A kinder, gentler Islam

I’m comfortable in a lot of different cultural settings, but I confess that I’m still a little uneasy in Moslem contexts. I’m not at all afraid for my safety; it’s just that I haven’t been in any Islamic contexts long enough to feel totally at ease about how not to be offensive. All the interactions I have had with followers of Quran have been very good, there just haven’t been that many. (I spent a week – mostly as a tourist – in Tunisia, but I recall longer conversations with with Moslem traders when I was in high school in West Africa)

On the flight from Nairobi to Dubai (back in August), I sat next to a delightful family man named Muhammad. Despite our very different religious beliefs, he and I share generally similar family orientations and geographical life histories. He was born in Uganda, did all his primary schooling in Kenya before moving to Canada for University. He also lived for a few years in the Washington, DC area (then Orlando, FL) before moving back to Mombassa (Kenya) where most of his family lives. He was talking to his kids on the phone about the way I would talk to mine. Even our accents are similar. Currently he works on documentaries aimed primarily at Americans to educate people about Islam and try to dispel some of the misconceptions it. Here is a website of his posters – Discover Islam.

Anyway, Mohammed seemed like such a nice guy that I took advantage of the time to ply him with all the difficult questions – Islam as a violent religion, jihad, view towards apostates, etc. One of the things that struck me about this his responses is that he encourages the same kind of hermeneutic that we often do with the Bible: “e.g., you have to carefully read the texts in their original context.” (Eventually, we tapped out all my questions and settled into the newly-released Caspian movie.)

On the flight back from London, I sat next to a Pakistani businessman (pharmaceuticals). As soon as he found out I was doing “research in religion,” he said, “the problem with Pakistan is that people don’t truly follow the Koran.” My mind immediately saw that meaning two completely opposite things, so I asked him what he meant. “Take for example alms,” he replied. “If we only followed the charge to give [I forget the percentage of income] as the Quran commands, there would be more money in circulation and our economies would be doing so much better. . .[Later] It’s those militants from Afghanistan who keep stirring up violence and killing people in our country.”

His English wasn’t that great, and I could hardly hold my eyes open (redeye flight; 3 hours sleep the previous night) so we didn’t talk that long, but I couldn’t help smiling to myself. How many times have I said, “If only Christians truly followed the Bible and Jesus . . . it’s those extremists that really spoil the name of Christians . . .”

6 thoughts on “A kinder, gentler Islam

  1. steph says:

    The Muslims I know would probably object to being called “followers of Mohammed” as much as they objected to the colonials calling them Mohammedans. I think it is very much the religion of Allah and the Quran based on the teachings of Mohammed the prophet.

  2. kay says:

    “followers of Muhammed”.(pbuh) In the context of the blog, it would have been more appropriate to use the word “muslim” However, In the context of the Quran, muslim means “one who submits to God’s will and it is not neccessarily a
    “label”exclusive to those who follow Prophet Muhammed(pbuh). The Quran calls Prophet Abraham(pbuh) as well as the desciples of Prophet Jesus(pbuh) as muslims—meaning those who submit to God’s will–therefore, in that context, it would be acceptable to distinguish “believers” as followers of Prophet Moses(pbuh) or Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)…etc.

  3. steph says:

    Precisely, Muslim means “one who submits to the will of Allah”

    What is (pbuh)?

  4. Ben says:

    Thanks, Steph and Kay. I just learned one more thing, and made the edit.

    I think “PBUH” means “Peace be upon him.”

  5. Faroha says:

    well, I am a Pakistani Muslim woman and I was interested by your talking about doing research in religion? What kind of research, if I may ask? And yes, all sorts of conspiracy theories are rampant in the Muslim world, some true, some untrue, but I agree with one thing. There are many Muslims today who are Muslims by birth only; Islam is a beautiful religion and they ought to delve deeper into it.

    And yes, we confirm more to one who submits his will to Allah. Followers of Muhammad (pbuh) in the sense that he too followed Allah’s will and in this sense, he is taken to be as the perfect man /perfect Muslim i.e.one who submits his will to Allah

  6. Ben says:

    Thanks for your comment, Faroha. There are certainly many people in all religions who are so “by birth only”; it’s surely true about many “Christians.”

    I am afraid that my “research in religion” is actually quite narrow in the global scheme of things. I am trying to write a dissertation on a small portion of the Christian New Testament. Often when I first meet people traveling, I explain it as “research in religion” until we get more comfortable with each other.

    I have however done some study on African traditional religions and their interactions with Christianity. I hope to do more research on this as well as learn more about Islam in the coming years.

    I think it is important to go beyond thinking about religions and people “theoretically” to meeting and befriending people who hold different religious views but are otherwise just like we are.

    Thanks again for commenting.

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