Volume 11 Number 4
Europe and Islam Can Enrich Each Other
01 August 1998

Ridha Driss, Chief Editor of the magazine al-Insan (Man), looks at Islam as a European phenomenon. He lives in France.

Pluralism is essentially the acceptance of differences at the heart of society. It may be political, economic, ethnic, linguistic or religious. From the Muslim point of view, it is a reflection of the multiplicity and diversity of God's creation. 'And among its signs are the creation of heaven and earth and the diversity of your languages and colours,' says the Qur'an. 'Therein lies evidence for wise men.'

We are therefore obliged to respect this pluralism, safeguard it and take it into account in the structures we create and the ideas we express.

Our thinking is the product of our history--and history, which has been conscientiously assimilated, has left a profound mark upon us. If we are convinced about our thinking, let us be open to its renewal; but, if we find it is wrong, let us relinquish it.

This will not happen easily. It is difficult and even painful to break with the familiar. The Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali must have felt this as he travelled the long path of 'doubt', going from science to science, swinging from one truth to another, always in pursuit of 'the Truth'--which finally came to him in the experience of 'divine light' (Soufism). One is reminded of the experience of Descartes, who made a practice of banishing from his mind all established ideas in order to attain 'real knowledge'. (He finally found it in the phrase 'I think, therefore I am', in other words Reason.)

Islam requires its faithful to pursue the path of self-questioning whenever human values are found wanting. The issue for Muslims is not to produce revelations from heaven, as experienced by the prophets, but to use our minds. But such an effort should not be considered as in any way sacred.

When our religious thought stopped evolving, it became a vehicle for erroneous ideas and these ended up as an integral part of our minds. There are many, indeed, for whom religion meant an emotional state; so they discarded Reason. This reduced religion to a fixed collection of ill-considered concepts. This is why we now need to call for a dialogue which aims at renewal, a readaptation of our laws and a modern interpretation of the history of the prophets, who appealed specifically to man's reason as much as to his feelings.

Dialogue must not be a means of subduing others or forcing onto them one's thinking or particular outlook. On the contrary, everyone should contribute to the awakening of the universal conscience. Political struggles; dominant private interests; and the danger of terrorism hanging over North-South relations are simply different aspects of one overall conflict which really has nothing to do with religion.

Indeed the ideals preached by Islam and Christianity call for spiritual coexistence and even for an alliance to confront those forces which are out to destroy faith. Both religions reject injustice, discrimination and the rule of the strongest and call for peaceful coexistence. They express one and the same message, which, while obviously developing different forms, still includes the highest human values and the same ultimate purpose.

From earliest times the Mediterranean has been a meeting point where different currents of thought have converged and sometimes clashed, affecting both the Muslim and European worlds. Arabic was part of this civilizing process, as it was absorbed by Latin and other European languages and contributed a whole range of words, terms and definitions. The Muslim world, for its part, greatly benefited from Greek philosophy. Muslims were thus able to gain access to theology, science, the basic principles of law and to Aristotelian logic.

The Muslim religion could be considered European because for eight centuries it was established in Spain, Southern Italy, France and Portugal. To this day it occupies an important place in Eastern Europe. European civilization bears its mark.

At the same time, many of our Qur'anic commentaries were inspired by European works. Our grammar, law and philosophy were influenced at different points in history by great European thinkers and this is particularly true of some Islamic treatises on law, such as those by Malek or Ibn Hazm. More recently we have used French and English in our communications.

It is regrettable that we Muslim academics only considered Eastern thinkers of Persian and Arabic origin, such as Farabi, Avicennes or Kendi, as worthy of study and that we frequently neglected thinkers from Spain and Italy--Muslim or non-Muslim--whose contribution to the flowering of Muslim civilization was nonetheless considerable. One thinks particularly of Père Grégoire, Moez Ben Mimoun and Salomon Gebirol.

Muslims who live in Europe need to consider themselves fully-fledged citizens and be treated as such by Westerners. They should be able to enjoy all the rights of citizenship, just as they should be held to fulfilling the obligations of the citizenship pact. The same ought to apply in our Muslim societies.

Note that, in Western countries, a Muslim enjoys rights guaranteeing a level of freedom he cannot achieve in most Muslim countries today. He must therefore be dignified, conform to established norms and help to reinforce shared moral values. This must first be at an intellectual level through explanation and humble, sober demonstration of Islam's contribution to the capital of mankind's values; then in concrete terms by example and sound practice of Islamic principles.

Muslims in Europe could also involve themselves in the defence of justice and equality in Western democracy, which is far advanced in political thinking but sometimes suffers from the powers of money and the media.

They could also play a greater part with international bodies like the United Nations and the International Chamber of Commerce, which most Muslims feel do not adequately defend the interests of the less favoured nations.

If they do not play a constructive part in building up Europe, Muslims over here could have difficulty in overcoming the obstacles they face. They come from very different cultural, linguistic and geographical backgrounds. The generation gap makes it even harder for them to adapt to Western society.

A split has also developed between the intellectual élite and the rest of the Muslim community. The gap is widening all the time due to the desire of many Muslim intellectuals to model themselves on the Western cultural pattern, and also due to the determination of the Western élite to see the Muslim élite as a mere reflection of themselves.

European Muslims have not so far succeeded in organizing as a minority. To do so will be a huge legal task--they will have to dispense with a set of rules created for Oriental Islam and equip themselves with an Islamic legal system capable of meeting a situation which is new to them. Even though religion is truly one and indivisible, the way it is put into practice may vary due to different human and sociological angles.

The ignorance among many Muslims about their own religion; their frequent resorting to traditions of their society of origin; the aftermath of periods of Muslim decadence in past centuries and from colonial times (with all that the latter bred in terms of antagonism and hate); an inferiority complex towards the 'conqueror West'; the sense of exclusion experienced by European Muslims--all these elements make for intellectual and even physical violence among some. In many cases, what is happening is a loss of identity, sometimes exacerbated by a sense of injustice and segregation.

The Arab and Muslim élites, as much as the general population, are possessed by a deep sense of frustration over the fate of the Palestinians because of the alignment, if not actual bias, of the Western powers in favour of Israeli dominance. They also feel that, in order to safeguard their economic interests, the Western democracies support certain dictatorships in the Muslim world and close their eyes to the authoritarian tendencies and the daily violation of basic humanitarian principles.

The Muslim truly must uphold the values of Islam in word and deed, so that people find they are faced with a warm, outgoing, sincere, smiling person, who shows healthy initiative. Forming relationships of respect with one's neighbours; offering one's seat to an older person; helping somebody in the street who is in trouble; having a proper attitude towards women; recognizing the qualities of someone who is better off than oneself; helping the poor and doing works of charity; being honest in business; being careful about paying one's taxes--such will win the Muslim the respect of his neighbours.

Europe can be enriched by Islam and vice versa. But the responsibility for the improvement of the Muslims' lot in Europe lies first and foremost with the Muslims who must learn to criticize themselves. If they will pay that price, the Muslims will be Europe's opportunity just as Europe will be theirs. 'In truth, God does not change the condition of a nation so long as the individuals who make up that nation do not change what is in them,' says the Qur'an.

This article first appeared in the French magazine 'Changer'. Translation by Mary Jones.
Ridha Driss

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