Since that fateful day on September 11, 2001, significant news reporting has been dedicated to the Middle East and Islam. Such media attention is to be expected, for the old advertiser’s adage “If it bleeds, it leads” still rules news cycles. President Obama’s recent speech in Cairo is a case in point; it had to compete for coverage with a contemporaneous suicide bombing in rural Pakistan — as if those two events were of equally historic significance.
Mercifully, the West’s exposure to Islam has not been limited to eye-catching headlines and superficial sound bites. Indeed, there has been an increase in more sober examinations (ironically many by journalists) of an otherwise exotic and far-flung locale and its ardent worshippers.
Robin Wright’s Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, for example, brings readers up to date, country by Middle-eastern country, with its latest political, social, and religious developments. Drawing from 35 years of living and working in Muslim countries, she reminds us that democracy is never an easy achievement, even, or perhaps especially, in the Middle East. While some Arab states are increasingly democratic and open, grave tensions between the West and the Middle East persist, reflecting the long-standing and occasionally deadly conflicts within Islam. The diversity in the region is manifest in not only the tensions between the Shiite and Sunni but in the intense political rivalry among countries of the region and in the very clothing donned by its women practitioners — from burkas in rural backwaters to petite skirts in Beirut.
Despite its gratuitously provocative title, Jim Sciutto’s Against Us: The New Face of America’s Enemies in the Muslim World is a perceptive policy prescription. The work of a senior foreign correspondent for ABC News, Against Us urges leaders of the West to forswear the us-versus-them mentality and instead to embrace global strategies that strengthen ties with the Middle East. Sciutto examines the varied situations in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and a host of other countries, cautioning would-be do-gooders that the Middle East is anything but homogeneous. State Department officials must discard one-size-fits-all approaches. Nimble and delicate engagement is required, given each country’s unique history and inimitable culture. Iran, he reminds us, is not Arabic but Persian — a difference in culture much wider than, say, the English versus Australian cultural distinction. Sciutto even has a chapter on the United Kingdom. Given recent immigration, not surprisingly the mindset of many in Birmingham is not far from that found in Baghdad. International relations, therefore, begins with the West’s own shores.
The trio of Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner sing a peace-seeking example in The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew — Three Women Search for Understanding. This story is a contrapuntal harmony recounting their collaboration and growing friendship as three cosmopolitan women jointly write a children’s book about interfaith relations. In the process, they move from mere tolerance to celebration of their religious differences. The frequent give-and-take, the occasional heated conversations, and the intense soul-searching presented in this book are instructive and inspiring! For Westernized readers, the portions of the book written by Ranya (the Muslim of the threesome) are particularly illuminating, since female Muslim voices are so rarely heard. While traditionalists may condemn her progressivism as a “deviant” Islam, this reviewer is persuaded that living faiths are necessarily faiths in transition and that with time Islam will be increasingly tolerant of its own authentic diversity, as evident in its older religious siblings — Christianity (with its Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant manifestations) and Judaism (with its Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist branches). Perhaps the most useful aspects of this book are the reading group guide and the closing section on how to start a faith club. No doubt enduring harmony among the peoples of the world will require genuine friendships.
If the foregoing books can be improved upon, it would be with supplementary discussion of the increased role played by non-Arabic Muslims, such as those in growing numbers in Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Such changing demographics will inevitably alter the evolutionary trajectory of Islam.
Permit me to make more than a cursory comment about a couple of books. Mark Siljander’s A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide addresses the Muslim-Christian divide. An erstwhile Republican Congressman and former deputy envoy of the United States to the United Nations, he was at one time a fundamentalist Christian who was convinced that salvation of non-Christians depended on their conversion to Christianity. He is now the poster child for Muslim-Christian dialogue, which is the new leitmotif for his life. This did not happen overnight; it took years for him to appreciate the universality of God’s love and the ubiquity of God’s self-revelation. Our theological differences cannot thwart God’s salvific will.
