Islam Expanding Globally, Adapting Locally

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"What you find in 16th century Bengal is the development of what you might call 'folk literature' where the Islamic idea of the prophet becomes understood within the framework of the avatar," Asani said. "So you have bridges being built between religious traditions as concepts resonate against each other."

This example is quite different from conditions in pre-Islam Arabia, at the time of Mohammed, where the poet held a special place in society.

"If you consider the Koran, the word means 'recitation' in Arabic, and it's primarily an oral scripture, intended to be recited aloud and heard; to be performed," Asani said. "Viewed from a literary perspective, its form and structure relate very well to the poetic traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia. It's an example where the format of revelation was determined by the culture. In pre-Islamic Arabia the poet was often considered to be inspired in his poetic compositions by jinn from another world. So when the Prophet Muhammed began receiving revelations which were eventually compiled into the Koran, he was accused of being a poet, to which he responded 'I'm not a poet but a prophet.'"

John Voll, Professor of Islamic History at Georgetown, notes that characteristic social structures and expressions of Islam are common in other nations from Nigeria, with over 65 million Muslims, to Indonesia with over 200 million. "This kind of distinctive locally colored Islam has been the more characteristic foundation," he said, "and the more puritanical Muslims have to cope with the fact that the baseline is really more accommodationist. This is what's involved in Indonesia."

Islam came to Indonesia with merchants who were not theologians but simply practicing Muslims who people looked to as an example. There were also Sufi teachers who were quite willing to create devotional exercises that fit the way people in Sumatra or Java already practiced their faith.

The two largest Muslim groups in Indonesia today, and perhaps in the world, are Muhammadyya and Nahdlatul Ulama. Each of them has over 30 million members, and each began as local reform movement rooted in the promotion of a more modern education within the framework of Islam.

"The more fanatical puritans have to cope with the fact that those two groups are basically the baseline for education," Voll said. "A lot of attention is given to Indonesia's militant, puritanical groups like Jemaah Islamiah, but when you look at membership you're looking at maybe 10,000 people."

The Muslim Minority

A large number of Muslims, of course, don't live in Islamic nations at all but as minorities in other countries. The emergence of some minority Muslim communities has been an interesting and important development of the last 25 to 30 years.

Some relatively small communities can have a large impact. The European Muslim populations, for example, have a high component of refugee intellectuals. They've had an effect on their adopted countries, and also on the rest of the Islamic world.

"Consider the guest workers in Germany who come primarily from Turkey," Voll said. "You had a reasonably large Muslim community outside of Turkey, and part of the development of an Islamic political orientation in Turkey was that the Turks in Germany were free to write and publish things that would have been illegal in Turkey—and ship them back."

In South Africa the Muslim community is less than three percent of the population—but it's highly visible and highly educated. In the days of apartheid they had the advantage of being an intermediary, a community that was neither black nor white. By the 1980s the younger Muslim leadership became very opposed to apartheid on Islamic grounds and on basic human rights grounds. Muslims became quite active in the African National Congress (ANC). Though they were only a small minority when apartheid was destroyed, a number of Muslims became quite visible in the new South African regime—and throughout the larger Muslim world.

Encompassing both Islamic states and minority communities, Islam is the world's fastest growing religion and an increasingly common topic of global conversation. Yet much of the discourse paints the faith with a single brush. As more people become familiar with Islam around the world it may be well for them to first ask, as Professor Asani suggests: "Whose Islam? Which Islam?"

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