From Golden Age to an Embattled Faith Islam Once was at Forefront of Civilization

By Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune
February 8, 2004

GRANADA, Spain — As the fiery orange sun sinks behind the mountains, the stones of the 800-year-old Alhambra take on a rosy glow. Against the backdrop of the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the fortress’ rugged towers stand out in the gathering dusk.

As the lights of this long-ago capital of al-Andalus–Islamic Spain–blink to life, about 30 men kneel in neat rows inside a whitewashed mosque atop a hill facing the Alhambra. Palms held upward, they recite the evening prayers and bend forward until their heads touch the floor. Behind a thin screen, the shadowy outlines of the women of the mosque move in the same time-honored rhythms.

These two hilltop edifices represent the past and present faces of Islam.

The Alhambra fortress, which the Moorish rulers of southern Spain began to construct in 1238, recalls the splendor and achievements of the golden age of Islam, when the youngest of the three great monotheistic religions held sway from the Straits of Gibraltar in the west to the banks of the Indus River in the east.

Across the ravine, the humble mosque, whose plain white walls and red tile roof make it virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors, testifies to the renewed vigor of Islam, a fast-growing religion with a worldwide membership of about 1.2 billion, including 2 million to 4 million in America, although some Muslim groups put the figure at 7 million.

It is the first new mosque in Granada in more than 500 years, yet its opening in July came at a time of profound questioning about the meaning and direction of Islam. The Koran, Islam’s holy book, preaches peace and charity, but to some Western ears, the loudest voices in the Muslim world extol hate and violence.

Islam is hardly unique as a religion that has been twisted to justify killing. Historical circumstances help explain how terrorists have commandeered Islam as their cause.

Unlike some religions, Islam does not have a clearly defined hierarchy to pronounce authoritatively on matters of doctrine and interpretation. Backed by radical imams, Islamic militants can claim that their interpretation of Islamic teachings is at least as valid as others. Also, Islam recognizes no separation between church and state. That makes it easy for terrorists to cloak their political causes–over Palestine or the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia–in religious rhetoric. And the concept of jihad, which signifies much more than holy war, provides another convenient cover for killers and suicide bombers.

But scholars who have studied Islam and terrorism say none of these factors would matter if the Islamic world were not still suffering from a centuries-old crisis of confidence, born of the loss of its place at the forefront of world civilization.

“A conquering civilization doesn’t have terrorism,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. “The conquered have terrorism. If you look on the map, the question of Palestine, of Kashmir, of the southern Philippines, of Chechnya, they are all places where Muslims are trying to protect their land or their culture, and they are losing. They only have recourse to these horrible means.”

Islam’s current sense of itself as an embattled faith stands in stark contrast to its past. For at least 500 years, the Islamic world was the driving force in human development. While Europe struggled to emerge from the chaos left by the collapse of the Roman Empire, Muslim scientists, engineers and architects were the most advanced in the world, and Muslim rulers nurtured a cosmopolitan culture that was often remarkably tolerant of the Jews and Christians who lived in its midst.

The youngest of the three closely related faiths that believe in one god, Islam was born in the unpromising desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula.

In 610, a 40-year-old businessman was on a monthlong spiritual retreat on Mt. Hira, near the Arabian city of Mecca, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and uttered the command, “Iqra”–“Recite.”

God’s words began to pour from the man’s mouth.

Over the next 22 years, Muhammad ibn Abdullah received many such revelations, which his followers later wrote down, forming the Koran.

Christian and Jewish readers of the Koran are struck by the familiar names they encounter. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus all figure into Muhammad’s revelations, sometimes in ways that coincide with the Bible and sometimes in ways that are strikingly different.

“The three [religions] came from essentially the same place,” said Frank Peters, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and religion at New York University. “They all worship the same God, as they all admit.”

But to Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, not the son of God. And, although they accept the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels as inspired texts, they believe that these writings became corrupted with errors and falsifications. They see the Koran as the true word of God, delivered to Muhammad, who is God’s rasul, or messenger. “This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt,” God declares at the beginning of the Koran.

Expansion, fissures

By the time of his death in 632, Muhammad had won believers in much of present-day Saudi Arabia. His successors vastly expanded the borders of Islam, conquering Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa and present-day Iraq and Iran. So rapid was Islam’s growth that in 711, 101 years after Muhammad received the first revelation, an Islamic army invaded Spain.

