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Friday, March 27, 2015

Halal Monk: A Broader Perspective on Islam

When I saw the title Halal Monk by Jonas Yunus Atlas in an e-book freebie list last month, it stood out for me.  Theology is an abiding interest of mine.  I consider myself a student of all religions.  I wanted to know more about Islam as it is currently practiced.  Atlas is a Christian who shares my interest in 21st century Islam.  He  had been conducting interviews with Islamic figures and posted them to the Halal Monk Website but decided to publish them in book form.   When I first looked at the Amazon page for this book, I saw only one review from a reader who seemed rather close-minded.    So I was determined to blog reflectively about this book.


Many of Atlas' interviewees are Sufis.  I was very impressed by a Sufi Universal Worship Service that I attended a number of years ago.   Perhaps this ceremony, which attempts to include all religions, contributes to the idea that Sufism isn't really Islamic. Though I understand that the Universal Worship Service is performed by only one lineage of Sufis.  Dispelling the idea that Sufism is heretical is a focus of some of these interviews.  Although some participants in Atlas' project wanted to promote the idea of Islamic diversity, others seemed to want to promote Islamic union.  Yet the interfaith perspective of the Universal Worship Service promotes dialogue between religions which is crucial in the face of Western hostility toward Islam.

This is why I was interested in the Cordoba Initiative of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf which he deals with in his interview with Atlas. His intent for the "Ground Zero Mosque"  in New York that never manifested was to create a community center that would facilitate communication between members of different religious traditions.   I was glad to discover on his website that he seeks to internationalize this effort.

Unfortunately, the spirit of  pluralism can be fragile.  Rauf named the Cordoba Initiative after a city that was supposed to have been a model for religious tolerance when it was under Islamic rule.  Alas, that is not the entire story of Islamic Cordoba.  I have studied the life of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides.  So I know that although Cordoba was his birthplace, he and his family eventually fled Cordoba to avoid forced conversion to Islam.  To learn more see this Brief Life of Maimonides. What happened to Cordoba?  The Umayyad Dynasty that had ruled from Cordoba collapsed.  The Berber Almohads later emerged as the new rulers of Cordoba, and eradicated the Umayyad policy of tolerance toward non-Muslims.  So perhaps we can build bridges in the current generation, but history shows that the future is always uncertain.

When I was reading Atlas' interview with Koran translator Mohammed Abdel Haleem, I was perturbed by his comparison of the translation to the original.  Haleem said that some words in Arabic have multiple connotations.  As a result, the original text of the Koran has layers of meaning.  He felt that the English translation is inferior because it can only be read on one level.  Perhaps native English speakers experience it differently.  English also has words with multiple meanings. One of the challenges of teaching English is that word usage can be very complex.  In most languages, older words have accumulated connotations and associations over their long history.  I have not read Haleem's English translation of the Koran, but it's possible that its language can be interpreted in ways that Haleem never intended.

I am always pleased when a book offers me research opportunities.  In Halal Monk, the mention of  Abdul Ghaffar Khan caused me to consult Wikipedia.  He was a Pathan political activist who was a friend of Gandhi. He  practiced satyagraha which was Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence.   He was arrested during the Salt Satyagraha which seems to have been India's equivalent of the Boston Tea Party.  It was a non-violent protest against the British tax on salt.  I would like to read the biography Nonviolent Soldier of Islam to find out more.  I would also like to read Pathan Unarmed which is about the Khudai Khidmatgar, the movement of nonviolent Muslims that Abdul Ghaffar Khan founded.

 This is the most interesting non-fiction book that I've read so far in 2015.   I recommend it to those who want to see a side of Islam that isn't well-represented in Western media.




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