“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful …” So begins the first sentence in the Quran, Islam’s holy book and that phrase is repeated 114 times therein. While many people can and do argue at length from subtle and obscure text and doctrines, I think if something starts the first verse of scripture and is repeated more than a hundred times in that scripture, often starting chapters, it’s pretty safe to say it represents the theme of the faith. Especially since the rest of the scripture has dozens of commands to help the destitute, respect Christians and Jews as “people of the Book”, and in general to conduct oneself in a humble and righteous manner, which is to say, helping others and doing good.
That kind of Islam I could applaud, frankly, and I have seen it in many places.
But far too often we hear and see a different Islam, one that cheers violence against people simply for different beliefs. Nowhere in the Quran is it acceptable to kidnap someone, then cut the head off your captive on television in the name of Allah. Nowhere in the Quran is it said that Allah is pleased when men take over a civilian airliner and fly it into a building full of innocent people. I’m not saying this is not Islam, because sadly it is, but it demonstrates that Islam is at war – against itself.
I try hard not to label a faith I don’t believe as “wrong”, because it’s too simplistic, and by doing so I could be guilty of hypocrisy and arrogance myself. After all, as a Christian I have to accept the crimes committed by the Church and Christians in power. I am not a Roman Catholic, but even so as a Christian I have to accept that the Church abused non-Christians with the Crusades and the Inquisition. I was never for segregation or slavery, but the Church was silent or complicit for many years in both cases. Without even addressing questions of dogma, the Church has proven itself as fallible as Mankind. Therefore, a reasonable man must be careful before pointing a finger at a religion and calling it “false” just because it is not in line with his own beliefs.
Rather, a faith may be fairly measured, I believe, by looking at its accomplishments. For example, while I find the Mormon doctrine absurd (find an early edition of the Book of Mormon sometime, especially one from the 19th century, and have a good laugh at the things printed there which have been removed by subsequent, ahem, ‘revelations’, like justification for Racism and Polygamy) I am struck by the strong emphasis by Mormons on honesty, integrity, abstinence from strong drink or recreational drugs and tobacco, and thrift. This is interesting to me, because Islam also emphasizes moral,upright living, with strong prohibitions against intoxication and promiscuity. And frankly, speaking just for myself I don’t believe Muhammed was a true prophet of the Lord any more than I believe Joseph Smith received a set of gold plates from God and a special set of magic glasses so he could interpret them, but that does not at all diminish my respect for Muslims and Mormons who practice their faith in piety and peace. Some Muslims and most Mormons are people of integrity and great character. The big difference, though, is that Mormons have not condoned anyone’s murder for different religious beliefs for over a century now, much less cut their heads off and posted the video on the Internet.
There are many other belief systems that I think are a bit off the mark, but which pose no threat. Scientology, for example, that religion based loosely on the writings of a man with a tenuous grasp on Reality. It would be generous to simply mention that Scientologists are a bit unusual in their beliefs and practices, but then again there’s no reason a person cannot be a Scientologist and very fine human being at the same time. So there is a great difference between the doctrine and the validity of a faith. Come to that, I recall learning that in 1054 AD, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church each excomunicated the other church entire, and so it may be argued with some evidence that the Christian Church invalidated iself some 956 years ago. Not that I believe so, but the claim can be made on more than empty air.
So, how then to measure a faith? Individuals may or may not represent the greater group, and no dogma has endured without error for long. It seems to me, then, that we may consider the fruit of the faith, whether on the whole it has been good or bad for people. Discounting the virtue or pain of putting up with the doctrines and public face of religions, in general it seems to me obvious that Christianity and Buddhism have clearly done far more good than harm. Countless schools, hospitals, orphanages and relief groups have been founded and based on the teachings and example of Christ and Buddha. And not just for their own people. When the 2004 tsunami devastated Sumatra, Indonesia, and Thailand, Christian charities wwere among the first to bring medicine, clothing, temporary shelter and food. And a year later, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast of the United States, a number of Buddhist relief groups responded quickly in the same way.
Anyone remember the last time a Muslim relief organization showed up to help non-Muslims?
But there’s more. Christians have produced literature, for example, and I don’t mean just religious-themed books. Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling stand out for great stories in their own right. Christians have been responsible for major advances in Science and Medicine, and not just in the day of Isaac Newton. Islam, on the other hand, boasts no Scientific or Medical accomplishment in the past ten centuries that can be called truly great – none at all. It may, in fact, even be fair to suggest that Islam opposes the spirit of inquiry and experiment that brings such discovery and innovation to the world in the first place. There is a great difference between the Buddhist or Christian who is inspired by his faith, and the Muslim who is chained by the proscriptions of the inflexible and paranoid leaders of Sharia.