But the message is one: that God is one; that the creator is single; that the
creator has no partner; that the creator is described by the perfection of a
number of attributes, which Muslims call the divine names. So God is one; God
is almighty; God is all-seeing; God is all-knowing; God is all-hearing. God is
compassionate, merciful, forgiving, loving. God is just. And so forth.
So we are forbidden to ascribe to God attributes of weakness or imperfection.
So we cannot say God is one, but God is poor; God is one, but God is blind, for
instance, or doesn't have the attribute of seeing. It is equally important for
Muslims to assert, not only the oneness of God, but the perfection of his
And the message, in its substance, embodies what Jesus said were the two
greatest commandments. When Jesus was once asked, "Rabbi, or Rebbe, what are
the greatest commandments?" he said, "To love the lord your God with all of your
heart, with all of your soul and all of your mind." And the second, which is
co-equal with it: that you love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love for
your brother or your sister, what you love for yourself. Not to harm them in a
way that you do not wish to be harmed.
That again embodies these two principles: A, that you have to acknowledge the
creator correctly. And B, that you are going to be held accountable for your
ethical decisions and choices. And the particular form of revelation was a
function of society. So every prophet or messenger
spoke in his own language to his own community. Some words were spoken in Hebrew,
or in ancient Egyptian. Every revelation was given in the language of the
community to whom it was sent. The rituals may have been a little bit
different, but the essence of the rituals were there: prayer, charity, and
If the message is the same, then how come the people don't agree with each
Well, God's perennial lament -- not only in the Quran, but in other scriptures
as well -- is that people generally do not follow God's dictates and the
guidance and the mandate that God has offered to humanity to follow. We tend to
be recalcitrant. We tend to be disobedient to divine guidance. And if you look
at human conflict, it has even existed within people of the same religious
tradition. I don't need to remind you that even among those who call themselves
Muslims there has been a lot of bloodshed.
We're finding that it's very hard to define who Muslims are. Every time we
figure, oh, that's what it is, or that's who they are, there's an exception to
the rule. There's a very traditional housewife-looking lady in Malaysia who's also an
OB/Gyn who ministers to unwed mothers. We have girls in Turkey who are saying,
"Look, we want to express ourselves as Muslims. We want to cover our hair." And
we have a secular government that's discriminating against them -- women who
want to cover, women who don't. Men who want to keep women in the house; men
who agree that women have absolute opportunity to do what they need to do in
society. How does this all fit?
The definition of the faith of Islam that I gave you before is the Quranic
universal definition of the human being vis-a-vis the creator. There is a
narrower definition of Islam which is used, which is those who follow the
teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Now, according to that definition, their
Islam is defined by what was commonly called the five pillars of faith. This is
what theologians call the orthopraxy, or the orthopraxis. It means the
practices which define you as a Muslim.
There are also five articles of creed, of belief, which theologians call the
orthodoxy. That which defines you as a Muslim, if you adhere to these beliefs,
[parallels] to, say, [Christianity] and Judaism, that in the Jewish faith,
there is an orthopraxy, not much of an orthodoxy. As long as you abide by the
rituals, the dietary laws, male circumcision, et cetera, et cetera, there is
flexibility within the Jewish tradition on what you might choose to believe in
to be considered as a member of the Jewish faith community. So there is
flexibility in whether [you] believe in an afterlife, heaven and hell and so
In the Christian faith, you have the opposite situation. You have a fundamental
orthodoxy, which is, you have to believe that Jesus Christ is savior. If you
believe wholeheartedly that Jesus Christ is savior, you are saved; you receive
salvation. And there's a great flexibility on the ritual end. What you do in
terms of prayers or dietary laws, circumcision, et cetera, there's flexibility
In Islam, we have both an orthodoxy and an orthopraxy. The orthodoxy of the
Islamic faith is defined as a belief in the oneness of God and the right
attitude, the right understandings of God, as I mentioned earlier. A belief in
the angels, beings created of light, who convey the divine commandments. The
belief that God communicated to humanity via scriptures. And these scriptures
are considered to be both oral and written form. ... And the belief that God
also communicated his guidance and messages and teachings to humanity via human
intermediaries, human messengers, we call them. prophets, or messengers.
