11. Can Islam Shine Again?
Muhammad’s preaching brought light to the Arab world at his time
Today, Islam is equated with violence and suffering in too many parts of the world
Why did this disconnect occur to Islam?
Can Islam presently be accepted in the civilized world?
What can be done to let Islam shine again!
© H. Schwab
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When Muhammad (born 570 CE) lived, the Arab world was fractured into many tribal entities, often in violent conflict with each other. The Bedouins used to rob trade-connecting caravans. The major towns were usually dominated by several family clans (also called tribes), which were often in conflict with each other. Pagan religiosity believed in a variety of gods, those sometimes related to their tribe. Thus, religious and political power were connected.
Numerous Jews and Christians (many converted Arabs) lived in those Arab towns and cities and excelled with their elevated faiths and great commercial success.
Into this Middle Eastern world, Muhammad brought new light, specifically to the difficult lives of women. His basic religious view is indicated by the beginning of almost every Surah in the Qur’an:
“Allah – the Merciful and the Beneficent!”
At the present time, practically all violence and cruelty in the world, specifically in the fractured Muslim part of the world and as emanating from there, is connected with Islam – too often justified by either side of those conflicts by their fundamentalist Muslim religious views.
The violence is mostly pursued by the young men in those areas, who are often unemployed and have no positive view of their future. Too many of them then find their mental “home” and direction in a religiously fundamentalist life with violent groups – as the Taliban, al Qaeda, DAESH/ISIS, or others.
How is that possible?
What can be done to let Islam shine again – in the Middle East and in the whole world?
Two observations or approaches may help:
1. The phenomenon, or dimension, of historic “evolution” in all existence in our universe was discovered only in the 19th century, 1,400 years after Muhammad, and formulated by Darwin and Wallace. Actually, “evolution” can be so commonly observed in all of nature and history that it may have to be added to modern Muslim thought in order to render it still valid. This could provide a new vitality to Muslim thought and belief, rendering it more suitable, acceptable, and important for our time of a modern, interconnected world. Mental evolution has resulted in the development of modern civilization and practical success in the West.
2. A perspective on a positive mission for Islam in modern life has to be offered mainly to the young men and women in the Muslim world – specifically to the largely unemployed and aimless young men. That kind of vision had been offered to the young in the West after the mentally turbulent sixties and Vietnam conflict with the advent of the “Peace Corps”. What could be offered to the Muslim young men now? A “Medina Corps” – to help both Muslim communities and non-Muslim communities in need, wherever they may be!
Historic evolution actually had already appeared in early Muslim thought
Muhammad’s life actually shows his personal evolution through six distinct phases in time:
1. Muhammad’s 39 or 40 years of early life in Mecca, from his birth in 571 CE to 610 CE: Muhammad became known as a serious and trustworthy young man searching for theological truth. He often visited a remote cave to stay there ascetically and meditate, sometimes for several days – which led to his later visions. This can be compared to Buddha’s finding of enlightenment and Jesus staying in the wilderness to find his mission, also experiencing visions. The fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan is meant to remind all Muslims of that period in Muhammad’s life and his ascetic meditation.
2. Muhammad’s 12 years of life in Mecca after his first vision at age 40 in 610 CE to his move to Medina in 622 CE at age 51: At that time, Muhammad was still living with relatives who were traders in Mecca and traveled widely with them. His first vision at that cave is still remembered in the Surah #96 in the Qur’an.
One must note that the Surah sequence in the Qur’an does not correspond to the sequence of their appearance in Muhammad’s mind. The Qur’an sequence had already been changed several times by Muhammad himself by following some later visions. Then, in the 19th century, the German theologian Theodore Nöldeke, in Tübingen, Germany, reestablished the original sequence of the Surahs. Following his research, the first vision Muhammad received, which should be Surah #1, is now Surah #96, “al Alaq”, in the Qur-an.
There was a gap of three years between Muhammad’s first vision and the next one, now Surah #74, “al Muddathir”, in the Qur’an, but, according to Nöldeke, actually Surah #2. This time gap, from the first to the second vision, caused Muhammad much concern – then he was relieved as a sequence of more visions occurred to him, on and on after 613 CE. This caused Muhammad to preach about these visions and to acquire an increasing number of followers during the next nine years. This increase in followers caused some concern to the ruling clans of Mecca – which began to plan either his death or expulsion.
