From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Spring 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 104.2 (Spring 2016): pg. 42

Richard SmoleyIt’s always exciting when local news goes national.

In sedate Wheaton, Illinois, this happened in December and January, when Wheaton College suspended Professor Larycia Hawkins for making this statement on Facebook: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” It didn’t help that Hawkins had started wearing the Muslim woman’s headscarf, known as a hijab, in solidarity with Muslims worldwide.

Wheaton College, one of the leading evangelical Christian colleges in the U.S., is best known as the alma mater of the late Billy Graham. Its administration did not agree with the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The fact that Pope Francis appears to feel the same way was not an argument in its favor at the rigidly Protestant institution.

The administration first suspended Hawkins and then initiated termination proceedings against her. On February 6, the college announced that it and Hawkins" have reached a confidential agreement under which they will part ways."

As an issue of intellectual freedom and (not least) of Hawkins’s job, this is a grave matter. As a theological issue, it is a bit harder to take seriously. You might well ask whether any two people worship the same God.

Nonetheless, the controversy highlights the excruciating difficulties that pit the West (which is in many ways Christian at its core, no matter how post-Christian it may look) against the Muslim world. The many similarities between Islam and Christianity don’t solve this problem. Indeed the history of religions illustrates this sad fact: two people can agree about ninety-nine things and come to blows over the one thing they disagree about.

Our intention in putting out an issue of Quest on Islam was, at the very least, to improve the general understanding of this faith. (Thanks to TS member Dave Christensen, by the way, for suggesting this idea to Tim Boyd.) Although our readers are, I believe, far more sophisticated and well-read on religious issues than most people are, there is still a great deal of ignorance about Islam in the U.S.

Unfortunately there are many basic facts about the subject that we don’t have the space to explain in this issue. It becomes that much more daunting if you want to offer any historical perspective on current events. For example, why are the Israelis and Palestinians fighting so bitterly? Partly because a hundred years ago, the British promised the same piece of land to two completely different groups of people.

This was easy to do at the time, because World War I was raging, and the Ottoman empire (the ancestor of today’s Turkey) ruled Palestine. The Ottomans sided with Germany, so they were Britain’s enemies. While the war was on and it was by no means clear who would win, the British were quite happy to make any number of promises to help their cause. T.E. Lawrence, best known as Lawrence of Arabia, promised the land to the Arabs if they would rise up against the Turks. At about the same time, in 1917, the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued the Balfour Declaration. It said in part, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Exactly how this was all to be done was never quite settled. It still isn’t.

To say that the Middle Eastern problem is all the fault of the British is not my intention. The meddling of many other powers, including of course the U.S., must be taken into account, not to mention good old human ill will. My point is simpler: no matter whose side you’re on, it’s easy to become outraged at the Middle East situation without having the faintest idea of what is going on or why. As for me, I only know one thing certainly and infallibly about it: I have absolutely no idea of what should be done there. I defy you to prove me wrong.

Probably the most useful thing to remember in all this is that Muslims number around 1.6 billion worldwide (an estimate from 2010). That means that just about anything you could say about Islam and Muslims will be partly true and partly false.

A look at this issue proves my point. In it you will encounter Robert Frager’s sophisticated transpersonal Sufism, along with a portrait of the head of an Afghani Sufi order who dictates the lengths of his followers’ beards. You will find out about S.H. Nasr, the Iranian scholar who has influenced Prince Charles, and read Pyarvin Abbasova’s “Women in the Shadows.” Her memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman in Azerbaijan tells us that the tradition of hanging out bloody sheets on the wedding night — to prove that the bride is a virgin — remains alive in many parts of the world.

Thus, among 1.6 billion Muslims, you will find every kind of person: ecstatic saints and murderous fanatics; wild tribesmen and thoughtful, civilized professionals. Certainly the majority of Muslims are ordinary people, some corrupt, some kind and decent, who are making their way as best they can along the path of life, for which the roadmaps all end up seeming incomplete and defective.

I’m reminded of that line from the Roman playwright Terence: Homo sum; humani nil humanum alienum a me puto: “I am human; I regard nothing that is human as alien to me.”

Richard Smoley

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