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historical context for contemporary interest in islam

This is the Introduction from Muslim Primer--Beginner's Guide to Islam by Ira G. Zepp Jr.
It has been reprinted here with permission from the University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

"We are not terrorists; we don't hijack airplanes. "

--The response of three Muslim students when asked, "What would you like westerners to know about Islam?" (May 1991)

For several centuries before the 1979 takeover of the American embassy by Islamic students in Teheran and the subsequent captivity of American hostages for 444 days, most Westerners had not taken Islam very seriously. A minority of Western people champion the cause of Palestinian refugees and try to understand the painful history which at the same time divides and unites Jews and Arabs. But on political and emotional balance, the majority of Americans and Europeans sympathize with Israel. This has prevented us from feeling the tremors from the Islamic world, from hearing the voice of the Muslim soul, and from appreciating the human experience of one-sixth of the world's population.

A brief historical perspective is in order to help us understand why we have ignored such a rich and vibrant culture, why we in the West have had continuing strife with Islamic countries, and especially why we are confused about what are called the "roots of Muslim rage."

Let us recall that for about a thousand years after Muhammad's death, Muslims were on the march through the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. In that process Muslims almost won the known world for Islam. This new religio-political force was finally stopped by threatened and strongly mobilized European armies. At the same time, while Europe was in the so-called Dark Ages, Islam was creating an advanced and sophisticated culture in such places as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordova. This period was known as Islam's "Golden Age," or the "Classical Period." No field of human endeavor was untouched by Muslim genius. Discoveries, explorations, and insights in mathematics, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, literature, and science all came during this period. Many of them were eventually shared with the West. A later chapter will detail some of the gifts of Islam to world culture.

Copyright 1992 by Ira G. Zepp, Jr.

Zepp is professor emeritus of religious studies at Western Maryland College.

Then, in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul), and that empire controlled most of the Middle East until well into the first quarter of the 20th century. The European response, which also began in the 16th century, was to colonize as much of the rest of the world as possible, including the Americas, Africa, and a good deal of Asia. This empire building lasted for about 400 years.

After World War I, and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations assigned most of the Middle East to France and Great Britain. Iraq, Jordan (then Trans-Jordan), Palestine, and some Gulf States went to Britain. Syria and Lebanon went to France. Through it all, Saudi Arabia remained independent. But by 1920 most of the Muslim world was under some form of colonial rule by a Western power.

The United States never colonized the Middle East in a military or politically imperial way. However, our need for oil, which was discovered there in the first decade of this century, allied us with and sometimes forced us to support leaders such as the Shah of Iran, who did not represent what traditional Islam holds dear.

It was a classic clash of cultural values. Many Muslims called it "Westoxification," and many Americans thought Muslims "undeveloped." We could not or did not desire to share the basic values of Islam. A sizeable number of Muslims, Sunni and Shiite alike, see the materialism and technocratic mindset of the West (itself a stereotype) as barriers to their worship of Allah and threats to the very foundation of Islamic family life and the larger Muslim society. So Muslims felt put upon and violated by us; to a degree, they saw themselves colonized by the economic power of Western countries, the United States in particular.

World War II saw the emergence of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. At the same time Western European countries saw a weakening of their hold on the colonies in Asia and Africa. And now that the colonial powers have withdrawn from the Middle East, Muslim nations are again drawing attention to themselves and are a force to be dealt with in international politics.

Much of this attention is fueled by anger, a sense of humiliation, and a loss of self-esteem. Bernard Lewis, a well-known orientalist who taught at the University of London and most recently at Princeton University, says that Muslim rage against the West is a result of "a growing awareness among the heirs of an old, proud, and long-dominant civilization of having been overtaken, overborn, and overwhelmed by those whom they had long regarded their inferiors." This rage has not only triggered tension between the West and Islam; it has also caused conflict among the Middle Eastern neighbors themselves, the likes of which we have not seen for centuries. The kind of intertribal warfare going on today between Iraq and Iran, Lebanon and Syria, and Israel and Jordan is reminiscent of the numerous wars, often religiously motivated, among European nations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

History is a reliable teacher, and the understanding of ourselves and others is deepened if we listen to its message. The message from Islam is that to deny the importance of religion in one's history and identity is to destroy one's culture and one's self.

Reprinted by permission of the University of Arkansas Press.
Copyright 1992 by Ira G. Zepp, Jr.

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