Thursday, March 13, 2014

Believe It or Not, I Found Nine Features I Like About Islam

In the Western world, Islam takes a lot of flak. Some of it stems from ignorance, anti-immigrant sentiments, Islam's history with Christianity, fear of the unknown, post-9/11 moral indignation, or downright racism. Conversely, as I have pointed out before, it is not as if Islam were blameless. For one, Islamic law (شريعة) subjugates women and monotheistic non-Muslims (particularly Jews) to second-class status. Homosexuality and apostasy are punishable by death. There are also other perturbing aspects of Islam and how it is practiced, including domestic violence, slavery in certain parts of Africa, a Golden Rule that only seems to apply to Muslims (Sura 2:1043:1314:13-14, 13645:32-35), the modern-day manifestation of terroristic jihad (جهاد) that goes well beyond an internal struggle, not to mention the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in places such as Europe. Whatever attempts that more religiously liberal Muslims make to harmonize their religion with the Western world are met with great opposition, delegitimization, Wahabi petrodollars, and coercive threats of violence and death. Until reforms can be made in the Islamic world, the fundamentalists who read the Qu'ran (القرآن) in the literal, fundamental sense are the mainstream. For anyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who is interested in having interfaith dialogue or an intellectually honest debate, one cannot simply brush these aforementioned facts under the rug or lob the pejorative term "Islamophobe" at someone simply for mentioning these facts. They would need to be addressed while having a holistic discussion on Islam because much like any other religion, the way Islam is practiced is not without its negative features.

Furthermore, as a Jew, it can be more difficult to appreciate the positive aspects of Islam that exist because the primary form of anti-Semitism that globally exists right now is Islamic in nature. Even so, let's use the great Jewish Torah scholar and philosopher, Maimonides, as an example of how to approach the topic. Maimonides was born in twelfth century Spain, during which he lived with a second-class dhimmi (ذمي) status. Once the Almohads conquered the area, Maimonides was forced to flee Spain. He was subsequently forced into conversion to Islam, but that conversion was later ruled as invalid because it was in violation of the precept in شريعة that prohibits forced conversions. In spite of all the Islamic oppression he faced, Maimonides was still able to say nice things about Islam, such as Islam is not idolatry and that Muslims will play an important role in engendering the Messianic era. It is in that spirit in which I have created this list of things I like about Islam:
  1. Islam has a belief in one, Infinite G-d. The first of the Five Pillars of Islam contains the idea that G-d is Infinite Oneness. That means that unlike with my Christian friends, I don't have to refute the idea of a triune deity and explain why 1+1+1≠1. This belief would explain why Jewish law does not view Islam as idolatry.  
  2. Giving alms. Much like with צדקה in Judaism, Zakat (زكاة), another one of the Pillars of Islam, is built around the idea of helping the less fortunate with their economic hardships. With צדקה, one gives ten percent of their income. What is interesting about زكاة is that although one is obligated to give 2.5 percent, that 2.5 percent comes from one's assets, not just one's income.     
  3. Hospitality. Much like other Middle Eastern cultures (including that in Judaism), Islam has high regard for hospitality and taking care of guests. 
  4. Muharram (المهرّم). This is the first month on the Islamic calendar. During the tenth day of this month, Muslims are supposed to fast to commemorate the victory of Moses and the Jewish people over the Pharaoh. Even though some religions view fasting in a negative light, Islam views it as a positive spiritual practice
  5. Personal responsibility. Islam does not believe in vicarious atonement or being absolved from the consequences of one's actions. Much like in Judaism, Islam holds the belief that one is held accountable for one's thoughts, words, and deeds (Sura 99:6-8).
  6. Lack of racism. Whether there are certain practitioners of Islam that are racist is one thing. The religion itself, however, is a different story. Say what you want about other forms of discrimination that exist in Islam; the Islamic religion is against racism (Sura 49:13).
  7. Islamic Golden Age. While Christians were in cultural and civil stagnation during the Dark Ages (they did call them the Dark Ages for a reason), the Muslims were the pinnacle of civilization. Amongst the Islamic achievements during this time period were the creation of algebra and trigonometry, significant advances in astronomy and optics, and the preservation of the works of Greek philosophers that would have otherwise vanished.
  8. Conversion process. In Judaism, you're turned away three times before you even begin with the conversion process. Even after that, the stringency that has been applied to the Jewish conversion process has taken a life of its own, and is well beyond the halachic minimum. This is not a problem in Islam, probably because it is a proselytizing religion. Once a prospective convert recites the declaration of faith (الشهادة), that individual is considered to be a Muslim.  
  9. Arabic is its liturgical language. This feature is not directly related to the religion, but is rather a part of Islamic culture. I took some Arabic courses during my graduate school studies. The variety of phonemes, the three-letter roots in Arabic words, the writing style and calligraphy all make Arabic an aesthetically pleasing and linguistically intriguing language. 
Postscript: To be honest, I found writing this blog entry to be a challenge. Islam is a religion that can be an has been interpreted as hostile towards Jews and Judaism, which is all the more disconcerting considering how that has been put into practice throughout Islam's existence. When that level of animus is launched at you simply for existing, it's difficult to appreciate any of the positive aspects of Islam. However, a previous classmate of mine inspired me to transcend it, hence the impetus of this blog entry. Even though I'm not exactly going to hold my breath on this, I would hope that as time progresses, the Islamic community can tackle its internal challenges so that I can make this list longer in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. My friend Sadia Shepard (now Mrs. Sadia Shepard-Burgess) has written a delightfully complicated book about how she is equally descended from Bombay Jews, Pakistani Muslims and white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, called "The Girl from Foreign". She argues that "Islam saved Jewry" and that the second-class dhimmi status, while not ideal, was still preferable to the "convert or die" ultimatum given to Jews in various epochs of Christian civilization.