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An Excerpt from the 8th edition of Politics and Change in the Middle East

Five Popular Misconceptions about Islam

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Prentice Hall.

According to popular notions widespread in the West, Islam is an exotic religion of the desert nomad, a religion characterized by fanatical intolerance of the "infidel," spread "by the sword," and dedicated to an ultraconservative view of human social existence. Such a picture is founded on misconceptions about the nature of Islam and of its historical role in the Middle Eastern society.

Islam as an Exotic Religion
Viewed from the perspective of Jews and Christians, Islam is by no means an exotic religion. Each of these three religions embodies many of the same notions of society, history, divine will, and personal responsibility -- especially compared with the non-historical, otherworldly orientation of many Eastern religions. Each recognizes the same God, the same early patriarchs, and most of the same prophets; each originated among Semitic-speaking peoples of the Middle East. There are differences, to be sure, but in the perspective of cultural history the three religions must be seen as very closely related. In some respects the Muslim might see more continuity among the three religions than does the Jew or Christian, since Muhammad's prophecies are believed to be merely an outgrowth of the same tradition that encompasses Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. Muhammad had come into contact with Jews and Christians and was familiar with their verbal renditions of their scriptures. While there is no direct written connection between Judeo-Christian and Muslim scriptures (Muhammad was said to have been illiterate), and certain scriptural events are rendered somewhat differently in the Koran, there can be no question that Islam views itself as the culmination of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

Insofar as Muhammad was an apostle to the Arabs, and the Arabs identify ultimately with their Bedouin heritage, there is some truth to the picture of Islam as a "religion of the desert." In fact, Islam draws selectively on certain ancient Bedouin values, such as sharing wealth and caring for those in need. Nevertheless, at its core Islam is an urban and cosmopolitan religion that in its day undermined the tribal system of ethics and religion and replaced it with a rationalized, universal set of beliefs. Its main thrust is at one with the other confessional religions, and not with "primitive" religions centered on nature and the family. Therefore, to represent Islam as merely an extension of the Bedouin outlook, as is so often done, is fundamentally false.

Islam as a Militant Religion
One often encounters the assertion, even among some historians, that Islam is a particularly militant and intolerant religion, and that it was spread mainly through the use of force -- or as the phrase goes, "by the sword." Historically, Islam no more deserves such a reputation than does Christianity. It is true that the scriptures of Islam do not advise believers to turn the other cheek, and that the Koran actually praises those who go to war in defense of the faith. The very concept of jihad, the holy struggle against the unbeliever, seems to the Westerner to suggest a program of ruthless suppression of other religions. It should be kept in mind, though, that the concept of jihad is a complex one for Muslims, and that the idea of struggle can be interpreted and implemented in various ways. In some sense, the duty of spreading the faith and the idea of universal brotherhood and equality before God are but two sides of the same coin. If the message of God is good for all people, then one does humankind a disservice by leaving the infidels to their disbelief. This, however, does not and never has meant that the Muslim community sanctions random acts of aggression against non-Muslims. On the contrary, the djimmi system protected the rights of religious communities that rejected Islam entirely.

As for conversion by the sword, the Western accusation against Islam has an exceedingly weak foundation. The Koranic stand on forced conversion is ambiguous, and one can find hadith that seem to forbid it as well as those that seem to support it. Muhammad took a hard stand toward pagans, the nonmonotheistic Arab tribes, but opposed the forced conversion of adherents of the confessional religions in Arabia. In later times other communities, including the Hindus in India, were extended formal protection as djimmis. As we shall see in the next chapter, the millions who converted to Islam did so for a variety of reasons. Even the pagan Arabs probably converted more often for the sake of various material, social, and spiritual advantages than out of fear. The Muslims of the Far East, whose population today rivals that of the Muslim Middle East, were generally converted through the influence of peaceful merchants. The reader should not forget that despite the teachings of Jesus, Christianity was spread at the point of a sword in much of Europe and the Western Hemisphere. We suspect that if the historical record is examined carefully, it will show that the spread of Islam depended no more consistently on the use of force than did the spread of Christianity.

Islam as an Intolerant Religion
As for religious intolerance, it is instructive to compare the attitudes of Christians and Muslims toward the Jews, who were a religious minority in both the Muslim and Christian worlds. Tensions have often existed between Jewish communities and the politically dominant Muslims or Christians. One reason for this tension lies in the very nature of Jewish existence as a religious and cultural minority, with all the conflicting loyalties, suspicions, and persecutions that frequently accompany minority status. In addition, the presence of an unconverted population seems to thwart the universalistic claims of both Islam and Christianity. Finally, the historical connections of both Christianity and Islam with Judaism have given rise to more specific allegations against the Jews: Christians have traditionally blamed them for betraying Christ, while Muslims have accused them of spurning Muhammad's ministry. Indeed, tension between Muslims and Jews became severe even at Medina, where early attempts to convert the Jewish Arabs of that city came to nothing. The Prophet eventually expelled two of the major Jewish clans and sanctioned a blood bath against the third for their alleged intrigues against him. During this period, the Koranic revelations upbraided the Jews for their supposed errors and their lack of faith in God's prophet.

