How Islam is viewed in the West – A Book Review

Membedah Islam di Barat karya Alwi Shihab

Identity of the book:

  • Title: “Membedah Islam di Barat: Menepis Tudingan Meluruskan Kesalahpahaman” (Understanding Islam in the West: Avoiding Prejudice Straightening Misunderstanding)
  • Author: Alwi Shihab
  • Publisher: PT. Gramedia Pustaka Utama
  • Editor: Rumtini Suwarno
  • Year of publication: 2004
  • First Impression
  • ISBN 979-22-0680-9

Review of the content of the book

This book has seven chapters, that are:

  • Chapter 1 entitled “Tragedi September, Mengapa Terjadi”; (Tragedy of September, How did it happen)
  • Chapter 2 entitled “Agama di Amerika”, (Religions in the United States)
  • Chapter 3 entitled “Pasang-Surut Interkasi Kristen-Islam”, (Ups and Downs of Interaction between Christian and Muslims)
  • Chapter 4 entitled “Komitmen Keagamaan Mahasiswa Amerika”, (Commitment of Religiosity of American Students)
  • Chapter 5 entitled “Persepsi Mahasiswa Amerika terhadap Islam”, (Perception of American Students toward Religion)
  • Chapter 6 entitled “Diskusi Tasawuf bersama Mahasiswa Amerika”, (Tasawuf Discussion with American Students), dan
  • Chapter 7 entitled “Catatan Editor: Sekilas tentang Pak Alwi di Mata Mahasiswanya” (Editor’s Note about Pak Alwi)

In the first chapter, the author describes two things of how countries in the West view Islam after the tragedy of 9/11. After reading this chapter, it can be concluded that since the happening of the tragedy of September Eleven, which was the time when the building of WTC was destroyed and bombed, the pain healed over centuries ago torn back because of some people who claimed themselves as “Muslims”. In fact, they were not Muslims. In relation to this, as Shihab explained, there are two factors of why such tragedy could happen.

The external cause is,

Sikap antipati terhadap Amerika Serikat dari sebagian dunia Islam telah mencapai puncaknya dengan meledaknya Tragedi September. Rasa kebencian antara lain dipicu oleh sejarah konflik yang cukup lama dan mengakar di antara umat Islam dan umat Kristen. Jika dirunut, sejarah interaksi antara kedua umat berfluktuasi di antara hubungan positif dan negatif, namun interaksi negatif lebih dominan dibanding positifnya” (Shihab, 2004: 9).

The attitude of antipathy to the United States from some of the countries in the Islāmic world have reached its climax that can be seen through the tragedy of September. The feeling of hate was triggered by a very long historical conflict and rooted between the followers of Islam and Christian. If it is studied further, the history of the interaction between two followers was fluctuated between positive and negative relationship, but the negative relationship was dominant than the positive one (Shihab, 2004:9)

Meanwhile, the external cause is explained as follow:

Implikasi penjajahan Barat-Kristen terhadap dunia Islam tampak sangat nyata ketika kita menelusuri sejarah kelahiran gerakan-gerakan Arab-Islam modern. Runtuhnya kekuatan Turki-Islam dan merosotnya kondisi umat Islam di bawah kekuasaan Turki bertolak belakang dengan pesatnya kemajuan dan bangkitnya pencerahan Eropa. Pada masa inilah lahir gerakan-gerakan Islam Modern, yang dapat digolongkan menjadi dua kategori. Pertama, gerakan puritan Wahabi yang menganjurkan pemurnian ajaran Islam dengan kembali kepada ajaran awal dan menolak segala bentuk kebudayaan Barat. Ke dua, gerakan Islam Modern yang mencoba mempertemukan peradaban Eropa dan Islam. Gerakan kedua ini berusaha menemukan kompromi antara Islam dan Modernisasi Eropa. Pendukung utama gerakan ini adalah Jamaluddin al-Afghani dan Sheikh Mohammad Abduh” (2004: 11).

The implication of colonialism of West-Christian toward the Islāmic world is seen to be real when we follow-up the history of the birth of modern Arab-Islam movements. The declination of the power of Turkey-Islam and the decreasing condition of Muslims under the influence of Turkey were contradicted with the massive development and enlightenment in Europe. In this era, there goes the Arab-Islam movement, that can be divided into two categories. First, the puritan movement of Wahabi that encourages the purity of Islāmic principles to go back to the earlier lesson and reject all kinds of Western civilization. Second, the movement of Modern Islam that try to connect the culture of Europe and Islam. This second movement try to compromise things between Islam and Modernisation of Europe. The major leaders of this movement are Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Sheikh Mohammad Abduh” (2004:11)

In the second chapter, Alwi Shihab explains three topics, in relation to Civil Religion, Christianity, and Mormon. In relation to the Civil Religion, America is viewed as a country that has a strong tight to its religion. America, as it is explained by Alwi, has become microscopic for all religions in the world. Meanwhile, related to the Christianity, it is explained that the land and the soil of America become “the place where the Kingdom of God (Christian country) must be built” (Shihab, 2004:30). Different from Mormon, this is also a belief, a part of Christian, who declares Joseph Smith as their prophet. These Mormon people live is Utah, exactly in Salt Lake City.

