You Are Wrong Because I Am Right
One way or another, I end up spending a lot of time on my knees rummaging through our stock of very old, very ugly books that no one will ever buy. Often enough for it to be worth the potential arthritis, though, I’ve found real gems – old editions, out-of-print works, and some just very eclectic pieces. It’s a collector’s heaven, no doubt about it. In the decade or so I’ve been wed to Islamic bookshoppery, I’ve only ever known one person to head straight for that corner, drop to his knees, and rummage as eagerly as I did.*
Last week, we acquired someone else’s back-corner stock of misfits, and I discovered a very old Pakistani print of a book by Suzanne Haneef that I’ve been meaning to acquire, so of course I put aside the fairy book I was reading** and began immediately to devour peruse it.
The excerpt below expresses better than I could (and more authoritatively) some of the assumptions and attitudes that really do my head in when we discuss things like why your face is haram. Though old (1979), it is still – surprisingly – very relevant to our present times.
‘…Islam is so little known and understood in the Western world that to many people, especially in America, it is simply another strange religious cult or sect, Allah is some sort of a heathen deity, Muhammad is someone who is worshipped by hordes of pagans overseas, and Muslims are either militant sword-wielding bedouins mounted on camels, fanatical men of religion with long robes and beards, or rich, decadent playboys.
Indeed, Islam has been so gravely misunderstood and misinterpreted in the West that many people in America and Europe think of it as an enemy to any sort of stability, peace and progress; they mistrust it, fear it, and regard it as a dire threat without as a rule knowing anything about it other than what the popular media convey, which almost invariably reflects grave inaccuracies and errors.
As these lines are written, the media are full of such ‘news’ and views about Islam and Muslims; daily one can hear or read item after item on the subject. Virtually without exception these misrepresent not only the details of the Islamic system and the motivations and characters of sincere Muslims, but also the fundamental concepts and teachings of the religion. They are often so greatly distorted that, indeed, a Muslim who encounters them may not even be able to recognise that they are concerned with the religion he has known and practised all his life.
The Western world today is full of ‘experts’ on Islam who consider themselves far more knowledgeable about it than the Muslims who are living it day by day, but who seldom, if ever, take the trouble to understand Islam, especially its central world-view and basic concepts, on a deeper level.
Why is all this so? First, it is due in part to the legacy of history. Islam and Christendom confronted each other as enemies during the Crusades and afterwards, and the propaganda against the enemy and its beliefs and way of life which is common during times of conflict, whether it is true or false, has never yet been laid to rest in the Western World.
Second, it is partly due to the confused and distorted picture of Islam which the behaviour of many Muslims, those who profess this faith but do not live by it, often doing everything which it does not permit, and doing nothing which it requires, very unfortunately presents. It is also due, in part, to the fact that many people in the Western world think of any religious system in terms of Christian concepts and values, or in terms of the concepts of Western civilisations which do not necessarily fit with or apply to Islam.
And finally, it is also undoubtedly due to the fact that many people in the West, particularly in America, have such an unquestioning conviction of the innate superiority and rightness of the American or Western way of life that they do not consider it necessary or important to be accurately informed about other’s viewpoints and ways of life. To many of us Muslims remain, undifferentiatedly, ‘those people over there’, whose only possible utility or interest is in relation to whether or not they will sell us the oil we need or boost our economy by buying our goods. We often regard them, with secret satisfaction in our own superiority as the advanced people of the West, as simple, child-like beings whose world-view must ipso facto be wrong because ours is right.’
– Suzanne Haneef: What Everyone Should Know About Islam And Muslims (1979, Lahore), viii – ix.
The book also carries a short biography of the author (slightly edited for relevance):
‘Suzanne Haneef, an American Muslim who was a devout Christian during her girlhood, later discovered Islam through contact with Muslims and extensive reading. She is active in the field of Islamic education and has travelled widely in the Muslim world. ‘What everyone should know about Islam and Muslims’ is an outgrowth of her years of studying and living Islam.’
* He was – as they always are – Taken. 😄
** It was a very absorbing fairy book. It had a girl who could see fairies, and a ‘socially-awkward’ boy who couldn’t. Putting it aside was not a Trivial Matter.