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Question: What should Americans know about Islam?

Barrett: So you can start with some of the basic beliefs – the prayer, declaration of faith, charity, and so forth. You could start with the cultures from which the religion emanates. You could start from the fact that the religion shares, you know, very deep, monotheistic roots with Judaism and Christianity. And Muslims very much see themselves as basically the . . . those who are sort of completing the monotheistic path, picking up where ancient Judaism and Christianity left off. There the prophet Muhammad adding his interpretation of the monotheistic faith, which fully embraces in many ways many Jewish and Christian ideas and gives an additional twist to them. The Muslim holy book, the Koran, is a book that picks up and reconfigures many stories and bits and pieces of earlier Christian and Jewish holy books. So that could be one place to start. But Islam has its own extremely distinctive history which involves, in very, very rough terms, a several hundred year period of phenomenal ascendance and expansion – political, military, as well as spiritual or ideological; a flowering in what westerners call the medieval period. While Europe was descending into what we call the Dark Ages, the Arab and Islamic world was . . . was reaching, you know, great heights of achievement, whether you look at it from the point of view of government, military expansion, proselytizing – brining the faith to, you know, vast new populations in India and China and all the way up North Africa and into Europe itself. And then a long period, you know, politically, and militarily and otherwise, of contraction and being pushed back. And then the history goes on and on. So in terms of Americans coming to understand the religion, you really . . . to do it justice you need to start in all of these places. What are the basics of the faith? What is it that its prophet was saying that God’s message was? You’ve gotta read a little bit of that. You’ve gotta understand the history over time. You’ve gotta understand the great flowering of Islamic culture, and why it receded and retreated, and what that experience has left Islam with. You have to understand Islam’s encounter with 19th and 20th century European colonialism, which is a big shaper of ideas in the Muslim world. And then in the most recent chapter, you have to understand the advent of Islamic fundamentalism – the movement which really flowered since the 1970s; you saw the roots of it in the 1960s – that brought a reinterpretation of the religion, multiple manifestations of it. You had the Islamic revolution in Iran – a Shiia iteration of it. You had the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere – a Sunni version of fundamentalism. And in very recent years you have seen all of that sadly throw off many sparks of violence in many places, and so people have to come to understand that. What’s the origin of all that? I mean if people want to ask and try to answer that very simplistic question, “Why do they hate us? Why are there crowds in the street burning American flags? Why did those guys fly those planes over here?” I mean you’ve got to understand. You’ve got to immerse yourself in all those things to fully appreciate it. Recorded on: 12/4/07

More from the Big Idea for Sunday, September 23 2012

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