Be­fore con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture of Is­lam, we must un­der­stand its past

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - EXPLORE - BY SAID AHMED-ZAID Spe­cial to the Idaho States­man

This past week, I was in­vited to speak about the fu­ture of re­li­gion on a panel of speak­ers from dif­fer­ent faith per­spec­tives in a fresh­man-level class at Boise State Uni­ver­sity whose ob­jec­tive is to ex­plore “re­li­gion as a facet of hu­man cul­ture and the rea­sons for its per­sis­tence against the back­drop of the sec­u­lar­iza­tion the­sis of the 19th and 20th cen­turies.”

Be­fore delv­ing into such a deep topic, it is worth­while to re­call the def­i­ni­tion of a re­li­gion. My 1980 edi­tion of The Amer­i­can Her­itage Dic­tionary of the English Lan­guage de­fines a re­li­gion as “an or­ga­nized sys­tem of be­liefs and ri­tu­als cen­ter­ing on a su­per­nat­u­ral be­ing or be­ings and the ad­her­ence to such a sys­tem.”

In phi­los­o­phy, the ex­is­tence or non-ex­is­tence of a de­ity is an “un­de­cid­able propo­si­tion,” some­thing that can be nei­ther proved nor dis­proved. We im­me­di­ately re­al­ize that there are at least two for­mal be­lief sys­tems: one where God rules and the other where hu­mans rule and there is no de­ity. Within the first sys­tem, the be­lief in the ex­is­tence of one or more deities has led to monothe­is­tic as well as poly­the­is­tic re­li­gious tra­di­tions.

In the se­cond sys­tem, the be­lief of the nonex­is­tence of any de­ity has led to the con­cept of no re­li­gion and ad­her­ents called athe­ists or “nones,” mean­ing those with no re­li­gion. Hu­man­ists, for ex­am­ple, form such a group of peo­ple. The Amer­i­can Hu­man­ist As­so­ci­a­tion de­fines “hu­man­ism” as “a pro­gres­sive phi­los­o­phy of life that, with­out the­ism or other su­per­nat­u­ral be­liefs, af­firms our abil­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity to lead eth­i­cal lives of per­sonal ful­fill­ment that as­pire to the greater good.” An­other such group in­cludes free-thinkers who form their opin­ions on the ba­sis of rea­son, in­de­pen­dently of au­thor­ity, es­pe­cially those who re­ject or are skep­ti­cal of re­li­gious dogma. We can also throw into this mix a bunch of ag­nos­tics who claim nei­ther faith nor dis­be­lief in God.

As a re­li­gion, Is­lam squarely af­firms the ex­is­tence of one de­ity called “Al­lah” in Ara­bic and which trans­lates as “The God” or sim­ply as “God” in English. The ex­is­tence of a unique de­ity is the corner­stone of Is­lam. Is­lam is built on the so­called five pil­lars of prac­tice, which are the dec­la­ra­tion of faith, the five daily prayers, fast­ing the month of Ra­madan, giv­ing the manda­tory alms­giv­ing to the poor, and mak­ing a pil­grim­age to Mecca at least once in a life­time. As ev­i­dent from these five pil­lars, Is­lam em­pha­sizes or­tho­praxy, which is the em­pha­sis on the cor­rect prac­tice and ac­tion or con­duct, rather than or­tho­doxy, which is the em­pha­sis on cor­rect be­lief and doc­trine or dogma.

The creed or dec­la­ra­tion of faith in Is­lam states that there is one and only one de­ity (Al­lah/ God) and that Muham­mad is his prophet. The Qu­ran is the scrip­ture of Mus­lims, sim­i­lar to the To­rah and the Bible (Old and New Tes­ta­ments). The Qu­ran is con­sid­ered by Mus­lims as the word of God. An anal­y­sis of the top­ics treated in the Qu­ran shows that roughly one third of this book ad­vances ar­gu­ments for the ex­is­tence of God, an­other third tells sto­ries of the vices that de­stroyed pre­vi­ous so­ci­eties, and fi­nally one third is law and ju­rispru­dence for Mus­lims who would live un­der Is­lam as a way of life and as a way of liv­ing. It is also a guide for liv­ing a God­ward life, an eth­i­cal life in the ser­vice of God and other fel­low hu­man be­ings, es­pe­cially the most vul­ner­a­ble in a so­ci­ety such as the poor, the wid­ows and the or­phans.

