September 30, 2004

Krista's Journal: Ferment and Reform in Islam

September 30, 2004

In recent years, gentle words and lofty ideas about the religion of Islam have had to compete with brutal, highly publicized images of destruction. Still, on 9/11 I was not convinced by terrorist claims to speak for the faith of 1.2 billion people and their most sacred text, the Qur'an. I've also been skeptical, in the intervening years, of non-Muslim pundits declaring a war of cultures and the catastrophic downward slide of Islam and the Muslim world. We've created a number of programs drawing out Muslim voices on the spiritual core of their faith, the daily practices that contradict unforgettable pictures of airplanes crashing into buildings.

But this week, we confront an escalating pattern of bloodshed in the name of Islam. My guest Vincent Cornell has loved, studied, and practiced Islam for three decades. His is a thoroughly American voice, though he has also traveled and taught extensively in the Muslim world. He is steeped in Islam's rich intellectual and spiritual tradition. He is watching the unfolding present with both erudition and a personal sense of grief.

I've encountered many forms of Muslim grief these past years. On the first anniversary after 9/11, Ingrid Mattson, the first woman Vice President of a leading American Muslim organization, told me that in all the speeches she had given in schools, churches and synagogues, many people had asked her about how Muslims view issues such as terrorism, politics, or gender. But no one had asked her about the center of her life as a Muslim: her relationship with God. She wished others could listen to how the Qur'an sounds when she recites it and imagine what that does to her heart and to her perspective on the world. She admitted that violence and rhetoric will always make more of an impression on outsiders than the daily lived faith of believers. But Americans must look to the gentle lived faith of ordinary Muslims, she insisted, to counter indelible images of high-profile violence.

My own research and conversations these past few years have underscored the truth of Ingrid Mattson's insight over and over again. Islam is a religion of daily devotion, of valuing deeds over words, of stressing lived piety over doctrine. It is also remarkably non-hierarchical. In this week's program, Vincent Cornell suggests how these very qualities have unwittingly contributed to violence in the name of Islam. The "populist" spirit of Islam has lent itself to manipulation by organized extremists. The Wahhabi sect that we associate with Al Qaeda does not represent a majority of Muslims, but it has claimed a globally recognized authoritative voice. And it effectively uses the tools and resources of globalization, he says, to disseminate a "corporate" brand of "radically superficial" Islam.

Vincent Cornell predicts no certain outcome. Indeed, his outrage and despair are painful to hear. He offers only a tentative hope: that Islam's present disarray bears classic signs of the kind of upheaval and ferment that can precede profound reform.

Ferment and reform in other religions at other times in history, of course, have been accompanied by violence. But the Spanish Inquisition was not televised, nor were its atrocities available for viewing on the Internet. Its "terrorizers" did not have modern travel, communications, and weaponry at their disposal.

And so in a very basic sense, the questions and dilemmas facing Islam are all of our questions, our dilemmas. Non-Muslims must find ways to support Vincent Cornell and others as they work to enrich and guide Islam's ferment towards positive ends. This would be an imperative, from the perspective of faith, in any time and circumstance. But in the 21st century, it is also a matter of survival.

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is professor of History and director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas.