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What Islam teaches about ethics and justice.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in North America. Why has it gained more than 1 billion followers around the world?

"Islam has a very powerful emphasis on social justice," says Islamic scholar Riffat Hassan. "There are more laws in the Qu'ran about how to organize a just home than on any other subject. . . . The idea is that if you can have justice within the home, you can have justice in the world." Hassan has written and lectured extensively on issues concerning the Muslim world, particularly those related to women and Islam. She is a professor of religious studies and a feminist theologian at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

What are the origins of Islam?

When we look at the religions of the world, we sometimes divide them into groups or families, and Islam belongs to what is often described as the Abrahamic or Semitic faiths. Islam is the youngest of the three Semitic religions (following Judaism and Christianity). It is also the last of the world's five major religions (including Hinduism and Buddhism). Islam is believed to have about 1.5 billion followers in the world, and there are over 50 Muslim countries. It is also the fastest growing religion in North America.

The Islamic calendar begins in the year 622 when the first Islamic society was established in the city of Medina.

Just as the early Christians asserted that theirs was not a new religion - that they were the successors and heirs to Israel - likewise, the Qu'ran, which Muslims regard as sacred, states repeatedly that Muslims must believe in all the previous prophets and scriptures.

Where does Muhammad

come in?

At the time of the birth of Muhammad, Arabia was a tribal society. Over 95 percent of the people were nomadic peoples caned Bedouins, who lived in the desert. Mecca was a major trading city, ruled by the Quraysh tribe, and Muhammad's grandfather was the patriarch of this city.

Both of Muhammad's parents died when he was a child, and he was raised by his grandfather and uncle.

Between the ages of 25 and 40, before he received the can to prophethood, Muhammad spent a lot of time in solitude. One of his favorite places was a cave called Hira outside of Mecca. We don't have any records of what happened there, but Muhammad was troubled about what was happening in Arabia, which was changing from a tribalistic society to an urbanized mercantile society. The other problem was the growing number of slaves.

Then one day while at the cave of Hira, at the age of 40, Muhammad saw a figure in the distance and heard a voice saying, "I qra," which means "repeat" or "recite." Muhammad's first thought was that he was being possessed by a spirit, so he didn't respond. He heard the same command again and didn't respond. But when he heard it a third time, he felt compelled to recite what he heard. This is the beginning of the Qu'ranic Revelation starting with a verse that says, "Recite in the name of God who created human beings with a pen and taught humanity what it did not know."

Deeply disturbed by this experience, Muhammad narrated it to his wife Khadijah who reassured him that nothing bad could happen to him since he was an honest man. However, she took him to her cousin Waraqah who was a well-known Christian scholar. Muhammad told Waraqah about his experience, and Waraqah said, "You should not be afraid; this is a message from God."

This process of revelation continued for about 22 years, until shortly before Muhammad's death. These revelations were written down and are collectively known as the Qu'ran, which means "recitations."

What influence did Judaism and

Christianity have on Islam?

Certainly Muhammad knew the Arabian forms of Judaism and Christianity because there were Jews and Christians in that society.

But for a long time the Western trend was to represent Islam as a false religion and Muhammad as a false prophet. Orientalists (a generic term for scholars specializing in Islamics) developed the theory of origins, which posited that Muhammad wrote the Qu'ran. (The orthodox Muslim belief is that Muhammad received the Qu'ran through the angel Gabriel, just as Moses received the Ten Commandments.)

To support their contention, the Orientalist scholars had to explain how Muhammad could have written the Qu'ran because he was not a formally literate person. The did so by stating Muhammad acquired knowledge of what is in the Qu'ran while traveling. The problems with this scholarship stem from the differences in the way Muslims, Christians, and Jews regard revelation.

To Jews and Christians, the Bible is a book with multiple authors that is divinely inspired. But the Muslim concept of revelation is that the Qu'ran has no human component whatsoever but that it is God's Word, which was communicated to Muhammad and then transmitted by him, as he heard it.

What role does Jesus play in islam?

Jesus is not worshiped, but the Qu'ran has the highest terms of respect for him. It calls Jesus the Word of God and the Spirit of God. The Qu'ran mentions many prophets, but it does not create a hierarchy; it says all prophets are worthy of respect. It does not say Muhammad is the greatest of the prophets. Muslims simply believe that he's the last of the prophets.

Why has there been so much

conflict between Islam, Judaism,

and Christianity?

Islam and Judaism are very close - much closer to each other than either is to Christianity - because the idea of God and prophethood is central to both traditions. Something else I consider a fundamental similarity between Islam and Judaism is the emphasis on ethics.

It is sometimes stated that Muslims and Jews do ethics, while Christians do theology. This means that Christianity has always been very concerned with what is true and what is false, whereas Judaism and Islam have been concerned with what is right and what is wrong.

One major cause of problems between Muslims and Jews goes back to the time when Medina was primarily a Jewish city. There were five tribes living in Medina, three of them Jewish and two Arab. The two Arab tribes had lost everything to the Jews.

