Spirituality key to understanding Islam
July 9, 2007
today, many best-selling books about Islam present a version of the faith that
is very different from the one I know.
Worst still, front-page coverage and prominent editorials in leading newspapers
highlight only the
Islam presented by a few
politically-motivated Muslims, either as individuals or groups.
No wonder so many Canadians are asking: which Islam is the true Islam? What do
they really know about the Islam practiced by me, by more than 750,000 other
Canada, or by the nearly 1.2 billion of us
in the rest of the world?
Why is it that only those Muslims who use violence to achieve their political or
personal aims are getting all the media attention?
Why are Muslims, in general, so rarely noticed for their tolerance, kindness,
love, understanding, and charitable service?
During the past 1,400 years, more Muslims have proven themselves good global
citizens than members of any other religious or national group. These people,
often low-profile and quiet, are far more representative of Islam than the
stereotypical Muslims portrayed so often by the media.
Today, even if 1,000 Muslims around the world were to commit heinous crimes in a
given year, against the 1.2 billion who do not, it would be the same as saying
that Canada, with its population of some 33-million, produced only 25 hard-core
criminals every year.
Canada is certainly not known as a breeding ground for criminals, yet today's
Muslims are nearly always associated with such damaging terms as "terrorist" or
So, how should we, Canadians, more fully understand Islam and Muslims?
For better or worse, in Islam there is no single source of authoritative
interpretation that functions, for example, as the
Pope or the Church do for Christians. While
Muslims do consider certain scholars to be more qualified than others, none is
so authoritative that their interpretation can be exclusively binding for all
This situation, which deemphasizes hierarchy, might be expected to result in
anarchy, but it has not. This is because there is general agreement among the
world's Muslims on the legitimacy of Islam's foundational sources - the word of
God recorded in the Koran and the Hadith, which are the divinely-inspired
instructions and comments of His Prophet Mohammed, as recorded in voluminous
collections, and studied by scholars and the devout ever since.
There is also general respect given to the reality of a given time and place, as
well as the past consensus of Muslims acting in community - in practice, this is
usually the consensus of the scholars within that community.
The Koran, for example, forbids the drinking of wine. Thus, the consensus of the
community has been that other alcoholic drinks are much the same thing. No
Muslim, therefore, can honestly maintain that the drinking of whisky, or other
forms of liquor, is permitted simply because they are not mentioned.
There has, however, been some disagreement about coffee and tobacco. The current
consensus is that the drinking of coffee is permissible. There has been periodic
disagreement about the status of smoking tobacco, so, in the absence of
consensus, it remains possible to hold either view.
Disagreement among Muslim scholars is generally limited either to details such
as those just mentioned, or to very broad questions of interpretation and
significance, such as whether it is more important to ensure that a ruler is
morally righteous, or to avoid civil strife regardless of a ruler's morality.
Ultimately, whatever views they may hold on particular matters, most Muslims and
their scholars are in agreement on the main body of Islam, and this large area
of general agreement may be regarded as the "core" of the faith, or even as
Descriptive adjectives such "xyz Muslim," - i.e. moderate, conservative,
liberal, fundamentalist - refer more closely to tendencies among some followers
of the faith, and also tendencies within a given group. One might say, for
example, that some Muslims regard the struggle against illegitimate authority as
a religious duty, while others emphasize the personal struggle against the
nafs (lower or flawed self). There are, of course, Muslims who hold
fundamentalist views on certain questions, but liberal views on others.
It is unfair also to attribute present conditions in a given Muslim society to
the direct social, political, or economic influence of Islam.
The culture of Muslim societies should, in theory, derive solely from Islam,
which provides a complete system for every aspect of life, but in practice, many
other factors have influenced the development of these societies, and local or
regional practices concerning particular issues often have little to do with
religion - sometimes even directly contradicting it.
But a deeper understanding of Islamic spirituality is one of the best available
routes to a fuller understanding of Islam itself; not of the political
ramifications of Islam, but of Islam as a holistic, living religion. This is the
reality that lies at the heart of Islamic societies past and present, and even -
though arguably in a dangerously distorted form - in the familiar images of
Islam that show up on our television screens.
Fortunately, Muslims here in Canada are blessed with abundant opportunities to
practice their Islamic spirituality, to teach it to their children, and to model
it among their non-Muslim neighbors.
Mohamed Elmasry is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at
the University of Waterloo, and National President of the Canadian Islamic
Congress. This commentary was featured by the Media Monitors Network (MMN).
Acknowledgement to MMN.