[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Viewpoint: What the West can learn from Islam
By Imam Hamza Yusuf
Director of Zaytuna Institute, CA

Imam Hamza Yusuf
Hamza Yusuf Hanson is an American convert to Islam. He is an outspoken advocate of better understanding between the Muslim world and the West.

Writing in the third century, the Arab poet Mutanabbi describes how a recipient of another's largesse will usually respond with either indebtedness or resentment :

' A generous soul is bought when it receives, a vile one returns good done with disease.'

Your response to another's good toward you determines your nature.

If good in nature, you will respond with indebtedness and respect; if vile, with resentment and envy.

Many of us in the West feel anger and resentment toward Islam and Muslims.

Often this is justified in our minds by the anger and resentment Muslims appear to have toward the West.


But what is largely at work is what is properly termed "the fallacy of personification," in which an abstract is referred to as though it were a person.

For instance, in the Muslim world one can hear cries of "Death to America!", but what is America? What is the UK?

It is impossible for us to really pin down the concept of America or the West and point to either of them; they are abstractions that do not have any real existence.

It might behove us to learn more about this religion and its followers
Is the America, that perhaps much of the Muslim world would like to see die, the 63-year-old schoolteacher from Florida who, just prior to the air bombardment of Baghdad and against her country's laws, flew to Iraq to serve as a human shield in protest of what "America" was doing?

What too is Islam or Muslims? Is there some monolithic entity we can point to and say, "There it is!"? Is Islam Muhammad Ali, one of the most loved and recognized athletes in the world?

It might behove us to learn more about this religion and its followers, especially considering the fact that we are talking about one sixth of humanity and a people who occupy a geographical area that extends from Asia to Africa latitudinally, and from Russia to South Africa longitudinally, not to mention the over 30 million Muslims living in the West.

In America alone, for example, there are over 15,000 Muslim physicians.

David Letterman, the American comedian, could say on national television, "I went to my doctor today and he said, 'Turn to Mecca and cough'" because millions of Americans would easily get the joke.


Our world is increasingly interdependent and pluralistic, and in order to ensure a civil future, we must get to know one another.

One of the most important ways to do this is to know what our different cultures have given to the world community.

Nothing is more important than eliminating the ground of hatred
All peoples have contributed to the overall progress and enhancement of human life.

To be aware of others' accomplishments and the indebtedness we have to so many people is to appreciate and begin to respect all members of the human family.

In a time when enmity and hatred are being exploited for personal and collective agendas, nothing is more important than eliminating the ground of hatred, and ignorance has always been the most fertile soil for the seeds of hatred.

In the case of Islam, this is especially true, and it is important that we reduce the unfortunate level of ignorance that presently exists in the West toward Islam as a religion and Muslims as a diverse people if we are to prevent hatred.

Understanding Islam

Western people can increase their understanding of Islam and Muslims in two ways.

First, we can find out about the almost unbelievable influence that Muslims have had on the progress and enhancement of life in the West.

In doing so, we will not only come to value the Muslims as a people more, but we will also come to esteem other peoples, such as the Chinese, from whom the Muslims brought so many inventions and goods to the West.

There is much the West can learn from the congruity of science and true religion
The second way we can foster better understanding is learning how Islam and Muslims can contribute to solving the very real problems of the present and future.

Prince Charles, for instance, made a pertinent point in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies when he remarked that the West must learn from Islam how to integrate science and religion, an area at which the Muslims have historically proved adept.

Indeed, there is much the West can learn from the congruity of science and true religion so often mentioned in the Koran itself.

Moral obligations

The West can also learn from Islam how to deal with the problem of race.

Arnold Toynbee mentions in a prescient and compelling essay written in the 1940's the extraordinary success Islam had in remedying the race problem and declared that the West had a great deal to learn from Islam.

The human family is a great one and the Muslim branch is certainly worth knowing.
He felt the danger of a race war was quite imminent in the world, and seeing the possibility of that war being launched in Muslim lands against the conquering West, he felt it was important to conciliate Islam and acknowledge the immense power it has had in freeing a large part of the world's population from segregation and exploitation by recognizing and affirming the brotherhood of the "children of Adam and Eve."

