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    Aug 2011
    Lahore, Pakistan
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    Islamic Tradition

    If you want to know about the Islamic tradition, you have to start in the desert. Specifically, Arabia in the late 500s and early 600s, AD. The culture was bereft of written tradition, because the desert Arabs were more accustomed to the ease of memorization when traveling long distances. Poetry and the spoken word dominated as written Arabic was an elite project, or something abounding in the handful of major cities across the expansive peninsula. From this region and its oral culture sprang the world’s third great monotheistic faiths, Islam.

    Oral tradition gave way to the written word as the message and political power of believers spread. After the passing of the founder of the religion, the Prophet Muhammad, many accounts of his divinely-inspired sayings and conduct were passed on from person to person, for roughly three-generation. It was several decades after when the first major collections of his sayings and conducts (the “Hadith” literature) first start appearing. Although memorization continued to be a staple of Islamic education wherever it spread, a determined push towards script literacy produced many prolific polymaths who wrote down their findings, often generating whole new theories and even sciences as they did so.

    Some accounts of the Islamic holy book, the Koran (alternatively spelled Qur’an or Quran), place it as the first true book in Arabia. Written down throughout the 23 years of the Holy Prophet’s mission, a single authoritative text was produced and passed on to the first two Caliphs who ruled following the passing of the religion’s founder. In the era of the third Caliph was a committee organized to unify varying readings of the authoritative text; this project resulted in the burning of all extant copies of the holy book save for six that the entirety of the Prophet’s surviving disciples agreed upon. The Caliph then ordered these half dozen authoritative Korans to be sent to the major capitals of the expansive Islamic jurisdiction in order to provide a valid source for all future copies. It is generally accepted that this effort resulted in a Koran tradition that allows modern readers access to the same text that was in front of the Prophet and his disciples at the dawning of Islam.

    Having covered Hadith literature and the Koran, some general comments about Islamic tradition are helpful. Whereas the Judaic tradition is founded on principles of justice and debate, a spirit of “wrestling” with the angelic realms for blessing, and Christianity has lofty ideals of spirituality and simplicity (The Golden Rule), believers in the Islamic tradition tend toward synthesis.

    By synthesis, consider the story of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Shams Tabrizi. In the early Ottoman Empire, about 800 years ago, the erudite scholar Jalal al-Din Rumi was teaching students from his books when a vagabond appeared in the crowd and asked some questions. This encounter has since passed into legend, with time blurring some of the details and poetic license blurring some of the others, but the resulting friendship between the wandering spiritualist Shams and the learned scholar Rumi resulted in thousands and thousands of verses of spiritual poetry. The synthesis between the otherwise unknown wisdom of Shams had to be combined with the orthodox learning (Koran, Hadith, legal precedents) of Rumi. The Ottoman Empire eventually made Rumi’s poetry required reading; and the Sufi brotherhood based on Rumi’s poetry spread.

    The synthesis patterns occurs repeatedly in the Islamic tradition where justice meets grace, as the overriding theme of the Prophet’s message is mercy, a simplifying act that can only be exercised from a position of strength. Islam’s founder wasn’t only a preacher. He went to war. But having won his defining fight with Mecca and conquered it, he granted a general amnesty. Slavery is not abolished in Islam, but mercy is encouraged because the Islamic tradition recognizes humanity as God’s slaves, and the act of freeing slaves (showing Mercy) is lauded. Again, the theme of mercy overrides efforts at enforcing justice, but raises spirituality from the privacy of one’s heart to a necessary position of worldly strength.

    It was this emphasis of combining spirituality with worldly justice that ennobled Muslim warriors in the eyes of some Crusaders. When the Islamic king Saladin heard his rival, Richard the Lionheart of England, had lost his horse, Saladin sent him two horses as a replacement. The accounts of Saladin’s chivalry became proverbial in Europe during the centuries that followed.

    In recent times, much has been made about the martial tradition of Islam. The term “jihad” has been falsely translated as “holy war”—or, perhaps, it is translated as Holy War in the sensational science fiction novel Dune, which lifts a lot of Arabic and Islamic terminology for its desert planet setting. But “harb muqadissa” is the actual Arabic for holy war, whereas “jihad” means ‘to struggle’; however that struggle is, with one’s self or with one’s physical enemy, or with cancer, or apathy. As one scholar put it, “terrorism is to Jihad as adultery is to marriage”.

    Questioned in the mid-1990s about how the Islamic tradition informs his competitive edge, Houston Rockets NBA All-Star Hakeem Olajuwon summarized it thus: “an eye for an eye, but forgiveness is better.”

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