And the last item of the Islamic orthodoxy is the belief in the last day. The
last is a compound concept which means that this creation will, in fact, come
to an end. So those of us who believe in the big bang theory, there will be a
big implosion, in other words, at the end of time, so to speak, followed by a
day of resurrection, where all the souls shall be resurrected; followed by a
day of judgment, where all souls will be judged; followed by the obtaining of
divine approval or divine disapproval. A pass grade or a failing grade. Those
who get a passing grade will be in paradise. Those who get a failing grade will
be in what we call hell. And the underlying theme of the last day is that we
are all accountable for our ethical actions. ... That's the orthodoxy.
The orthopraxy of Islam is a declaration of faith: the
statement that there is no God but God; that Muhammad is the messenger of God;
the five-time daily prayer; the giving of alms, typically 2.5 percent of one's
income or assets; the fasting of the month of Ramadan; and the going to
pilgrimage, or hajj, once in one's lifetime, if one can afford it, financially
and physically. Anybody who does these things is within the box of Islam.
There are other things, secondary things. Rules of dress and rules of behavior
and rules of what may be considered right or wrong. And these come from
cultural norms and from secondary sources of jurisprudence. But anybody
who believes in these things and practices these things is a Muslim. ...
[Who decides the rules of Islamic jurisprudence?]
The thing about the Islamic situation is we don't have a church. We don't have
an ordained priesthood, which makes it a little complicated. But we do have a
tradition of scholarship, and rules of scholarship. It's very much like any
field of knowledge.
Take any field of knowledge, like physics or biology or chemistry. Anybody can
become a chemist or a biologist or a physicist. But there are rules
[developed], and a kind of a growing consensus of opinion on how one should
think correctly to arrive at what would be deemed a right, a correct decision.
Analogously, there is, in Islam, a tradition of theological interpretation, of
[juridical] understanding and knowledge. And as long as you abide by these, the
consensus of understanding on how you arrive at a decision, certain differences
of opinion are considered equally valid.
What about interpretations regarding women, in particular? We find, in many
parts of the world that tend to be populated by Muslims, it seems that women
are getting the short end of the stick.
Well ... the prophet, for his times, was a feminist. And there are certainly
voices within the Muslim world who believe and argue very strongly for the
rights of women. But gender relationships really deal with the cultural norms
of a particular group and the times in which they live. If one were to say, for
instance, that American women are behind Muslim women -- and I pick the fact
that there have been five Muslim women heads of state, and that the United
States is behind the Muslim world in this regard -- that would not be
considered to be an accurate assessment of how women are regarded in a
particular society. One has to look at the sum total ... of the norms and the
relationships and the understandings that exist in a given society in a given
Some of what we see may be considered to be inequities. But we have to remember
that when Islam spread from Arabia to what we consider the Muslim world today,
it spread through countries and societies which had very ancient traditions.
Egypt had an ancient tradition, Iran, another ancient country, Persia
before that. The subcontinent of India: another ancient culture. Same thing
with current-day Turkey, the Byzantine Empire. ...
Through that, many cultural norms became to be considered by societies as being
Islamic, but they're really cultural. So in matriarchal societies, which you
will see some matriarchal societies like in West Africa or in Egypt, you'll
find women very, very influential. Women hold the purse strings; women
determine a lot of what happens, because ancient Egypt had a tradition of
having women kings, women queens, queens of Egypt.
Whereas in some societies, which tended to be nomadic, it was very much more
male-oriented, and the patriarchal and very strong male orientation became
predominant. So as you go across much of the Muslim world, you will see this
diversity, which really entered into Muslim life through custom, and not
through the Quran and the hadith itself.
Can you define "hadith" for an American audience?
The word "hadith" means any report of something the prophet either said or did.
That's hadith with small "h.". Hadith with capital "H" is the collection of all
Which have been carefully substantiated or authenticated?
