Learning about Islam

I've been taking time to learn about the religion of Islam.   I'm reading the Quran (Koran) in English translation.  I'm reading material about Islam, and about Islamic-Christian conversation.

I'm trying to learn more because of my Christian convictions.  I'm commanded to love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and my neighbor as myself.  Jesus himself upheld this greatest commandment as the center of the whole enterprise of following him.

Love requires certain commitments of attitude and action, and with respect to the neighbor, that attitude is to seek understanding, and to respect the neighbor's dignity and freedom.  Jesus couldn't have been more clear about that commitment.

So I'm seeking understanding.  Understanding the Muslim neighbor is very important to me right now, because of the very real fear that pervades society; a fear borne of the terrorism carried out in the name of Allah.  People are scared.   I have to deal with fear just like anyone else.  When we are scared, the "fight or flight" impulse takes over, and that's apparent now.

Because of this fear, some are targeting Muslims with hostile speech and acts. This is wrong. It is wrong to condemn all Muslims for the actions of some Muslims.  We are not to bear false witness against our neighbors in this way.

I'm not a naive person.  I watched on TV as those planes hit the World Trade Center, a place I used to frequent with my daughters when we were living in New York during seminary.  I felt horror. I've visited Ground Zero since then, looking at those waters tumbling down black granite walls into the depths of what was once the footprint of the twin towers.

I read a lot of news.  I know about Boko Haram, about Al Qaeda, about ISIS or Daesh.

A little less than a year ago, I was in Southeast Turkey with Christian people who experience persecution as a Christian minority in a Muslim majority nation.  I walked with Fr. Dale Johnson down a street in Midyat where some years earlier a Christian doctor was assassinated in a hail of bullets.  I know what can and does happen there in terms of a steady erosion of the rights of Christians, and know first-hand why hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled the homeland that welcomed Christianity in the very earliest days.  I heard the bishop at Mor Gabriel Monastery lament that they did not experience Islam as a religion of peace.  I believe him.

Then I had a quick tour in Kurdistan in Iraq where I met people who are the victims of the terror unleased by ISIS.  I met them in refugee camps.  I met the Iraqi Christian lawyer who is responsible for the UN's Human Rights efforts in Iraq, and heard from him both as a displaced person and as an advocate for other displaced persons.  He fled Mosul with his wife and daughters when ISIS came in with their culture of terror and death.  He reminded me of the US role in the de-stabilization of Iraq; a situation that helped give rise to ISIS.  I returned from Iraq to Turkey with feelings of sadness and anger; anger at the injustice of it all; sadness at the suffering, and also admiration for the resilience of some of the people I met, and for the generosity of local Christians who are working hard to address the needs of refugees and displaced persons, no matter what their creed or nationality or tribe.

There is a real evil unleashed in the world by these young men who believe that they've been led to slaughter and subjugate and rape in the name of Allah.  I've been near where this evil is taking place.

I don't have many answers to the pressing questions raised by this terrorism in the name of Allah.  There are pressing humanitarian issues; pressing national security issues.  There are pressing military issues.  There are pressing diplomatic issues.  There are pressing moral and ethical issues, and there is always the challenge of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to trouble my conscience and the conscience of any citizen who tries to both follow Jesus and live as a citizen in a pluralistic and secular society.  It's a complicated world.  It was a complicated world in Jesus' day, too, and he suffered as a scapegoat and a victim because - in no small part - he refused to make his kingdom a kingdom of this world.

Following Jesus, I will expect that in this world will be much tribulation, but that there is always the life of God upholding the world and giving life and hope.  Following Jesus, I will believe that God suffers with us, and God is compassionate, and that God will in the end judge those who hurt and destroy in God's name.  I can imagine God's anger at that.  I can also imagine God's restraint of that anger.  I can imagine that because of the witness of Jesus in the event of the resurrection.

What I won't allow myself is the easy out of blaming all Muslims for the terror of Daesh, as seems to be the attitude of some.  I won't allow myself to forget that Daesh (ISIS) targets Muslims as well as Christians.   I will deplore the persecution of Christians.  I will deplore the persecution of non-Christians.   I will expect to live in a nation of laws, by which those who do evil are brought to account.  As a citizen of the United States who expects that public officials will uphold their pledge of office to uphold the Constitution, I will not support religious tests for citizenship or for entry to our country.

