For non-Muslims to understand diversity among Muslims seems to be a leap too far.
In December, a tenured political science professor at evangelical Christian Wheaton College was placed on administrative leave for a posting on Facebook. Next to a picture of herself wearing a head scarf, she wrote,
I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay… [and] 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.
True, three major religions in the world have one God as their source. But is it the same God?
This wasn’t a question I’d ever given much thought to growing up in what’s known by Christians as the Judaeo-Christian tradition (in other words, two of us have the same God even if one of us doesn’t believe that the messiah has come or that the God is triune). When I read Wheaton’s Statement of Faith that all faculty and staff are required to sign, though, I knew I couldn’t work there. I identify as Christian, but do I believe in the same God that Wheaton’s administration does? Doubtful.
This line of reasoning leads to further speculation. Does the cross I see in my church’s stained glass windows have the same meaning as the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan? God forbid. Donald Trump says he’s a Presbyterian. The gay man who cuts my hair and runs the summer worship program at his Presbyterian church professes the same faith. I don’t blame him for Trump. He doesn’t blame me for every homophobic statement made by a variety of Protestants.
It’s no news that Christians are as
different as snowflakes.
It’s no news that Christians — who belong to the largest religion in the world — are as different as snowflakes. Many non-Jews now understand that Jews also represent numerous strands of theological thought. But for non-Muslims to understand diversity among Muslims seems to be a leap too far. How many of the Christian women who wanted to show solidarity by donning a head covering know that many Muslim women don’t wear head coverings and that, as members of the Muslim Reform Movement pointed out in the Washington Post, wearing one can be seen as giving support to a conservative interpretation of Islam.
The three religions “of the book” have numerous doctrinal divisions within them, even though they all started with fairly simple statements of belief in one God. How that God is experienced and interpreted is what makes such a big difference to believers.
Islam, poised to become as populous as Christianity by 2050, has multiple differences within it as well as core principles. Radical Islamists do not represent the majority of Muslims. Islam is based on a belief in one God whose last Prophet was Muhammad and whose revelation was written in the Qu’ran. Most Muslims believe in angels, in a judgment day, and in God’s will.
There are five foundational practices known as the Five Pillars of Islam.
There are five foundational practices known as the Five Pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, fasting, giving to the poor, and pilgrimage. These five precepts are common to all branches of Islam.
Faith: The believer must affirm that he or she believes that there is only one God (Allah) and that Muhammad is the Messenger or Prophet of that god.
Prayer: All Muslims are required to pray formally five times a day. There is no need for an intermediary.
Fasting: During the month of Ramadan, all healthy adult believers must fast from sunrise to sunset. The fast reminds believers to feel connected to those less fortunate than they and to learn patience, endurance, and obedience to God.
Zakat, or almsgiving: Every Muslim is expected to give a portion of his or her wealth (suggested as being at least 2.5 percent of accumulated wealth or savings) to help poor people.
Pilgrimage: The fifth pillar, open only to those who are physically able to do so and have the means to do it, is hajj, or a pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca). It was while making the hajj that Malcolm X realized that Islam was a universal religion and renounced his membership in the separatist Nation of Islam.
Most Muslims (62% or about 985,530,000 people) live in the Asia Pacific area, where the majority identify simply as Muslim (i.e., not Sunni or Shia). In fact, more Muslims live in India and Pakistan (344 million combined) than in all of the Middle-East-North Africa region (317 million). By 2015, India will have the largest Muslim population in the world.
The embattled professor believes that Muslims and Christians have the same God.
Larycia Hawkins, the embattled Wheaton College professor, believes that Muslims and Christians have the same God. Wheaton College believes it has the right to control statements and actions by its staff outside of company time.
Her struggle is real. She could lose her job, and tenured positions are not easy to come by for anyone, much less for young, African-heritage women. Her bravery is stunning. Her fight is one of many on several fronts by members of all faiths and no faith who believe in pluralism and freedom of thought.
Whether you or I believe in the same God or no God is not the issue. Whether we’re willing to understand the “Other,” and to stand with that “Other” is. Look at the first part of Hawkins’s Facebook post. She took her stand because “we are formed of the same primordial clay.” It doesn’t get more basic than that. In spite of our differences, in spite of myths and misconceptions, we are dust and will return to it. Every faith teaches that what we do in the between time counts.
[Maxine Phillips is on the editorial committee of “Religious Socialism” (religioussocialism.org) and is a co-writer of an elementary-school curriculum entitled “Arab Peoples: Past and Present.”]