Islam, to a Western audience, seems more like a political ideology than a religion, yet its followers say they also find spiritual fulfillment in their faith.
Michael Wolfe, an American convert who recently made a much-acclaimed television documentary on the prophet Muhammad, says Westerners must not forget that Islam also produced Sufi saints, who wrote some of the best spiritual literature in the world. But he adds that his fellow Muslims sometimes "confuse political issues with their religious beliefs."
Mr. Wolfe, a writer born of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, says he converted because he found spiritual fulfillment in Islam. "I did not want to 'trade in' my culture. I wanted access to new meanings," said Mr. Wolfe, adding that he is very comfortable being "both an American and a Muslim."
"Above all, I wanted clarity and freedom," he said. "I did not want to trade away reason simply to be saddled with a dogma. The more I learned about Islam, the more it appeared to conform to what I was after."
Yet many in the Islamic world complain that their religion has become dogmatic. "They do not think and they do not want you to think," said Asma Jehangir, a special United Nations envoy on human rights.
Miss Jehangir -- who founded Pakistan's first all-female law office and is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's most prestigious human-rights honor -- recently rejected an offer to be the first female judge on Pakistan's Supreme Court, preferring to work outside "the system."
She thinks Islam "needs to be revitalized" to meet the intellectual challenges confronting it in the 21st century. Asked what she would suggest to improve Islam's image in the world, Miss Jehangir replied: "Separation of religion and politics."
"As long as people can use religion to justify their political motives, we will continue to have problems," she said.
Maulana Ahmed Javed, a religion scholar based in Karachi, Pakistan, and author of several books on Islam, agrees.
"Politics is mundane," said Mr. Javed, who is Muslim. "Religion is profound. It gives you an identity, a sense of belonging. Mixing religion and politics hurts religion.
"We have not done any service to religion by bringing it down to the level of politics. In politics, you make mistakes. Your policies fail, and when you mix politics and religion, your failure also reflects upon your religious beliefs."
But Karen Armstrong, a leading Western scholar on Islam, says politics always has played a key role in Islam. In her book, "Islam," the former Catholic nun from a British convent argues that unlike other prophets, Muhammad had to run the day-to-day affairs of the state he founded in the Arabian city of Medina 1,400 years ago. In 10 years, his city-state became a huge empire.
Thus, from the beginning, Muhammad and his successors had to engage in statecraft, and that's why many Muslims expect their religious leaders also to guide the affairs of the state.
Also, when Muslims look back at their history, they find many religious figures -- like Hussain, the grandson of Muhammad -- who were tortured and killed by secular monarchs because they spoke for the people. That's why many Muslims failed to understand when told that mixing religion with politics was bad.
Miss Armstrong, who has written a half-dozen books on Islam, Christianity and Judaism, said: "A basic message of the Koran is to create a united community and share the wealth" -- both highly political ideals. That's why, she added, "when Western capitalism was introduced in the East in the last few decades, Iran and other Muslim countries rebelled."
But she also reminds Muslims that Western nations have succeeded in bringing prosperity to their citizens, and "the challenge for Muslims ... is to come to terms with the success of the secular West."