It's replete with reverential references to Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Isaac and Jesus Christ. It admonishes men and women to be honest, live modestly, harm no one and share their material possessions with the poor. It puts forth the concept that there is but one God who loves all people of all nations equally. It praises this God as "beneficent and merciful," as "knower and healer."
What is it? The Koran.Two underlying dynamics are at play in the furor over reaction to the novel "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie. The first is the almost total Western ignorance about fundamental tenets of Islamic religion. The second, coming in turn, is the Moslem world's quite justified feeling that Westerners make light of their faith without bothering to learn such basic facts as that Islam is theologically a close kin to Judaism and Christianity. Both dynamics feed everything from the anger of mainstream Moslems to the conspicuously unreligious ugliness of the threats against Rushdie's life by Moslem extremists.
Having just spent the year in Pakistan, I know Western ignorance of Islam is an extremely sensitive subject even to liberal Moslems. (There are, by the way, more than a few.) The Western world prides itself on a free flow of accurate information, yet its understanding of the Islamic faith - the Earth's second largest by numbers, after Christianity - barely reaches the level of blockhead.
Attempts on the part of factions in several Islamic nations to convert the outcry over "The Satanic Verses" into political advantage have inflated the reaction, of course. But much of the reaction is, in fact, heartfelt. And when Westerners act puzzled over why this book upsets Moslems so deeply, Moslems see this puzzlement as just one more slight against their faith, a slight that could be avoided if Jews and Christians knew half as much about Moslems as Moslems know about them. How many Americans are aware that:
- Allah, who to the Western mind is some sort of different sovereign from the Judeo-Christian God, is simply the Arabic word that means Lord. It was one of Mohammed's central contentions that, theologically, Allah is exactly the same entity as the God worshipped by Christians and Jews. Moslems don't pray to a "different" God any more than Spanish-speaking Catholics pray to a "different" God from that of English-speaking Catholics because Spanish-speakers invoke the name Dios.
- The ultimate evil, Satan, bears the same name in Islam as he does in Christianity. Any literary linking of Satan to Mohammed automatically creates a Moslem sacrilege. Thus, while it's true that Pakistani and Iranian rioters have not read the book they are protesting, from their perspective they need not have: The title says it all. Imagine if the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ" had instead been titled "Satan's Life of Christ."
- Islam is derived from Judeo-Christianity. Moslems consider the faiths interwoven, with Islam an outgrowth of Jewish and Christian teaching. Both testaments of the Bible are read by erudite Moslems. In the seventh century A.D., when Mohammed lived, most Arabs worshipped a pantheon of animist idols. Mohammed admired the advanced monotheism of the Jews and Christians and studied their traditions. One of his goals was to bring to his countrymen this more sophisticated form of spiritualism, distinguished as it was by emphasis on such progressive concepts as brotherhood and divine mercy.
"Mohammed's Call," his first revelation, came according to Moslem tradition from the Judeo-Christian angel Gabriel, who instructed Mohammed to carry forward the work started by Abraham, Moses and Jesus. When, in the early Meccan years, Moslems were persecuted by Arab pagans, Mohammed told some followers to flee to Abyssinia, where Christians would shelter them.
Later Mohammed sternly ordered that Moslems never mistreat Jews or Christians, because they are "people of the book" - that is, they share the same God and scriptures with Islam. Moslems don't always observe this injunction, any more than professed Christians and Jews always observe the Ten Commandments. But often during the Middle Ages, for example, Moslem societies were more hospitable to Jews than were Christian societies.
- Pious Moslems practically never speak ill of the Jewish or Christian faiths. I know, having on more than one occasion attempted to trap them into doing so with baited questions. Those Pakistanis with whom I conversed often had scathing things to say about American or Israeli political behavior. But when the talk turned to Judaism or Christianity (my religion), their tone invariably became highly respectful.
In a sense it could not be otherwise, for if a Moslem condemned Jewish or Christian theology, he would condemn the foundations of his own beliefs. Yet because they take such care to speak deferentially of Western faiths, it drives Moslems crazy when Westerners talk as though Islam were the primitive mutterings of desert-walkers. Whatever else Islam is, it isn't primitive. Islamic culture was sponsoring important advances in mathematics, architecture, astronomy, the keeping of history and the translation of the Greeks during the period that Christian culture was in its Dark Ages.
One point where there is substantial departure between Judeo-Christian and Moslem theology is theocracy, or the merging of religion and state. Though not all countries with Moslem majorities are theocracies, most embrace this sentiment to some degree. Thus when someone insults the Prophet Mohammed, he hasn't just insulted a historical figure or a religious philosophy. He has collectively insulted an entire people - everything about them. The closest Western parallel is that even non-practicing Jews go into orbit at the slightest suggestion of anti-Semitism. They consider that more than religion is involved; their entire consciousness, their survival, is at stake in any challenge. Because this reflex has no counterpart in Christian thinking, it is hard for non-Jewish Americans to grasp.
