By: Charles Le Gai Eaton
So hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of God.(Quran 3:103)No compulsion in religion! Truth stands clear from error, and he who rejects false deities and believes in God has grasped a firm handhold which will never break.(Quran 2:256)
The task should become easier with the passage of time. It becomes more difficult. Explaining Islam in all its dimensions to westerners, whether Christian, semi-Christian or agnostic, involves crossing a minefield. Misunderstandings, together with ancient fears and prejudices, lie just beneath the surface, ready to explode on contact, and I have learned over the years to watch where I place my feet. The task becomes more difficult for two reasons: firstly because of an increasing realisation that my Faith, like any major religion, has something in common with the breadth of the human world itself with all its ambiguities and subtleties; secondly because contemporary western culture is immensely complex both in its origins and in its character. Every generalisation that one tries to make is soon blown apart.
Brought up as an agnostic, I have been Muslim for some fifty years, long enough to feel at home in the religion, but this does not alter the fact that I am a westerner and cannot entirely escape my early conditioning. Asked once by a young Muslim in America if I did not find this dual identity painful, I told him that I regarded it as a privilege comparable, perhaps, to being bilingual. Only those who have, in some measure, escaped from their European or American identity can know how suffocating this culture is. The term "political correctness" is of recent invention, but in fact the western mentality has always been subject to comparable restraints in one form or another. The orthodoxies of one generation may be turned upside down by the next, but the pressures to accept what all "right-thinking" people believe at a particular moment in history remain the same. When someone who has little interest in religion asks me why they should take an interest in Islam, my answer is: "To sample a different perspective and enjoy a breath of fresh air."
Whether in confrontation or in cautious dialogue, Muslims and Christians have faced each other and been obliged to deal with each other for the past thirteen centuries, and the very existence of Islam has had a profound influence on the changing patterns of western civilization. This civilization is commonly described as Judaeo-Christian in origin, but there is a third strand in the monotheistic "rope of God", the rope grasped by those who desire a good life and a good exit from this life: Islam. The three religions lay claim to a common ancestor, the prophet and patriarch Abraham, the first "monotheist" in the strict sense of the term. They are three facets of this adherence to an undiluted awareness of the divine unity and singularity. What they have in common outweighs their differences, but the intertwining of the three strands is fascinating and often illuminating. Jews, when they are able to put aside the politics of confrontation, usually feel closer to Muslims than to Christians and understand them better. Christians, since the Bible includes the Jewish scriptures, cannot escape from the Judaic tradition however savagely they may have condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus. Muslims, in their turn, regard their Faith as the culmination of this triple revelation, while the Quran suggests a preference for the Christians.
In the chapter of the Quran called Ya Sin there is a parable usually taken to refer to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad: "The people of the city when those sent (by God) came to them when We sent to them two, and they rejected them, so We reinforced them with a third, who said: 'See! We have been sent to you.' They (the people of the city) said: 'You are only mortals like ourselves. The Most Merciful one has revealed nothing. You are liars!'" This theme of rejection recurs constantly in the Quran because it has been a constant factor in human history and in human nature, which is drawn simultaneously in two different directions-towards two magnetic poles-the Light and the dark.
The term "Muslim" (with a capital letter) is properly applied only to those who follow the message of the Quran, but, when it takes the lower case, it has a far more universal meaning. In the first place, everyone and everything is muslim in the sense that all, knowingly or unknowingly, are subject to the Divine Will and cannot escape from it. The rock that falls by the force of gravity is muslim; so are the birds and the beasts of the field, so too is humankind as a whole. All submit to the will of their creator. Secondly, those who choose to obey guidance from above are muslim in a higher sense. When, in the Quran, the followers of Jesus confess, "We are muslims", they cannot have meant that they followed a messenger as yet unborn. There is, then, Islam as a recognisable religion, there is islam as the faith and practice of all who believe in God and, finally, there is the islam of creation as such. Nothing that enjoys the light of existence is self-sufficient. Everything depends upon the source from which it came and to which it will return when creation is wrapped up and submits to its own end.
Excerpted from the book "Remembering God" by Charles Le Gai Eaton.