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Islam Expanding Globally, Adapting Locally

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated October 24, 2003
 
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One in every five people worldwide is a Muslim, some 1.3 billion believers. Islam is the world's fastest growing religion and it has spread across the globe.

Muslims everywhere agree on the Shahadah, the profession of faith: "There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is the prophet of Allah." But Islam is far from homogenous—the faith reflects the increasingly diverse areas in which it is practiced.


"Islam is a world religion," said Ali Asani, a Harvard professor of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture. "If you think about doctrine and theology, when these sets of religious ideas and concepts are transferred to different parts of the world—and Muslims live in many cultures and speak many different languages—the expressions of those doctrines and theology will necessarily be influenced by local culture."

Sometimes such regional distinctions are obvious to even casual observers. Mosques, for example, all share common features—they face Mecca and have a mihrab, or niche, that indicates that direction. Yet they also boast unique architectural elements and décor that suggest whether their location is Iran, Africa, or China. The houses of worship provide what Asani calls "a visual reminder of cultural diversity."

Other easily grasped regional distinctions have their origins at the level of language. While Arabic is Islam's liturgical language, used for prayer, most Muslim's understanding of their faith occurs in their local language.

"Languages are really windows into culture," Asani explains. "So very often what you find is that theological Islamic concepts get translated into local idioms."

Asani sees Islamic diversity as a multi-sided issue of doctrinal and cultural diversity. "It's a very complex group of factors that influence and determine how the religion is practiced and understood in a particular region or part of the world," he said.

Some Islamic fundamentalists might frown upon the diversity caused by local characteristics, but such are the predominant forms of Islam.

Well-Traveled Faith

"Rather than discussing Islam, we might more accurately talk about 'Islams' in different cultural contexts," Asani said. "We have Muslim literature from China, for example, where Islamic concepts are understood within a Confucian framework."

In the region of Bengal, now part of the nation of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, a popular literary tradition created a context for the arrival of Islam. The concept of the avatar is important to the Hindu tradition, in which these deities become incarnate and descend to Earth to guide the righteous and fight evil.

"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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