Introductory essay

Written by the educators who created Understanding Islam, a brief look at the key facts, tough questions and big ideas in their field. Begin this TED Study with a fascinating read that gives context and clarity to the material.

The TED Talks provide a unique opportunity for an educated layman to learn about the core beliefs and practices of Islam beyond the TV sound bites. These lectures are delivered in a straightforward, lucid and accessible manner, yet are profound and thought-provoking, arousing in the audience an interest to pursue further into a more engaged study of Islam and its varied civilizational expressions across the Muslim world.
Mumtaz Ahmad, President, International Islamic University, Islamabad, Pakistan

For historic reasons, it's never been easy for non-Muslims to learn about Islam. Since the Crusaders' efforts to reinstate Roman control over Jerusalem, images of Islam as an ideology founded by a fanatic, posing as a prophet, and encouraging extremism have circulated widely. (Among other vestiges of this era is the saying, "If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad will go to the mountain." This was the punch line in a story about Muhammad's failed effort to prove he was a prophet by commanding a mountain to come to him.) In the modern era the British struggled to maintain their control over Arab and Indian lands, derisively referred to by Rudyard Kipling as the "white man's burden." The young Winston Churchill wrote of Sudanis resisting British conquest, "How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedianism lays on its votaries!" He included among them "fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog." (Sir Winston Churchill; (The River War, 1st ed., London 1899, II:248) The French felt compelled to undertake a "civilizing mission" among Africans, including the Muslim North Africans, casting those who preferred to rule themselves as insurgents and terrorists.

Without this background, it's difficult to comprehend the vehemence of contemporary Muslim struggles for good governance, much less reactions to insults to Islam, its scripture, and prophet. The TEDTalks presented here provide a framework for meeting that challenge. Presenting Islam as Muslims perceive it, beginning with the Qur'an (Islam's sacred scripture; "Koran" in archaic spelling), TED speakers allow us to appreciate that Islam shares its major prophets and core values with Judaism and Christianity. Tracing the historic origins of radicalism, they also reveal the key distinctions between mainstream Islamic values and those motivating headline-grabbing extremists. Finally, sampling some of the ways in which Muslims are working to provide positive role models for their children, and present mainstream views of Islam to non-Muslims using the tools of popular culture, TED speakers provide hope for a future in which non-Muslims and Muslims may work together to realize those shared values.

The Qur'an

Independent scholar and TED speaker Lesley Hazleton undertook a study of the Qur'an — the sacred scripture of Islam — in order to write a biography of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and discovered that it was a challenging task indeed. She quotes 19th-century historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle describing the Qur'an as "a wearisome jumble." For Carlyle it was "as toilsome reading as I ever undertook." That's because the Qur'an is not a book to be read like any other book. It's a book of scripture central to Islamic belief and practice, sacred to hundreds of millions of people all over the world. As such, in the words of contemporary Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan, the Qur'an is considered "more than a mere text[;] it is a traveling companion" through life. Ramadan writes, "For the woman or the man whose heart has made the message of Islam its own, the [Qur'an] speaks in a singular way. It is both the Voice and the Path. God speaks to one's innermost being, to his consciousness, to his heart, and guides him on the path that leads to knowledge of him, to meeting with him: 'This is the Book, about it there can be no doubt; it is a Path for those who are aware of God.'"

As Hazleton notes, the sound of the Qur'an recited is exquisitely, hauntingly beautiful. It reflects, in her view, "the rhythmic cadence" of the deserts and mountains of Arabia, where it was delivered over a period of 22-23 years in the 7th century. Scholar Michael Sells addresses the aesthetic qualities of the Qur'an in his unique introductory text Approaching the Qur'an (White Cloud 2007). Sells focuses on the shortest chapters (suras), which are generally believed to be the earliest ones. While later chapters often deal with practical issues of communal life and social justice, the early verses are deeply spiritual. They focus on the grand themes of creation and the purpose of human life. The powerful imagery, especially of these early chapters of the Qur'an, is conveyed most effectively by the human voice. The art of Qur'an recitation is among Islam's most cherished, and gifted Qur'an reciters can achieve fame worldwide. Sells has provided a CD with his book so that readers can experience the chanted Qur'an themselves — whether they understand Arabic or not.

Indeed, Arabic speakers comprise only perhaps one quarter of the world's Muslims. The majority of the world's Muslims are Indonesian, Indian, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani. Millions more are Malaysian, African, Central Asian, Chinese, European, Latin American, or North American. But the Qur'ân is considered to be authentic only in Arabic, so virtually all Muslims pray in Arabic. The text exists in translation in most languages, but once translated, it is no longer considered to be the Qur'an. As with all translations, it is an interpretation. The recited Qur'an, as Ramadan notes, speaks directly to the heart of Muslims.

For non-Muslims, on the other hand, the Qur'an must be approached with some preparation. To begin, the term qur'ân means "recitation" or "reading," reflecting the Muslim belief that it is the word of God, not of the prophet who delivered it. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is timeless, revealed word for word in the Arabic language through God's final messenger, Muhammad (d. 632).

In fact, the Qur'an states that its message has been delivered numerous times before. It refers frequently to the Torah and the Gospels, telling people that that they should remember those texts and following their teachings, clearly assuming people are familiar with them. As a result, the Qur'an does not recount their historic narratives. Instead, it uses characters and events familiar to Jews and Christians to make specific moral or theological points. References to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, and Jesus, for example, thus appear frequently but not in chronological order.

The Qur'ân also refers to prophets unknown to Jews and Christians, but all prophets are believed to have preached the same message of social justice as a reflection of true belief. The Qur'ân, in other words, considers its teaching to be part of the monotheistic tradition that began with the covenant between God and humanity forged at the time of Abraham. (See, e.g. verses 43:13, 2:136-7, 26:194-197; 6:92.) As TED speaker and scholar Karen Armstrong discovered when she began her study of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are indeed "sister religions." The Qur'an teaches that if people understood their diverse scriptures properly, there would be no religious disputes and, what's more, they would recognize that the Qur'ân truly confirms what had been revealed before. But the Qur'an recognizes that there are disputes among the communities that came to be distinguished as Jewish and Christian (27:76-77; 11:118), and that many people did in fact reject the message of Muhammad. (61:5-6) It offers explanations for these problems, identifying what it considers misinterpretations of the earlier messages. (E.g., 2:124; 3:45, 4:171; 2:87; 4:157.)

Yet the Qur'an teaches that these differences should not be a source of conflict. There must be no compulsion in matters of religion, the Qur'an insists. (2:256) Instead, people of all communities should work together for shared goals. Rather than disputing over doctrine, all who claim to believe should simply "compete with one another in good works." (5:48) Good works, in the Qur'an's perspective, include anything that promotes justice: charity, caring for parents and relatives and the poor, freeing slaves, keeping promises, being sincere and steadfast in one's commitments. And doing such works reflects genuine encounter with the divine. There is one God, who is the sole provider, protector, guide, and judge of all human beings. God created all human beings, and created them equal. Genuine awareness of God thus inspires people to serve God by safeguarding the dignity and equality in which all were created. (See, e.g., Ch. 107; 89:15-18.)

The Qur'an describes this responsibility as stewardship, khilafah. The related term khalifah is later used in the political sphere to mean "successor" of the Prophet (and anglicized as "caliph"), but in the Qur'an it has a much broader meaning. In a famous verse, the Qur'an says that God created humanity to be His khalifah (2:30). Human beings were put on earth to be responsible for all creation.

The majority of the Qur'an's later, more practically-oriented verses deal with specific aspects of that stewardship. Among the Qur'an's most detailed legislation is that designed to improve the status of women. As Hazleton notes, the Qur'an directly addresses both males and females. It is also the only major religious text to acknowledge misogyny and enjoin correctives. (See, e.g., 16:59-60; 43:17; 81:8-9; 4:24; 2:187; 30:21; 4:29; 4:35; 4:128; 2:24; 2:229; 9:71; 2:228) Protection of orphans is another major focus of the Qur'an's program for social justice. There are other aspects of stewardship, as well. Hazleton refers to the Qur'an's environmental concerns, for example (see e.g., 15:19). But altogether, as both Karen Armstrong and Faisal Abdul Rauf stress in their TEDTalks, the Qur'an's intense concern for the most vulnerable members of society, and commissioning of human beings to protect them, reflects Islam's overarching ethos of compassion. In one of its most paradigmatic verses, the Qur'an recalls that, as God (Allah, in Arabic) taught the people of Israel, killing one person is like killing all of humanity, and saving one person is like saving all mankind. (5:32)

Matters of Interpretation

TED speakers Mustafa Aykol, Maajid Nawaz, Maz Jobrani, and Naif al-Mutawa demonstrate that Muslims, at least as much as non-Muslims, wonder how a religion that insists on human dignity and compassion for all living beings could be associated with atrocities like female circumcision, honor killings, and terrorism. In the cases of circumcision and honor killings, it's simply a matter of pre-existing cultural practices being confused with religious teachings. But in the case of terrorism, as Aykol argues, the answer lies in perversion of religious teachings in response to specific political conflicts.

Aykol notes that Islam stresses specific individual liberties. Articulated in classical legal texts as the "goals" or "purposes" of Islamic law (Shari`ah), they include the right to life, religion, family, property, and reason or dignity. Despite economic and political decline in the later Middle Ages, Islamic traditions stressing human dignity remained vibrant. They became the core of reform movements that emerged under the impact of colonialism in the 19th century. By that time virtually all Muslim majority regions - North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia - were under European control. Reformers of this era ("modernists," in Aykol's terminology) exhibited considerable optimism that once free of foreign control, Muslim societies would recover their cultural dynamism and continue to contribute to global civilization.

