Wednesday, February 8, 2012

enlightenment by book review

The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Once in the course of a religious discussion, I defined God as "the being worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims." The evangelical Christian I was talking with replied that Muslims do not worship God, but a demon called Allah.

This book is addressed to people who suffer from that level of belligerent ignorance. The author (she is an American of Muslim Indian origin) not only points out that "Allah" is no more a different being from "God" than "Dieu" is, she spends most of the book repeating over and over that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and certainly all the ones you'll meet as your neighbors, are just people practicing their own religion the way you practice yours. She's quite straightforward about what that means to her as an individual.

To a Muslim, the terrorists are no less weird outliers who misrepresent the religion they claim to follow than the Klan, who used Christian panoply to justify their terrorism. The only difference is whether the media treat them as exemplars of their religion. (But the author weakens her point by also citing terrorists who happen to be of Christian origin but aren't claiming Christian justification for their acts.)

The author convinces, or should convince, that the Muslim next door is not planning to murder you in your bed. But the book is also useful for many of us who weren't suffering from any such delusion, to gently inform us how little we know about Islam. It's a major religion with as complex a history, theology, organization, and structure of customs as Christianity or Judaism, but I discovered here that I know almost nothing about it. (I'd never known of any Islamic holidays besides Ramadan, for instance.) You'd need a handbook to learn, and this isn't it, but at least it should humble those who didn't realize their ignorance.

I was particularly appreciative of the discussion of the Nation of Islam (the Elijah Muhammad/Farrakhan group), which I'd always found puzzling. The author says it's just a farrago of notions put together from Islam, Christianity, and various other sources, and not adhering to the Qur'an at all, and thus not actually Islamic whatever it may call itself. (Malcolm X's break with the group, she says, was when he'd realized its nature and decided he wanted to be an actual Muslim instead.) It strikes me that this is the equivalent of the "Jews for Jesus": they call themselves Jews, but they aren't. She also explains the place of sufism, which is not a branch of Islam but a mystical practice. Another parallel she doesn't draw: it's Islam's kabbala.

Nevertheless the book is not entirely reassuring. Despite the personal tone and the grounding in everyday religious practice, it's almost numbingly repetitive, sloppy (she attributes "the pursuit of happiness" to the Constitution), and erodes trust by practicing unwarranted landsmanship. (She says "It is generally accepted that Dante based his Divine Comedy on the story of Muhammad's night ascension to heaven," and footnotes a scholar who, I found on checking, says the same words with no source in an editorial introduction in his collection of Islamic religious texts. Puzzled, since she also cites Edward Said, who says nothing of the kind and is scorching on Dante's prejudice against and ignorance of Islam, I checked the Dante Encyclopedia, which says it's not generally accepted at all. It's one of those fringe "I see some parallels so I've found the real inspiration!" source theories that are wearisomely familiar to me from Tolkien studies. There is, by the way, an Islamic source theory for Tolkien, too.)

The author's assurance that the extremists are plainly violating the Qur'an and are abhorred by all reasonable Muslims doesn't set the mind at ease when those extremists include the governments of major countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. As Rick Santorum isn't President yet, where's the Christian equivalent of that? Nor when much of Islam's bad historical reputation is attributed to misguided early theologians who resisted Muhammad's reforming intent. If the mainstream of Islamic clerics could get off on the wrong foot from the start, that doesn't speak well of getting everyone on the right one later. (Maybe Christians, who had huge early schisms over what Jesus and Paul actually meant, can relate.) Nor when other behaviors that the author disapproves of as much as we do are attributed to cultural rather than religious impetus. Granted, if they're not religious then the whole body of believers aren't responsible for them, but those are some mighty alarming cultures you have in your religious orbit.

When discussing the hijab, she both points out that many observant Islamic women don't follow those rules (a fair enough point: I wonder how many non-Jews realize that even most observant Orthodox Jews don't dress like hasidim?) and attempts to defend them on feminist grounds, which don't quite mix.

Lastly, it appears from her description of religious practice that, while there are a variety of Islamic theological traditions (which is where Sunni vs. Shi'ite comes in), and while there are unobservant Muslims and observant ones who interpret the rules loosely, Islam apparently entirely lacks the idea of liberal sects or movements as exist both in Christianity and Judaism. Nor is it clear how much liberalizing influence there is in an essentially conservative religious movement as there is in Catholicism, or what reforms a la Vatican II have been offered (which ought to be easy to do, as even individual Islamic traditions don't have a single papal-type authority).

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