What happened after the early and short period generally known as the “birth of Islam” in the seventh century remains a marvel for historians and students of religion. A new community of religious men and women kindled the light of learning, art, and civility that within a century spread all over the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, Europe (especially Spain), and the Indian subcontinent. Universities were established in Damascus, Egypt, Spain, Baghdad, Kufa, Basra, Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. For centuries the Muslim world produced the premier scholars in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, and other fields, such as art, music, and architecture. This renewed love for discovery and learning was rooted in a fundamental Islamic teaching that connects piety with learning and demands that knowledge be a requirement for all people. The Prophet said gaining knowledge is an obligation for every believing man and woman. He said also, “One who takes a path to gain knowledge, God will ease his path to Heaven.” In the Quran, God says, “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” What these statements reveal is that knowledge elevates people in God’s sight. This now may seem commonplace, but it was a revolution in religious thought in the seventh century. Islam removed the chains of superstition and the fear of knowing more about workings and secrets of creation. In Islam, discovery is a pathway to knowing more about God. It is not a threat to religion. Muslim civilization did not suffer a conflict between religion and science.
Gender in Islam
Though men and women differ biologically, their responsibility as God’s vicegerents on earth are equally vital. A woman is an individual whose rights are equally important and protected as those of a man. At the dawn of Islam, when women were degraded throughout much of the civilized and agrarian world, Islam introduced rights and legislation pertaining to women that was radical at the time. In fact, many of these rights were not afforded in the Western world until as recent as a century ago, such as the protected right to inherit from one’s parents and the right to own land, assets, and businesses; the equal right to be educated and become scholars, artists, and teachers. As for dress, much is said about this, particularly with regard to the Muslim woman. It must be stated that both men and women are required to dress modestly, though for women attire is specified to greater detail only when women are in public. Throughout religious history, dress and piety have been closely associated. Only recently has this bond been severed to a severe degree in modern societies.
Islam stresses equality and fairness between men and women, which is most important on a spiritual plane. A man and a woman are equally charged to do good and observe rites of worship, and when either of them fulfill their obligations they are equally commended and rewarded by God Himself. Throughout Islamic history, there have been many well-known women scholars of Sacred Law and other areas of study. Women worked and participated in public life.
The iniquity that many observe these days regarding women in some Muslim lands must not be attributed to Islam per se but to the cultural deviances that have become particular to that land and time. They are deviances that must be urgently addressed by Muslims themselves.
Tolerance and Diversity
One of the unique aspects of Islam is the requirement to live peaceably with others. This requirement is not a wish by liberal members of the faith, but an inextricable part of the religion itself — commandments found in the Quran itself, the statements of the Prophet Muhammad, and verdicts from countless scholars of Islamic Law. If one observes Islamic history and looks at Muslim lands, one will find minority Christians and Jews that have lived with their Muslim neighbors for centuries. Islamic Sacred Law insists on the protection of minorities within Muslim lands. The principle of religious tolerance in Islam is founded on the belief that the Abrahamic faiths sprung from the same source and should be afforded respect and that all human life is sacrosanct and must be honored and protected. The Quran says that what God has established in Islam is what he has enjoined upon Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (42:13). The Quran commands Muslims: Say, “We believe in God and that which He has revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the Tribes [of the Children of Israel], and what He revealed to Moses and Jesus, and what was revealed to all the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, to God do we submit” (2:136). It is categorically forbidden in Islam to harm or oppress people because of their beliefs, or to dishonor, insult, ridicule, or disparage them in any way. Any departure from this ethic is considered a transgression against Islam itself.
Jihad and War
In recent years, the word” “jihad” has become closely associated with violence. The term comes from the Arabic stem word “jahada,” which essentially means to “strive” and “endeavor.” The various usages of jihad do not tarry far from this root meaning. It is said that when a person works hard to earn provision for one’s family, he or she is engaged in jihad. And when a person strives to purify the soul from bad thoughts and negative feelings, this too is jihad. In fact, a major genre of Islamic literature speaks with detail about the “Greater Jihad” as the human struggle against one’s ego and the temptations of one’s lower desires. This jihad is aimed at the soul and removing whatever defects it has acquired (miserliness, hatred, envy, arrogance, and the like) or avoiding them altogether. This is quintessential jihad. This is referred to as the “Greater Jihad” because it is a battle that does not end. One must always work on improving his or her soul. In the context of war, jihad does indeed mean to fight an enemy that threatens a nation or endangers a people’s right to live their religion freely. But the Quran is explicit about whom one should fight: only those who are entrenched in fighting you and who actually do so. The default position of Islam is peace, with armed conflict only as a last resort, not a tool of diplomacy or the acquisition of natural resources. Like the Bible, the Quran does speak of armed conflict, but all the passages of the Quran that mention it can only be understood in the context of defense. Never can they be taken as the normative.
The Two Struggles
Human beings have always had two major struggles to contend with: One is with the issue of violence amongst themselves, a matter that has existed since one son of Adam killed his brother. Every religious and secular ideology has seen its share of violence carried out in its name or inspired by extreme views espoused by a few. Muslims also have this challenge, namely, to quell from within extremist views that do not represent the spirit, law, and history of Islam. As it often happens in times of tension, misconceptions and apprehension arise, which put a strain on the noble enterprise of mutual understanding between people of various faiths and cultures. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other people of faith must be determined to foster ecumenical relations. In an age of extremism that has touched all the major world faiths and political ideologies, a universal struggle emerges for sober minds to reclaim their faiths from those who wish to espouse agendas that do not have firm rooting in their respective religions.
As for the second struggle, it is to close the gap between what a religion stands for and how it is actually expressed in the world. The distance between the ideal and the reality is a timeless matter that all of us can relate to. What we are charged to do, as creatures of a great and merciful God, is to exert ourselves (carry out a jihad) that engenders mutual understanding and achieve the most noble aims of religion.
Islam in North America
Most Americans will be surprised at how long and deep is the presence of Islam in the Americas. Traditionally, historians speak first about the sizeable percentage of the slaves who were African Muslims. But there are strong indications that even before the European exploration and discovery of the Western hemisphere, Muslims had visited the Americas. As for the current Muslim population in the United States, estimates range between six to eight million. Many of the Muslims are of immigrant background, coming from the Arab world (North Africa and the Middle East), the Indian Sub-continent, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. And a large percentage are African-American, as well as converts whose roots go back to a variety of national origins. Muslims in America are as multifarious as American society at large. They are professionals and laborers; professors and students; physicians and taxi cab drivers; they are officers and enlisted soldiers in the military; and many other sundry professions. There are thousands of mosques and Islamic centers and schools throughout the nation. Muslims love their country and contribute greatly to its success and prosperity. They share the common concerns of wanting excellent education for their children, safety, justice, and economic growth.