In the third chapter, the explanation was focused on the process of how the misconception toward Islam due to “honored” figures who contributed to the existence of a wide stupidity among people about Islam. The figures are categorized according to the year when they existed. There were two groups in this case; that are, those who existed before and after 1000 M. Furthermore, this chapter also discusses influential figures of Islam who had contributed to the expansion of giving true concept and explanation about Islam.

Two figures who were giving misconception about Islam and were from the West were:

1.        Before 1000 M. They were:

Saint John of Damascus (675-753 M), Theodore Abu Qurra (740-825 M), Abd al-Masih B. Ishaq al-Kindi (830 M), and Nicetas of Byzantium (842-912 M).

2.        After 1000 M. They were:

Peter the Venerable (1094-1156 M), Thomas of Tuscany (wafat 1278 M), Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 M), Ricoldo de Montecreco (1243-1320 M), George of Trebizond (1395-1484 M), Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464 M), Jean Germain (1400-1461 M), Paus Pius II (1405-1464 M), Martin Luther (1483-1546 M), John Calvin (1509-1564 M), Guillau me Postel (1510-1581 M), Ludovico Marraci (1612-1700 M), William Muir (1819-1905 M), and Karl Goftlieb Pfander (1803-1865 M).

About Christian itself, Al-Qur’an as the holly book of Islam never curses Christian as religion, but it curses people who have been far away from the true Christian, as it has been taught by Isa as. (Jesus) (Shihab, 2004: 98-99):

“Al-Qur’an menggunakan sebutan “ahl al-kitab” terhadap orang Yahudi dan Kristen guna menunjukkan keakraban. “Ahl” dalam bahasa Arab merujuk pada hubungan keluarga, di mana tidak ada hubungan antarmanusia dengan sesamanya yang lebih dekat dari hubungan keluarga. Al-Qur’an tampaknya ingin menjelaskan bahwa antara umat Islam, Yahudi, dan Kristen terjalin hubungan yang erat bagaikan sebuah keluarga. […]. Bertitik tolak dari bukti-bukti yang diberikan tersebut, Rashid Ridha berkesimpulan bahwa pada dasarnya, agama Kristen memang tidak bertentangan dengan ajaran Islam. Pertentangan tercipta tidak lain berasal dari para penganut agama Kristen yang menyimpang. Oleh karena itu, lanjut Ridha, Al-Qur’an sama sekali tidak mengutuk agama Kristen, yang memperoleh peringatan keras adalah penganutnya yang menyimpang dari jalan yang diberikan oleh Isa as. Terhadap hal ini, Charis Waddy (seorang pemuka Kristen) berkomentar sebagai berikut: “The Quran criticizes both Christian and Jews for neglecting the truth their Scriptures teach, and misunderstanding them. It can be admitted with humility that there is truth in this criticism” (Al-Qur’an mengkritik penganut Kristen dan Yahudi atas kelalaian serta kesalah-pahaman atas kebenaran-kebenaran yang diajarkan oleh kitab-kitab suci mereka. Dengan segala kerendahan hati kritik tersebut dapat diakui bahwa terhadap kebenaran atas kritik tersebut).”

Al-Qur’an uses the term “ahl al-kitab” to Jewish and Christians to show familiarity. “Ahl” in Arabic language means the relationship in a family, where there is no other relationship among human rather than family. Al-Qur’an seems to emphasize that between the followers of Islam, Jews, and Christian, there are a good tight, like a family. […]. Based on the evidences given, Rashid Ridha concluded that basically, Christian does not interfere with the teachings of Islam. The contradiction itself was merely due to the misbehavior of the Christian followers. Therefore, as Ridha said, Al-Qur’an has never cursed the teachings of Christian, the most cursed one is the followers who are far away from the true teachings of Isa as (Jesus). In this case, Charis Waddy (a leader of Christian) commented: “The Quran criticizes both Christian and Jews for neglecting the truth their Scriptures teach, and misunderstanding them. It can be admitted with humility that there is truth in this criticism” (Al-Qur’an criticized the followers of Christian and Jew for their negligent and misunderstanding for the truths that were taught by their holly book. With all due respect, the criticism can be admitted as a proof to the truth of the criticism itself).”