Muhammad went to Medina in 622 and organized the Arabs who had converted to Islam. Within a very short period of time, a social transformation started to happen, and eventually the Muslims took over the city.

Between the years 624 and 627 the Muslims were attacked three times by the Meccans. The Jews had signed a treaty called "The Constitution of Medina" according to which if the city of Medina were attacked it had to be jointly defended. They did not do so, however. In fact, they supported the Meccans. This created much bitterness amongst Muslims. The Jewish tribes were sent out of the city as a punishment for treason and this angered them greatly. These events have cast long shadows.

Another reason for Muslim-Jewish conflict is the way Qu'ranic references to Jews have been popularly understood. A significant portion of the Qu'ran refers to jews. For instance, it says, "You children of Israel, God showed you special favors and liberated you out of Egypt, and you have been unfaithful." Sometimes it's chastising them for being forgetful or ungrateful. But the Qu'ranic text does not repudiate God's relationship with the Jewish people. My reading of it is that God is very concerned about the children of Israel and continues to give them guidance. Many Muslims, like Christians, have focused on the negative statements about Jews.

In recent times the whole question of the state of Palestine has generated a lot of antagonism and hostility between Jews and Muslims. But, through much of their history, Muslims and Jews have actually lived very well together, and Jews have often preferred Muslim to Christian rule.

What about the problems

between Islam and Christianity?

One problem is a theological difference: Muslims do not accept Jesus as divine, but as I pointed out, Jesus is highly respected. The real problem between Islam and Christianity is a clash between empires. The clash began when the Bedouins, who were unknown in history, created an empire stretching from Spain to India less than 100 years after they became Muslims.

Does that explain the hostility

against Muslims today?

Since the seventh century when Islam appeared in the West and was seen as the "Adversary" and "Divider" of the world of Christendom, there has been animosity toward Islam and Muslims. It has now become the collective unconscious of Western psyche. When any kind of a crisis occurs - such as the 1973 oil crisis; the Iranian revolution; the very unfortunate, long, drawn-out hostage crisis; the Salman Rushdie crisis; the Gulf War - there is an immediate reaction against Muslims.

At the time of the World Trade Center bombing, all the headlines read, "Muslim Caught in Bombing." What if he had been a Christian? What if he had been a Jew? Would the headlines have read, "Christian (or Jew) Caught in Trade Center Bombing?" Certainly not. There is little effort made in this country, even at major educational institutions, to understand Islam and to give it the same respect as the other major religions.

But certainly some Islamic leaders

have promoted terrorism and hatred

for the West.

Yes. But there are historical reasons that underlie the anti-Western attitude of some Muslim leaders, countries, and peoples. Virtually all of the Islamic world became colonized by the West. This was a very harsh experience for Muslims.

By 1950, most of the Muslim world became free of colonialism, but the colonial powers, when leaving, left their collaborators in charge. So that in Iran you had the Shah, who the Iranians saw as a Hitler. And look at many other countries in the Islamic world: Saudi Arabia is ruled by one family, and Kuwait is ruled by one family. I come from Pakistan, which is ruled by 22 families. In these countries a few people have all the money and power. Most of the rulers are the creation of colonizers.

The Muslim world has the fastest growing population. The majority of the people are under the age of 25. They're born into societies where there's a total stranglehold, which means that when a young Muslim opens his or her eyes, there are no possibilities for getting a decent education or for getting a decent job. The choices of young Muslims at this point seem to be two. One is that they get into the drug and gunrunning culture. Thus we've seen in the last two decades the total destruction of Lebanon and Beirut, which were a sort of paradise of the Middle East, and the breakdown of Pakistani society due to the influence of this culture.

The other is that these young people follow the Revivalists. The Revivalists have a very narrow understanding of Islam and are bigoted and intolerant, but at least they seem to have some concern for young people.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most retrogressive countries in the Muslim world - not only retrogressive in terms of what it's doing to its own citizens, but Saudi Arabia has colonized much of the Islamic world. Saudis spend millions of dollars trying to sell their version of Islam to others, and the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia because of its oil interests.

Americans are concerned that there is so much anti-Western rhetoric - and particularly anti-American rhetoric in Muslim countries - but as an American, you can walk the streets of most Muslim counties quite safely. It's not that Muslims in general are against the individual American; it is simply that they hate the policy of the American interests supporting the dictators in their own country. Once in a while you have a revolution like the one in Iran, where despite U.S. support, the Shah was thrown out. it is happening, and it's going to happen more and more.

What is a Shia, or Shiite?

When Muhammad died, his only surviving child was a daughter who also died very shortly thereafter. Muhammad's nearest male heir was his son-in-law and cousin, 'Ali. The Arabs did not have any traditional kingship, and they would always elect their leaders. So after the death of Muhammad, the Muslims got together and elected Muhammad's oldest friend, Abu Bakr, as the first caliph. This caused some political tension because a group of Muslims known as the Shian-e-'Ali (the party of' Ali) believed Muhammad should have been succeeded by' Ali, who was his next of kin, male relative.

