Growing up as a Muslim in what is now Bangladesh, I understood at an early age how my grandmother was sustained by her faith. She had more than her share of adversities - the devastating deaths of her young husband, two sons, and a beloved daughter-in-law (my mother). Then came her own sickness and disability.
"It's Allah's will," was her answer to all the calamities. As a devout Muslim, she also opened her heart to our Hindu neighbors, from untouchables to Brahmins.
So it saddens me to see how Islam can be contorted, both here in my adopted country and abroad. In the name of Islam, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban wants Hindus to wear marks to protect them as minorities. (This practice could easily be misused.) I also grieved to see the Afghan rulers proudly destroy ancient Buddhist statues. The Taliban said it was proving its purity, but purity comes from spirituality, not from external displays. Dogmatism aside, the Muslim zealots have forgotten Islam's vast contribution to civilization - to arts, literature, science, and medicine.
The Taliban gives self-serving interpretations of Islam's five principles: belief in one God and his Prophet; prayer; charity; fasting; and if possible, pilgrimage to Mecca. To abide by these principles, the faithful must be generous and kind. The Koran commands this: "Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger."
Contrary to the dictates of the Taliban and the Talibanists, Islam is against the subjugation of women. In the eyes of God, all are equal.
Before he attained prophethood, Muhammad was an employee of his future wife, Khadija, who was an independent businesswoman. It was her steadfast support that kept the Prophet's dream alive during the two years following the revelations.
Mistreatment of women is often a result of cultural ignorance rather than religious policy, and is also prevalent among the followers of other major faiths. Among many Hindus in India, for example, aborting female babies and torturing brides for failing to pay up their dowries have become social menaces.
While I am disturbed by the Taliban's abuse of Islam, I am also dismayed by the intellectual deception practiced by some Western theologians. These experts use the excesses of a few to malign the whole of Islam, and they quote Muslim scriptures out of context to suit their points.
I was once invited to speak to a university class on the great religions of the world. The man in charge of the seminar had a theology degree from a prestigious university and wrote a newspaper column on religion. During the introduction, he quoted political and religious tracts of his liking to "prove" to the audience that more than 1 billion adherents of Islam, the Muslims, were nothing but aberrant characters.
Religionists like this not only have an insidious influence on society, they also corrode children's minds. Our youngest daughter, then a student at a fine Christian elementary school, once brought home an educational bulletin distributed by a national Christian organization. She read a statement from it and asked her parents a pointed question: "Is that true?" The statement was this: "Muslim god Allah is a false god; he can't answer any prayer."
We in the West must also search our souls to know what we have wrought. The United States itself armed and trained the Afghans to dislodge the former Soviet Union, whose defeat in Afghanistan played a significant part in the disintegration of the communist empire. Yet once the Soviets left, the West abandoned the Afghans and did not do enough to foster democratic transition. Besides, we can't ignore brutality committed in the West. It was just a few years ago that in the heart of Europe, in Srebrenica, Bosnian Muslim children, men, and women were massacred as Western soldiers watched.
Despite our different beliefs, we need to bear in mind that Muslims are like everyone else. They come from every continent and every culture, and from all walks of life - from the Nobel laureates to the ignorants. The vast majority yearn for peace.
Equally important, Muslim nations must be more vocal against the Taliban's oppression - in particular, its oppression of women, who are not allowed to work and are kept confined to their homes. The Taliban may pay heed to protests from other Muslim countries. Whatever moral grievances these nations have against the West, they have to understand this fact: A society cannot progress while its women wither in the dark.
Fazlur Rahman is an oncologist and hematologist.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor