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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What might the future have in store for the religion and its followers?

by John Kaltner

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and well over one billion people now profess it as their faith. There are no indications that its rate of growth is slowing down, so it is safe to assume that it will continue to play a major role on the world stage. If the total number of followers a religion has can serve as a benchmark for what is to come, the future of Islam looks bright and healthy. In addition to those who are born into the ummah, countless individuals convert to Islam every day, demonstrating its appeal and attraction as a way of life.

While the content and expression of Islamic faith are unlikely to change, Muslims may find they will need to adapt in certain areas if things continue to go in the direction they appear to be headed. One area concerns Muslim presence in non-Muslim countries, especially Western nations. Recent years have seen a remarkable increase in the number of Muslims in Western Europe. In many countries, Islam is now the second largest religion, and the total number of Muslims is approaching the number of practicing Christians. While the Muslim populations of the United States and Canada do not reach those same percentages, they are still a significant minority within those countries.

One of the challenges for Muslims living in these places concerns how to live side-by-side with others who do not share one’s faith or view of appropriate social discourse regarding matters of religion. Freedom of expression and free speech are among the most cherished liberties of Western societies, and the right to say what is on one’s mind extends into the area of religion. This is an unfamiliar concept to many Muslims who are new arrivals in these countries. When they hear people speak critically of religion, or Islam in particular, they sometimes take it personally and feel offended.

At times, Muslims who have spent their entire lives in non-Muslim countries can have a similar reaction to perceived offenses against Islam. A much publicized recent example was the murder in Holland of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a distant relative of the famous painter. He was killed by a Dutch-born Muslim with Moroccan citizenship who thought one of van Gogh’s films disrespects Islam. Another example of the same phenomenon can be seen in the anger and violence that erupted among Muslims when they felt political cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, and subsequently reprinted in other European periodicals, demeaned and insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

More and more Muslims will find themselves living among non-Muslims in countries that permit the expression of personal views that can be deemed insulting by others, and the potential for violence will remain very real. While it is the responsibility of all parties to conduct themselves in ways that respect the rights and feelings of others, Muslims must continue to develop effective means of communicating their concerns that are within the bounds of society’s norms and laws.

Another recent development likely to have an impact on the future shape and direction of the religion is the growing influence of political groups that are affiliated with Islam. Such organizations have been around for a long time, but they have become more actively involved in the official political process of late. As already noted, the strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s most recent parliamentary election was an outcome that surprised many. More shocking was the overwhelming victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections that catapulted into power a group known more for terrorism than sitting around the negotiation table. It is too soon to tell if the rise of such groups is a sign of things to come or a blip on the screen, but it will undoubtedly be a factor in how Muslims understand the relationship between their faith and politics.

Some observers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, believe that Islam is in need of a reformation similar to the one Christianity experienced in the sixteenth century. They maintain that Islam must turn from its focus on the past and look to the future in order to address the concerns of Muslims living in the modern world. Only in this way, goes the argument, can distorted views of the faith that endorse violence and terrorism be overcome, and the message of tolerance and respect that is at the heart of Islam be allowed to flourish. It would be a pity to limit the call for reform to Islam alone. All religions, perhaps the monotheistic ones most of all, are in need of constant renewal and transformation. Only then can their followers come together and work toward building a better world. Only then can we acknowledge and celebrate what our neighbors believe.



Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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