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Spirituality key to understanding Islam

Mohamed Elmasry

July 9, 2007


-- Even 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 Muslims in 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 "extremist."

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 time.

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 Islam itself.

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.





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