FEBRUARY 28, 1980
Islam: Myth and Reality
AN ADDRESS BY Dr. Hadia Dajani Shakeel, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF MIDDLE EAST AND ISLAMIC STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
CHAIRMAN The President, John A. MacNaughton
Ladies and gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: Those of you who have had occasion to peruse our seventy-fifth anniversary yearbook will have found at the back two indexes: one an index of the more than 2,000 speakers who have addressed-us during our three quarters of a century, the other a topical index of the 219 subjects that have been considered by the individuals who have stood at this lectern.
Surprisingly, given its spiritual, social and political significance, the topic of Islam has been dealt with only once at the Empire Club. And that was in 1923 when Dr. Samuel Zwemer spoke under the title, "The British Empire and Islam," a topic that brings back romantic memories of Gordon at Khartoum and Lawrence of Arabia. But images called up by the mention of names from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are not helpful if one is trying to understand current matters, such as the strategies of the energy-rich Persian Gulf states or the present internal turmoil in Iran or the circumstances that motivated the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Islamic peoples are a powerful force, they are speaking daily with an ever louder, ever more influential voice and after fifty-seven years of silence from the Empire Club podium it is clearly time for us to hear again from an authority on the values of a community which influences our lives daily, and one whose influence will surely grow in the years ahead.
Fortunately, we have an internationally recognized authority on the subject working, only a subway ride away, at the University of Toronto's Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies. Her name is Dr. Hadia Dajani-Shakeel, an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, and she is with us today as our guest of honour.
Dr. Shakeel is a distinguished scholar who earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts Degrees at the American University of Beirut and her Doctorate at the University of Michigan which she attended on a Fulbright Scholarship. Now a Canadian citizen, Dr. Shakeel lives in Toronto with her husband and three children.
Our guest of honour has just returned from Iran. Her trip, which was sponsored by the Iranian government, was organized to celebrate a number of Islamic events--the Islamic New Year, the Islamic Revolution and the birthday of the Prophet, Muhammad. Dr. Shakeel was one of just nine Canadians selected to participate as a delegate with five hundred others from around the world in a trip that provided her with opportunities to visit the holy cities, to meet with intellectuals and government officials and to walk in the streets of Tehran where so many of today's headlines originate.
It is a welcome opportunity for members of this club to host a guest whose academic training has made her knowledgeable on the history, the culture and the religion of the Middle East and whose recent travels have provided her with an update on current affairs in that complex region of the world.
It is my pleasure now to ask you to welcome Dr. Hadia Dajani-Shakeel who will address us on the topic, "Islam: Myth and Reality."
Decades of political, economic and religious changes in the Muslim world culminating in the Iranian Islamic revolution, the recent Grand Mosque rebellion in Saudi Arabia, the Camp David agreement and the tendency to normalize relations between Egypt and Israel; the oil policies of some Muslim countries and their impact on Western economies; these changes along with what has been seen recently as the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, the attempts to build the so-called "Islamic Bomb," and perhaps of special importance to us here, the ever increasing Muslim presence in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, have arrested global attention arousing concern about the rising tide of Islam. International responses to these happenings have been expressed in a variety of manners -ranging from threats of military intervention in some Muslim countries to counteract political upheaval and preserve Western interests in the area, to the actual invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, to talks of economic sanctions against some Muslim countries. On the positive side, more interest has been expressed in understanding the factors underlying these changes as well as the state of Islam and its future prospects, "This Eastern religion (which) has been influencing Western history since the conquest of Jerusalem and the mounting of the Christian Crusades." (New York Times Magazine, January 6, 1979)
Several committees have been formed in Europe and North America to study and report to governments and churches about the present state and future prospects of Islam. On the other hand, some concerned religious circles in areas with expanding Muslim communities have formed interfaith dialogue groups to promote a better understanding of Islam and other minority religions in a Christian majority environment. Recently, an international multi-religious organization--the World Conference on Religion for Peace, with branches in Canada--has set itself to promote co-operation among the world religious communities and defend religious groups in the face of international or local pressures. For example, in a meeting in Antwerp on November 14, 1979, the organization expressed "deep sorrow concerning recent events in Iran and the damage and distortion thereby caused to the image of Islam in Europe." In Toronto, a Christian-Muslim group has organized a project aimed at promoting religio-cultural understanding through the association of families from both groups of Canadian society.