3. Muhammad’s life in Yathrib/Medina from 622 CE to 624 CE, from age 51 to 53: Muhammad’s expulsion from Mecca occurred in 622 CE. By coincidence, the neighboring small town of Yathrib, later called Medina, was in turmoil due to the infighting between several of its five leading families (tribes). Finally, just at that time, they invited Muhammad as an arbiter and peacemaker. Muhammad assumed the task of arbiter and showed great leadership in the fundamental restructuring of this small town, later called Medina – thus establishing a completely new society, beneficial for both men and women. Muhammad succeeded in unifying that society by declaring all citizen as equals and providing basic protection and rights to women – by formulating and imposing a new, almost modern constitution.
Muhammad now also defined his faith more formally (see the Hadith of Gabriel), establishing the “Six Articles of Faith” and the “Five Pillars”), less in a theological-ethical sense than in an attempt to tie all of his followers more closely to the new Muslim community, also in emphasis of a submission under God – and under his Prophet! This began to change Muhammad from a teacher and community leader to an almost absolute ruler of the Muslim world. The visions and consequent Surahs became increasingly guiding advice in the legal development of life in Medina.
At this point, reference is made to the essay “Ethics: The Structure of Ethical and Moral Thought”, on the website www.schwab-writings.com in the section on “Brain/Mind”. There, it is indicated that it was early natural evolution that resulted in a type of ethical emotions and behavior (there identified as “Type 1” ethics), which became the common behavioral foundation to all animals living in groups together, specifically then also to all humans. Unselfish caring for the young (and close family members), friendship in sharing and cooperation with preferred clan members, and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the clan became primary values (along with their inversion to hate and revenge when cheated).
Also “Type 2” ethics became common to all who lived in structured, organized groups, with a leader, a support group under him or her, and followers. Loyalty, trustworthiness, selfless fulfillment of assigned tasks, and pride or honor became guiding values (with an inversion in betrayal, offense, and seeking “satisfaction”).
“Type 3” ethics were subsequently formulated by religions and vary widely, often including not only ethical rules, but also rules for circumcision, food, dressing, and others. Moses’ 10 Commandments demand submission to God (and the priests representing God?) and restraint of some disruptive male problems in society, such as desiring another man’s wife or possessions (the problem of women desiring other men or the general need for restraint from cheating in business and, mainly, the need for social charity are not mentioned in the 10 Commandments!).
Jesus specifically emphasizes Type 1 ethics (see the Sermon on the Mount: Honor the lowly, be merciful, be a peacemaker, and keep a clean heart). Muhammad, in his “Six Articles of Faith” and “Five Pillars”, gives support primarily to Type 2 ethics, the formation, control (by God and his Prophet), and retention of followers (with five daily payers and at least one pilgrimage) – as somewhat similarly tried by the Catholic Church.
There are Type 4 ethics in business and public political life based on written laws (often changed or amended) – leading to searching for “loopholes” in order to circumvent these laws or simply to cheating.
There are minor forms of Type 5 ethics in courtesy and in basic humor.
There is the branch of philosophical inquiry into ethics as a Type 6 section.
A second important point is that humans (and some other group animals) have a desire to belong to a group, to be recognized by a group, to be “at home” there – and to excel within it. Specifically, young people, searching for a path through life, when not succeeding in their home group, can be attracted to another group promising a “home” and success. This attraction was, in turn, used by the Catholic Church (to attract the young to monasteries or to one of the Church’s many religious “orders” that appeared) and then, more clearly, by Muhammad in establishing the rules for the lives of Muslims. and is still used today by DAESH/ISIL and other extremist groups intent on “radicalizing” the young and disoriented people.
4. From 624 CE to 630 CE, from Muhammad’s age 53 to age 59: In 624 CE increasingly serious and dangerous warfare began between Medina and Mecca – threatening the survival of Muhammad and his teaching. The disciples of Muhammad, who had fled with him from Mecca to what became Medina, had, thereby, lost their economic base. They had to search for a new economic base. As the Bedouins had taught them, they attacked a caravan of Mecca merchants, their prior deadly adversaries, which passed close by their new home community of Medina.
Did Muhammad not know about this attack? Did he approve of it?
This action prompted a more violent revenge military attack by Mecca against Medina. Now Muhammad had to defend his town and new society – thereby becoming a successful military leader – with a strong religious undertone. In Medina, his new strength allowed him to expel two of the leading families (Jewish “tribes”) opposed to him, one after another, thereby substantially helping his own followers.
The last Jewish “tribe” in Medina opposed to him, the Qurayzah, he annihilated by having all the men killed and the women and children sold into slavery! Would Jesus have done this had he become the leader of Nazareth? Would that form of most cruel ethnic cleansing be considered a violation of human rights” in our times?
Finally, in 630 CE, Muhammad’s military actions lead to the conquest and religious conversion of Mecca.
5. Muhammad’s last years, 630 CE to 632 CE: After 630 CE, after Muhammad had reached age 59, during the last two years of his life, the forceful expansion of the area which accepted or was forced to accept Muhammad’s teaching continued. This substantial expansion of the religious and political coherence of Islam over more and more distant Arab towns and territories occurred mostly through violent conquest or conversions. Eventually it covered a broad area of the Middle East and North Africa, where Muhammad had to become both the military leader and the political ruler of what could come to be a large empire – with ever new legal and administrative questions being referred to him, as well as questions of religious conflict. However, it is also a fact that the most cruel verses of the Qur’an in fighting nonbelievers with violence were also formulated during that time.
6. Muhammad’s sense of approaching death in 632 CE: The religious evolution of Islam concluded with the untimely and unexpected death of Muhammad (possibly due to earlier poisoning by one of his wives?), thus offering no further Surahs after 632 CE to be included in the Qur’an, while the Muslim world kept expanding and evolving – culturally and intellectually.
On March 6, 632, while on a pilgrimage, Muhammad presented what he considered his Farewell Sermon to his followers. Three months later, on June 8, 632, he passed away. In this last sermon, Muhammad put great emphasis on what he considered the key elements of his teachings to be followed by his believers. There are various transcripts or reports for this farewell speech, with different detail and emphasis. Possibly the best transcript is the one provided 200 years later by the Arabic writer al Jahiz, in his book “al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin”.
The teaching in Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon is not of “Typ 1” or Christian ethics and emotionally caring love, but rather highlighting the important aspects of communal living (as similarly presented by Moses in the 10 Commandments). Muhammad demands were:
o The discontinuation of all blood revenge
o The end of all usury
o Decent provision of clothing and food for women
o No ethnic superiority
o Sanctity of life and property
o Fair regulation of inheritance
In other words, there is no further military or anti-nonbeliever violence, but a return to the wise leader of the early Medina reorganization!
In sum, after the isolated first Surah in 610 CE, an additional 113 Surahs appeared during the 19 years from 613 to 632 CE (an average of 6 Surahs per year – or about one every two months). This indicates that Muhammad may have found an approach to receiving visions at that rate.
An important problem to address in attempting to fully understand Muhammad and the Qur’an lies in the fact that, as indicated above, the number sequence of the Surahs in the Qur’an does not correspond to the time sequence of when they were actually perceived by Muhammad! It was most notably Prof. Theodor Nöldeke, of Tübingen, Germany, who, during the second half of the 19th century, developed deep linguistic, historical, and theological knowledge to arrive at the original sequence of the Surahs as they were received by Muhammad! Later Egyptian scholars made some changes to that Nöldeke sequence, but those changes were not accepted by all.
The actual time sequence of revelations perceived by Muhammad and transcribed as the “Surahs” of the Qur’an reflect his personal development and the development of his teaching as the life for his followers changed.
However, if the message of the Surahs of the Qur’an was adapted to the need for guidance of Muhammad at their respective time of occurring, then their guidance possibly no longer applies equally to the situation of Islam and the Muslims in our modern time!
Furthermore, can we be allowed to select any single verse randomly from the original Qur’an and use it as the principal guidance for our actions today in our communities in our time (as so done, for example, by DAESH-ISIL)?