There are all kinds of grades of hadith, from the most authentic to those that
have been forged, and various degrees in between. Islamic hadith scholarship
actually is a very fascinating study, because through the different hadith you
get a slice of Islamic history. The politics of what happened at different
periods of time are all manifest in the hadith.
And the Sunna, similarly.
The word "Sunna" is used to mean the normative practice of the prophet. In
fact, the jurists have defined the general Sunna of the prophet to mean
everything the prophet did or said. The hadith is the report of the Sunna. And
of the practice of the prophet, there's a certain class of actions that are
normative for Muslims to follow, Sunna which has legal value, has a
precedent value. And there is Sunna which has no Sharia value. For instance,
the prophet prayed a certain way. This has Sharia value, we're supposed to pray
that way. The prophet went to hajj on a camel -- doesn't mean that we have to
ride a camel from Medina to Mecca for our hajj to be valid. We can take a car.
We can take a plane, because that Sunna has no Sharia value.
Can you explain Sharia?
The word "Sharia" is the term given to define the collectivity of laws that
Muslims govern themselves by. And there is a presumption that these laws
recognize all of the specific laws mentioned in the Quran and in the practice
of the prophet, and do not conflict with that. So any law, anything studied in
the Quran or the hadith, is definitely [Sharia]. The idea is that it is
divinely legislated, that the creator also has legislated certain things for
But in the community of Muslims, it was recognized very early on
that the Quran and the hadith do not speak to all issues. And there are many
issues which are not necessarily addressed in the Quran and the hadith, that
the Quran is silent on. ... There is a recognition in the [science] of Islamic
jurisprudence that there are issues which have to be obtained by analogy, by
consensus, and other [subsidiary] sources of jurisprudence. But as long as they
don't conflict with the Quran and hadith of the prophet, it's considered to be,
quote, unquote, "Sharia."
The flexibility built in there, you know, the using of your own common
sense, is that what allows different places to apply Sharia differently?
Well, I wouldn't phrase it quite that way. The correct phrasing would be that
when people think about Islamic law, there's a presumption that all of Islamic
law is Quranic, or emanates from the Quran and the hadith. The point is, and
the truth of the matter is, what really defines Islamic law [is] the sum total
of Islamic law as has been practiced by Muslims throughout the last 14, 15
centuries ... . Generally, it emanates from the Quran and the hadith. The Quran
and the hadith are a limiting factor and a shaping factor. But any body of laws
that includes and embodies the specific commandments and prohibitions mentioned
in the Quran and the hadith, that does not violate any of these things, has
been considered as Sharia, as Islamic. And this allows a lot of variation of
opinion, in things which the Quran and the hadith are relatively silent on as
long as the principles are maintained, of justice, et cetera.
My understanding of [the Sharia] rules about punishment for matrimonial
infidelity [is that] you have to have four eyewitnesses, or several
eyewitnesses to the [act] in order to demand the death penalty. It's almost
inconceivable to me that you could ever produce that kind of eyewitness or
evidence. But we hear that these kinds of punishments are meted out fairly
regularly. Is the law being followed the way it's set [out]?
You cannot judge a whole body of law by one instance of criminal law. When
people think about Sharia law, they often think about the penalties for certain
crimes. They don't think about the sum total of Islamic law and its
jurisprudence, which means the underlying structure and philosophy and
understanding of how you arrive at what we call the Islamically correct
decision. You do not define Sharia law by just a couple of penalties. ...
Islamic law has a few penalties for certain crimes. But the rules of evidence,
as you mentioned in the case of adultery, require either the free confession by
the individual and/or the existence of four witnesses who are of sound mind and
who fit the description of qualified witnesses, which is very rare to obtain.
Much of what we see when we hear of events that apply Sharia law, what we see
in Nigeria, for instance, or even in Pakistan, is a desire by much of
the people to see the general principles of justice followed. ... It is a
desire by the people to see their system of laws be more equitable. It is a
call for correction of the overall system of social justice, of economic
justice, which the Quran calls for, and the example of the prophet calls for.
You see, Muslims have an ideal. Part of their ideal is to follow what they call
the example of the prophet, the Sunna of the prophet. So at an individual
level, a human being who wants to perfect himself or herself looks to the
tradition of the prophet, his individual practice, and tries to emulate the
prophet as much as possible.
