Clinic essay-header

Islam as Other

by Jay Kinney

Note: This was written some 30+ years ago as an intro to an issue of Whole Earth Review focusing on Islam. It has long since taken on a life of its own. I certainly never expected it to be turned into a dawah pamphlet, and just in case you are wondering, the positive things I have to say about Islam are not to be construed as approval of Islamism. —Jay Kinney

What is it about Islam that motivates such fervent enthusiasm among some adherents? Most media are primed to present Islam as a Problem; I've been curious about Islam as a solution.

As the Middle East dilemma continues to worsen, the pressures increase to choose sides and resort to sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. Indeed, members of the domestic foreign policy academy like Amos Perlmutter, editor of the JOURNAL OF STRATEGIC STUDIES, are busy promulgating the view that the U.S. is in the midst of a "general Islamic war waged against the West, Christianity, modern capitalism, Zionism and communism all at once." Perlmutter casts Iran and Libya in the same conspiratorial political roles as the Soviet Union and Cuba, and advocates that the U.S. "wage limited war against Iran's surrogates, clients and allies in much the same way we can battle the surrogates of the U.S.S.R. and Cuba." ("Containment Strategy for the Islamic Holy War," WALL STREET JOURNAL, Oct. 4, 1984.)

Islam, like communism, is thus being cast as a hostile, amorphous Other with which we have little in common and to which our best response is war. No matter that it is hardly clear whether what we are defending is something vague like "the American Way of Life" or more specific like the U.S. government or U.S.-based multinationals. All that seems certain is that "They" (vaguely defined) are out to get "Us" (vaguely defined).

To presume to speak of Islam or any other religion or ideology with millions of adherents is, at best, to risk incoherence. As Edward Said underscores in "COVERING ISLAM," Islam is not a monolithic entity for which a few pat generalizations are sufficient description. Rather, there are a multitude of Islams: Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the U.S.; Sunni Muslims, Shi'ite Muslims, radical Muslims, conservative Muslims, Muslim now, and Muslims 1000 years ago.

All Muslims "submit to Allah" (which is the meaning of the Arabic word Islam), and are members of the Umma, the universal body of believers. But they are also variously affected by local customs, different schools of Islamic law, competing leaders and political crises. Once this fact sinks in, the prospect of providing a meaningful overview of Islam seems difficult indeed. Yet, despite their differences, 800 million Muslims do hold enough in common that a general discussion of Islam is not totally pointless.

The first step toward understanding something alien is the discovery of some common element shared by both you and the Other. In my own case, there were at least two instances of stumbling upon aspects of Islam that made me stop in my tracks and take a second look. The first of these was my reading of some of the writings of Sufism, the mystical current within Islam. These documents -- stories, biographies, poetry, and sermons -- had a universal quality which leapt across the centuries and oceans separating them from me. They provided a hint that there was more to Islam than I had originally thought.

The second instance was more recent and not connected to spiritual matters at all. This was my coming upon an issue of INQUIRY, a British magazine published by and for Muslims. Once I got past the occasional slips in grammar and proofing which reminded me that English was not the first language of most of the journal's writers, I found an intriguing window into the heated discussions going on in Islamic intellectual circles.

Much to my surprise, as I explored back issues of the magazine, I discovered articles on Nuclear Winter, appropriate technology, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Club of Rome amidst more likely articles on subjects like Iran's revolution, Lebanon, Islamic calligraphy, and Pakistani banking.

Though INQUIRY, like Sufism, should not be taken as representative of everyday, mainstream Islam, it was apparent to me that there are currents within that ocean of believers that run close to our shores. This is particularly difficult to keep in mind when kidnappings, car bombs, and civil wars shape our usual news of matters Islamic. That the Ayatollah Khomeini has cast the U.S. in the role of the "Great Satan" is not to be ignored, but neither is it the whole picture.

We would do well to remember that attacks on 'the West' or the U.S. are not attacks on us personally -- and are not necessarily attacks on everything Western. Upon further investigation, it turns out that much of what is most objectionable to traditional Islamic cultures are those aspects of modern life which many American readers are also likely to criticize: rampant materialism, the whirlwinds of fashion, hedonism, the economic exploitation of the Third World, and the intervention of the Superpowers in local political disputes.

