People were one community and God sent unto them prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and revealed therein the scripture with the truth that it might judge between people concerning that wherein they differed.

Quran 2:213

This community of yours is a single community.

Quran 21:92


One of the key concepts of the Quran and of Islam as a religion is that of community(ummah) . There is no doubt that Islam meant to create a community based on justice, one in which the pursuit of the Divine Law was made possible, not just injunctions for private behavior. In the debate between those who claim the primacy of society and those who emphasize the primal significance of the individual, Islam takes a middle course and believes that this polarization is in fact based on a false dichotomy. There is no society without the individual; nor can the individual survive without society. The social nature of the human being is part of the wisdom of God’s creation, and the Quran asserts, “There is no secret conference of three but He is their fourth, nor of five but He is their sixth, nor of less that that or more but He is with them wheresoever they may be” (58: 7). This truth does not refer only to God’s omniscience, but also to the profound reality of God’s Presence in all human assembly. He is present in human community as He is within the heart or center of the individual.

Yet the role of religion is to save human souls, and on the Day of Judgment, according to Islam, human beings are judged individually and not collectively. The human community is judged in the Quran according to the degree to which it allows its members to live the good life, in the religious sense, based on moral principles. It judges a community to be good to the degree that it reflects the constant presence of the Transcendent Dimension in human life and is based on spiritual and religious ideals. A community as a whole can be judged and punished by God in this world, but a whole community does not enter paradise or hell as a collectivity. Only individual souls do so. Hence our personal responsibility before God remains, in whichever community we happen to live.

Islam recognizes communities according to their religious affiliation. Christians are referred to as the ummah, or community, of Christ and Jews as the ummah of Moses, as Muslims constitute the ummah of the Prophet. Abraham himself is called an ummah “obedient unto God” (16:120), and each community has a set of rites chosen for it by God, “And for every community have We appointed a ritual” (22:34). Originally there was only one ummah: “People were only one community” (10:19), but with the passage of history, different communities came into being and many faded away or were destroyed. The Quran depicts in elaborate terms the rise, decay, and falling away of various communities, which can also be understood as nations in the biblical sense. In fact, “every community has a term, and when its term comes, they cannot put it off an hour nor yet advance [it]” (7:34). And the decay and destruction of communities or nations has happened, according to the Quran, not because of loss of wealth or economic power or even military defeat, but because of moral corruption and straying from the religious norms willed by God for the community in question. The earth belongs to God, and He allows deserving communities or nations to rule over it as long as they deserve to do so. Once they lose their moral authority, they are replaced by God with other communities or nations.

For Islam, community implies above all a human collectivity held together by religious bonds that are themselves the foundation for social, juridical, political, economic, and ethical links between its members. In our period of human history, there is not one, but many communities or nations, which means many religions, as mentioned in Chapter 1, and this is set in the Quran as a condition willed by God, for, “Had God willed, He could have made them one community” (42:8). It is within the context of a world with many communities, all of which Islam sees in religious terms, that the Islamic understanding of itself as an ummah must be situated and understood.

First of all, Islam emphasizes the unity of its own ummah. Although after the first few years of Islamic history various theological and political rifts began to set in and although after the end of the Umayyad caliphate in the East in the eighth century the political unity of Islam was never again realized, the ideal of the unity of the ummah has remained strong throughout Islamic history. In modern times it has manifested itself in various pan-Islamic movements going back to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the nineteenth century. The unity of the Islamic community lies, however, primarily in ethical and spiritual realities within the hearts of the true believers, who emphasize the Quranic dictum that “Verily the believers are brothers” (49:9). Yet although this theme is repeated endlessly in sermons in mosques and elsewhere on various religious occasions, in practice some Muslims have made a mockery of it. This sense of unity and brotherhood, which also includes of course sisterhood, has become weakened by many ethnic, sectarian, and personal factors over the ages, especially in modern times.

Besides seeing themselves as an ummah ordered by God to “call to the good,” Muslims also see themselves as the “middle community” in the world on the basis of the famous Quranic verse in which Muslims are addressed as follows: “Thus We have appointed you a middle community (ummah wasat.ah) that you may be witnesses unto the people and the messenger may be a witness unto you” (2:143). This verse can be and in fact has been understood in many ways. On the most external level, it means that Islam was destined to occupy the middle belt of the classical world from the Mediterranean to the China Sea, with many non-Muslim communities and peoples to the north and south. On a theological level and within the Abrahamic family, Muslims interpret this verse to mean that while Judaism emphasizes laws for this world and Christianity otherworldliness, Islam came to emphasize the middle ground, to strike a balance between this world and the next. Another interpretation, which is primarily ethical, is that “middle community” means that God chose for Muslims the golden mean, the avoidance of extremes in ethical and religious actions. Yet another meaning of this verse, with global implications, is that Muslims constitute “the middle community,” because they have been chosen by God to create a balance between various communities and nations.

This last interpretation, however, does not at all mean that Muslims see themselves as the chosen people in the Jewish sense of the term. On the contrary, Muslims see all communities, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to have been chosen by God, given their own sacred institutions and rites, and

held responsible to Him. The role Muslims have always envisaged for themselves in the arena of human history as the “middle community” does not mean that other human collectivities do not have their own God-ordained roles to play. Nothing is further from Islam’s traditional understanding of itself than being God’s chosen people, unless one expands this claim to say that all ummahs, or communities, are God’s chosen people, each brought into this world to perform a function in accordance with the Divine Wisdom and Will.

Today in the Islamic world, the ummah is politically more divided and even culturally more fragmented, as a result of the impact of modernism, than at any time in its history. And yet it would be a great mistake to underestimate the significance of the Quranic vision of community that most Muslims bear within their hearts and minds. This vision is still very much alive and manifests itself in unforeseen ways not only politically and economically, but also socially and culturally, not to mention within the domain of religion itself.


The Islamic idea of community, or ummah, is closely related to that ofdar al-islam , or the “Abode of Islam,” which corresponds in many ways to the Western notion of Christendom.Dar al-islam is the geographic area in which the Islamic ummah lives as a majority and where Islamic Law is promulgated and practiced, although there may be other ummahs such as Jews and Christians living within its borders. Classically,dar al-islam was juxtaposed withdar al-harb , or the “Abode of War,” in which Muslims could not live and practice their religion easily because theShari‘ah was not the law of the land, although there were in practice always Muslim minorities living in various parts of it. Later Islamic jurists added a third category, daralsulh , the “Abode of Peace.” By this category they came to mean a land that was not part of the Islamic world but one in which Muslims could practice their religion in peace. In the contemporary context Muslims living in America or Western Europe could be said to be living in dar al-sulh, in contrast to those living in the former Soviet Union or present-day Burma, who would be or are living indar al-harb .

