Islam and the West: The Need For a Bilateral Talk

Islam is, today, the fastest growing religion in the world, both in Europe and also here in North America. Almost a quarter of world’s population is Muslim. And no matter how she tries, the West cannot annihilate Islam. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has arrived on the shores of the Atlantic to stay and it will survive as long as God has decreed. Whether she likes it or not, the West, therefore, cannot afford to ignore either Islam or Muslims anymore.

The Western governments need to understand Islam not just for oil or diplomacy with their Muslim counterparts in Asia, Africa, and Europe, but more so for their own survival to deal with the ethno-racial, economic and social problems which are tearing their society apart. Yes, such a statement may sound strange. But reflect for a moment upon what Mahatma Gandhi once said: "Someone has said that Europeans in South Africa dread the advent of Islam – Islam, that civilized Spain; preached to the world the Gospel of Brotherhood. The Europeans of South Africa dread the advent of Islam, as they claim equality with the white races. They may well dread it. If brotherhood is a sin, if it is equality of the colored races that they dread, then their dread is well-founded."[1]

Indeed, unlike most religions, Islam teaches that human diversity is a sign of God’s mercy and a portent for men of knowledge: "And of His (God’s) signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors."[2] Islam shuns the very idea of chosen people or superiority based on race, ethnicity, color, tribe, language, geography, etc., by declaring: "O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware."[3] With such profound statements in the Qur’an, Islam was able to wipe out age-old ethnocentric notions of superficial superiority and exclusive nobleness of mankind. Prof. Rao comments: "The principle of universal brotherhood and the doctrine of equality of mankind which he proclaimed represent very great contribution of Muhammad to the social upliftment of humanity."[4]

Muhammad’s (S) credit lies in putting this manifesto of survival of mankind into actual practice by transforming the lives of tens of thousands of individuals, who had hitherto a history of fighting wars for generations, in his lifetime. Following his teachings people buried their jealousies and discarded their vendetta and blood feuds. He made humanity realize and achieve the principle and practice of brotherhood of man, and to give up intrigues and conspiracies against truth and justice. At what time or place and in relation to what other social, economic, political, religious system, philosophy or ideology – did the world ever witness such a perfectly amazing phenomenon? Even after some fourteen centuries later, Malcolm X [Alhaj Malik El-Shabazz] was amazed at his first contact with mainstream Islam when he visited the Muslim world in 1964: "America needs to understand Islam, because this is one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white, but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all together, irrespective of their color."[5] A genuine dialogue with Islam is, thus, necessary for solving the ethno-racial tensions in the West. The sooner the better!

Standing over the carcass of Western humanism, with its deadly attachment and preference for the lowly materialism, the West has gradually stripped herself of spirituality. She has forgotten that man is not just composed of flesh and blood, but also of nafs (soul, carnal self) and ruh (spirit). Man’s genuine humanity lies in subduing the carnal self, in order to uplift the spirit, and not in being enslaved by the former. In his book, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, William Chittick rightly comments: "Somewhere along the line, the Western intellectual tradition took a wrong turn. Arguments arise over when and why this happened. Many important thinkers have concluded that the West never should have abandoned certain teachings about reality which it shared with the East… In putting complete faith in reason, the West forgot that imagination opens up the soul to certain possibilities of perceiving and understanding not available to the rational mind."[6]

Just as a plant needs both water and air for its mere survival, the West failed to realize that it needs spiritual nourishment as much as, if not more, materialism. I dare say that in this age, while most religions are waging a losing battle against the influence of demonic materialism, no religion has probably failed as terribly as Christianity in saving her people from its deadly embrace. That is why, in recent years, many Westerners have turned to the Eastern traditions in the hope of reviving their spirits, which they have lost, and correct the deep spiritual and psychic non-equilibrium. While all religious traditions offer a certain role to imagination, none comes close to Islamic traditions in discussing the imaginal realm as the locus where spiritual realities are seen in visionary experience.

Islam is not just about spirit, but encompasses faith, action, idealism, spirituality, brimming over with vitality and life-giving factors whose ruling spirit is justice and equality. Faith minus action or conduct has no place in Islam. Truly, Islam’s most basic tradition is shahadah and human activity, mixed with a history of struggle against oppression and establishment of justice and protection of human rights.

