Africana Plus

No 13 November 1995.7


Muslim saints

Father Jean Fontaine, from France, is a Missionary of Africa who has lived in Tunisia for the past 40 years. He has a doctorate in and has written extensively on Arabic literature, works at the Institute for Arabic Literature in Tunis and is the director of Ibla, the institute's journal. Father Fontaine was in Toronto recently for a meeting of specialists on the use of the French language in Tunisia.

Father Fontaine stopped over in Montreal to discuss popular misconceptions of Islam and improper use of terminology by the media. He pointed out that the media often use the adjective Islamic to mean two different things: Islamist, which refers to religious extremists, and Muslim or Moslem, which refers to the ordinary faithful of Islam.

He went on to give a few definitions:
- traditionalism: desire to keep religion the way one remembers it;
- fundamentalism: absolute return to Scripture as the only foundation for any innovation;
- Islamism: religious activism with a political aim.

Father Fontaine mentioned that the Islamists accounted for a very small proportion of Muslims.

He described different varieties of Islam:
- official Islam, as defined by the government and generally preached in the mosques and taught in the schools;
- university Islam, a field of academic research, as demonstrated by the many books written in Arabic which introduce Western social sciences into the reading of the Muslim religious heritage;
- spiritual Islam, as practised by groups resembling confraternities, whose life of prayer inspires them to reach out to others, especially the underprivileged;
- popular Islam, for men and for women (there is a difference), involving pilgrimages in honour of local saints called marabouts, and featuring vestiges of pagan practices;
- political Islam, or Islamism.

Father Fontaine found that North Americans often seemed to confuse religion with ethnic group.
He pointed out that the world's one billion Muslims were scattered over a geographical area around the middle of the globe, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Philippines. The largest Muslim populations could be found in Asia, particularly Indonesia and Pakistan.
Arabs constitute a specific ethnic group numbering about 200 million people, roughly 88% of whom are Muslim and 12% Christian.
Islamism, or the extreme activist movement, is resolutely modern. It uses contemporary methods in its day-to-day existence and in its approach to economic development.
Reservations concerning Islamism include its archaic concept of religion and its willingness to resort to violence as a means of achieving power.

On the other hand, the Islam practised by ordinary people contains within itself the seeds of growth and change, as circumstances permit.

And now, what about those Muslim saints?
In the course of my 40 years in Tunisia, I have had the pleasure of living with Muslims, working with Muslims and praying with Muslims, said Father Fontaine. He recounted a number of anecdotes about his Tunisian acquaintances that illustrated the qualities he appreciates in them.

Fathia is a medical doctor. Because of her religious convictions, she often does not charge for her services. She does not think twice about travelling under difficult conditions in order to care for a patient who has no resources but needs medical attention and words of comfort. Her generosity springs out of her Muslim faith and nourishes her prayer life.
Taoufik is an oculist in private practice. When he sees Father Fontaine in his waiting room along with an elderly woman, their long acquaintance prompts him to offer his services out of the goodness of his heart.
As for Mongi, the lawyer, a true defender of the widow and the orphan, he does not even bother counting the amount on which he will be taxed in any event according to the law.

The final-year class in literature is of great importance in Tunisia. The stakes are high: only one-third of the students will pass the exam and go on to university. A great deal of material is covered, and some instructors find it difficult to get through the entire program. Esma, a teacher of Arabic at this level, takes her job seriously. She offers her students as many extra classroom hours free of charge as she is actually paid for. Most people charge a fee for this service. That Esma has chosen to forgo it is a measure of her dedication.

Farid is the president of a large state-owned Tunisian company. As a manager, he of course ensures that the company prospers and that it fulfills its obligations to the state. But at the same time, he is also concerned about the well-being of the people who work for him. He does not wait for union demands. He beats the union to it by making sure his staff have every possible benefit.

The Tunisian men and women who live this way from day to day are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Islamists. They form a majority of the population. They live out the enduring, universal human values that made it possible for Jean Fontaine to have a genuine encounter with them and be received by them as a privileged guest. Father Fontaine is a sympathetic observer. There are enough people saying bad things about Arabs and Muslims, he points out, for me to say some good things.

Michel Fortin, M. Afr.

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