ISLAM has been divided and troubled since its inception fourteen hundred years ago. Today, its troubles have become our troubles. Until Islam’s inner turmoil is resolved, we will have no peace.
In Islam’s earliest days, conquest brought great wealth to Muslim leaders. Competition for political leadership was intense.
The earliest division arose between Uthman ibn ’Affan and Mohammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib.
Uthman’s followers became keepers of the sunna, (personal sayings and customs of Mohammad himself). They are the Sunni Muslims.
Ali’s followers, the Shi‘ites, claim leadership authority based upon the tradition that Mohammad declared Ali (his cousin) as his successor, before 120,000 witnesses.
Iran inherited the Shi‘ite tradition.
I was in Iran in 1999, and visited Astan Quds Razavi in the city of Masshad, the largest Islamic shrine besides the Ka‘aba in Mecca. I made acquaintances there, and upon my return to the United States, Razavi’s Office of International Relations has continued to send me books on Islam.
They recently sent Yasin T. al-Jibouri’s, Allah: The Concept of God in Islam (744 pp.), published by Ansariyan, 1997. Al-Jibouri says he’s writing "for open-minded non-Muslims." He says the religion of Islam is "tolerant," but confesses, "most leaders of our Islamic world nowadays" are "hypocritical" (p.5).
Islam is certainly not known for being tolerant, but fanatically intolerant. Al-Jibouri believes this is because of wrong doctrinal emphases made by Islamic leaders. He says they haven’t communicated intelligently to the West the beauty of "Allah." He believes the attraction of Islam is Allah, not any cultural identity or "religion" that comes with Islam.
This might be said of all religions. Their universal values are often beclouded by the particular cultural settings in which they are presented. An American convert to Islam, for example, thinks he has to dress like an Arab. But there’s no such teaching in the Koran.
Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946), one of the most prolific writers of 20th century Iran, spoke strongly about religious reformation. Focusing on the Koran itself, he said it had lost its effectiveness, and was simply used by leaders for their own ends. (On Islam and Shi‘ism, trans. M. R. Ghanoonparvar, intro. M .A. Jazayery (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 1990), p.27).
This might be said of any ancient religious text. It’s the fate of inspiration in this world. The prophet speaks, then the people make a religion out of the prophet and his words. Therefore, religion reeks with fundamental human error. Greed, envy, fear, and vicarious self-idolization through tradition all run rampant in religion.
Everyone knows it at heart.
So what is different about Islam? It seems to be the degree to which "church" and "state" are united.
Religious reform must result from personal conviction, not government intervention.
Government destroys spirituality, because rules for group behavior always shortchange the personal experience.
Government that dictates personal behavior becomes tyrannical. Religious governments are dysfunctional when relating to any other kind of government, such as a democracy. Consider the limitations of any modern fundamentalist-driven Islamic regime, like Afghanistan’s Taliban, when relating to the United States. Communication is impossible with the Taliban.
Moreover, "group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterize individual relations," said Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932; rpt. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1960). As groups, we’re all bound to greatly err, even more than an individual is.
When religion depends on culture and government, disunity is inevitable. The fact that Iran was Persian and not Arabian, for example, created an early rift in the unity of Islam.
The Koran does not address such cultural conflicts. The unity envisioned by Islamic imperialists is a mirage. Islam is no more unified than Buddhism or Christianity, and is never likely to be.
Like all religions, Islam will find its soul only when it focuses on the spiritual needs of its adherents.
Paradoxically, it may be those Muslims who live here, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, who have the best chance of reforming their troubled religion.
In a nation where Islam’s hunger for political power is blocked by law, the faith of Mohammed may be forced at last to reconcile itself to being a mere religion, like other religions.
Among my friends in the Iranian-American community, I have noticed signs of just the sort of special objectivity that is needed.
Perhaps it is here in America that Islam will find its soul.
Perhaps, paradoxically, Islam’s darkest sin the murder of 6,000 innocent Americans – may become its path to redemption.