The world of the prophet: The world's fastest-growing religion is at a crisis in its history, caught between its traditional roots and the pressures of modernism. Leading Muslim academic Akbar Ahmed introduces a unique photographic study

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The Independent Culture
THE IRANIAN photographer Abbas lived through, and photographed, the Iranian revolution - and was exiled following the publication of his book on the subject. For his latest work, a study of the resurgence of Islam around the world, he has been travelling since 1987, visiting 29 countries, in four continents. He could hardly have chosen a more tumultuous - or critical - period to photograph.

The contemporary relationship between Islam and the West is marked by frustration and anger - but also by signs of genuine hope. We know of the former but tend to discount the latter. We know of the controversy around The Satanic Verses, and of the Muslim sense of anger at the suffering in Bosnia, Palestine and Kashmir (and at the West's indifference to it). In each case, Muslims feel that there is some kind of tacit international conspiracy against them, that the West has double standards. The United Nations, seen as a Western tool, is given as a prime example. It was used to hammer the Iraqis in the Gulf war, but it blatantly ignores the injustices, and its own resolutions, in Bosnia, Palestine and Kashmir.

We know, too, of widespread Western anxiety about Muslim 'fundamentalism' (media code for 'fanaticism'). We hear rather less about developments which imply improvements in understanding between the two cultures. Recently, for example, almost unnoticed, Professor Montgomery Watt, one of the greatest living Western Orientalist scholars of the old school, declared that the holy Prophet of Islam was indeed a prophet 'on a similar level to the Old Testament prophets'. This acceptance of the Prophet by such a pillar of the intellectual establishment of Christendom is of immense cultural and theological significance, as it implicitly acknowledges Muslims as people of the same God - thus ending, in a sense, over a thousand years of bitter intellectual conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Another development came from an unexpected quarter. In a speech at Oxford last year the Prince of Wales became the first royal in British history to put on record the magnificent contribution of Islam to world civilisation.

He talked optimistically of harmony between his religion and Islam, indeed between all religions. The speech was widely reported and had a big impact in the Muslim world. Whatever his standing at home, he came across to millions of Muslims as a sensitive and thoughtful human being, who had shrewdly pointed out what some scholars were beginning to identify: that is, the confrontation in our age between a global consumerist, materialist culture and the traditional societies in which Islam has flourished. The global culture characteristically flattens everything before it, including values like piety, patience, care for the family and respect for the aged.

Globalisation thus threatens not only Islam but traditional people everywhere. To see the world as Islam versus the West is inaccurate and simplistic. There are many in the Christian world who regret the destructive effects of globalisation. And there are many in the Muslim world quite willing to open the floodgates of Western consumerism. The challenge is to convince this second group that unthinking deals with Western capitalists will provide few answers to the problems which face Muslim societies. And problems there are: some of the biggest rates of population growth in the world, high rates of illiteracy, some of the most corrupt and incompetent rulers, a general sense of bewilderment at the pace of change, and an almost irrational anger at the West for somehow being responsible for their misfortune. Once, Muslims could escape behind the high walls of their homes.

There was security inside, and tradition and continuity. The world outside was thus manageable and could even be rejected. Today this is no longer true. The BBC, CNN and other television networks have invaded living-rooms in the most remote parts of the Muslim world. What Muslims see on their televisions - often images of sex and violence - convinces them that this is all that the West has to offer, that the West is corrupt and corrupting and must be resisted. This mirrors the simplistic image that many in the West have of Islam as a religion of terrorism and fanaticism.

The coming time will be crucial, because Muslim societies - and the 20 million or so Muslims now living in the West on a more or less permanent basis - are reaching a dangerous point of no return in their dealings with the West. On the one hand are those who talk of rejecting the non-Muslim world; on the other those who wish to be absorbed in it, thus losing their own culture and identity. A middle ground needs to be developed. Islam as a religion has much to offer the world. Despite the violence of a few of its adherents, it is essentially a religion of compassion and peace, of balance, between the world, dunya, and religion, din. And it is brimming with vitality and passion in an age of secularism and cynicism. The challenge to the West is to understand Islam with greater sympathy, on its terms. The challenge to Muslims is to set aside their hurt and interact with the world.

That is why developments like Watt's declaration and the Prince's lecture are of such significance, offering a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.

(Photographs omitted)