Thursday, April 24, 2008

Islam as a religion for the Arabs

As I've been reading the book "Islam" by Karen Armstrong, I've been learning much of the early history of Islam and the various theological movements within the religion. Probably the thing that struck me the most was the Muslims' treatment of non-Muslims as the Muslim empire expanded. I was very aware of the practice of allowing the conquered non-Muslims to retain their religion as long as they paid the jizya tax. However, what I didn't realize was that the Muslims actually discouraged their new constituents from converting to Islam. Initially, Islam was viewed as a religion for the Arabs. Early Muslims believed Islam was for Arabs, Judaism was for the Israelites, and Christianity was for the Gentiles (I have no idea, Christianity was already so wide-spread by this point).

Many of the conquered peoples did convert to Islam but, initially, converts had to be adopted and sponsored by an Arab tribe, perpetuating the fact that Islam was a religion for Arabs. Since this is the case, there can only be two possibilities. Either Islam was seen as a closed religion and all others were damned or it was a closed religion and others could still be saved. From what I read, the latter seems to be much more the case; Islam was right but Judaism and Christianity, even with their corruptions, were still right enough. It wasn't until over a century after Muhammad that conversions of non-Arabs were finally encouraged.

However, a quick search on Google shows that Karen Armstrong has many many critics who accuse her of bending the truth to accomplish her own goals. A friend of mine had similar reservations about her as an author, having done much of his own studying on the subject.

In any case, aside from that book, I've heard, read, or had conversations that all stress a more universalist attitude and apparently it's having somewhat of an effect on me. Rather than thinking that there can be only one right path, I'm starting to wonder if there are different paths that all lead to God. Just as people can eat differently or exercise differently but still lead healthy lives, maybe people can also worship and practice religion differently but still be spiritually healthy.

I'm hoping this will be just the beginning of this subject and I'd very much like this to be the beginning of a multi-party dialog so if you have any comments or thoughts, please post them.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fear of God

I'm finally getting around to another real post. To my faithful audience, I'm sorry for the wait. My life is absolutely insane recently with much travel, visiting family, and an upcoming move to begin a new job. However, throughout all of this, I've had a little time to read and a lot of time to think so this is the first of, hopefully, a fairly regular string of posts.

As a response to my post Comfort in Islam, Azooz mentioned the importance of fear of God. To quote his exact words:
Islam does not concentrate on either God's mercy or God's love - the Fear of God must always come first.
Although I do agree that fear of God is a necessary part of one's relationship with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God, I hate to think that fear is the primary emotion governing that relationship.

When thinking about relationships in general, relationships built on and depending on fear are the saddest kind by far. Governments that maintain control through fear and intimidation are considered evil, totalitarian forces. A man who controls his wife or children through fear or intimidation is an abuser and a criminal. These relationships founded on fear are unstable, sad, and are looked down upon by others who often try to free the victims from their oppression.

I won't go so far as to say that fear should be completely eliminated from such relationships. Children's fear of their parents is occasionally necessary to maintain order. The people's fear of police is necessary to preserve peace. However, in these cases, fear is only necessary for the extreme cases. In daily life, the relationship between parents and children is based on love, trust, and dependence. The relationship between a people and their government should, likewise, be built on trust and accountability.

I understand Azooz's assertion that fear will keep you on the straight path and help you lead a good life. However, people who live in constant fear live sad, desperate lives. Additionally, I feel like doing the right thing and living a good life as a result of respect and love is much better incentive than doing it out of fear. Although the outcome may be the same, what is in one's heart is drastically different. In the first case, one has a true desire to do what is right whereas in the second, one simply desires to avoid the punishment that goes along with what is wrong.

I'm starting to think that the biggest differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are simply their perception of God; which attributes of God receive the most attention. In all three God has the same attributes but each focuses on different aspects, which influence their practices, rituals, and cultures.

I just needed to get that out because Azooz's comment has been bothering me ever since I read it. What does everyone else think?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My Recent Absence

I can't believe it's been almost a month since my last post. I've had a number of ideas for posts that I wanted to get out but things have been insanely hectic recently and it won't be letting up for at least another month. I at least meant to make an Easter post (Happy Easter everyone!!!) but I've been busy traveling on business and also for personal reasons.

I have, however, managed to find some time for more reading and thinking. I finished reading A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. It is written by two friends, one Christian and one Muslim, both well educated about both their religion and the other's through both personal experience and formal education. The book serves as a good introduction to the two religions and points out their many similarities and some of the bigger differences but it is definitely an introductory book. It is divided into two sections, the first is a description of the fundamentals of Islam and the second a description of Christianity. Each chapter covers a particular topic and is concluded by comments from the other author of the other religion's perspective. None of the topics are covered in any extreme depth and, as a result, much of the heavy theology is absent. However, if you don't know much about one or both religions and want to learn more, I would definitely recommend it.

On one of my recent trips, I picked up Islam by Karen Armstrong, who is an author who writes many books about the monotheistic religions. It is more of a history of Islam and I'm only a third of the way through it but it is definitely very interesting so far. I've already read a biography of Mohammad but this book starts with pre-Islamic Arabia, Mohammad's lifetime, the expansion of the Islamic empire, and continues all the way up to the events of September 11th.

What I've read so far explains the development of a number of the different schools of Islamic thought, fiqh, and shariah law. It is very interesting to understand how the various Islamic movements came to be and, probably more importantly, it explains what the different movements are. Until now, I've been fairly ignorant of Shiite versus Sunni Islam and what the differences were. In any case, I'll keep you updated as I continue to read.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I've been meaning to make some substantial posts and I'm going to make a serious effort to do so in the near future.

Until then, happy spring!