The presence of the “Abode of War” did not necessarily mean, however, that the Islamic world should be at war with that region, as some have claimed. According to the Islamic law of international treaties, Muslims could make treaties of peace and live at peace with countries outside ofdar al-islam if they themselves were not threatened by them. The best example of such a situation is the friendly relations the Prophet himself had with then Christian Abyssinians, who had in fact given refuge to some of the Muslims from Mecca shortly after the advent of the Quranic revelation. Many instances of such peaceful coexistence are also to be seen between Muslim and Christian kingdoms in Spain and Hindu and Muslim states in India. In this domain the Islamic principles must not be confused with matters of political expediency and particular actions of this or that ruler over the ages. What is important is to understand the Islamic principles involved.

As far as living indar al-harb is concerned, Islamic Law requires that Muslims in such a situation respect the laws of the land in which they live, but also insists that they be able to follow their own religious practices even if to do so is difficult. If such a way of living were to become impossible, then they are advised to migrate to the “Abode of Islam” itself. As for following local laws and practices, as long as they do not contradict Islamic laws and practices, the same injunctions hold for dar al-sulh as they do fordar al-harb . The Shi‘ites, who have been a minority during most of their history and often suffered persecution, have added the principle of dissimulation(taqiyyah) , according to which they should hide their religious beliefs and practices from the larger public if revealing them would endanger their lives or property.


In the same way that throughout history many Christians have lived outside of Christendom, throughout Islamic history parts of the Islamic ummah have lived outside ofdar al-islam in many different cultural and religious settings from West Africa to China. Today, the largest single minority in the world is the Islamic community in India, which has a population of around 150 million. There are also tens of millions of Muslims living in China, possibly 20 million in Russia, sizable minorities in many Black African countries, and small but old and firmly established communities in the Balkans, Finland, Bulgaria, Greece, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

There are also, of course, newer Islamic communities in most European countries as well as in North and South America. As already mentioned, in the United States alone there are some 6 million Muslims.

In practice, the situation of such minorities has varied and still varies greatly from country to country. In some places they have established a notable local culture of their own; in others they have remained as an enclave within the much larger society, clinging to their religious identity but not able to express much creativity on the larger cultural scene.

These minorities have represented over the ages an Islamic presence in different parts of the world and have interacted with many diverse cultures, often acting as a bridge between those non-Islamic cultures anddar al-islam . Such Muslim minorities now have a major responsibility to fulfill this task as far as the relation of the Western world todar al-islam is concerned.


Except for the central part of the Arabian Peninsula, there is no area in the “Abode of Islam” where there are not minorities belonging, from the Islamic point of view, to other ummahs. In the heartland of the Islamic world these minorities have been usually Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, but there have also been and continue to be other minorities, such as the Druze, the Yazidis, and the ‘Alawis, who have survived over the ages in the very cradle of Islamic civilization. Traditionally Islam has categorized societal groups on the basis of religious affiliation, and therefore categories of minorities based on factors such as race or language have been of much lesser consequence.

Kurds, who are linguistically a distinct minority, have become rulers of Arabs, as have Blacks, who in some cases were members of a racial minority in those lands where they gained political power.

Islamic Law requires the lives, property, and freedom of religion of religious minorities to be guaranteed if they are a “People of the Book,” a category applied widely during Islamic history. On the basis of the verse of the Quran that speaks about fighting nonbelievers and those who do not acknowledge the Religion of the Truth even among the People of the Book “until they pay the jizyah” (9:29), religious minorities were required to pay a special religious tax(jizyah) and given in return protection from external attack and security for their lives and property. In the modern world, where the idea of the modern nation and citizenship in it has become prevalent, the classical Islamic theory has been often criticized, and in the contemporary Islamic world it is not even always practiced. That is because even in the Islamic world, on the outward level for certain groups loyalty to the state and the modern nation has lately come to replace to some extent loyalty to religion, something that did not occur even in Europe until fairly recently.

The Islamic system must be understood in terms of the premises of the Islamic conception of society, whose goal is to provide a just system and a beneficial environment for the spiritual and religious growth of human beings. From that point of view, minorities in the Islamic world certainly did not fare worse than those in the West, as one can see in a comparison of the history of Judaism in the “Abode of Islam” and its history in Europe. Also during five hundred years of Ottoman domination of Greece, Mt. Athos remained the most vibrant and living center of Orthodox spirituality. As for economic life, it might seem a paradox, but in most Islamic countries the religious minorities are in a better economic situation than the Muslim majority, as one can see in the case of the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt.

Of course, no human institution is without imperfections and abuses. Each theory of viewing the component communities that make up society is based on certain premises and provides certain advantages as well as disadvantages.

The Islamic system, sometimes called the millat system (the word millah, “community,” also means “nation” in the biblical sense), first of all eradicated distinctions based on race, ethnicity, or language. Second, by according protection to minorities on the basis of religion, it therefore created the means for these religions to survive in contrast to the situation

in, let us say, Europe, where after Christianization, other religions such as those of the Druids and the ancient Germans were totally eradicated, as were certain later movements within Christianity such as the Cathars.

In the Islamic world today, however, no nation lives any longer under the old Ottoman millat system, but people live according to the Western-style idea of citizenship in a nation. The modern nation-state system removes distinctions based on religion, at least in theory, but at the expense of subordinating minority and majority religious laws to secular laws. And yet within that system based on nationalism, people continue to insist upon the significance of religious laws and practices, and the very tension between the two has made the question of minorities more difficult than before. In days of old the Kurds did not have the same problems with the Turks and Iraqi Arabs that they do now, nor did the Copts in Egypt experience the same tensions they now face with the so-called fundamentalists, who are themselves reacting to the secularization of the laws of the land.


It is essential to distinguish between the ideal society described in the Quran andHadith and historical Islamic society. If the two were identical, there would be no evil or shortcomings in the world, and the world would not be the world with all its imperfections. In fact, throughout their own history, Muslims have looked upon the society of Medina at the time of the Prophet as the ideal society, as the golden age of Islam, religiously speaking, and have sought to emulate that society to the extent possible, but have always fallen short. Generations of young Muslims have been told stories of that period, when, one might say, Heaven and earth touched either other. I remember as a child hearing stories about the Prophet or other great early saints helping the poor, being honest in all affairs, administering justice, and the like from my parents and others.

Almost always, numerous contemporary actions in society were contrasted with the ideals set forth by them. Yet tallying up and bemoaning shortcomings is far less profitable than seeking to understand the extent to which Islamic ideals have been implemented and realized in each Islamic society despite the imperfections inherent in the human state, imperfections that the original teachings of Islam itself have taken into consideration. Although every subsequent generation of Muslims has fallen below the standards established by the Prophet in Medina and despite human frailties, each generation until modern times has in fact realized many of the values established by Islam within the society in which it lived.

