Viewpoint: What the West can learn from Islam
By Imam Hamza Yusuf
Director of Zaytuna Institute, CA
Hamza Yusuf Hanson is an American convert to Islam. He is an outspoken advocate of better understanding between the Muslim world and the West.
Writing in the third century, the Arab poet Mutanabbi describes how a recipient of another's largesse will usually respond with either indebtedness or resentment :
'A generous soul is bought when it receives, a vile one returns good done with disease.'
Your response to another's good toward you determines your nature.
If good in nature, you will respond with indebtedness and respect; if vile, with resentment and envy.
Many of us in the West feel anger and resentment toward Islam and Muslims.
Often this is justified in our minds by the anger and resentment Muslims appear to have toward the West.
But what is largely at work is what is properly termed "the fallacy of personification," in which an abstract is referred to as though it were a person.
For instance, in the Muslim world one can hear cries of "Death to America!", but what is America? What is the UK?
It is impossible for us to really pin down the concept of America or the West and point to either of them; they are abstractions that do not have any real existence.
Is the America, that perhaps much of the Muslim world would like to see die, the 63-year-old schoolteacher from Florida who, just prior to the air bombardment of Baghdad and against her country's laws, flew to Iraq to serve as a human shield in protest of what "America" was doing?
What too is Islam or Muslims? Is there some monolithic entity we can point to and say, "There it is!"? Is Islam Muhammad Ali, one of the most loved and recognized athletes in the world?
It might behove us to learn more about this religion and its followers, especially considering the fact that we are talking about one sixth of humanity and a people who occupy a geographical area that extends from Asia to Africa latitudinally, and from Russia to South Africa longitudinally, not to mention the over 30 million Muslims living in the West.
In America alone, for example, there are over 15,000 Muslim physicians.
David Letterman, the American comedian, could say on national television, "I went to my doctor today and he said, 'Turn to Mecca and cough'" because millions of Americans would easily get the joke.
Our world is increasingly interdependent and pluralistic, and in order to ensure a civil future, we must get to know one another.
One of the most important ways to do this is to know what our different cultures have given to the world community.
All peoples have contributed to the overall progress and enhancement of human life.
To be aware of others' accomplishments and the indebtedness we have to so many people is to appreciate and begin to respect all members of the human family.
In a time when enmity and hatred are being exploited for personal and collective agendas, nothing is more important than eliminating the ground of hatred, and ignorance has always been the most fertile soil for the seeds of hatred.
In the case of Islam, this is especially true, and it is important that we reduce the unfortunate level of ignorance that presently exists in the West toward Islam as a religion and Muslims as a diverse people if we are to prevent hatred.
Western people can increase their understanding of Islam and Muslims in two ways.
First, we can find out about the almost unbelievable influence that Muslims have had on the progress and enhancement of life in the West.
In doing so, we will not only come to value the Muslims as a people more, but we will also come to esteem other peoples, such as the Chinese, from whom the Muslims brought so many inventions and goods to the West.
The second way we can foster better understanding is learning how Islam and Muslims can contribute to solving the very real problems of the present and future.
Prince Charles, for instance, made a pertinent point in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies when he remarked that the West must learn from Islam how to integrate science and religion, an area at which the Muslims have historically proved adept.
Indeed, there is much the West can learn from the congruity of science and true religion so often mentioned in the Koran itself.
The West can also learn from Islam how to deal with the problem of race.
Arnold Toynbee mentions in a prescient and compelling essay written in the 1940's the extraordinary success Islam had in remedying the race problem and declared that the West had a great deal to learn from Islam.
He felt the danger of a race war was quite imminent in the world, and seeing the possibility of that war being launched in Muslim lands against the conquering West, he felt it was important to conciliate Islam and acknowledge the immense power it has had in freeing a large part of the world's population from segregation and exploitation by recognizing and affirming the brotherhood of the "children of Adam and Eve."
The Koran declares, "We have made you a plurality of races and tribes for you to know each other."
If we reflect on the animosities that exist today as a result of ignorance and stereotyping of other people, it is easy to recognize that "knowing one another" is one of the most pressing moral obligations challenging humanity today.
Martin Luther King said, "If we don't live as brothers, we will die as fools."
The human family is a great one and the Muslim branch is certainly worth knowing.