The Two Faces of Islam; Islam Unveiled
by Stephen Schwartz; Robert Spencer
Since the emergence of modern militant Islam, the question most often asked is: What is really happening here? Is Islam a basically peaceful religion that has been "hijacked" by extremists, or is it an inherently dangerous faith that demands that its members shed the blood of nonbelievers? Each of these books takes a different viewpoint.
In "The Two Faces of Islam," Stephen Schwartz gives a short history of Islam and then introduces us to Wahhabism, the puritanical dominant sect in Saudi Arabia.
The sect's founder, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was born in 1703 in what was then a sparsely populated region in the center of the Arabian peninsula. (Later the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh would be built in this region.)
Filling A Void
Schwartz states that al-Wahhab "emerged from an emptiness that was not only physical and economic, but social, intellectual and spiritual." The details of his early life are vague. It is believed that he expressed extreme religious tendencies at a young age - much to the dismay of his father and a brother, both Islamic scholars.
Al-Wahhab is believed to have traveled widely, intending to become a merchant. In his travels, he may have met Englishmen for the first time, and they would have encouraged him in his beliefs. Both he and they would have agreed that the demise of the Ottoman Empire, of which Arabia was a part, would be quite acceptable.
Between 1737 and 1740, al-Wahhab, back home again in "the lava beds and wastelands, demanded that Muslims everywhere must surrender to his version of an original, authentic Islam such as he imagined had existed at the time of the Prophet." His chief writing, "The Book of Monotheism," was strongly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, a 14th-century legal scholar who believed in a melding of religion and state.
Much of what al-Wahhab believed and sought to institute flew in the face of Islam as it was being practiced by most Muslims. To be a true believer, one must observe prayer at all the prescribed times, not just some of them. Have no reverence for the dead, including the Prophet. No intercessory prayer. Al-Wahhab believed that God had a human form, and he required that members of his sect recite their profession of faith a second time, shocking concepts to his contemporaries. In his zeal, al-Wahhab would eventually order the destruction of saints' graves, burn books and ban music.
Schwartz goes on to describe the development of Wahhabism and the establishment of the Wahhabi Al-Saud dynasty, which he believes is a false ally. He explains his conclusions about how Wahhabism is linked to recent events. There are two faces to Islam, he says. After Sept. 11, 2001, the people of the United States were deluged with images of one face: the evil "face of Wahhabism." But there is another face, he says. "The face of pluralism and co-existance" has waited "patiently, seemingly hidden, but no less present."
Robert Spencer's "Islam Unveiled" has gained some note from its support by some leading members of the Christian right. He disputes Schwartz's belief that Wahhabism is the main source of militant Islam. He believes that the Qur'an itself is the ultimate source. "The Qur'an's authority in the Muslim world far surpasses the authority the Bible has held in the West," Spencer notes. And the Qur'an states plainly that the Muslim is to slay the nonbeliever, he says.
Spencer explains the meaning of the term jihad, saying that many scholars distinguish between a "greater" and "lesser" jihad, the greater being the believer's personal battle to live within his or her faith, and the lesser being war against non-Muslims. "It can be waged with apologetics and debate, but an uncomfortable fact for Islamic moderates is that nothing says it cannot involve the force of arms," Spencer writes.
Although Spencer admits that there are some very militant passages in the Bible's Old Testament which depict God calling for the destruction of infidels, he argues that there is a very important distinction between the two Scriptures.
Christianity mitigates these by subsequent New Testament passages calling for believers to love their enemies. There are no such mitigating passages in the Qur'an, Spencer tells us.
Stephen Schwartz is an author and journalist and is formerly the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Forward and an editorial writer for the Voice of America. He is a former interfaith activist in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Robert Spencer is a board member of the Christian-Islamic Forum and has published articles on Islam in National Review, Crisis and other magazines.
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.