A battle broke out in the streets of Baghdad. This was no fight over the presence of Americans, or flare up between Sunnis and Shi'ites. No, this was a battle over the role of rationalism, and it was fought -- literally fought -- more than a thousand years ago between followers of differing schools of Islam. It is a jihad that could not be more relevant today.
The struggle then, as now, lay between Muslims who sought to advance human knowledge within Islam and those who championed mere backward-looking obedience to the dominant interpretation of Islam. The death of Osama bin Laden coming, as it does, following the birth of liberation movements in Tunesia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and other Muslim countries creates an extraordinary moment of opportunity for reform -- and restoration -- in Islam. Restoration? Read on.
For centuries after the founding of Islam around 622 C.E., progress prevailed. Brilliant Muslim scholars gathered in the wisdom of the ancient world, compounded, and enriched it.
To take but one instance, with creation of the Beyt al Hiqma, or House of Wisdom, by the 9th century caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma'mun, all the virtues of Islamic culture came together in a series of mathematical triumphs. To be sure, the Greeks had excelled at geometry, culminating in the Pythagorean theorem. But Pythagoras would have taught it to his followers by drawing triangles and rectangles in the dirt with a stick. Thanks to Muslim scholars, we learn it through the algebraic equation (from al jabr) A^2 plus B^2 = C^2.
That, however, is merely the overture. From its early days, Islam had two outstanding achievements in the arts: geometric design and poetry. These two intertwined in the remarkable discovery and application of full-fledged trigonometry. Laboring in the House of Wisdom, al-Khwarizmi, a Persian by birth, combined the geometry of triangles and spheres with the verbal elaboration of equations to work out the first sine and cosine tables. They enabled Muslim astronomers to create the first accurate maps of the heavens, and then to create an astonishingly sophisticated version of the astrolabe, a handheld navigation device.
Over the centuries, the Islamic ummah, or community, gradually lost its progressive tendencies and, as history passed it by, found itself divided and on the defensive against encroachment from the West and oppressive secular rulers from within (the Shah of Iran, Nasser in Egypt, and Saddam in Iraq, to name a few recent "reformers"). Walk a mile in Muslim sandals, and it's no surprise to find rage and revanchism. If anything, it is surprising how few Muslims are extremists.
Nevertheless, the violent jihadis , tiny minority though they may be, represent a huge threat to civilization -- Islamic and otherwise. So, too, are the entrenched reactionaries -- the mullahs of Iran, the Wahhabi purists of Saudi Arabia, or the murderous Taliban in the Afghan hills, and their ilk in Pakistan's fractured government. Though differing in their theologies, they share a harsh, static, and authoritarian view of society. It's a view that is by no means the only or authentic way to understand the Quran and the life and hadith (sayings) of the Prophet.
Just as with Christianity, it is possible to understand Islam in a truly progressive way. It begins with the simple, bold, and widely trampled sura 2:256, translated as "There is no compulsion in religion." It builds on the realization that, seen in the context of his times, the Prophet Muhammed championed an egalitarian, compassionate, and morally uplifting theology. It grows with the recognition that, seen in the context of his times, Muhammed, far from veiling women, actually raised their status, conferring rights on them at a time when none existed in Arabia or the Christian West.
To be sure, in the present age when Muslim women are in various places deprived of education, freedom of movement, or political equality, and are subject in places to forced marriages, "honor killings," and sanctioned rape, this may be hard to credit. Nevertheless, it is a historically legitimate view, one that some Muslims build upon to endorse a panoply of women's rights, including the right to lead Muslim nations.
As an agnostic outsider, it's not for me to tell a billion plus Muslims how to rekindle the progressive, rationalist tradition of Islam into a beacon of hope. But I can and must point out the need to do so. As the life of Osama bin Laden demonstrated in the worst possible way, all Scriptures lend themselves to interpretation without limit.
A militant, intolerant, and authoritarian interpretation of religion has great power at this time within the two biggest monotheisms. Christian and Muslim extremists alike lust for Armageddon -- the battle of self-proclaimed "armies of God."
Those of us in predominately Judeo-Christian countries who find that vision repellent work ceaselessly for rationality, progress, and peace. We know there will be darker days ahead -- days when jihadi terrorists stage new and bloody attacks on innocents and days when reactionaries in our own cultures howl for indiscriminate revenge. But we hold fast to hope that our Muslim brothers and sisters will win through their bloody struggles against tyranny and oppression, and in the place of palaces build a new House of Wisdom.
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