Islam and September 11th, 2001

Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream. —Richard Hooker

After the murderous events of September 11th, 2001, there was an immediate reaction in which people wanted to retaliate against Muslim Arab nations, since, after all, this was an attack worse than Pearl Harbor and therefore we needed to declare war and punish the enemy."Arab" is used advisedly because there was no thought of attacking, for instance, Indonesia or Turkey, non-Arab Muslim nations.

But the reaction in favor of massive retaliation was only momentary and was replaced almost immediately by a determination to capture or kill the conspirators and their protectors. Such a restrained reaction is, as far as memory serves, the first time when a massive murderous act is not responded to with a reprisal on a similar scale. This restraint may exist in part from the memory of murderous bombing of civilians by the US and British air forces in World War II, by the knowledge that for the last fifteen years or so, cruel events often end up on video tape, and lastly, one would hope, that the President of the United States, in fact, lives the Christian life that he openly espouses.

So who are these people who committed suicide and mass murder? Do they represent a radical fringe of Islam? Why did they do it? Is there a solution? I am not an Arabist or scholar of Islam but I needed to come to some conclusions on this like everyone else in order to cope with the disaster and draw closer to God because of it. From what I have been able to read and from my memories of the thought and actions of Arabic friends, I have reached some tentative conclusions. Thanks to the internet, I was able to consult a very dear person living in the Middle East in order to avoid what would have perhaps amounted to caricature in some instances. [FN 1]


Traditional Arab Islamic society cannot blend with Western European-US culture without disappearing in the process. Islam is a religion in the same sense that Benedictine monasticism is a religion. It governs the day from daybreak to sleep at night and rules the prayers, work, morals, manners, education, recreation, and customs of its adherents. My Arab friend says: "Your likening of Islamic society to Benedictine monasticism is a particularly happy choice, since it captures the essence of the Islamic intention behind its multi-faceted teachings for a society that wishes to live under God. It reminds me of a remark once made by Frithjof Schuon, in his book Light on the Ancient Worlds, in the chapter entitled "The Universality of Monasticism", where he says:

"The famous 'no monasticism in Islam' (la rahbaniyyata fil-islam) really means, not that contemplatives must not withdraw from the world, but on the contrary that the world must not be withdrawn from contemplatives."

This intention must be distinguished from the West's post-Reformation privatization of religion, its withdrawal from government, from the workplace, from the schools, from the "public square," and now, frighteningly, from marriage and the family. Perhaps the most obnoxious difference in the West is the degradation of human sexuality from its protection within marital love to spirit-killing, commercialized lust. From the perspective of the comparatively healthy and integrated families and societies of Islam, the West must appear indeed as an engine of Satanic evil, the United States being the most prolific purveyor of human ugliness.

One consequence of this social evil is that when a devout Muslim finds himself living in the West, he is compelled to practice a kind of separateness. He resembles the Amish in many ways. He is friendly but distant, does business but keeps things polite, wishes people well but turns to his coreligionists for all that he loves and cares about. He does not allow himself to become indebted to local banks or credit card companies, preferring to borrow money from among his friends. He uses the technology available but shows a healthy ambivalence towards it, as one would towards a half-trained watchdog. He is here so that he may attain material wealth while being freely left alone to live his religious life among his family and friends. Occasionally the children embrace the local culture and abandon Islam. When they do so they do not necessarily embrace the exemplary aspects of Western culture!


In Muslim history one sees the development of several traditions that are alive today, each of which combines with the others and expresses itself variously in the lives of individual Muslims. The Qu'ran (Koran), being about the length of the New Testament, is far too brief and elliptical to act as a compendium of all that must be known to live one's life in a way pleasing to God. One also needs the writings about the life of Muhammad, who stands as an exemplar and guide for daily living, which, together with many other traditions about decisions and sayings of Muhammad, are collected together as Sunna. From the word Sunna is taken the name of those who combine it with the Qu'ran, in effect making what might be termed the Muslim Torah. They call themselves Ahlu-s-Sunna (the people of the right practice) and they comprise 90% of the world's Muslims.