The born-again Christian, conversant in Hebrew and Arabic, became a student of (though not a convert to) Islam. In discussing Islam’s five pillars, he submits (no pun intended) that Islam is essentially a religion of peace which has been wrongly practiced by certain of its misguided adherents. In fairness, we in the West have similarly allowed our own cultural “prejudices, assumptions, and prevailing habits of thought” to so mount up and accumulate such that in our own time the various faith traditions of the world have become “viewed as irreconcilable.”
In an exposé of how too many diplomats committed foreign policy malpractice, Siljander writes that the sincere though ill-advised machinations “of international diplomacy didn’t seem much different from the principles of religious conversion: adopt our ways, come over to our way of thinking and serve our interests … or else. If this really was the foundation of how the different peoples of the world were going about relating to each other, we were in serious trouble.”
It was this one-way-street approach to religious dialogue (an ersatz evangelism) that struck him as conceited and counter-productive. A key point of Siljander is that language can facilitate or impede understanding. This leads to his provocative proposal: Aramaic may have been the original language in which the New Testament (NT) circulated or was written. This is in contrast to the consensus of NT scholars, who hold that because the oldest extant NT manuscripts are in Greek, therefore the now-lost autographs (originals) must also have been in Greek.
“Aramaic was the language Jesus and his contemporaries actually spoke,” Siljander explains. “The words recorded in the New Testament, though they were written down in Greek, would have been spoken mostly in Aramaic. Indeed, while the vast majority of Christian scholarly thought insists that Greek was the original language of the New Testament, a small but growing group of contemporary scholars believe that the earliest Greek-language versions of the New Testament may well have been translations of Aramaic originals long since lost.”
The oft-quoted maxim of Jesus — “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matt. 19:24, NKJV)” — serves as but one of many examples of the potential utility of Aramaic analysis. As Siljander interprets the passage, the eye of a needle is something a camel cannot pass through — “it’s not difficult or unlikely , but flat-out impossible .”
However, a valuable insight is gained from consulting the very language Jesus employed to originally pronounce these words. For the Aramaic word for ‘camel’ is gamla — and gamla also has a second meaning: rope. When buying thread, if a Middle Eastern woman comes upon a sample that is too thick for her purposes, in her bargaining she will decry it as “a rope!” She means it is too coarse.
“Can such a thread fit through the eye of a needle?” Siljander inquires. “It’s a little more difficult, and takes some care in the doing, but it is certainly doable.”
A second example of how consulting Aramaic may unlock some of the mysteries of our holiest texts is illustrated with a puzzling saying of Jesus: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26, NKJV).
Like other Christians, Siljander wrestled with how Jesus’ instruction here to “hate everyone dearest” dovetails with his directive elsewhere to “love our enemies.” The word “hate” in Aramaic is similar to the word meaning “set aside.” With that in mind, the passage as perhaps originally articulated in Aramaic (and only thereafter translated and set to writing in Greek) means commitment to God involves “putting aside, or holding as a lesser priority, one’s family, friends, possessions, and even one’s own life. Not ‘hating’ them — just keeping them in perspective.” Space limitations foreclose comprehensive discussion of the numerous other examples where recourse to Aramaic proves enlightening.
Suffice it to say that Siljander profoundly illustrates the perils of unduly freighting individual words when working between various languages over time — especially when we have no recourse to the autographs. God can surely employ a community to safeguard the essential meaning of sacred text. Yet God chose not to preserve the autographs or to produce verbatim transcripts.
However instructive recourse to Aramaic may be in reading Scripture, Siljander’s summoning contribution is not so much his linguistic discussion but the clarion call to seeking ways to bridge cultural divides. He points out that the three monotheistic faiths share not only an Abrahamic lineage but a commitment to life and peace.
The conscientious diplomat in Siljander can be heard in his earnest plea: “if we’re going to find any viable common ground between our faiths, cultures, and nations, if we are going to build workable bridges across the Muslim-Christian divide, it has to be personal. … Negotiating with an enemy may be a professional act; loving one’s enemy is personal.”