Despite the ever-present potential for conflict, the actual history of Jewish minorities in both Christian and Muslim worlds has been quite variable, and it would be difficult indeed to portray the differences in terms of Christian love versus Muslim intolerance. While interethnic relations in both contexts had their ups and downs, the Christian and Jewish minorities under Islam ultimately enjoyed the status of protected communities as defined in the Koran. To be sure, this djimmi status carried obligations of civil obedience, special taxation, and limitation of political independence, but it also exempted minorities from the requirements of jihad and zakat. It can be argued that Jewish minorities in Christendom labored under equally severe restrictions and held a less-secure legal status. It is interesting to note that when the Muslims were expelled from Spain in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, the Jewish communities that had previously thrived under Muslim rule were subjected by the conquering Christians to persecution, forced conversion, and banishment. Putting aside the ecumenical spirit that has recently appeared in the Christian world, there is little in the historical record to support the Western image of Islam as an essentially fanatical and intolerant religion compared with traditional Christianity. Neither is there much support for the idea that active enmity between Muslim and Jews (or Christians) is inevitable.

Islam as an Ultraconservative Religion
Many Westerners believe that Islam is a more socially conservative religion than is Judaism or Christianity. Some have even referred to the recent revival of religious commitment in Muslim countries as a "return to the seventh century" (as though, unlike Christians and Jews, a Muslim must choose between religion and modern life). It is true that Islam's scriptures are notable for their detailed pronouncements on the conduct of social life, a fact that poses a special challenge to the Islamic modernist. However, Judaism and Christianity are by no means lacking in specific social rules; and the scriptures of these religions date to an even earlier period than the Koran. The social ideas presented in the Koran were in many respects radical departures from the prevailing customs of the time and must be seen in their historical context as innovative.

Throughout history and into the present, Islam like other religions has been invoked to justify a wide variety of social agendas ranging from the restoration of an idealized past to the pursuit of progressive programs of social reform. In the end, it is difficult to make the judgment that Islam, any more than other world religions, is inherently opposed to changes that would allow for a satisfying and effective life in the modern world. Since Islam's position on woman's rights has sometimes been used as an example of Muslim conservatism and is often used in demeaning portrayals of Muslim life, let us further explore this subject as a case in point.

Islam as a Sexist Religion
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam reflects the patriarchal character of Middle Eastern society at the time of its origin. Many of its social regulations presuppose a family in which the male is the chief authority and economic provider, as well as a descent system traced through the husband and father. We therefore find a variety of sexually differentiated rules; for example, men but not women may take more than one spouse; a woman receives only half a man's share of an inheritance; and divorce is easier for a man than for a woman to initiate. In each of these matters, however, Islam may not be as conservative as it first appears. Plural marriage was permissible among pagans, Jews, and Christians until long after Muhammad's day, and the effect of Islam was therefore not to originate plural marriage but to regulate it, to set limits on it, and to define the rights and obligations of each partner. Under Islam a man is allowed no more than four wives, and he is permitted only one if he is unable to treat several wives equally. Men are counseled to treat their wives with kindness, and hadith even criticizes men who behave selfishly in sexual intercourse. The Koran advises those with marital difficulties to seek arbitration by representatives of both the wife's and the husband's families, indicating not only that the preservation of a marriage is desirable but also that a woman's grievances ought to be taken seriously. As for property and inheritance, the most significant innovations of Islam were in securing for women the right to inherit property and to receive the bride wealth previously paid to the bride's family by the husband, and in protecting her full rights of property ownership even in marriage and divorce. This right of a woman to control her own property after marriage, established by the Koran in the seventh century, is still being sought by women in some parts of the Western world.

The veiling and seclusion of women, for which Islam is often criticized, is more a matter of folk practice than an intrinsic part of Islam. While the Koran advocates sexual modesty on the part of women, it makes the same requirement of men. The social custom of keeping women veiled or behind closed doors is not specifically Muslim, but reflects traditional Middle Eastern concerns. The purity of the women in a family guaranteed its honor and ensured the integrity of the male line. Furthermore, the impracticality of keeping women in extreme seclusion has caused the practice to be concentrated in, and symbolic of, the traditional urban upper classes (including many Jews and Christians). It is traditional public opinion in favor of female seclusion that, contrary to the practice of Muhammad and the early Muslims, has kept women out of the mosques and away from active religious practice. Over the past century, many Muslim intellectuals have objected to the seclusion of women on the grounds that it is contrary to the tenets of Islam.

The Koran echoes the sentiments of traditional Middle Eastern society and of Judeo-Christian thought in saying that "men are the managers of the affairs of women, for that God hath preferred in bounty one of them over the other" (4:5-52). However, Islamic scriptures do not go as far as the Christian scriptures in asserting the moral inequality of women and men. We do not find in the Koran anything corresponding to Paul's pronouncement about the "shame" of women for having brought sin into the world (in the Koran both Adam and Eve are tempted equally), or to the Christian idea that man is the image and "glory of God" while woman is "created for man." If anything, the Koran goes out of its way to emphasize the moral (as distinct from social) equality of the sexes. Repeatedly it makes clear that its pronouncements stand alike for every believer "be you male or female."

If we can separate the essential religious teachings from social customs that have grown up around them, we will find in Islam no more basis for sexist attitudes than is present in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It is true that a relatively large proportion of Muslims retain close ties with the customs of a premodern age, while many Christians and Jews living in the West have all but forgotten some of the more conservative social customs upheld in their scriptures. Nevertheless, there is no reason to assume that Islam is inherently less compatible with modern life and change than its sister religions. Many Muslim modernists, in fact, view Islam as an essentially progressive religion with regard to sex roles and other social issues, and they chide conservative Muslims for allowing custom and prejudice to distract them from the true principles of their faith. We shall have more to say on this subject in a later chapter.