In line with the figures of the West who had criticized Islam subjectively, there were also Islāmic figures who had given the correct explanation about Islam. They were:

–            Ibn Hazm Al-Zahiri (994-1064 M)

–            Abdulmalik Al-Juwaini (1028-1085 M)

–            Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1059-1111 M)

–            Taqi Al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 M)

In the fourth chapter, the discussion is concentrated on the class discussion conducted by Shihab to his students who are studying  Islāmic Mysticism or Tasawuf Islam. One of his students said:

“With every lecture I find Islam more and more interesting and its principles to be just. It is unfortunate that many people base their opinion about this religion on a negative perception of a few countries that Islam is practiced in. I, myself, had formed my first opinion of Islam based on my evaluation of unpopular Arab countries, rather than on religious estand that Islam promotes. Thanks to Alwi, I got an opportunity to more objectively learn about Islam and gain a true understanding of this religion.” (Shihab, 2004: 140)

In the fifth chapter, there are collection of statements and questions about Islam to Alwi Shihab as a lecturer for the subject of Islamic Mysticism. There are some understandable questions in this chapter. One of them is a question by Stern as follow:

“When we know little about a concept that is foreign to us, we tend to make strong judgment about it. I was guilty of this before we began our depth study of Islam. The little tidbits of information that I did pick up about it was that Muslims were religious fanatics, that they felt nothing in common with the Jews and Christians, and that they treat women as second-class citizens. However, after studying this religion, I have formed a deep appreciation for its foundations and ideology for several reasons. First, I see the similarities it holds with my religious beliefs. I also find parallels to my personal beliefs. I also see that stereotypes that I originally believed are not the rule but the exception. I am thankful for my opportunity to study this religion, because it has broken some of the barriers placed before me that have hitherto hindered my ability to converse in a religious dialogue with and open and well-informed mind” (Shihab, 2004: 162).

A statement from Scott,

“I can now fully understand why Muslim fast. At first I felt sorry for them not being able to eat for a period. But now, it is to be admired for the puspose of self-discipline. I don’t think I could be so disciplined. I am Catholic, and we can’t eat meat on Fridays. Every time Friday hits I get all upset, wondering what am I going to eat today. It is truly ashame how I complain. I am learning from Islam to be more disciplined because sometimes I cheat on Firdays!” (Shihab, 2004: 165).

In the sixth chapter, the discussion is focused on the teachings of Islāmic Mysticism and on some figures of Islāmic Mysticism in Islam. Besides, there are also explanations about figures of Islāmic tarekat, like Sheikh Abdul-Qader al-Jailani (wafat 1166 M), Sheikh Ahmad Al-Rifa’i (died 1175 M), Abdul-Hasan Al-Ghazali (died 1256 M), dan Naq Shaband Al-Bukhari (717-791 M).

The Reader’s Comment

How Islam is viewed in the West

Based on the explanation by Alwi Shihab, it can be concluded that the history has noted that there was a good relationship between Christian and Islam. In one side, Christian is considered as the earlier religion in this world; meanwhile, Islam is the last religion on this earth. In line with the development of each other’s religion, it can be seen that Islam had once a great development in the world, but slowly but sure, the feeling of jealousy toward Muslims was strongly felt by Christians. Some writings were massively produced by figures of Christian who had never been in touch with Islam in a correct and true way. After several decades have been passed, from one generation to another generation, the western culture still “consume” the reading materials which were mistakenly written by the figures. Consequently, Islam was still viewed in a wrong way by people of the West.

However, due to great efforts from the figures of Islam, Islam is then becoming more understandable by recent generations. Unfortunately, because of wrong and bad history, the effort for reaching well way of life has not been done in a whole. Nevertheless, one concept that should be possessed by all human beings in the world is that we all are the same, we all are human. All stupid things in the world can happen not because of God (Allah SWT) but because of human themselves. Don’t God has given us perfect brain, mind, and physical power to become a more educated creature on this lovely blue and green earth?

___________________________________________________

Whatever your religion and faith, if you do good deeds and help one another as well as stop sadism and tyrannical leadership one another, Allah SWT will help you. Please, we live in this world in peace. Be good to one another and be doing good to Allah SWT are the right things. And, let we bequeath a world of peace and colorful to our children. Amen!

Note: If you want to read this version in Bahasa Indonesia, please click this link: A Space of Learning and Thought.

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