Islam, Peace and Social Justice: A Christian Perspective

Islam, Peace and Social Justice: A Christian Perspective


I was privileged to have the following book review published in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Volume 71, Issue 1 (January 2017). Interpretation is published by SAGE. This review appears by permission.


Islam, Peace and Social Justice: A Christian Perspective

A. Christian van Gorder

Cambridge: James Clarke, 2014.

292 pp. $50.00. ISBN 978-0-227-17422-7.

 

In the midst of the Islamic State’s campaign to purify the social order for God, George Packer at The New Yorker assessed: “A lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam. Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic connection” (“The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders,” News Desk, 7 Jan., 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/blame-for-charlie-hebdo-murders). But not mainstream Muslim intellectuals like Tariq Ramadan, who, shortly after the Paris and Copenhagen shootings and the ISIS beheadings of twenty-one Egyptian Copts, wrote that “suggesting simply that terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam have nothing to do with Islam is not serious” (“Muslim Democrats of the World, Unite!”, Huffington Post, 9 Feb., 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tariq-ramadan/). Meanwhile, Christian leaders like Jim Wallis have reminded us: “Religious fundamentalism is best defeated from within its own tradition” (“5 Things to Know about ISIS and the Theology of Evil,” Sojourners 26 Feb., 2015, https://sojo.net/articles/5-thingsknow-about-isis-and-theology-evil).

Enter van Gorder’s Christian engagement with Islam through the prism of its social justice vision. At the breadth and depth of this reference point—including ideals and shortcomings—he re-casts an ancient proverb: “Religious tradition, heal thyself!” Indeed, “the clash of civilizations” within Islam is vividly described by Muslim scholar Farid Esack as the search for a “path between dehumanizing fundamentalism and fossilized traditionalism” (p. 28). Tucked within intensely flavorful chapters that include sweet, sour and spice, van Gorder makes the case for such an Islamic path—although his culinary skills will require a sophisticated palate on the part of the reader. For instance, the averred Islamic goal of “developing a culture of restoration . . . in a world of cultural and religious diversity” (p. 97) will test even discerning taste buds in view of ISIS’s headline-grabbing intolerance and destruction. Moreover, those already inclined against the polarizing paradigm of Islam-versus-democracy will still recognize distinct flavor profiles in van Gorder’s presentation of Islam and civil rights: “Islamic democracy . . . is capable of promoting the plural interests of a diverse community even as it also submits to God’s rule” (p. 83); “Islamic history has shown that distinct political standards should apply unevenly to various groups of people” (p. 82).

From bold explorations of sexism and racism in Islam to critical engagement with genocide and atrocity among (and by) Muslims, every dish van Gorder serves up maintains an appropriate complexity. Sometimes the complexity tastes disharmonious. Consider sharia: “[Sharia] guidelines are specific . . . divine revelation is not for re-consideration or negotiation” (p. 104), he explains, while also asserting, “[The Qur’an] clearly ascribes penalties that are less harsh than a number of Islamic sharia codes that are now in place” (p. 94). However, like the other dishes, it must be consumed—by non-Muslims and Muslims—for the sake of honest evaluation and mutual understanding.

Ultimately, van Gorder is strongly nudging Christians past “intractable theological and soteriological arguments” (p. 21) toward a common space for social justice partnerships with Muslims. And, occasionally, the line between hope and wishful thinking becomes blurry: “Individuals of all faiths should easily be able to acknowledge the inherent limitations of our own finite points of reference” (p. 196). Notwithstanding, would to God that many Christian pastors, organization leaders, and influencers concur with Van Gorder that differences “cannot be the final word in matters of multi-faith engagement” (p. 201). Our priorities “should always be inclusive in a way that mirrors God’s vast heart embracing love for all creation” (p. 202), which is certainly a tasty proposition.


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