Approaching Islam

To my friend, the islamophobic,

Allow me to call you ‘my friend’, for I got to know you quite well since I read what you write a lot … even though you might not remember me at all. I see your posts on the social media weekly, sometimes daily. It is all about the achievements of the western society and the threat of the Islamic doctrine, which slowly will cut out the heart of our European standards, so you tell us. Every article you share is about Sharia law, about Muslim depreciation of women, about the hate against homosexuals in Islamic societies. I see your fear and I see your injured pride … for you have been suffering to make this society what it is now! You were one of those people who were brave enough to confront the chauvinists, the patriarchs and the homophobes so now gay couples can get married, women can become leaders of countries and sexuality is not only measured by accomplishing a pregnancy. You were a freedom fighter and this is not only meant in an intellectual way as the scars on your cheek can tell. I can understand what you’re going through and you have my sympathy.

But I can’t help but notice, that you slip into the very same hateful principles you were fighting against, trying to defend the high-hold virtue of western tolerance.

You visited ballrooms and danced as male couples, demonstrated against racism and sexism and fought tirelessly for the equality of all human beings. Over and over the answer was a wave of aggression and violence. You have condemned and defied these reactions. Your ceaseless disclosure of grievances has finally changed the world and helped tolerance to victory. But now these achievements are threatened … and you respond with aggressive intolerance.

It is an age-old debacle of the free thought: Does tolerance have to tolerate the intolerant? Where and when does the tolerant have to stop being tolerant to protect his/her very tolerance? There is actually no answer. There is just the ongoing process of tolerance. And this process can only go into one direction: To inspire more tolerance – especially in the single minded.

When I was a young man I lived in an environment, which was famous for its tolerance. It was proverbial in the whole world. I also believed in it … until the day when I was completely accepted and absorbed. At that day I began to understand that there was only little tolerance. Mostly there was indifference. The secret slogan was: “Leave me alone and I will leave you alone.” But this is far away from tolerance.

Tolerance is a heart quality. It is the fruit of compassion. Intolerance in contrast always originates from fear transformed into hatred.

There is always a deep, forgotten, but uncured wound at the root of intolerance.

And whenever this wound is touched, the pain returns. The reason for this pain is always looked at as a result of a provocation of the outside world … even though its real cause is deeply hidden in the inside.

If one can understand this, then one can become truly tolerant, … not towards the hate and the inadequate reactions of intolerant people but toward the original suffering of the hater.

The truth is: In most cases it is not the religion, which is intolerant. But there are always people who exploit religions to an intolerant end. There are societies on this planet who have not even started to uncover the ancient collective sufferings, which have been passed on from parent to child for centuries. Instead of finding the root causes of these pains those people use their faiths and creeds to externalize the responsibility. But this is not unique to Islam! All fundamentalists do this.

They dogmatize the structures of daily life so strictly that it becomes a grid, which enables them to evade triggering the pain as long as they don’t miss a step. And whenever something or someone is not conform to the dogma, fails to hit the grid and induces suffering … this event or person is called evil. There we have the classical image of the scapegoat.

There are many different psychological schools and directions. They all have slightly different approaches in how to heal those wounds. It is mainly an individual choice in which one we put our faith. And yes, it is also a part of all faiths, of all religions to show the way in stopping the suffering of humanity. Naturally all prophets and all founders of religions were born into a certain time, a particular people, a specific sociological pattern and a given cultural context. But nevertheless, however enlightened those prophets and founders were … after a certain time their teachings became distorted by the developments the people had gone through, many of which were induced by those holy men and women! Therefore these religions had to be actualized. Actualization is a very good word for this process! It implies the question: What did those people about whom those books were actually mean? The process of which I speak commonly is known as reformation (re-forming ≙ to put it in a new form). But I like actualization much better. It makes a direct connection between the actual meaning and the specific time and place when the question about the meaning is being asked.

To my friend, the Christian,

Every religion has had its reformation(s), all except Islam. Islam is (only) about 1300 years old and has not yet had a comprehensive theological reinterpretation of its principles! That is quite something. Seen from this point of view it is a miracle that its followers still comprehend its content. But do they really? According to Islam the Qur’an has to be read in Arabic (!) to be understood. There are off course translations. But Muslims agree that they are less than sufficient. And even if the educated Muslim whose mother tongue is not Arabic knows enough to read the Qur’an, more than 90% of those do not really understand what they are reading. Muslims have to go to a scholar to get an interpretation of the word of god. And here we have to start. It is definitely not Islam, which is threatening to the Western way of life. It is also not every Imam who interprets the Qur’an who threatens Western standards. Most certainly the danger comes from a fundamentalist interpretation of the same done by a very small minority of people. At this point the Christian reformation started. People wanted to understand and think for themselves! What we called Christianity did not originate with Jesus Christ. It was constructed in the centuries after. The very first organization which one could call ‘Christian Church’ can be dated around the 3rd century after Christ … very unlike Islam which was founded by its prophet. However … when Martin Luther and some other theologians started the reformation Christianity, as a religion, was – like Islam now – 1300 years old. I would like to treat that as an omen.

So let us have a look at the origins of Islam and the circumstances at the time of its emergence, so we can understand the changes Islam brought to the people involved. Let us also have a closer look at the prophet and how he dealt with those social problems, which find so little understanding nowadays in our occidental societies.

When Mohammad had his visions, which resulted in his teachings about Islam the Arab nations were a conglomerate of many tribes, which mainly fought wars against each other. The Arabs were a people of war. Fighting was mainly the only thing they all had in common. Fighting basically meant that the men had very short lives and the women were unprotected, to say the least. It is hard to make assumptions about those times. But there are stories that the ratio of men and women were one to five. This was very bad for women. They were treated like possessions or worse and their worth basically was dependent on whether or not they produced male offspring. Marriage in the sense that a man took responsibility for a woman and even for his children after the first erotic excitement subsided was rare. Mohammad himself had a completely different opinion of women. He held them in high esteem and even asked them for advice. His first woman was much older than he himself and supported him financially in his religious endeavors. These were the premises for the social changes he as the prophet was planning to bring into reality. There are many laws in Islam concerning women which are not understood anymore nowadays … not by the Western societies nor by the Muslim countries! Let’s take polygamy as an example: The prophet allowed every man to have four women. The reason behind that is mainly that there had to be a regulation, which protected the women, especially when they were widows of warriors! In those pre-Islamic societies a woman who didn’t have a wealthy background and male relatives who cared for her would either end on the street as a beggar or become a slave or a prostitute. The law of the Koran, which made it possible for a man to have more than one woman, was actually a lifesaver for many women, especially for those whose husbands had died in battle.

On top of that Mohammad gave many rights to the women. (Btw. much more rights than women had in Christian countries until just recently!) One must imagine that before him most women were virtually completely without rights. Under Islamic law a man cannot just take an extra woman if he likes to. He has to ask permission of his first wife or wives. The woman herself (!) and her family have to agree. He has to prove that he can sustain all women and their children. That means that they have to have more or less separate living conditions like at least an own room or may be even an own house! If a woman is not satisfied with the man that means with his behavior and the way he treats her, his financial situation or sexually she can ask for a divorce.

To my friend, the feminist,

There are many stories about the prophet and how he dealt with problems concerning women’s rights inside and outside of matrimony. I’m not a theologian but I recall one story, which makes the Ways of the prophet very clear. As I said the Arab people were warriors and many of them died in battle. So there was always the problem of inheritance. Once a woman came to Mohammad and asked him why women were not allowed to inherit the possessions of their husbands, fathers and brothers when they died. So the prophet said that she was right. From now on all women should have the same right to inherit as men. The warriors heard about this and went to the prophet and asked him how it could be that a woman would inherit as much as a man. A man risked his life in battle a woman didn’t. Therefore a man should be entitled to inherit more than a woman. The prophet thought about it and decided that women always should inherit half of what men would inherit.

