An interesting experience is to read two books simultaneously about the same subject written by authors with widely-differing viewpoints. That is what I am doing now with Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Memories of Muhammad by Omid Safi.
I recently spent a year in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I know this is 100% subjective, but I would often look at Saudi men and visualize individuals whose minds were locked shut like a steel trap. When I would look at Saudi women, even though I could only see their eyes behind their black veils and abayas, I would see people of tremendous untapped potential. Although I know none of them personally and am acquainted with them only from their writings, I have the same impression of Omid Safi and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Omid begins his book by discussing the "problem" people have with Muhammad. Have you ever had the experience of feeling uncomfortable around someone, but when you try to talk to them about it they turn the conversation around to make you feel guilty for your feelings of unease? There is nothing about them, in their opinion, that could justify the way you feel so the problem must be with you! Omid is a master of that. The discomfort we feel about Muhammad, and in particular how he treated women and non-Muslims and how his followers treat women and non-Muslims today, is our problem.
Omid informs us, "With the exception of the most bigoted, most Christians today, including the Catholic and Protestant authorities, have rightly come to see that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same God." I guess I am one of those most bigoted; here I present my case that we do indeed worship two different deities. He describes bookstore titles such as "the truth about Muhammad" that are "marred by a host in inaccuracies, prejudicies, and flat-out lies", but does not take the time to elaborate any of them. I assume he is talking about Robert Spencer's biography by that name, and I look forward to Omid's careful refutation of its contents.
Omid mocks critics of Muhammad for coming up with nothing new in 1000 years. "One thousand years ago, the polemics were about violence, sex, and heresy. Today the polemics are still primarily about violence, sex, and heresy. One cannot help but wonder at how unoriginal these polemics have been over the course of the last thousand years. If the subject matter was not so offensive, perhaps one could joke that in one thousand years they could have come up with a new polemic!" Perhaps the reply is simply that Muslims have not come up with satisfactory answers during those 1000 years.
My former Islamics professor at Temple University, the late Isma'il al-Faruqi, used to say that people who rejected the message of Islam and its Prophet were "either malicious or ignorant". Raised and educated in Palestine, Dr. al-Faruqi did not have the smooth eloquence of America's defenders of Islam in the 21st century. They have newer terms such as "Islamophobes" and "polemicists" to describe people who do not think Muhammad is a Prophet of God, who believe his followers are his victims, and who are prepared to say why.
Omid informs us, "If there is one verse of the Qur'an that has shaped the historical grace-filled understanding of the Prophet, it is the verse in which God addresses Muhammad: We sent you as a mercy to all the universes (Qur'an 21:107)." Ironically, that is the verse that helped me realize the difference between the meaning of mercy in the Quran and in the Bible. In related Quranic verses, Allah defined his mercy. Muhammad was to invite people to Islam and warn them against associating anything with Allah (this was a specific warning to the Christians not to believe that Jesus was God). If they did not accept the invitation, Muhammad was to pronounce a declaration of war. Within a few short years, the Jewish and Christian communities that had lived in Arabia for hundreds of years experienced the "mercy" of Muhammad. Without exception they were slaughtered or exiled, never to return.
What I find interesting about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in comparison, is my impression that she is on a spiritual journey that has not yet ended. Her mission is not to dismiss critics of "truths" she has chosen to believe and needs to defend. She describes herself as a nonbeliever in God, and yet she is not the kind of "hard atheist" so common in the West.
In a chapter of her book called "Seeking God but Finding Allah", Ayaan writes, "If Muslims can be helped to reexamine the bedrock ideas of Islam, they may then admit that the Prophet Muhammad's example is fallible, that not everything in the Quran is perfect or true, and that this doctrine can be adjusted so that the mental pain that comes of trying to apply it in the modern world is diminished. I have a theory that most Muslims are in search of a redemptive God. They believe that there is a higher power and that this higher power is the provider of morality, giving them a compass to help them distinguish between good and bad. Many Muslims are seeking a God or a concept of God that in my view meets the description of the Christian God. Instead they are finding Allah."
As I read Ayaan's carefully reasoned arguments, and compare them with Omid's silly statement that only "the most bigoted" non-Muslim would conclude Muslims and Christians and Jews do not happily worship the same God, I realize they have taken two completely different approaches to Islam. Hers, which is simply but boldly leaving Muhammad behind, has resulted in exile, death threats, and security protection. His, which is defending Muhammad and describing detractors as Islamophobes, has secured a professorship at the University of North Carolina. It's not difficult to determine which of the two is a hero to me.