Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Wedding Conversation

Last weekend I attended the wedding of two Muslim family friends. The groom’s family is from Pakistan and that of the bride from Bangladesh. As the Imam emphasized in his sermon before the marriage contract was signed, the marriage was bringing those two families and their respective communities closer together.

At the reception dinner I sat next to a university professor who had taught the bride in a few of her graduate classes. The professor and I were talking about retirement, and when she asked me if I had post-retirement plans she might have been surprised by my answer. “I’d like to convince one and a half billion Muslims,” I replied, “That Muhammad was just an ordinary man and the Koran is just a human book.”

“I was recently in Tunisia,” I continued, “And had a conversation with a taxi driver. ‘We just want to be free,’ he said. ‘Let those who want to pray go to the mosque, and let those who want to drink go to the bar.’”

“That’s fine,” I told him. “But there’s only one problem. Muhammad said you can’t go to the bar. As soon as you try to exercise that freedom, someone will grab you from behind and remind you that Muhammad or the Koran said you are not allowed to do that.”

“Educated people might agree with you,” the professor countered. “But the key to change is education. The average Muslim would never accept what you are trying to say.”
"Ordinary people can change,” I replied. “I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family where we were taught every word of the Bible was literally true. But now as I read the first chapter of Genesis, it sounds much less God’s description of how the universe came into existence than a man living in the Bronze Age four thousand years ago imagining how he thought it came to be.”

“A few minutes ago,” I continued, “The Imam read words from the Koran describing God as being the Great One, the Compassionate One, the All Powerful Creator, and the Righteous Judge. As I listened to those words, it sounded much more to me like someone 1400 years ago describing what he imagined God to be like, rather than God’s description of himself.”

“But how would you persuade Muslims that Muhammad was not a Prophet of God, or the Koran was just a human book?” the professor inquired.

“Most Muslims know very little about the life of their Prophet,” I replied. “From before they can walk or talk they are taught to believe in this compassionate, wise person they imagine existed. The average Muslim knows next to nothing of his true history. I would begin by just pointing out events in his life they perhaps haven’t thought about that portray him in a less-than-prophetic light. For example, the fact that he persuaded his own son to divorce his wife so that he could marry his daughter-in-law, and then justified the whole sordid affair by stating that God had commanded him to do it.”

Had we more time to continue the conversation, I might have pointed out to her that many, many Muslims, including the couple whose wedding we had just celebrated, are wonderful loving people. Well, not all of them of course. Not the pick-pocket who had stolen my wallet a few weeks before at the entrance of the old souk in downtown Tunis. But the shopkeeper who recovered my wallet with documents intact and went to quite a bit of trouble to get it back to me certainly was. I just believe that what their Prophet and his book teaches them about God and people holds them back from being all they can be.

One thing the professor said stuck with me. We both have two daughters, and I commented to her that three of the greatest blessings we can give our daughters are to be whoever they choose to me, to marry whomever they choose to marry, and to believe whatever they want to believe. “Islam grants daughters none of those rights,” I said. “Muslim women are not allowed to publicly acknowledge they are lesbian even if they are, Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, and they are not free to let it be known publicly that they are atheists or do not believe Muhammad was a prophet.”

“But that is not true only of Islam,” the professor replied, “Many orthodox Jewish women or evangelical Christian girls are not free to say similar things."
I agreed with her. We might disagree on the penalty - Muslims can be killed for criticizing Muhammad, and although ex-Amish Christians and ex-Orthodox Jews can be shunned by their respective communities for leaving the faith I haven't yet heard of it costing them their heads. But I would agree with her that devotion to any inspired text, and in particular allowing religious leaders to interpret that text to you as a mandate to how you are expected to believe and behave, can be a dangerous thing.


Susanne said...

Welcome back! Thanks for sharing about your interesting post-wedding conversation! :)

Lonzo625 said...

I've been having "Staring" withdrawals. Glad to see you're back, and telling it like it is.

Cyril Lucar said...

Welcome back!

I think when we're talking about how a community responds relationally to someone who violates the standards of the community and how a religion might enforce compliance on everyone we're talking about two different things. With that said, you're criticizing two different things.

First, you're criticizing Islam for enforcing its standards on everyone by laws and group violence. This is the barbaric tyranny of Islam. A girl who wants to marry a kuffar may end up being the victim of violence or murder.

But the second thing you're saying is quite a bit different. In a sense, you are criticizing the right (or choice) of people to assemble in communities and have relational/moral standards in the community. As an evangelical Chrisitian, I get this a lot. We would not accept members who lived as couples without being married. A person will say to me, "What business is it of yours?" Well, if they live down the street from me, not much at all, but if they want to join our church, that's quite a bit different. The same goes for how I raise my sons. I give them a standard of right and wrong and there are some choices that they could make that would have pretty serious relational consequences for our family.

What the critic is saying is that his particular brand of secular humanism is the standard and that fundamentalistic revealed religions conflict with his standard, so they are harmful (or even should be suppressed). What he has done is expressed his desire for his religion of liberal secularism to have totalitarian control over all others.

For every family that shuns an apostate from fundamental Christianity I can show you a family which which shuns an apostate from secular humanism or from the Democratic Party, etc.

Of course I don't think you equate the two at all. Your job of pointing out the dangers and inconsistencies of Islamic totalitarianism is masterful.

Thanks so much for writing and I'm sorry for writing so much.

aemish said...

Very refreshing perspective of a delightful anecdote. That little break of yours seems to be paying off in dividends :D