By Dr. Mozammel Haque
"Of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the only one which has been successful at home where it was born, as well as abroad, is Islam. The religion of Muhammad began among the Arabs, and the Arabs have remained overwhelmingly Muslim to the present day," Dr. Ali A. Mazrui, Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Andrew D. White Professor-at-large Emeritus and Senior Scholar in African Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA, said in his Tenth Commonwealth Lecture on "The Power of Language and the Politics of Religion" at the London School of Economics (LSE), London, on 15th May, 2007.
Christianity, Professor Mazrui said, is a religion in exile. "The Christian message failed to flourish among the people to whom it was first revealed - the Jews. The Christian message also failed in the region of its birth - the Middle East. Christianity also failed in the continent of its birth - Asia. Apart from the Philippines, East Timor and perhaps South Korea and the Lebanon, Asia in reality boasts no real Christian nations. In any case, none of these countries is a member of the Commonwealth," Professor Mazrui observed.
Professor Ali Mazrui started his lecture with such paradoxes as to why Muslims are well-presented in the Commonwealth while Arabs are not, and why Christianity is under siege globally while the English language is the dominant international language.
He said, "Europe has been the cradle of the most influential languages in human history; while the Middle East has been the womb of the most influential religions. At its best, language facilitates not only communication but also concord among people. At its worst, religion has produced not only conflict but even large-scale warfare."
Professor Mazrui said, "While Africa invented language, Asia helped to make language sacred. Almost all religious scriptures originated in Asia - the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads of Hinduism; the Tripitaka of Buddhism; the varied words of wisdom of Confucius; the Torah of Judaism; the Christian Bible; and the Qur'an of the Muslim faith - all of them, in locational origins, began in Asia. So if Africa invented language, and Asia made language sacred, where does Europe fits in? Europe universalized language."
Then he defined the a universal language as the following: 1) One which is widely understood in at least twenty countries; 2) Has been adopted by at least ten of them as the main language of national business,3) Has a minimum of 500 million fluent speakers, and 4) Has spread across at least two continents. The indisputable candidates for universal languages are English and French, with Spanish close behind."
After defining the universal language, Professor Mazrui raised the question of religious universalism. Professor Mazrui said, "A religion may be considered universal if: 1) Its message is truly addressed to the human race as a whole; 2) That message has been adopted as the main religious tradition of at least fifty societies, 3) That message has spread to at least two continents, and 4) A universal religion in this sense also needs to have at least half a billion individual followers of that tradition.
"The undisputed universal religions by these criteria are Christianity and Islam. But by other criteria Buddhism and Judaism deserve special attention," Dr. Mazrui said and added, "In Asia the Commonwealth is represented by three out of four largest concentrations of Muslims -- Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and the Muslims of India; Of course Indonesia, the largest Muslim country population is not a member of the Commonwealth. According to some estimates, the largest concentration of Muslims in Africa is not Egypt but Nigeria - and Nigeria is a member of the Commonwealth."
Professor Mazrui also said, "In distribution Christianity is a multi-continental religion. There are Christian nations in Europe; North America, South America, Africa, Oceania and the Caribbean. If Islam is fundamentally an Afro-Asian religion in distribution, Christianity is an Afro-Western religion. Almost all Christian nations are either in the Western world or in Africa. On the whole, Africa is the ultimate arena of both rivalry and potential partnership between Christianity and Islam."
Professor Mazrui said, "Muslims will overtake Christians numerically if Muslims continue to have more children than Christians worldwide, and if the Christian world continues to be secularized to the extent of either atheism or agnosticism. Indeed, according to a recent journalistic report: "Britain may continue to regard itself as a Christian nation. But practicing Muslims likely are likely to outnumber Church-attending Christians in several decades, according to a recent survey by Christian Research, a group that specializes in documenting the status of Christianity in Britain."
Speaking about the linguistic authenticity, Professor Mazrui again observed, "Of the three universal religions - Buddhism, Christianity and Islam - only Islam has remained linguistically authentic. Islam's primary language today is still the language of its original revelation, the Arabic language. Formal prayers all over the Muslim world (salat) are still conducted overwhelmingly in Arabic - five times every day. The Qur'an is the most widely read book in its original language in human history. Every minute of every day there are millions of people reciting some verse of the Qur'an either when greeting each other, or during the five daily prayers, or to use an English poetry, "point a moral or adorn a tale."
While Christianity, according to him, is par excellence a religion in translation. "Until Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Cross, most Christians in the United States had no idea what language Jesus spoke. Large numbers assumed Jesus spoke some kind of English language - something like the quaint idiom of King James' Authorized Version," Professor Mazrui observed.
"While the Qur'an is the most widely read book in its original language in history, the Bible is by far the most widely read book in translation in the history of the written word. In contrast the great majority of Muslims have preferred to read the original Arabic version of the Qur'an, and have the Arabic translated for them by scholars in mosques, in madrasas or more recently by radio, television, video or DVD," Professor Mazrui said.
Professor Mazrui also observed, "Most written translations of the Qur'an are published between the same covers as the original Arabic. A popular approach is to have the Arabic verse on the left side of the page, and its translation next to it on the right side of he same page, with annotations in the footnotes or endnotes. It is almost impossible to buy the whole of the Qur'an totally in translation. With the Bible it is almost impossible to buy it in any other form but translation."
What about Judaism? Can it be regarded as a universal religion? Professor Mazrui said, "Judaism does not meet our criteria of universalism, but it does have some compensating attributes. Judaism has fewer than twenty million followers worldwide, and is the majority religion of only one country (Israel). Judaism is a mother religion. The Jewish Bible is the womb of the Old Testament of Christianity and the womb of Islamic accounts of the ancient Prophets. The Qur'an has a lot to say about Adam and Eve, about King Solomon and King David, about Noah and Moses."
He also said, "The Qur'an covers even more about Jesus - echoing the New Testament, as well as the Old - and has a whole Sura (chapter) on Mary. It is arguable that the Jewish religious impact on the world is more through Christianity and Islam rather than directly through the dissemination of the Torah or the Talmud."
Successful Semitic religion: Christianity
Professor Mazrui's next proposition was: In a global context, the most successful Semitic religion so far in world history is Christianity; the most successful Semitic language is Arabic; the most successful Semitic people are the Jews. In what sense, is Christianity the most successful of the Semitic religions? Professor Mazrui said, "The most obvious is the multi-continental scale of this dominant religion Europe, North America, the Caribbean, South America and nearly half of Africa. It is also the religion of the great majority of the richest nations in the world. The second point is that the institutions of Christianity are among the best organized religious bodies on earth. Its missionary work has immense resources, and a far reach. Great Church leaders like the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are world news in almost every major utterance they make. There is one additional factor which has made Christianity the most successful Semitic religion is the moral impact of Christianity on other religions and cultures."
Successful Semitic language: Arabic
If Christianity is thus demonstrably the most successful Semitic religion in the world, Arabic is the most successful Semitic language, Professor Mazrui said. In what sense? "Arabic has several hundred million native speakers, has spread over at least two continents, has been institutionalized in a League of Arab states with more than 20 members, and has been adopted by the United Nations as an additional official language after the original five languages (English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish)."
Professor Mazrui also said, "Arabic is also the language of 1.2 billion Muslim worshippers spread over at least eighty countries. It is the language of the five daily salat, the language of the Hajj o Mecca, the language of Muslim weddings and Muslim funerals, and of Muslim greetings and salutations, and of many of the rituals of the fat of Ramadhan. This is quite apart from what was mentioned earlier - that the Qur'an is the most widely read book in its original language in human history. And that original language is of course Arabic."
Successful Semitic people: Jews
If the most successful Semitic religion is Christianity, and the most successful Semitic language is Arabic, the most successful Semitic people, according to Professor Mazrui, is Jewish people. "Underlying the Jewish great achievements in modern history, Jews are prominent in US Commercial and financial sectors."
Speaking about the influential positions of Jews in American society, Professor Mazrui quoted from Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State (page 103): "Jews are only 3 percent of the nation's population and comprise 11 percent of what this study defines as the nation's elite. However, Jews constitute more than 25 percent of the elite journalists and publishers, more than 17 per cent of the leaders of important voluntary and public interest organizations, and more than 15 percent of the top ranking civil servants."
Professor Mazrui also quoted from Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab's Jews and the New American Scene (pages 26-27): "During the last three decades Jews (in the United States) have made up 50 percent of the top two hundred intellectuals … 20 percent of professors at the leading universities, 27 percent of high civil servants, 40 percent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington …. 59 percent of the directors, writers, and producers of the 50 top-grossing motion pictures from 1965 to 1982, and 58 percent of directors, writers, and producers in two or more primetime television series."
"The Commonwealth should become not a mutual admiration club but a mutual emulation society, a partnership of learning from each other," Professor Ali Mazrui said and observed, "We need an ecumenical state. Citing the famous saying of the Prince of Wales when he suggested changing the Coronation Oath from "Defender of the faith" to "Defender of faith" he was proposing a historic shift from England's established church to an ecumenical state."
Professor Mazrui said, "It has been estimated that before the end of this century Britain will have more practicing Muslims than practicing Anglicans. Even if Muslim immigration into Britain does not increase at all, Muslims in Britain will continue to have larger families than Anglican. In addition, the pace of secularization among British Christians is much faster than among British Muslims. More and more churches may become empty, while more and more Muslims will seek mosques and other buildings to tend to their increasing numbers."