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 . . .”