Islam as Liberation Theology: Muhammad as a Prophet for Our Times (Part One)

Islamic World

I remember as I was finishing my teaching career of 36 years at Berea College in Kentucky that I experienced a spectacular failure regarding Islam.

In the light of the then-recent events of 9/11/01, I had moved that all students be required to study Islam either in a separate required course or as part of an already existing course (on writing or Western Civilization). After a brief discussion, my proposal was put to a vote. It received two (!) “Yeas” and about 148 “Nays” from a faculty of 150. “Next order of business . . . “

Despite going down in flames like that, I still think my proposal was a good one. That’s because ignorance of Islam lies close to the heart of our country’s highly questionable (not to say bogus) “War on Terror.”

Even more importantly, as a liberation theologian, I see “Islamists” as part of world-wide movement of poor people to use their religious traditions as a force for freedom rather than control and slavery. In fact, I consider this movement as the most important intellectual and social development since the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Grasping that fact and the true nature of Islam should be Job #1 for teachers and peace advocates.

Perhaps, like the Berea faculty, you find that assertion difficult to buy. And why shouldn’t you? Even in its Christian form, “liberation theology” has been misrepresented and distorted beyond recognition. Why shouldn’t we expect even more of the same for its Islamic counterpart?

So let me explain. Begin with the context of my proposal.

Once again, it came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On all sides Islam was being vilified as foreign, primitive, terrorist, and anti-female. U.S. military personnel regularly desecrated the Koran.

And their leaders like Lt. Gen. Wm. G. Boykin, were asserting the superiority of “our God” over “their God.” Republicans who otherwise ridiculed feminists as “femi-nazis” suddenly became champions of women’s liberation as they attacked Islam for preventing women from driving cars and wearing mini-skirts.

All of that made me suspicious. I knew a little about Islam from my poor attempts at teaching an introductory course part of whose intent was introducing freshman students to “world religions.” We had read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. If nothing else, Smith taught me that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are sister faiths. There is no distinction between “their God” and “our God.” All three were “religions of the book.” At the very least, all recognized Jesus as a great prophet.

I had also taught Malcolm’s Autobiography. His embrace of Islam had called my attention to the attraction of Islam for poor people as an alternative to enslaving interpretations of Christianity. Malcolm’s passion for the Nation of Islam easily connected with my own for liberation theology – i.e. with the reading of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the perspective of those committed to the welfare and destiny of the world’s poor.

I remembered that somewhere in the literature of liberation theology, I had read that Islam was today’s most prominent example of a ”religion of the poor and oppressed.” As such Islam was influencing far greater numbers of the world’s poor than had Christianity’s liberation theology which was largely defeated by the U.S. military in what Noam Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” That religious conflict had pitted the U.S. government against the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Understanding Islam as today’s foremost expression of the liberating power of faith made the 1979 uprising in Iran a movement inspired by “liberation theology.” It did the same thing for other movements for liberation throughout the Asia and Africa. With all their triumphs and distortions, they too were movements against colonialism and its neo-colonial aftermath. In the name of God, they all stood against the exploitation and oppression of the East by the West.

That’s true, of course, for our contemporary “Arab Spring.” After all, did you think all those students and others protesting in Tahrir Square had suddenly left behind their devotion to Islam? What do you think motivated them? Had they suddenly become secularists? More obviously, what moved the “Islamic Brotherhood” to oppose the U.S. puppet Mubarak? Or why do you think the Egyptians elected the Brotherhood to lead their country?

Obviously, the motivation was largely found in Islam and in the realization that their faith as exemplified in the life and writing of the prophet Muhammad champions the Arab world’s poor in their struggle against the rich who have hijacked both Christianity in the West and Islam in the East.

It’s that liberationist understanding of Islam that the West must distort and vilify just as it did Christian liberation theology when it threatened to radically alter the political landscape of Latin America from the Medellin Conference of 1968 to the assassination of El Salvador’s most prominent liberation theologians in 1989.

It’s time to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. (That after all was the thrust of my proposal that evening on the faculty floor.) Reading Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time can help. In fact, Armstrong’s book would be required reading in the course I proposed. Without ever mentioning liberation theology, it reveals Muhammad as the champion of the poor and oppressed that Christianity’s liberation theology shows Jesus to have been.

(More about this in next Monday’s post.)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “Islam as Liberation Theology: Muhammad as a Prophet for Our Times (Part One)”

  1. You’d like Vasil Levsky, Mike: some have nominated Levsky for sainthood, but others object because Levsky attacked the wealthy during his attempt to liberate Bulgaria. You can read about Levsky here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasil_Levski

    Another fascinating part of Bulgarian liberation from Ottoman oppression was the Ohio (and former US Civil War) correspondent Januarius MacGahan, who turned British popular will and policy against the Turkish Empire, despite the efforts of major British leaders in the 1870s.

    MacGahan was briefly imprisoned in France as a Communist after the Paris Commune, so you’d probably like him. You may be unaware of the history of the Ottoman Empire in Bulgaria, though — most people outside Bulgaria haven’t paid much attention to Bulgarian genocides. Here’s about Januarius MacG from a Perry County newspaper:

    http://www.perrydaily.com/news/article_499365a9-f318-5731-b0ce-ffa7ea273708.html

    “In April of 1876, Bulgarian nationalists staged a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, which was at that time controlling Bulgaria. The rebellion set off an immediate and brutal response by the Ottoman Turkish authorities, who moved quickly to the rebellious towns, rounding up the leaders and massacring the luckless inhabitants of the cities involved. According to MacGahan’s eventual report, more than 15,000 Bulgarians were killed by the Turkish troops.

    “MacGahan was sent by the London Daily News to investigate rumors they’d heard about this genocide. “He felt it was his duty,” said Professor Atanassov, “to rectify rumors that had reached Western newspapers, and he shocked the English speaking world into action.”

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    1. Thanks, Mary, for this valuable information. I see the same syndrome with Islam that is so evident in Christianity — the use of a basically liberationist tradition to oppress enemies. In the process, the original tradition is almost completely forgotten. Fortunately, in both traditions (Christianity & Islam) original meanings are being rescued by liberation theologians from manipulation by misled fundamentalists.

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