Islam has a progressive tradition too

Islam has a progressive tradition too

Most western views of Muslims are founded on ignorance

Hamza Yusuf

Wednesday June 19, 2002

The Guardian,3604,739926,00.html

When a Welsh resistance leader was captured and

brought before the emperor in Rome, he said: "Because

you desire to conquer the world, it does not

necessarily follow that the world desires to be

conquered by you." Today one could offer an echo of

this sentiment to western liberals: "Because you wish

your values to prevail throughout the world, it does

not always follow that the world wishes to adopt

them." The imperial voice is based on ignorance of the

rich traditions of other civilisations, and on an

undue optimism about what the west is doing to the

world politically, economically and environmentally.

The entrenched beliefs many westerners profess about

Islam often reveal more about the west than they do

about Islam or Muslims. The Ottomans were history's

longest-lasting major dynasty; their durability must

have had some relation to their ability to rule a

multi-faith empire at a time when Europe was busily

hanging, drawing and quartering different varieties of

Christian believer.

Today Islam is said to be less, not more, tolerant

than the west, and we need to ask which, precisely,

are the "western" values with which Islam is so

incompatible? Some believe Islam's attitude towards

women is the source of the Muslim "problem".

Westerners need to look to their own attitudes here

and recognise that only very recently have patriarchal

structures begun to erode in the west.

The Islamic tradition does show some areas of apparent

incompatibility with the goals of women in the west,

and Muslims have a long way to go in their attitudes

towards women. But blaming the religion is again to

express an ignorance both of the religion and of the

historical struggle for equality of women in Muslim


A careful reading of modern female theologians of

Islam would cause western women to be impressed by

legal injunctions more than 1,000 years old that, for

instance, grant women legal rights to domestic help at

the expense of their husbands. Three of the four Sunni

schools consider domestic chores outside the scope of

a woman's legal responsibilities toward her husband.

Contrast that with US polls showing that working women

still do 80% of domestic chores.

Westerners, in their advocacy of global conformism,

often speak of "progress" and the rejection of the

not-too-distant feudal past, and are less likely to

reveal their unease about corporate hegemony and the

real human implications of globalisation.

Neither are the missionaries of western values willing

to consider why Europe, the heart of the west, should

have generated two world wars which killed more

civilians than all the wars of the previous 20

centuries. As Muslims point out, we are asked to call

them "world wars" despite their reality as western

wars, which targeted civilians with weapons of mass

destruction at a time when Islam was largely at peace.

We Muslims are unpersuaded by many triumphalist claims

made for the west, but are happy with its core values.

As a westerner, the child of civil rights and anti-war

activists, I embraced Islam not in abandonment of my

core values, drawn almost entirely from the

progressive tradition, but as an affirmation of them.

I have since studied Islamic law for 10 years with

traditionally trained scholars, and while some

particulars in medieval legal texts have troubled me,

never have the universals come into conflict with

anything my progressive Californian mother taught me.

Instead, I have marvelled at how most of what western

society claims as its own highest ideals are deeply

rooted in Islamic tradition.

The chauvinism apparent among some westerners is

typically triggered by Islamic extremism. Few take the

trouble to notice that mainstream Islam dislikes the

extremists as much as the west does. What I fear is

that an excuse has been provided to supply some

westerners with a replacement for their older habit of

anti-semitism. The shift is not such a difficult one.

Arabs, after all, are semites, and the Arabian

prophet's teaching is closer in its theology and law

to Judaism than it is to Christianity. We Muslims in

the west, like Jews before us, grapple with the same

issues that Jews of the past did: integration or

isolation, tradition or reform, intermarriage or


Muslims who yearn for an ideal Islamic state are in

some ways reflecting the old aspirations of the

Diaspora Jews for a homeland where they would be free

to be different. Muslims, like Jews, often dress

differently; we cannot eat some of the food of the

host countries. Like the Jews of the past, we are now

seen as parasites on the social body, burdened with a

uniform and unreformable law, contributing little,

scheming in ghettoes, and obscurely indifferent to

personal hygiene.

Cartoons of Arabs seem little different to the

caricatures of Jews in German newspapers of the Nazi

period. In the 1930s, such images ensured that few

found the courage to speak out about the possible

consequences of such a demonisation, just as few today

are really thinking about the anti-Muslim rhetoric of

the extreme-right parties across Europe. Muslims in

general, and Arabs especially, have become the new


When I met President Bush last year, I gave him two

books. One was The Essential Koran, translated by

Thomas Cleary. The second was another translation by

Cleary, Thunder in the Sky: Secrets of the Acquisition

and Use of Power. Written by an ancient Chinese sage,

it reflects the universal values of another great


I did this because, as an American, rooted in the best

of western tradition, and a Muslim convert who finds

much of profundity in Chinese philosophy, I believe

the "Huntington thesis" that these three great

civilisations must inevitably clash is a lie. Each

civilisation speaks with many voices; the best of them

find much in common. Not only can our civilisations

co-exist in our respective parts of the world, they

can co-exist in the individual heart, as they do in

mine. We can enrich each other if we choose to embrace

our essential humanity; we can destroy the world if we

choose to stress our differences.

 Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson is the director of the

US-based Zaytouna Institute


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information