What 25 Conversations with Muslims Taught Me About Their Faith

I read the Qur’an differently after learning how my Muslim neighbors read their holy book.

Like most Americans, I knew little about my Muslim neighbors or the faith that informs their lives. My perception was informed by the many images of Muslim extremists in the Middle East who continue to wage unholy wars in the name of Islam. No doubt, their actions cast a burden on American Muslims. Both look to the Qur’an for guidance — which made me wonder: How do my Muslim neighbors read their holy book?

I undertook a journey of intellect and spirit looking for an answer. I traveled among Muslims in North America with one question: Would you speak with me about a passage of your choosing from the Qur’an? I met with Sunnis and Shi‘ites, women and men, traditionalists and progressives — all from a variety of ethnic heritages.

I elected to speak with religious scholars and leaders because theirs are influential voices in the community that shape how others interpret the Qur’an. Twenty-five conversations later, I have come to appreciate both the great diversity within the Muslim community and the common themes that emerged from these encounters.

Mercy is at the core of the message of the Qur’an and therefore of our purpose as human beings.

What did I learn from my Muslim guides? First, that the primary human task for a Muslim is to understand and emulate the divine attributes, the foremost being mercy. Mercy is at the core of the message of the Qur’an and therefore of our purpose as human beings. This mercy is not limited to co-religionists, but is to be extended to all humankind.

Social justice is likewise at the center of the Qur’an. It is a fundamental betrayal of the faith not to care for the marginalized. Many of my Muslim companions found at the heart of the Qur’an a critique of patriarchy, of racial injustice, and of environmental degradation.

Muslim extremists and strident Islamophobes may well be the only ones who read injunctions to violence (“Slay the unbelievers”) as central to Islam. Most scriptures have difficult passages, and traditional Muslim practice is to read these “few in light of the many,” as one Muslim scholar told me, to understand them as arising in response to a particular historical context that severely limits their applicability.

On its own, a little scripture can be a dangerous thing. The book of Deuteronomy calls for all the men of the town to stone to death a stubborn and disobedient son (see chapter 21:18-21). While no one contends that these words are not in the Bible, which Christians or Jews take this as the core message of their religion? I learned that guidance derived from the Qur’an is not so much coordinates on a map as it is the astronomical placement of stars — both guide, but the stars move and change with the season.

It was my privilege, under the guidance of my Muslim teachers, to experience the power and beauty of the Qur’an.

I was told that that the real location of the struggle between good and evil is within each human heart, so people must resist the temptation to divide the world into heroes and villains and to battle those who are perceived as the latter. I heard that if one repels evil with good, rather than responding to evil with evil, enemies can become friends. The Qur’an tells its readers, “Everywhere you turn, there is the face of God.” I was shown that this verse is the lens through which to read the entire Qur’an — and live your life.

It was my privilege, under the guidance of my Muslim teachers, to experience the power and beauty of the Qur’an, and even to be enriched by its engagement of the big questions of life — not just an aesthetic experience, but also as a spiritual encounter.

As a result of my encounters with my Muslim teachers, I now read the Qur’an differently. They have become my reading companions. I feel their presence in the room as I open their holy book and am invited into a profound sense of the numinous.

My vocation in life is to be a teacher, and this journey among Muslims grew from my calling to teach. If education is in part about peace building, then it is essential we seek to understand our Muslim neighbors in this time of misrepresentation of their faith and community. The voices of our Muslim neighbors can instruct and edify the rest of us.

Image via Shutterstock.

Michael Birkel
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  • Sam

    If I may, I would like to share a couple of ahya that have always resonated with me (I’ll be providing surah and ahya along with the translation by Muhammad Asad, found in The Message of the Quran, as it resonates with me the most):

    Al-Imran (3):7

    It is He who has sent down to you the Book. Parts of it are definitive verses, which are the mother of the Book, while others are metaphorical.1 As for those in whose hearts is deviance, they pursue what is metaphorical in it, courting temptation and courting its interpretation. But no one knows its interpretation except Allah and those firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; all of it is from our Lord.’ And none takes admonition except those who possess intellect.

    1 Or ‘ambiguous.’

    Ghafir (40):57

    Surely the creation of the heavens and the earth is more prodigious than the creation of mankind,1 but most people do not know.

    These two ahya I think reflect the honesty with which we must approach the world, each other, and our selves.

  • nwcolorist

    Mr. Birkel, with your standing as a college professor, I was hoping for something a little more substantial, possibly a critical analysis or comparison to the Bible. But thanks for your efforts.