The words Islam and Muslim can be understood as a noun and a verb. For those who follow the way of peace set out in the Qur'an Islam is a noun - a religion to be followed and Muslim a member of a particular religious community. But as a verb others who are faithful to their chosen path could be said to be living in submission to God and therefore be muslim with a small 'm. I like this and immediately feel some connection with Islam's central concept, that I can be part of a world wide muslim family but am I submitting in the right way? Do I need the religion of Islam to show me the right way? Is it only Islam that knows the right way to submit to God? Does this make Islam superior to other religions? Are the others living in ignorance and illusion? Other faiths ask these or similar questions and it's this kind of thinking that leads to a disconnect between religions though the notion of any religion being understood as a noun and a verb could be a way to overcome this and be more inclusive.
Islamic law is not as monolithic as the media would sometimes have us believe. Rather it exists on a spectrum - some actions are obligatory, others forbidden, some neutral and others discouraged or recommended. But there are 7 law schools with different ideas of what is obligatory and forbidden. We were faced with a conundrum - is it permissable to own a non- halal leather wallet and given four possible answers. Well we did have a shot at guessing which one might be the correct answer but were told all the answers were possible, depending on context and school of law. So what does an ordinary lay person do when faced with a religious question or dilemma? Not knowing the law they are likely to ask advice of a religious expert or cleric and the answer is likely to depend on their education and approach to law. It's easy to believe then that the given answer is the absolute truth, to live by that truth no matter what. What power religious experts have when they ignore the complexities of answers to religious questions, sometimes fearing ordinary believers will be confused. It shows that at heart religious dilemmas need discernment and education and thank goodness more lay people, in both Islam and other faiths, have access to scriptures and learning that they wouldn't have had in the past.
There were so many interesting discussions over the weekend and one that interested many people was the idea that Islam had spread by the sword and that Mohammed had actually engaged in battles, so unlike a peace loving Jesus. Again context was highlighted. What would Jesus have done if he had been born into a country in which the rule of law didn't exist and Mohammed into a country bound my Roman law? Because of the political and cultural reality of 7th cy Arabia which was full of warring tribes and factions, Islam in fact developed a just war theory before Christianity felt the need to do so. And the Arab empire which spread after the death of Mohammed did not have a Mulim majority until the 12th cy so Islam spread, much like Christianity on the back of colonial expansion.
This and so much more we learned. One of the surprising comments of the weekend was from a Muslim academic when he said he didn't agree with interfaith dialogue. Perhaps he was trying to shock us. He was challenged on this and did exlain what he meant. But that is a matter for a future blog, I think.