In Is­lam, as in other re­li­gions, a be­liever uses re­li­gion as a guide for un­der­stand­ing the uni­verse around them. For Mus­lims, the body of knowl­edge con­tained in their mys­ti­cal book and the tra­di­tion of the prophet Muham­mad are the only tools needed for trans­lat­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing this un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse. Is­lam, how­ever, con­tin­ues to face both ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal threats to its ex­is­tence.

As a re­li­gion that sprung 1,400 years ago from the deserts of Ara­bia, Is­lam has man­aged to sur­vive and thrive as a uni­ver­sal re­li­gion. In

1976, Dr. Mau­rice Bu­caille, a sur­geon by pro­fes­sion and a renowned re­li­gious scholar, wrote a book ti­tled “The Qu­ran, Bible and Sci­ence,” where he an­nounced that he had not found any flaws or sci­en­tific er­rors in the Qu­ran. This har­mo­nious co­hab­i­ta­tion with sci­ence is a pos­i­tive and wel­come sign for Mus­lims as to the prob­a­ble longevity of Is­lam.

Speak­ing of co­hab­i­ta­tion among dif­fer­ent schools of thought in Is­lam, it is im­por­tant to re­al­ize that Is­lam is not a ho­mo­ge­neous re­li­gion for all its 1.5 bil­lion fol­low­ers. An in­ter­nal threat from within Is­lam has al­ways been the rise of ex­trem­ist sects and ex­trem­ist think­ing or the­ol­ogy. There have been nu­mer­ous schools of thought that have be­come ex­tinct be­cause they were ei­ther il­lib­eral or in­tol­er­ant of other schools or be­cause they were ex­trem­ist.

One ex­am­ple is the sect of the Khar­i­jites, the first iden­ti­fi­able sect of Is­lam. It ap­peared dur­ing the time of the prophet in the sixth cen­tury and lasted un­til the eighth cen­tury. The name of this sect can be trans­lated from Ara­bic as the out­siders or the se­ced­ers. Rad­i­cal Khar­i­jites launched mil­i­tary at­tacks against main­stream Mus­lim cen­ters that dis­agreed with their the­o­log­i­cal po­si­tions un­til they ceased to be a mil­i­tary threat by the end of the eighth cen­tury.

An­other ex­am­ple is the Mu­tazila School, which was an Is­lamic School of Spec­u­la­tive The­ol­ogy that flour­ished in Basra and Bagh­dad dur­ing the eighth to 10th cen­tury. Even­tu­ally, the school be­came il­lib­eral and in­tol­er­ant to­ward other schools of thought and faded away. To­day, the five ma­jor Is­lamic schools in ex­is­tence (four of them Sunni and one Shia) have per­sisted and con­tin­ued to flour­ish be­cause of a pil­lar of coex­is­tence and tol­er­ance built into each of these schools.

In a fu­ture col­umn, I will ex­plore re­cent sta­tis­ti­cal facts about Is­lam and ad­di­tional fac­tors that will give us more in­sight into the short-term fu­ture of a re­li­gion like Is­lam.

Dr. Said Ahmed-zaid is a Boise State Uni­ver­sity en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor and the 2004 re­cip­i­ent of the HP Award for Dis­tin­guished Lead­er­ship in Hu­man Rights. The Idaho States­man’s weekly faith col­umn fea­tures a ro­ta­tion of writ­ers from var­i­ous faiths and per­spec­tives.

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