Krista's Journal: Listening to Past Conversations

September 7, 2006

We began piloting On Being (originally Speaking of Faith) in 1999. Listener response was strong from the beginning. But it was hard to make the case in some wider circles that religion mattered in people's lives and in the world. Then, on September 11, 2001, I was in Washington D.C. to ask The Pew Charitable Trusts for funding for this wild idea of a weekly public radio program on religion. By mid-morning that meeting was cancelled, my hotel was filling up with stranded travelers, and I was in a rental car heading home. The world had changed and religion ran irrepressibly through this nightmare — not only in what had happened, who had done this, why; but also the religious energies and vocabularies that surfaced spontaneously in response to it. The events of that day profoundly directed the formative years of this program. Most obviously, understanding Islam became an urgent task. I resolved early on that we would not interview non-Muslims about Islam. We would seek understanding, as well as context and critique, from inside this faith tradition. And we would pursue a sense within Islam, as across the spectrum of religious experience and ideas, of what I call "the vast middle" — the range of faithful perspectives, questions, and practices between the extreme poles that steal the spotlight in the news and in our culture. Islam is an astonishingly plural, inclusive faith in the broad sweep of its history and its theology. That history and that theology were stolen from view by unforgettable images of airplanes crashing into buildings. They continue to be eclipsed today by other bombings and insurgencies. My Muslim conversation partners these past five years have been Asian, Arab, African, and North American. They have insisted on an honest appraisal of the destructive energies alive in their faith. But they long for a nuanced appraisal too — informed and intelligent enough to unravel extremism from devotion, to distinguish between what is ideological and what is religious. In important ways, my encounter with Islam has been a reminder of the limits of words — of merely speaking of faith. U.S. culture tends to define religions in terms of what its adherents "believe"; this is a very Christian-oriented approach. But Islamic tradition is non-hierarchical and non-doctrinal. It is not primarily a religion of beliefs but of practices, of piety woven into the fabric of daily individual and communal life. To develop a sense of the spiritual and intellectual heart of Islam, I have had to learn about the aesthetic sensibility at its heart — the poetry that surrounded the Prophet Muhammad from the start and is still an integral part of Muslim life around the world, even among illiterate and nomadic peoples; the musicality of the Qur'an, which is not a book to be read but a "recitation" to be aurally and inwardly digested. The Qur'an's intrinsic beauty forms an essential part of its mystery and its message. But that experience is lost on outsiders, and it is utterly violated when Muslim extremists wield isolated verses from the Qur'an as battle cries. I'm helped by Islamic scholar Vincent Cornell's analysis that violent Islamists practice and propagate a "radically superficial" version of that faith. Terrorism in the name of Islam is first and foremost a crisis within Islam — not between Islam and the West. It is not so unlike the violent ferment that preceded and accompanied the Christian reformation. But this religious upheaval is happening in a borderless world of far more dangerous weapons. And the Muslim voices you'll hear in this program, including Cornell — full of vigor and integrity and intelligence and grief — are engaging that struggle at personal risk in many spheres and on many levels. My guest this week, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, says that U.S. policymakers and citizens are inclined, as he puts it, to "absolutize the transient" as we analyze Islam's problems and propose solutions. For example, we don't approach the creation of democracy in predominantly Muslim societies in our age as it in fact developed centuries ago at the birth of our own predominantly Protestant Christian republic — seething with religious energies and motivations and voices. Instead, we focus on the dynamics of secularized society of the last half century. And insisting that there can be no excuse for terror, we reject self-critical inquiry into the motivating political and psychological despair of young Muslim suicide bombers. We forget that at various stages in our own history — e.g., the civil rights movement — we have managed to simultaneously punish crime while also tending to the despair at its core as a matter of survival. We did not do so in order to excuse violence, but to prevent its repetition in future generations. Seyyed Hossein Nasr says, as one with a long view of history and philosophy and global culture, that the "clash of civilizations" predicted by some Western thinkers is not inevitable. The voices in this hour — and Seyyed Hossein Nasr's at times uncomfortable analysis about Western complicity in Islam's current confusions — provide hope and practical pointers towards that prognosis. More compellingly than words in Islam's defense, these voices evoke gentleness and generosity, humility and civilization and the possibility of peace. Most critically and counter-intuitively, perhaps, they remind us that "they" are also "us." "The Muslim world" is the most deceptive of all our culture's post-9/11 catchphrases. On that I'll let Egyptian-American scholar and author, Leila Ahmed, have the last word:

I no longer believe there's an Islamic world. Because where exactly are the borders? Are they in Chicago? Where are they? Where does the Islamic world end and where does the West begin? Is it in Paris? Where is it? I do think what happens in this country is going to be as much about the Islamic world as whatever happens "over there." The Islamic world is no longer over there. That's one thing. The other thing is, I think what we do, what we Americans do, will profoundly determine what becomes of what we're calling an Islamic world.

Recommended Reading

Image of Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization
Author: Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Publisher: HarperOne (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages

Seyyed Hossein Nasr's slim volume, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization, provides a concise and compelling overview of the history and theology of Islam from inside a practice of the faith. Michael Sells' Approaching the Qur'an is a wonderful and unusual non-Muslim introduction to hearing and learning and digesting the Qur'an — aesthetically as well as spiritually — as devout Muslims do. It comes with a CD of moving and mind-opening Qur'anic recitation.

Voices on the Radio

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

is University Professor of Religious Studies at George Washington University and the author of many books, including Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization.

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