The Koran declares, "We have made you a plurality of races and tribes for you to know each other."

If we reflect on the animosities that exist today as a result of ignorance and stereotyping of other people, it is easy to recognize that "knowing one another" is one of the most pressing moral obligations challenging humanity today.

Martin Luther King said, "If we don't live as brothers, we will die as fools."

The human family is a great one and the Muslim branch is certainly worth knowing.

You sent us your comments in response to this article. A selection of them are published below.

Your comments:

Surely it is not just a case of the West having to understand Islam more, but also of Muslim countries educating their people better so that they do not hate someone on the grounds of which country they were born in, or on the actions of one country meaning the whole "West" is against them. Education is the key to bringing everyone together and put an end to these childish ideas of hatred getting anyone anywhere.
J R, London

I love Shaykh Hamza Yusef and his articles. I only have to add that many Muslims are ignorant of their own tradition and need to learn from them themselves and, more importantly, put them into practice. That's when we will see results, God willing. I include myself in that. John
John, USA

The problem for Islam begins after the 10th century when the arts, music and scientific inquiry become frowned upon
Steve, Canada
Yes the Islamic world was ahead of the west in technology before the 10th century. Islam had a university before any western country. Euclids elements of geometry was translated into Arabic from Greek and found its way back into Europe at a later date. Ironically, Isaac Newton purchased this manuscript at a county fair when he was a young man. If Islamic scholars had not had an interest in it Newton would never had seen it. The problem for Islam begins after the 10th century when the arts, music and scientific inquiry become frowned upon. The reason the West excelled after the 12th century is because of the re-emergence of the need to know more than the scriptures can account for.
Steve, Canada

You talk about the West not understanding Islam and feeling anger and resentment towards Islam and Muslims but don't you think these feelings by some westerners could easily be prevented if leading Muslims would come out in public and condemn terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists?
Dave Stubbs, Stoke, England

I just enjoyed a splendid evening with my Japanese friend, whose people were my mortal enemy just 50 yrs ago, and with my black friend, who's ancestors were enslaved by mine only 150 years ago, and my Filipino friend whom my nation still claimed as a territory only 50 years ago. How is it that we can enjoy our lives, be good friends, and prosper with a collective history as ugly as ours??

The answer is simple: 1) we have embraced a system that protects individual rights of all regardless of race, colour, creed or religion. 2) we have forgiven each other for the sins of our ancestors and 3) we have learned to face our past and learn from it, but live in the present and look to the future.

I have travelled to several "Muslim" countries, and look forward to the day when we can all enjoy the good things and interesting history of the Muslim world. That day will not come, however, until Muslims can learn to put the past behind them, and embrace the concept of protection of individual rights for ALL people.
Matt Johnson, Guam,USA

I find Hazma Yusuf Hanson's article to be a very thinly veiled attempt to take our focus off the fact that Islam is a violent and aggressive religion, with one main aim, and that is world domination. Yes, there may be many Muslims who do want to engage in violence toward anybody of other faiths, but it is a Lie to say that they are tolerant of other religions, history says otherwise.
Richard, Auckland New Zealand

Muslims in the West, such as myself, need to reach out more to non-Muslims
Al Shoreibah, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Muslims in the West, such as myself, need to reach out more to non-Muslims. I believe building bridges of understanding at the "grassroots" level is the best hope to create such understanding and a more peaceful world. Building or growing anything good takes hard work and time. Every great structure that is built or tree that grows, starts small and from the bottom-up. Not the other way around. Conversely, inflicting harm is easy. It takes only seconds to cut down a tree, or destroy a building. We can't rely on governments to bring the understanding and healing that is needed.
Al Shoreibah, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Why do people feel that secular democracy is a great Western achievement, that Islam cannot, but should come to terms with? In the first place, one could argue that democracy itself does not exist in the West. Secondly, what has this supposed secular democracy brought to the world since its inception, other than mass killing? Death to people and cultures, the oceans and earth, and the animals that inhabit it? In fact, I've read a historian describe the last century as the century of 'constant mass killing'. Some great achievement indeed. As far as I can see, democracy is not apparent in the West. What you have is false claims to it.

