One of the first things I learned in graduate school was that it’s a mistake to compare Jesus to Muhammad and the Bible to the Qur’an. The proper analogy – or at least the one that works better – is that it’s the Qur’an in Islam that plays the role of Jesus in Christianity; it’s the Qur’an, not the Prophet, that is the central focus of the religion. The Prophet’s life can help us better understand the Qur’an but it’s the Qur’an, not the Prophet, that Muslims should center their lives around. While the analogy isn’t perfect, I do think it can help someone who was raised Christian to better understand Islam.
People used to ask me all the time why I didn’t/hadn’t/hadn’t yet convert(ed) to Islam. I was thinking about this recently in connection with reading, because you would think that a religion centered around a text rather than a person would have a powerful appeal to someone like me, who is so much better at interacting with written words than with people. And there were lots of things about Islam and the Qur’an that I did find appealing: the simple 5x a day prayers; the clarity of its vision of God, the rhythm and beauty of its prose; the Meccan suras with their emphasis on the natural world. I still love Sura al-Fil.
But there were two major stumbling blocks. I suppose only one of them really mattered in the end. The first was the judgmentalness of the community. To be fair, maybe many/all religious communities are like that. But although I was raised by very religious parents, we were never really part of a religious community in the same way. I always remember my friend deciding, as a joke, to tell his cousin that I had converted to Islam. And literally the first thing out of the cousin’s mouth was “If you’re going to be a Muslim you can’t wear jeans like that.” Not “congratulations” or “welcome to the umma” or “God changes the heart of those He wills it” or anything like that. But a comment on my clothes.
Of course there are all kinds of Muslims and maybe I could have found a more accepting, liberal, tolerant community. Certainly now that there are a lot more converts and a lot more Muslims in North America, there’s a larger number of communities to choose from. So ultimately maybe how alienated I felt by Muslims policing each other’s behavior – like the Shia Muslims I knew in Montreal who had to pretend that they were homeschooling their daughters because it would have ‘tainted’ them in the community if others knew that they went to public school – probably wouldn’t have mattered.
The thing I couldn’t get past was the idea that Islam is the One True Religion. I couldn’t bring myself to tell 5 billion people in the world, “Hey, get with the program, I’m right and your wrong.” I really like our diverse, multicultural world, the fact that there are so many different ways to be and think and act and believe. For me, the greatest gift to myself that I brought back from years of living in the Arab world was the understanding that other people have different ways of doing things and that sometimes those ways are better. And the way I was forced to rething and reconsider things that I had just accepted at face value as the way things were. I think I develop a critical way of thinking that I bring – or at least I hope I do – to other aspects of my life.
After I returned from the Middle East, I went to Montreal and studied Islam from an academic viewpoint. After that, there’s no real turning back. You have to have a strong faith, I think, to remain a Believer while investigating the origins of a religion in a critical way – to become a Believer at that moment, well, I didn’t know anyone it happened to. Although there was one brief moment…
But that’s a story for another time. This post is too long as it is. And I have, of course, tons and tons of recommendations for reading about Islam and books set in the Muslim world and conversion stories but I will leave this, for now, with Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. He was an academic, and the books are extremely well researched and accurate, but also very easy to read.