The ideal norms of society as envisaged by the Quran andHadith include the establishment of justice and equality before the Divine Law, economic fair play, and the just distribution of wealth, while legitimizing private property and encouraging economic activities, equitable treatment of all human beings (Muslims and non-Muslims living as members of their own respective religious communities within Islamic society), and the creation of a religious social environment in which the presence of the Transcendent is never forgotten. In such a society family bonds are honored over tribal ones, but the truth is considered to be above even family affiliations. It was Christ who said, “Leave all and follow me” and that one should hate one’s parents if they oppose the truth. Likewise, the Quran states, “We have enjoined on human beings kindness to parents, but if they strive to make you join with that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not” (29:8).

Since the goal of Islamic society is to make possible “Thy will be done on earth,” in the ideal society it is the duty of each Muslim, as stated in several Quranic verses, to “enjoin the good and forbid the wrong” (3:110). This does not mean that individual Muslims should interfere in the affairs of others; rather, each person has the social responsibility to make certain that moral authority reigns in the community.

In such a society keeping the peace and fostering social harmony are requirements, but if moral authority is destroyed for one reason or another and the religious norms flouted by those who wield political power, then there is a right to rebellion and the reestablishment of an order based on ethical norms and the Divine Law.

Also in the ideal Islamic society, virtue, goodness, and knowledge should be the only criteria for honoring and elevating individuals. The hierarchy of society should be based on the God-fearing quality called taqwa and on knowledge, both of which the Quran refers to explicitly. All other honors and distinctions should be evaluated in light of the truth of the transience of the world. This ideal has not been totally realized, but devout Muslims remain very much aware of it, as seen in the attitude of many powerful rulers toward the saintly and the knowledgeable. Even in my own life I have witnessed the great respect shown to virtuous and pious scholars not only by ordinary people, but also by the wealthy and the politically powerful.

Islamic social teachings also include support and help for those who have been oppressed or deprived in one way or another. In the reform that Islam carried out in Arabian society, it sided with the poor, and, like Christ, who said, “Blessed are the poor,” the Prophet said, “Poverty is my pride.” Of course, in both instances poverty means, above all, spiritual poverty, but also on the material level the Prophet, like Christ, lived in simplicity and was closer to the poor and weak than the wealthy and the powerful.

Although the Prophet said that wealth is like a ladder with which one can either ascend to Heaven or descend to hell, he always emphasized that the poor must be helped and respected regardless of their lack of worldly provisions.

Likewise, Islamic social ideals emphasize being kind to slaves, treating women gently, and being generous to those who have suffered economic loss and are in debt or others in society whom modern sociologists would call the deprived classes.

Again, these and other ideals were not always fully realized by later Islamic societies, but as ideals set forth for one generation after another, they are crucial for the understanding of the dominant values in Islamic society. Of course, the sentiment that “my religion is the best” is to be found of necessity in every religious climate, and the Islamic is no exception. The Quran, in fact, refers to Muslims as the best community. But in practice individual Muslims often found that certain virtues that were supposed to be displayed among members of the Islamic community were in fact lacking in their own but found in members of other religious communities. For example, usually those who have performed the hajj and are called hajjiare deeply respected as pious and trustworthy, a reputation most have lived up to, but there have been exceptions, deceptive hajjis who, in the guise of piety, have often dealt dishonestly with their customers in the bazaar. In my own family in Persia we always bought our carpets from an extremely honest Jewish rug dealer, and everyone in the family used to say that he was as honest as a real hajji. In any case the dynamics between ideals and everyday practices for Muslims, as for Jews, Christians, or Hindus, is a complicated matter.

They should not lead to either a self-righteous attitude or the deprecation of one’s own religious community as being devoid of any virtues. As far as the Islamic world is concerned, both of these attitudes have been expressed by outsiders as well as by small groups within Islamic society itself in

modern times. The phenomenon has led to unfortunate extremist positions and movements.


Of course, not all Islamic societies are exactly alike and it would be wiser to speak of Islamic societies rather than society if one were to analyze every part of the ummah in detail. But for our present purpose and concentrating on the heartland of the Islamic world, where classical Islamic civilization was created, it is possible to speak about Islamic society when trying to bring out salient features of social structure shared by countries as far apart as Morocco and Persia. In contrast to the West and also Hindu India before modern times, Islamic society did not possess as rigid a stratification and there was, relatively speaking, more dynamism and fluidity within Islamic society than was the case with its two neighbors in medieval times. Social mobility in Islamic society was achievable, especially through the acquiring of religious knowledge, on the one hand, and personal, military, and administrative prowess, on the other.

There was, strictly speaking, no feudal system in Islam, and there was nothing corresponding exactly to the landed aristocracy in the West with its lords and other feudal powers, although, in certain lands such as Persia and what is today Pakistan, powerful landowners existed and in fact still exist.

Nor did the peasantry play as important a role as it did in medieval European society.

One important factor present in Islamic society but absent from the Christian West was the nomadic element.

In fact, as the great fourteenth-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun, whom many consider to be the father of sociology, wrote, the rhythm of Islamic history can be understood as the constant interplay between sedentary people and nomads. The Arabs were originally nomads, while Islam arose in Mecca, which was a sedentary environment.

Yet something of what one might call “nomadic spirituality,” with its emphasis upon the transience of the world, closeness to nature, love of language, and respect for the power of the word, is contained within the spiritual perspective of the Islamic revelation itself and is manifested clearly in Islamic art. On the social level also the constant dynamic between the nomad and the urban dweller continued throughout most of Islamic history.

The Prophet sought to replace tribal bonds with those of the Islamic community, or ummah, dominated by the truth of the Quranic revelation. Although he succeeded to a large extent, tribal allegiances did not by any means disappear and occasionally burst forth in political movements based on tribal affiliations. This tension between the unifying force of Islam and the dispersing and centripetal forces of tribalism has manifested itself in many ways in Islamic history and is still alive under new forms. Some have, in fact, interpreted the present opposition of local cultural, ethnic, and religious forces to globalization as “tribalism” and have considered both tribalism and globalization to be enemies of democracy. Such an analysis must not, however, be confused with the role and function of tribalism in Islamic history, which was witness to the tension between the nomads and sedentary people but also to the positive role of the tribal nomads in the constant renewal and revival of sedentary life and even in the unification of vast areas of the Islamic world under one “global” order as we see with the

Seljuqs and Ottomans. The civilization of Islam, which was global in its own way, was created in urban environments, and, in fact, during the medieval period the Islamic world had many cities of much greater population than the largest European cities of the time. But the city is at once the locus of refinement in the arts and sciences, on the one hand, and moral decadence and excessive luxury, on the other. The city has produced great sages and saints, but it is also the only place that has produced skeptics and even atheists.

