In the years that followed 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have experienced a sharp rise in cases of psychological diseases and mental disorders. Researchers attributed much of this to the anti-Muslim backlash that ensued post-9/11 and was reinforced by the Iraq war. In the current decade the new wave of global spectacular terrorists attacks is making things worse. My own direct observation from my own dealings, as well as through observations on social media, is that the problem is spreading into Europe’s Muslims and indeed to the Middle East itself.
Those who attributed the problem primarily to the anti-Muslim backlash in the West would benefit from looking at Egypt where youth sentiments of depression and dissatisfaction with life are rampant. Young Muslims in the West and elsewhere are looking at the horrors committed in the name of their religion and are unable to reconcile the Islam they thought they belonged to and believed in with the various texts and citations offered by multitudes of sources from ISIS to various television sheikhs, Imams and Mullahs.
I’m often challenged by both Muslims and Islamophobes to explain how I reconcile my belief in Islam with numerous stories in Islam’s sacred texts that condone violence and discrimination. Much of the inter-Muslim discourse focuses on citations: the prowess in finding citations that would help a point of view prevail over others. Ping pong of citations is what most discussions on Islam rapidly descend into.
Islam, like other major world religions, has relied on an oral tradition. Even after the printing press, the vast majority of the world Muslims learnt their faith from oral traditions. Cultural norms and traditions have naturally co-opted the oral teachings of Islam in various countries. Female genital mutilation, or FGM, has been accepted as an Islamic tradition in Egypt, Sudan and other East African countries, even though it’s also practiced by Christians and others too.
Going back to the early days of Islam and those who accepted Mohammad as a Prophet and Islam as a faith, I ask myself why! Why did those early Muslims accept Mohammad? Islam may indeed have spread through the sword in some parts of the world, but it also spread in vast areas around the world through word of mouth. Why did the people of Mecca accept Islam? Why did Islam spread in India, Malaysia and Indonesia? Why do I accept Islam?
I have no doubts that the early Meccans were attracted to certain ideas of Islam: equality, justice, compassion, honesty, and fairness in dealing with others. I’m almost sure that Islam wouldn’t have spread as it did if people were told that they would be killed if they were to alter their decision and leave Islam at some point.
For me, the truth of Islam is in its simplicity, its humanity, in its compassion and in its mercy. Derivatives of the compassion and mercy happen to be the two most repeated words in the Quran. The truth of Islam is in the equality of all human beings before God, in the freedom of human beings to pursue their path to God.
Discourse that regresses from the truths of Islam to debate the facts of Islam are of little interest to me and historically have actually played little role in Islamic history. The battles of texts and citations that dominate much of the discussion in today’s Islam in Islamdom would have been alien for most of the fourteen centuries of the history of Islam. Often times those who engaged in them were marginalized or worse.
The obsession over the texts and citations is a primary factor for the dissonance that we see; the loss of identity and center that stems from a loss of faith. Modern day Islamdom has created an Islam that prescribes the rituals that a man must follow to get, along with his loved ones, to heaven. The early Islam that was embraced by Muhammad’s early followers did not emphasize a bargain with God to get to heaven.
The Christians and Jews in the West have had several centuries to look beyond disputes over facts to get to the truth of their beliefs. Many of the stories of the Old Testament have largely been discounted by most believing Christians and Jews in the West, the very same stories dominate a large amount of Islamic discourse.
Many Christian scholars in the West, and indeed most Bible Colleges, accept as given than many parts of the Gospels have not been written by the people whose names they carry. Divinity schools across the US doubt the authenticity of the stories of the Virgin Birth, the Trip to Egypt to escape the decree killing children of Jesus’ age, the Bethlehem birth, and many other stories in the New Testament. Yet, believing Christians in the west have reached a comfortable place with the their sacred texts. Some believe in the literal words of the Bible, most don’t. There is little ping pong going on between the disagreeing parties. Christians are not asked to justify their belief in the truth of their faith through arguments over texts and disputes of facts.
It’s hard to be optimistic about a reform movement coming to Islam from the majority Muslim countries where religion remains a tool of authoritarian governments and closed societies. Some of the best writings on Islam are coming out of US Muslim scholars. These scholars remain engaged in the battle of citations and using traditional Islamic jurisprudence methods to push back against authoritarian interpretations of Islam. Future generations of scholars may look beyond texts and citations and may one day offer a way for the truth unencumbered by debates over facts.