And yet, within the first century of Islam’s growth, the first important fissure in the new religion also appeared. Following Muhammad’s death, the leadership of the Islamic community passed to a series of his closest companions and only later to his closest male relative, his cousin and son-in-law Ali.

A minority of Muslims, who became known as Shiites, believe that Ali and his descendants were the rightful successors of Muhammad. The majority, known as Sunnis, accept that the prophet’s companions took over after his death.

This division is the most important but hardly the only split among Muslims, mirroring the spectrum of conservative, moderate and liberal sects within Christianity and Judaism.

As Islamic rulers took control of the Middle East, they devised laws–called dhimma–that allowed non-Muslims to practice their religion, in keeping with the Koran’s teachings that Jews and Christians should be accepted as ahl al kitab–people of the book.

Great leap forward

The conquest of the eastern Mediterranean gave Muslim scholars access to the written legacy of the ancient world. The works of Aristotle, Plato and other Greeks would serve as the springboard for Arabic science’s great leap forward.

“Within about 150 years, they had translated the whole of Greek science into Arabic,” said Peters, author of “Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians.” “Talk about technology transfer. They just sucked the technological gut out of it and then assimilated it enough to begin to build on it.”

Starting in the 9th Century, the Islamic world was the center of scientific discovery for at least 500 years. Arab astronomers plotted star locations to fractions of a degree. Islamic mathematicians pioneered a new field called algebra. Muslim physicians were the first to use catgut to close incisions.

Not just Islamic scientists and writers flourished in this era. Jewish and Christian intellectuals shared in the achievements; the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, born in Islamic Spain, wrote almost all of his major works in Arabic.

Left behind

But with the coming of the Renaissance in 14th Century Italy, the prophet’s religion was about to be eclipsed. A resurgent Europe soon raced ahead of the Islamic world.

Exactly why Islam did not keep up with the West is a matter of continued scholarly debate, but one often-cited reason is Muslims’ relative lack of interest in Europe and, later, America. They viewed the West as a backward hinterland of barbarians best-known for their largely ineffective attacks on the Holy Land in the Crusades during the Middle Ages.

“It was a judgment that had for long been reasonably accurate,” Middle East expert Bernard Lewis said in “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.” “It was becoming dangerously out of date.”

The Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution of the 17th Century “passed virtually unnoticed in the land of Islam,” Lewis wrote.

Through the long centuries of decline, Muslims adopted various approaches to try to catch up with the West. After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk established the officially secular state of Turkey, an attempt to reproduce the West’s separation of church and state.

That ideal is novel in Islamic societies, in part because Muhammad himself was not only a prophet but also a ruler, first in Medina and later in Mecca.

“In Islam, it is God and not the people who gives a government legitimacy,” Karen Armstrong, a noted religion scholar, wrote in “Islam: A Short History.”

On the other hand, some Muslims have taken an approach diametrically opposed to that of Ataturk and other secularists. The answer to Islam’s woes, they say, is to reform the faith, purifying it of later accretions that prevent Muslims from achieving the perfect islam, or surrender to God, of Muhammad and his earliest followers.

Among many movements of this type, one of the most consequential for the modern world began in the mid-18th Century, when Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab attracted followers by calling for a radical reform of the religion. The ideal, Abdel-Wahhab declared, was to recreate the pure faith of the first Muslims in the 7th Century.

In practice, that meant not only following Muhammad’s injunctions to pray five times daily, fast during Ramadan and make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but also punishing thieves by cutting off their hands and other measures that strike many Westerners as Draconian.

Wahhabism was adopted by the Saud dynasty, and, since the establishment of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the early 20th Century, this exceptionally conservative form of Islam has been the official religion of the state. It has also been the beneficiary of Saudi largess, which has funded Wahhabi efforts to win more converts throughout the Muslim world.

To Americans, the most infamous Wahhabi is Osama bin Laden, the extremist leader of the terrorist network Al Qaeda, which is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bin Laden, a Saudi, harbors deep hatred for America, in part for stationing troops in Saudi Arabia during and after the Persian Gulf war in 1991. For bin Laden and his followers, the presence of infidel troops in the country that contains the two holiest places in Islam–Mecca and Medina–is an affront to the faith.