There is also a collective subliminal ambition that Muslims have, that at a
collective level, they also embody the ideals of the community that the prophet
developed in Medina. So when Muslims today speak of the attempt to establish an
Islamic state, what they are really saying is that they would like to have a
community that lives in accordance with the ideals, the relationships, the
social contract, which the prophet had developed in Medina with his companions
and how they had this amongst each other. ...
In what ways do Western values, morals, and cultural practices, intrude
upon, and [in what ways] are they at variance with Islamic ideals?
I think there are two aspects to this question, in the broader sense of the
word. There is Western values regarding governance; Western values regarding
separation of powers; Western notions regarding what the role of government is
in society; Western notion in terms of democratic institutions and principles
and ideas. And to a large extent, Muslims are very enamored of these systems,
and would like to implement them in their own societies ... because these
principles and norms are completely in sync with the principles of the Quran
and the teachings of the prophet. Muslims would like very much to implement
these norms within their societies.
When you come to speak about things like behavioral norms, gender
relationships, or the kind of things that people will do, this is a separate
issue. And there is another aspect of the West, and that is the attitude of the
West towards the non-Western countries, in terms of trying to be presumptuous
in telling them how they should even live their lives in ways that they are not
accustomed to -- like modes of dress, for instance. In the 1930s, when the
first shah of Iran forced his soldiers at bayonet point to force Iranian women
to take off the chador, for instance.
People don't like to be told how to dress. This is a matter of personal
individual conscience. Even we here in the West do not insist that our students
in public schools wear uniforms. We give them that level of freedom. People do
not like to be told how to do certain things in their personal lives.
What are the key differences between being a Muslim in America and being a
Muslim in the Muslim world?
There are many aspects to that. There is the political aspect, the sociological
aspect, the social and family aspect, the economic aspect. So there are many
aspects to the to the difference between living in a Muslim country as a native
especially, and living in this country. ...
If I were to look at maybe the broadest difference: there is a sense of
freedom in the United States. So one practices one's faith in the United States
as an act of deliberate choice. If you are not [doing so, it's] not so much
because of social pressure. There may be a certain amount of social pressure.
But at a certain point in one's life, one is relatively free to live one's life
as one chooses in this country.
And that sense of freedom makes one's religiosity or the defining lines of
one's religiosity much sharper. Religion is a much more
personal thing here. It is also a deeper experience within the personal
envelope. One is forced to attach oneself to one's religion in a personally
deeper way in terms of the existential issues -- it has to be anchored on
a much deeper existential foundation.
Another aspect about living in the United States is that one experiences a lot
of negative media attention to one's Islamicity. And that has resulted, and can
result in a reaction one way or the other by many people. Many Muslims feel in
this country like the Christians did in Rome when they were fed to the lions.
And here the lions are the media. We hope that perhaps things will change in
the United States, as they did in Rome, as well.
It seems there is a societal dimension to being a Muslim, in terms of the
ways one would like one's society to be organized. Are there conflicts in that
sense between how one would like society to be, and the realities of American
I would say that Muslims in America, especially those who come from other
countries, experience both an attraction, a strong attraction, to the positive
things that America offers: freedom, political freedom; economic mobility and
well-being, the ability to live a materially comfortable life. These are all
the things that draws people from all over the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, to
However, there are certain things that people, even when they come from their
own country, don't like to give up. They don't like to give up certain aspects
of their cultural norms. Their practices of family relationships they try to
maintain. Their cuisines they like to maintain. Those values, which they
consider to be their ethics, they like to maintain.
And so Muslims who have come to this country generally believe that the
democratic principles, the political principles, the economic structure of this
country really resonates with the faith of Islam, and draw them to this
To the sense that, let's say, American social norms or values are not
supportive of the families -- in those issues, Muslims may happen to have a
different opinion. [On] those values which violate their sense of decency, they
may have a different opinion.
In a certain sense, much of the ethical and moral issues which Muslims feel
strongly about in this country is shared by what you might call the Christian
majority in this country -- more of the moral mooring, or the sense of decency,
which is commonly shared in other faith traditions.
