Religious Leadership in the 21st Century:
How Are We to Avoid a Clash of Cultures?”

Suheil Laher

A clash of cultures presupposes that there are two (or more) distinct entities (cultures) that are headed on a collision course towards one another. In response to Huntington’s theory of a clash of civilizations, numerous writers and intellectuals have pointed out the fallacy of portraying a culture as monolithic.1 Nevertheless, such mistaken generalizations are often perpetuated in people’s minds2, and such perceptions can themselves become self-fulfilling, especially when tunnel vision is given free reign to construct singular identities3 that marginalize or ignore what peoples have in common. Through such false opposition, in conjunction with political and other circumstances, a collision may thus occur. In a physical collision, momentum is always conserved while kinetic energy is usually not4. Likewise, a civilizational clash cannot thwart or expedite the future course of the world as already known to God, but the devastating loss of collective human energy and progress that would result clearly dictates that we try our utmost to prevent such a confrontation. In an age where items such as honor killings, terrorism and stoning often dominate media portrayal of Islam, one might ask: What resources and guidance can be gleaned from Islam to this end? What scriptural and historical data can it contribute to a vision of religious leadership that makes our contemporary world a better, more productive place?

The Qur’an teaches the common origin – and hence equality – of human beings, and intimates that cultural and racial diversity should be positive forces rather than barriers.

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an, 49:13]5

With the exception of customs antithetical to basic Islamic precepts, Islam has found no objection to accommodating and accepting foreign cultures. Centuries of Muslim civilization absorbed elements of Persian, Indian and other cultures into a synthesis that came to take on its own identity6. Islamic civilization, in turn, contributed to the intellectual growth of other cultures. We are even told that, “Copernicus read heliocentric theories in Arabic during his studies at the library of Padua”7. Jews, Christians and Muslims together translated scientific and philosophical texts in Muslim Spain.8 Jews in Muslim lands wrote Arabic in Hebrew script, and Hebrew poetry flourished under the influence of Arabic. In a fascinating expression of “cultural symbiosis”, we find that, “In the later Middle Ages it was common to write alternately one stanza in Hebrew and one in Arabic, and even in a third or fourth language”9.

We recall this not merely in fruitless nostalgia, but to motivate ourselves through a reminder of what sort of things are possible if we apply ourselves. While extremist voices from both sides might call for isolationism, or even indiscriminate violence towards the other10, reality dictates that things must be otherwise. We live in a global village, and peaceful co-existence of diverse peoples has become a necessity. Such efforts may well start on a small-scale, but the hope is that they would be contagious. Our friend, Dr Randolph, had these sentiments in mind when he established the shared Religious Activities Center here at MIT.

I may venture that the Muslim minority in the West is perhaps strategically poised to contribute to efforts of this kind. There are today many Muslims who are born and bred in the West, and look on its civilization as their own, while simultaneously identifying as Muslims. Sociologist Peggy Levitt argues that such “bicultural” people “could be the best diplomats for moderating … conflict,”11 but as a Muslim theologian I must point out that such activity finds scriptural support too, and as such deserves to be taken up by Muslim leadership.

You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.” [Qur’an, 3:110]

And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.” [Qur’an, 5:2]

And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.” [Qur’an, 21:107]

The mercy that epitomizes the Islamic message can be expected to reach and benefit humankind through positive engagement, not through the fostering of hatred and resentment, nor through "an Islamic order reduced to a penal code, stripped of its humanism, aesthetics, intellectual quests, and spiritual devotion."12

Muslims staying in this country need to maintain their identity, but further to benefit from the environment here by re-engaging America, contributing to society at large, standing up for all that is good and right, and cooperating with others who seek the same goals. The Prophet Muhammad has said, "By Allah, he does not have [true] faith….he whose neighbor is not safe from his mischief."13 He also said, "Gabriel continued to advise me concerning [the rights of] the neighbor, until I thought he would make him inherit."14 In today’s world of rapid communication and travel, we are all neighbors, but the term still has a special connotation with respect to those in our immediate communities. Indeed, a British Muslim academic has observed that today, “We are connected to every aspect of this planet through communication technology but we have lost touch with our neighbors in the process.”15 If we cannot get along productively with even our immediate communities, then there is little hope for the world. If, however, we can engage fruitfully with them, then even if it is only a drop in an ocean of global strife, it is a worthy start. We might not be able to save the world, but that is no excuse for not making our own contribution. Indeed, according to Muslim teaching, we are rewarded or liable more for our sincere intentions and efforts than for results, which are not fully in our control.

