THE WORLD OF ISLAM

Introduced by Dr Basil Mustafa Ph.D.,M.Ed., Senior Assistant Registrar at the Centre for Islamic Studies in Oxford., on 17 April 1998

The speaker thought that media interest in the West concentrates on dramatic events which present an image of Islam as ‘militant, radical and violent’. Islam, however, is not monolithic and this image is misleading.The legacy of Islamic scholarship in medicine ,mathematics and philosophy, between the 9th and 12th centuries, contributed to post-medieval Western development. In both worlds, reason and science have been valued and adopted. Many values (listed by the speaker) are shared. Nevertheless, there are differences of value-systems and cultures. Revelation, as much as reason, is valued in Islam and there is no absolute separation of the secular and the divine. As described in the Koran, secular activity such as work - humble or professional - is accepted as much an act of worship as other more formal devotions.
Secularisation in Turkey early in this century was followed elsewhere, particularly in post-colonial countries such as Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia, but by the mid-1960s Islamic values were being revived most strongly by Muslim professionals - lawyers, doctors, academics, etc. - using modern means of communication. In Western Europe today there are 10 million Muslims,over 4 million in the USA and another 6 million in Central and Eastern Europe.The two cultures can and do live harmoniously in the modern Western world and the fears raised through ignorance are not justified - ‘no collision course is inevitable’.
In discussion, Dr Mustafa conceded that ‘fundamentalist’ Western militants stimulate fears, but argued that such groups are not representative of the great majority of reasonable and peaceful Muslims. Moreover, we should understand that their militancy is promoted primarily by political and civil grievances. Many young Muslims are concerned about what they see as ‘double standards’ in the West, e.g.towards Israel and Serbia. Militant propagandists manipulate textual interpretations of the Koran, but orthodox scholars do not support them. Challenged on Iran, the speaker pointed to the changing views since the 1970s. Although the violence now evident in Algeria is not acceptable, it can be argued that the military overthrow of a democratically-elected fundamentalist party was equally unacceptable according to Western values. With respect to Rushdie ,we should understand that while our valuation of ‘freedom of expression’ is unconditional, this is not so for Islam, which protects against ridicule of religious sensibilities.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, we need to understand that legal penalties are designed to deter and can be mitigated, but the basic Islamic aims for individuals are to promote a disciplined life, to balance rights with responsibilities and to serve God, protect people and the environment.
Despite clear differences of views and practices across Islam, majorities within the separate communities are evolving culturally and practically. For example, the position of most women today differs significantly from that of the past. What the West took centuries to achieve, Islam has developed in decades, but Western help is needed if post-colonial literacy levels are to be raised from around 50%. The resolution of the problem of Iraq, for example, could be achieved through ‘capitalism, free trade and education’.
Responsible and authoritative bodies should evolve to harmonise the differences within the Islamic world and discuss freely with the West to ‘narrow if not resolve gaps’ - mutual understanding is vital.
Geoff Catchpole