Understanding Islam: a timely book addresses key questions
111 QUESTIONS ON ISLAM:
Samir Khalil Samir SJ on Islam and the West
Edited and translated by Father Wafik Nasry SJ
(Ignatius Press, 2008, 215pp, $33.90. Available from Freedom Publishing)
One of the fastest growing religions in the world today is Islam. It is a rare night's news when there is not at least some vague or mute reference to Muslims or Islam that leave many with the impression it is an inherently violent religion which oppresses women and denies people their fundamental human rights.
Juxtaposed against this are a number of voices arguing Islam is basically a religion of peace that upholds integral human values. Which opinion is correct?
Samir Khalil Samir, a leading expert on Islam answers these and other queries objectively via a series of interviews conducted by Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid.
While not avoiding the difficult issues he deals with them as objectively as is possible. Concepts most readers may have heard of but perhaps only vaguely understand, such as Jihad, Shari'a Law, or the Islamic treatment of women, are clearly explained.
Although critical of certain aspects of Islam, Samir treats Islamic beliefs and customs, as well as Muslims themselves, with profound respect.
Word of God
The interviews commence with a discussion of the life of the prophet Muhammud who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. As a consequence of the visions he alleged that he had received from God, the religion of Islam emerged and by the time of his death in AD632 the religion was securely established within the Arabian Peninsula. The visions he claimed to have received were collated 20 years after his death into what is now known as the Qur'an.
Muslims believe the Qur'an is the literal word of God, hence it must be studied in classical Arabic. This is in contrast to the Bible, which Christians believe is inspired by God, but which contains human elements such as language, figures of speech or literary devices. This means that Islam will not permit the type of Biblical scholarship on the Qur'an that has been carried out on the Bible.
Samir also raises other significant factors for Muslim scholars when approaching the study of the Qur'an, particularly when addressing apparent contradictions between Suras. The principle is to interpret according to the most recent Suras. Samir argues it is for this reason that differing approaches to Islam can be detected based upon the Qur'an.
For example, some Muslims argue they must conduct a Jihad - that is a violent war against unbelievers - in the name of Islam, whereas others assert that they must practise peace. Samir argues that not only can both approaches be detected within the Qur'an but that those who pursue one course of action are unable to argue that the exact opposite is un-Islamic, since both point to Suras in the Qur'an to justify their stance.
Added to this is the principle that the 'door of interpretation' has been closed since the eleventh century. Thus issues - particularly ethical problems that have arisen in recent decades - are interpreted according to principles laid down by this time. This again poses challenges for the Muslim community in applying Islamic principles to a range of recently emerging ethical and social issues.
111 Questions on Islam also examines the question of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. It notes the phenomenon of the Saudi Arabian Government funding educational institutions with the aim of spreading the version of Islam it endorses, and concerns raised in a number of circles about this practice.
The author also notes a range of approaches taken by Muslims who have immigrated to European countries towards integrating into the host societies. Samir argues that the rights of Muslims to establish places of worship in the West should be respected - providing of course they do not impinge on the rights of other people - but that there should be reciprocal rights for Christians to build churches in Muslim countries.
While Samir notes tensions between Muslims and Christians throughout his work, this ends with the possibility of a positive dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on mutual respect. 111 Questions on Islam is a well written and informative introduction to Islam and the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
Michael E Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.