History has not recorded any nomadic agnostics or skeptics, not to mention atheists. Even the Quran alludes to the fact that every city will be punished one day before the end of time.

In the Islamic world, nomads, who constantly threatened the cities, would invade and dominate them once decadence had set in. The nomads would inject new energy into the city, revive its moral character, and help keep the fire of tradition burning. Then they in turn would become sedentary, gradually losing their nomadic virtues and becoming immersed in decadent luxury until they were themselves swept over by a new wave of nomadic invasion. The Islamic world knew not only Arab nomads, but also Turkic ones, who began to migrate to the heartland of the Islamic world from the tenth century onward, and later the Mongols, who destroyed much of Islamic sedentary life, but also rejuvenated its art and architecture as well as its political power. To this day, despite the forced settlement of so many nomads, there are still Arab, Black, and Berber nomads in all of North and Saharan Africa, Turkish and Turkic nomads in Anatolia, Persia, and Central Asia, Arab nomads in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, and even Iranian tribes such as the Pashtus, some of whom have now settled, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even Egypt, which has been a sedentary society from time immemorial, has nomads in the south. Just recently, while visiting the tomb of a great Sufi saint in southern Egypt, I was surprised to discover that the Egyptian desert near the Sudanese border is still dominated by nomadic tribes. So one can hardly overemphasize the importance of the nomadic element, socially, psychologically, and spiritually in Islamic society. Moreover, one must not forget that something of the nomadic spirit survives even among those who have become settled in towns, for as the Arabic adage affirms, “You can take a nomadic boy out of the desert, but you cannot take the desert out of that boy.”

As for classes within sedentary Islamic society, the most important before the advent of recent social changes included the learned and the scholarly (‘ulama’), the ruling and military class, the merchants, the guilds, and in certain areas such as Egypt and Persia the peasantry. The ‘ulama’, meaning literally “those who know,” referred originally to savants in every field, including astronomy and medicine, not only Islamic Law, and it is still used to some degree in this general sense. But gradually it gained the more particular meaning of religious scholars, especially those who specialized in knowledge of theShari‘ah . Although there is no priesthood in Islam, this class is the closest to that of rabbis in Judaism and to a lesser extent priests in Christianity or the Brahmins in Hinduism, although their religious function is not exactly the same. Throughout Islamic history the ‘ulama’,

who to this day usually wear the dress of the Prophet and a turban to follow his example, have been the guardians and interpreters of theShari‘ah . As a result, they have wielded great power and before modern times supervised both the educational and judicial activity of Islamic society. They were also traditionally protectors of the people against the power of political and military authorities. Generally Twelve-Imam Shi‘ite ‘ulama’ have been more powerful than Sunni ones because, in contrast to the latter, they have been traditionally independent of political power and collected religious taxes directly, so that they have also been to a great extent economically independent. The Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 would not have been possible if such a power had not existed at the same time. The direct political rule of the ‘ulama’ in Iran today, for the first time in Islamic history, has, however, posed important challenges to it as a distinct religious class within Persian society and to its role and function within that society.

Many Sufis have been among the ‘ulama’, and most Sufi masters are also well versed in Islamic Law, but they do not constitute a distinct class in Islamic society. They, in fact, constitute a “society” within society to which men and women from all walks of life can belong. According to ahadith , “There is no monasticism in Islam,” and the Quran states, “The monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them” (57:27). Therefore there is no distinct class of monks in Islamic society, but the ideal of leading a spiritual life devoted wholly to God has been realized within the Sufi orders, which are integrated outwardly within society at large. It is also interesting to note that although Islam did not accept the monastic institution, the Prophet and, following him, generations of Muslims have looked very kindly upon Christian monks.

There is, moreover, a Sufism meant for the spiritual elite, who usually study advanced texts of Sufism combined with advanced spiritual practice, and there is a popular Sufism that brings the blessings, or barakah, of Sufism to a large number of people who usually participate in it passively and do not travel actively on the path to spiritual perfection of the first group. This distinction between the elite (khawass ) and commoners (‘awamm ), so conspicuous in Sufism, can in fact be found throughout Islamic society and must not be confused with “elitism” in the modern sense. Today the word “elite” is disliked in public discourse especially in America, but in fact it exists in various domains of life and corresponds to what is widely practiced openly in its Islamic sense. For example, a small number of mathematicians know advanced mathematics. They are the elite of this field, while the rest of us are “commoners” in this domain. But one of the commoners can be an elite in knowledge of the medical properties of herbs, in which a mathematician who belongs to the elite in mathematics is a commoner. It is in this sense that the important category of khawas and‘awamm used by the Sufis and elsewhere in Islamic society must be understood. When used in an absolute sensekhawass refers to those who possess advanced spiritual knowledge and exceptional virtue.

The practitioners of Sufism on all its different levels constitute an important group in Islamic society, even if not sociologically distinct as a class, and they have exercised great influence over the ages on fields as far

apart as the inner life and public ethics, psychology and art, metaphysics and the guilds, poetry and politics. Sufism cannot be reduced to its social manifestations or analyzed simply in sociological terms. But one cannot understand the structure of Islamic society without considering fully the significance of the Sufis along with the ‘ulama’ and other distinct classes.

If in a sense the ‘ulama’ and the Sufis, at least their leaders, correspond to the sacerdotal class in medieval Christianity, the political and military classes in Islam can also be compared to their counterpart in the Christian West, although the differences between the types of monarchy and political aristocracy in the Islamic world and the West as well as differences in hereditary titles must be fully considered.

Besides the supreme ruler of society, whether he is a caliph, sultan, or amir, whom we have already discussed, Islamic society has always had two groups involved in the political and military life of the country. The first is the class of administrators and the second that of the military.

The class of administrators developed early in Islam on the basis of older Persian Sassanid models. In earlier Islamic history this class was practically the only one in Islamic society outside of the cadre of ‘ulama’ to be well educated as a class in the arts of reading, writing, logic, and so forth; it even played a role in the development of a new style of Arabic associated with the activity of those who worked in the various diwans, which came to be known later in the West as ministries. The contribution of this class to Islamic learning, literature, ethics, and political thought as well as the running of the state has been of great importance in Islamic history. During the ‘Abbasid caliphate, from the eighth to the thirteenth century, while the Arabic element was primarily associated with religion and the Turkic element with military power, the Persian element was associated most of all with administration, and some of the most outstanding grand-viziers, or prime ministers, of the Arab caliphs or later Turkic sultans were Persian.

The military class has of course been important throughout Islamic history, as it has been in other societies, although Islam never emphasized the hereditary aspect as much as did many other traditional cultures. With the breakdown of the traditional political structures in modern times, however, many Islamic countries were witness to a military coup followed by a military rule very different from the traditional Islamic political order. Traditionally, a new military commander who was able to establish rule became a sultan or amir, but he was still bound by theShari‘ah and traditions of rule. Such is not the case with the modern military dictators who took over the reins of power in so many Islamic countries during the second part of the twentieth century.