While these committees and organizations have been attempting to bridge the historical gap between Muslim and Western countries, the media have mobilized all their resources--newspapers, novels, movies, radio and television--to report and analyze the situation in the Muslim world. The analysis has ranged from moderate to hostile, often caricaturing Islam and Muslims, and contributing intentionally or unintentionally to stereotyping and a negative image of the religion and its followers. In an article titled "Canadian Racism Finds New Target in Arab Peoples" (The Toronto Star, January 5, 1979), Rev. Timothy Foley, Rector of St. Thomas a Becket Anglican Church in Mississauga, noted that:
The newest and most popular target of prejudice and racial stereotyping is the Arab peoples. Here the major sin is the sin of generalization. In our ignorance of geography and political realities of that part of the world, we tend to lump all Arab countries together with (the internationally discredited regimes of) Iran and Libya. Reports out of Iran often interchange the words "Arab" and "Muslim" for "Iranian." We read of "Arab mobs" and "Muslim fanatics."
He further adds:
We gain insight into the psyche of a people by examining the content of their popular humour and music. And any sampling of that indicator in North America today reveals that Arabs are quickly replacing Poles, Jews and blacks as the primary butt of racial jokes.
In my presentation today, I will focus on the misconceptions about Islam and the Muslims in the West, and even among Muslims themselves. I shall attempt to clarify some of these common misconceptions, as objectively as possible, on the basis of the teachings of Islam and in the light of my personal observations and discussions with Muslim spiritual leaders during my recent visit to Iran. I assure you that while in Iran, I was equally critical of some Muslim views of the West, and often indulged in discussions trying to clarify some of the Muslims' misconceptions. For example, there is a tendency in the East to equate the West with materialism, ignoring the fact that this is the most superficial aspect of the West. In this, the West is perhaps partly to blame because it has shown greater concern in exporting its material rather than its real values to the area.
Regarding misconceptions about Islam my discussion will be confined to two areas: first, the Faith; and second, aspects of the Islamic Social System--the institutions of marriage and divorce, and the status of women.
Islam has often been labelled as a "fanatical," "militant" and "fatalistic" religion. Such terms which would ordinarily apply to individual interpretations or practices are used to characterize Islam. It has been portrayed as an absurd and, sometimes, incomprehensible religion. The Prophet Muhammad is referred to as the object of worship, rather than God.
What is Islam? It is a monotheistic and universal religion. For the Muslims at the present it has three closely related meanings: (a) it is an individual act of submission to God and joining the Muslim community; (b) Islam is the visible, historical entity, the complete system of faith and practice that was ordained by God, instituted by the Prophet and is now regulated by the Hadith (Prophet's sayings) and the Sharia (Islamic law); (c) The term Islam has come to be used, especially in modern times, to refer to the ideal visible entity or system of beliefs and practices Muslims are urged to strive to achieve. Islam in this sense is seen, not as something abstract, but as a potential historical reality.
In all its three meanings, Islam is seen as a complete way of life where individual, family and community aspects and also ritual, legal and political aspects are intertwined and inseparable.
The term Muslim is interpreted at different levels. He is any human being who, through the use of his intelligence and free will, accepts a divinely revealed law. The term Muslim refers to all creatures of the universe who accept "Divine Law" in the sense that they conform to the unbreakable laws, which the western world calls "laws of nature." The regularity of the universe proves in Muslim eyes the presence of the Divine Will to which all creatures are subservient and in fact, except for man, have no choice but to follow. Then there is the highest meaning of Muslim, which applies to the saint who has not only accepted a revelation but lives fully in conformity with the Divine Will.
Islam should not be incomprehensible to Christians and Jews, for it started in the same environment and was nourished by some common sources. As a universal religion, it conceived of itself as a continuation of God's earlier revelations. This is referred to in the following and other verses of the Quran:
Say (O Muhammad): We believe in God and that which was revealed to us, and that which was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and to the Prophets from their Lord we make no distinction between any of them. And to him we submit. (111:83)
To discuss other facets of Islam might be too lengthy. However, I should mention here that despite some dogmatic differences with Christianity, the Quran admits that the closest religious group to the Muslims is the Christian, as indicated in the following:
And you will find the nearest of them (mankind) in affection to those who believe (Muslims) those who say: Lo! we are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks and because they are not proud.