If this book has an Achilles’ heal, it is that Siljander is not an Aramaic scholar and that none of the extant Aramaic (or Peshitta) versions of NT Scripture are as old as the extant Greek versions of NT Scripture. While ancient languages are not this reviewer’s métier, the Aramaic origins of Scripture deserve further scholarly study.
By way of full disclosure, as this review goes to press, Siljander is in legal difficulty. His relationship with various Muslim leaders is under investigation. His bridge-building contacts allegedly include some with ties, however gossamer, to Muslim terrorists. Whatever may come of these charges, Siljander’s theories a propos of the Aramaic origins of Scripture and his plea for genuine friendship between Muslims and Christians ought to be evaluated on their own merits.
While religious ideas serve as one bridge across the East-West divide, the law is another. Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a is a conversation on the place of Shari-a — Islamic religious law — in Muslim societies. A prominent human rights advocate and law professor, An-Na’im argues that a progressive Shari’a is not an oxymoron. It is, in fact, not only possible but is absolutely necessary.
An-Na’im is not arguing for a diluted Shari’a. His contention, rather, is that brutal implementation of Shari’a by the government violates the Qur’an’s own teaching of voluntary submission to Islam. Only the rubric of personal freedom will render a robust Shari’a. In a symmetry akin to Western religious freedom principles, An-Na’im offers a closely reasoned argument that the corridors of governmental power should be cordoned off from abusive religious authority, which in turn will ensure the equally desirable condition of Shari’a being liberated from manipulative politicians (functionally akin to the Jeffersonian Wall of Separation between Church and State).
An-Na’im proposes not Secularism writ large but rather a “secular state that facilitates the possibility of religious piety out of honest conviction.” In response to Jihadist critics, he points out that his “call for the state, and not society, to be secular is intended to enhance and promote genuine religious observance, to affirm, nurture, and regulate the role of Islam in the public life of the community.”
Briefly assaying the politico-legal evolution of Islam, An-Na’im demonstrates that the Islamic state is itself a fairly recent product of a Western mindset — introduced to Muslim society only since the onset of colonization. In fact, the first Islamic Republic in history (Iran) was founded on April 1, 1979! Since Islam antedates the Islamic state by 1,350 years, the Islamic state can hardly be said to be indispensable to Islam. Furthermore, the “Qur’an addresses Muslims as individuals and community, without even mentioning the idea of a state, let alone prescribing a particular form for it. It is also clear that the Qur’an does not prescribe a particular form of government.”
While An-Na’im teaches law at Emory University, Islam and the Secular State is not just for those interested in law. It is for anyone who wonders whether the rule of law, a free society, and a fervent — though not fervid! — faith are compatible. Faith and freedom have been substantially reconciled in secular Turkey. This reviewer joins An-Na’im in the conclusion that properly conceived and carefully structured, Shari’a can be compatible with the secular state.
In closing, the oeuvre fashioned by the foregoing authors is a significant contribution to the West’s conversation on the Middle East and Islam. One need not be a German theologian to have a weltanschauung (worldview), and if the West’s worldview and our impression of Islam are shaped exclusively by CNN, we are in big trouble. These authors provide essential balance and nuance to the discussion, reminding the reader that, among other things, jihad need not entail violence, terrorists do not speak for Islam, there are varieties of legitimate expressions of Islam, continuity and change characterize all faiths (including Islam), and while Muslims agree on what the Qur’an says, as with the U.S. Constitution interpretation is required to discern what the Qur’an means. Moreover, one senses throughout these works a steadfast, if cautious, optimism about Islam. Cynical prognosticators are wrong, and East-West détente is possible. The war on terror need not preclude a passionate pursuit of peace, whether through diplomacy, interfaith dialogue, faith clubs, or the formation of personal friendships. Of course, only time will tell.
David A. Pendleton, an administrative law judge, was for a number of years actively involved in ecumenical and interfaith activities in Honolulu, Hawaii.
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