American Muslims and the Challenge of Geography

The following is a segment from Dr. Sherman Jackson’s On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam. I find this passage to be worthy of required reading status.

“As Islam moved out of its isolation in Arabia to settle among the inhabitants if the world of Late Antiquity, where geography, history, and tradition had endowed different individuals and communities with more fundamentally different ways and approaches to thinking. These different endowments would lead in turn to different attitudes towards and approaches to theology. This was the beginning and most important source of theological discord in Islam, a full appreciation of which has only been obscured by the Muslim theologians’ rhetoric of transcendence.

Yet, the typical Western approach, which prides itself on its ability to see through the claims and attributions of the Muslim theologians, has not faired much better. Rather, it too has tended to impede rather than promote understanding of the impact of these differential historical endowments.

It is common knowledge that the influence of Christian theology, the Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean traditions, and Indian and especially Greek philosophy on Muslim theological discourse was both fundamental and enduring1. Traditionally, however, Western scholars have portrayed this influence as an instance as an instance of cross-civilizational borrowing. At the same time, Muslims are said to have denied or played down this influence, based on their ideological commitment to the premise that ‘Islam is self-sufficient and that in Qur’an and Hadith it contains in essentials all the religious and moral truth required by all humanity to the end of time.’2 Under ordinary circumstances, fear of self-incrimination might pre-empt any reaction to such a view. But such depictions mask an important point that bears directly on our understanding of the nature and causes of theological discord—and thus the requirements and possibilities of theological tolerance—in Islam. Simply stated, the notion of Muslim ‘borrowing’ is based on an artificial bifurcation of the world of Late Antiquity and early Islam into Greek and Persian (alien), on the one hand, and Arab-Muslim (native), on the other, followed by the assumption that any elements of the former found among the latter must be the result of cross-civilizational borrowing. This picture becomes a bit more complicated, however, when we consider that the overwhelming majority of the early Muslims—as well as those who would become Arabs—had theretofore been ‘Greeks,’ Mazdakites, Manichaeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians. R. Bulliet goes a long way in confirming this in his book Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, and it si being pointed out with increasing frequency and clarity by historians of Late Antiquity, e.g., P. Brown, G.W. Bowersock, and O. Grabar in their recent edited volume, Late Antiquity. In fact, in that same volume, the Islamic historian Hugh Kennedy writes:

Of all the dividing lines set up between academic disciplines in the western intellectual tradition, the frontier between classical and Islamic Studies has proved among the most durable and impenetrable…[W]hereas late antiquity can be seen as part of the broader history of western civilization, the history of the Islamic world cannot. Yet reflection will soon suggest that the changes cannot have been so sudden and dramatic, especially at the level of the structures of everyday life, and that the Islamic was as much, and as little, a continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom.”

If American Muslims are to understand where they are headed, it is essential that our educational efforts work towards empowering, demystifying and in particular for those Muslims who’ve hailed from the historical Muslim world, heal the trauma of their post-colonial experiences, so that we may move beyond many of these blockades, externally and self-imposed.

References

  1. M. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy. 1970.
  2. W.M. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Elsewhere Watt points out, incidentally, that this insistence on self-sufficiency in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary was also characteristic of medieval and early modern Christianity, which downplayed its debt to Islam and exaggerated its dependence on ancient Greece and Rome.

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