Seen under modern 21st century occidental values these laws are far from equal rights. There is no doubt about that! But if we look at those stories – and many others – one thing becomes very evident: The prophet was striving for equality! As one can easily see: He would have liked to give the same rights to women as men had but he knew that if he would have done that he would have lost large parts of his followers. To improve circumstances he had to compromise. But there are many points on which the Islamic society is way ahead of the West in gender equality! It has always been anchored in Islamic law that a woman gets the same pay as a man for the same job! When a woman is married her husband has no claim on her fortune, neither during her life nor after she died! She can do business, as she likes while her husband may not interfere. The husband, however, must sustain his wife, no matter how rich she is. She also may determine during her life one or more beneficiaries who will inherit her assets and the husband has no legal hold to appeal against the testament when she’s dead. He has no compulsory portion! In most cases the female relatives will inherit her fortune. Therefore, a large part of the property located in the Islamic world is in the hands of women.

In Islam the prophet Mohammed is seen as the perfect human being. He is the ultimate ideal everybody should try to emulate. If a Muslim tries to be similar to Mohammad he should not just try to copy him. Mohammed often had to sail into the wind and did not always achieve the goals he had set. As we see in the story above: He wanted to give equal rights to inherit to men and women. The odds were against him so he negotiated the maximum for women.

As stated before: Mohammad did not set up rules so a man could indulge in the (erotic or subservient) company of many women. He provided some sort of social security for women, which they would not have had otherwise. At the same time he didn’t make it easy for the husbands. In Islam the husband has to keep his wife/wives content and meet their demands, economically, emotionally and sexually! He is only allowed to have as many wives as he can satisfy. Off course this is also not a status quo, which is even near equality. But if you look at the situation as it was before Islam, it certainly was an improvement.

To my friend, the Muslim,

Once more: The prophet Mohammad is considered to be the ideal human being. But the ideal was not always what he achieved but what he intended! It is very clear to any smart person that Mohammad was very much in favor of gender equality. But he was also aware of the gender reality of his time! And he got as much equality as possible out of a very unequal situation! So if we want to become as close to Mohammad’s perfection as possible we have to take the situation of today and try to achieve what Mohammad intended! The prophet nowadays would be the strongest fighter for equal rights where they are not completely realized yet. He would consider the changed circumstances and the different setting of societies, which do not consist mainly of warriors anymore! The prophet was inspired, intelligent, realistic and practical. He would never have tried to impose a set of rules which were not in sync with the people he was dealing with, simply because this is uninspired, unintelligent, unrealistic and impractical!

This way of looking at the person of the prophet is nothing new. It is a tradition, which has been transmitted in Sufism since the days of the prophet. As one can see: Every Sufi lineage starts with the name of Mohammad. It is said that the prophet has taught his secret teachings to an inner circle to make sure that the spirit of his teachings would survive when times and circumstances change. This inner circle has branched out together with and even further than Islam. Like Islam it has adopted different shapes according to the environment it thrived in.

At the end of this array of thoughts I want to explain a word, which has been subject to many interpretations and misunderstandings inside and outside of Islam. The term I speak of is ‘jihad’. Nowadays everybody gets scared when someone is called a ‘jihadist’. People think ‘jihad’ is a synonym with ‘holy war’. Well, actually it is not! The Arabic word ‘jihad’ first of all means ‘effort’, ‘fight’, ‘endeavor’ and ‘commitment’. In the Islamic religion it encompasses an important concept: The principle of the effort or fight on the path of god (al-dschihādu fī sabīli Llāh / ‏‫ al-ǧihādu fī sabīli Llāh). In the Qur’an and the Sunna this fight is often described as military battle – but not only. Whether this battle is strictly defensive or aggressive is subject to interpretation. So let me propose a Sufi interpretation of the word:

Fight with the other means war. Fight with oneself means peace. Latter is the true meaning of ‘jihad’.

And there we are again at the point where this inquiry started: Tolerance. If the effort is not directed within, in order to heal the suffering of our souls we will always be tempted to take it outside and look for the scapegoat to put the blame on.

This is not what Islam means. Islam means complete surrender (to God). This surrender is accomplished by facing the truth inside. Inside one can hear the voice of the divine and only from there one can aspire to the perfection of the prophet. Muslims do not wish the prophet war but the opposite. Every time when his name is mentioned Muslims use the expression: Peace be upon him.