This is not to say that if you scratch a "mullah" you'll find an unreconstructed granola-head underneath. Nor is it to condone desperate measures like plane hijackings or suicide attacks which grow out of specific local politics. Still, I can't help thinking (to turn Amos Perlmutter's quote on its head) that a worldview that is accused of waging war on "the West, Christianity, modern capitalism, Zionism and communism all at once" must have something worth listening to!

If a vital mystical tradition and a wariness of rampant modernization are the aspects of Islam that are most immediately appealing, what of other aspects that are more threatening?

In confronting Islam, the West is, above all, brought face to face with its own past -- echoes of earlier centuries when the eternal took precedence over the temporal, and religion was central to social existence, interpenetrating the rhythms and gestures of daily life. Such immersion in the humble satisfactions of religion is reminiscent of both the Church-dominated Middle Ages and the colonial days of Puritans and Quakers, neither of which is likely to produce much nostalgic enthusiasm these days.

Islam, which eschews monasticism, nevertheless instructs its followers to pray five times daily at prescribed times, a schedule of devotion paralleled in the West, these days, only at monasteries and convents. The average Westerner, witnessing the ordinary spectacle of a crowd on the street stopping on schedule to kneel and pray, is brought up short -- as if having wandered by mistake into a convention of monks. The unselfconscious faith of the crowd contrasts with our own sophisticated faithlessness, making us ill at ease.

Or again, in our meeting with Qur'anic morality, where specific acts are forbidden in no uncertain terms and strict punishments spelled out, we're flung up against the very foundations of the modern, mobile West where freedom consists of keeping as many constraints as possible at arm's length. No alcohol? No pork chops? No bikinis? One can feel the shudders reverberating off the walls of shopping malls across the nation.

Yet here, too, the popular cliche is not always accurate. The "Chador" (full-body veil) worn by women in Iran is not a universal Muslim custom, for instance, and both the Qur'an and the "Sharia" (Islamic Law) turn out to have sufficient room for a variety of interpretations on numerous points. Nevertheless, the situation of women within Islam is perhaps the main sticking point for most non-Muslims.

While anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli sentiment is not inherently Islamic, it is nearly universal as a component of foreign policy for most Islamic countries and is echoed in most Muslim publications that touch on political issues. This can be another sticking point for Americans who have grown accustomed to supporting Israel in any and every conflict.

If Islam were solely a foreign phenomenon thousands of miles away, it might be possible to nod in abstract appreciation (or hostility) and let it go at that. However, in recent years Islam has seen significant growth in North America itself. A small portion of the growth could be attributed to domestic interest in Sufism, and a larger portion to the immigration of Muslims from abroad. But the most significant home-grown brand of Islam has been what began as the Black Muslim movement.

Originally founded by Elijah Muhammad as an organization espousing an unorthodox blend of black separatism, radical politics, entrepreneurship, and Islam, the Nation of Islam proved puzzling to orthodox Muslims abroad. Malcolm X, the most famous leader in the movement, eventually abandoned the Nation of Islam for a more traditional Islam after traveling to Mecca and being impressed by the unity of Muslims irrespective of race. When Elijah Muhammad died and the movement's leadership fell to W. Deen Muhammad, the latter began to slowly make changes to the group along more orthodox lines. Meanwhile, a section of the followers of Elijah Muhammad organized themselves behind Louis Farrakhan who continues to follow the teachings of his mentor.

In 1985, when W. Deen Muhammad disbanded the American Muslim Mission (formerly the Nation of Islam) and instructed his followers to consider themselves members of the world Islamic Umma (body of believers), he put the finishing touches on this process -- taking the Black Muslim movement away from separatism and away from defining itself according to race. The new decentralized mosques across the U.S. may still look to W. Deen Muhammad for guidance, but they are financially and organizationally on their own. This marks a new stage for a movement which has succeeded in bringing Islam to inner cities and prisons where other religions were encountering still resistance.

With the barriers now down between the followers of W. Deen Muhammad and other Muslims, it is likely that Islam will continue to grow here at home. I hope that our understanding of it keeps pace with that growth.

Originally published in Whole Earth Review, 1985.

Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.