Edited by Kate Flanigan Canute
How do you know what you know about Islam? Do you “know” that Islam hates Americans? Because President Trump says so? Do you “know” that Islam is peace because George W. Bush says so? Do you “know” that Islam seeks to kill blaspheming novelists because Ayatollah Khomeini says so? Do you “know” that there is no compulsion in Islam because the Quran says so? Do you “know” that Islam is a mystical religion because the Sufis say so? To ask such questions is to be situated around the proverbial elephant, “knowing” the whole elephant by extrapolation from some specific part – this tusk is taken for a spear; this tail a rope; this leg a tree. How do we know what we “know” about Islam? What is Islam?
The reason this question is so important is that it arrests the cycle of ignorance, fear, and prejudice that often leads non-Muslims to struggle with the oft-asked – but very unhelpful – question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or a religion of violence. Although other religions have inspired fear over the course of history, Islam is widely feared today – especially following September 11, 2001. A simple Google search of “Islamophobia” returns 5,760,000 results, more than 100 times more than the results for “Christianophobia” (46,100) or “Judeophobia” (58,400). Nearly all religious and cultural traditions have been subject to hostility and prejudice at some point in their history. However, this is different than fear, which has become a common Western stance toward Islam.
But Islam is not so monolithic as to fit neatly into either the “religion of peace” or the “religion of violence” box. Rather, we need to start with a better question. Albert Einstein is credited with stating that if he had an hour to solve an important problem, he would spend most of the time determining the right question to ask. In the case of the question “What is Islam?” I would submit that the correct question is simply that which is posed in the accompanying calligram: “Which Islam?”
A calligram is text arranged in a way that it forms a picture that embodies the meaning of the text’s contents. The Arabic text that comprises this calligram reads simply “Allah” (“God” in Arabic). For many who fear Islam, the word “Allah” is conflated with “Islam,” and the name of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Instances of this conflation are easy to find in social media exchanges. For many Western people, “Allah” has become symbolic of “them” – those who are different than “us”. In this way, a word that means “God” inspires fear in those who do not understand.
Simply asking “Which Islam?” allows the more self-reflective question “How do I know what I know about Islam?” When we start down this essential path, we first examine the place from which we start – the biases and opinions which shape our initial picture of Islam. As our perspective broadens, the misinterpreted aspects of the proverbial elephant – this tusk is a spear, this tail is a rope – can be seen for what they truly are: a tusk and a tail. Similarly, when those who suffer from Islamophobia manage to ask “Which Islam?” their perspective widens, fear lessens, and religious literacy increases.
Several authors have written about the rampant problem of religions illiteracy. Religious scholars at Harvard University have highlighted and delineated 6 manifestations of religious illiteracy:
1) The equation of religion with doctrines, rituals, and practices.
2) The essence of religion being perceived as merely the scriptures.
3) Seeing religious traditions as timeless, rigid, and monolithic.
4) Seeing religions as actors in and of themselves, ones that exhibit agency.
5) The use of religion as the exclusive lens to explain the actions of the religious.
6) An entire religious community being held responsible for the actions of certain individual members of that community.
A religiously literate person, however, is able to move beyond the common devotional approach of seeing religion as simply its doctrines, rituals, and practices, and to move beyond the textual approach of seeing religion as that which arises from and is directly aligned with the scriptures. Most scriptures are internally inconsistent, and all of them require interpretation. Indeed, to read is to interpret based on your own beliefs; no text speaks for itself, but rather, all require interpretation.
A contextual, or cultural-studies, approach sees religions in the various human cultural contexts in which they are situated. As such, religions are heterogeneous and malleable over time, place, and person, depending on interpretation. As opposed to devotional and textual approaches, the cultural-studies approach is primarily concerned with the humans who practice and interpret the religion. A religiously literate person recognizes that cultural constructs such as religions are not actors with agency; they are not individuals with wills, intentions, choices and freedoms to act in the world. Failure to recognize this may lead to viewing religion as the sole cause of an individual’s actions, and by extension, to holding an entire religious community responsible for the actions of individual members of that community.
This one simple question, “Which Islam?” allows a religious-literacy perspective that can then facilitate a better understanding of “the other,” which can in turn mitigate the unhelpful process of “othering”. This can lead to a better approach to the real and complex problems associated with religion – such as terrorism – that have led the innocently illiterate to become Islamophobic.
About the author: Steven Clark Cunningham is a practicing pancreatic and hepatobiliary surgeon, as well as an author of two books of poetry for children, “Dinosaur Name Poems,” winner of the 2009 Moonbeam Award, and “Poemenclature: Poems About Your Body,” just now being released. Working towards a Masters in Religion at HES, Steve currently lives in Baltimore with his wife and 4 kids.