I'm finding out for myself what's in the Quran.  I felt motivated by seeing and hearing people generalize about the Quran, sometimes in a way that seemed to manifest no good will toward Muslims.   I want to know what's in it for myself.   "It teaches violence," someone said to me after I mentioned that I had begun reading it.  Well, does it?  What is the overall message I get from reading it?  I'm finding that out for myself.

I'm finding that there is much more to the Quran than these generalizations, just as there is much more to the Bible than the account of Joshua's conquest of the land of Canaan or any of the other passages of the Bible that attribute violence to God or that describe human beings acting heinously.

I know of the Bible being read and interpreted to justify terrible things.  By the same token, there are those who read the Quran to justify terrible things, and this is a problem Muslims must address just as Christians have had to address their own uses of the Bible to justify inhumanity and cruelty and terrible injustice.

So when someone says "Islam teaches so-and-so", I'm asking myself: "says who?" I have to ask that question, just as I have to ask that question when someone says "Christians teach" or "Christians believe" something-or-other." Which Muslim leader is saying that?" I have to ask. "What are other Muslim leaders saying?" It's just too easy to misunderstand otherwise; to mis-represent. I find that within my own extended family of professing Christians are some pretty pointed disagreements about the whole thrust of Christian teaching. I was told recently that I had left the Christian faith because I had written something appreciative about a well-known Buddhist teacher whose writings I've read, whose practical wisdom is profound, and whose appreciation of Christ's message is profound. I was told that Buddhism was of the devil! I couldn't disagree more with my family member! There are Christians I've met whose aim was to bring about a theocracy in America. I couldn't disagree more with that point of view, both as a Christian and as an American who values the Constitution!

There are Muslims who want to establish a caliphate and get  rid of non-Muslims, and they are the threat we're facing.  We must understand, however, that most Muslims do not hold this view and that there are Muslim scholars who tell us that these young terrorists are ill-informed as to their own Holy Book and the traditions of interpretation of Islam.

Within Islam, Islamic scholars read the Q'uran and the Hadith (the tradition of sayings of the prophet) and the various traditions of Islamic jurisprudence, with a view to interpreting Islam for our present day.   Those scholars have the task these days of articulating a way of being Muslim that is in opposition to the terrorist element in the Islamic world, and to help Muslims understand how to practice submission to God in the context of pluralistic societies.  I'm trying to learn more about how this work is going on in the world.

Within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there are those who espouse the way of violence. The futility and blasphemy of this has been addressed by those such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose recent book "Not in God's Name" made clear that God does not countenance our violence.  It is not insignificant that Rabbi Sacks draws on the thought of a Christian named Rene Girard to help make his case.  Girard's influence on Christian theology in the last twenty years has been considerable, leading to deep consideration by Christian theologians of Christian complicity in violence and the resources of the Gospels to address and correct our error.

All of this is to say that I am trying to approach the understanding of Islam in today's world with clear-eyed realism, but also with hope that through all this struggle and confusion we might finally arrive at a more gracious place as children of Abraham.  Terror has no place in this future.  Those who insist on it are delusional and are creating their own hell.  God loves all God's creatures, and does not coerce.

We won't get toward the future we want by categorically misrepresenting people and their views.  We won't get there by writing off a whole religion with easy stereotypes.  We can't wish away the world's Muslims, nor should we.  They are our neighbors, as the teaching of Jesus clearly implies.  We won't get there by allowing ourselves to be victims of demagoguery.

Somehow, I have to find the way forward that involves making peace wherever it is possible to make peace.  "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all," said the Apostle Paul (Romans 12:18).  Somehow, I have to find my way beyond fear, because fear causes human beings to make terrible decisions.  The message of the angels is always "fear not."

I find in reading the Quran alongside our own Bible that my own gratitude for the witness of Jesus grows. I'm respectful of a tradition that teaches submission to God, but I'm personally grateful for a vision of God who is Love.  That's the great witness of Christianity to the world.  I hope I can live up to it somehow as I grow.  I hope that Christians can embrace the love of Jesus which allows us to love our Muslim neighbors.