Branching off from them are the Shi'i Muslims who predominate in Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain and in the Eastern oil provinces of Saudi Arabia. These add to the canon of sacred texts the sayings of their holy Imams, who were twelve in number and were chosen from the descendents of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi'is believe that these Imams were his only rightful successors. The Sunnis believe that these Imams were indeed great saints and holy men, but their example is not altogether binding as a standard of canonical practice. A very rough comparison can be made between Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestant Congregationalism, in which the Shi'i have the more structured hierarchy in the form of the Ayatollahs, or bishops, but no Pope as such, and the Sunnis, who share all the literature but have no juridical bishops.

If the Qu'ran and the Sunna can be compared to the Torah, then the Islamic Law, the Shari'a, which is mostly a derivative of the first two, completes the triumvirate of authority and can be compared to the Talmud. The Law is the catechism, the compendium and the guide for every problem in all of life's aspects. Theology (kalam) is a separate field. It is subordinate in importance to the Shari'a because fulfillment of the law, not its explication, is the means to salvation.

Lastly, one must mention Sufism (tasawwuf in Arabic). The Sufi represent the mystical traditions in Islam. The title Sufi is either given to an adept of Sufism or, more rigorously, to the fully realized saint (wali). Sufi texts are basically indistinguishable from the texts of Western mysticism, such as The Cloud of Unknowing. They are substantively similar because they both describe the human experience of being allowed to approach God while still living in this world.

As my friend put it to me: "Early European scholarly incursions into the study of Sufism took to explaining the existence of an Islamic mystical tradition in terms of influences from Christian, Hindu or Buddhist sources, starting from attitude of denial that it could have arisen from truly indigenous Islamic sources. (But this is now a largely abandoned bias.) Islamic mysticism, however, derives from Islamic texts, tradition and experience, not from Christian or any other influences, if they are regarded as seminal. Many Orientalists, like Margoliouth, Nicholson, Arberry and Massignon have argued in favour of an Islamic or indeed Qur'anic and Muhammadan origin for Sufism."[FN 2]

It should be mentioned that Arabic is the language of the Islamic religion, which means practically that a scholar of Islam must know Arabic, even if he be Persian, Turk, African or South Asian. Thus Arabic is the oldest living language which is also the universal language of a major religion.


I wrote to my friend to convey my understanding of the development of Islamic thought:

"In the medieval centuries Muslim culture produced great commentators (as well as transmitting the texts) on the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle—Averroës and Avicenna being the most famous philosophers known to the West. Yet this development seems to have ended because of a kind of reaction against philosophy: reason can be perverted into rationalism which can endanger the very social effectiveness of religion (certainly a central problem in the West)."

My friend patiently replied, giving a more complete explanation of my rather simplistic attempt:

(Here I paraphrase my friend.) It was once thought by Orientalists that the high development of Islamic law came at the expense of the continued development of philosophy. This was a standard Orientalist thesis on the fate of philosophy under Islam. Suffice to say on this occasion that the dichotomy of "Athens versus Jerusalem" was resolved by the application of the mystical apprehension of Divine Unity instead of the Aristotelian contemplation of being. Al-Ghazali, the great medieval theologian, who was also a great Sufi, and had thoroughly studied philosophy and composed works within its discourse, came to reject some of its speculations in favor of theology. As my friend phrases it: "Although the great early philosophers, Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (the Latin Avicenna) adopted a peripatetic frame of discourse, their ultimate vision tended towards the Platonic and the Neoplatonist rather than strictly Aristotelian. The most towering figure of Islamic thought, however, is not counted among the peripatetic philosophers. He is Muhyiddin ibn Al 'Arabi, who was a mystic and a much younger contemporary of the Aristotelian Averroës, As mystical philosopher, he was the classical formulator of Sufi metaphysics, based on the doctrine of the Oneness of Being (wahdat-ul-wujud). He has been called the son of Plato by Muslim thinkers, described as neoplatonist by modern scholars and he is the Ash-Shaykh Al-Akbar (the Doctor Maximus) to the Sufis." (It should be noted that Averroës, who was a source of problems for Western philosophy, never dominated Islamic thought.)"