But the outcome of World War I created a backlash against Europe and a strong sense of Islamic exceptionalism. Prior to World War I, Britain had convinced Arab leaders to assist them and their allies in defeating Germany by rebelling against Germany's ally, Ottoman Turkey. In return, Britain would recognize Arab independence. That promise, however, was violated. Britain and France in fact kept control of the territories they already dominated in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt), and took control of Syria (which at that time included Lebanon), Palestine (the territories later divided into Israel and the West Bank), Transjordan (roughly the portion of traditional Greater Syria that lies between Iraq and the Jordan River, eventually renamed Jordan), and Iraq — often ruling through local surrogates. In this context, a new generation of grassroots reformers stressed a sharp distinction between European and Islamic culture, the purity and superiority of Islamic values, and the sufficiency of Islam for all human needs — personal, social, and political. Leaders of this politicized Islam ("Islamism") organized community-based societies to provide social services generally unavailable to the poor through the European-controlled governments and, as a result, became very popular.

By the mid-20th century, Europe lost its dominance in the region, whether through revolution or due to economic and political exhaustion, leaving a legacy of economic and social underdevelopment and, in many cases, communities with no bureaucratic infrastructure except the military. As throughout the formerly colonized world, military-dominated, authoritarian governments thus became the norm. Islamist groups continued to fill the gaps in social services, and thus continued to grow in popularity. They also grew bolder in their political demands. As Aykol notes, increasing political pressure by Islamists resulted in increasing suppression of Islamist opposition by authoritarian post-colonial governments. Islamist organizations were frequently banned, their leaders arrested or assassinated, and many of their members imprisoned and tortured.

The systematic persecution of Islamists by authoritarian regimes resulted in the radicalization of some. The majority of Muslims and the majority of Islamists retained Islam's characteristic moderation. The atrocities committed by the radicals are thus condemned by the vast majority of Muslims as violations of core Islamic values. This became increasingly evident during the last quarter of the 20th century, when political setbacks unleashed a rash of extremist outbreaks in Egypt, Algeria, and Afghanistan.

Egypt was plagued by terrorist attacks and its President Sadat was assassinated (1981), Algeria descended into a shockingly brutal civil war following the military government's cancellation of elections (1992), and Afghanistan became a deadly war zone as warlords battled for dominance following Soviet withdrawal (1980), which ultimately led to the dominance of the repressive Taliban (1996). In all cases, the result was even further suffering in disadvantaged Muslim communities. By the 1990s even the Islamic government established with great optimism in Iran in 1979 had become extremely unpopular. Its people had suffered terribly in a brutal war with secular Iraq, and its increasingly youth-dominated population longed for freedom, development, and global cultural engagement.

By the 1990s, therefore, Islamism was undergoing a transformation. Early Islamist efforts had apparently failed, and new generations emerged whose experience of Islamism was scarcely more positive than had been their parents' experience of secular rule. Mainstream Islamists therefore intensified their demands for representative, participatory governance, and equality of all citizens before the law. Some earlier-generation Islamists had rejected use of the term "democracy" for the kind of government they advocated, given its association with the secular European governments who had caused such resentment in their colonial realms. Newer generations of reformers had no such qualms. They are the ones who rose to roles of leadership during the Arab Spring.

Not all Muslims are Islamists. Some indeed distrust the Islamists and advocate secularism, fearing that Islamism will result in the kind of oppressive societies developed in Iran and Afghanistan. And not all Islamists are pro-democracy. Pockets of militant, anti-West radicals remain and continue to plague both mainstream Muslim communities and the radicals' Western targets. But mainstream Muslims collectively struggle to counter the extremists' messages in diverse ways. TED speaker Maz Jobrani uses the performance art of comedy to challenge Hollywood-style stereotypes of Islam and the Middle East. Maajid Nawaz presents his personal experiences as a terrorist recruit, and describes his efforts to provide coherent media-based outreach programs to counter the outlaw-chic extremist allure for Muslim youth in Pakistan. Shereen El Feki describes how some Arab cultures are using music videos, comics, and even Barbie to promote positive perspectives of Islam; and Naif al-Mutawa introduces his immensely popular comic book series, The 99, offering superheroes embodying Quranic values such as justice, mercy, and wisdom as role models for Muslim children. The goal is for newer generations to emerge from the burdens of the past empowered by an appreciation of Islam's core values and confidence that the world will respect them.

Let's begin Understanding Islam with "On reading the Koran," the TEDTalk from journalist and scholar Lesley Hazleton. In her talk, the Jewish-born, Catholic-schooled Hazleton describes what she learned after spending three months in a close reading of the Koran, studying four well-known translations and the seventh-century Arabic text.

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