15 September 2017

Conversations: God and His Messengers

Scott Harrison has been my friend since we were classmates at the ELS Seattle CELTA course. He and another classmate and mutual friend have since found their respective ways to Saudi Arabia to take jobs using the skills we learned there, teaching English.

Could you start by describing your growing up experience and the steps from where you grew up to where you are now?
With regards to religion, I grew up in a Southern Baptist family. My dad was a Sunday school teacher. During my late teens, I stopped going to church on Sundays, but I went on Wednesday evenings because it was "youth night." (Like many, I went there for the girls.)

After reading about so many horrible things in the news (murders especially), I began questioning why the world is full of such injustice and crime. Working as a security guard at the time, I convinced my partner to leave his bible with me during my graveyard shift as I wanted to "return to Jesus" that night to find some answers for why the world is full of wrong.

Although I was confused with some parts of the Bible, I started telling others they too needed to return to Jesus.

One individual I spoke with explained that he had discovered a new religion (new from his perspective) - Islam. This was at a time when Islam and Muslims were not in the news daily for blowing up people, honor killings, and other atrocities attributed to Islam.

So, I asked this individual what the main point of Islam was. He explained it is simply to take the creation away from the worship of others among creation and put them in direct contact to worship the creator.

Made sense so far.

He explained that most religions either describe the creations with some attributes of God (e.g., some of creation can forgive sins through confession, hear one's supplication, etc.), or the religions describe the creator with some attributes of the creation (e.g., God is racist, loving an infant born to a Jewish mother more than one born to a non-Jewish mother, God favors one ethnicity over another, etc.).

I found that Islam seems to describe creation as creatures having no divine attributes and all divine characteristics were uniquely for God alone; there is a clear separation between creator and creation. This unique separation of God and people (which in no way necessitates a lack of intimacy or care from God with his creation) and the idea of not having to pray to an intermediary (e.g., Jesus)...attracted me. I liked the idea of a direct line of communication to the only one I felt could help or harm me (or allow others to do so).

This strict monothesism is called Tawhīd in Islam, and it is the reason I believe people were created—to worship God alone without any partners or intermediaries between him and creation.

That core belief in Tawhīd is where I am today.

Your conversion began with questions about crime and injustice, and you found your questions resolved in Tawhīd. Could you unpack that connection further?
I think the connection at that time was that if this world is so full of oppression and injustice, there must be—or at least I want to believe there is—a time and place when full justice will be realized. For example, I like to believe there will be a day when murderers, terrorists, etc. will be held accountable for their crimes, even if they "got away" with them in this life.

The Tawhīd aspect was just the only perspective of God I feel fairly describes him and distinguishes him from creation.

I've heard Islam described as practical in comparison to the emphasis Christians place on beliefs. It also seems Islam historically has drawn very direct connections between religion and politics.
It is true in Islam there are rules like in other religions, and it seems that in Islam...those rules may be followed more strictly than in other religions.

I'm no scholar, but still, orthodoxy in Islam, like in Christianity, is critical.

Without the correct belief that God is one in his lordship, his right to worship, and in his characteristics, all actions or deeds are useless. For example, if someone were to act pious his entire life and do all forms of good deeds (e.g., prayer, charity, etc.) yet he dies praying to someone other than, or along with, God, then he dies as a disbeliever.

As for Islam's connection with politics, Islam is supposed to govern all aspects of one's life, from his private, intimate relations with his spouse to his public relations with people he rules over if he were a political leader.

How do you explain the place of women in Islam?
...Since I come from a western (American) culture, I already respected women and I feel it is highly un-manly for any man to physically abuse women. Boys don't hit girls, as we all learned as children. I only mention this because, as you know, that is usually the first thing that comes to mind—Muslims are wife-beaters.

There is even an authentic report about Muhammad (despite what most people think) narrated from his wife, Aishah who said, “God’s Messenger never hit anything with his hand ever, except when fighting (actual battle against men soldiers). Nor did he ever hit a servant or a woman.” [Recorded In Ibn Majah. Al-Albani graded it as authentic].

If by your question you are specifically asking about the dress of a woman in Islam, then I can tell you what mainstream Islam teaches. Women, like men, must dress modestly according to Islam. I believe women should wear lose fitting clothes (as should men) and cover their hair with the hijab. Unfortunately, we usually see Muslim women covering almost everything while the Muslim men wear shorts and dress as if there is no dress code for them.

What cultural differences have you observed within Islam, and how do you think they influence differing interpretations of Islam?
...The belief and practice of Islam is the same no matter where a Muslim is, but of course practicing is much easier in Muslim countries.

As for cultural differences in Islam, that is an issue.

You may see Muslims from Pakistan, for example, assuming some of their cultural practices are part of the religion. Then you may see Saudis who consider aspects of their cultural part of the religion. However, the religion is only what has come in the Quran and the authentic statements and practices of Muhammad despite one's culture.

