Some neoconservatives, Christian fundamentalists and right-wing Jews insist that a “clash of civilizations” is underway with Islam – and that peaceful coexistence is not an option. But Rev. Howard Bess, a Baptist, sees hope from fair-minded scholarship about the Bible and the Qu’ran.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Every Sunday I lead an adult Sunday School discussion class. Just now we are reading and discussing Stephen Prothero’s book, God Is Not One.
The title might be a bit unsettling to some, but it makes a point. When a religious person says “My God is one and one only, and there is no other God,” dialogue dies in a world that is desperately in need for gracious communication. Prothero is determined to initiate and encourage respectful argument.
I am a Christian and my commitment to Christ is fixed. Prothero does not ask that I change my mind about my faith. However, he does ask that I become familiar with other faiths and be fair in my understanding of them.
The first challenge in the book is Islam. In order to meet the demand for fairness, I pulled my copy of the Qu’ran from the shelf with a commitment to read the Qu’ran entirely. I have begun a process.
I have read, studied and interpreted my own special volume, the Bible, for a lifetime. I become annoyed when people misquote, misrepresent and tear from context the words of the Bible.
I am especially sensitive about reading the Bible in the context in which it was written. I always want to know who wrote it, when did the person write it, to whom were the words directed, what was the context. I have found that if I ask these basic questions, the Bible makes more sense and its messages are clearer.
If this is a reasonable way to approach my special book, should I not give the same effort to reading the Qu’ran?
According to Muslim tradition, the Qu’ran has no author other than Allah, the common Arabic word for God, with Allah’s words passed down to the prophet Muhammad.
Muhammad was a bright, thoughtful man who was an illiterate. He could neither read nor write. The tradition is that Allah spoke the sacred messages to Muhammad, word for word, line by line, verse by verse. Muhammad repeated the words to other people, the words were shared, and eventually they were written down in Arabic.
The message of Allah became fixed for all time. In the faith of Islam, Muhammad was the final prophet. Revelation was completed and contained wholly in the Qu’ran. It would be tempting to move on from Muhammad, but my curiosity has been tweaked. Who was Muhammad?
Out of our growing discussions, Darlene went to the shelves of our library to see what we had. We were surprised. We actually had some good material, not read thoroughly and certainly not digested for our present dialogues. I dived into Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad, a Prophet for Our Times. My reading table is becoming cluttered, but my understanding is growing.
Muhammad was born in 570 CE in the city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. As a child he was orphaned. Besides that, we know almost nothing of his childhood or early manhood.
During the years of his growing up, Arab tribalism was still the basic social and political structure of Arabia. The basis of ethics and morality was the good of the tribe. Religion was not well defined, and no God was greater than the good of the tribe.
The traditional life of the nomadic tribe was very difficult with constant conflict between tribes for water and grazing land. Wars and killing were endless and people lived by a conscience trained only by the survival ethic of the tribe.
Some tribes drifted into populated areas but kept their tribal identities. The city of Mecca had become a population center and came to be dominated by successful businessmen and traders. Many Arabs made the transition from herders to businessmen.
The presence of a highly successful clan of Jews added to the tensions of the City. Mecca had become a center of both great wealth and great poverty. Outside of the tribe there was no concern for the sick, the elderly or the impoverished.
What made Muhammad different is a matter for speculation. He became one of the successful businessmen, accumulating wealth but never enslaved to his wealth.
For contemplation, he often retreated to a mountain cave north of Mecca, where he considered the problems of Mecca: the greed, the injustice and the arrogance. According to Islamic tradition, Allah began giving Muhammad sacred words when he was 40. The core of the message was that God was one, a unity who demanded complete allegiance.
When Muhammad began sharing his message to the people of Mecca, he was not taken seriously. At the time, he was a minor voice with a message that challenged the social and economic forces that ruled the city.
However, soon, his message and leadership proved successful. The city and an entire region changed their ways. Indeed, there has been no social revolution in history that made such an impact on so many people in such a short time.
Muhammad was committed to a just and decent society in which every person is treated with respect. To represent Muhammad otherwise is a travesty to his life and a misrepresentation of the Islam he initiated.
It is true that the major religions of the world are different and cannot be harmonized without doing damage to the basic concepts of each faith. But there is value in Prothero’s message of understanding and respect for one another’s beliefs.
I need to get back to my reading. I want to be prepared for the class discussion next Sunday.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .