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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What issues are the most hotly debated by members of the religion?

by John Kaltner

Many of the most important issues Muslims are currently trying to address can be traced back to one fundamental question: What should be Islam’s relationship with the non-Muslim world? Some form of that question has been on the minds of Muslims ever since the Prophet Muhammad urged his fellow Meccans to reject polytheism and embrace worship of the one God. Muslims have tried to answer it at critical junctures in the ummah’s history whenever the presence of the Other was obvious and unavoidable: in the seventh century, when Islam spread into areas previously under Byzantine control; in the eighth through fifteenth centuries, when Muslims lived side-by-side with Jews and Christians in Spain; in the eleventh century when the Crusaders first arrived in Jerusalem; and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when many Muslim lands were occupied by European imperial powers.

At no point in history has the question been more urgent or vital than it is today. We now live in a global environment in which it is possible to see things happening as they occur in another part of the world thousands of miles away. Advancements in technology and communication have connected us to each other in ways that people living only one hundred years ago could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. The world has grown smaller, and that is a development that holds incredible opportunity for people to come together and learn from each other.

At the same time, this is a new reality that can also exacerbate the problems and deepen the divisions that exist between people. We are now more immediately and fully aware of how “other” the Other can be. This is the situation that Islam, and every other religion, finds itself in. The differences among religions and cultures are more noticeable now than ever before, and this can cause some to see others as a potential threat to their way of life and belief system.

Many of their community’s prior contacts with non-Muslims, especially Westerners, were marred by problems and tensions, and this has led modern-day Muslims to adopt a cautious, sometimes suspicious, approach toward relations with them. Part of this is due to the conservative nature of Islam, which sees the life of the Prophet Muhammad as the ideal example of how to live as a Muslim. This is why the hadith material, which records Muhammad’s words and actions, has played such an influential role in the faith lives of individual Muslims. Anything that appears to oppose or call into question that prophetic model is viewed warily as a possible challenge to Islam and its followers. Certain facets of western culture are perceived in just this way by some Muslims, who think too much influence from the West will undermine Islam.

It is impossible for Muslims to shut themselves off from the rest of the world, and so one of their most essential tasks in modern times has been determining how they should interact with non-Muslims. This is a very complicated issue that has many aspects to it, and each community or individual addresses it in a unique way. For some, especially those who do not live in Islamic countries, the perceived secularization of western society is a major concern. How can one be a faithful Muslim in a non-Muslim land? How should children be raised in such an environment? In some Islamic countries the westernization of their societies through means like the Internet, media, music and dress has been met with skepticism and apprehension. Some see this as a new form of colonialism that will ultimately turn Muslims, particularly young people, away from Islam and into the arms of the waiting West, which will exploit and corrupt them.

As Muslims are exposed to the ideas and practices of other cultures they are challenged to reconsider their own attitudes and ways of doing things. This inevitably leads to disagreements and debates, but it is a healthy way of addressing issues of common concern and coming to a fuller understanding of one’s own identity and that of the other. Interesting and important conversations are taking place among Muslims around the world as they consider basic areas of human interaction like politics, economics, law, social customs, and the role of women in society.

In the final analysis it is the question of identity that is at the heart of many of the discussions currently taking place within Islam. What role does Islam play in the modern world? What does it mean to be a Muslim today? Some parts of the answers to those questions have remained unchanged for centuries and will still be pertinent centuries from now. But other parts are in need of change and refinement as Islam finds itself responding to new contexts and circumstances. Like any religion it must adapt and grow, or it runs the risk of being incapable of addressing the concerns and needs of its adherents.



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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