Saddam Hussein, holding to the venerable tradition of bending religious imagery to political ends, had a piquant dream last week.
Mr. Hussein, the Iraqi leader who invaded Kuwait in August, reportedly dreamed that the prophet Mohammed told him to withdraw from Kuwait and to turn his missiles away from Arab neighbors.
Whether or not Mr. Hussein decides to follow his vision, he sent a message to millions of Moslems worldwide. Mr. Hussein, who in the past has neither adhered to orthodox Islamic practice nor demurred from slaughtering Moslem opponents, indicated he was both conversant with and subject to the holiest of prophets.
"By invoking Mohammed's authority, [Mr. Hussein] is taking blame for the action but not responsibility for a withdrawal," said Ashraf Ghani, a professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "He himself is also accepting chastisement from the prophet of Islam which will allow him to retain power.
"This [dream] is subject to multiple interpretations on the political level. It shows you are not dealing with a madman but an extremely clever politician who understands the power of religious imagery."
It's almost impossible to imagine a Western leader -- say George Bush or Margaret Thatcher -- tapping into public opinion through a divinely inspired dream. There is no public consensus on religious authority in the West.
That Mr. Hussein used such a tack to float political possibilities underscores the cogency and coherence of the Islamic worldview: Moslems worldwide share a sensibility that doesn't rigorously divide spiritual and material realms.
Despite this common perspective, Moslems comprise a
variegated slice of racial, national and ethnic groups. Their practice is diverse, as customs differ from China to Canada to Qatar. But the 880 million Moslems worldwide are united in their faith in the one God, Allah, and his prophet, Mohammed, and the shared conviction that their path is set by the holy book, the Koran.
Islam -- which means peace, purity and submission in Arabic -- began almost 1,400 years ago in the Arabian Peninsula. Mohammed, who belonged to a nomadic, polytheistic tribe, spent nights in a cave outside Mecca where, according to tradition, Allah revealed religious truths to him. Members of his family were his first converts, but, by the time of his death in 632, Mohammed had established a powerful theocracy in the city of Medina.
After Mohammed's death, his followers split into two factions -- Sunni and Shiite -- divided over who should succeed him. The two camps, which have different ideas of a religious leader's role, are one in their acceptance of absolute monotheism: A Moslem's greatest sin is to worship any God but Allah.
Not surprisingly, Islam resembles and borrows from two other traditions that arose in the Middle East. Like Judaism, Islam is a way of life that prescribes everything from eating to schooling to business practices. Like Christianity, it accepts the divine inspiration of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus.
But Moslems do not believe Jesus is God.
"Islam is one of the three basic monotheistic traditions in the world," said Elizabeth Fernea, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "People who work in comparative religion don't talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition. They talk about the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition or the Abrahamic tradition -- which would include the three faiths which are rooted in the patriarch Abraham."
Still, Jews and Christians have historically been at odds with their Islamic cousins. Moslems and Jews have clashed over historic Palestine for centuries -- although Moslem occupiers were, in the main, more tolerant of Jews than Christians were. Moslems and Christians fought bitterly during the Crusades, when hostile stereotypes emerged that continue to this day.
These characterizations, scholars say, distort both the beliefs and the practices of the world's Islamic peoples.
"When I lecture on Islam, the first question I get is, 'Are Moslems terrorists and are they out to get us?' The second question is, 'What about the role and status of women in Islam?' " said Frederick M. Denny, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "What most Moslems want to do is to live peaceful and quiet lives. They emphasize family values, and they want to pursue legitimate vocations."
Dr. Denny added that it is difficult for those outside Moslem society to understand the role of women -- who generally maintain the domestic sphere.
"Although Moslems admit there needs to be improvement in the status of women, there needs to be an Islamic way of doing it," he said, stressing the need for change in a cultural context. "Even if things aren't right in the households of Islam, they get upset when outsiders butt in."