Matt Popovits is a pretty cool dude. He's a church planter, preacher extraordinaire, and a teacher who takes culture seriously. He's also asking, and tackling, some of the most real, difficult, and talked about questions in his podcast/videocast show "The Spiritual Howcast."
This week Matt and I talked about "Understanding Islam." The 8-minute program takes you through some basics & introduces you to the world of Islam. More than anything else, it's a primer on how you can get to know Muslims beyond the headlines, the books, and the tracts and instead get to know the people of an "other" faith.
Take a listen...
...or, if you're a real religion nerd like me, you can read the entire transcript of my responses below:
1. What are the origins of the Islamic faith? What does the word "Islam" mean?
First, a note about Islam. There is no single, monolithic, “Muslim world.” While we can speak of there being one “Islam” there are many “Muslim worlds” and/or “worldviews.” As Talal Asad said, “Islam is a discursive tradition” that emerges from multiple perspectives and discourses across its global 1.5 billion member population, often determined by local political, social, and cultural contexts which produce diverse communities of mystics, extremists, nominal Muslims, progressives, and more.
So, what I’m saying here represents the vast majority of Muslims, but there may be some, or even many, who would take me to task on these statements or interpretations.
With that said, it is generally agreed that Islam emerged out of the 7th century Middle East when Muhammad, the prophet, sought to introduce an uncompromising monotheism and belief in the one God’s revelation in the Arabian peninsula’s pluralistic and polytheistic tribal milieu.
Muhammad, influenced by Christians and Jews he met as part of the caravan trade, began to speak of his own revelatory experiences — which became the Qur’an — and began to teach of God’s long line of prophets, an ethical responsibility and accountability based on God’s revealed word, and a coming day of judgement.
This message undercut the social, cultural, and political establishment of the day and Muhammad was run out of town, from Mecca to a town to the north called Medina. This sojourn is known as the hijra, or migration, of Muhammad and his followers. It was in Medina that the Muslim community was eventually founded and the term “Islam” initially used to describe the movement. The word “Islam” comes from the Arabic root “aslama,” which means “submission.” Particularly to God.
2. In the Christian faith one is saved through the work of Christ on behalf of mankind. How is one "saved" in Islam? What is the "big idea" of the Islamic faith?
That’s a great question, but, really it’s a bit misguided to talk about “salvation” when it comes to studying other religions beyond Christianity. Each religion has different goals, different problems, different leaders, different texts and discussions.
Of course, our tendency, as Christians, in studying world religions is to familiarize the “other” and the “strange” by making comparisons to our own theology and practice. It’s natural, it’s the oldest trick in the travelers trade. But, too readily familiarizing can obscure just as much as it reveals.
What I’m trying to say is this — is “salvation” the right term for Islam? Is that the goal? I think your “big idea” terminology is a better way to go about this question. The big idea in Islam goes back to the root of the word itself — submission, or perhaps, “surrender.”
Islam, according to the Qur’an — its revealed holy text — and the Hadith — the traditions and teachings of the prophet Muhammad, is the “straight” or “right” path to surrendering themselves in all ways to Allah — the one true God. They do this through right practices such as prayer and alms, right beliefs such as in angels and the proper prophets, right living such as through the law, or Shariah, and right rituals such as fasting and the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.
3. What, in your opinion, is one of the most common misperceptions that Americans, in particular Christians, have in regard to their Islamic neighbors?
Our viewpoint of Muslims is still largely driven by an inherited and compounded “orientalism,” or viewpoint that neatly, but errantly, divides the world up into “East” and “West” (orient and occident) as if one is civilized (the West) and the other uncivilized (the East). This is an artificial boundary we’ve created and it was laid out on the basis of the concept of creating a “them” to define an “us.”
Part of this orientalist perspective on the world that artificially divides up God’s creation is to define the “Orient” and particularly the “Muslim world” as non-Western, premodern, and savage.
We think of Muslims and our thoughts immediately turn to billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers. We dream up images, and consume them on TV, of horrors, harems, and turbaned horndogs. Meanwhile, we picture ourselves as middle class, peaceable, and respectable.
The truth is that Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. They are rich and poor, peaceable and ready to anger (sometimes for good reason), male and female, liberal and conservative.
We may think that all Muslims are “out to get us” with shariah, terror, or their lies, but in truth if you pursue relationships with Muslims you find they are some of the most hospitable people in the world, well-reasoned in their faith, and ready to enjoy your company and kindness.
4. What benefit is there from a person of one faith taking the time learn about a different faith?
I always like to quote Max Müller, for all his faults, who said, "The person who knows only one religion, knows none.”
Learning about another faith, and more importantly, forming friendships with people of different religions is SO important and vital in a world torn apart by misconceptions, forced divisions, and violence.
While education and instruction are good, ending undue negative opinions and actions against Muslims — Islamophobia — will also require relationships, interaction, and experiential exchange between U.S. Christians and Muslim Americans. Not only are Christians compelled to do something by the commands of Scripture and the example of Jesus, but we are liberated to do so as well. For followers of Christ, our identity is not wrapped up in our culture, our creed, our country, or our carefully constructed conception of the “religious other.” Instead, our identity is founded in Christ, and Christ alone. Indeed, it is an essential aspect of Christian faith that we, who were once far off — strangers, aliens, and outsiders — have now been brought near in Jesus. As the apostle Paul put it, “the dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down in Christ, “who is our peace” (Ephesians 2:11-22).
This message is immensely liberating. We, who are no longer defined by our animosity to God and our alienation from his family, likewise no longer need to identify ourselves by our opposition to the other. We are no longer enslaved to cultural constructions of antipathy such as Islamophobia.
So we can look to the example of Jesus and pursue a course of hospitality, collaboration, and faithfulness with our Muslim neighbors and friends rather than worrying about security and/or persecution.