Wahhabism is an example of a fundamentalist movement, a development that has surfaced in other monotheistic religions. Some Christians and Jews seek to renew their religions by returning to the roots of their faiths. And some Christians and Jews, like some Muslims, transform their zeal into violence and become religious terrorists.

“All three religions can be used to justify, in the terrorists’ minds, terrorism and violence,” said Jessica Stern, a Harvard University lecturer and author of “Terror in the Name of God,” which examines the sources of religious violence in the three monotheistic faiths. “If you look at the Old Testament, it’s very violent. If you’re looking for violence, you can find it.”

An important common denominator among religious terrorists is a sense of humiliation, Stern said. For Muslims, that can mean many things, from Israel’s defeat of Arab nations in the 1967 Six-Day War to the corruption and unrelenting poverty of most Middle Eastern countries, which stand in stark contrast to the thriving economies of other parts of the developing world, such as the Far East.

Jihad and martyrs

Muslim terrorists have a ready concept to explain their actions–jihad, which most non-Muslims think means “holy war.”

In fact, jihad means struggle, and Muslim tradition says Muhammad distinguished between two types of jihad. The greater struggle is within oneself to resist evil, or within the Muslim community to reform error. The lesser form of jihad, according to the prophet, is warfare against infidels, which Muslim scholars have argued should be waged under strictly defined conditions, one of which calls for sparing non-combatants, such as women and children.

But the Koran can be contradictory on many matters, including jihad. “Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them,” reads one verse, seemingly an open invitation to wage war. Other verses counsel avoiding jihad, including one that calls for patience in dealing with non-Muslims: “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way.”

The argument for a modern-day jihad against the West finds its philosophical foundation in the work of an Egyptian writer, Sayyid Qutb, who lived briefly in America and saw the separation of religion and state as the root of the West’s moral decadence. The West, he argued, had inflicted its ills on Muslims through colonization, and the only cure was the establishment of a pure Islamic state. Qutb’s radical vision, a core tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood, was anathema to a secular ruler like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ordered Qutb’s execution in 1966.

The Brotherhood spread its beliefs across the Muslim world, despite government crackdowns, and Qutb’s anti-Western positions have become articles of faith among Islamic terrorists, especially Al Qaeda.

Lacking large armies to fight conventional battles, Al Qaeda and similar organizations have resorted to suicide missions to spread terror, a tactic that would seem to be forbidden by the Koran. “And do not kill yourself, for God is indeed merciful to you,” the Koran commands. A widely accepted belief in Islam holds that those who commit suicide will spend eternity in hell.

But terrorist leaders and the radical religious figures who support them have long argued that suicide bombers are really martyrs dying in service of their faith. And the Koran is clear about what awaits martyrs in the afterlife: “Think not of those who are slain in the cause of God as dead. Nay, they live in the presence of the Lord and are granted gifts from him.”

The Muslim vision of the afterlife resembles the Christian version in that those who are saved dwell with God, but the Koran also spells out some specific rewards–abundant fruit and wine, served by beautiful, dark-eyed virgins called houris.

This vision of what awaits a martyr gives militant extremists such as bin Laden a powerful inducement to recruit new jihadis, or warriors, to carry out their one-way missions.

Status of Islam

This small minority of Muslims has caused many in America and Europe to regard Islam with fear and suspicion. Some American Muslims were the victims of anti-Muslim violence in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the government detained or deported hundreds of Muslims, a move civil liberties groups decried.

Extremists such as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a cleric serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up several New York landmarks, have found adherents in America, but a 2001 survey found that 70 percent of American Muslims strongly agreed that Muslims should participate in American institutions and the political process.

Although most American Muslims bring their faith with them from their native lands, as many as 30 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are converts.

In Europe, Muslim immigrants are also facing scrutiny and coming into conflict with authorities over such issues as the height of minarets at mosques or, as in France, the wearing of the hijab, or head scarf, in schools.

As a small step toward making Islam less threatening, the leaders of the new mosque in Granada have decided to leave the curtains of the mosque’s prayer room open during services. Drawn by the mosque’s stunning view of the Alhambra, crowds of curious onlookers peer at the men of the mosque as they bow toward Mecca.

“I think it is very necessary that Western people should have firsthand knowledge of how Muslims really live and believe,” said Abdalhasib Castineira, the director of the foundation that built the mosque. “This is one little service that we can render to clarify these ideas that people have about Islam, mainly negative notions.”

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