I started out just wanting to know more about Islam in order to teach more about Islam. My philosophy of teaching is about truth seeking and then truth telling. Teaching can also be a form of peacemaking. Truth isn’t being completely sought or told in painting a portrait of Islam. We tend to always see extremists from far away.
So, I began by reading widely, learned Quranic Arabic to read the text, and began teaching Islam. I have some students who are Muslim and they will take my class because I teach Islam with respect. Their knowledge of Islam may be very deep, but as wide as their zipcode. It’s very local. I came to learn that their own tradition is broader then they thought. People need to know more about Islam. Religious literacy among non-Muslims in society is pretty low.
How did this book come about?
I was encouraged by these students to write a book from the outside of Islam. My scholarly training was not in Islam, so I am not a trained scholar but I could meet the people who are. This book project grew out of it. Non-Muslims tend to know nothing about what is in the Qur'an or about their Muslim neighbors.
What I decided to do was my Muslim neighbors (imams, educators, university professors, Islamic students) to choose one passage from the Qur'an and talk to me about it. I had 25 extraordinary conversations and included them in this book.
What I find fascinating is that when you ask someone what is at the center of their religious experience and bring a listening and sympathetic ear to that conversation, something wonderful and enlightening can happen. That's the aim of this text.
I teach some biblical studies and love the history of biblical interpretation over the centuries. Sacred texts give life, and come to life, in community. I knew the Qur'an gave life to the Islamic community, this book is an opportunity to come to the life of that community.
What new, or surprising, things did you learn as you engaged in these conversations?
One theme that emerged again and again, one not portrayed in the wider media, was that of mercy and compassion. This idea of rahma (mercy) is at the center of the Islamic experience. The fundamental nature of Allah is mercy. As one of the contributors (Mohammad Hassan Khalil) said, the "idea of rahma frames the Qur'an."
That sense of divine mercy overcoming all else came up again and again as a quality of God, as a divine attribute that we as humans are to emulate. Within the Muslim community it lends a strong concern for social justice and externally ones’ dealings with those outside the umma. If the Quran is a vehicle, mercy is the chassis.
Another thing I learned is what I learned from speaking with Muslims from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and global locales. So, I learned that whatever you think Islam is, it’s bigger and wider than that.
Finally, I was overwhelmed by the depth of Muslim hospitality in sharing their personal perspectives with me, with us. Specifically, voices of gender justice from prominent and rising Muslim feminist voices became a real gift. It is stunning to be in the room with these individuals who share a concern for this dimension of human justice and to base it within the Qur'an. They see this text as fundamentally about human equality. Even though there are aspects of their culture and text may seem the other way they are very committed to a reading of the text that is committed to gender equality. They bring learning, creativity, and innovation to their reading of the text. A number of these folks have taken steps of individual personal courage in challenging patriarchal dimensions within the Muslim community.
How do people of other faiths jump in to the Quranic conversation?
The Qur'an is complicated for newcomers. It is not arranged thematically or chronologically. Still, this is the same with the Bible. Imagine picking up Jeremiah. What’s going on here? It’s a complicated text. If you throw the Bible even at Christian students without commentary or tools, it would be difficult. People reading the Gospels feel like it’s a collection of different stories. How do you reconcile it all? You need help and guidance through the text. A community.
We who read our own texts in community may challenge one another, propose what is a faithful reading and what is not. But still, we read it in company and articulate our understanding of it in community. The same happens with Qur'an. One way to read the text is to read it with Muslims. If you don’t want to barge into your local mosque, you can begin by reading this book!
You wrote, "Islam should no longer be regarded as so foreign, as 'the other,' in the West, yet at the same time it should remain distinctive, not to be domesticated in the service of any other religion." Tell me more about that and the idea of the Qur'an as "an American Scripture."
This is an incredibly exciting time to be a Muslim in North America. On one hand, it’s difficult. Try flying, going to an airport. It’s tough, but it’s also exciting. If 100 years ago you were visiting me in Philadelphia or Chicago and you were Roman Catholic and wanted to go to church I could take you to different places based on your ethnicity because of the "center of support" nature of cathedrals for Irish, Polish, Slovak communities, etc.. Now, for the most part that doesn’t hold as much. Distinctly American expressions of Catholicism have emerged.
A similar process is underway among the American Muslim community. There are still Muslim ethnic enclaves. You could choose your mosque based on ethnicity or language (for khutbah), but that is changing right now because the next generation (after the 1960s immigration policy change) are now young leaders in the North American Muslim community. English is their first spoken language. While they know Arabic, Urdu, or other tongues at home, they think, produce, and write in English. They find themselves in a mosque from other places.
Even Sunni and Shi’i pray together in the U.S. They pray together, reflect together, talk together, and in this coming together in conversation they are cross-influencing each other in a new way. They could not meet in their home countries except at the hajj, now they are living in America's cities together and are expressing their Muslim identity in American culture.
I could imagine a critique of this book. Who does this guy think he is? He is not a trained scholar of Islam!
That’s exactly why I did it. I spoke to my neighbors and had memorable, precious, and spiritually enlightening conversations. I am not a trained scholar, and so that means you can go and do the same. I would hope that this book would only be an introduction to a greater conversation, a primer that would inspire non-Muslim readers to go out and have conversations with Muslims themselves.
*To learn more about, or purchase, the book, please visit Baylor University Press's website.
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