Oppositely, the world ruled by Islam cherished a meaningful democracy for a significant period. In that time real progress was made towards bettering humanity. There is no historical doubt about this. As far as I can see, i! t is indeed for us in the West to understand Islam, as to how a religion, the so-called cause of war, was able to create an environment whereby Christians, Jews, and others could co-exist side by side, and modern day type destruction was conspicuously absent.
Azher Siddiqui, Toronto, Canada

I too would like to say that I have nothing but the deepest admiration for the author and his tireless effort to reach out and educate people (non-Muslims and Muslims alike) in the world about the true, unwatered down, unperverted version of Islam. Columns and dialogues such as these should be encouraged so that more people in the West come to realize that a great majority of Muslims the world over, identify more with what Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has to say on Islam (and consider his views more legitimate) then Osama bin Laden.
Ehsan Poonawalla, North Brunswick, NJ

I never see Muslim leaders here or in the Middle East address the need to reach out toward the West
Toni Davidson, Mesquite, Texas, USA
I do not believe that all Muslims are violent people. I do not lump all Muslims into one mold, therefore, I do not blame all Muslims for terrorist acts around the globe. Unfortunately, I do not see reciprocity coming from the Middle East. I never see Muslim leaders here or in the Middle East address the need to reach out toward the West. I never heard Muslims decrying the horror and injustice of 9/11 and demanding that Osama Bin Laden face justice. Instead I see Muslims in the news every night filled with rage at the West. Where are the clear-headed Mullahs urging moderation? Where are the moderate Middle Easterners loudly disclaiming the violent actions taken by a radical minority in the name of their religion? It is true, as Hamza Yusaf Hanson wrote, that "the west has much to learn from Islam." But the reverse is also true and, unfortunately, I see no attempt to learn coming from the Middle East.
Toni Davidson, Mesquite, Texas, USA

I find this article written by a Muslim living in the West to be without a firm understanding of the ground realities in Islamic Countries. The sad truth is that there is very little freedom of thought, opinions or religious expression (other than Islam) or critical analysis of Islam for fear of life.
Farooq Ibrahim, USA

Hamza fails to expand upon the 'Death to America' slogans, while the western leaders and media keep lying to their own people, saying Muslims hate western freedom, success and democracy. Sweden is successful; Ireland is Christian; and, Finland is democratic. Ever wonder why Muslims don't express similar sentiments about countries other than the US and the UK? It's because those countries are not sending armies to Muslim countries or supporting dictators.
Ken K, Calfironia

Great Article, very eloquently written. I have immense respect for the author. Pertinent points for both Muslims and non-Muslims to take to heart. The author's outlook is very positive and progressive, which is exactly what's needed
Saj, Birmingham, UK

If Islam is so enlightened why are there so few Islamic democracies?
Grant, Bournemouth, England
Why is it that we in the West must make the effort to understand and tolerate Islam when a significant number of Muslims are clearly hostile and intolerant towards us? Also If Islam is so enlightened why are there so few Islamic democracies?
Grant, Bournemouth, England

Thank you for a very inspiring article. Many thought provoking points have been mentioned. However, I am more curious to know how this cooperation is realistically going to be achieved. Surely, the need for the West to learn and appreciate Islam is just as pertinent as for Muslims to learn and appreciate the West. If an Islam accepting perspective needs to be taught in elementary schools in rural Britain, is it not just as much needed in the madrasas of rural Pakistan? Furthermore, I do not really buy the point about " freeing a large part of the world's population from segregation and exploitation". Clearly, just setting foot in most countries on the Arab peninsula will make it clear that the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indonesian etc manual labours working there, are treaty not as Muslim brothers, but as second rank citizens with few rights and no privileges. Any move towards greater openness, understanding and appreciation must start with an honest discussion of both achievements and shortcomings.
Yemeena Jones, Brighton, UK

