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Religion Library: Islam

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The Opening Chapter of the Holy Quran
  1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
  2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
  3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful
  4. Master of the Day of Judgment
  5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek
  6. Show us the straight way,
  7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those who (portion) is no wrath, and go not astray.

Muslims live in nearly every country on earth, in places as diverse as Paris, Los Angeles, Bali, and Kandahar. They are old and young, male and female, urban and rural, rich and poor, university professors and kindergarten students, parents, farmers, shop owners, and CEOs. Yet dispassionate, even-handed, and data-driven studies of the lives of Muslims and Muslim communities have unfortunately been in the minority of the vast published output concerning Islam in the past thirty years. Concepts such as "Islamic terrorism" and "Islamic fundamentalism" summarily dismiss Muslims as dangerously anti-western. These hasty generalizations saturate the western media, despite the many criticisms of such obvious stereotyping. One of the most disputed theories has been Samuel Huntington's thesis of the post-Cold War "clash of civilizations." Despite its vague and untenable concept of "civilization identity," Huntington's perspective has recently enjoyed both political and popular influence.

Samuel P. Huntington. Source: Worldeconomicforum@FlickrClichéd views of Islam and the "Islamic threat" proliferate in serious journalism and popular entertainment, despite patient and determined scholarly efforts to dispel them. In The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (3rd ed. 1999), John Esposito documented, in expert and accessible terms, the vast diversity in politics, cultural expressions, traditions, and historical realities of the world's Muslims. In The Failure of Political Islam (1994), Olivier Roy described the failure of political Islam to win over the great majority of Muslims. In Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage ed. 1997), Edward Said discussed the ways in which some of the more crass stereotypes of Muslims have come to dominate American media coverage of the Middle East and the Arabs. In the first section of the book, "Islam as News," Said considers how Americans rely on the news media for their knowledge of Islam and Muslims. In consequence, information is limited to subjects deemed newsworthy, such as oil crises and terrorist attacks. Further, the limited information Americans get from the news media is filtered through American government and industry experts whose overriding concern is to determine who is friendly to U.S. interests and who is not. The result is a distorted view of Islam in which questions of local concerns and experiences are simply not asked.


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