One way to understand the nature of a thing is to consult an encyclopedia, dictionary or textbook. Another way is to investigate it in the wild. Usually the latter shows the former to tend toward the simplistic. Since parameters are limited – just so many words or pages – authors have to limit their scope and selectivity. Investigation of phenomena in the wild tends to be messy and ad hoc, since reality doesn’t come with the neat demarcations we see in books.
Figuring out Islam has been important here in the US for almost a decade now. Sure, there was plenty of curiosity before that, but with the events culminating in and leading from 9/11, Americans have been forced to investigate Islam. We hear that it’s a “religion of peace.” We hear that it’s a movement of barbarians trying to move us back to the 7th century. Or we sit down with our textbooks and learn about “five pillars,” the life of Muhammed, the diversity in the current Islamic world, and the differences between Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Alawite, etc.
Turning toward my own life, I find that textbooks on Christianity sometimes paint a picture of the faith not in accord with my own beliefs and practices. Once I see that the truncated definition of Christianity differs from what I see in practice, I wonder if the truncated version of Islam (and other “religions”) found in textbooks is as helpful as I’d been led to believe.
Here’s a story out of Saudi Arabia. A couple of young guys help an elderly widow. The whole lot of them are arrested, sentenced to prison and lashings for breaking the rules of gender segregation. I see two key behaviors here. First, there is the care shown for a widow. Second, there is the punishment for mingling. Is either of these a pointer toward the nature of Islam? Might we understand these two young guys who show compassion to an elderly widow – who (troublingly for themselves in the light of the rules) was unrelated – as an instance of the ethos of Islam? If so, we could take Islam as teaching care for the unfortunate.
Or might we take the prosecution for mingling as a pointer toward the nature of Islam? Should we infer that it’s ok to let widows starve, according to Islam, as long as we remain completely pure? While they could both – or neither – be pointers in that direction, the combination of the two strikes my American sensibilities as an odd combination. The Muslims I have known came down more on the side of compassion than on the side of prosecution. I’d like to think that the action of the two helpful young men shows the true nature of Islam and that the action of the Saudi religious police is simply Saudi tribalism and misogyny at work.
The thing is, however, it’s not for me to say which – if either – is the true face of Islam. It;s not my “game.” I have no authority. While I have to choose my actions in accord with my expectations of what people will do, I am not in a place to define Islam for Muslims. But they are. When I claim to represent Jesus, I have to watch myself. I don’t want to do anything that would either cause people to think less of him or serve as a barrier to people coming to faith in him. With that commitment added to my role as a pastor and scholar, I am part of an ongoing argument (smile!) about the nature of this enterprise we call Christianity. In the same way, Muslims, as participants in the Muslim tradition, are engaged in a similar ongoing argument. Who will win? The question of “winning” over simplifies things and tends to assume an outsider’s point of view. As an outsider to the Islamic tradition, I would say that they have some work to do if they – as a tradition, not merely as individuals or as groups within – want to live with peace and respect toward people of other traditions. What will they do with it? Time will tell.