Akbar Ahmed: Islam needs to talk to the rest of the world

From a speech given to the Muslim Council in Washington DC by the Professor of Islamic Studies at the American University
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The Independent Online

For almost a thousand years the world was divided into two simple categories: dar-al-Islam – the land of Islam, of peace and prosperity, and dar-al-harb, the land of war and chaos – the lands where there was no Islam. The world of Islam was whole and had cultural integrity. It was a remarkable world with all the content and signs of what we today call globalisation.

This simple division of dar-al Islam and dar-al harb collapsed about two centuries ago under the weight of European colonisation. Now at the start of the 21st century two new ideas are beginning to form. These are global ideas. The first idea is that of the "Clash of Civilisations". There are many who believe that a clash of civilisations is forming in this century, and in this clash Muslims will be the main opponents of the West. But I believe this is not a new idea. This is in fact a continuation of older ideas, about Islam as a predatory civilisation threatening the West.

The alternative view – the opposed idea – is that of the "Dialogue of Civilisations." This was first introduced by President Khatami of Iran in the UN and supported by Kofi Annan, and is now beginning to pick up momentum. The dialogue of civilisations is something that all Muslims interested in humanity need to be involved in. The Koran is telling us all the time to have dialogue, to look at peoples and communities and wonder at them and appreciate them.

I wish to make a sensitive point. As a Muslim I look at the importance of ilm, of knowledge, in Islam, and I am proud. Ilm is so central to understanding Islam that it is the second most used word in the Koran. The Prophet's hadith, saying, "the death of a scholar, is the death of knowledge" haunts me. I look at the reality in the Muslim world and I feel ashamed at how we treat scholars. We shoot them, we kill them, we humiliate them and we chase them out, and where do they escape? To America or Europe. Yet we revile the West in our polemics.

The Muslim world's statistics in education are the lowest in the world. The literacy figures are appalling, and for women they are alarming, because women are essentially what holds a society together. Women in the Muslim world are deprived of their inheritance, deprived of their rights, and the men in their families tell them this is Islam.

It is popular to blame the West, to blame others for conspiracies, but we must not pretend that what is happening in the Muslim world is any one's fault but ours. We must educate our societies to the true values of ilm.

There are three big questions relevant to us all. Firstly, why is there a revival of religion in the world today? Muslims are often attacked in the media for what is called revivalism or the resurgence of Islam, but this is happening globally, in Judaism, Christianity, in Hindu and Buddhist society. So we have to decide what is going on in the world in the 21st century.

My second point is: why is the understanding of the Divine often distorted through the prism of violence? Why are we killing in the name of the divine and saying my God tells me to do this? No religion encourages violence of this kind, and yet it is happening throughout the world today.

The third point is to ask, what is what is to be done about it? Dialogue by itself is no solution. There has to be dialogue that leads to the understanding of other civilisations. For this, we have to move beyond Islam and understand the religions it interacts with: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism. Muslims are living as neighbours with these other civilisations, and are often isolated and don't understand them.

We need to be thinking globally. We may not like the words postmodernism and globalisation, but they are a reality. God has said in the Koran that He is Rabal Alimeen, the God of everything, of all the universes. We are all His creation and our societies are inter-related. To participate in the dialogue of civilisations is to appreciate our common humanity.