What issues are the most hotly debated by members of the
by John Kaltner
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
©2006 John Kaltner
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
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
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.