In This Episode << SLIDE LEFT TO SEE ADDITIONAL SEGMENTS
Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and the author most recently of THE HEART OF ISLAM: ENDURING VALUES FOR HUMANITY and ISLAM: RELIGION, HISTORY, AND CIVILIZATION (HarperSanFrancisco):
Q: What are the two essential ideas of Islam?
A: These are usually referred to as shahadahs — “to bear witness to.” To be a Muslim, one bears witness to two truths. The first is the phrase, “There is no god but God.” There is no divinity but the Supreme Divinity, God with a capital “G” — bearing witness to the oneness of God. And the second is, “Muhammadun rasul Allah.” That is, “Mohammed is the messenger of God.” These two [testimonies] define for Muslims the Islamic tradition — to bear witness to the oneness of God and to accept the “messengership” of the Prophet of Islam.
Q: And one can become a Muslim just by accepting, proclaiming, bearing witness to those two ideas in the presence of two others?
A: That’s right. Perhaps of all the religions of the world, Islam is the simplest one to embrace from the point of ritual, because all you need is to bear witness before two other Muslims and repeat these two sentences. That’s all, yes.
Q: You write a lot about the idea of unity.
A: That is really the pivotal reality, the axial reality of Islam. Islam considers itself to be the religion of unity, what in Arabic is called “tawhid.” But “tawhid” has two different meanings. First, [it means] emphasis upon the oneness of God. Islam, like Judaism, is totally uncompromising in its emphasis upon the oneness of God: “Say the Lord is One,” the Old Testament says.
Secondly, it means to integrate, because oneness does not imply only one divinity sitting up there on his throne in heaven. It means also unity in creation, interrelatedness, integration. Islam tries to emphasis the integration of society; the integration of our soul within our selves; the interrelation with the community, with other human beings, even with other creatures of God, the nonhuman world. It has a very wide application [to] many different domains.
Q: Does that lead to the idea that religion has to do with every part of life — government, private behavior, everything?
A: That’s right. There is no domain, according to Islam, where God’s will and God’s laws do not apply. There is no extraterritoriality to God’s creation, you might say — in the same way that theologically we say God created the whole world, not only part of the world. He created the whole universe. Islam sees that as meaning one’s religion should also encompass the whole of life. Of course, this is not religion in the narrow, usual sense of rituals one performs in a mosque, or a church, or a synagogue. The principles of religion should apply to ethics, to morality, to politics, to economics and even to domains of knowledge and art — to everything.
Q: Tell me about the significance of the Koran.
A: To explain this to a Western audience, one has to appeal to two realities in the Western soul, which is predominantly Christian. One is, of course, the Bible and Christ himself. From one point of view, of course, the Koran, which means “recitation” in Arabic — is like the Torah or Old Testament for Jews, and like the whole of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments — [it is] sacred scripture. The same way that Christians and Jews hold the Bible as a sacred scripture, Muslims hold [the Koran] to be the word of God.
Muslims also hold the Bible to be the word of God, because the Koran mentions the Torah and the Gospels as other books of God being revealed. So, from one point of view, [the Koran] is like the Old and New Testaments.
But [there is] one big difference, and that is that these two [Jewish and Christian] texts were assembled over a long period of time. Also, Orthodox Jews read in Hebrew, but Christians read the Bible in English, not the original language. The Koran is still kept in its original Arabic, and it was revealed in a short period of time — 23 years. This is the only difference.
The Koran, for Muslims, is the verbatim word of God. If we ask ourselves, “What is the word of God in Christianity?” it is Christ. So, in a sense, the Koran corresponds in the religious and spiritual life of Islam to both the Bible and to Christ.
Q: There’s an interesting idea that I think has great significance, these days particularly — the idea of the ummah. What does that mean to Muslims?
A: The word ummah means “community” or a collectivity united. In the Koran, Abraham himself is also called an ummah, because he symbolizes the whole of the monotheistic family. Christians are called the ummah of Christ. Jews are called the ummah of Moses, and Muslims are called the ummah of the Prophet of Islam.
Turning more specifically to the Islamic case, ummah means the totality of the Islamic community, which is bound together by the links and the attraction toward one single religion, one single revelation; the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, [bound together] by following a single, divine law, by ethics and by many, many other issues. It’s a very profound and strong bond that unites the members of the ummah or the Islamic community together, regardless of where they live.
