Understanding Islam

A few weeks ago a colleague mentioned that a good friend of his was being deployed to Afghanistan. In preparation they receive a culture briefing. In this case much of it centered around how Islamic religion has shaped the current circumstances.

He related to me how the briefer explained that Islamic law required a homeowner to welcome anyone who asked for shelter and to defend them while they are guests. The Taliban reportedly take advantage of this Islamic law by imposing themselves on Afghanistan people and once they are guests use the law to press them into the service to “defend” them against the infidel Americans and their allies.

In 2005 when my brother was deployed to Afghanistan I read two books, Islam by Charles Adams and Afghanistan by Stephen Tanner to get a better understanding Afghan culture and religion. What my colleague told me didn’t strike me as being particularly accurate. To gain a better understanding of Islamic religion within the context of the culture from which it evolved I bought and started reading Muhummad by Karen Armstrong. Karen is a highly respected scholar and author of comparative religion with particular expertise on the Muslim tradition.

The book starts by giving an account of Bedouin culture and religion at the time of Muhummad’s birth. Many religious scholars, Karen included, believe this approach is important to have a correct understanding of the religion being studied and how it has evolved.

Muhummad was born into a newly developing commerce culture centered around the individual that has evolved from a harsh nomadic lifestyle with little or no value for religion centered around the tribe.

As I read this description I found a striking resemblance of Karen’s description of the newly developing commerce culture and America’s evolution of Capitalism that evolved during the mid-19th century. In both cases, moral standards started to break down, emphasis on family (or the tribe) shifted to emphasis on the individual, and the younger generation found little value in religious traditions. I’m not sure where Karen will be taking this but I get the sense that there is much we Westerners can learn from understanding the history of Arab culture and Islamic traditions.

I have studied the history of the Christian church from a historical and cultural perspective. Religious rituals and theology have distorted the original message during the past two thousand years. I strongly suspect that the same thing has happened with Islamic tradition and we are experiencing actions as interpreted by some Muslim sects that have interpreted Islamic traditions in very specific ways that may not necessarily be consistent with Muhummad’s visions.