Inversely, and most importantly, a new line of thought and “theology”, considering evolution of culture and thought, can help in resolving the extreme and pervasive disarray and violence of the Muslim world in our days!
An attempt could and should be made to present guidance still derived from the basic spirit of Islam, but formulated for the Muslims of our times throughout the world. This would have to include guidance for Muslims not living in Muslim countries any longer.
Following are some specific examples of individual verses of some Surahs, which, when taken out of context, can become incomprehensible, and possibly quite dangerous, when applied at a different time under different circumstances, specifically in our days! (In the following comments, verse numbers differ by one (1), depending on the particular translation or publication of the Qur’an – depending on inclusion of the introductory verses in the count.):
1. For example, the long and war-oriented, very late Surah # 95 (AL-ANFAL) according to Nöldeke, appearing as the Surah #8 in the Qur’an, presents in Verse 12/13 that “unbelievers” be “cut above their necks and their finger-tips be cut off”. This verse is possibly used in our time by DAESH-ISIL to justify their usage of large knives to cut off the heads of their political or religious prisoners. It leads to a most cruel threat from all Muslims against all nonbelievers, even in cases when Muslims voluntarily emigrated to the West and now live among “nonbelievers”, to make a living there and educate their children in their schools! That verse cannot be tolerated at all, specifically no longer in our time today all over the world!!!
2. In another example, in the (somewhat rambling) Surah #4 in the Qur’an, “Al Nisa”, which is actually the very late Surah #100 according to Nöldeke (out of a total 114 Surahs), the Verses 89 to 92 present the famous (or infamous) rule regarding “apostates”. These verses demand that any individual who once was a Muslim and leaves that religious community must be killed immediately by all faithful Muslims. This was originally pronounced during times of severe military conflict with the non-Muslim world and may be seen as corresponding to Western military rules to kill “deserters” in times of war – as was still applied in the Western world as recently as WWII by both sides of the conflict. Therefore, this Muslim verse should be applied only in this narrowest military sense, if at all!
3. The very late Surah # 103 (AL-AHZAB) according to Nöldeke (possibly from the last year of Muhammad’s life), appearing as Surah #33 in the Qur’an, in the Verses 60/61-62, demands that those who stir up trouble or revolt in the cities (including reform?) shall be caught and hacked into pieces – thereby denying any political freedom of speech or demonstrations – seriously violating another basic “human right” of our time. We condemn many non-democratic nations of our time for similar restrictive rules and behavior, including North Korea (and somewhat also China)!
4. In the second to last Surah, #113 (AL_TAUBA) according to Nöldeke, appearing as Surah #9 in the Qur’an, Verse 4/5, demands the pursuit, ambush, and killing of “idolaters” – thereby denying any freedom of religion – which is counted among the basic “human rights” all over the modern world!
One must note that all these specifically dangerous verses of the Quran occur in Surahs with very high original sequence numbers, as indicated by Nöldeke, indicating that they occurred to Muhammad possibly during the last two years of his life, during his most violent military leadership and Islam’s often violent expansion. Did Muhammad’s personality actually change to that extent? Did he become a most cruel and dictatorial leader? Historically, this happened several times to other historic leaders when rising ever higher up – then becoming dangerously dictatorial, with a desire for ever wider dominance in the world through military aggression. Some anti-Muslim historical reports project a very negative image of the late Muslim leader.
However, then, as Muhammad sensed his approaching death, deeper thoughts and leadership wisdom returned to his mind – as expressed in his Farewell Sermon.
In other words, either a clarification of at least the above four verses of the Qur’an has to occur and their application be specifically restricted to the context in which they were historically perceived by Muhammad – or all Muslims must clearly distance themselves from such verses and publicly abrogate the validity of these verses for them in our time and society before they can be admitted to any Western country and granted residence there! This demand must be specifically applied to all mullahs and their preaching anywhere in the West!
Without that, Islam could not be accepted as a valid religion in the civilized world.
This can be accomplished by having all faithful Muslims draw a clear line between Muhammad’s teaching up to 630 CE and his teaching during the following two years of military action – with the exception of his last sermon pronounced as he sensed death approaching. More ideally, the line would be drawn at 624 CE, after Muhammad had presented his greatest accomplishments as a civic leader in reorganizing what became Medina and before warfare with Mecca began, changing Muhammad into a military leader, first against Mecca, later more cruelly against the “infidels”, the “nonbelievers”, in general!
Muslims struggle with the demand that the Qur’an should be accepted forever without any changes – and by not allowing any new prophet to ever appear – (as possibly copied from other historic and religious texts as already known in those days).
The answer to this dilemma can be found in the fact that it is not a matter of demanding a change of the Qur’an, but, while accepting the verbatim validity of the Qur’an in its time and society of origin, still allowing or demanding a historic evolution. This means that the specific wording or resolution of problems must find new approaches in our time – possibly “in the spirit” of Islam – if that spirit can be clearly defined!
How could Muslim teaching be guided into an evolution of thought?
Theologically, the best approach could be that a convention of all Muslim groups (Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and many others) would declare the mainly historic importance of the above-mentioned Surahs and verses in their time, but that they would no longer be fully applicable to our times.
It is unlikely that such a major convention could lead to important improvement in Muslim teaching anytime soon.
It is more likely that subgroups will form in various locations under variously gifted leaders, leading to improvements – see the history of Christian reformation in parallel and in competition in various places in Europe in past centuries and the forming of many new religious directions in the 19th century – or the evolution and reinterpretation of communism in various countries in our time
When so many Muslim families nowadays migrate to settle in the midst of non-Muslim populations, in order to find a better life there, they cannot be compelled to struggle with and actually fight violently against all “nonbelievers” where they are forming their new homes – as indicated by specific verses in the original Qur’an, see above!
What direction should a Muslim evolution take?
All Muslims in the world should be admonished to put the main characteristics of Allah, as indicated in the original Qur’an, in the center of their faith, to be “merciful and beneficent”, as said at the beginning of almost all Surahs – and to do that in an always tolerant and peaceful manner!
The Muslim world should insert the sayings “be merciful and beneficent” into the center of their faith, subordinating all sayings to those!
What if every Muslim would possibly not pray strictly at the prescribed hours five times a day, also while at work, promising mainly to submit to Allah, but would commit himself to do at least one merciful act and at least one beneficent act to at least one other fellow human every day! (An old retired gentleman in Lausanne, Switzerland, is known for having as his remaining goal in life to bring at least one moment of joy to at least one person every day – be it only the pointing out of a beautiful butterfly on a flower in his front yard to a passerby).
This would be in perfect harmony with Christian and Western ideals and “human rights” – and in harmony with natural and basic “Type 1” human ethics!
Type 1 ethics (see above) would move into the center of the Muslim faith, even if Type 2 organization building, as in the “Six Articles of Faith” and the “Five Pillars”, moved a bit into the background.
This advice could be of great use to other religions and ideologies as well!
How do modern Muslims living in the West actually manage to live with the Qur’an? It is obvious that all Muslims are humans, as you and me, and, therefore, sense and harmonize with the same basic “Ethics” as developed for us by nature (see “Type 1” ethics discussed above). Muslims in the West must find explanations for themselves as to why they do not follow those violent Qur’an verses discussed above – until one of their children (mostly a son), while not adjusting well in life, falls for the seduction of a violent movement and becomes “radicalized” as a jihadist – finding a true mental home and recognition, if not fame there, even while engaging in the most despicable violent actions!
The theological approach proposed above – to let Islam evolve and shine again – must be pursued forcefully, and primarily by Muslim clergy:
Let Islam shine again!
(For more detail see the essay “Islam, the Muslim World and the West” on the website www.schwab-writings.com in the section “Politics and History”.)
A new, positive mission in life for the young in the Muslim world:
In parallel to the past formation of the “Peace Corps” in the West, a newly to be formed “Medina Corps” should offer meaning, a positive life, and a “home” to the modern Muslim youth!
The Medina Corps could dig wells, build bridges, establish schools and hospitals, and start new enterprises providing work and income in the poorest areas or parts of cities of the Muslim world and in the many suffering areas of our world beyond!