Don't know much about Islam

"Al-salamu alaykum!" That's the voicemail greeting you get when Scott Alexander is out of the office. Alexander, the director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, speaks Arabic fluently. So don't be surprised if he throws an Arabic phrase or two into the conversation just to keep you on your toes.

But you may be surprised to learn that Jesus was a muslim—Moses, too. That's muslim with a small "m." To be a muslim simply means "one who submits to God." Are you a muslim, too?

How did you get involved in the stud of Islam?
I like to say the three most important influences in my life have been God, my wife, and Ayatollah Khomeini. My interest in Islam unfolded almost as soon as I got to college, because I started in the fall of 1979 and in November of that same year the hostages were taken in Iran.

How did that affect you?
People in the United States knew next to nothing about Islam or the Muslim world until the hostage crisis. So all of a sudden there was a rush to try to understand Islam, and as is so often the case in the initial phases of that rush, there was a lot of misunderstanding. Longstanding stereotypes made their way into the coverage in the attempt to explain what was happening in the world.

I was taking some courses in Islam, and I was very intrigued by the disconnect between what was in the texts I read for the course and what I saw in the media. In a plethora of crude sound bites, they tried to explain a revolution in one of the principal, most influential, and wealthiest nation-states in the Middle East as a result of the "Shiite Muslim mentality." If that isn't a racist explanation, I don't know what is. I was fascinated by this, and I eventually decided to go to graduate school and study Islam full time.

Do you think that since 1979, and especially since 9/11, we've come any further along in the under-standing of Islam?
Certainly. It's not that we have widespread literacy today, but the difference is that in 1979 we had no literacy. In 1979, few universities and colleges had positions in Islamic studies. By 2001, there was a significant increase, and we've seen another increase since 9/11. Still, we're nowhere near where we need to be. And in some ways I think the coverage of events since 9/11 has set us back a great deal.

What are some of the most important things that Catholics should know about Islam?
The five pillars of Islam are a good place to start. The first is the testimony of faith: "I testify there is no God but God" and "I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God." It's the confession of a faith that has sometimes been described as "radical monotheism."

The uniqueness and oneness of the divine is unquestionably the linchpin of Muslim theology. And the confession that Muhammad is the messenger of God connects this theological statement to a distinct historical reality.

Can you back up and tell us who Muhammad was?
He was an Arabian merchant, born around 570 C.E. and orphaned pretty early in his life. He was troubled by some of the oppressive features of the society and culture in which he lived—like the fact that orphans, widows, and poor people didn't get the care and support they deserved—and he was also intrigued with the faith traditions of Christians and Jews, whom he undoubtedly met in the earlier parts of his life.

Then, according to the story, one day he had a profound experience in a cave on a small mountain outside of his hometown of Mecca. While he was fasting and praying in the cave, a figure appeared to him with an object that had writing on it. The figure said, "Iqra," that is, "recite" or "read." And Muhammad said, "I can't read." He was illiterate. But the being wouldn't take no for an answer. "Iqra," it said. And again, a third time, the being pressed this object against his breast such that he felt as if his very life would be squeezed out of him.

And then the words came through his heart; he didn't have to read them. He intuited them. "Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created the human being from a blood clot." And that was the first recitation, or qur'an.

Muhammad eventually understood his prophetic mission to be intimately bound to those who had been called by God in the past to communicate the divine message and will to humanity. They include people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus—among many others whose names would be very familiar to Christians and Jews.

The theological and historical components of the testimony of faith have tremendous impact on how Muslims see themselves vis--vis Jews and Christians. Muslims see Moses to have been a muslim and Jesus to be a muslim.

Jesus was a muslim?
In the context of the Qur'an, the words muslim and islam are used in a generic sense as existential categories. They are not used in an institutional or historical or demographic sense. Muslim, translated into English, means "one who submits." Islam means "submission" to God. Certainly, Moses and Jesus submitted to God, and are therefore "muslims."

Muslims believe that everything that was authentic about the preaching and teaching of Moses and Jesus simply appears again in the final and clearest form in the preaching and teaching of Muham-mad. So therefore you have to have some honor and respect for Judaism and Christianity, but, at the end of the day—if you want authentic understanding of those two traditions—you read them through the lens of the Qur'an.

What are the other pillars?
The other pillars are ways of taking the first pillar—the confession of faith in the one God and in God's prophet—and figuring out a way to translate that into action and a structure for your life.

The second pillar is that you offer a very deeply embodied ritual prayer to God five times a day—at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and night—ideally together with other Muslims. But you can do it by yourself, too, with the exception that if you are male you are required to attend congregational midday prayer on Friday.

The third pillar of Islam is almsgiving, and the fourth pillar is fasting.

So you'll notice we've got prayer, almsgiving, and fasting—which are also the three pillars of the Catholic Lenten observance.

And the fifth pillar?
The fifth pillar is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca and its environs, which Muslims are enjoined to do at least once in their lives. The hajj can only be performed in the first 10 days of the last month of the Muslim year. The ritual involves going to the sacred mosque at Mecca, circumambulating the cubic structure called the Ka'ba, which is believed to be the one shrine erected to the worship of the one true God by Abra-ham and Ishmael. Whenever Muslims pray, they offer their prayer in the direction of the Ka'ba.