My friend continues on my behalf: "Be that as it may, the community of discourse, which generally falls under the rubric of the law, was and remains central to all Islamic faith, in all its intellectual phases [my emphasis]. The theory and the practice that underpin the religious law are a common denominator that binds all the strands of Islam. As such, these could not be abandoned, if one wished to remain within the orbit of the Islamic revelation. From another point of view, one cannot say that the place of a philosophical discourse can be filled by a legalist one. Thus, it must be either theology or mystical speculative thought that can fulfill the need for philosophy.

"As I said before, this development was largely restricted to the Sunni world. In Iran, however, philosophy took a relatively different course. This was largely for two reasons. Firstly, the efforts of several Persian sages were among the first to bring about Islam's initial accommodation of philosophy as a form of intellectual discourse. Secondly, by the end of the medieval period, Iran adopted the Shi'i version of Islam. Interest in philosophy continued, because the Shi'i branch of Islam needed the manifold nature and hierarchy of both philosophical metaphysics and cosmology, to explain the semi-divine status it attributes to its Imams and to conduct cosmological speculations on prophetology and imamology in general. Thus, the heritage of classical Islamic philosophy remains alive to this day in Iran, where it is enriched by an on-going commentatorial tradition. This, moreover, existed side by side with the discourse centered on the law. However, Islamic integrative tendencies could not be abandoned, as we can see in the philosophical tradition deriving from Mulla Sadra, for instance, but there espousal did not automatically lead to dissolving the form of the philosophical discourse per se. For an understanding of this peculiar situation in Iran, one should consult the works of the Iranian American scholar and philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr."


Three historical misunderstandings should be corrected here. Firstly, the Arabic conquest arising from Arabia and absorbing the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and parts of Asia, was an accomplished fact in about one hundred years after the death of Muhammad (632 AD)—accomplished before the Qu'ran and the Sunna were even given their final form: a process of formation which really became recognizable only three hundred years after the death of Muhammed, in the tenth century, much as the Old Testament is a retrospective rather than a contemporaneous compilation. In other words, the conquest was more the expression of an expansionist monotheistic warrior people rather than the carrying out of the mandate of a new, fully formulated religion. (It should be mentioned here that Christian and Jewish enclaves survived within the Arabic Ecumene. They were prohibited from proselytizing or erecting new churches or synagogues and were treated as second-class citizens, but they were not compelled to chose between conversion or death. It was rather similar to the position of recusant Catholics in England from 1534 to the early part of the nineteenth century. My friend leaves shortly for a visit to the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Desert. The monastery has survived for fourteen hundred years under the protection of Islam.)

Secondly, one should point out that the Western Crusades were inconclusive, except for the harm they did to Byzantine Christianity. The Islamic Ecumene fractured over the centuries following the initial outburst of conquest, but was reunited under the hegemony of the Ottoman Turks, who conquered and held the crossroads of civilizations, from present-day Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Hungary to Algeria, Egypt and Mesopotamia, during the period of 1300-1500. Constantinople famously fell in 1453. The Turks were only finally stopped at the gates of Vienna in the 17th century (1683). Of course the Turks had been converted to Islam in the middle of the 11th century.

The third point is related to our Western misunderstanding of the function of the Qu'ran and our habit of comparing it to the Bible. As my Arabic friend put it to me: "For Muslims the Qur'an is the literal Word of God, in form, sound and content, much as the Torah is to the Jews or the Veda is to Hindus. In other words, the Qur'an is for Muslims the Universal Divine Word made book, just as for Christians Christ is the Universal Divine Word made flesh."

One is compelled to ask how the person of Muhammad becomes of central importance in addition to the Qu'ran?
"But one also needs the life record of the Prophet Muhammad, who stands as the perfect exemplar of the Qur'anic content as a whole, not only the teachings. He is the "Unlettered Prophet", who is perfect container of the perfect Divine Word. In this, the soul of the Prophet may be likened to that of the Virgin Mary. She is Virgin. He is Unlettered (Ummi in Arabic). Both are the perfect vessel of the revealed content! Thus, the records of the Prophet's life are collected as the Sunna (lit. means the wont or way of being and doing). The Sunna resembles the New Testament in that it is the record of the life and deeds of the founder of the religion—from which is derived the idea of imitatio Christi for instance—whereas it is not considered as the very body of the Divine Word as such. Theologically, the Sunna comes secondary in status to the Qu'ran , but it is treated with the greatest reverence nevertheless. Indeed, following the Sunnat is the hallmark and criterion of all orthodoxy."


Is the contemporary, traditionalist Islam compatible with the practice of modern natural science, technology, production and organization? Can contemporary Islam internalize the values system that permits, for instance, high technology warfare to be conducted successfully? As a perfect example I will quote here (and please be patient) instructions for annual training of US naval reserve officers:

When reporting to the ship for the first time you are required to be in a clean, proper, and complete uniform with your original orders. In addition to your orders, bring a copy of an updated Record of Emergency Data (commonly known as a "Page 2") and a filled out Serviceman's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) form as these documents will be needed by the Ship's Office (you may obtain these documents from your local Personnel Support Detachment, PSD prior to departing for AT). You should report no later than 0730 on the day stipulated on your orders. If reporting while the ship is in port, enlisted personnel will report via the "afterbrow," usually the ramp leading from the pier to either a sponson deck or one of the aft aircraft elevators (if reporting to a carrier). Officers will report via the "officers brow" leading to the Quarterdeck. Note: only larger ships, such as aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships, have two brows. Also, the officer's brow is not always the forward one (e.g., it is aft on all Nimitz class carriers). Cruisers and all smaller ships usually will have one brow. Be sure to find out before hand how the ship you will report to is configured.
All Navy ships fly the national ensign (i.e., the United States Flag) from the stern while not actually underway. Remember to stop at the top of the brow, face aft and salute prior to reaching the Quarterdeck when coming aboard during daylight hours. In this case, "daylight hours" range from 0800 to sundown, local time. Hence, there is no need to salute the ensign if reporting aboard at 0730. Have your I.D. card and orders ready. Upon reaching the Quarterdeck, salute, and say "request permission to come aboard, sir." In some cases, the person manning the watch may be junior to you or in some cases, may not even be an officer. Nevertheless, call him or her "sir" as they represent the authority of the ship's commanding officer. Hold the salute until you receive permission to board, then step to the side to present your orders to the Junior Officer of the Watch (JOOW) or Junior Officer Of the Deck (JOOD). Make sure the original copy of your orders is signed with the time and date you reported aboard by the JOOD or Petty Officer of the Watch.
Ready-for-Sea Modular Course & Handbook
Prepared by: Naval Reserve Intelligence Program
Naval Air Station North Island
San Diego, California

Now I quote this at length because it is a beautiful example of its kind, of military custom and military bureaucracy woven together from practical experience in order to humanize and manage the techniques of modern warfare. Being a veteran myself and an afficionado of all things naval, that language is music to my ears. It is no way an obstacle for me spiritually or practically. And I feel just as comfortable with the hundred pages of rules and regulations that follow. (I also suspect it describes the ritual of a more genuine community than can be found in society at large or in most particular associations within the larger society.)

The above quotation emphasizes the "otherness" of the West vis-á-vis the contemporary, traditionalist outlook of Islam. It implies many of the positive aspects that are meant when one talks of the "West." An aircraft carrier is a huge inanimate artifact. It requires a crew of six thousand or more technicians and it requires Western culture to make possible the acceptance and even enjoyment (called "morale") of the technology and the bureaucracy which make the aircraft carrier effective. Even though oil money from the mideast could buy as many aircraft carriers as one might want, the carriers could not be manned and staffed under the Islamic cultural dispensation.


I doubt if the events of September 11th were caused primarily by our favoritism of Israel in our foreign policy. ( I do not deny that the presence of the state of Israel symbolizes for many Arabic people the unwanted presence of a westernized nation within the once all-powerful Arabic Ecumene—a symbol of loss and helplessness.) For many years the Soviet Union was helpful to the Israelis and no one strongly held it against the Russians. Rather the attack on September 11th was caused mostly by a sense of frustration in the face of overwhelming threats. Islamic culture is continuously threatened by the moral decadence of a once, but no longer, religious West. Furthermore, Islamic culture cannot adopt western technology, industrialization, production, invention, and warfare, without encouraging depersonalization, specialization, technological obsession, and other behaviors which turn man from love of man to love of machines and external processes in general.

The conspirators who committed the murderous acts were likely nurtured by a reductionist extraction from Islam and attempted to recover their lost humanity through a heroic death. This is precisely what Philosopher Eric Voegelin describes so well:

"A further reason for my hatred of . . . ideologies is quite a primitive one. I have an aversion to killing people for the fun of it. What the fun is, I did not quite understand at the time, but in the intervening years the ample exploration of revolutionary consciousness has cast some light on this matter. The fun consists in gaining a pseudo-identity through asserting one's power, optimally by killing somebody—a pseudo-identity that serves as a substitute for the human self that has been lost. . . . A good example of the type of self that has to kill other people in order to regain in an Ersatzform what it has lost is the famous Saint-Juste, who says that Brutus either has to kill other people or kill himself. . . .
Autobiographical Reflections, Chapter 14
Concerning Ideology, Personal
Politics, and Publications, pp 46-47

We do not know how these men lost their humanity. I have a suspicion, however. The fact that some of the conspirators met in Las Vegas and procured the services of "lap-dancers" suggests the answer. They had probably all, to a man, fallen out of their Muslim identity into a no-man's land of addiction to Western life style and a simultaneous deep aversion to the Western preconditions for leading that life—hating what they had become and desperate beyond the love of life.


The best hope for Islam will be if the West is reconverted to Christianity in the sense that Christian values, which already belong expressly or inchoately to the great masses of people in the West, are reaffirmed by the intellectual and political leadership classes. By re-centering life around the worship of God and devotion to the family, we would no longer allow technology and blatant sensuality to threaten ourselves and others. This means concretely that the long term solution to the tensions between the West and Islam are to be resolved primarily through prayer, because God's Grace is so overwhelmingly beautiful that few would want to resist it.

October 2001


1. This friend is Ms. Maryam Sharief, an Oxonian of deep learning and memory, spiritual depth and richness—a person whom I feel privledged to know. Return to Text.

2. I asked my friend, Peter von Sivers, Professor of Islamic studies at the University of Utah, to review this paper when it was virtually completed. He made a number of helpful suggestions which have been incorporated into the text. In one area though, he feels strongly that there is a need to mention a disturbing trend in Islam over the last two hundred years—in other words, since European intervention in the middle East became important after the French occupation in Egypt under Napoleon.

I paraphrase him here: In about the year 1800 Sunni Islam was a broad, "catholic" bundle of religious attitudes, such as literalism (what we call "fundamentalism"), legalism ("the outer law") and mysticism ("the inner law"). Since then, state authorities and Islamic reformers have worked diligently to eliminate mysticism from the menu of choices, denouncing it as obscurantist, retrograde, anti-modern, etc.

This loss of the inner law is the predicament of traditionalist Muslims today because in reality, particularly modern reality, there can be no such thing as a complete compendium of rules and regulations for all eventualities. The more elaborate and detailed a moral-legal compendium is made to be, the more arbitrary and stifling it is likely to become. Mysticism before 1800 provided relief from the confining aspects of Sunna by allowing for conscience to decide whether awkward or even unworkable Sunna rules could be dispensed with.

The traditionalist Islam of today no longer offers this safety valve. "At present, most traditionalist Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere consider Sufism, with its special prayers and congregational practices, not a true expression of Islam. They reject Sufism and limit themselves to the observance of Qu'ran and Sunna." It is not difficult to see how a literalist's reaction to the modern dilemma may in some instances lead him to the practice of terrorism. See the excellent overview of the post-1800 fate of mysticism by Elizabeth Sirriyeh, Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999). Return to Text.