You mentioned your conversion took place when there wasn't such an automatic association of Islam with terrorism. How do you think your story would be different if you had started asking your questions at a different time...or in a different news cycle?
Of course I cannot say for certain how I would have approached Islam had I already seen years of terrorist attacks sensationalized in the news. However, I can only guess it may have affected my decision. Still, when I converted, I simply prayed to God (my concept of him at that time) and asked him to guide me to whatever path leads to him.

What parts of the Bible were you confused with?
The contradictions in the Bible and the duplicate passages specifically made me question the authenticity of the Bible. That and the numerous versions.

I just figured if God wanted to preserve his message, why would he allow the original language to be lost and only translations/interpretations of other translations survive until today?

But since I believe you are Christian, I don't want to go too much into this so as to insult your beliefs or become argumentative about it.

In adulthood, I have come to value Christianity for its ability to tell the truth about life. But I find myself challenged by Islam—with its history and its alternative explanation for the world. Do you ever find yourself challenged in any similar way? And what do you see as a model for people—and their sometimes competing narratives—to relate to each other?
I believe the main difference between Christianity and Islam is not one of historical contradictions or narratives about individual aspects of life. Rather, I think the core difference is something much greater—the concept of God himself.

In Christianity, as I understand it, monotheism is expressed but polytheism is actualized. For example, when adherents to varying versions of Christianity pray to Jesus and/or the Father and/or the Holy Ghost or Mary, saints, etc., this to me is polytheism, worshipping something other than the one God.

I know the trinity...is explained as a single entity but with three different "persons," but still, yes, I too see competing narratives. But again, I think the main opposition between the two religions is most critically about the concept of who God is and who deserves aspects of worship such as praying.

As for the model for people, this will always differ as it will be faith-based for the most part.

You will accept as the model nothing but your scriptures, me mine. But if we look at both of these models, which of the two has gone through numerous changes, versions, and interpretations with the original text being lost?

As for the Quran, historically it can be rightfully stated that not a single word has changed of the original Arabic text for over 1400 years. The orthodox interpretation (as understood by Muhammad and his companions) is also still held today.

So again...I believe the model is none other than the texts from God. But which one is his last revelation that has been preserved?

If I may, I would like to just give a couple examples of what I believe this last...revelation states about Christianity and the concept of God and Jesus as I feel it answers this question better than I can. These texts address you as a Christian directly....

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "God is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah said, "Oh Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord." [The Quran, 5:72]

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "God is a third of three." And there is no god except one God. [The Quran, 5:72] 

And (beware the day) when God will say, "Oh Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to people, 'Take me and my mother as gods besides God?'" He will say, "Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right." [The Quran, 5:116]

I said not to them except what You commanded me - to worship God, my Lord and your Lord. [The Quran, 5:117]

People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about God except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the Son of Mary, was only a messenger of God and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in God and His messengers. And do not say, "Trinity"; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, God is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. [The Quran, 4:171]

You have a website. Could you describe it?
I started a website in 2007 called Authentic-Translations.com.

Having learned Arabic from Al-Imam University in Riyadh, I wanted to translate mainstream scholars' opinions and verdicts of contemporary issues (especially terrorism and related topics). My targeted audience was Muslims.

I wanted to let them know that their mainstream scholars, whom most Muslims respect, have been speaking out against things like murdering non-Muslims, suicide bombings, even things like praying for destruction of non-Muslims—speaking out that all of that is considered impermissible in Islam. I wanted this to be known to English-only-speaking Muslims, especially since news of "home-grown" western-raised terrorists was becoming prevalent.

On Authentic-Translations, I started translating other topics not necessarily dealing with extremism, so I made a separate site, Answering-Extremism.com to focus solely on terrorism and related issues.

Again, when people comment on all those news articles on CNN and FoxNews about how Muslims never speak out against extremism, I wanted to do something to "speak out" and make it known that, for example, scholars in Saudi Arabia have been speaking out against the likes of Ben Laden since the 90's when he was inciting people against various governments.

So, yes, I still have those two sites, and amazingly enough, the stats reveal unique IPs in so many different countries access the sites.

I have a copy of A.J. Arberry's "The Koran Interpreted." If you were going to recommend three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?
Because the Quran is often interpreted in different ways (some horribly, such as the way Muslim extremists and terrorists interpret it), it is important to know how it was intended to be interpreted by God (if you believe it's from him) and/or Muhammad. I believe in a literal interpretation of Islamic texts, but that doesn't mean that texts can be applied without consideration for other texts by any individual at any time. Therefore, I believe these two books represent my understanding of my religion best:

The Noble Quran, translated into modern English by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, Ph.D. & Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. (The Saheeh International translation might be a good runner-up).

40 Hadīth Qudsī (different transliterated spellings) which is another, shorter collection of hadīth spoken by Muhammad but with the words and/or direct meanings from God. In other words, Muslims consider hadīth qudsī to be the narrations from God but not part of the Quran.

As for a third book, my choice would likely be an Arabic title; I would not know an English title to suggest.

It's been a pleasure, my friend, answering your questions.

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