One of the major objections raised to Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory is that it confuses religion with culture, and at this point it is appropriate that I address the relationship between the two, which I feel is particularly important for religious leaders. I maintain that peaceful co-existence and cooperation should be our general rule in interactions between cultures as well as between religious groups. Indeed, the first constitution of an Islamic state, ratified by the Prophet Muhammad in Madinah, refers to the Muslims and Jews of Madinah as an ummah16 (nation, the word commonly used nowadays to signify the global Muslim community specifically).

Joint social activism, such as that advised in the hadith, “Free the captives, feed the hungry and visit the ill,” is already the subject of much interfaith work in our communities. This is positive, but we must also strive to facilitate honest discussion and dialogue between religions with a view to better understanding of the other. As religious studies scholar W. H. Capps observes, "The pretense of knowing all about some other religions because one is devoted to one's own should be recognized as the arrogance it most surely is."17 The relationship between religions is something that has long drawn the attention of theologians, scholars and historians, and in today's global context of increased mutual awareness of and interaction between religions, the subject is of still greater practical relevance. Without detracting from the importance of peaceful co-existence, I assert that it behooves every individual to ponder upon the theological questions in the context of their own spiritual quest, and that indeed, that is ultimately the more important dimension of such inquiry. French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger observes that, “the need for meaning proliferates in modernity”, and yet in this hyper-media age, people are saturated with the immediacy of information, at the expense of depth and context.18

Huntington has proffered that among the factors contributing to a clash of civilizations is that both Islam and Christianity are teleological, universal and missionary in their outlook. In response, it is useful to bear in mind that some measure of universalism and absolutism is an inevitable consequence of a belief in the phenomenon of particular revelation -- that God has explicitly sent communication to mankind through prophets. The problem is not one of exclusive truth-claims in themselves, but rather of truth claims that presume, "a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation,"19 and which can then lead to bigotry and violence. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force20. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged.”21 Jefferson himself believed that religion can have access to the public sphere, but only in as far as it resorts to reason, rather than irrationality or privileged status, to make its case. Certainly, proselytization based on tricksterism, and other unjustified strategies provoking resentment, must be denounced. At the same time, inter-religious dialogue should not degenerate into a mere nonchalant, placating, sycophantic social exercise. In the words of the late Professor John Clayton, "the otherness of the Other must be preserved…. but not at the price of abandoning public contestability of religious claims."22 "Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,"23 declared Jefferson, but we may note that this pre-supposes an individual who is sincere and resolved. These are qualities that we, as religious leaders should inculcate in ourselves, and also help to nurture in others who consult us in the course of their own spiritual quests.

In reality, such soul-searching applies not only to purely theological matters of belief, but also to matters of law and practice, more so in the Jewish and Muslim contexts. It is particularly appropriate for me to mention here that Muslims need to repudiate the usurped right of their misguided and extremist co-religionists to define (or perhaps I should say ‘mis-define’) the religion for them, as I have alluded to earlier.

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives.” [Qur’an, 4:135]

This is not to advocate a religious anarchy, in which each individual defines Islam for himself. Rather, qualified leadership is essential, and effective Muslim leaders must be both representative of and relevant to their communities.24 They must also be steeped in the “dignity and nobility”25 of the time-honored Muslim tradition of well-rounded knowledge coupled with piety.26 The Arabic term imam signifies not only a leader but an exemplar and role-model.

At the same time, not even a qualified and capable religious leadership can substitute for the individual conscience. Everyone is, in a sense, a religious leader over his/her own soul, and over “the few cubic centimetres inside your skull”27

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen: “There is a time for peace, a time for dignity, and a time for self-determination. And that time is now.”28 May we rise to the challenge.


  1. Avnery, Uri, Muhammad’s Sword,, 25 September 2006, last accessed 01 October 2007.

  2. Capps, W.H., Religious Studies – The Making of a Discipline, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

  3. Clayton, John, Thomas Jefferson and the Study of Religion – An Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of Lancaster on Wednesday 18 November 1992.

  4. Collins, John J., Does the Bible Justify Violence? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

  5. Goitein, S. D. , Jews and Arabs, Mineola: Dover, 2005.

  6. Hervieu-Léger, Danièle, Religion as a Chain of Memory, Rutgers: New Brunswick, 2000.

  7. Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, ed. M. al-Saqqa et al, Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-`Arabi, 1997.

  8. Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982.

  9. Lampman, Jane, How Religion Forges Global Networks in Christian Science Monitor,, 28 August 2007, last accessed 01 October 2007.

