The Persistence of Islam

July-August 1987By Kenneth D. Whitehead

Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former Foreign Service Officer who served in American embassies in Beirut and Tripoli, is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education. (This review was written in the writers private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.)

Letters on the Sufi Path.  By Ibn Abbad of Ronda. Paulist. 238 pages. $9.95.

Eight Lives: A Study of the Hindu-Muslim Encounter.  By Rajmohan Gandhi. State University of New York Press. 359 pages. $12.95.

Lost in the Crowd.  By Jalal Al-e Ahmad. Three Continents Press. 157 pages. $9.



For more than a thousand years the struggle that preoccupied the world was the rivalry between Christianity and Islam. More than just religion, they were polities as well: Christendom comprised those countries inhabited by Christians and ruled by princes professing belief in Jesus as the Christ - a faith that had originated in the Middle East and migrated to Europe, where it saw its greatest development. Islam also originated in the Middle East with the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. It reached its greatest flowering in the Middle East and in South and Central Asia, but it also succeeded in expelling Christianity almost completely from North Africa. For centuries it contested Christendom for some of the latters own territories across the Bosphorus and the Strait of Gibraltar. The last Muslims were expelled from Spain by the same Ferdinand and Isabella who sent Columbus on his way across the Atlantic, and in the same year, 1492. As late as 1683, Muslim Turks were prevented from entering the gates of Vienna only by the combined forces of several European powers.

With the rise of the European seaborne empires, along with the expansion of the Orthodox Christian Russians into Central Asia, Islam as a world polity was finally forced into sharp decline. By the beginning of the 20th century, most Muslim countries were either directly ruled by European "infidels," or were firmly fixed within one of the spheres of influences of a European power. Two exceptions were Turkey and Iran. Shadows of their former empires, they were reduced to frantic attempts at modernization - often by frankly repudiating aspects of their own Muslim past - in order to maintain their independence and cope with the new order imposed for a time upon virtually the entire world by one or other of the "Christian" powers.

While all this was happening Christendom itself was becoming so thoroughly secularized that it would eventually be impossible to speak of the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, or Spanish Empires - or, a fortiori, the still undismantled Russian Empire! - as in any real sense "Christian." Christendom as a polity may have succeeded in defeating Islam as a polity, but in the meantime, Christendom was itself done in by the logic of its own development. Christendom as a polity has long been dead, as the Catholic Church has explicitly recognized since Vatican II. The Church has been acting accordingly, with a new emphasis on evangelization in the Third World. The viability of Christianity has proved in no way dependent upon its links with the political power of the West; it has even derived some advantages from the attenuation of that linkage.

The same thing is true of Islam. As a religion it is far from dead, whatever the weakness of Muslim countries. Islam continues to motivate and inspire believers around the world to a degree only fitfully and belatedly realized in the West. We are reminded of it only when such phenomena as the expansion of Muslim proselytism in Africa or the resurgence of Shia Islam in Iran and Lebanon are forced upon our attention by events - usually violent events.

All three of the books under review oblige us to take Islam seriously, both as a religion and as a political force in the world today.

Ibn Abbad of Ronda was a Sufi, or member of one of the Muslim spiritual and mystical brotherhoods. He functioned in 14th-century Morocco as a spiritual director; among his other activities, he composed numerous letters providing moral and spiritual counsel to friends and devotees. This book, one of the volumes in the Paulist Press series "Classics of Western Spirituality," is a collection of such letters written between 1365 and 1375.

Some Christians may be surprised to find a kindred spirit in Ibn Abbad emphasized the virtues of trust, resignation, and abandonment to Gods will. But he also believed in free will, and thus he took it for granted that those to whom his advice was directed were able to decide to rely upon the virtues he counseled.

One of the other surprises is the degree to which Ibn Abbad emphasized interior disposition as opposed to mere formalism and outward ritual. Islam often strikes Christians as the latter type of religion, preoccupied with such things as praying five times a day toward Mecca and maintaining ritual cleanliness. But consider the following: "The mystics generally agree that one can come to God only by Gods help and that only the lower self stands as a barrier between the servant and God...God refuses to sustain the faithful servant except in ways of which the servant has no knowledge. The lower selfs veil between darkness and light does not simply vanish; it is lifted and dissolved little by little until certitude comes."

Eight Lives is an entirely different kind of book - a very competent study of the recent political and cultural history of Islam within the Indian subcontinent. It consists of eight carefully focused biographical essays of the principal Muslim leaders in India in this century up to the withdrawal of the British Raj from India in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned between India and Pakistan. The book is of especial interest because it was written (very sympathetically) by a Hindu scholar, bearing the illustrious name of Gandhi, who is none other than the grandson of the Mahatma.

Gandhis book will be of interest to anyone concerned with the decolonization of the Third World which followed World War II. The Muslim leaders whose work eventually led to the creation of Pakistan are not as well-known as the Gandhis and Nehrus, and hence this book fills a gap. It is even more important in the way it illustrates the persistence of Islam. The major Indian Muslim leaders never lost sight of Islam as a fundamental fact for their people, and in the end, most of these leaders could not reconcile themselves to amalgamation with a predominantly Hindu India. This was true even of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, who, on the evidence, seems scarcely to have believed in Islam in a religious or doctrinal sense at all. Nevertheless his entire life and identity were dominated by the idea of Islam and by his quest for the recognition and vindication of his peoples historical being.

The author of Lost in the Crowd, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, a well-known Iranian writer who died in 1969, represents a similar case. He seems scarcely to have been a believer in any religious sense; yet he found in Islam an identity that enabled him to affirm himself against Western dominance within his country and culture. The book itself is an account of his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca. It is of considerable interest as a colorful description of the Muslim Haj, or pilgrimage. More than that, however. Lost in the Crowd also testifies to the persistence of Islam, even in the psyche of a modern and sophisticated Iranian literary intellectual. Although Jalal Al-e Ahmad would no doubt have deplored the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, his book certainly helps the Western Christian understand how it came about.

Islam is not going to go away. Demographers have even predicted that some time in the next century, if present demographic trends continue, France, "the eldest daughter of the Church," will be populated by more descendants of Algerian Muslims than of European Christians. Because of the same negative trend in its own birthrate, West Germany has recently had to suspend further immigration of Turkish Muslim Gastarbeiter who have been serving as the hewers of wood and drawers of water in that modern affluent society. What the Muslim armies failed to accomplish when they were halted by Charles Martel and his Frankish knights at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 could conceivably be accomplished more than a millennium later by the expansion of beachheads already established by Muslims within what was formerly Christendom. The persistence of Islam does not allow us to consider this to be entirely out of the question.



DOSSIER: Islam



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