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ISLAM RISING : A New Vision for Mohammed's Faith


CAIRO — In the chilly half-light before dawn there is a furious chirping of invisible birds that gives way, as the sun breaks in the east over the tombs of ancient pashas, to the ear-splitting sound of a thousand mosques in a city as old as time.

"God is great," the muezzins proclaim, their words amplified to rock-concert proportions through the city's narrow and winding streets, a celebration of holiness at 70 decibels.

The vacant streets begin moving, and what was at first a slow trail of sleepy worshipers becomes a parade, and then a mob. Thousands move through the gathering dawn, pushing through a ubiquitous wall of sound that proclaims, with the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a message of obedience redeemed: "God fulfilled his oath and supported his worshiper."

Here is one of the most cosmopolitan and secular cities in the Arab world, an urban extravaganza that embraces everything from tawdry belly-dancing clubs to Pharaonic monuments, a city that for generations of Arabs has been the beloved Sin City of the Middle East.

It is also near the heart of a growing Islamic resurgence that is calling the world's Muslims closer to the roots of their faith than at any recent time in their 1,400-year history.

Islam and its 1 billion adherents--over 10 million of them living as minorities in the West--today constitute a powerful international political and cultural force that stands to redefine the West's relationship with the Third World, challenge its conceptions of progress and set the parameters of the new world order.

In recent months, Islam has captured headlines with Muslim electoral gains in Algeria, Jordan and Kuwait and bombings by Islamic extremists in New York and Cairo. Yet behind the headlines, the more important reality is the way in which the faith is increasingly weaving itself into the everyday lives of Muslims from Africa to Asia, from New Jersey to Manila, in whom a renewal of an ancient faith is providing a new source of cultural identity and political action in a world of dizzying change.

In the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, new Koranic schools have opened to replace the secular institutions of the Communist era, and in freewheeling Jordan, alcohol is no longer served on intra-Arab airline flights. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia is flirting with the implementation of Islamic law while the Philippines staves off the threat of secessionist wars by setting up an autonomous haven for Muslims.

From Tunisia to Jordan, young Islamic activists are winning majorities in local student associations, trade unions and municipal councils, and mosques are so overflowing in Egypt that the faithful are setting up prayers in basements, back rooms and sidewalks.

This resurgence is little understood in the West, whose images of Islam spring from the 1979 Iranian revolution and its angry crowds chanting "Death to America," or later from Lebanon, where a generation of Islamic militants dealt death and terror to Westerners who ventured near the heart of Lebanon's civil war.

Indeed, it is Islam's historic association with the sword that probably makes some Westerners shudder when they see the words "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet" emblazoned next to a thrusting blade on the Saudi flag--yet remain indifferent to the words "In God We Trust" on the back of a dollar.

Many Stereotypes

The association of Islam with warring Arab tribesmen, the founders of Islam, is only one of many misconceptions at work today. Arabs in the 1990s are increasingly a minority in the 75-nation "House of Islam," whose largest centers are in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. One-fifth of the world's population, spread across 11,000 miles from western Africa to Southeast Asia, proclaim Mohammed as the last prophet of the heavenly religions.

There are other myths and stereotypes:

* That Islam is "barbarous" because in its strictest form it advocates such punishments as beheading, amputations and stoning for crimes. In fact, only Saudi Arabia, Iran and occasionally Sudan practice these Hudood punishments, and the matter-of-fact beheadings in front of Riyadh's Grand Mosque, complete with a plastic sheet laid out on the tile and a waiting ambulance, are hardly more barbaric than the electric chair. Most citizens, from taxi drivers to university professors, applaud them and point out to critics the difference between Riyadh's crime rate and New York's.

* That the dour face of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pronouncing death on apostates, represents the bulk of the Islamic clergy. Try Egypt's wise-cracking TV cleric, Sheik Mohammed Sharawi, who sits cross-legged on the floor each Friday night and cheerfully interprets the Koran for millions of viewers.

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