  10. Malik, Aftab (ed.), The State We Are In, Bristol: Amal, 2006.

  11. Orwell, George, 1984,, last accessed 05 October 2007.

  12. Safi, Omid, I And Thou in a Fluid World: Beyond ‘Islam Versus the West’ in Voices of Change, Westport: Praeger 2007.

  13. Said, Abdul Aziz & Sharify-Funk, Meena, Cultural Diversity in Islam, Lanham: University Press of America, 2003.

  14. Said, Edward, The Clash of Ignorance,, last accessed 01 October 2007.

  15. Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, Islam in Modern History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

  16. Taylor, Charles, The Collapse of Tolerance in The Guardian,, 17 September 2007, last accessed 01 October 2007.

  17. Public Opinion in Iran and America on Key International Issues,, last accessed 25 May 2007.

  18. Translation of the Meanings of the Glorious Qur'an, Saheeh International,, last accessed 05 October 2007.

1 Paul Berman, in his Terror and Liberalism, argues that there are no longer distinct cultural boundaries. Homi K. Bhabha, the postcolonial theorist, coined the term “hybrid” to describe identities in modernity, and Edward Said echoes this, in his response to Huntington, by describing identities today as “hybrid, fluid and overlapping.” [Edward Said, The Clash of Ignorance,, last accessed 01 October 2007.]

2 Charles Taylor, in his recent article, in The Guardian, entitled The Collapse of Tolerance (, 17 September 2007, last accessed 01 October 2007) uses the term “block thinking” to describe such generalizations.

3 See: Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

4 For the sake of accuracy, and since we are at MIT, it should be pointed out that momentum is always conserved in a closed system, while kinetic energy is typically not conserved in macroscopic systems.

5 This, and all subsequent translations of Qur'anic quotes, are taken from the Saheeh International, Translation of the Meanings of the Glorious Qur'an,, last accessed 05 October 2007.

6 See, for example: Abdul Aziz Said & Meena Sharify-Funk, Cultural Diversity in Islam (Lanham: University Press of America, 2003) 27.

7 Ibid.

8 See: Uri Avnery, Muhammad’s Sword,, 25 September 2006, last accessed 01 October 2007.

9 S. D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs (Mineola: Dover, 2005), 157.

10 Observe, for example: (1) The calls of some Muslim militants to target Western civilians, and (2) A World Public Opinion poll (Public Opinion in Iran and America on Key International Issues,, last accessed 25 May 2007) that found that 19% of Americans believe that attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are “sometimes justified”, with a further 5% believing such attacks are “often justified.” While these extreme views clearly represent minorities on both sides, they are still a matter of concern.

11 Jane Lampman, How Religion Forges Global Networks in Christian Science Monitor,, 28 August 2007, last accessed 01 October 2007.

12 Eqbal Ahmed, Dawn, cited by Edward Said.

13 Bukhari.

14 Bukhari, Muslim.

15 Dr. Tahir Abbas, Introduction to The State We Are In, ed. Aftab Malik (Bristol: Amal, 2006) xiv.

16 See: Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, ed. M. al-Saqqa et al (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-`Arabi, 1997) 2/115-8. The entire constitution has been published in English translation by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah with the title, The First Written Constitution in the World (Lahore: Sh Muhammad Ashraf, 1968).

17 W. H. Capps, Religious Studies – The Making of a Discipline (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 330.

18 Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory (Rutgers: New Brunswick, 2000).

19 John J. Collins, Does the Bible Justify Violence? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004) 32.

20 Compare with, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion…. ” [Qur’an, 2:256]

21 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982) 160.

22 John Clayton, Thomas Jefferson and the Study of Religion – An Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of Lancaster on Wednesday 18 November 1992, 25.

23 Thomas Jefferson, The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, xviii, cited by Clayton, 5.

24 Dr. Tahir Abbas, Introduction to The State We Are In, ed. Aftab Malik (Bristol: Amal, 2006), xiii-xiv.

25 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957) 152.

26 This is a central assertion made by up-and-coming British scholar Aftab Malik in The State We Are In. He cites that among the qualifications listed in an Ottoman-era job posting for the Grand Mosque in Istanbul were mastery of Arabic, Latin, Turkish and Persian, mastery of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian scriptures, and mastery of physics and mathematics up to teaching standard. Malik, The State We Are In, 27.

27 George Orwell, 1984, Part 1, Chapter 2,, last accessed 05 October 2007.

28 Omid Safi, I And Thou in a Fluid World: Beyond ‘Islam Versus the West’ in Voices of Change (Westport: Praeger 2007) 5/199.