After the first century of the history of Islam, Islam was never politically united in one single unit…But the idea that the ummah is united, that all the members of the Islamic community are united has remained very strong throughout Islamic history — no matter where you live, no matter what kind of ethnic background you have. Whether you’re Arab or Malaysian or Chinese or Persian, [no matter] what language you speak — that is secondary to the idea of this primal and very essential bond.
Q: Yet sometimes Muslims fight each other?
A: That’s true. You can have in religion a very strong ideal, but not everyone follows it. Charity is central to Christianity. There are many charitable Christians, but there are also many who aren’t, because human ambitions, greed, ethnic and tribal bonding and other things have not died out completely. Islam tried to replace all of those with a bond of the ummah. And it succeeded to a large extent, but not completely. For example, the Prophet was against tribal bonds. Arabia was a tribal society. And to a large extent, the tribal allegiances were transformed to allegiance for the ummah — but not 100 percent. You still have tribes in Afghanistan. Other places in the Islamic world present very, very strong links between particular groups of people. We have had wars, as in the Christian West also.
Q: You’ve written to explain the two different meanings of the word “jihad.”
A: Yes, this is a crucial term that needs to be redefined and discussed extensively, because now [it] has become a popular word in the English language, and practically every author is trying to push the word into the title of his book to sell more copies. So much misinterpretation has been made of it.
For [a] long, long time, many centuries, jihad was translated as “holy war.” This is false. The word “jihad” in Arabic comes from the root “to use effort.” It means to use one’s effort in the path of God. Over the centuries, jihad took on two meanings, in the same way that in English the word “crusade” has two meanings: One is the historical act of the pope ordering the Crusade in Europe in the Middle Ages. And one is the popular, everyday word, like the crusade of President Lyndon Johnson against poverty, or something like that, which we use in the English language regularly.
Jihad also has [acquired] two meanings. One is general — whatever you exert yourself for in a good way. For example, in some countries you have jihad for helping the poor, jihad for reconstructing slums — this kind of thing; it would be exactly like the word “crusade” that in the Western mind originally was a holy war, but it now means any kind of effort. But the original meaning, the more profound meaning, is the one that is now being misconstrued and mistranslated and discussed all the time as “holy war,” almost [like] going to fight against others. This is not true at all.
One [type of jihad] is to defend — not to bring offense, but to defend one’s religion and home and property when one is attacked. That’s called the external jihad, the little jihad. The greater jihad is a jihad within oneself against all the negative tendencies that are really the source of all the external frictions in society — greed, evil, envy, all of the unnecessary rivalries, the kind of fighting that we have to carry out within our soul to create peace within ourselves. And that is called the greater jihad.
When the Islamic community had just established itself in the city of Medina north of present-day Mecca, the Meccans were still not Muslims. They tried to attack the Medinans and destroy the early Islamic community. The Battle of Badr was fought, in which the Muslims, although a much smaller number, were victorious and were able to defend themselves. So, everyone was very happy. When they were coming back to the city, the Prophet said to those around him — “You have now come back from the smaller jihad.” And they were all surprised. What could be greater than having gained this victory which would protect the early Islamic community? They asked, “What is the greater jihad?” He said, “To fight against one’s inner passions, against the evil tendencies within oneself.” So, human beings should always be in an inner jihad to better themselves, to overcome the infirmities and imperfections of our inner soul.
Q: What does that teaching say about attacking another country? If a Muslim attacks — not a defensive operation, but an offensive one — is that a violation of the Prophet’s teaching?
A: Throughout the history of Islam, governments have attacked other governments, armies have attacked other armies (and not only non-Muslims; even within the Islamic world). In the name of jihad that occurred, because this was a very important symbol within Islamic society, like, let’s say, the Catholics’ and Protestants’ fight against each other for a hundred years in Europe. Each was using religious legitimacy on its side. That has occurred. But legally, from the point of Islamic law, jihad should only be for defense.
In Shiite Islam, religious scholars have said that jihad should always be for defense, and they’ve never supported any jihad that has been offensive. In Sunni Islam, which was much more powerful militarily during most of Islamic history, occasionally sometimes the attack by a particular state against another state or against another army was condoned as being a legitimate jihad on the basis of what is now being discussed in Washington, D.C. — that the best defense is a good offense. Sometimes that has occurred. But, technically, that would be against the teaching of the Prophet.
Q: If Saddam Hussein were to attack another country, would that be a violation of the Koran?
