Since I live in a Muslim country (the UAE), I'm taking a four-week introductory course, led by my Anglican minister, on Islam, the world's fastest-growing religion. It seems to me that an essential way to understand the diverse cultures, histories and religions of the world is to first employ empathy, look for what we have in common and attempt to understand instead of to immediately and defensively cast judgment and impose one's own cultural values on that which we have made no real attempt to comprehend. Dr. Bill Peck, a renowned Professor of Religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, called this the phenomenological approach to religion.
The call to prayer can be hauntingly beautiful, and by listening intently to it, you begin to grasp what a devout Muslim feels when he hears it. In Turkey I had a British colleague, raised a Catholic, who became a practicing Muslim while he was teaching there. It's "something that gives me a sense of strength and peace that İ find difficult to describe, much like the meditation classes that İ attended when İ was a student," he wrote me. Attending mosque on Fridays at noon with colleagues, engaging in collective prayer with the other believers, all moving in symetry with each other, he said he felt in harmony with his community, his surroundings and the world.
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Not surprising to me, he was "strongly influenced by observing the way in which our colleagues 'live' their religious values unobtrusively but resolutely." I too had observed how loving and generous and hospitable these colleagues were towards me and each other, offering rides and meals and frequently inviting me to spend time with them socially.
"The 'turning-point' " for my British colleague "arrived after a conversation with a friend in Adana who explained that "to become a Muslim you don't have to change your faith, merely 'upgrade' it'."
Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common foundation. Together they represent the "people of the book" who share the heritage of Genesis and of the early prophets. All three embrace Abraham, who rebelled against paganism and polytheism, declaring that there is only one God who has a personal relationship with all believers. Islam considers the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels to be divine revelation, in addition to the Quran. The angel Gabriel, as well as other angels, are important messengers from God or Allah in Islam as well as Christianity and Judaism. Muslims revere Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the epitome of holiness, modesty and obedience. They accept Isa (Jesus' name in Arabic), as a prophet and as "the Messiah" who will return to earth near the day of judgment to restore justice.
Studying the life of Muhammad, peace be upon him, one can see that he led his people to abandon the savage polytheistic gods of Arabian mythology who required brutal human sacrifices. Early Islam improved the plight of women, who had been denied the rights of inheritence or consent to marriage.
Contrary to anti-Muslim propaganda, Islam did not spread so rapidly in its early days simply out of fear and terror of brutal, fervant, bloody conquest. As historian Hugh Kennedy explained:
"The conversion of the subject people to Islam was a slow and long-drawn out process.... Conquest and settlement took only a decade; conversion of the majority took three hundred years."
Islam appealed because the message was simple and the message of Christianity at the time was so complex and so fragmented. Christian believers could easily get caught up in the deadly power struggles and theological debates among followers of the Catholicism of Rome, the Greek Orthodox faith of Constantinople, the Coptic faith of Egypt and the gnostics over the nature of Jesus -- human, divine, or part of a trinity, one God in three manifestations. Christianity was so divided within itself that followers risked death by declaring their allegiance to one Christian sect or another. In contrast, Islam at the time offered a far more unified faith and vision of God.
Unfortunately, that's not so true of Islam today. It seems more divided than ever among the various sects and factions in the Middle East. Since Christianity fought civil wars in Europe for about 1,200 years -- ending (one hopes) with Catholic- Protestant peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, Christians have no right to be smug about the tribal conflicts within Islam today.
"Those who seek to cast luster upon their own religion by darkening another do themselves and their faith little honor and less justice," wrote British Methodist scholar Martin Forward.