Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Shiv Vaid, On Islamic Life in Modernity

The discussion of Islamic life in modernity, in any context, is inherently jeopardized by turbulent political histories and othering narratives that have come to form biases against the faith itself and its adherents. Modern external interpretations of Wahabism and Jihad are mindlessly attributed to broken historical justifications for Islamic violence, such as the prophet Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca, the Mongol Invasion, and the American tragedy of 9/11. The fact is, however, that Islam was not born in blood. Islam was birthed from an honest, unlettered man being divinely commanded by the Angel Jibril to simply read. The Quranic account of the angel’s command proceeds as “Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists)” – and the honest prophet, by miracle, read. Coming home shaking after his first interaction with his fate, he tells his wife, Khadijah, about what he has just witnessed and she places a blanket on him. Jibril continues to appear to the still-shocked Muhammad, and teaches him more divine verses, preparing him for his prophetic future. So began the birth of Islam, not in blood, but instead in the miracle of divine knowledge.

It would be holistically untrue to consider the modern state of Islamdom as a direct evolution from the foundational establishments of the four rightly-guided Caliphs, but it would also be hollistically untrue to consider modern Muslim life to be drastically different from what the Prophet Muhammad originally outlined. Islam, after all, is notably a religion of faith. Primarily, much of what has informed the narrative of modern Islam since the mid-eighteenth century, are individual, political reactions to the spread of European colonialism. In this era of reaction, a collective craving for an Islamic golden era grew with the spread of colonialism. Though certain infrastructural developments were brought to the Islamic world with colonialist intervention, the worst imports of this phenomenon, which were previously, mostly nonexistent in Islamdom, were racism, nationalism, and class culture. The emergence of othering stereotypes that persist to this day in many non-Islamic cultures, were born from reports of British colonialists, writing toxic, divisive statements such as, “Persians are cowards” (Lord Curzon, d. 1925) and “Middle Easterners do not tolerate accuracy because it is near truth and they do not like truth” (Lord Cromer, d. 1917) In the modern day, it is common knowledge that colonial influence on Islamdom did not cease. The current Israeli-Palestenian conflict was born out of the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain announced its support of the establishment of a Jewish state in the Muslim-majority state of Palestine – forever informing onlookers towards a skewed view of the way in which the conflict ought to be seen. The Palestinian Muslims that currently face devstating conflict along the Gaza Strip, and the greater, global population of Muslims around the world that deal with harsh accusations of Anti-Semitism since this incident, all share a collective pain that interferes with their practice of faith and daily life. In similar association with anti-Muslim stigma being developed out of political conflicts, the concept of a “post 9/11 world” is one that is frequenty referrred to in the context of international relations and friendship studies today, alluding to a saddening reality in which the world will never trust Islam after New York’s the tragic terrorist attack in 2001. This concept has evolved to some degree, birthing the sociological term “Islamophobia,” a word that describes a societal, likely trauma-related, fear of Muslims. Regardless of the various forms of anti-Islamic stigmas that have impeded progress in modern, proud Muslim life, Islamdom’s struggle with broken, venemous, and violent narratives serve as the foundation of challenges to Islamic life in modernity. 

Though the relationship between Western society and Islamdom is, without a doubt, problematic in the context of major socio-political affairs and fear of the “other,” the modern age has also birthed new features in Muslim life that have been highly transferable, progressive, and positive in the world’s gradual acceptance of a global Islamic diaspora. Modern stories from the Islamic world, spanning from the works of the Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini to female activist Malala Yousafzai’s appointment as the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history, have informed modern Islamic narratives greatly. These instances in modern history not only prove a global need for awareness and acceptance of Islamic culture and narratives, or serve as monuments of modern Islamic success, but rather demonstrate strides in basic human progress that have been carried on the shoulders of Muslims from time to time – shoulders that are just as human, and just as real, as the previous bearers. The achievements of these Muslims stand directly beside the highest victories of the Western world. Additionally, in academia, for example, the field of Islamic Studies has grown tremendously in the realization of Islam’s footing in many different components of the world. The field, which previously was defined only as studies in Islamic jurisprudence, theology, and art, now encompasses a degree of usefulness in everything from international relations to poetry. Modern Islamic scholars now do not solely focus on knowing the Islamic world, but instead track how Islam has interacted with all of humanity. Quite recently, the faith was considered by a demographic authority to be the fastest-growing religion in the world, (Pew Research, 2017) a statistic which guarantees a future for a modern Islamic lifestyle and cements the legacy that Islam has left on the world.

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One of my first experiences of spiritual epiphany in my college experience took place in my Islam class, in which my professor shared his definition of Islam in two short phrases: we are never alone and, we do not die. With these simple phrases, Islam in the modern world cannot be seen as a product of brutal survival. Islam in the modern world is a blissful progression of shared life since the Prophet Muhammad’s unlettered miracle. 

Works Cited:

RAHMAN, FAZLUR. “THE IMPACT OF MODERNITY OF ISLAM.” Islamic Studies 5, no. 2 (1966): 113-28. www.jstor.org/stable/20832836.

Lipka, Michael, and Conrad Hackett. Why Muslims Are the World’s Fastest-Growing Religious Group. Pew Research Center, 2017. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/06/why-muslims-are-the-worlds-fastest-growing-religious-group/

Mahallati, Jafar. “Class Notes.” Lecture, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, November 2019, December 2019

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