I HAVE SOME good news and some bad news. The good news is that since September 11th, Islam has gotten plenty of attention in the Western media. The bad news is the kind of attention it’s getting. Honest, balanced portrayals of Islam’s tenets, rituals and worldview are always welcome, from whatever perspective. Unfortunately, in today’s media they are all too rare. Instead, we are treated to an endless parade of clichés: Does Islam encourage terrorism? Does it oppress women? Is it compatible with modernity, or will it have to be eradicated so modernity can triumph? Does it need a Reformation? Are Muslims “anti-Semites” and “conspiracy theorists”? Why do they hate us? Do they hate our freedoms?
While a great many Westerners, to their credit, have made an honest effort to learn something about Islam—and many have reverted as a result of what they have learned—the media discussion remains superficial. One of the reasons so many journalists and writers have offered the wrong answers about Islam is that they are not asking the right questions. And one of the wrong questions that has dominated the whole discussion is: What’s wrong with Islam?
These days, to get a book on Islam published, you don’t even need to come up with a new approach to “What’s wrong with Islam.” Just rehash the same old answers from the other books. Always begin with the premise that the crimes of September 11th have proved that something is deeply wrong with Islam. To get published, you must refer to those interested in the facts as “conspiracy theorists,” and recycle the same lines over and over, bashing “fundamentalists,” “Wahhabis,” “Islamists,” and “mullahs.”
Now I have nothing against people who offer honest and forthright expressions of their views, be they Muslims, Christians, atheists or Wiccans. The problem is not that Bernard Lewis produces scholarship tinged by Zionism and imperial realpolitik. The problem is that the question “What’s wrong with Islam” has imposed itself on the whole discussion, producing a stale pattern of harsh attacks and timid apologies.
So, just for the sake of freshness, let’s turn the question upside down. Let’s ask “What is right with Islam?” The question takes us beyond the bad news, the torrent of Islam-bashing as well as rarer well-founded critiques, to the often-overlooked good news. There are plenty of good things about Islam’s current condition that Muslims sometimes ignore or take for granted. Here is a very short list of just a few of the many things that are right with Islam.
1. Islam is Not Just Surviving, It is Thriving
Two centuries of European world domination have not wiped it out. On the contrary, Islam’s continuing appeal and relevance is demonstrated by the fact that it is the fastest-growing world religion. Demographers predict that within a hundred years, Europe will be a Muslim majority society. And reversion rates have increased considerably since 9/11, proving that truth has a way of seeping through even the thickest smokescreens. (Perhaps this signs that something is very right with Islam explains why certain people are so desperate to find something wrong with it.)
2. The Trend is Toward More and Better ‘Ibâdah
Muslims are getting over their colonial-era hangs-up and becoming more rigorous about their acts of ʿibâdah, especially Ṣalâh. There are more and more masâjid, and more and more people in them. And individuals by and large seem to be trying to fulfill their duties of ʿibâdah more and more scrupulously. I know several people, including myself, who have become more consistent in doing Ṣalâh at the proper time over the past several years. One academic colleague who has a very demanding schedule used to always pray all five prayers together just before going to bed. Now he’s doing them at the proper time. This movement toward better ʿibâdah is the outward sign of an inward deepening and strengthening of faith and commitment.
3. Muslims Continue to Maintain a Good Balance Between Unity and Diversity
First, consider unity. Well-informed Christians are amazed by Muslims’ near-universal agreement about the fundamentals of their faith, despite having no ecclesiastical bureaucracy or inquisition to enforce such unanimity. Though Islam does have a few minor sectarian spinoffs, the vast majority of Muslims, whether “Shîʿî” or “Sunni,” are in close agreement on the fundamentals of belief, practice and worldview. Yet alongside the consensus on core religious precepts is an incredible diversity of cultures, lifestyles, and creative approaches to living and thinking the faith. A renewed emphasis on the areas of agreement, combined with tolerance and appreciation of legitimate differences, may, Insha’Allah, help Muslims strengthen their ummah by patiently rebuilding the political and economic unity that colonialist divide-and-conquer strategies aimed at obliterating.
Given the many things Islam has in its favor, I suspect that grassroots efforts at the local level, followed by the formation of ever-larger Islamic trading and currency blocs, will be a more effective strategy than those focusing on governments and armed force. These latter approaches carry a built-in bias toward nationalism rather than religion as the agent of political and economic unity, and challenge the corporatist-nationalist order in the areas where it is strongest; while grassroots local efforts help transfer people’s energy and identification toward the local Muslim community and the ummah to which it belongs. Even Western political scientists admit that grassroots Islamist efforts in many countries have built such strong networks and identifications that those countries cannot be allowed free elections because the Islamists would win them. If such grassroots efforts continue and expand, Insha’Allah, Islamic societies can be built peacefully, from the bottom up, regardless of what elites are trying to violently impose from the top down.
4. The Muslim Family is Alive and Well
The family, not the individual, has always been the basic building block of society and the prime means of transmission of knowledge and values, including religious ones. Yet in much of the world the institution of the family is undergoing a crisis. In the US most marriages end in divorce, and a high percentage of births occur out of wedlock. The intricate web of relations that bind families, built on family members’ willingness to sacrifice individual need and greed to the welfare of the family as a group, have come undone in much of the modern world. The capitalist consumer society tells us that individual material gratification is everything, and individuals often fall for the pitch, sacrificing their families in the process. Though Muslims have not been completely immune to this destructive trend, they have done a better job of preserving family values than most other groups. Here again, the whole world ought to be asking “What is right with Islam? How are so many Muslims successfully preserving their family values?”
5. The Overall Islamic Worldview Is Well-Suited to the Kind of Future that is Likely in Store For Us
Secular humanism/atheistic materialism, the underlying precepts of the capitalist consumer culture, went hand in hand with an era of industrialization, fossil fuel gluttony, and endless economic growth. The purpose of life, in this view, was fulfillment in the dunya—more and more physical comfort, possessions, pleasure, and power over nature. Islam tells us that the purpose of life is submission to Allah, and that such submission will be rewarded both in this world and the next life. The Islamic position is viable under conditions of no economic growth or negative growth. The capitalist-materialist system and worldview is not. Today, we are at or near the limits of global economic growth. We will enter a world of long-term negative growth soon, probably within a few years and almost certainly within a few decades. Capitalism will not work economically, and materialism will not work spiritually, in a negative growth world. Islam’s prohibition of riba will start to make obvious economic sense, and its Sharîʿah-based legal system, which molds character and behavior through persuasion, example and piety in the absence of elaborate and expensive secular codes and sanctions, will also look more and more appealing. Meanwhile, as we struggle harder for necessities and give up luxuries, we will be forced to ask ourselves what life is really all about, without an endless parade of goodies to provide us with distracting false answers. In short, to a secular materialist, the coming petro-environmental crunch sounds like the end of the world. For Muslims, it could be only the beginning.
6. The Quran Remains the Final Revelation of Allah to Humanity, Available to Provide the Best of Guidance to Those Who Sincerely Seek It
And that, my dear brothers and sisters, is what is really right with Islam.