The fifth caliph, who was very secular in his orientation, appointed his son to succeed him. This son, Yazid, was known as a man of very bad reputation. Many Shias started to appeal to Hussain, grandson of the Prophet, saying it was his moral duty to help them against Yazid, who was not fit to be caliph.

Hussain left Medina with an unarmed band of 100 people, including 73 members of his own family. Ten miles before they got to Kufa they were met by Yazid's soldiers, and the family was massacred. While all this was going on, the people in Kufa, who had invited Hussain, did absolutely nothing. This event is comparable to the Passion event in Christian history, because it was such a massive tragedy and induced a lot of guilt. After this great tragedy, which took place at Karbala (680), the Shia case became very strong because it symbolized the struggle against oppression of unarmed innocent people (particularly as they belonged to the family of the Prophet).

There is great fear in the West, particularly in the U.S., about the Shias. I think it is connected mainly to the Iranian revolution and what is called "Islamic fundamentalism."

Take the Gulf War: George Bush had an obsession with Saddam Hussein. He kept saying throughout the war that Hussein is like Hitler and should be overthrown. After the Gulf War ended, Bush was sending messages to "the valiant people of Iraq" to rebel against Hussein. The first people who responded to the call of Bush were the Shias of south Iraq, and they actually did start rebelling. Overnight the message changed and Hussein was no longer referred to as Hitler, because now the counter to Hussein were these "Islamic fundamentalists" of south Iraq.

What is the Shia cause?

Shia Muslims have always considered themselves a minority that is standing up for justice against great odds. Although the Shias are not more than 20 percent of the Muslim population, their actual influence is much greater than that. Iran is, of course, an almost entirely Shia country.

The Islamic world is in the grip of so much authoritarianism and oppression that the emphasis in Shia Islam on the struggle for justice has both power and relevance. The idea that Shias are terrorists is unwarranted. The martyrdom of Iman Hussain gives young Shias the motivation to struggle for justice, even to the point of death.

Do you see this as

a temporary phenomenon?

It all depends on what we do in the next few decades. Are we going to build bridges or not? I think we are building walls. You only diffuse the power of these terrorist organizations, no matter who they are, by building a broad dialogue and working toward the establishment of justice. If you don't do it, there's no way to stop these people.

What do you see as the role

of the West?

I think that the role of the West is to take the initiative in many things. In an encounter between two people or groups of people, it's very unlikely that the person who's at the bottom is going to feel empowered to enter into a dialogue. The fact that the West is dominant economically, politically, and militarily means that being a superpower also imposes certain moral responsibilities.

Why is Islam growing

so rapidly today?

Islam has a very powerful emphasis on social justice, which meant the liberation of the slaves and all the disadvantaged people. That is one reason why Islam has spread among so many African Americans. It was interesting in the '60s, when Eastern religions first became popular in this country, that the rich people became Zen Buddhists and the poor people became Muslims.

What does Islam say about women?

Just as Jesus had a very positive attitude toward women, breaking a lot of laws and taboos, Muhammad was also very supportive of women. For instance, he insisted that women be allowed to come to the mosque, even if they brought their children with them, and the Arabs hated that.

Islam gave women the right of inheritance and education, which they never had before. But, of course, there's been a big gap between normative Islam or Islamic ideals and Muslim culture or practice with regard to attitudes toward women.

These are the characteristics of the average Muslim woman: she is poor, she is illiterate, and she lives in a village. There are over 500 million Muslim women in the world, many of whom share these characteristics. How do you give these women a sense of meaning in their lives when they have always been taught that according to Islam their life has no purpose except to serve men and have countless children?

Our best hope is to work with grassroots women's organizations that have an honest commitment to work toward the empowerment of women.

Aren't you in danger when you

speak to these women?

Well, I've got one or two very strong advantages. One is, I'm a woman, so nobody takes me very seriously! The other is, I don't live in a Muslim country, so I'm not in the limelight that much. When I go to Pakistan, I work carefully. I don't seek out people who I know are going to throw stones at me. But from another point of view, because my work is grounded so much in the Qu'ran, and Muslims have great respect for the Qu'ran, they might disagree with me, but as long as I'm talking on the basis of the Qu'ran, I have a chance of being heard.

What is the message of the Qu'ran

for us today?

There are more laws in the Qu'ran about how to organize a just home than on any other subject. It doesn't tell you how to organize a state or how to organize the world, but it specifies the basic rights of men, women, children, even servants or slaves. The idea is that if you can have justice within the home, you can have justice in the world. And justice prevails when every person has an equal opportunity for self-development.

The essential message of Islam, which is also that of other prophetic traditions, is that we are called upon to transform the world and to create a just moral and social order. This is a message on which all people of faith can unite regardless of theological and other differences.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1996
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