The merchant class has always played a major role in Islamic society and has been an important guardian of Islam. The Prophet began his adult life as a merchant and his wife Khadijah was also a major merchant in Mecca.

From the beginning, the profession was considered a very honorable one, and the merchant class played a greater role in Islamic society than did the mercantile class in medieval Europe before the rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy during the Renaissance. To this day the bazaar is not only the heart of business activity in the still relatively traditional Islamic cities, but the

religious heart of the urban environment as well, where major mosques and religious schools are usually located. In Persian as in other Islamic languages, the term bazari, that is, a merchant in the bazaar, is associated with piety and religious fervor, and this class has always been close to the ‘ulama’. I still remember my childhood days when during the mourning period of Muh. arram my mother would take me to the Tehran bazaar, where I was so moved by all the black flags and curtains covering everything. To this day the most intense religious activities, such as religious processions in streets and functions within mosques, in Persia are associated with the bazaar. Nor are matters different in the Arab world. The heart of Cairo is the mosque of Ra’s al-H. usayn, and whenever I visit it, inevitably I also pay a visit to the Khan-Khalili bazaar adjacent to it, where one observes clearly the wedding between religious piety and trade.

In traditional Islamic society a major institution associated with the bazaar and the production of goods was the guilds (as.naf). Considered to have been founded by ‘Ali ibn AbiTalib, the guilds combine apprenticeship in various arts and crafts with moral and spiritual discipline. In the guilds the masters are usually also moral and spiritual teachers, and apprentices receive initiation into a guild once they meet the moral and practical qualifications for acceptance.

The Islamic guilds are like the medieval European guild of masons, which was a secret organization with knowledge of both theory and practical techniques that was transmitted orally. In fact, Freemasonry began when the guild of masons became “speculative” and cut off from the practice of masonry and turned into a secret organization with particular political and social goals. Although European Freemasonry came into the Islamic world through colonizing powers in the nineteenth century, the Islamic guilds themselves never underwent such a transformation. They remained closely wed to Sufism and the spiritual practices of the Islamic religion. With the advent of modern technology and the introduction of industrialism into many parts of the Islamic world, many of the guilds disappeared, but some survive to this day from Fez to Benares. It is interesting to note that the famous Benares silk has been made and is still made to a large extent by Muslim guilds of weavers and cloth printers. A few decades ago when I visited this holiest of Hindu cities, I was astonished to see the traditional Islamic guild still very much alive; the master of the guild that made the most beautiful saris was one of the dignitaries of the local branch of the Qadiriyyah order, which is one of the oldest Sufi orders.

Finally, in discussing the structure of Islamic society one must mention the peasantry, which of course exists throughout the Islamic world but which, except in certain areas, has not played the same central historical role it has in the West. In such lands as Egypt, parts of Persia, and the Punjab, there has always existed a large peasantry, which has usually been educated religiously from urban centers.

In such lands the peasantry has also been a conservative social force and has provided many of the religious students for madrasahs in bigger cities, students some of whom later became major religious leaders. Popular Sufism has also been strong among the peasantry, as we see among the

fillah in of Egypt and in the spread of Maraboutism, which is a popular Sufi movement, in North and West Africa.


Islam came into a world in which slavery was almost universally practiced. The Quran andHadith advise kindness toward slaves and their humane treatment and encourage setting them free. The Prophet himself bought the Persian slave Salman and immediately freed him, making him a member of his family. It is important to note that in Islamic society slavery was not equated with racism. Turkic slaves became military commanders and kings and leaders, as did some Black African slaves. Moreover, there was a great deal of intermarriage, and usually a slave’s descendants would sooner or later melt into the general texture of society.

There were of course Arab slave traders in Africa as well as European ones, but despite the fact that European colonial powers made the presence of Arab slave traders an excuse to colonize Africa, there has never been a Harlem or an Anacostia in any Islamic city. Even where there is a strong Black African presence, as in Arabia or Morocco, there is no feeling of racial distinction. Today in any grand mosque in Morocco at the time of prayers one sees worshipers ranging from Black Africans to blue-eyed Berbers, but one does not have a feeling of racial heterogeneity.

Many pious Muslims also refused to have slaves and wrote against it, but the practice in its Islamic form, which meant ultimate integration rather than segregation, continued sporadically but less frequently until the nineteenth century, when under internal forces and the impact of the ideas of Abraham Lincoln and others it was discontinued. If some write today that slavery is still practiced here and there, as in the Sudan or some other African lands, it is more like the slavery of sweatshops in China or the West today. In neither case is it a prevalent practice, nor are such practices condoned by religious authorities. Before modern times both Christians and Muslims had slaves, which does not mean that either religion created or encouraged slavery.

Various groups, not only Black Africans, were brought into the Islamic world as slaves, but all of them became soon integrated into the ummah, and Islamic society was never witness to the types of practices that went on in the American South before the Civil War. What is most important to understand is that even when it was practiced, slavery was not wed to racism in the Islamic world and therefore former slaves were soon integrated through intermarriage with the rest of the society in most parts and during most periods of Islamic history.


The basic unit of Islamic society is the family, which as a result of the Quranic revelation came to replace the Arab tribe as the immediate social reality for the individual. One of the most important social reforms carried out by Islam was the strengthening of the family and the bonds of marriage.

In Islamic society, as in many other traditional societies, the family is not limited to the nuclear family of parents and children, but is made up of the extended family including grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws, and cousins.

The extended family plays a major role in the upbringing of children, in protecting the younger generation from external social and economic pressure, and in transmitting religion, customs, traditions, and secrets of the family trade.

One can hardly overemphasize the role of the extended family in Islamic society even today.

The impact of modernism has destroyed many Islamic institutions, but not, as yet, the family. In the West the extended family became reduced to the nuclear family and more recently, through a kind of splitting of the social atom, the nuclear family has been further distilled into the single-parent family, and the institution of the family as such has been placed under severe strain. Most Muslims look upon these developments in Western society, along with new sexual mores and new female and male roles, as incomplete social experiments the results of which are still uncertain, and not as definitely established and time-honored models to be emulated. This issue has therefore become a point of contention between certain ultramodernist circles in the West and the Islamic world, but then many modern practices are opposed with equal severity by conservative Jews and Christians within the West itself. The attitude of the ordinary Muslim to all these recent social experimentations with marriage and the family is not much different from those of traditional Jews and Christians in the West. I know of many Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic families in America who, in their understanding of the meaning and significance of the family, feel closer to their Muslim neighbors than to some of their own childhood friends.