A: Absolutely, because on what basis would he be carrying out jihad? If he were attacked and he were defended himself, that would not be [a violation]; but if he were attacking Kuwait, there is no religious legitimacy for that. If he were to be attacked, or any country were to be attacked, it would be legitimate to defend oneself.
Q: What is the significance of Iraq in the Muslim world?
A: Iraq sits on ancient Mesopotamia and also the ancient Persian capital. It has very great historical significance, going back several thousand years, even before the rise of Islam. It’s a great archaeological center that has cognizance in the minds of Muslims, wherever they are.
Baghdad was the golden capital of the Abassad caliphate, where the Thousand and One Nights took place, where Islamic science flourished, where some of the greatest philosophers and thinkers and writers and men of letters, poets and scientists lived. It occupies a very important position in Islamic civilization’s memory of its own past. It would be something like, let’s say, Oxford in the consciousness of English-speaking people, for 700 years the seat of learning in England.
And then in addition to its historical role as the center of Islamic civilization for many centuries (although much of that was destroyed by the Mongol invasion), nevertheless, some of Baghdad remained. Baghdad is also a very important religious center to this very day. From the point of view of Sunni Islam, it is where some of the greatest Sufi saints — especially Abdul Badr Jilani, whose tomb is visited by thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from all over the Islamic world every year — are buried.
From the point of view of Shiite Islam, it’s even more significant, because the seventh and the ninth Shiite imams are buried there in Kozamain, which is just across the water from Baghdad. It’s a place where pilgrims come all the time. The city of Nadjef just south of Baghdad, where Ali died and is buried, is the most important center of pilgrimage for Shiites outside of Arabia and Jerusalem. After three holiest cities of Islam, it is the fourth most important. Baghdad has important religious significance for both Sunni and Shiite Islam.
Q: If the U.S. were to attack Iraq — perhaps with allies and UN approval, perhaps not — what would you expect the reaction to be among Muslims around the world?
A: If there would be international unanimity, including other Islamic countries (and by that I mean major Islamic countries, not little sheikhdoms that don’t carry that much weight), that Iraq has upset the international order, or [if there would be] some moral reason, then that would make some difference.
But even if that were to be the case, there would still, I think, be a great negative effect. When Iraq attacked Kuwait, it was not the same, because one Islamic country had attacked another Islamic country. And the West, led by the United States, sided with the weaker of the two against the stronger, and things were reestablished. But if it is just Iraq sitting there, especially seeing the situation in the world of other countries that have weapons of mass destruction (not only in the West, but also Israel, Pakistan, Korea, India and China and so forth and so on), it will leave a very bad effect for a long, long time to come in the minds of Muslims, and it should not be underestimated.
Q: And what do you think the consequences would be in the Muslim world?
A: It all depends. The bitterness, unfortunately, translates itself oftentimes into violent actions. Anger can result in terrible actions; we’ve seen the tragic terrorist events that have taken place during the last few years. Supposing you were to have a very short battle and very few people were killed, and the Iraqi people themselves would be very happy afterwards, and there would be a good government that was not just a puppet, but an Islamic government, and at the same time more freedom to the Kurds and Shiites. There would not be that much anger.
But if it meant in the eyes of Muslims that there’s a further weakening of the Islamic world, that everybody has to be in line, otherwise they’ll be crushed, I think it would result in the only way [open to] people who are very angry and have no access to ordinary channels of political expression. That is, violence, terrorism, sabotage — God knows what. It’s very volatile — much more volatile than we’re willing to think.
I’m not necessarily saying all of these things are going to happen, because there are many conditions. But there’s no doubt that we have a dry keg of powder, and one little spark would cause a great deal of explosion.
I was just in the Middle East recently, in Egypt. And I was surprised at the level of anger of ordinary people at the situation. Egyptians usually are very gentle and docile people and very pro-Western. Egypt has [had] Western visitors for centuries. Even there, I think the situation is a very, very difficult one.
Q: Muslims from all over the world will be beginning their hajj and assembling in Mecca. Is there anything special about that this year, given the international tensions, given the probability of war?
A: I have had messages and telephone calls from many, many people who are going on the hajj — in fact, have already gone. There was a great sense of apprehension and fear, even consulting with me [and asking], “Should we go?” “Should we not go?” I said to all of them, “Yes, you should go, because you’re doing this for the sake of God. Even if something were to happen to you, this would be part of the pilgrimage.” And they’re all there, but there’s a great deal of apprehension, a great deal of fear, of uncertainty about what is going to happen. And, unfortunately, there is also a lot of anger. That is what is bad. It’s a very exceptional year as far as the hajj is concerned. I hope, God willing, that nothing will happen — that some extremist groups within the two or three million people who are assembled there will not cause any havoc. I don’t think that will happen, but I think it will be an exceptionally apprehensive and fearful hajj.
