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Not too long ago, at the end of an invited lecture, I was asked to name the most emphatic moral values taught by Islam. The answer was easy enough—it would have to be mercy, compassion, and peace. After all, these are the values that each practicing Muslim affirms in prayer at least five times a day. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when some members in the audience chuckled as if to say: "Come on, get real!" In a similar experience, after President Bush appointed me to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, mingled with the messages of congratulations from well-wishers were messages from people I did not know asking: What could a Muslim possibly have to contribute to the cause of religious freedom and tolerance in the world?
These personal experiences are not anomalies: every Muslim will have her or his own stories to tell about how Islam is poorly perceived. Confronted with such negative perceptions of their religion, Muslims have a choice. They could complain and cry about it and grow old in silent bitterness. Alternatively, they could decide to teach others about their faith, but this assumes they are sufficiently educated and well-informed about their own religion. The problem, however, is that many Muslims are woefully ignorant about their own religion. This forces Muslims to consider a third relevant option, and that is to engage in study and thought not just to better understand the Islamic religion but also to try to understand how and why so many non-Muslims have come to have such a negative impression of Islam. Before trying to educate others about Islam we must first reflect upon the sources and reasons for the pervasive misunderstandings and misinformation.
For a believing Muslim, asking what if anything went wrong with the Islamic faith is an uncomfortable question. A Muslim cannot help but feel that he or she is somehow playing into the hands of Islam's enemies. All religions at one time or another have played a role in inspiring intolerance and violence, so why should Islam be singled out for special scrutiny? It is tempting for the faithful to absolve the Islamic faith of any possible fault and instead blame Muslims. In fact, many Muslims argue that Islam, as a set of beliefs and ideals, should not be blamed for the malfeasance of its followers. The fact that certain people who call themselves Muslims commit acts of ugliness is due, this argument says, to economic, political, and sociocultural factors that breed violence and intolerance, not to Islam. From this perspective, it is a mistake to attempt to critically examine Islamic doctrines, beliefs, or history when evaluating the contemporary problems that plague Muslims. Instead, one ought to ask what, if anything, went wrong with Muslims.
Although this argument does have some merit, as a general approach it is not a satisfying way of addressing the challenges that confront Muslims in the modern age. There are several reasons why this approach is both dishonest and dangerous. It is understandable that out of love and care for their religion some Muslims would be eager to defend their faith by pointing the finger away from Islam. A call for critical introspection, in the view of these Muslims, is tantamount to accusing Islam of being deficient or flawed, and understandably they take great offense at such an insinuation. Muslims who believe that Islam is perfect and immutable regard a call for introspection with considerable suspicion and perhaps even hostility. Furthermore, in light of the historical conflicts between Islam and the West, calls for introspection are often seen as nothing more than poorly veiled attempts at appeasing the West by maligning Islam. A considerable number of Muslims believe wholeheartedly that fellow Muslims who attempt to adopt a critical stance toward the Islamic tradition are nothing more than self-promoters seeking to placate the West at Islam's expense.
These objections have merit, and I sympathize with those who believe that Islam is maligned enough as it is. The modern Muslim is exposed to a barrage of bad news and negative media coverage on a daily basis. It is undeniable that there is no short supply of Islam-haters, in the Western and non-Western worlds alike, who seem eager to malign the Islamic faith at every opportunity. In fact, I believe that the anti-Muslim sentiment in the modern age has reached a level of prejudice every bit as sinister and endemic as racism and anti-Semitism. As a consequence, the temptation is enormous for Muslims to adopt a defensive posture by insisting that Islam is perfect and that the inherited doctrines and dogmas of the Islamic tradition do not in any way contribute to the plight of Muslims in the modern age. Understandable though this defensive posture might be, it is a position that has its costs, and I believe that these costs have become oppressively prohibitive. In fact, the only way that Muslims can remain true to the moral message of their religion and at the same time discharge their covenant with God is through introspective self-criticism and reform.
Although the schism between moderate and puritan Muslims has become distinct, pronounced, and real, this division is not explicitly recognized in the Muslim world. The dichotomy between the two groups is a lived and felt reality, but there has been no attempt to recognize the systematic differences between the two contending parties. In fact, many Muslims have been reluctant to speak openly of two primary orientations juxtaposed against each other within modern Islam. The failure to acknowledge the existence of such a division has contributed to the confusion about who in Islam believes in what, and it may also be responsible for the widespread misconceptions about the teachings and doctrines of the religion.
The reluctance of many Muslims to recognize the existence of a schism within the faith is in many ways due to the powerful influence of the dogma . . .The Great Theft
Excerpted from The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists by Khaled M. Abou El Fadl
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