As for the question of marriage itself, one cannot understand its status in Islam without first comprehending the significance of sexuality for Muslims. In classical Western Christian theology, sexuality itself is associated with original sin and accepted only as a means of procreation. To practice it in the context of the religion therefore requires that it be sanctified through the sacrament of marriage. In Islam, as in Judaism, sexuality itself is sacred and a blessing. Therefore, there is no need of a sacrament, in the Christian sense, to sanctify it. Rather, marriage in Islam is a contract drawn according to theShari‘ah to legitimize the sexual act within marriage and to protect the rights of both partners. In both Christianity and Islam, however, as in Judaism, sexual activity outside of marriage is not allowed and is considered a sin in the eyes of God.

Islam does legally allow divorce, but makes it morally and socially difficult. According to ahadith , of all the things that God has permitted, what He hates most is divorce. That is why, although legally it seems easy

for a man to divorce his wife and a wife also has certain grounds for divorcing her husband, including being neglected and not supported, in practice divorce is relatively rare, especially in the more traditional segments of Islamic society, certainly much rarer than in present-day Europe or America.

The current perception in the West about women’s rights in Islamic society in matters of family and divorce is not accurate, because it fails to take into consideration the many social and ethical factors involved in most family situations, although there are, alas, also many tragic injustices.

As far as actual practices in questions of family law and divorce are concerned, there is much debate going on in the Islamic world today about protecting the rights of women whose husbands abuse them but refuse to divorce them, and family courts have been established in many countries to try to administer justice according to the spirit and law of the Quran rather than current customs. There are, needless to say, abuses in Islamic society in this matter as there are elsewhere, but Islam emphasizes the importance of family and marriage and the responsibility that God has placed on the shoulders of both husband and wife, even if some of those who call themselves Muslims do not fulfill those responsibilities.

As for marriage itself, it must be recalled that the Christian and Islamic marriages are based upon two different spiritual prototypes. That is why Christians and even post-Christians in the West identify marriage solely with monogamy, while Islam includes the possibility of polygamy in certain cases and situations. No one has expressed this difference of prototypes better than Titus Burckhardt, one of the most profound Western scholars of the Islamic tradition. He writes:

Europeans tend to look on Muslim polygamy as sexual licence. In so doing, they forget that the “licence” is largely compensated for by the monastic seclusion of family life. The essential point, however, is that Islamic marriage presupposes a completely different spiritual prototype from that of Christian marriage:

Christian monogamy reflects the marriage of the church-or the soul-to Christ, and this union is founded on a personal and non-transferable love.

Islamic polygamy on the other hand finds its justification in the relationship of the one Truth (al-H. aqq), to its several animic “vessels”: Man, as spiritual officiant(imam) of his family, represents the Truth; his role corresponds to the “active” vessel, namely the Spirit; whereas his wife corresponds to the “passive” vessel, namely the soul. This is also why a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman, whereas a Muslim woman may only take a husband of the same faith as herself. These spiritual prototypes- both cases-are not something imposed on marriage from the outside, but inhere in the nature of things.

The symbolism in question is not necessarily in everyone’s consciousness, far from it, but it is inherent in the respective tradition, and therefore part of the collective mentality.1

The spiritual principles and prototypes mentioned here do not in any way mean to reduce the relation of man and woman to simply that of the active and passive principles.

As in the Far Eastern tradition, where males and females possess both yin and yang, but in different proportions, so in the Islamic perspective the male is not simply equated with the active principle and the female with the passive, for both the male and female contain both elements within their nature. What is elucidated by Burckhardt are the spiritual prototypes and principles involved.

If for Christians the multiple marriages of the Prophet diminish his spiritual status, for Muslims they ennoble sexual union and sanctify it. Moreover, if one relates marriage to the sexual act and accepts that there should be no sexual activity outside of marriage, then there has probably been a lot less promiscuity in the Islamic world, with polygamy, than there has been in the West, even before the 1960s sexual revolution, with its claim to monogamy. The Islamic world has for so long been accused in the West of being sexually licentious, while Christianity is pictured as favoring chastity and being severely opposed to extramarital sexual activity. The social reality is quite something else. There is no doubt that there is some polygamy in the Islamic world, and also temporary marriage in Shi‘ism, but most men are monogamous and there is little extramarital sexual activity in traditional Islamic society. Moreover, there is also a great deal of extramarital sexual activity in the West, although polygamy is not officially practiced. In Islamic society, illicit sexual practice is rare, although it is not totally absent, and there are practically no illegitimate children because in all types of marriages, including the temporary, children are officially recognized by law and the father has the duty to support them.

The Prophet said, “Marriage is half of religion,” and to marry is considered by Muslims a blessed way to follow the prophetic Sunnah, although it is not technically required by theShari‘ah . Because of the religious significance of marriage, nearly everyone within the Islamic world, even in big cities, is married, and great pressure is put on the young to marry, especially to avoid sinful actions. There are hardly any unmarried men and women in Islamic society; only a few are to be found here and there. In the countryside even more than in cities, a woman whose husband has died often marries another man even if she is not young and has many children. Likewise, a widower is usually pressured to remarry.

Even those who are not married, male and female, usually live with relatives and are part of the larger extended family.


From the point of view of Islam, the distinction between the male and the female is not only biological or even psychological, but has its root in the Divine Nature Itself. The Quran asserts, “Glory to God, Who created in pairs all things” (36:36), and also, “We have created you in pairs” (78:8). The male and the female polarization is an essential part of the mystery of God’s creation. Each gender is fully human with an immortal soul, and both sexes share equally in their religious responsibilities and are equal before God’s laws. And yet each sex complements the other and together, like the yin-yang symbol of the Far East, they form a circle, which symbolizes perfection, totality, and completion.

That is why the male and female both vie with each other and are attracted to each other. The alchemy of marriage and sexual union has the power to transmute and complete each side through the realization of both complementarity and wholeness through a love that transcends the two sides and yet encompasses them, a love that is rooted in God.

The bond between two hearts is made by God, as usual Islamic formulas of marriage state, and the love of one spouse for the other is an earthly reflection of the love of the soul for God, although the male and female forms of spirituality are not the same. This intimate bond between the male and female in marriage is indicated in the verse, “They [your wives] are raiment for you and ye are raiment for them” (2:187). Each spouse is a raiment for the other not only in the sense that he or she covers the intimate life and even faults of the other from public view as our clothing covers our bodies, but also in the sense that the raiment is the thing closest to our body. Husband and wife should be also the closest being to each other. Needless to say, not all marriages turn out to be perfect, neither in the Islamic world nor in the West. But the ideals set forth in the Quran have remained very much alive in every generation of Muslims and continue to be so today.