What is the difference between Sunni and Shiite?
The Shiite-Sunni difference originates with a very early dispute over who should lead the community after the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E.

Shiite comes from the Arabic word shi'a, which means "the party" and is short for "the party of Ali," Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. They make up roughly 15 to 18 percent of Muslims worldwide. Sunnis are basically everyone who is not a Shiite. Sunni means the people who follow the ideal example of the prophet Muhammad. So, writ small, every Muslim is a sunni.

But Shiites believe that the ideal example is authentically preserved only through Ali and other key descendants. They maintain that Muhammad explicitly designated Ali to be his successor.

The most populous Shiite community—of Iraq and Iran—is the "Twelvers," the Ithna Ashariyya. They identify the historical existence of 12 Imams, who are regarded as the divinely inspired and infallible descendants of the prophet, the legitimate rulers of the Muslim community. The Twelvers identify these as starting with Ali and ending with a figure who as a young boy went into what's called occultation, or hiding, around the year 875.

Twelvers believe that the 12th Imam still exists in a state of occultation, guiding the community the way the sun illuminates the world from behind the clouds. He is a messianic figure who will return at an appointed time and place known to God alone and fill the world with justice and equity.

Could you define some of the other terms used to classify Muslims, like Salafi, Wahhabi, and Sufi?
Salafi means, "We practice the religion of the pious ancestors, the companions of the prophet." They're commonly called Wahhabis, after one of the leaders of an 18th-century movement who played a significant role in establishing the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But most people who are called Wahhabi now prefer to be called Salafi. Osama bin Laden would consider himself Salafi.

Sufism refers to what one author has described as the mystical dimensions of Islamic belief and practice. It describes a number of different traditions of Muslim piety that are rooted in the premise that the basic requirements of being a Muslim, like the five pillars, are just the beginning of one's journey to God and not the sum total.

So You Want to Read the Qur'an?

What version of the Qur'an do you recommend?

The unescorted, unaided foray into the reading of scriptures of religious traditions you weren't raised in is usually a very frustrating experience.

We were trained to read the Bible. For instance, in Genesis there are two creation stories that don't actually fit well together, so it doesn't flow like a seamless narrative. Yet most Jews and Christians understand it well because the text has been tamed and domesticated with cues implicit in the Christian or Jewish culture.

The Qur'an exacerbates this because it is profoundly aural and oral. The word qur'an means recitation, so the Qur'an lives most fully when recited.

For instance, you can open a chapter of the Qur'an and read a refrain coming at you over and over again. If you're reading that silently to yourself, it's annoying. But you have to appreciate the fact that when we listen to our favorite songs we love the refrain, because we're having an aural experience and we don't have a text in front of us.

So you don't say, "You already told me that." You say, "Oh, this is the main theme." You love it, and it also helps you memorize the song. Memorization of the Qur'an is a very important dimension of Muslim piety.

My practical suggestion is to buy the book that recently caused a storm of controversy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, called Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells (White Cloud Press). It's translated into English, then gives you commentary based in the scholarly tradition.

The second half of the book focuses on the interplay of sound and meaning in the Qur'an, and it comes with an audio CD. So you can then listen to reciters—women and men reciters from all over the Muslim world—all in different styles of recitation and read along in the book.

Is the recitation always in Arabic?

Yes, it is. Muslims believe the Qur'an is the supreme manifestation of the Word of God. When the Word was delivered, God spoke in Arabic. So the Qur'an cannot be rendered in any other language and remain the Qur'an, but it can be an interpretation.

So some translations are entitled The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an, or The Qur'an Interpreted. But when you see The Holy Qur'an, it must be in Arabic. There may be English alongside it, but it would accompany the original Arabic..

What is very confusing to many people is that these terms can overlap. For instance, Sufis can be either Sunni or Shiite. But Salafis would consider themselves Sunnis, not Shiite.

Also, like Christianity, Islam is very diverse. You have Muslims from Bosnia, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Indonesia, and more, as well as African American Muslims. And all of them represent quite different manifestations of Islam according to their culture.

There is a tendency to compare the Christian Bible to the Qur'an. How are these holy scriptures similar, and how are they different? The New Testament is the written embodiment of the revelation of the Word made flesh, but the written text is not the Word made flesh. We have another expression of the Word made flesh in the sacrament of the Eucharist. So

Jesus is the most profound expression of the divine Word. One of the non-negotiables about the person of Christ for many Christians is the divinity of Christ.

In Islam you have a different configuration of how the Word of God is believed to ultimately express itself. The ultimate, most beautiful, most profound expression of God's Word is the Qur'an. So the best comparative theological observation that can be made is that the Qur'an is to Islam as Jesus is to Christianity, not as the Bible is to Christianity.