A second point of departure is the intense mental prohibitions Moslems feel against discussion of the personal life of Mohammed. Except in the most conservative Christian sects, it is OK to make gentle jokes about Jesus, to portray him as a nearby and friendly presence with human qualities. It's not OK to portray Mohammed this way. Though Mohammed's actions are subject to debate in most Islamic denominations (and there are many, the single-minded "Islamic tide" being a product of made-for-TV screenwriters' imaginations), it is absolutely forbidden to say or do anything that could be interpreted as disrespectful to the prophet. Many pious Moslems hesitate even to pronounce Mohammed's name, referring to him as "the holy prophet" and invariably appending "peace be upon him." Newspapers in Pakistan use the convention, "The Holy Prophet PBUH."
Statistically only a small percentage of Moslems support the Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini belongs to the minority Shiite sect, and even many Shiites are uncomfortable with him. When the Western media present Khomeini's retinue as typical Moslems, mainstream Moslems are as infuriated as Christians would be if the Eastern press presented Jim Bakker as a typical Christian. Nor is it at all clear that Khomeini is promulgating reasonable interpretations of the Koran or Islamic tradition generally. Khomeini might do well to review Koranic verses such as these: "There is no compulsion in religion" (Surah II, 40). "Begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors" (Surah II, 30). Or regarding his order that Rushdie, a Moslem, be stalked and killed, "Whoso slayeth a believer (another Moslem) of set purpose, his reward is Hell forever" (Surah IV, 93).
Ought Islam to be considered barbarian because the religion sometimes sparks rioting and has followers who endorse that internally contradictory concept, "holy war"? Neither speaks well of Islamic values, but consider an intriguing historical parallel. Today's Moslem extremism is occurring about 1,300 years after the death of Mohammed, in 632 A.D. The low ebb of Christianity - the Inquisition, followed by decades of mutual slaughter among Catholics and Protestants - began approximately the same of number of years after the death of Christ. A low point of Judaism - the final loss of the holy land to the Romans - came in 70 A.D., a few centuries more than a thousand years after Moses led the flight from Egypt. This could be nothing but coincidence. But perhaps major religions, involving as they do deep-seated webs of philosophy, emotion and politics, require a millennium to shake themselves out.
There is longstanding debate regarding whether the essence of religion is scriptural teaching or how beliefs are applied in practice. On the theoretical side, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all highly admirable. On the actual-impact side, each is open to withering criticism.
Jews and Christians generally tolerate religious criticism. Does the reaction to "The Satanic Verses" show that Moslems do not? Only to a point. Most Moslems do support the book-banning aspect; unquestionably that's backward by Western standards. Moslems point out that even in the United States authors aren't allowed to publish anything - there are prohibitions against slander or libel. Of course, Anglo-American law says you can slander only a living person. But Moslems consider Mohammed "alive" in a more literal sense even than do Christian fundamentalists who say "Jesus lives," so this logic does not impress them.
On the other hand the spectacle of Iranian clerics putting a bounty on an author's head - inflaming visceral instincts, whereas moderation and forgiveness would be the true spiritual course - is opposed by mainstream Moslems. To the thoughtful Moslem it's not that you cannot criticize Islam, only that you must do so respectfully. Rushdie's earlier novel "Shame," harsh toward Islam though not an emotional assault, was grumbled about in Pakistan but nonetheless openly sold there. Rushdie, born in India as a Moslem, must have understood the distinction between criticism of Islamic practice and mockery of what Islam considers the single most sensitive subject on earth. So, the Eastern logic goes, what possible reason would Rushdie have to make small of the prophet, unless slander as opposed to criticism was in fact his intent?
Fair enough. Religious mockery was the effect the author, raised in a society where there is a considerable gap between gentle scriptures and repressive practice, likely intended. Rushdie is a smart guy. No one raised, say, in the Baptist church, as I was, could write a novel in which a central prophetic character goes by the name "Jesus ----- Christ" (apologies, but that is the closest I can think of to calling the prophet Mohammed "Mahound," which in Arabic has an obscene connotation) and then assert he never dreamed that Christians would find the reference offensive. By the same token, although it would have been impossible to imagine the totality of the reaction to "The Satanic Verses," it's difficult to believe Rushdie's claim that he did not expect Moslems to take this personally.
Curiously, the controversy over "The Satanic Verses" presents Islam with a golden opportunity: to prove that it is in fact a sophisticated religion. The whole world is now watching. Islam can score a victory in the court of world opinion by forgiving Rushdie's literary misjudgments, turning its other cheek and walking away from this vendetta. If some Islamic fanatic assaults Rushdie, it would only go to prove that the derisive tone of "The Satanic Verses" was deserved.