A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Islam in America

I'm getting to be quite the divorce expert these days. This week I'm wrapping up another article for the all-divorce, all-the-time site. This one is on divorce among American Muslims.

Islam has got to be the world's most misunderstood religion, in the United States at least. We have the good fortune to live in an amazing country, huge and beautiful, with a variety of habitable climates and abundant natural resources and, last but not least, an inspired constitution. All our problems can be summed up in one word: ignorance. We know little about our own history; less about our own constitution. We're cut off from most of the rest of the world by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and we really could care less what anybody else is up to.

Historically, Islam has not been very widespread in the United States. So why should we bother knowing anything about it? As of 2001, there were over a million Muslims in the U.S. (almost as many people as belong to the United Church of Christ), but in a nation of over 300 million, that's a drop in the bucket. OK, it's the largest religion in the world after Christianity, but what does that have to do with us? Aren't Muslims those fanatical Arab towelheads with their wives walking three paces behind the donkey, worshipping their strange god, "Allah," and trying to blow up airplanes and buildings every chance they get?

In fact, Islam is a religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition, accepting the Bible as a holy book, Moses, Abraham and Jesus as prophets, and diverging from Christianity mainly in rejecting the divinity of Jesus--which not even all Christians accept. Muslims believe that Mohammad, born in Mecca in the 6th century A.D., is the last prophet, and that he did not so much found a new religion as reinstate the original teachings of the earlier prophets, which had been corrupted over the years by Christians and Jews.

"Allah" is merely the word in Arabic for "God," just as "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" is the word for God in Hebrew. "Allah" is used to refer to God not only by Muslims, but by Arab speakers of all faiths.

The Qur'an (the Word of God as revealed to the prophet Mohammad) and the Sunnah (the recorded words and actions of the Prophet) were written down in the 7th century A.D. For all that, they are quite modern and common-sensical. Most of the cockamamie ideas Americans have about Islam really stem from cultural traditions of societies which happen to be Muslim, like the wearing of veils by women. Or from imperialist propaganda, like the whole terrorist business.

As Imam Faheem Shuaibe of Oakland, California told me the other day, Islam is not an Arab religion, nor a Middle Eastern religion. It's an eternal religion. American Muslims are fortunate, he said, in that they don't have the cultural baggage of other countries to contend with--they can take the religion back to its pure origins. On the down side, most American Muslims are sadly lacking in information about their own religion. Most are first- or second-generation converts, many are cut off from any Muslim educational and support system, and very few can actually read their own holy books, which are written in Arabic. So it all boils down, again, to ignorance.