Since the rise of feminism in the West, whole forests have been cut down to produce books by Western observers on the subject of women in Islam. In most cases current Western ideas have been chosen as absolute criteria to judge women in other societies and to preach to them about how they should behave. In the West today there is a tendency toward what one might call “the absolutization of the transient.”

Each decade absolutizes its own fashions of thought and action without the least pause and consideration of the fact that a decade later those very fashions and ideas will be buried in the dustbin of history as one turns to a new decade. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the question of women’s rights and roles. If the West were carrying out this debate in 1900, there would be very different criteria for judgment, and most likely in 2100 there will be still others. Rather than using the question of women in Islam as a ram with which to batter the gate of Islamic society as a part of a new “crusade” coming from the West, it is best to first understand the situation from the point of view of Islam and Islamic society and then make

whatever criticism one wants based on objective awareness of what criteria one is using.

It is, first of all, essential to realize that what is observed in the Islamic world is the result of not only explicit Islamic teachings, but also the customs and habits of the societies into which Islam entered. For example, in what is called the Middle East today, not only Muslim but also Jewish and Christian women have always covered their hair. The covering of the face is not mentioned in the Quran, nor was it practiced by the women around the Prophet; it was adopted from Persian and Byzantine models. In view of the fact that female education and the participation of women in politics were not common practice before modern times in non-Islamic societies as far away as Japan, China, and other Asian societies, it seems incorrect to highlight what is called the “patriarchal nature of Islamic society” as a unique phenomenon associated with Islam alone. Somehow, however, nearly all the criticism coming from secularist feminists is aimed these days at the Islamic world without bothering to ask practicing Muslim women themselves-

women from the mainstream of Islamic society, not just those from the completely Westernized fringes-what their problems really are.

The teachings of Islam emphasize that, although men and women stand equally before God and the Law, they should complement each other in family and social life.

Equality before God and the Law does not destroy the reality of complementarity. Some have asked me if men and women are equal in Islam. My answer has always been that before God, in the face of the ultimate eschatological realities, and before the Law, yes, but in this world, not always.

Women are not equal to men, but neither are men equal to women, a truth to which some American authors have been referring recently as distinctions between “persons from Mars” and “persons from Venus.”

The traditional structure of Islamic society is based not on quantitative equality, but on the reality of complementarity, although there are exceptions. In this complementarity of functions, the man is seen as the protector and provider of his family and its imam, religiously speaking.

The woman is the real mistress of the household, in which the husband is like a guest. Her primary duty has been seen as that of raising of children and attending to their earliest education, as well as being the basic buttress of the family.

Like all traditional societies, Islam has honored the work of homemaker and mother as being of the highest value, to the extent that the Prophet said, “Heaven lies under the feet of mothers.” Islamic society has never thought that working in an office is of a higher order of importance for society than bringing up one’s children. Also an economic system was created in the cities, where, by and large, but not always, the wife was not forced for economic reasons to leave the home and her children during the day. From the Islamic point of view, the right of a child to a full-time mother rather than a nanny or day-care provider is more essential than many rights held dear today.

Within the home Muslim women usually wield great power and authority. In my own very large extended family on both the paternal and maternal side, I have known many mothers who were every bit as powerful and even autocratic as the most forceful “Jewish mother” or “Italian mother.”

Anyone who thinks that in Islamic society women have always been weak, downtrodden, and oppressed beings simply does not know the inner workings of a Muslim family.

The Vision of Community and Society 191

The number of husbands oppressed by their wives is probably no smaller in Islamic society than anywhere else. That does not mean, however, that there has not been in the past or does not exist in the present terrible treatment of some wives by Muslim husbands, despite the explicit injunction of the Quran to honor the possessions of one’s wife and to deal kindly with her, as when it says, “Consort with them in kindness” (4:19). Considering the practices that were going on in pre-Islamic Arabia, the regulations of Islam effected a remarkable transformation in bestowing economic and social rights upon women and protecting them from injustice.

Nevertheless, human beings being what they are, there continue to be Muslim husbands who are cruel toward their wives and who abuse them physically-against the injunctions of Islam. But of course we know only too well that there are also many shelters for battered women in America and Europe, and this problem is not confined to any single part of the world. But to neglect for one moment the power that most Muslim women wield within the family and in the most important decisions affecting the lives of family members is simply to misunderstand the actual role and status of women in Islamic society.

As was stated before, in Islam the economic responsibility for supporting the family resides with the husband, even if the wife happens to be wealthy. The Quranic law of inheritance, according to which a male inherits twice as much as a female, must be understood in light of the husband’s responsibility to support the whole family financially while the wife can do with her wealth as she wills. The famous Quranic verse “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women” (4:34) must be understood in this economic and social context, not taken to mean that the husband controls the wife’s whole life. As for the testimony of two women equaling that of one man in legal matters, this concerns cases of crime and wrongdoing and not every form of testimony, as some jurists interpreted it later. When it comes to bearing witness to a crime, the Quranic injunction takes into consideration the more merciful, gentle, forgiving, and nurturing nature of women in comparison to that of men; the injunction does not at all belittle women-quite the contrary.

Islamic sources do not at all prevent Muslim women from working and receiving wages. In the agricultural sector of traditional Islamic society women always worked with men and were also very active in many of the arts and crafts.

To this day most of the carpets and kilims of various Islamic countries are woven by women. Islam gave women complete economic independence

even from their husbands, and over the ages many women have also engaged in trade and been merchants, as was the Prophet’s wife Khadijah.

Likewise, there is no objection in principle to Muslim women participating in politics. Before modern times there were even occasionally Muslim queens who ruled independently and many others who exerted great political power behind the scenes. If one objects that there were few such female political figures, one could answer that the same held true for Christian Byzantium or Confucian China and that this limitation was not imposed by the Quran. In fact, the granddaughter of the Prophet, Zaynab, played a major political role in early Islamic history, as did a number of other women. In modern times three Islamic countries have had women prime ministers and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was established to implement Islamic teachings in the country, has a female vice-president and many other female officials, including members of the parliament.

As for education, there is ahadith according to which seeking knowledge is a religious obligation for every Muslim, male and female. Throughout Islamic history girls usually completed only the elementary Quranic schools and only a few advanced further-not because of Islamic teachings, but because of social conditions-and from time to time women have become Islamic scholars. Sayyidah Nafisah, whose sanctuary in Cairo is a major center of pilgrimage to this day, was so learned in the science ofHadith that occasionally the greatest Islamic scholar of the day, Imam al-Shafi‘i, would consult with her. Women, in fact, played an especially important role in the transmission and study ofHadith . Also throughout Islamic history, there have been many women Sufis, some of whom were very learned, and fine women poets, from Rabi‘ah al-‘Adwiyyah, who lived in the eighth century, to Parwin E‘tes.ami, who lived in the twentieth. Again, one must not equate educational practices in some parts of the Islamic world in modern times, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, although they claimed to speak in the name of Islam, with the general Islamic view toward women’s education. If one looks at such major Islamic countries as Egypt and Iran today, one sees a very large number of women in nearly every field of education, sometimes equaling or even surpassing men in number in the faculties of certain major universities.

