Busted: Amir Hussain

The author of Oil and Water interprets Islam for a Western audience

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BH: Last year, a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper, causing outrage in the Muslim world. How did you respond to the controversy?

Briane Turley and I wrote a response published in The American Religious Experience website. While we strongly defend freedom of the press, including the right of newspapers and other media to publish materials that are objectionable to religious communities, we urge that those media outlets in possession of this right act responsibly to convey their editorial convictions in ways that will not deeply offend those who are religious.

It is our conviction that the most radical forms of religion are subject to criticism and like all social institutions should be held accountable within the public forum for their statements and actions. Yet the most penetrating criticism directs public scrutiny toward the religious purveyors of ill rather than upon an entire religion. For example, a largely responsible American media were able to spotlight and stimulate constructive criticism for recent inflammatory statements issued by televangelist, Pat Robertson. They did so effectively without trashing the entire Christian faith.

We find it disturbing that Western media outlets continue to depict a religion that is as diverse, textured, and varied as Islam in its most radical form. Muslims, like followers of other world faiths, recognize and accept that fact that they are subject to criticism. Muslims, like the followers of other religions of the world, appreciate criticism but find such criticism counterproductive, unreasonable, and potentially devastating when it is couched in the distortions or parodying of their most sacred symbols. This is particularly true when they are in a minority position in society, and may already be marginalized by the media.

BH: There was also worldwide uproar over Pope Benedict’s comments about Muslims and violence, which the Vatican later attributed to someone misquoting the Pope. What do this and the Danish cartoon incidents say about religious sensitivity in this day and age?

AH: The Qur’an says:

Argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a better way, except with such of them as do wrong; and say: ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our God and your God is One, and to God do we surrender’” (Qur’an 29:46)

I am a Canadian Muslim (of Pakistani background) who teaches theology at a Jesuit university in Los Angeles. As such, a number of people have asked me about my thoughts on the Pope’s remarks in September 2006 about Islam, and the subsequent events that unfolded. I usually begin with a story about the importance of symbols for Christians and Muslims. I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the faculty at LMU, where I have been warmly welcomed by my colleagues in the department and across the university. On my office door, I have a number of postcards as decoration. They include a photograph of Woody Guthrie (one of my favorite songwriters of the 20th century); a painting of retired Montreal Canadiens hockey goalie Ken Dryden; William Blake’s watercolor of “Satan, Sin and Death” from his illustrations for Paradise Lost (I came to theology through the study of English literature); and a version of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quotation that begins “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up…”

In the summer, a colleague in the department returned from a trip to London, and brought me a postcard of the famous painting of Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini that hangs in the National Gallery. I added that to the collection on my door. After the Pope’s remarks, a Greek Orthodox colleague in the department took me aside, and explained that the postcard of the Turkish Sultan was offensive to him, as overt Muslim symbols seemed arrogant in a Christian institution. Never mind that the card was given to me by a Christian colleague, who himself was fully aware of the complexities of a representation by a European artist who visited the Sultan’s court in Constantinople. Never mind that the original is on loan to an exhibition entitled “Venice and the Islamic World” which is now showing in Paris and next year will travel to New York. Never mind that I am the only full-time non-Christian member of a department with 17 colleagues. Never mind that the colleague who was offended mentioned to me last year that he thought Allah was a moon god, and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus. Never mind that he wears around his neck a large cross as part of his office, a symbol that is not at all “neutral” for some Muslims and Jews.

Of course, not wanting to give offense to my colleague, I promptly removed the postcard, placing it inside my office alongside treasured post cards sent to me by students studying abroad. I share this story not to embarrass my colleague but because it speaks to my own position. I have lived the great majority of my life as a member of a Muslim minority community. I am deeply and thoroughly “Western,” as evidenced by the postcards I chose to decorate my door. Inspired by my mentor, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, I have worked on interfaith dialogue in my professional and personal life. And all too often, I find myself dealing with basic misunderstandings.

"Muslims, in the name of Islam, have committed horrible violence. There is no denying that. But many Muslims, myself included, have denounced that violence, and are doing what we can to do something about it."

By now, people are well aware of the points of Muslim objection to the Pope’s statements. I was puzzled by the initial remarks of His Holiness in Regensburg. I was not hurt or upset by his quoting the words of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos, as the Emperor was at war with Ottoman Muslim rulers who were laying siege to Constantinople. When one is at war, one often doesn’t present an accurate portrayal of one’s enemies. The Muhammad that the Emperor described as bringing “vile and inhuman” things is not the Prophet who is beloved by me and one billion other Muslims. And the statement by the Emperor that Islam was spread by the sword is simply inaccurate. A century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim population of Iran was approximately 10%, while that of the area now known as Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine combined was no more than 20%. Clearly, the historical evidence does not support the stereotype of mass conversions at the point of a sword.

I was, however, puzzled that His Holiness did not seem to recognize the Greek intellectual heritage shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims. It was during Arab Muslim rule that the Greek philosophical tradition was preserved, commented upon, and transmitted to the European world. The great mediaeval Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was dependent on a Muslim philosopher, Al-Farabi, for his knowledge of Aristotle. One cannot properly understand the European philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages without including the contributions of other Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (known in Latin as Avicenna and Averroes).

In the modern world, Aristotle is being read by Muslim theology students in Iran. This gives the lie to the simple and unhelpful dichotomy of “Islam” and “the West.” I was heartened to hear the Pope’s apology, however, and even more delighted at his meeting later that month with ambassadors of Muslim nations. There, His Holiness affirmed and continued the work of his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, who was deeply concerned and involved with dialogue between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is through this dialogue that we will learn about each other, but also, more importantly, about ourselves. And perhaps we will gain a better understanding of each other’s symbols.

BH: There are many who believe that the Qur’an is a book that promotes violence. What do you have to say to them?

To those who think that the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, is a book of violence, or at least that it is much more violent than the Bible, I wish these people would open their Bibles. In a report written in 1960 for the Jamaican government about the Rastafarians, the authors were all too aware of the violence in the Bible:

…the language of the movement is often violent …because it is the language of the Bible. It is apocalyptic language, in which sinners are consumed with fire, sheep are separated from goats, oppressors are smitten and kings and emperors are overthrown. All Christians use this violent language, in their religious services and elsewhere. The use of such language does not mean that they are ready to fight in the streets. It does, on the other hand, mean that the concepts of revolution are neither frightening nor unfamiliar.

BH: What do you have to say about Muslims and violence, the stereotypes versus the truth?

One of my projects is to co-edit a book next year called Teaching Religion and Violence. Muslims, in the name of Islam, have committed horrible violence. There is no denying that. But many Muslims, myself included, have denounced that violence, and are doing what we can to do something about it. The stereotype is that all Muslims are violent, or that Muslims haven’t denounced terrorism. Of course, we have. In fact, on Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, just four days after the attacks, they were denounced by Muslims around the world, including the President of Iran and the leader of Hizbollah. I don’t know how to say it any better than that. Even the President of Iran and the Leader of Hizbollah denounced the attacks of 9/11.

BH: What does the Qur’an have to say about religious exclusivity?

In a remarkable passage, the Qur’an speaks about the creation of humanity, and about which people are better than others:

“O humanity! Truly We [God] created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might know each other. Truly the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most God-conscious of you. Truly God is Knowing, Aware” (49:13).

There are four key points in this verse. First, the passage is addressed to all of humanity, not only to Muslims. Second, the passage mentions that the creation of humanity into distinct groupings comes from God and is a positive value. Third, it encourages people to transcend their differences and learn from each other. Finally, the passage does not say that Muslims are by definition better than other people, but that the best people are those who are aware of God.

BH: How can the West (Americans, in particular) get better at banishing harmful stereotypes?

By getting to know Muslims, and to learn from them how they—as Muslims—understand their religion. At one group last week, a woman talked about how she thought that all Muslim women were oppressed. I asked her, very simply, how many Muslim women she knew. The answer, which didn’t surprise me, was none. She had never met a Muslim woman, never spoken with one, but had all sorts of stereotypes about them.

BH: Is there hope for true reconciliation, and how does that journey begin?

I think there is tremendous hope. The foreword to my book is written by Derek Evans, who in the 1990s was the deputy secretary general for Amnesty International. He has hope, and so do I. For me, it comes from talking with each other, and seeing our common humanity.

BH: If your students can only take away one important lesson from your class, what would it be?

That we confront the “myth of separateness.” We have a great deal in common, more so than what separates us.

Amir Hussain’s book is entitled Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God (Wood Lake Publishing, Inc.).