World of Islam
This compelling article on Islam appeared in January 2002 edition of the National Geographic magazine. I am taking the liberty of reprinting it here.Part of it is taken from the web, part from the print editon.
Borne aloft five times a day, from Shanghai to Chicago, Jakarta to Timbuktu, the music of Islam’s call to prayer stirs the soul of devout Muslims everywhere. Whether cast from metal loudspeakers over teeming city streets or lifted as the murmured song of camel drivers kneeling in the sand, it begins with the same Arabic phrase Muslims have used for nearly 1,400 years, Islam’s melodic paean to the Creator.
“Allah . . . u akbar,” the faithful sing out.
“Allahhhhh . . . u akbar!—God is great!”
Some 1.3 billion human beings—one person in five—heed Islam’s call in the modern world, embracing the religion at a rate that makes it the fastest growing on Earth, with 80 percent of believers now outside the Arab world. For these people Islam is an intimate personal connection to the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians, a source of strength and hope in a troubled world.
The term itself, Islam, is an Arabic word meaning “submission to God,” with its etymological roots firmly planted in salam, or peace. That may come as a surprise to many non-Muslims, whose perceptions of the faith have been skewed by terrorists, many from the Middle East, whose unspeakable acts in the name of Islam have been condemned by leaders everywhere.
“Peace is the essence of Islam,” says Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, brother of the late King Hussein and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Prince El Hassan helps lead the World Conference on Religion and Peace and spends much of his energy building bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West. “Respecting the sanctity of life is the cornerstone of our faith,” he says, “and of all great faiths.”Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam traces its lineage to the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), a wandering Bronze Age shepherd with whom God (Allah in Arabic) made covenants that became the foundation of the three faiths. Muslims revere the Hebrew prophets, including Moses, and regard the Old and New Testaments an integral part of their tradition. They disagree with Christians about the divinity of Jesus but honor him as an especially esteemed messenger from God. The ultimate messenger for Muslim is the Prophet Muhammad.
Born about A.D 570 at Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was an orphan raised by his grandfather and uncle. He grew up to be a modest and respected businessman who rejected the widespread polytheism of his day and turned to the one God worshipped by the regions’ Christian and Jewish communities.
At about age 40 Muhammad retreated to a cave in the mountains outside Mecca to meditate. There, Muslims believe, he was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who begun reciting to him the Word of God. Until his death 23 years later, Muhammad passed along these revelations to a growing band of followers, including many who wrote down the words or committed them to memory. These verses, compiled soon after Muhammad’s death, became the Koran, or “recitation,” considered by Muslims the literal word of God and a refinement of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
The Koran consists of 114 suras, or chapters, and covers everything from the nature of God (compassionate and merciful) to laws governing the mundane affairs of men. Do not usurp one another’s property by unjust means, it commands. Kill no game while on pilgrimage.
Its underlying message is “a prescription for harmony in everyday life,” says sheikh answer al-Awlaki, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Dar al-Hijara mosque just outside Washington, D.C.” In the Koran, god commands us to be merciful with one another, to live an ethical life. These concepts are not new, of course; the Korans confirms many of the teachings already laid down in the bible. In many ways god’s message In the Koran boils down to “treat others better than they treat you.”
For Muslims the Koran is also a poetic touchstone, a source of the pure Arabic language memorized by Muslim school children and recited by Muslim adults on every important occasion-wedding, funerals, holidays. In a religion that forbids statuary and icons, this book is the physical manifestation of the faith, and small, tattered copies of it are found tucked into the pockets of every shopkeeper in the Muslim world.
Just as verses of the Bible can be pulled out of context and made to march to a zealot’s cause, so is the Koran subject to distortion. A verse that councils women to adopt a modest dress and behavior is widely read as good practical advice; other interpretations supply the Taliban with a rational to imprison Afghan women in their homes. Verses prescribing Jihad, or struggle, against the enemies of god are usually taken to mean the internal striving of each individual for spiritual purity and enlightenment. Others describe
Muhammad’s armed struggle against his enemies and give the radicals of today a pretext, however twisted, for waging a holy war against nonbelievers.
Such interpretations can not be overruled, because Islam is a faith without an established hierarchy; there is no Muslim pope, no excommunication of heretics. So while an imam can offer his congregants guidance and scholarship, in the end Islam’s authority resides in its scripture, freeing individuals to interpret the Word of God in their own way. The Koran itself acknowledges this dilemma in sura III: 7:”Some…verses are precise I meaning-they are the foundation of the Book-and others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief follow the ambiguous part, so to create dissension…. no one knows its meaning except God.”
By the time the Prophet died in A.D 632, Islam was established throughout the Arabian Peninsula, bringing peace and unity to the tribes for the first time in memory. Within a century of his death the armies of Islam, had conquered a vast swath of territory stretching from India to the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal, including North Africa and the Middle East.
This Islamic world built on the intellectual achievements of the roman and Persian cultures it usurped, sponsoring an explosion of learning unparalleled until the Renaissance. According to historian Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, Islam’s unsung heroes included its translators, who preserved the classics of the ancient world in “epoch-making” Arabic versions of Greek texts on “mathematics and astronomy, physics and chemistry, medicine and pharmacology, geography and agronomy, and a wide range of other subjects including, notably, philosophy.” At a time when Europe was languishing in the early Middle Ages, Muslim scholars and thinkers were giving the world a great center of Islamic learning (Al-Alzhar in Cairo) and refining everything from architecture to the use of numbers.
Although a few Muslim nations are wealthy from oil resources, most are poor and increasingly demoralized by their position in the world. Few Muslim societies enjoy the range of civil liberties that western nations take for granted, such as freedom of expression and the right to vote in a fair election. And their populations are booming: Four people out of ten in Muslim countries are under the age of 15.
Disaffected and disenfranchised, many people in these societies are turning to Islam, and to Islamic political movements, to assert their identity and reclaim power over their own lives.
Muslim societies have a long-standing love-hate relationship with U.S popular culture and these days those intense feelings may be closer to revulsion than respect.
“To many Muslims, especially those in traditional societies, American pop culture looks a lot like old-fashioned paganism, a cult that worships money and sex,” says Imam Amwar al-Awlaki.” For such people, Islam is a oasis of old-fashioned family values.’
Some Muslim nations, like iran and Saudi Arabia, today base their governments on sharia, or Koranic laws and teachings, which are themselves subject to debate and interpretation. Others, like Malaysia and Jordan, combine these traditional principles of justice which more modern, secular forms of government and society.
For most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, Islam is not a political system. It’s away of life, a discipline based on looking the world through the eyes of faith.
“Islam gave me something that was lacking in my life,” says Jennifer Calvo of Washington, D. C. Calvo is 28 and looks as if she just stepped out of a painting by Botticelli, with aquiline features and striking blue eyes, set off by a white head scarf tucked neatly into her full-length robe. Calvo was raised Catholic and works a registered nurse.
“I used to get so depressed trying to conform to our crazy culture and its image of what a woman should be,” she said, “the emphasis we put on looking good-the hair, the make up, the clothes and our hunger for material wealth. It left me felling empty all the time.”
Two years ago, a s people have done for 1,400 years, Jennnifer became A Muslim by simply declaring the words:”La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah- There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.”
“Everything is so much simpler now,” she said.”It’s just me and god. For the first time in my life I’m at peace.”
For Calvo and most Muslims on Earth, that is what Islam’s call to prayer represents. Kneeling to god five times a day, in unison, facing Mecca from wherever they happen to be, they find peace in an act of surrender.