Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Speaking of Faith (dot Org)

Yeah, yeah, I know. If you listen to National Public Radio you must be hopelessly lost in some blind alley of liberal malarky, beyond the pale of undestanding that most intelligent Fox News viewers take for granted. Sorry about that. Been doing it for years and as a result am vain enough to think that I am better informed than most people with whom I talk.

Anyway, the most recent airing of Speaking of Faith featured an in-depth interview with Vincent Cornell, high-brow scholar, muslim by conversion in the sixties, and Director of Islamic studies at the University of Arkansas. In one hour my understanding of the faith was expanded to about twice what it was before. With rare and straightforward candor, in standard American English, I listened to someone explain the faith in a language I could understand, including critical statements which would likely get him killed by radical muslims in many parts of the world.

The Wahhabi movement is an ultra-conservative, puritanical movement of Islam. The reform movement originated in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century and was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab. A proponent of al-Wahab's teachings, the tribal leader Muhammad ibn Saud championed the movement and from then on Saudis have become the movement's main supporters; it's the dominant school of Islam in Saudi Arabia today. Devout Wahabis believe that other Muslims, particularly the Shiites, have abandoned their faith in one God, tawhid, and have distorted Islam. The Wahabis accept only the Qur'an and the authentic Sunna, customary practices of living modeled on the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammad, and reject 1,400 years of the development and interpretation of Islamic theology and mysticism. They oppose veneration of saints and relics, prohibit decorating of mosques, and ban luxury. Anyone who does not accept these tenets is considered a heretic.

The terms Shiite and Sunni are used routinely in news reports, although the vast majority of listeners have no clue what they mean. There are important differences between these two parts of the faith, including a fundamental difference in how they are organized (or in the case of Sunnis, disorganized).

The point is made that what is happening to Islam today has a historical comparison with the Protestant Reformation in Christian traditions, but with the two opposing views expressed differently in organizational terms. Shiites, it seems, are latter-day reformers (compared to "Protestants"), but with a structural coherence as strong as the Catholic Church. Sunnis, on the other hand, represent the older, more established roots of tradition and are in an overwhelming majority worldwide. But the Sunni tradition places so much emphasis on individual responsibility that central authority never developed as the faith spread. This internal tension underlies much of the conflict that is being seen today.

Toward the end of the program, Krista Tippet raises the inevitable question about so-called "martyrs" to which Cornell starts an answer almost before she completes the question. "This is an easy one" he starts, and continues to explain that the use of the word martyr is absolutely wrong in referring to suicide bombers or anyone who decides to sacrifice a life in the name of faith. Martyrs are chosen by God and circumstances, not individuals. Those who voluntarily die, particularly if they are at the same time taking the lives of innocents, cannot be considered martyrs in any way. Suicide bombers are not following the faith; they are violating it.

It begs the question, of course, why we do not hear anyone say this in any meaningful way. He replies that the issue is being discussed among the leaders of Islam all over the world, but translations are not forthcoming. Apparently these comments among the learned are sotto voce due to radical extremists who occupy center stage. Cornell refers to what is happening in world Islam as "ferment," pointing out that when something is fermenting, "scum" floats to the top.

For anyone who wants to invest an hour learning about this critical and timely topic, I can recommend going to the site, tuning in to the audio, and enjoy a cup of coffee as you broaden your horizons.

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