Before considering the future of Islam, we must understand its past

Said Ahmed-Zaid
Said Ahmed-Zaid

This past week, I was invited to speak about the future of religion on a panel of speakers from different faith perspectives in a freshman-level class at Boise State University whose objective is to explore “religion as a facet of human culture and the reasons for its persistence against the backdrop of the secularization thesis of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Before delving into such a deep topic, it is worthwhile to recall the definition of a religion. My 1980 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a religion as “an organized system of beliefs and rituals centering on a supernatural being or beings and the adherence to such a system.”

In philosophy, the existence or non-existence of a deity is an “undecidable proposition,” something that can be neither proved nor disproved. We immediately realize that there are at least two formal belief systems: one where God rules and the other where humans rule and there is no deity. Within the first system, the belief in the existence of one or more deities has led to monotheistic as well as polytheistic religious traditions.

In the second system, the belief of the non-existence of any deity has led to the concept of no religion and adherents called atheists or “nones,” meaning those with no religion. Humanists, for example, form such a group of people. The American Humanist Association defines “humanism” as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.” Another such group includes free-thinkers who form their opinions on the basis of reason, independently of authority, especially those who reject or are skeptical of religious dogma. We can also throw into this mix a bunch of agnostics who claim neither faith nor disbelief in God.

As a religion, Islam squarely affirms the existence of one deity called “Allah” in Arabic and which translates as “The God” or simply as “God” in English. The existence of a unique deity is the cornerstone of Islam. Islam is built on the so-called five pillars of practice, which are the declaration of faith, the five daily prayers, fasting the month of Ramadan, giving the mandatory almsgiving to the poor, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. As evident from these five pillars, Islam emphasizes orthopraxy, which is the emphasis on the correct practice and action or conduct, rather than orthodoxy, which is the emphasis on correct belief and doctrine or dogma.

The creed or declaration of faith in Islam states that there is one and only one deity (Allah/God) and that Muhammad is his prophet. The Quran is the scripture of Muslims, similar to the Torah and the Bible (Old and New Testaments). The Quran is considered by Muslims as the word of God. An analysis of the topics treated in the Quran shows that roughly one third of this book advances arguments for the existence of God, another third tells stories of the vices that destroyed previous societies, and finally one third is law and jurisprudence for Muslims who would live under Islam as a way of life and as a way of living. It is also a guide for living a Godward life, an ethical life in the service of God and other fellow human beings, especially the most vulnerable in a society such as the poor, the widows and the orphans.

In Islam, as in other religions, a believer uses religion as a guide for understanding the universe around them. For Muslims, the body of knowledge contained in their mystical book and the tradition of the prophet Muhammad are the only tools needed for translating and communicating this understanding of the universe. Islam, however, continues to face both external and internal threats to its existence.

As a religion that sprang 1,400 years ago from the deserts of Arabia, Islam has managed to survive and thrive as a universal religion. In 1976, Dr. Maurice Bucaille, a surgeon by profession and a renowned religious scholar, wrote a book titled “The Quran, Bible and Science,” where he announced that he had not found any flaws or scientific errors in the Quran. This harmonious cohabitation with science is a positive and welcome sign for Muslims as to the probable longevity of Islam.

Speaking of cohabitation among different schools of thought in Islam, it is important to realize that Islam is not a homogeneous religion for all its 1.5 billion followers. An internal threat from within Islam has always been the rise of extremist sects and extremist thinking or theology. There have been numerous schools of thought that have become extinct because they were either illiberal or intolerant of other schools or because they were extremist in their views.

One such example is the sect of the Kharijites, which was the first identifiable sect of Islam. It appeared during the time of the prophet in the sixth century and lasted until the eighth century. The name of this sect can be translated from Arabic as the outsiders or the seceders. Radical Kharijites launched military attacks against mainstream Muslim centers that disagreed with their theological positions until they ceased to be a military threat by the end of the eighth century.

Another example is the Mutazila School, which was an Islamic School of Speculative Theology that flourished in Basra and Baghdad during the eighth to the 10th century. Eventually, the school became illiberal and intolerant toward other schools of thought and faded away. Today, the five major Islamic schools in existence (four of them Sunni and one Shia) have persisted and continued to flourish because of a pillar of coexistence and tolerance built into each of these schools.

In a future column, I will explore recent statistical facts about Islam and additional factors that will give us more insight into the short-term future of a religion like Islam.

Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.