The Search for Truth about Islam
I was privileged to have the following book review published in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Volume 68, Issue 3 (July 2014). Interpretation is published by SAGE. This review appears by permission.
The Search for Truth about Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction
Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2013.
266 pp. $20.00. ISBN 978-0-664-23705-9.
In 1947, with United States–Soviet tensions escalating, the Brookings Institution concluded the world was “irrevocably divided into two parts that must inevitably clash.” Two years later, a report by the American Friends Service Committee encouraged a different trajectory and tone, calling for “constructive considerations” in American–Russian relations. While we cannot deny the fact that Christian–Muslim relations are impacted by global exigencies that condition part of the atmosphere, asserting—as Ben Daniel does—that conflict is not (always) inevitable is a first step forward for the Jesus-centered peacemaker and reconciler.
Ultimately, Daniel asks us to embrace Muslims as “full participants in the religious and cultural life of our nation” as a way of choosing “the narrow path that leads to peace” (p. 199). This Christian choosing is likely to encounter opposition of the sort reflected in the exasperation articulated by two American Muslim leaders: “Some people think . . . Islam and Christianity are engaged in some kind of cosmic endgame” (p. 44); “[Misrepresenting Muslims] is an attempt to create a foreign enemy . . . in our midst” (p. 50).
Deconstructing American-sized theological or cultural fears regarding Islam is a complex endeavor. Daniel takes us well beyond overtly politicized sound-bites to a place where Christians must tread for themselves: “Islam as I have encountered it in the Muslims I know” (p. xx). True freedom is like that: it is always preceded by true knowledge. Meanwhile, Daniel’s journey guides us like a knowledgeable primer. He navigates the origins of Islam as well as an important early medieval expression of Islamic civilization in Cordoba, Spain. He offers appraisals on heat-sensitive questions surrounding Islam and violence (“The myth of Muslim violence is not entirely disconnected from historical reality,” p. 116) and Islam and women (progress and empowerment mix with suffering and oppression, as in predominantly Christian societies). Post-9/11 America also figures extensively in his purview. As he examines the concept of jihad from several angles, he critiques purveyors of Islamophobia who see “stealth jihad” anywhere and everywhere.
Efforts by Christians to translate “Islam” for their communities can face formidable challenges. In his translation, however, Daniel hospitably makes space for mainstream Muslim voices. He does not ignore the total environment of belief and practice framing Muslim life in order to capture an isolated image or two in a still photo. Throughout, he marries faithful curiosity with intellectual fairness—for example, he neither dismisses Muhammad’s revelations as Abrahamic knockoffs, nor de-emphasizes Muhammad’s active and pragmatic role in the revelations given his time and place. The book’s most impressive contribution may well be the cumulative, formative effect of Daniel’s storytelling. His delightful narratives transcend fact/ fiction by embodying how a knowledgeable love for this particular neighbor casts out fear.