"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Diversity Among Diversity

I read an excellent article yesterday morning that others of you may also have seen. Here’s the link: “Battling for Gay Rights, In Allah’s Name.” You may gather from the title the thrust of the article, though it’s worth reading. Most illuminating were the strikingly similar challenges Islam faces regarding diversity of belief to those challenges within the Christian Church.

I found the advocacy for and inclusion of the LGBTQ community from a Muslim voice to be quite novel (perhaps it shouldn’t have been). Among Christians you’ll find many passionate about LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation, and many passionately opposed; there are others who aren’t really “passionate” either way but feel conflicted and perhaps “lean” to one side of the spectrum.

But I guess I’d never considered this similar range of opinion to exist within Islam, though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps the minority expressions in Islam—fundamentalist/extremist and progressive—are just outliers, much smaller than various minority opinions within the Christian Church.

Though at my English school, this range and diversity is visible in women's attire, from conservative to progressive: some women cover all but their eyes; some reveal their entire face; some women reveal their face and also wear form fitting clothes (as opposed to baggy robes); and I remember two women who very noticeably didn’t wear a head covering at all.

I do feel like anytime homosexuality has come up in my classes, most Muslims generally act extremely conservative in their response to the topic. But nonetheless, I probably should have realized that Islam, like Christianity, is diverse. I suppose this is a “sin” I often commit: I make assumptions about what I don’t know, or make generalizations based on my assumptions or on the actions of a few.

This happens to me sometimes within my own faith. People will assume, as a Christian, a similar level of interest in or excitement from me about something as their own. For example, I’ve had multiple people in the last year recommend Mark Driscoll’s (Mars Hill) church to me, because, well, I’m not totally sure why—young, “hip” people attend this church? He has a potty mouth? (Actually, I think the people who recommend him to me don’t know he has a potty mouth.) When this happens, I politely thank them for the suggestion.

I also found the reference to Muslim Scriptural interpretation in this article surprising because it’s markedly similar to the way Christians use Scripture to condemn homosexuality. They apparently, according to the article, use the same Sodom and Gommorah story that Christians use as a refutation of homosexual practice (among other verses, I’m sure). Also acknowledged in the article is a similar explanation from other scholars of that particular passage’s irrelevance to the matter of monogamous homosexual relationships.

Primarily, I appreciated the article for its reminder that, as in Christianity, not all Muslims are the same. Now I do assume (perhaps wrongly) there to be a much larger “norm” in Muslim belief and practice, as opposed to the multifariousness of the Christian faith seen in our seemingly endless denominations (and "non" denominations).

But is there such a thing as a "true" Islam, a way of being a Muslim that is most in line with true Islam? Is there such a thing as a "true" Christianity, in the same sense? It seems like there's too much diversity in our faith to conclude that any one denomination is the "truest." It seems as though we're stuck with plurality, even if we may hold convictions about what way of being, seeing, understanding, and acting is most correct or true.

I’d tentatively define true Christianity as religion in which Jesus is the centerpiece. Any more specific than that gets tricky. There are many Christians who probably wouldn’t ever talk about being “born again." Others would never speak of the “beauty of the liturgy.” Some are gay Christians; some believe "gay Christian" is an oxymoron. It seems like "true" Christianity must be defined broadly in a way that acknowledges its diversity, or else we have to admit we have no clue what constitutes "true" Christianity.

The article quotes several Islamic leaders who find being Muslim and gay inherently incompatible, while others like Zonneveld (focus of the article) are pushing for an alternative perspective that sees their coherence. As in Christianity, Islam seems to call for faith: making a choice about what to believe and how to live based on insufficient data or confirmation.

I’ll end with a couple standout quotes. First, an alternative (but more Scriptural) definition of “jihad,” from a song written by Zonneveld: “In the…song, she calls on the ‘Ummah’ — roughly ‘community’ in Arabic — to take up a jihad, which to her means an ‘internal struggle to be more godly, more merciful, more forgiving, more like God is.

Jihad means “struggle” or “striving,” despite its more negative connotations in the media with violent sects of Islam, and sounds a lot like the Christian pursuit of virtue, the fruits of the Spirit, or the way of Jesus.

And finally, also from Zonneveld: “Just because I’m critical of the Muslim community does not mean I’m interested in being anti-Islam. It’s easy to be critical of the Christian Church; we all have our different ideas about what the Church should be doing more of or what constitutes right doctrine or what elements a Sunday worship gathering should include. But criticism motivated by love is different than that motivated by judgment, I think.

I respect Zonneveld for her commitment to Islam, when it seems like it would be very easy to just disassociate with her religion, and experience God outside of religious institutions. Her fidelity is an inspiration to me and reminds me of how important it is to—in contrast to the common refrain—not just be spiritual but religious too, participating in religious traditions that can shape our character and purpose.

I believe the Church to be, as I suspect Zonneveld believes Islam to be, at its best a gift to the world. I have no intention of abandoning it, no matter how much fodder for criticism it may yield, nor how much I disagree with some of my spiritual brothers and sisters on various matters.

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