Conversing with Islam

NAIROBI -- Since September 11, 2001, Western newspapers are full of articles warning about the dangers of Islamic terrorism, with occasional breaks to terrify readers with the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong-il. But few have ever spoken with a well-educated, non-Western observant Muslim. In Kenya, however, Mecca is only around the corner and Muslims constitute 10 per cent of the population. To get a better idea of how ordinary Muslims here view the West, I spoke with Issah Wabuyabo Kweyu.
Issah is a fitness instructor at Kenyatta University and is also doing a Master's degree on the link between sport and his other love, Islam. He is also a leader in establishing dialogue between Catholics and Muslims at his university. Most Muslims in Kenya have respect, and even admiration, for the Catholic Church.

Islam and sport? It's not a link that comes naturally to a Westerner. Issah explained that there is theological support for sport and exercise in the Qur'an, both directly and through induction. In the hadith (the oral and written tradition of Islam outside the Qur'an, which provides another source of revelation for Muslims) there is evidence that the Prophet Mohammed took part in sport himself, and recommended that his followers do the same. He pointed out the surviving tradition of archery and horse racing in northern Nigeria and the Horn of Africa. Mens sana in corpore sano is not only a Roman adage; a healthy mind and a strong body is also at the base of Muslim belief.
Religious confusions
As a participant in the upper echelons of a Western university system, Issah was clearly well-informed, so it could be a bit disconcerting for an American or European to discover how uncomfortable he felt with Western religion and social values.
Like most Muslims, he finds it difficult to see how Christians can be monotheists if they worship three Gods. I had to explain that God is Three Persons in one divine Nature and that Christians unequivocally accept the notion of one, indivisible God. The Muslim concept of a prophet is also different: beginning with Adam, and working through Abraham and Moses, God’s message to mankind culminates in Mohammed, the prophet par excellence. There is no mediator between God and man; man is in complete and direct submission to God.
To Issah, nearly all Christians seem lukewarm about their beliefs. Islam, he says graphically, is a steering wheel, not a spare wheel; everything a Muslim does is centred on Ibadaa (worship). Christians seem to be just part-timers who visit their church once a week. And they don't seem to object when their practices and beliefs are mocked by secularists .
What about the cartoon controversy? "It wasn't just a cartoon" he said. "It hit at the root of something we hold sacred." The Mozart opera in Berlin that was intended to mock and denigrate major world religions was another case. Furthermore, how can Christians be so divided on basic moral issues? He gave as example the ordination of a homosexual Episcopalian bishop in the US. He knew that Anglicans are deeply divided on this issue -- and he found it incomprehensible.
Issah feels that arrogance is the hallmark of Westerners. They are not willing to make any compromises in their beliefs. He sees the West as an either/or society. You win and I am smashed or I win and you are smashed.
Westerners believe they know quite as much as they need about other faiths and cultures, he complains, but most of what they know is mere prejudice. He cited the schoolgirls’ scarves issue in France. This is the birthplace of liberté, yet, he asks, what religious freedom is there, when everyone is regimented and must dress the same way, despite dearly held religious observances? The media does not help. He mentioned CNN's coverage of the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, which all pious Muslims try to make at least once in a lifetime. It featured only a lethal stampede. However, he pointed out, the fact that CNN had even mentioned Mecca was a positive step.