Islam teaches that privilege comes with obligation, and that men were not created to serve nature, but that the universe was created for serving men.[7] Man’s final goal is to become on the one hand the master of the universe as God’s vicegerent on earth,[8] and on the other hand to recognize that he was created solely for the purpose of serving God.[9] Worship (‘ibadat) in Islam is, therefore, not confined to his fulfilling the rights of God (Huququllah), but also includes those of his fellow human beings (himself included), other creatures, and nature or environment (Huququl ‘ibad). Serving or helping those in destitute,[10] fighting for the rights of the oppressed[11] are equivalent to serving God. Yes, even the protection of the environment is an Islamic obligation due upon the society. Complete contentment, complete satisfaction and complete peace of mind are byproducts of how effectively one was able to fulfill that divine mission for which he was created.

Unlike other Eastern religions, which are individualist and seclusive in their orientation and try to divert their adherents’ attention from this life’s practical affairs to metaphysical preoccupations and supernatural ideals, Islam is a practical religion. Islam has a clear outlook on life and does not divorce itself from the realities of life and offers its solution to all man-made problems. It is, therefore, no wonder that one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Bernard Shaw, speaking about the founder of Islam remarked, "If Muhammad were alive today, he would succeed in solving all those problems which threaten to destroy human civilization in our times."

Unlike Christianity, which is responsible for breeding a Western society devoid of any moral obligation through its notion of original sin and the accompanying theology of vicarious atonement, Islam preaches individual accountability for oneself.[12] In addition to his belief in God, a believer in Islam must enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency.[13] The lowest degree of faith is that when one sees or knows of something wrong, he only feels in his heart that such was wrong [and does not stop such from happening either by his hand or tongue]. Condoning a wrong or crime is, therefore, equivalent to losing one’s faith.

As can be seen, Islam is militant when it comes to resisting oppression. It encourages people to overthrow despotic rulers and to come to the aid of the oppressed people.[14] It has quite naturally remained a religion of the downtrodden masses. As a matter of fact, no religion comes anywhere close to Islam in uplifting the status of the oppressed and humbled, of the conquered and subdued, and of the overpowered and subjugated individuals and nations. Islam, due to its revolutionary and militant character, has also checked the arrogance, haughtiness, vanity and brutal desires of tyrants, despots and oppressors. To compare Abu Dhar Giffary (RA) of Islam with Saint Paul of Christianity would be inequity and ignorance for when Abu Dhar (RA) fought exploitation, Paul preached: "the temples of God are built upon hunger", (as one might surmise,) supporting such exploitation.[15]

Islam teaches that real peace cannot be attained without justice. So long there is injustice and oppression in this world where the rights of the people are violated and justice is denied to the oppressed, peace with the unjust and the oppressor is not even a beautiful dream, but only a hallucination. Tolerating exploitation or injustice is tantamount to promoting or helping it spread. Hence, in Islam, unlike Christianity, there is no turning "the other cheek." Confirmation of truth and justice are tenets of Islam, enlightenment of humanity is its chief object, to expect and to face death boldly is one of its main teachings. That is why there has never been a shortage of martyrs in the Islamic world. In recent centuries, Europeans conquered vast territories of land in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but it was in Muslim territories that the colonizers encountered the most bitter opposition and resistance. History is a testament to the fact that Muslims have never accepted foreign domination and at the end, no matter how great the price was for liberation, the invaders, occupiers, and colonizers had to leave. The struggle for freedom, human rights and dignity as against occupation, abuse and an imposed barbarism still goes on in various lands. I am aware of the fact that this militant side of Islam has quite often frightened many non-Muslims.

Islam is a gospel of work; outcome of the Next World is based upon the inputs and efforts of this life. Unlike other Eastern religions, which justify poverty, Islam condemns it. Abu Dhar Giffary (RA), a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad (S) said, "When poverty enters a house [through the front door], religion exits through the rear door." An empty stomach is desperate. In poverty-stricken societies, morality and ethics are nothing more than deviant illusory traditions. Such an Islamic stand on poverty might seem quite opposite to how the Prophet (S) and his companions, including Abu Dhar (RA), led their own lives. It is true that the Prophet embraced poverty but his choice was voluntary. If he had wished he could have passed his life as a rich man. Remember that before the prophetic mission, he was already a very successful businessman and was married to one of the richest ladies in Makkah. In his prophetic heyday, when the entire Arabian Peninsula was brought under the Islamic rule, as the head of the state, if he had wished, he could have lived a very comfortable life, comparable to those of the Roman and Persian Kings; instead, he opted for the life of a pauper.[16] This was not only a sign of humility, but also a mark and emblem of greatness. How often the pleasures of life were presented to him and he refused to accept them. Moderation in life was his disposition and character. He used the worldly things only for the barest necessities of life, and never thought of obtaining any comfort or ease in life even temporarily. He was the most charitable man and gave away everything he received. His embracing of poverty was, therefore, his own choice, neither out of necessity nor was it forced upon him.

