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The Long Arc of Islam

Why is Islam paradoxically one of the most hotly discussed—and least understood—topics today?

  • February 9, 2017
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Teaching the history of the world’s second-largest religion, Sarah Eltantawi spends a lot of her time confronting preconceived notions—and often, plain ignorance.

“I’m obviously aware that the study of Islam is one of the most fraught and controversial and least understood subjects in the country today,” says Eltantawi, a Harvard-educated professor of religious studies at the Evergreen State College. “I’m always amazed as a professor that my students know more about Hinduism and Buddhism than they do about Islam, even though they grew up in a monotheistic tradition.”

Eltantawi brings her overview of Islam and its faithful to a traveling Humanities Washington speaker series, “State of a Civilization: Islam and Muslims in the 21st Century.” She’s written and lectured broadly on the subject, and her book, Shari’ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution, is due for publication in 2017. Her talk starts with the seeds of Islam in 7th-century Arabia, the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammad, its spread through the desert states, and its evolution to the present.

It’s not a simple topic, as Eltantawi says: “You’re dealing with human civilization at the end of the day.” Muslims draw faith from the Koran, while also drawing lessons for life and society from the Hadith, the collected deeds and sayings of the Prophet. Like adherents of every other religion, Muslims’ faith has been tested in ways that have led to schism—the divide between Sunni and Shi’a, for instance—and Muslim-majority nations have spent decades recovering from colonialism.

All these threads feed into current conflicts, which have led American politicians and critics to demonize Islam itself as a root of violence, and Muslims as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Multiple aspects of Islam—such as Sufism, the ascetic tradition of worship—have been shunted aside to make room for these characterizations.

“I find it very important to contextualize political Islam as just one recent strain in a very long history,” Eltantawi says.

Humanities Washington: From what basis did the Prophet Mohammad arise? What was pre-Islamic Arabia like?

Sarah Eltantawi: Seventh century Arabia was mostly an idolatrous society. It was a tribal culture, so one swore their allegiance to a tribe and a tribal elder. One of the most fascinating aspects of the shahada, or oath of faith, to me, is that the syntax of this oath parallels that of what you would swear to a leader—Mohammed urged his followers to swear their oath not to a tribal elder, but to an unseen God. This was Mohammed’s great cosmological revolution. There were, of course, in addition, some Christian and Jewish influences and tribes in the region. But the monotheism of Islam was in many ways unique. This is why he and the nascent Muslim community were persecuted at first, because he was saying something different. At the same time, the God of Islam is the god of Abraham. It’s the same concept. How Mohammad keyed in on this, through the Angel Gabriel’s intercession, is one of the main mysteries of Islam.

How did this faith take off the way it did, arising in that context?

I think there are several answers. First, Islam offered people a social structure in which one is being evaluated not by ethnicity or tribal background, but by degrees of piety. It’s kind of a different way of evaluating a persons’ character, and that may have been attractive to some people. Then there were personal relationships with the Prophet—he was considered a very honest, good man, and that may have had some effect. Early Islamic political authorities were also quite pragmatic. As they expanded, they allowed local populations to keep their languages and practices. In many places where Islam spread, the move to Arabization was very slow. It took 500 years in Egypt, for example, for Arabic to become the lingua franca of the country. I think if we were to study how Islam entered Iran versus how it entered West Africa, we’re talking about very different stories. And so on for the rest of today’s Muslim-majority world.

I’m always amazed as a professor that my students know more about Hinduism and Buddhism than they do about Islam, even though they grew up in a monotheistic tradition.

The poet Rumi is probably the best-known Sufi writer, and I’ve heard him quoted at length at Christian weddings. Why is Sufism often viewed as distinct from Islam as a whole?

There’s actually a history of kind of decoupling Rumi from Islam. The Masnavi, his major magnum opus, is the most widely read text in the Islamic world. Historically, Sufism kind of came of age in the US in the ’60s, when people were casting about for spiritual but not necessarily religious ways of relating to the divine. People encountered Rumi’s poetry, but didn’t have any intention or understanding or will to convert to Islam. On the other side of the ledger, Sufism has been under attack by certain salafi forces since at least the turn of the 20th century, if not before. Hence, some of the strongest voices in contemporary Islam themselves disavow Sufi traditions. And I think finally, Sufi movements—really, they’re tremendously complicated also, they vary quite a bit—but there’s a certain strain of Sufism that’s politically quietist. America has been, quote-unquote, “at war” with Muslim-majority nations for quite a while now, and thus there’s a political need to construct a Muslim enemy that is uni-dimensional. Sufism doesn’t really serve that agenda.

What do non-Muslims most often get wrong about Islam?

There’s a lot to choose from, unfortunately. I think fundamentally not understanding that Islam is a very complex religious-historical movement, with a lot of strains. I think most Christians would find it absurd to make the kind of huge generalizations about Christianity that people do about Islam. I think another preconception they have is that Islamic texts are uniquely violent, and it’s just not true. If you compare references in the Hebrew Bible and the Koran, the Hebrew Bible (in the Christian tradition known as the Old Testament) is much more violent. Smiting villages and stoning people—there’s far more of that in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. You cannot evaluate an entire religious complex from some verses you read in the Koran. You can’t put in a pinch of that verse and a dash of that verse, and get a Muslim.

For the benefit of those same non-Muslims, can you define “sharia?”

Sharia is God’s ideal law, as spelled out in the Koran. And it’s fundamentally unknowable by human beings, because it’s God’s law. It literally means, in Arabic, “the way to the watering hole.” Because we as human beings are imperfect and don’t understand God’s wisdom, all we can do is attempt to understand and emulate in our own laws, which as we all know are man-made. The only laws regarding sharia that have been passed in this country are these preemptive anti-sharia laws. There’s no attempts I can find to actually pass so-called “sharia” anywhere in the western world. There are some radicalized areas in parts of London, but they’re mostly just clownish dudes trying to enforce their idea of sharia on a mostly bewildered and bemused public who ignores them. I’m not saying there aren’t people who have an idea of doing things like that, but they’re generally not successful. I call it postmodern sharia — these kind of makeshift ideas of sharia which come out of the immediate existential needs of a fractured and post-colonial present. I work in part to remind Muslims: You can’t just think you know what sharia is and attempt to impose it on other people — to say nothing of violently.

Sarah Eltantawi is presenting her free Humanities Washington talk, “State of a Civilization: Islam and Muslims in the 21st Century” around the state. Find out where she’s appearing next.

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