Society and culture
In social and political life there clearly exist many areas where the two faiths can come together. Like Christianity, Islam is opposed to usury, hoarding, and raw capitalism. In Islam inherited wealth is to be shared equitably, not enjoyed selfishly; and out-and-out business competition leads to monopoly, which, he says, Islam detests.
Issah's democracy has an Islamic flavour. Decisions are supposed to be reached by consensus, not a majority vote. Even a minority view has to be taken into account. Islam admires much of modern technology and benefits from it, but not when it counters the original good of human existence. Abortion, cloning and contraception are obviously forbidden.
While the two religions obviously cannot worship together, Issah called for inter-faith dialogue. Partnerships such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and working together to preserve the environment as mentioned in the Bible and the Qur'an, are good starting points.
What can Islam contribute to modern culture? To Issah, this seems obvious. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is the aim of every Muslim. Muslims are rightly proud of their centuries-old discoveries in science and natural philosophy, and many of these are still relevant and applicable today. In Islam, he says, civilisation is the purpose of human existence. In fact, Qur'an opens with the stirring words: "Read! In the name of your lord who has created you!" Islam is a religion based first on knowledge, then on faith; a believer must first know what he is to believe. To Muslim eyes, Christianity works the other way around -- faith precedes knowledge.
A more powerful idea than democracy amongst Muslims is equality. Islam is a very egalitarian religion, which is one reason why it has spread in Africa, where people are not used to a society based on class. Before God all men are equal; a prime minister and a peasant will be indistinguishable in their white kanzus when making the hajj, and worshiping together. The zakat (the payment of alms) is seen as a commitment to economic resource management and social unity. During Ramadan the amount one saves from not eating is given to the poor, but it is thereby anticipated that the beneficiary will himself donate generously during the following month of fasting. The zakat paid annually is a source of revenue for the Islamic state to run its affairs, and, even in a state with a large Muslim majority, is paid only by Muslims.
And like Christianity, Islam teaches that professional work is worship. God-given skills and talents are to be used for the betterment of society. Doctors in Pakistan, for example, give free medical camps during their annual leave. This extends to the earning and use of financial resources. Large sums of money kept idle in banks are seen as hoarding and denying justice to the poor. Financial interest is not considered profit, and is tainted since it is not worked for. Money must be the fruit of one’s labour; investment is praised since it involves risk, provided it is used for the benefit of the needy and not amassed for selfish ends.
Sharia law
What about sharia? If there is one thing which makes Westerners shudder, it is the perceived harshness of punishments under the Islamic code of law. Issah does not see it this way. Sharia is a complete code of divine law interpreted and administered by experts or kadhis, who have a Master’s degree in Islamic studies and a perfect mastery of Arabic. Its purpose is to defend Islamic values and customs and the common good, and to avoid erosion of the social fabric.
Furthermore, it is carefully regulated to ensure that justice is done, Issah points out. Punishable crimes must have witnesses. They must be people of sane mind, to avoid conspiracies. Four witnesses are required in the case of adultery, two for other cases. If there is a culprit but no complainant in court, the kadhi must challenge the culprit to swear in his presence four times, holding a copy of the Qur'an: "If I am not telling the truth, may God liquidate me!" Alternatively, if one appeals against the ruling owing to a faulty witness, the kadhi still has the option to commit the defendant to swearing four times. Before a major crime such as theft or adultery is committed, many minor rules will have been broken beforehand. In the case of adultery, for example, there would have been carelessness in social relationships.
In Islamic law, as in societies imbued with Christian legislation, the punishment must fit the crime. Adultery threatens the institution of marriage and the family, which are the solid rock on which society is built. Theft destabilises the smooth commercial management of society and gives rise to injustice, whose principal victims will be the poor. Theft committed to survive, such as stealing a loaf of bread, should not be punished. The source of the sharia is divine and its first concern is the good of society as a whole: hence the harsh punishment is seen as a deterrent.
Toward the future
Are there opportunities for greater understanding after 9/11? Issah and many like him think that the positive side of the events of 9/11 is that the West and Islam have been forced to dialogue with each other -- on many levels. Academically, there should be research into comparative religious studies. Westerners should read Arabic and Muslim classics, which are now available on the internet in good translations. The media ought to take Islam seriously and portray Muslim activities without distortion. As a sportsman Issah naturally supports common sports events. However, he feels the present global sports scene goes against Muslim customs, for example in women’s sports attire. Islamic countries have to hold their own events and these are given little or no coverage in the media.
Perhaps it is no coincidence, we both thought, that Catholicism and Islam have roughly the same number of followers. Now could be the moment to undertake a path of dialogue together. In many parts of Africa it has already begun.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.