Q: The terrorists who were responsible for the 9-11 tragedies and all the deaths that were caused were Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of God. Were they following Islamic teachings in any way?
A: No. In every religion, you have people with a sense of blind self-righteousness. When Oliver Cromwell was beheading Charles I, he thought he was acting as a very good Christian. There are people who are blinded by their own narrow, exclusivist interpretation of religion. And these people think that, in fact, they are the true interpreters of Islam.
But if you look at the whole of the Islamic world, the background from which these people come even theologically is a kind of heresy. I don’t like to use the word “heresy” any longer, but they’re at the very margin of the spectrum of Islamic thought, both Sunni and Shiite. They’re not really traditional, orthodox, mainstream Muslims by any means.
The fact that you have small groups taking recourse to violence, of course, is not unique to Islam. You right now have it in India in Gujarat among Hindus, who’ve done pogroms of the worst kind, and you’ve had [it in] historically in Christianity. The trouble with these people is that they consciously try to use the name “Islam” for their cause. Rather than just say, “We’re Muslims who happen to be doing these things,” they consciously try to use this as a kind of shibboleth — like, for example, the Protestants and Catholics of Ireland. They’re fighting because of Protestantism and Catholicism, but they don’t hold the Bible up as a shibboleth. They are trying to make use or feed upon the anger of a larger community which is very disgruntled, very angry about the situation. And they’re trying to siphon some of the energy and support for themselves.
Q: How do you divide the Muslim world now between violent extremists, modernists, and traditionalists?
A: Well, I think if you take the whole of the Islamic world, the people who are called traditional Muslims — that is, people who are neither fundamentalists nor Islamists nor extremists on one end, nor rabid modernists and secularists on the other end — still constitute about 90 percent of the Islamic world. Those small groups speak a lot and make a lot of noise, but even in a modern, secular country like Turkey, the majority of the people are traditional Muslims — even in Turkey. But Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh — the very popular Islamic countries, the vast majority of Muslims are traditional Muslims. So, I would say about 90 percent of the Islamic world — yes.
Q: And how would you define the beliefs and practices of a traditional Muslim?
A: The beliefs and practices of a traditional Muslim are rooted in the Koran and the sayings and actions of the Prophet — the hadith as it has developed over the centuries in various schools of law, theology, and ethics, in mysticism and philosophy over the centuries, and [as it has] flowered over the last 1400 years. That’s traditional Islam.
[Modernists and extremists] veered off, deviated from this mainstream. The mainstream is stagnant over the centuries. Just like a big tree, there are certain developments, but nevertheless, [the mainstream] was the trunk of the tree and its practices are identifiable through a kind of historical continuity with the origin of Islam. It’s like Catholicism has a continuity of tradition from one generation to another in the Catholic Church. Traditional Muslims represent that continuity, going back to the source and origin of Islam.
Q: In this country, after 9-11, a lot of people asked why mainstream, traditional Muslims didn’t speak out, condemn the terrorist extremists, and take away some of their appeal. Some have, but has there been much opposition to the most violent extremists on the part of the traditional Muslims?
A: For some reason, the American media never reported this opposition. The most eminent representatives of Islam, the various muftis of the great, important countries (Syria, Morocco, Pakistan, Shiite Iran, Indonesia), the heads of the largest Islamic political parties of Indonesia, Malaysia — all of them came out with very, very clear and categorical opposition to terrorism. It is the killing of innocent people. The surprising thing is that there was so little reported here.
There was a lot more opposition by these people against the terrorists, the exclusivists, than there has been in the United States by mainstream Christians against those extreme voices who call Islam a religion of evil and try to demonize Islam. Where is the mainstream Protestant and Catholic voice against this — the Protestants and Catholics who’ve been in dialogue with Muslims for 50 years? There have been some — a few here and there – but it’s been less than in the Islamic world.
I was recently talking to one of the great Islamic scholars in the Islamic world, and he was very surprised. He said, “We were all giving these open declarations that to kill innocent people is against Islamic law. Terrorism is against Islamic law, and nobody reflects it. They keep saying, ‘Why don’t people talk?’ There’s nobody more important than us. We are the chief authorities of Islam, and this is not reported enough.”
Q: Why do you think it’s not?
A: For political expediency. There are certain voices in this country that would benefit from enmity between Islam and the West, and so the voices of friendship, the voices of accord are not emphasized as much as they should be. That’s very unfortunate.
Q: Are you talking about political voices in this country or religious voices? Who are you talking about?
A: Political-religious voices. Voices of a religious nature, but that have very, very important political force and influence.
Q: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and others are prominent evangelical Christians who have condemned Islam, or some part of Islam recently? You’re referring to them?
A: Yes, to them in combination with certain extreme Jewish people — not many. I have many close rabbi friends who are not in favor of this, but there are people who think that if the whole of the Islamic world is vilified, it is to their political advantage. And this is unfortunate. I don’t think it’s to the political advantage of either America, or Israel, or the Islamic world to fan the fire of hatred.
Q: Why do you think some conservative, evangelical Christian leaders are doing that?
A: When you look at the record of some of these people, until a generation ago, they were highly anti-Semitic in the sense of anti-Jewish. I mean, some of the statements that were made even by Billy Graham that have now come out were very, very surprising.
But things change, and they realize that there is no future to that. And they need, I think, a kind of enemy to show that, “We are good Christians. They are the pagans, the heathen[s]” — this idea of, you know, “Salvation through me. Come to my church [and] you will be saved. Everybody else is damned,” and, “Tomorrow Christ will come, and only these few will be raised up, and the rest will be condemned.” This is, I think, accentuated by this kind of dehumanization.
And also, to be frank with you, some of these people are afraid of their people reading about Islam, which is unfortunate. I think the more Muslims read about Christianity, the more Christians read about Islam, the better it is for both sides. But I think there is also a certain fear of that.
Q: There is in some Christian readings of the Bible the idea of Armageddon and the end times and the second coming of Jesus. Is that a factor in this condemnation of Islam in any way?
A: You know, a thousand years ago, a book was written in what is today the border of France and Germany, calling the Prophet of Islam the anti-Christ and the rise of Islam the sign of the end of the world. This is not something new in Christian history. These very, very old stories have now been revamped for a new situation. Definitely, these eschatological expectations and millennialism plays a role in this. Not only in Christianity, but also in Islam and Judaism there are millennialist voices. Because we live in such troubled times, these ideas of a savior coming from heaven to save us, of course, become very strong.
Among extremist groups, you have to find a force of the Evil One, of the anti-Christ of the other side, where you look for that. The easiest thing to do is to vilify another religion. I think this is very, very dangerous.
Once, the Prophet of Islam was asked, “When will the world come to an end?” He said, “Only God knows, and whoever speaks about this is a liar.” This is advice we should all heed, whether we are Muslims, Christians or others. To try to make use of this for Sunday services and collecting money and for televangelism is a disgrace, as far as the teachings of Christ are concerned. And people who claim to know more about the Book of Revelation than all the great saints and sages of Christianity have known for 2,000 years are a little bit too much. They really feed upon people’s ignorance.
We have the same situation in the Islamic world. Don’t think it’s only Christianity. You just haven’t heard about them. There are preachers in corners here and there who talk about the world coming to an end and so forth.
Q: So both the Islamic world and the Christian world have in common what you see as a problem caused by their extreme conservative wings?
A: Definitely. I hate to use the word “conservative.” It used to be a very good term — but extreme wings. I don’t like to use the word “fundamentalism” either. I would use “exclusive.” Now that the word “fundamentalism” has been used by the president, stick to “exclusive.” But whatever the word is, this is what we have in common. Absolutely. The problem is mutual. There is practically a mirror image of that preacher in Saudi Arabia who vilifies Jews and Christians in Georgia where someone is vilifying the Muslim — except this country is much wealthier. We have television programs; everybody sees it. They don’t have that. Only people in the mosque hear it. But it’s the exact, same thing.
Q: And what do we do about it?
A: The majority in both religions, in fact, do not identify with this extremism. They should work on this together. It’s not a question of, “I’m a Christian. I stick with my Christian buddies. You’re a Muslim. You stick with your Muslim buddies.” You have to stick to the truth. That’s what’s most important.
What God expects of us, what Christ and the Prophet of Islam, were they here, would have expected of us is to emphasize those elements of religion that are based on friendship, on mutual respect. “Love thy neighbor,” Christ said. There are many verses of the Koran in which Christians and Jews are praised, and you treat them kindly. Anyone who believes in God and is virtuous will have his reward from God, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or otherwise, the Koran says, even opening the door to non-Abrahamic religions.
We should emphasize these aspects, and we should stand up. We should stand up, be brave enough to stand up vis-á-vis members of our own community who are narrow-minded, who are really, through a kind of blind exclusivism, carrying us all in a direction of perdition and loss and, God knows, chaos — whatever will happen in the future.
Q: Some Muslim extremists refer to non Muslims and especially to people in the United States as “infidels.” In the sense that we’re not Muslims, that is true, but I gather that it has a meaning beyond that. Do they think Americans are all pagans?
A: In THE HEART OF ISLAM, I dealt with this very extensively. “Infidel” is a translation from “fide” in Latin and the prefix “in,” meaning “not having faith.”
The Arabic is “kafir,” which means “to hide,” or “to conceal,” or “to cover over.” Each religion identifies itself and the community outside of itself by some kind of categorization. For example, Christians have “pagans,” or “heathens,” or something like that.
In the Koran, the Muslim can also be a kafir, and a Christian is not necessarily a kafir. But historically, it developed that oftentimes Muslims will call non-Muslims kafir. It didn’t mean they should all be fought against. There’s a very big discussion about this, that God has said in the Koran that you should protect the Christians and Jews, and Christians and Jews have lived within the Islamic world for 1400 years. You have the Christian community in Syria and even Iraq that have lived in peace. It doesn’t mean to fight against them, but the word kafir was sometimes used.
For example, Ottomans used this against the Europeans. When the Crusades took place, the Muslims said these people — called the Francs, the Europeans were kafirs. And that would correspond to the general, classical Christian categorization of “heathen.”
But in the Koran it’s interesting that kafir does not apply to all Christians and Jews. It applies to any human being who covers the religious truth. And that’s why within Islamic civilization some Muslims have called other Muslims kafir. This is not reserved for non-Muslims.
Q: Given each religion’s commitment to its own truth, do you think Christians and Muslims can learn to live together peacefully?
A: I think there’s no more crucial a problem for our day than to be able to cross religious frontiers while preserving our own integrity. In fact, I think this is the only exciting intellectual adventure of our times.
Traditionally, human beings were created to live in a particular human world, which was also a religious world. They did not have to concern themselves with other worlds. You could not blame an Italian in the sixteenth century or an Englishman in a little village in the Middle Ages if they didn’t think about Confucius or Hinduism or Islam or even Judaism.
Today, that world has changed. We have the interpenetration of, first of all, human communities and ideas, books, mass media, television. And the great challenge is how to remain a good Muslim or a good Christian [and] at the same time have the empathy to be able to penetrate the world of the other without vilifying the other. That, I think, is our great challenge.
I believe that it can be done. There were throughout the history of both Christianity and Islam examples of great saints, of great sages who had the magnanimity, who had the vision to be able to see the truth on the other side.
On the Islamic side, we’ve had many, many great Sufi poets, for example, who were very pious Muslims (they are saints; their tombs are visited by ordinary people) and who at the same time spoke about the beauty of Christianity or Judaism, or when they went to India, of Hinduism. One of them said that anybody who reads the Bhagavad-Gita realizes [it is] a book that has come from God. We have to learn from that, and it’s a very great challenge. But I think it can be done, yes.
Q: There’s enough tolerance in each religion that can be built on and used?
A: I would go beyond tolerance. I don’t like the word “tolerance” very much, because you can also tolerate a toothache. There’s enough spiritual substance, I think, within each religion to be able to see that God’s creative power is not limited to just my religion or your religion. God is infinite — and he can manifest a truth outside our world into another world, in the same way he created the human species, species of other animals, and the earth, but also other galaxies, other planets, other suns. We have to learn that. If we put our best foot forward now, it can be done.
Q: Is it possible for traditional Islam to exist side by side with what we think of in the United States as modernism?
A: It’s a vast question, because modernism is always changing. I use the word “modernism” not simply as meaning “contemporary,” but meaning certain premises about the nature of the human being — rationalism, individualism and, in a sense, rejection of the theomorphic nature of the human being, of the divine world over the human world, of the divine will over the human will and so forth and so on.
If you take modernism as a philosophical system, then no, the two are incompatible philosophies in the same way that modernism was incompatible with Christianity and still is fighting after 500 years in many domains with certain aspects of Christianity, except that in the Christian case, modernism grew from the belly of a Christian civilization. Christianity has had 500 years to deal with it. But for Islam, it comes from the world “out there.”
I believe that the question isn’t whether Islam can live with modernism. Why not ask the question, “Can modernism accommodate itself to live according to the truth of Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism?” I think there’s a much more profound battle afoot. It isn’t that modernism has won the day, and now everybody in the world has to conform to it. Modernism itself and its foundations are floundering. The crises it has brought about — of the environment, of the breakup of family relationships, of society, of the meaninglessness of life — have turned many, many people to try to seek something beyond its borders. That’s why now we talk about postmodernism.
I think we are in a time when Islam as a value system, not only as a religion, has to be thought about as a contending way of looking at the universe. And Islam can live with modernism on a practical level. I mean, you can have a hospital and go to it if your wife gets sick. But as far as the philosophy is concerned, it’s like mathematics. You cannot have two and two be four and two and two be six. There has to be an intellectual exchange. The idea that modernism is reality, and everything else has to conform itself to it — that has to be challenged.
Q: Is there a conflict between traditional Islam and the Western idea of democracy and freedom?
A: Not necessarily. First of all, democracy is a means to an end. It is not one single institution. Democracy simply is the Greek word for “the rule of the people.” The voice of the people must be heard. There’s no innate contradiction [with Islam].
If somebody says, “Well, why wasn’t Thomas Jefferson born in Cairo?”, the answer is, of course, that in the West itself, it was [a] long, historical process from the Magna Carta and so on until George Washington and Jefferson and [the] American constitution and modern democracies.
For most of its history, the Christian world was like the Islamic world. It had an emperor, or a king, or some kind of absolutist monarchy. The fact that this development took place in a particular area of the world called the West doesn’t mean this was part and parcel of Christianity. Christianity accommodated itself to it.
There’s no reason why Islam cannot accommodate itself to democracy — unless by “democracy” we mean cutting off the voice of God. That’s something else.
Q: Many Americans speak about the possibility of creating democracy in Iraq. Is there any reason there couldn’t be a democracy in Iraq?
A: There’s no reason, but there’s every reason that you cannot do it from the outside. You can always help the conditions, but you have to have the transformations from within. Let me give you a concrete example. General Douglas MacArthur, by defeating the Japanese army, removed a very heavy constraint within Japanese society — the Japanese military machine of General Tojo and so forth. But the creation of the institution of democracy did not come from the American army. It came from the Japanese people.
The Muslim people do not like freedom any less than anybody else. It is in the nature of human beings to like freedom. You don’t think somebody sitting in a shop in, say, Damascus doesn’t want to be free to travel to Cairo without ten stops at the border? No, he wants to do the same thing as we have here going to Canada and back. It isn’t that Muslims are against democracy or freedom. The problem is sometimes these terms are defined exclusively upon the basis of the Western experience, which is culturally bound, which has taken many historical transformations to become what it is. And we expect to transplant that right into Iraq. You cannot even transplant it into Bolivia or Mexico, which is just south of the border. Mexican democracy is very, very different from American democracy. So, it needs time. And if the West is friendly and its interest in the Islamic world is not only its own interest, but it also wants to have a friend with whom to trade, to negotiate, to exchange institutions that we call in the West “democratic,” it would grow up much more rapidly.
Unfortunately, since the colonial period, the experience of the Islamic world has been that usually the West has not supported democratic movements in the Islamic world, but has supported any regime that would protect its interests, whether that regime was democratic or not. That has been the experience of the people. So, they are, of course, very skeptical about this.
Q: After 9-11, there seemed to be a lot of support for the United States, a lot of good will from the Islamic world. That’s not the case anymore. What happened, and what do we need to do to restore good relations?
A: There was a great deal of good will. I was in Cairo on 9-11, and I went immediately to the bazaar in Al Azha University, the heart of the city, to see what the reaction of the people would be, and everybody was very, very saddened by the loss of life that had taken place. There’s no doubt about that.
They were also angry at the fact that the United States had not solved the Arab-Israeli question earlier so as not to create any excuses in the hands of extremists to do such dastardly acts. But they were very sad. They sympathized with America. Even in Iran, which has no relations with the United States, thousands of people came out holding candles at night — a vigil — and prayed for those who had lost their lives in this great tragedy.
Three things have happened since then. First of all, the attack against Afghanistan caused loss of life and property that were never compensated for. The situation in Afghanistan is much more drastic than we think. We don’t want to think about it anymore. But a lot of people think about it.