Why has Islam become the focal point of the broader, worldwide, fundamentalist battle against modernism?
I have a problem with the term fundamentalist. First of all, it's a Christian self-descriptor. Every Arab Muslim I know would consider him or herself a "fundamentalist" because it translates in Arabic as having to do with devotion to the principles and the roots of one's faith. Well, who doesn't see themselves as connected to the principles and the roots of their faith?

The other problem is it's based on an assumption that the norm is Western secularism. And while that may be the norm in the West, in most other parts of the world it isn't. There have been decades now of the attempt to make it the norm globally, and that's exactly why the category of "fundamentalism" was invented—because people who saw Western secularism and modernism threatened by a religious appeal to traditional values wanted to lump all of those people into one anomalous group.

But when you step back and look at history, you realize that the anomaly in world history is not modern religious people trying to go back to their religious roots to resist the incursion of secular modernity, but the secular modernity itself.

To put it the way sociologist Peter Berger did, if you want to have a project studying anomalies or curious movements in the latter part of the 20th century, don't have faculty at the University of Chicago study traditional religious folk around the world. Instead have religious folk all around the world study the faculty of the University of Chicago, because if anything is "anomalous," it's that.

As for why Islam is the focal point of the battle against modernism, that is because it is one of the largest single cultural denominators that has not been secularized and modernized.

What would be a more appropriate term for those who are trying to integrate traditional Muslim values into an anti-Western political agenda?
is what you want to say. Some people have called it "political Islam." You could describe Al Qaeda as the extreme end of the militant Islamist spectrum. But I would describe Al Qaeda as nihilist, rather than Islamist. It does not qualify as a Muslim renewal and reform movement because it has no constructive vision whatsoever for the future of Muslim society and its relationship to the West. Instead, its sole aim is to achieve international chaos and a global "clash of civilizations" through the strategic destabilization and destruction of existing political and social orders.

What do you see as the main challenge that Al Qaeda and some of these other groups pose?
The main challenge is that if extremism on one side of a dispute is not met by extremism on the other side, it doesn't get as far. Have you ever noticed how extremists on both sides of a conflict are each other's best friends?

Ariel Sharon and the leaders of Hamas support each other constantly because Sharon acts and Hamas says, "See, I told you so, this is why we have to do it this way." Hamas acts and Sharon says, "See, I told you so." It has continually destabilized efforts by the mainstream. So I think the greatest danger that Al Qaeda presents is one that we're experiencing already, and that is that certain elements, particularly within the Christian evangelical right, have come up to meet the challenge of their counterparts.

I believe, and this is very unpopular, that metaphorically in those planes that hit the towers September 11 was more than just a lot of fuel that would incinerate the lives and hopes of thousands of people and their loved ones. There was also a script for how to set the whole world ablaze, addressed to George W. Bush and written by Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden wants all the Muslims in the world to become convinced that the West is inherently evil and that it's necessary to fight against all Western influence, including killing Christians and Jews wherever they find them. In this process, he maps out a very distinct role for Bush to play. Bush says, "Thank you," rehearses his lines, and delivers them marvelously.

Even using the word crusade.
Exactly. Many realists would say that the war in Afghanistan following September 11 was largely justified by the support not only from citizens in the U.S., but from other countries as well.

But I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the president of the United States had come to the American people on September 12 and said, "This horrible thing happened to us, we are wounded, we need to bond together. We need to punish the people responsible, but I'm not going to do it in the way our enemies want us to. They want us to become a neoimperialist power; they want us to prove to the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world that we are exactly what Osama bin Laden thinks we are. But we're not going to do that." I think Osama would have been tearing his hair out.

Instead, if Osama is still alive today, he must be saying, "Never in a million years did I imagine it would be this good, that I would have this impact on human history." And he has had this impact because of the development of an extremist reaction on our side.

How do you respond to those who say Islam is a religion of violence?
If you look at the history of any of the Abrahamic traditions, they are all horribly violent. Religious ideals and desires are constantly being invoked to support and justify the violence. This is true for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Some might say, "But we Christians no longer commit heinous acts of violence in the name of Christianity." What, then, was George Bush doing when he quoted Isaiah on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, casting the war in Iraq as messianic?

The West is not innocent of committing violence in the name of religion, but what we've developed here in the U.S. is what some sociologists have called civil religion. We've got the flag, so if we need a visual symbol for our ideals and values, we don't have to use the cross. Civil religion gives cohesiveness to the society and helps that society function, whereas other cultures still rely on an appeal to traditional values, which are often religious values and symbols.

So where do we go from here in the Catholic-Muslim dialogue?
Certain political analysts are saying that we're in a post-nationalist period in history where the nation-state is not anywhere near as important as it was in the early part of the 20th century because now we have so many transnational organizations.

What I hear coming out of the Catholic Church is a global concern: fundamental human dignity of every person, which means the fundamental dignity of every culture, the ethic of human solidarity, and the respect for natural and international law.

The concern has to be what's good for humanity, not what's good for the U.S. or Iraq or any particular nation, because we're in a terrible situation where the majority of the wealth in the world is in the hands of a minority of people. How long can Christians condone that reality and still seriously think of themselves as Christians? 

All active news articles