... I also believe that, as the American Muslim community matures in this
country, that the American Muslim community will be an interlocutor, and
important intermediary between the West and the Muslim world. And more so
today, because today, we have much more much easier communications between the immigrant Muslim population and their extended families in the Muslim world.
... Unlike those who immigrated a century ago from Europe, there is maintained
contacts with the Old World and the New [World]. And this phenomenon will give
rise to a much different sense of what it means to be a Muslim in the world.
Tell me more about that. What is an American Muslim -- if there is such a
thing as "an American Muslim?"
I think it is very much a work in progress. If you look at what happened to the
Muslim-American community over the last, say, 40 years, it is a mosaic; it is a
cross-section of the Muslim world.
We look at the Muslim centers, or mosques, starting with the early 1970s as
waves of immigration began to occur from the Muslim world. You found, as
certain ethnic groups reached critical mass, that mosques sprouted with a very
ethnic complexion. So we have a Turkish mosque in Brooklyn, an Albanian mosque.
You will find a West African mosque, mainly from French- speaking West Africans
from Senegal and Mali [in] the Bronx, for instance.
You have also always had African-American mosques. You have Arab mosques,
Hindu, Pakistani mosques, Bangladesh mosques.
However, what we are seeing is that these mosques tend to be maintained in
terms of their cultural complexion and their general collective psychology by
the continued immigration from the Old World. The second generation,
the children of these immigrants, are finding themselves with a different
psychological complexion. And I see a development of an
American Islamic identity, which is currently a work in progress, which will be
kind of the sum total of these influences.
But amongst those who are born in this country, or came very early into this
country at a very early age, they grew up with a sense of belonging to the
American scene, which their parents did not have. The immigrants tend to come
here with a little bit of a guest mentality. But those who are born and raised
here feel they are Americans. We have to define ourselves as Americans. And
just as I said earlier, when Islam spread to Egypt, and Iran, and India, it
restated its theology and its jurisprudence within the cultural context of
those societies. It also anticipated that Islam will restate itself within the
language constructs, within the social constructs, within the political
constructs of American society, as well. ...
[What do you think will come of the American influence on Islam?]
I think the major lesson that will that will come out of it is the increased
democratization of our societies, our Islamic societies. The increased
democratization of Islamic societies, and the sense of greater equality amongst
people, whether on the basis of gender, the elimination of any vestiges of a
class society. ...
Do you think we have witnessed a period of reactionary-ism against the
Western influence within the Muslim world in the past 50 or 100 years?
The 20th century was a century in which the Muslim world experienced the
hands of the West in the perception of the Muslim world -- a dismantling of
some of its important constructs. The most significant of that was the
dismantling of the Ottoman caliph. Because for the first time in the collective
consciousness of Muslims, there is no caliph anywhere. And it was replaced--
especially in major population centers of the Muslim world, those that were
important at the turn at the beginning of the twentieth century: Turkey, Egypt,
Iran -- the traditional forms of rulership were replaced by militantly secular
regimes. Not only secular regimes, but militantly secular regimes, which did
not even support traditional values which were cherished by the people. In
Turkey, for instance, Ataturk himself forbade the calling of the prayer in the
Arabic language. They changed the script of Ottoman Turkish from Arabic script
to the Roman script.
So the Muslim world felt that there was a deliberate attempt to create a split
in that bond which Muslims had. ... So what happened created a split between Arabs and Turks ... and refigured the map and created new
identities of people.
People [had] thought of themselves as part of a group. You had the family,
the clan, the tribe and extended notion of a tribe, a people, a nation. So for example the Uzbekis were split geographically. So you have some
Uzbekis in Uzbekistan, some in what we call Afghanistan.
The Pashtun people were split: some in Pakistan, some in Afghanistan. The
Hazaris were split between Iran and Afghanistan. We tell these people, this
segment of Uzbekis, Pashtuns and Hazaris, now think of yourself as
a completely new identification based upon geography, which people did not have
before. And this seeded conflict. ...