I agree with much of what said about the abstractions of nationality, and Islam does try to emphasise the equality of humankind whilst allowing cultural differences. That said, I still would not want to live in a Muslim dominated country. Muslims seem to have real problems with modernity and particularly with secular democracy which is the West's greatest achievement in the last 200 years. At no time in the high point of Islamic history could you point to a movement towards securing the rights of man against authoritarian dictatorships.
Steve A, UK

Muslims must do more to dispel the growing tide of ignorance among themselves about their own tradition
Todd Perreira, San Jose, California, USA
The goal of preventing hatred and ensuring a civil future would no doubt be better served if the ignorance that exists in the West toward Islam as a religion was reduced. While it is true that much remains to be done on this front, the author is remiss in not acknowledging that there has, in fact, been significant progress toward dispelling this ignorance both in the media and in education. At the same time, it must be said that the West does not have a monopoly on ignorance. Muslims must do more to dispel the growing tide of ignorance among themselves about their own tradition. The irony of our time is that never before has Islam had a more receptive audience in the West; yet never has Islam been so ill-prepared to seize this great historical opportunity. Fortunately, there are Muslims like Hamaz Yusuf Hanson who have dedicated their lives to this very task.
Todd Perreira, San Jose, California, USA

The Muslim world desperately needs leaders that will stay true the Islamic Ideology. Unfortunately, the disease of nationalism is destroying the Muslim community. Leaders of the Islamic world need to understand that as divided people through the creation of nations they will never succeed. Islam is about protecting mankind and not borders.
Mohammed Raja, UK

A very beautiful article and some good points to keep in mind. I don't think Muslims think they are perfect and everyone else needs to change in order to accept them, but I do think that Muslims want the western countries and the dictators they support in the Islamic countries to stop oppressing them in the name of being "modern".
Cilia, USA

Unfortunately many people's views of Islam are based on images and stories of fundamentalism
Simon Gibbons, Luxembourg
It is important that people understand Islam more than they do - articles such as this are very well written. But I wonder if it is only those who are already prepared to learn will actually do so. The mainstream Western media are not inclined to inform on such subjects. Unfortunately many people's views of Islam are based on images and stories of fundamentalism.

I find George Bush's Christian fundamentalism as distasteful as Muslim fundamentalism, but people do not think of Christianity in the same way. Islam has indeed given the world much, and if I remember correctly it is the only major religion to accept the existence of other religions without the need to convert people. So let's all get talking.
Simon Gibbons, Luxembourg

You note that in the Muslim world one can hear cries of 'death to America' but you offer no explanation for this consistent expression of hate from the Islamic world.
Hugh Lippincott, Boston, USA

It strikes me that most 'progressive' Muslims ask people in the West to understand, appreciate and study Islam. I think they should turn to their fellow Muslims and ask to them understand, appreciate and study Western values. I am convinced that at the moment people in the West know a lot more about Islam than the other way around.
Urbain, Boven Karspel, NL

The only way for the Muslims to be appreciated by the world is to be of use to the world
Hatim Elatabani, Cairo, Egypt
We keep talking about the wonderful role that Muslims have played through out history in transmitting knowledge and science; however we always fail to come up with ideas of how this role can be revived. Was it an era that would not emerge once more? Have Muslims played their role in transmitting knowledge and are now only recipients of it? I believe the only way for the Muslims to be appreciated by the world is to be of use to the world like they were once before.
Hatim Elatabani, Cairo, Egypt

The faces and the weaponry may be different today but aside from that the Western and Islamic worlds are facing the same crises they were facing two thousand years ago. It does not require a sage to tell us that peace and tolerance might be in the interest of both of these powerful world forces and that both societies could gain a treasure of cultural riches by forsaking savagery as their primary tool for remedying their differences. Yet the harsh pages of contemporary history continue to be written in a river of blood and senseless violence. Will barbarism and savagery be replaced by understanding and tolerance during the brief and fluttering pages of our lifetimes? Only time will tell but four thousand years of recorded human civilization do not give us a great deal of evidence to support that notion.
Francis Copland, London, England

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific