Monday, July 28, 2008

The Challenge of Islam Part I

By Mordechai Nisan

1st part of 2

Islam, as a later and last monotheistic faith appearing in Arabia in the seventh-century, never considered itself just another religion, but the last and final religion totally complete in doctrine and superior in rule.1 The Muslim believers sought power for Islam as the supra-successor faith to Judaism and Christianity, and the ultimately universal faith for all of mankind. The frenzy of religious struggles in history would, from that moment on, set Islam on an ineluctable course to conquer the world. The Qur`an elucidated the religion’s warring spirit by praising those Muslims “who fight for the cause of Allah” (4:95-96) rather than those who avoid the battle and prefer to stay at home. In distinction from Judaism and Christianity, the Muslim community considers that “the holy war is a religious duty because of the universalism of the mission and the  obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force”; and this, added the classical 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun, is because “Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.”2

Islam cannot be compared with any other religion or understood by analogy. It bears a unique militant ethic from its origins. This cannot be said of ascetic Buddhism or otherworldly Hinduism. Judaism, though equipped with “commandments for war”, did not promote conquest or experience power in any exceptional way. Christianity was born beset with sin, preaching poverty and practicing withdrawalism by fasting and virginity, pining for martyrdom through persecution.3

Islam evoked a far different collective sensibility. It brandished the sword, yelled Allah Akbar (God is Great) – as at Qadisiyya in southern Mesopotamia/Iraq in 637 – charged into battle, and plundering its spoils with delight.

We live at the beginning of the 21st century when the “return of Islam” has raised the challenge against the Jewish state of Israel, Christianity world-wide, Buddhism, and virtually all and any other belief systems and faith communities. Islam, far more than just a traditional faith, has resurfaced in Muslim and some non-Muslim lands as social energizer, political protest, and military catalyst.  Muslim bellicosity against Christians has been evident in Nigeria and Sudan in Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines in the Far East, Chechnya and Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union, Pakistan in the Indian subcontinent, Lebanon  and Egypt in the Middle East, and Kosovo and Macedonia in the Balkans. In Afghanistan, the Taliban movement destroyed Buddhas.  In India, Muslims fight for Muslim rule in Kashmir. The tried and tested methods of Islamic struggle and victory from the past are evoked today: conquest, colonization, and conversion.

The legendary abuse of Jews in Muslim history was illustrative of the inferiority of dhimmis who were by law, however, to enjoy protection under Islamic domination. There were some bright moments in the Muslim Orient, two examples being: the role of a Jewish mercantile class in Abbasid times centered in Iraq beginning in the eighth-century,4 and the Ottoman Turk “open door” policy welcoming Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. But the evidence of co-existence is mixed and the daily toll of humiliation should not be overlooked. Muslim soldiers housed their horses and donkeys in a Tiberias synagogue in 1852 and the enlargement of a synagogue in Jerusalem in 1855 was forbidden. When a Jew merely passed in front of the Great Zaytuna Mosque in Tunis in 1869, he was killed on false charges that he intended to enter it: a would-be “crime against Islam” [sic.] was preempted by an act of cold-blooded murder.5

The Strategy of  Muslim Victory

In its early emerging period for the first hundred years after the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam conquered the lands of the Middle East, like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, while penetrating into Europe and Central Asia.6 The Arabs of Arabia, who founded the faith and initially manned the armies of Islam, then settled en masse in their conquered lands: mosques hovered high above older churches, Arabic replaced native languages, and Muslim states arose as representative of a new brand of religious imperialism in history. The local Berber peoples of North Africa and the Persians of Iran, among others, adopted Islam as their religion and thereby joined their masters.

For Jews and Christians, and especially for the premier monotheists stubbornly rejecting Muhammad’s prophetic claim and Qur`anic revelation, life was precarious and humiliating. A powerful Jew like Samuel the Nagid, secretary and counselor to the Muslim Sultan in Spain in the mid 11th century, was suddenly murdered in Granada in 1066.

Another Jew, Saad Al-Dawla, who headed the administrative bureaucracy in a late 13th-century Muslim regime stretching across Iran and Iraq, was also suddenly killed. These individual cases suggest that personal advance unleashed the wrath of the Muslim populace. In the 20th century, pogroms burst upon the Jews of Baghdad in 1941, and in Libya and Aden before the decade ended.

Paying the jizya poll-tax, as prescribed in the Qur`an (9:29), demonstrated that the hierarchy of power and social status depoliticized and impoverished the dhimmis. Undeterred and unintimidated, Maimonides nonetheless definitively rejected Muhammad in his Epistle to the Yemenite Jews, as did European Christian authors who considered him an imposter.

This did not, however, dissuade Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed from respectfully pondering Muslim philosophical and theological works that dominated the intellectual climate of the era.

The methods of conquest, colonization, and conversion are today the very same methods of Muslim struggle and victory in the world. In the earlier Islamic centuries, conversion struck down subjects shamed by the poll-tax, tempted by public opportunities, and attracted by the simplicity of the conversion process.7 In our days, conversion is influenced by the modern Western spiritual plight that has convinced many to find  meaning in an Islam radiating tranquility and unity, communal vitality and self-assertive power. In America, Black conversion to Islam is bound up with the identity of White Americans with Christianity: choosing Islam is a way to avenge the history of Negro slavery in the United States.

It was reported that the startling impact of September 11 attracted new Muslim converts in Europe. The sweep of Muslim power on the continent includes the independent Muslim state of Bosnia in Europe following the dissolution of Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia; Kosovo, NATO-protected, may follow suit as the next Muslim state in the Balkans.

Chechnya is fighting for its Muslim independence from Russia. Europe is home to over 15 million Muslims, of which at least six million reside in France. While initially seeking migrant job opportunities, the Muslim influx has acquired a broader significance as the vanguard of mass Muslim colonization in Europe. Low birth rates and a loss of integral Christian faith ill prepare the Europeans to withstand the long-term impact of a strident and enveloping Muslim presence across the continent. Yet, anti-immigrant sentiments are growing in Europe, as we witness the forces of reaction resonating in France, Denmark, Holland, Britain, and elsewhere. 

Unlike other minority immigrant communities that have made their way to America, the Muslims do not want to integrate and adopt America as their home in an emotional and political fashion. Basically, the Muslims want to reshape America in their image rather than themselves be shaped by the reality of America. Of growing importance is the institutionalization of Muslim influence in American public affairs, and this will become an increasing electoral factor in local and national politics. The so-called “Jewish vote” will be overtaken by the role of Muslim voters in Michigan, California, and other states.

The Muslim jihad in all its aspects is now mobilized to redress Islamic losses suffered at the hands of the West centuries ago. The Muslims had earlier impotently witnessed Europe’s arrogant entry into the lands of Islam. By the 19th century, France controlled North Africa while Britain conquered the Nile Valley countries and the Persian Gulf emirates. In the period of World War I and its aftermath, France expanded its Middle Eastern possessions into the Levant, Syria and Lebanon, and Britain captured Iraq and Palestine.

But perhaps the central lesson of Islamic history is that even when the Muslims lose, they are really not defeated. The Crusader interlude in the Holy Land, that began in 1099 and finally ended in 1291, left no impression on Muslim social, political, let alone religious or  cultural life. In the modern period, following the termination of European imperialism and colonialism in the Muslim Arab lands of the region, one could not identify any major foreign Western impact on the deeper recesses of Muslim thought and belief, or in the arenas of politics and ideology.  Turkey is a special exception whereby secularism is the bedrock constitutional principle since the Republic’s modern founding in 1923. Christianity made hardly a mental dent at all, and secularism was rebuffed by the spiritual sturdiness of Islam.

Virulent anti-Western Arab nationalism as a native ideological sentiment erupted on to the political stage. Under the charismatic leadership of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser (1953-70), Pan-Arab politics converged comfortably with socialist economies, political dictatorships, and pro-Soviet alliances as their national panoply. Islamic fundamentalism, as another nativist belief-system, proposed a radical program for a comprehensive and integral religious way of life. Iran’s revolution in 1979 illustrated that choosing Islam provided the symbol for opposing the United States. We recall the torturous tale of 50 US hostages held for 444 days in Tehran by revolutionary youth. Donning old “cultural costumes” constituted a way to counter the alien culture of Western civilization. 

Fundamentalism was, therefore, not just a return to God but a cultural statement        against the godless West.


Mordechai Nisan

 Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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