We did the same thing in Iraq, and the Kurds lost out. They are split between
Iraq and Turkey. So the West planted the seed for some grave problems in the
Muslim world. But at the same time, they robbed the Muslim world in the minds
of the Muslims, from a sense of identity that was based upon people, and also a
sense of pluralism that existed within the Muslim dialectic. So within, let's
say, the Ottoman caliphate, they had a principle of different peoples.
So they had the notion that the sultan had political power over these different
people. But these peoples had their different cultural norms, different
religions. They had their different religious leaders, as long as political
homage was paid to the sultan, and they didn't act in a way which was
treasonous politically. They had their own court system, dealing with matters
of religious affairs and so forth.
All was part of this of this grouping of people. So we had a method of
pluralism which worked, which was successful. And there were instances of
intermarriage between the people and so forth, but people lived harmoniously.
It created what Samuel Huntington calls "torn societies."... Samuel Huntington
describes a torn society as "a society whose leadership, those who hold the
reins of the power, identify with a different set of cultural norms than the
people on whom they govern."
And what would be the key implications that came of this fracturing, tearing
apart, in the way Islam has been lived?
I think the major thing is that Muslims have been taught to think in
certain ideas that are peculiarly Western -- the idea of nationalism, the idea
of nation states. And in their attempt to fulfill their natural urge to perfect
themselves as Muslims individually and collectively, they therefore try to
create some peculiar hybrids.
Like the notion of an Islamic state, for instance. Several generations of
Muslims now have been educated in ways that their mindset and ways of thinking,
if not their language even, is very much Westernized. So they think in terms of
Western ideas and concepts, even if they speak their own native languages.
So the urge therefore to develop an Islamic nation-state -- a concept which
some people may regard as being an oxymoron, because the nation-state is not
something which developed out of the Islamic tradition ... that the Islamic
philosophical tradition was based upon identification of grouping of peoples,
who had governed themselves according to living in certain ways and structured
in a slightly different way. ...
There seems to be a growing conservatism, or conservative interpretation of
Islam taking hold. Is that something you have seen, or agree with?
I think that in the 20th century there are certain waves that occurred.
There was, at one point in time, a feeling -- in fact, when you go back to the
first part of the twentieth century, there were some well-known voices who grew
out of Islamic tradition but who were exposed to the West ... who felt the need
to restate what it means to be a Muslim in the 20th century. They
found many aspects of Western society to be highly admirable, and wanted to
bring it to their own countries.
In fact, in the 1920s the Wafd party was founded in Egypt to introduce
democracy into Egypt. And the Wafd party had on its platform Egyptians -- not
only Egyptian Muslims but Egyptian Jews and Egyptian ... Christians from the
Coptic Church on the platform.
So there was an attempt to meld the best of the of the East with the best of
the West. These movements ... were interrupted by events of World War II and the
rise of militant dictatorial regimes, which completely changed the sociological
complexion, the political complexion of much of the Muslim world. During that
period of time, I would say 1950s and 1960s, there was a time when these
regimes had the upper hand. And they felt that the way to fast-forward as
societies, in terms of the industrial development, was to emulate the West in
all of its aspects.
Their policies didn't succeed. And this resulted in a reaction to much of these
policies, because this newfangled way of doing things didn't work. Let's go
back and revisit our traditions, and let's find comfort in those traditions.
Could you just explain to us the key things that Islam, Christianity and
Judaism have in common -- what they share?
They share geography. They share Jerusalem, which is important to all. We share
a common ancestor, Abraham, who was really the founder and the patriarch of all
of us. And I think if we can revert back to the Abrahamic foundation, that is
[where] we will find our common ground. Our languages are very similar --
Arabic and Hebrew and Aramaic ... . The ideas are very similar; and the
fundamental impulse of belief in God, that God is the creator, that we are
obliged to act in a way that is ethical and just and right. These are certainly
among the important aspects of kinship between these three faith traditions.
And I would even go further and say -- apart perhaps from some differences in
the notion of God -- but as far as the idea of the common good, the idea of
social justice -- [that] is shared with all faith traditions.
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