In my previous references to Islam I probably portrayed a rather one-sided, maybe even a too favourable picture which I need to clarify and balance with some further notes:
Nowadays we hear at length of terror and cruelty perpetrated by some Islamic sectarians. As so often in history, splinter groups, disregarding conventional decency and following a radical agenda create havoc with their unconventional ideologies and lawless behaviour. They distract from the good and overshadow common morality. Westerners are also baffled by the way women are treated by men in Arabia and elsewhere, which proves the enormous ideological gap is still present.
Islam, as practiced by Muhammad, was far more liberal than what we see on world news today. He was monogamously married to his first wife Khadija for 25 years and only after her death did he accept multiple wives. This was the practice throughout the Arab world, even before Islam emerged. Maybe this stemmed from a social necessity to take care of widows when husbands perished in battles and raids, which were numerous for centuries.
Muhammad was also aware of women’s strengths in society and valued their opinion and advice. In his ‘parliamentary’ gatherings in Medina he did not only consult men, he also respected women’s views, which were taken into account in political and tribal decision-making.
Apart from being Muhammad the democrat, he was also a formidable military leader. Life was harsh and unpredictable and lacked conveniences we enjoy these days. Without modern transport facilities the radius of influence at that time was restricted to what was manageable by foot or with camels.
Preservation of territories and food supplies was vital within this radius and so was the defending of families, clan honours and religious persuasions. Water supply, the safety of trade routes and economic and political alliances also needed protection – it was a tough world, very different to our western life today.
Every tribe had its militant components and justifications, and fighting was an inevitable way of life. Mohammad the military leader excelled in protecting his people – which made him extraordinary and highly respected.
Cowards, as referred to in the Quran, were a hindrance, everyone had a duty to the common cause. A pertinent requirement of the Islamic faith is that fighting for Allah is a holy duty and that those not willing ‘stand in the path of God’. Verses 9:38-9 of the Quran read, for instance:
‘O believers! What is the matter with you that when it is said to you, ‘March out in the path of God’ you are weighed down to the ground. Are you satisfied with the life of this world to the hereafter? The enjoyment of the life of this world is but little compared with life of the hereafter. If you do not march forth, He will afflict you with a painful punishment, and will substitute another people instead of you. You cannot harm Him at all, but God has power over everything.’
These sentiments are still present and are vigorously enforced by radical fundamentalists.
What distinguished Muhammad from others, however, was that, after defeating enemies, he was somewhat tolerant. Whenever he besieged Arabic pagan settlements or Christian and Jewish communities, he fully pardoned those that converted to Islam, irrespective of their previous hostilities against his cause or his persona. Christians and Jews who were not willing to convert to Islam were pardoned because of their affiliation to the same monotheistic God, although they needed to consent to paying double taxes, which many did. Any revolt, however, was brought down with brutal force. Arab pagans not wanting to convert were treated harshly.
Prior to Islamic expansion, Christianity in the eastern regions of the Byzantine Empire stretched from present day Iran to Iraq, the Levant, Syria, Egypt and northern Africa. It was in these regions that the doctrine of the Trinity as adopted by the Nicene Creed was rejected. The eastern churches probably had a far closer affiliation to the Old Testament, to Jews and the Hebraic faith and could not concur with the extended principals of the new ‘monotheistic God’. This resulted in extensive harassment and persecution from the western Roman Catholic Church, so much so that for followers of eastern Christian churches life became unbearable.
Leniency and freedom of worship offered by Islam rulers provided a welcome alternative. It was the harshness of the Byzantine rulers compared to relative Muslim tolerance that contributed to the somewhat painless and rapid Islamic progress. My involvement with Muslims in Cape Town, where they form a fairly large and vibrant Islamic community, leaves me to be sympathetic to their ways. My experiences with them at the workplace and in daily interactions is one of tolerance and co-operation. I fully respect their humility and find them trustworthy and generous. One has to distinguish between those practicing the Islam of Mohammad with its tolerance, and the radical and extreme fundamentalists that disregard the eternal blueprint of peace and cause severe misery. Religious extremism in any faith has proven to be most dangerous, it has never fostered harmony, only pain and suffering.
