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Book review: Islam in Retrospect

I was browsing our local library--one of the best in the nation, by the way--when I stumbled onto a 793 page monster of a book on Islam that grabbed my attention. That's with the footnotes, FYI. The main text itself runs about 600 pages. Maher S. Mahmassani taught at Lebanese University Law School and the Arab University Law School. The full title is Islam in Retrospect: Recovering the Message. And it's filed under the duel headings of Current Affairs and Religion. Published in 2014, it's still every bit relevant.

The book is a fairly deep, somewhat Qur'an-based exploration of Muslim history and culture. And theology Ultimately, the book is about separating out Islamic culture and politics from the religious message. The closest example I can think of for someone coming into the book without much knowledge about Islam is that it would be like trying to explain modern Western society based on an examination of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. Mahmassani uses that very example, in fact, of Islam going through some of the religious wars that Christianity suffered through to gain tolerance, equality, etc.. Just as Muslims themselves sometimes confuse Islam with anti-Westernism, people in the West often confuse political Islam or Islamic history with Islam itself. This confusion, of course, directly leads to today's political rhetoric over terrorism and the struggle for better government in Muslim nations. It obviously ignores the basic truth that Muslims are numerous in Western nations and find no incompatibility with concepts like pluralism or egalitarianism.

Mahmassani argues in three large sections that Islam is: 1) universal 2) secular 3) progressive. And he explains each in detail on everything from relations with Jews and Christians to women's rights and the separation of church and state. He argues that Islam is, above all, a rationalist message that is in no way at odds with modernity. So much of current Islam, he argues, stems from anti-Western bias that tries to root out Western influence. Islam, when separated from the goals of fundamentalist state formation or micromanagement of belief, is a very thoughtful and freedom-loving religion that encourages...pluralism.

Of course, the idea of a pluralist Islam is far from the minds of many Americans who think only of ISIS or Al Qaeda. And there's a push from the American right wing to conflate all Muslims with what they see as a violent foundation to the faith. In essence, the debate over whether or not terrorists acting in the name of Islam are actually Muslims isn't so far off. Mahmassani is arguing that these groups violate the Message of Islam even if they are acting within a framework of Muslim culture. But Islamic culture isn't necessarily Islamic. Follow? By that we mean that inner theological conflicts over Arab-centric visions for government or language, say, are at odds with the universality of Islam as standing for freedom from coercion. If Islam as a Message (of equality and tolerance) applies to all people, it needs to be less Arab-centric. It's not all that different from the concept of lessening the influence of Rome for Christians back in the day. If the Catholic Church runs your life, it's hard to argue for localized independence. Remember, one of the most revolutionary things to happen in Western Civilization was the translation of the Bible from Latin into German, English, etc.!

Which brings me, finally, to Wheaton College where the debate over the hijab and Muslim-Christian monotheism comes to the front. The evangelical argument is more complicated than it appears, I'd say. It looks petty and intolerant from the outside but interior debates about interfaith relations and college politics come into play. But still, I find the controversy a useful jumping-off-point for dialogue about the fairly nerdy concept of monotheistic universality vs specificity. Some Christians are asserting, for example, there is only one God but this differs from the Allah because the Trinity is too different from Muhammad to claim any kind of common link. In short, they're ironically making the same pre-Reformation claim that Catholics could have made. Or that Muslim fundamentalists make today. One's belief in a particular religious message need not force attempted conversion of others nor should it prohibit finding overlapping points of commonality. You may like Nike and they may like Brooks, but surely the greater message in both is that you like running.

The general rule that applies across the board is get beyond your own petty conflicts and love your neighbor unconditionally.