Secondly, and I think most important of all, the tragedy of 9-11 was followed almost immediately by much stronger Israeli attacks against Palestinian areas. Muslims felt that the United States just gave an open hand for this to take place. The American mass media did not show the actual spilling of the blood of children and young people in the streets, women and so forth; they’re not usually seen. But it’s seen on television in the Arab world and the rest of the Islamic world all the time. And it went on and on and on.
Third, of course, was that suddenly the attention turned away from the war against terrorism, which all Muslims would have supported, because many Islamic countries themselves suffer from terrorism — Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and many, many countries. There’s a lot of sympathy for getting rid of people who cause this chaos, who cause the death of innocent people. But this veered off toward the war against Iraq which, for the vast majority of Muslims, has no moral authority and even no logic because Iraq, they feel, is not a threat to the United States. There’s no possibility of its being able to attack the United States. It is now weakened very much. Thousands of Iraqi children have either died or become sick as a result of the embargo of the last decade.
So, these three events together, unfortunately, diminished much of that good will. But even now there’s a great deal of good will toward the people of the United States in the Islamic world. This should not be mistaken. No matter how high the anger is at this policy or that policy of this administration or that administration, there’s a great deal of admiration. This is proven by the fact that most Muslim students who can go abroad still want to study in the United States. Of course now, with all these arrests at the border and things like that, in some countries [it] has diminished. But even in Saudi Arabia, where the young students have so many problems getting a visa and coming, they want to come, nevertheless. There’s still a tremendous amount of respect for American society, for many of its institutions — especially educational ones, for the historical ideals of America, for being a pluralistic society, being very welcoming to others, allowing people to grow and to develop. These things are held in very high respect in the Islamic world even now.
Q: If the United States attacked Iraq, would it be seen around the Muslim world as an attack on Islam?
A: At the present moment, it’s being seen as an attack on Islam, because all of the countries that America attacks seem to be Islamic — Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and so forth.
But if a strong voice among the Iraqi people — and not just people who are Muslims sitting [like] puppets in London or some place, but [the voice of people] within Iraq — very quickly sides with this change of regime and a national government really supported by [the] Iraqi people comes to power and can actually look after the interests of the Iraqi people, that will not be, in the long-run, such an important factor.
If that doesn’t happen, it will for decades and decades, I think, delay the creation of a better relationship between the Islamic world and America. There’s no doubt about that. That’s one of the reasons Europeans are dragging their feet — because they sit on the northern part of the Mediterranean and the Muslims on the southern part. They know that they need these Muslim workers; their economy cannot function without the large number of workers [who] come from these lands. And that’s why they don’t want to be considered openly as enemies of the Islamic world. I think they’re very wise in what they’re doing, from the point of their own national interests.
Q: If the attack occurs against Iraq, what do you think the consequences would be throughout the Islamic world?
A: I think that certain countries adjacent to Iraq, especially Jordan and possibly the little sheikhdoms, possibly Saudi Arabia, could be not totally toppled, with coup d’etats and so forth, but there could be major perturbations in them. Also in countries such as Egypt and Algeria and Morocco, perhaps, there would be major demonstrations, major problems for the governments inside those countries. And if the war drags on and a large number of people are killed, there could really be chaos — uprisings in various cities and all kinds of things like that in those countries. I don’t think this will occur outside of the Arab world.
But in the Islamic world in general, there will be a tremendous distrust of the United States for a long, long time to come, and of the governments that are supportive of the United States. There will be a much wider chasm in countries which feel that the government is just following the line of the United States — Pakistan, possibly Egypt, Indonesia — countries like that.
Iran is in a very special situation, because Iran suffered from a ten-year war with Iraq, not supported by the United States, of course. The chemicals used on Iranians were given to Iraq with at least the permission of the United States at that time in order to have power against Iran. They have a great deal of bitterness against Iraq, but even there I’ve heard that they are not in favor of the United States simply coming and taking over, because a Muslim country feel[s] any country that tries to stand on its own feet can be considered [an] enemy of the United States, and it can be conquered.
It would be a return to the colonial period, in the Muslim mind. And all of the events that took place in Islamic countries during the colonial period to try to get rid of colonialism would come back again — sniping at American soldiers, and so on. They can sabotage us here and there, making life very uncomfortable and very difficult — suicide bombing and all these terrible things that are against Islamic law; but people do it in desperation, and this would come back on a wider scale. It’s a Pandora’s Box we have to be very, very careful not to open. I think it’s an extremely, extremely dangerous situation.