The past few decades have witnessed a growing interest in Islam in the West, increasing with each global event involving the name of Islam: from the Lebanese civil war to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the rise of Islamic movements among Palestinians. This rising interest now stands at unprecedented levels since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The world is thirsty for information about Islam, especially in America, yet this thirst has generally not been quenched with healthy water. In fact, a torrent of “knowledge” has flooded the media from books to journals, radio, and television, much of which is based on ignorance, misinformation, and even disinformation. Not only has this torrent failed the cause of understanding, it has too frequently rendered the greatest disservice to the Western public in order to further particular ideological and political goals.
Of course, distortion of matters Islamic in the West is not new; it has a thousand-year-old history going back to monstrous biographies of the Prophet of Islam written mostly in Latin in France and Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries. This earlier portrayal of Islam as a Christian heresy, however, still showed an intellectual respect for Islamic civilization and thought. During the Renaissance such figures as Petrarch abandoned even this respect in favor of outright disdain. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain figures such as Voltaire tried to use aspects of Islam to attack Christianity, while a number of exceptional figures like Goethe and Emerson held Islamic teachings in great love and esteem. Meanwhile, the new methods of rationalist, historicist, and skeptical scholarship about religion growing out of the so-called Age of Enlightenment (which was in reality an age of the darkening of the soul and eclipse of the intellect) began to apply their methods to the study of Islam in the name of orientalism. Even when they were not serving colonial powers, most of these orientalists studied Islam in the arrogant belief that they possessed a flawless scientific method that applied universally to all religions. The last thing such scholars cared about was what Muslims, or for that matter Hindus or Buddhists, thought about their own religion and how they experienced their own religious universe. Of course, there were exceptions, but these only proved the rule. Orientalist studies of Islam began and ended with the unspoken presumption that Islam was not a revelation, but a phenomenon contrived merely by human agency in a particular historical situation. In this chorus the voices of Louis Massignon, H. A. R. Gibb, and Henry Corbin, followed by a later generation of sympathetic Western scholars such as Annemarie Schimmel, remain truly exceptional.
It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that born Muslims well versed in Western languages and methods of research and expression began to write in-depth works on Islam in European languages to explain the tradition in a serious way to the Western audience. They were joined in this task by a number of Western intellectual and spiritual figures and scholars who had been able to penetrate the Islamic universe of meaning and to speak and write from within the Islamic tradition. As a result of the efforts of these two groups, a number of authentic and profound books on various aspects of Islam appeared in English and other European languages.
In contrast to earlier periods, such works were at least available, but their voices continued to be drowned out by the cacophonies of those who rejected Islam from positions of either Christian or Jewish polemicism or secular agnosticism. In fact, there is no religion about which so much has been written in the West by those opposed to it as Islam. No such parallel can be found for Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
Since the September 11 tragedy, with the rise of interest in Islamic matters, the cacophony has become louder, necessitating an explanation of the authentic teachings of Islam anew in light of the challenges of the present-day situation. This book is a humble effort toward achieving this end. It was commissioned by Harper San Francisco and has been written with the express purpose of explaining certain basic aspects of Islam and widely discussed issues in a manner acceptable to mainstream Islamic thought and comprehensible to the general Western public. It seeks to render a service to all those Westerners genuinely interested in understanding authentic Islam and its relation to the West rather than relying on the distorted images of Islam often presented to them. Needless to say, in a single book of this size it is not possible to deal with all the relevant issues, but I have sought to deal at least with the most significant ones Preface ix in an effort to open a spiritual and intellectual space for mutual understanding. I also point to principles enabling Muslims and Westerners alike to live in peace and harmony with each other and to join hands against all those from both sides who seek to fan the fire of hatred and to precipitate clashes of civilizations and nations.
I wish to thank Stephen Hanselman of Harper San Francisco for his many suggestions for the book, Katherine O’Brien for helping to prepare the manuscript for publication, and Joseph Lumbard for proofreading the manuscript. May this humble effort serve as a small step toward bringing about better understanding between people of good will in the West and in the Islamic world.
Dhu’l-hijjah a.h. 1423