The Virtues of Islam
Bill Long 11/26/04
Sometimes I feel as if I am almost prophetic (not pathetic, as some of my friends might contend). When I wrote editorials for the Oregonian in the Summer and Fall 1985, while on sabbatical from Reed College, I wrote at least one or two on terrorism and its relationship to Islam. When I moved to the midwest in 1990 to become a professor of history at tiny Sterling College, I introduced the study of Islam in the World (formerly Western) Civilizations class. By the time most students left that course they probably knew more about the history of Islam than of Christianity. Finally, in 1992-1994 I became a Joseph Malone Fellow of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, as I tried further to understand the role of Islam in our modern world.
For years I felt like I was crying in the wilderness, trying to tell my students and fellow citizens that the most important religious/cultural force they needed to understand for the future was Islam. I then went on to study and practice law, convinced more than ever of the importance of understanding Islam for our collective futures. I still believe it, but now it seems like everyone else does, too.
Reiterating my Major Point(s)
So, I will state the major point I have been making in small circles for at least 20 years. Islam is an attractive religion and is growing in the world because of its simplicity and its ritual clarity. Its simplicity is in its confession of the One God: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God." Its ritual clarity consists in its great awareness of: (1) the cycle of life; (2) the way that ritual can fuel human aspirations; (3) and the way ritual never lets you forget who you are and to whom you belong. Each one of these deserves mention.
Ritual and the Cycle of Life
Women's bodies, and men's bodies, bear witness to the link between cycles of time and cycles of human life. We think in terms of "periods" or "seasons" or "years" because our body "tells" us to think this way. Islam builds upon this "seasonal" characteristic of human experience in the annual ritual of Ramadan, whose central practice (fasting) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every year at the same time, according to the lunar calendar, Muslims celebrate the fast. No food may be consumed during daylight hours, though various degrees of relaxation, celebration or revelry happen in the night hours. By abstaining from food, a necessity, Muslims are reminded that, in the words of Jesus, "Man does not live by bread alone." Our hunger for food, which is great, ought to teach us how to hunger for God. Islamic ritual highlights the cyclic nature of life, and it ties the cycles of felt life to the rhythms of faith.
Ritual and Human Aspirations
We seek all manner of things in life, but one thing we cannot live without is a sense of longing or aspiration for a positive future. I think that the "Kingdom of God," mentioned in the Lord's Prayer ("Thy kingdom come") is the Christian expression of this longing. But Muslims have a pilgrimage, the hajj, a yearly ritual where more than 2,000,000 Muslims from every language and nation journey to Mecca to repeat activities from the Prophet's life, to be cleansed from sin and to rededicate themselves to their God. The Pilgrimage is a time where human aspirations for lasting peace, for universal brotherhood, for the triumph of Allah (God) over all forces of secularism and evil, can be seen right before the eyes. Human aspirations and longings do not have to remain in the abstract realm of the imagination or the mind; they are right there. In this regard, I think that Islam is able to give its adherents a more vivid picture of its universal hope than Christianity does.
Ritual and Human Identity
We humans are so forgetful. We are inattentive, preoccupied with so many things, driven by our lusts, jealousies and prejudices, that often we cannot focus on important things in our lives. We forget our loyalties and our loves, also. Islam has a ritual, the five times daily prayer toward Mecca, that makes it impossible to forget your identity as a Muslim. The sound of the minaret awakens you at dawn, calls you to prayer in late morning, in afternoon, at dinner time and in the evening. If you are particularly devout, you can even add a sixth time, during the middle of the night. Prescribed prayers for all occasions is the rule. Though prayer certainly can become routinized in this way, it may also become so much a part of one's practice that it becomes, as it were, stitched to the soul. It becomes as regular and as necessary as breathing.
Praying five times daily while kneeling toward Mecca gives you the deep sense that your life is not your own and that you participate in something far transcending the often small and petty concerns of your own existence. You know yourself as a servant of God for now and for ever.
Conclusion--Islam and the United States
I think it would actually be good for American Christianity and for Americans in general if Islam spreads widely in the United States. We have a vaunted tradition of religious toleration embedded in our Constitution, even if it may be honored more in the bread than the observance at times. So, it would be good for Americans to learn to live with a different religious tradition in its midst. In addition, the presence of Islam might also inspire Christians to see what makes our religion "tick," and what are the strengths and deficiencies of current Christian practice. I think Christians can learn a lot about why Islam has been such a rapidly growing religion by grasping the virtue of its simplicity and its rituals. It may also lead us to understand the Muslim as a person, also, which might be the best benefit of all.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long