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Theology Thursdays: Islam, political or spiritual? by Anwar Iqbal

Islam, to a Western audience, seems more like a political ideology than a religion, yet its followers say they also find spiritual fulfillment in their faith.

Michael Wolfe, an American convert who recently made a much acclaimed television documentary on the Prophet Mohammed, says people in the West must not forget that Islam also produced Sufi saints who in turn produced some of the best spiritual literature in the world. But he complains that sometimes his fellow Muslims also "confuse political issues with their religious beliefs."

Wolfe, an American writer born of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, says he converted because he found spiritual fulfillment in Islam. "I did not want to 'trade in' my culture. I wanted access to new meanings," said Wolfe, who says he is very comfortable being "both an American and a Muslim."

"Above all, I wanted clarity and freedom," he said. "I did not want to trade away reason simply to be saddled with a dogma. The more I learned about Islam, the more it appeared to conform to what I was after."

And yet many in the Islamic world complain that their religion has become dogmatic. "They do not think and they do not want you to think," says Asma Jehangir, a special U.N. envoy on human rights. Jehangir, who recently rejected an offer to be the first woman judge on Pakistan's Supreme Court, believes that her religion "needs to be revitalized" to meet the intellectual challenges confronting Islam in the 21st century.

"Separation of religion and politics," said Jehangir, asked what she would suggest to improve Islam's image in the world. "As long as people can use religion to justify their political motives, we will continue to have problems."

Agrees Maulana Ahmed Javed, a Karachi-based Muslim religious scholar and the author of several books on Islam: "Politics is mundane. Religion is profound. It gives you an identity, a sense of belonging. Mixing religion and politics hurts religion."

"We have not done any service to religion by bringing it down to the level of politics. In politics, you make mistakes. Your policies fail and when you mix politics and religion, your failure also reflects upon your religious beliefs."

But Karen Armstrong, one of the world's foremost scholars on Islam, says that politics has always played a key role in the Islamic faith. In her book, "Islam," she argues that unlike other prophets, Mohammed had to run the day-to-day affairs of the state he founded in the Arabian city of Medina 1,400 years ago. In 10 years, his city-state became a huge empire. Thus, from the beginning Mohammed and his successors had to engage in statecraft, and that's why many Muslims expect their religious leaders also to guide the affairs of the state.

Also, when Muslims look back at their history they find many religious figures, such as Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who were tortured and killed by secular monarchs because they spoke for the people. And that's why many Muslims failed to understand when told that mixing religion with politics was bad. This, says Armstrong, is a purely Western experience not shared by the Muslims.

Armstrong, who has written half a dozen books on Islam, Christianity and Judaism, says, "A basic message of the Koran is to create a united community and share the wealth," both highly political ideals. That's why, she says, "when Western capitalism was introduced in the East in the last few decades, Iran and other Muslim countries rebelled."

But she also reminds Muslims that Western nations have succeeded in bringing unprecedented prosperity to their citizens and "the challenge for Muslims ... is to come to terms with the success of the secular West."

Copyright 2004 United Press International

Thursday, September 23, 2004

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