause and abet terrorism. At least two thirds of the world's population faces, on a daily basis, severely limited political freedoms, unbelievable poverty, and the absence of significant opportunities for improvement. Living in countries with totalitarian regimes, fragmented civil societies, and economies in collapse, many Muslims fear annihilation. When people believe that they have nothing to live for, they have nothing to lose, and it takes very little to push them to desperate actions.

Militant Islamic groups, including Hamas, the followers of Osama Bin Laden, and the Taliban draw on this despair, while presenting their visions of a triumphal Islam that will protect their communities from the insidious attacks of the secular and satanic West. Yet, despite their rhetoric, their real enemies are not the Christians, Jews, and infidels of old, but secular democracy. Particularly troublesome for religious fundamentalists of all sorts is government by the people for the people, and the freedom of religion. Both of these propositions imply the possibility of experimentation and change, and thus pose a direct challenge to any who claim to hold an absolute religious truth. Thus, the doubts that freedom brings must be driven out by the eradication of freedom itself through the forceful imposition of God's commandments, even if it kills us. For Islamic militants, then, jihâd is no longer defensive, but an ever-expanding struggle to destroy the enemy and rule by Muslim law. In the twisted view of these militants, those people who died Sept. 11th on the aircraft, at the Pentagon, and the World Trade Towers are necessary casualties in a righteous, cosmic war.

But there is more. I have read much of the hand-written Arabic "spiritual guide" found in the hijackers' luggage. One scholar [John Voll, Georgetown U.] has described it as resembling "a medieval devotional manual." But this document is not medieval at all, for I have never read a medieval Muslim text that began "in the name of God, of myself and of my family..." for the individual person did not command that much importance in the God-centered Middle Ages. Other phrases have a similar "modern" ring: "Remind yourself that in this night you will face many challenges. But you have to face them and understand it 100%." and "Remember the verse that if God supports you, no one will be able to defeat you." Then there is the call: "Be optimistic. The Prophet was always optimistic." No, this is not medieval or traditional. Rather, this spiritual guide is more akin to Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. Yet, whereas Peale would have one recite "With the Lord I can overcome all obstacles" so as to improve one's marriage, give up the bottle or successfully sell vacuum cleaners, this same self-centered religious message is now enlisted in support of genocide. Religion is not inspirational, but instrumental; religion no longer holds one, but one holds it to achieve some personal, often misguided, end.

But what did the hijackers want to accomplish? Like others, I have been puzzled by the $48 Vodka tab run up by several hijackers in a Florida strip bar a few days before Sept. 11. Islam explicitly forbids the consumption of alcohol, and as one scholar put it [Karen Armstrong, on NPR's Fresh Air 10/17/01]: "No Muslim fundamentalist that I've ever met would go to God with vodka on his breath!" Though we have much to learn about the lives and motives of the hijackers, their conduct in America and Germany suggests that many, if not all of them, were deeply conflicted and confused individuals who projected their inner demons onto American culture. As Andrew Sullivan has astutely observed [NYTimes, 10/7/01]:

"The very psychological dynamics that lead repressed homosexuals to be viciously homophobic or that entice sexually tempted preachers to inveigh against [women and] immorality are the very dynamics that lead vodka-drinking fundamentalists to steer planes into buildings. It is not designed to achieve anything. It is a violent acting out of internal conflict."

Aftermath in America
It is essential to point out that the horrible acts of destruction of September 11th have been strongly condemned by the vast majority of Muslims, here and abroad. But these events have, once again, underscored the anguish many American Muslims experience from their ambivalent position as U.S. citizens. America may be a "nation of immigrants," but American society has "never been fond of them, no matter where they come from or what they believe." (Haddad, 23). Yet add to this, America's strongly Judeo-Christian culture, and American Muslims often feel that they are a powerless minority. Though the U.S. Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, some politicians continue to call for the implementation of "Christian values," while American Muslims have been demonized by the Christian Right as "the enemy faith," and too frequently ignored by the American news media, which has tended to focus on Muslims elsewhere in the world, especially if involved in conflict and chaos.

As President Bush and others call for unity and justice for the criminal acts of Sept. 11, many may rightfully ask: "Where was America when thousands of innocent Arabs and Muslims have died, whether in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in the never-ending battle between Israelis and Palestinians, in the on-going but ineffective embargo of Iraq, or in the civil war in Kashmir? No wonder many Muslims hate America; we are seeing the hate that neglect produced.

Now, make no mistake, I am not blaming the innocent victims of September 11. These tragic events and loss of life are sickening, and the murderers must be brought to justice. Yet, the current crisis is about much more; it is about how we as people-- all of us-- dehumanize other people for our own selfish desires. We must actively work to see other people, their cultures and religions, not as a threat, but as a humanistic challenge to broaden ourselves and our world. Put simply, we need to understand that everyone is not only not like us, but that not everyone wants to be like us, nor should they be.

In an extraordinary passage seldom mentioned by scholars, Muslim or non-Muslim, the Qur'ân (5:48) justifies the need for diversity:

"For each of you, We have made a law and a course of action. Had God wished, He would have made you one community, but He tests you by what He has given you. So vie with one another in doing good deeds!"

We certainly "vie with one another" but rarely in doing good, and this depressing truth must give us pause. For the sake of everyone, we must responsibly investigate these crimes of September 11th and seek justice in a rational and humane fashion. More innocent victims will solve nothing; two wrongs will not make us right. If this crisis is to be resolved with justice, and if we are going to prevent terrorism in the future, we must seriously address the fundamental issues of world poverty and prejudice, inequality and the absence of basic freedoms. One of America's most honored Muslims El-Malik El-Shabazz, formally known as Malcolm X, astutely observed, "You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he is free." To this we should add that there will be no peace until everyone in the world has freedom from such violence as touched us all on September 11, 2001.

Sources and Further Reading:

Coleman Barks. Like This: 43 Odes of Rumi (Athens, GA: Maypop, 1990).

Frederick Denny. Islamand the Muslim Community (San Francisco, 1987).

Norman Daniel. Islam, Europe, and the West (Edinburgh, 1966).

Yvonne Haddad & John Esposito. Muslims on the Americanization Path?
(Oxford, 2000).

Mark Juergensmeyer. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.
(Berkeley, 2000).


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