In life, those with wealth usually attract people. If Muhammad (S) had donned the garb of the Caesar or the Khoshru, he could have easily attracted people, both the haves and the have-nots, to his cause. But in that case, too many would have been allured by the splendor and pomp of this life or drawn through fear for their lives. Very few would have, out of their free will, accepted his teachings and displayed genuine love of or submission to God, which Muhammad (S) tried to inculcate in the human mind. Living a self-imposed life of poverty, he showed the impermanence of this worldly life so that people can know that there is a higher purpose in this life, which they should covet for, rather than something, which is temporary. During his life, circumstances changed, but Muhammad (S) did not. In victory or in defeat, in power or in adversity, in affluence or in poverty, he was the same man displaying the same character.[17]

Who can deny the impact of such a dynamic personality in transforming a nation, once steeped in barbarism and immersed in moral darkness, to become the torchbearers of civilization and learning? Robert Briffalut rightly concluded in his well-known book, The Making of Humanity: "Science owes a great deal more to the Arab culture: it owes its existence." John William Draper similarly commented in his book, A History of Intellectual Development of Europe: "Four years after the death of Justinian, A.D. 569, was born at Mecca, in Arabia the man who, of all men exercised the greatest influence upon the human race… Mohammed…"[18] Michael Hart ranked him as the world’s most influential person because, in his opinion, he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular level.[19]

Fourteen centuries ago, a Muslim Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (S) addressed the general of the Persian garrison in the following words: "[Islam summons] mankind from the lowliness of the earth to the heights of the heavens, from the servitude of each other to the service of the Lord of the Universe, and from the oppression of the religions to the justice of Islam."[20] Yes, that was precisely the role that Islam tried to play in the global arena. Through its concept of tauhid or pure monotheism and universal brotherhood, it offered the world a road to salvation. Instead of making God manlike, it tried to make man Godlike. And this it tried by providing three basic elements – faith in one God without any associate, reform of the self and reform of the society at large. Islamic movements around the globe over the centuries, therefore, remained as a religious commitment, a socio-economic-political program, but above all, a vehicle for the continuous reform of the society.

At this age in our world, who can deny the dire need of such forces and principles, which Muhammad (S) advocated and brought about? Neither ignorance nor bigotry should stand along her way for the West to open up a dialogue with the world of Islam. She needs it for her soul!


[1]. Muhammad the Prophet of Islam by Prof. K. S. Ramakrishna Rao, IPCI, New York, p. 7.

[2]. Qur’an 30:22.

[3]. Qur’an 49:13.

[4]. Op. cit., p. 6.

[5]. Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley: Letter from Mecca, 1964.

[6]. Op. cit., p. ix.

[7]. Qur’an 2:22, 29; 14:32-34; 16:5-8, 14-16, 66-69, 80; 36:80; 45:13.

[8]. Qur’an 2:30.

[9]. Qur’an 51:56.

[10]. Qur’an 2:43.

[11]. Qur’an 4:75.

[12]. Qur’an 6:164, 53:38, 82:19.

[13]. Qur’an 3:110.

[14]. Qur’an 4:75.

[15]. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies by Dr. Ali Shariati, (tr. R. Campbell), Mizan Press, Berkeley (1980).

[16]. Islam: The Misunderstood Religion by James A. Michener, Reader’s Digest (American Edition), May (1955), pp. 68-70.

[17]. Rao, op. cit., p. 20.

[18]. Op. cit., London (1875), Vol. 1, pp. 329-330.

[19]. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael H. Hart, Hart Publishing Company Inc., New York (1978).

[20]. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique by Dr. Ali Shariati, (tr. R. Campbell), Mizan Press, Berkeley (1980), p. 38.