The views of Islam concerning women bring us back to the question of the veil and covering. For a long time the West has had a distorted, exotic image of the mysterious Islamic world: women were covered head to toe in public, while harems of naked women were depicted reclining by indoor pools in so many nineteenth-century “orientalist” paintings in Europe. These depictions had much more to do with rebellion in the West against the restraints of the Victorian era going back to the sexual paradigm of Christianity, but they nevertheless introduced to Western society a completely false image of Muslim women. During the colonial period, head cover was taken by European colonizers as a sign of female oppression in Islamic society and Muslim modernists opted for this view themselves, as we see in the forced unveiling of women in Turkey and Iran by Ataturk and Reza Shah, respectively. As a result of these events, one sees today a whole spectrum of women, from those fully veiled to those in miniskirts, in many

Muslim countries and especially in the Middle East, where more women have discarded their traditional dress than elsewhere in the Islamic world, such as South or Southeast Asia.

It is therefore especially important to be clear regarding the Islamic teachings on this matter. The Quran commands both men and women to dress modestly and not display their bodies, and the Prophet asserted that modesty is a central character trait of Islam. It also commands women to cover their “ornaments”(zinah) , which is usually understood to mean their hair and, of course, their bodies. On the basis of this injunction, various forms of dress were developed in different parts of the Islamic world, but some forms of dress were carryovers from earlier pre-Islamic Near Eastern societies. In the earlier communities of Jews and Christians, women also covered their hair. The iconography of the Virgin in Christian art always shows her with her hair covered, and until quite recently Georgian and Armenian Christians as well as Oriental Jewish women covered their hair, as did Muslims. The covering of the hair was taken by women to be a natural part of life as a sign of modesty and especially a sign of respect before God. Even in the West until a generation ago Catholic women would not go to church without covering their heads.

Who has said that uncovering one’s hair is more liberating than covering it? This is a very complex issue that, as far as the Islamic world is concerned, must be decided along with other women’s issues by Muslim women themselves on the basis of Islamic teachings and prevalent social norms, not by others. Until thirty years ago, Muslim women who received Western education and became modernized would usually discard their head covers, but gradually matters began to change. Today in many countries, such as Egypt, many highly educated women freely choose to cover their hair again as a sign of self-identity and protection. Paradoxically, in the one Islamic country that is the most modernized and claims to be secularized in the European way, that is, Turkey, women do not have the right to cover their hair in public buildings, this ban showing total disregard for free choice and women’s rights, so central to the concern of Western feminists.

The question of the veil and many other crucial issues having to do with education, legal rights, and so on have become the focus of attention of a number of Muslim women who want to modernize the rest of society after the model of the West, whatever that model, which is still in a state of flux, might be. They are abetted in this task by Western secularist feminists and certain other elements that would like to secularize Islamic society. It is unfortunate that most Western feminists do not bother to understand the underlying philosophy of the relation between men and women in Islam and, in fact, in other non-Western societies.

Nor do they offer a clear alternative model that would have meaning for the vast majority of Muslim women.

During the last two decades a new movement has begun among believing Muslim women themselves to gain the rights they believe the Quran andHadith accord them, but that local social customs and regulations have prevented them from gaining. This so-called Islamic feminism is much more pertinent than Western-style feminism as far as the future of Islamic society

is concerned, because those women who pursue it, most of whom are pious Muslim women, do so from within the Islamic worldview. Furthermore, they also know much better than their Western counterparts what their own real problems are. In any case, women’s issues-their education, legal rights, participation in political affairs, and so forth-are one of the major challenges facing the Islamic world today, one that each part of the Islamic world has been trying to deal with on the basis of Islamic teachings and its own customs and traditions, in spite of the constant pressure from various forces in the West.


Through the imposition of a Divine Law, the inculcation of moral values within its members, and the creation of bonds of relationship, Islam played a major role in the integration of human society. A series of concentric circles can represent the areas of relationship. At the center is the relationship between the individual and God. Surrounding that center is the circle of the family, then of the quarter of one’s city or town, then of one’s “nation” ( in the traditional sense of the term, then the Islamic community(ummah) , and finally all of humanity and in fact creation as a whole. In the same way that each circle in the series has the same center, each of these relationships was and remains based on the basic relationship between the human being and God.

Tawhid, or unity, which is the central doctrine of Islam and which also means “integration,” therefore began with the integration of the individual soul into its Center, where God resides, and then extended to bonds between members of the family and other increasingly larger groupings The Vision of Community and Society 197 until it encompassed the whole of creation. Despite the relentless downward march of time and numerous vicissitudes, Islam was able to integrate society to a large extent and create an ummah that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This ummah in turn created Islamic civilization, one of the major global civilizations, which, despite some weakening from the eighteenth century onward, is still very much alive. The Islamic ummah and civilization have seen periods of decline and rejuvenation, the appearance of those who have misled the people as well as authentic “renewers”(mujaddid) who, as promised by the Prophet, have periodically revitalized the religion and Islamic society from within.

Today the Islamic ummah, politically segmented and divided as never before, faces unprecedented challenges from the onslaught of modern secularism and consumerist globalization, challenges much greater than what it faced during the Mongol invasion. Of course, modern secularism and now globalization are also challenges to Judaism and Christianity in the West, but in their cases the challenges come from within their own society. For the Islamic ummah, it comes from the outside and is supported by exceptional military, economic, and political power. Reaction to this outside pressure has taken many forms, sometimes violent ones that go against the very tenets of Islam. These are, however, peripheral and transient phenomena. The profounder reality is the traditional religious truths of Islam embedded deep in the heart of Islamic society, which will have to survive these enormous challenges without betraying the principles of Islam itself.

More than ever before, it is important to remember that the empire of Islam resides in the hearts of men and women and not in worldly power alone. To perpetuate the life of the ummah and the rule of this “spiritual empire,” it is essential to remember the truths for which Islam was revealed and the Prophet sent as the Messenger to the world. In one of his most famoushadiths the Prophet said, “I was sent in order to perfect [for you] the virtues of character.”

The role of Islamic society has always been to make possible the attainment of virtue and the perfection of character, and such Muslim authorities as al-Farabi, like Plato, divided societies according to their ability to provide an environment that would foster this inner perfection of moral and spiritual qualities of the members of society. From the Islamic point of view, the value of a society before the eyes of God lies in its virtuous quality, its moral excellence, and not in power or wealth. It is this basic truth that Muslims must remember as they confront the powerful forces of secularism, globalization, and consumerism that threaten the very foundations of the Islamic order.