The place of Jesus and Mary are exalted in the Quran. In fact, Mary is the only woman referred to by name.
And when the Angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah has chosen you and made you pure, and has preferred you above (all) the women of creation.
If we set aside all theological discussion and argument it suffices to mention here that Islam has a well elaborated ethical code. Like the persistent emphasis on the love of humanity in Christianity, Islam emphasizes compassion. The concept of compassion is omnipresent in Islam. Allah is always the compassionate, the merciful, kind, compassionate and concerned about the welfare of humanity and its salvation and always ready to forgive rather than to take revenge. Unfortunately this aspect of Islam is even forgotten by Muslims:
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East and the West, but righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and gives his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observe proper worship and pay the poor due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God fearing. (11:177)
According to recent statistics, Islam is presently the religion of 821.5 million, over a fifth of the human race, compared to one billion Christians. Africa has 224.2 million; Asia 575.3 million; Europe 20 million; North and South America and Australia, 2 million. The number of countries with over fifty per cent Muslim population is fifty-seven.
Islam is growing rapidly in Africa. Twenty-five years ago, it was estimated that one-in-four Africans was Muslim. By the early 1980s over half of the population of Africa will probably be Muslim.
Within the Islamic faith, there is diversity and variety of opinion as there is in Christianity. The two major sects of Islam are Sunnite and Shi'ite. The Sunnite (orthodox) commands the majority of Muslims and encompasses four schools of law with minor differences on some legal matters. The Shi'ite constitute five per cent of the world's Muslims.
The Shi'ites are divided into several schools of thought; the two most important are the Ithna'Ashari (the twelvers), mainly in Iran, and the Isma'ili (or the seveners). Then there are the Zaydites, who are concentrated in the Yemen, and the Druze. Most of these sectarian groups are represented in Toronto.
The main difference between the Sunnites and the Shi'ites is on the question of Islamic leadership--the caliphate or Imamate. The Shi'ites believe that the earthly leader of the community is, as the deputy of God, deathless, has miraculously remained alive since his Ghayba (occultation), and will return like a true Messiah to fill the earth with justice and equity. The twelvers believe in ghayba, the disappearance of the Imam from the world, but the Isma'ilis don't. According to the Shiites, the Imam is the mediator between the human and the Divine, while the Sunnites believe that the individual stands directly face to face with God, with no need for an intermediary.
Understanding the difference between the Sunnite and Shi'ite concepts of leadership is essential for understanding any future Islamic republic, and the role of the religious leaders in any Islamic revolution. Shi'ite leadership is more revolutionary, organized and influential.
There are many variations in religious practices among the Muslims. Being in contact with a wide variety of world cultures, Islam has assimilated some elements of those cultures, thus acquiring a folk colouring. For example, in some areas of Central Africa and Indonesia, folk Islam has assimilated some of the pagan practices of the area, while in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh it has been influenced, to some extent, by the Hindu culture. Some practices considered Islamic by some ethnic groups may be considered un-Islamic by others. For example, during my trip to Turkey in 1976 I visited the shrine of the famous mystic scholar Jalal al-Din al-Rumi in Konya. While there I noticed in one of the halls a group of twelve men and women standing before a glass box, with their heads and hands raised, praying with tears in their eyes and muttering in single voice, "God is great."
The scene seemed very strange to me. I asked my hosts: What is in the box? They answered that it is believed that some of the Prophet's hair is preserved in the small box inside the glass. This kind of scene would be unthinkable in Saudi Arabia and could be punishable.
In my recent visit to Iran, I went to the Holy City of Meshhad, along with other international Islamic delegates. In the Grand Mosque in Meshhad, where one of the Shi'i Imam is buried, groups and individuals were praying in front of the shrine. Some were holding onto the metal screen which surrounds the shrine, weeping and crying. While watching in a corner, an Indonesian journalist approached me and said: "Are you a Sunni?" I answered, "I am a Muslim." He said, "Praise be to God." Then he pointed to the worshippers who were holding onto the screen and said, "Is this Islam? Oh no! This is heresy. This is a totally un-Islamic practice." I kept silent, respecting the feelings of the worshippers. Then he pointed to a group of women wearing the black "chador" and asked, "Why are all these women clad in black shrouds? What has befallen Islam?" I couldn't help but laugh and told him that all these women happen to be members of the North American delegation, and that this might be the first time that they were wearing the "chador." "Thank God," he said, "we do not have chadors in Indonesia. There is an Islamic saying: God is beautiful and He loves beauty." I asked him about women's attire in Indonesia. He started describing the varieties of dresses, including some which reveal the central part of the body. I told him that that is un-Islamic too. To this he retorted: "Didn't I tell you that God is beautiful and He loves beauty?" He had hardly finished his comment when a delegate from the Persian Gulf area passed by me and said: "Lady! some strands of your hair are showing. Why don't you cover them."
I will now describe some aspects of the Islamic social system.
Muslim women are a favourite target of the Western media. Two types of women are usually portrayed: the Hollywood type of seductress and the veiled (Maclean's Magazine, February 26, 1979). Although nobody can deny or ignore the existence of both types, the majority of Muslim women, who belong to neither, are totally ignored. The inferior status of women is often exaggerated. One paper wrote once that women in Saudi Arabia are scarcely better than camels. Maclean's, reporting about Muslims in Europe, says: "Many observe the usual strict regimen and some carry out their own justice. While adultrous couples are not stoned or beheaded, they are sometimes hacked up or gunned down."
One of the popular images of the marriage institution in Islam is the practice of polygamy. Muslim men are often portrayed as contracting four wives in marriage. (I assure you if this were true, the world population would have exploded long ago.) The roots of this image, however, are in the following verse of the Quran which has often been misinterpreted, and sometimes misused by some Muslim men as well.
And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the Orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four, and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then only one.
These verses were revealed within an historical context, following the partial defeat of the Muslims in an early battle, resulting in a great loss of males and the survival of a large number of widows and orphans. Thus the revelation aimed at protecting the survivors at that particular time. At the same time, it has set a prohibition and a limitation of one wife in order to prevent Muslims contracting that number of wives at any time if the conditions are not fulfilled. This prohibition has been used by Islamic courts in most of the Muslim world, to restrict the husband's freedom to marry a second wife.
Divorce is made to seem very easy in Islam and to be in the hands of the man. All the man has to do is to say: "I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee." This makes the family institution appear very fragile and loose in Islam, but the truth is the contrary of this.
According to Islam, marriage is a civil contract dissoluble by both parties, only in extreme situations. The woman has the right to seek divorce in case of the failure of the marriage, provided she stipulates her right to do so in the marriage contract. (Many Muslim women are not aware of this fact.) The roles and rights and responsibilities of each member of the family are well defined in Islam. All one has to do is to look thoroughly into these matters which emphasize the preservation of the family.
Much could be said about this. However, I shall merely mention here that there are misconceptions about the status and rights of women in the East as there are in the West. This is the result of a literal interpretation of the text, and the influence of cultural backgrounds.
In Toronto, I was reminded by some Muslim men for the first time in my life that I was inferior because I was a woman. This was in November 1979 when I went along with my husband and children to celebrate the religious feast marking the annual Islamic pilgrimage and the inauguration of the new Islamic mosque on Bayview in Thornhill. At the entrance of the mosque my husband and children were escorted upstairs to the main hall to perform the prayer while I was told that the women's place was in the basement of the mosque. I asked the ushers: "Why shouldn't I celebrate with my family and the Muslim community?" I was shocked to hear the answer: "This is the place of God. Men and women are not allowed to worship here together." It immediately struck me that I was being prevented from worshipping with other Muslims in Toronto while at the very same time Muslims from all over the world were worshipping, men and women beside each other, in Mecca, the birthplace and centre of Islam.
I happened to mention this incident to a friend of mine who laughed with amusement, saying, "You might feel better if I told you that women were allowed only recently into the Empire Club!"
The thanks of the club were expressed to Dr. Dajani-Shakeel by R. Bredin Stapells, Q.C., a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.