The Islamic society is probably just as wary of Christianity as Christianity is about Islam. Many Muslims regard western governments and their people as arrogant, lacking trustworthiness and being politically and economically opportunistic; not averse to using brute military force in pursuit of their goals.
Promoting humanitarian principles and democratic values in the Islamic world requires more sensitive dialogue and patience. Significant social changes would surely follow a similar path to what I suggest for individuals – the need to be convinced of resulting benefits – otherwise why change? Overthrowing governments, even a dictatorship, without having an understanding of complexities and dynamics involved and without a workable plan to contain consequences and promote beneficial humanitarian and economic recovery, serves no purpose. As it now becomes clear to many, it only strengthens the radical and militant component of Islam and dialogue with radical sectarian groups is far more complex.
Are our western ideological and commercial exports really desirable? Some probably are, but others may be questionable. Recent technological, economic and their resulting social changes surely need to be assessed over a longer period to determine their efficacy.
We do not know how modernity with all its gadgets and possibilities will play itself out. The western diet as well as fast foods and soft drinks are hardly humanitarian exports, they are financial exploits like many others, some of which have vast and costly effects on societies and on matters of health. The drugs offered to counteract unhealthy lifestyles greatly add to physical and mental dysfunction, and increase related financial burdens.
No doubt it is correct to say that some changes in western societies are of value to parts of the world. Especially the integration of genders has come a long way and so has greater tolerance to religious viewpoints and democratic diversities. Establishing a substantial middleclass with its improved economic opportunities, although not yet completed, is an advancement. But even if we assume that overall our outlook is the ‘winning formula’, we need to be circumspect. What is the good if promoting change backfires to more chaos and resentment?
The threat from Islamic rogues and their ideology, dating back centuries, has sharply increased. The original meaning of the word jihad in Islamic terms was ‘to struggle in the way of Allah’ – similar to spiritual struggle – which was in line with Muhammad’s sentiment. Voices in the 14th century already advocated that the meaning also referred to ‘warfare in God’s name’ and this is what the stern Wahhabi Islamic sect of today, with footholds in Saudi Arabia, advocates and practises. Maybe these sentiments have their origin in reprehensible conduct displayed by Christians during the crusades ending at the end of the 13h century.
In the early 20th century Britain and France defeated the Islamic Ottoman Empire and more indiscriminately than logically cut up the Middle East into the countries as we know them today. This and the arbitrary creation of Israel in 1947 has caused a great many negative sentiments which still have a worldwide effect. We do not need to go back far in history; recent invasions have caused and still cause untold misery and have strengthened the conviction of radicals. What is the good of converting others to what the West believes is a more suitable faith and a more appropriate way of governing if in the process we make enemies and unleash chaos?
Whereas previously animosity occurred predominantly between Islamic factions, the Wahhabis now target ‘infidels’ far more vigorously. Also, Muslims interpreting the Quran and the Sunna more liberally are no less a target and strife between Shi’ite and Sunnis continues unabated. In 1924 Islam lost the head of their religious structure, the Caliph in Istanbul, who could be compared to the Christian Pope in Rome. Maybe Islam is now rudderless?
Radical Muslims today display a conviction of righteousness in their non- conventional and brutal attacks, and, apart from demonstrating their anger against the West, they prevent Islamic countries from settling into their own ‘democracy’ as seems to be demanded by the majority of its people. It appears that radical behaviour will remain with us until greater awareness is reached. On the other hand, generally speaking, friendliness, tolerance, goodwill and humble restraint displayed by the ordinary Muslims is inspiring. Maybe Francis, the new Pope, can build bridges and neutralise sentiments.