The Taliban Make a Martyr

 Dr. Groothuis’ measured comments on the South Korean hostages in Afghanistan are most productive in a terrible situation. Read it here: The Taliban Make a Martyr . We continue to be in prayer knowing all the while the awful truth: God in His omniscient wisdom will sometimes take the lives of his servants for the greater good. We struggle to understand and accept this but all we need to do is look to the cross. May peace prevail.

Defining Religion in America

Later this summer, I’m teaching a section of Religion in America in our Themes in Religion and Culture curriculum. The course examines the intersection of various religious traditions and the pluralistic culture of America to see how each contributes and affects the cultural religion of this society. In order to contribute to this discussion, students will need to be clear on the boundaries created by their personal definition of religion and cultural religion. Since many very smart people drop by here from time to time, I would like to enlist your help. Can you provide a definition for both of these terms?

No god but God by Reza Aslan

In the current discussion surrounding Islam and its adherents, a charitable work that covers the Prophet, the formation and sectarian split of the faith, and its effects on believers is difficult to come by. There are apologists and fundamentalists on the side of the faith that seek to polish or fortify the image against the stream of diatribes published regularly so finding a work of religious history that speaks with a balanced voice is particularly welcome. Such is Reza Aslan’s book No god but God 

Starting with the polytheistic traditions of the Arab peoples and igniting the story at Kaba (the cubicle containing the deities in Mecca), Aslan begins the story of Muhammad as an orphan dependent upon the largesse of an Uncle for his survival. Before God speaks through him, Muhammad’s reputation is already on the rise as a skilled merchant among the social strata of Mecca. He is able to view firsthand the disparity among the people of the city, some being enriched at the expense of others while poverty is impressed upon others and his mind is occupied with concern over this and the other societal problems brought about by adherence to cultural traditions. 

Islam germinates deeply embedded in this form of Arabian culture when the prophet is seized by the first of the crushing revelations. “Recite” the voice commanded and, as would follow hundreds of times, Muhammad spoke the words that he felt etched on his heart. Collected long after the Prophet’s death, these sayings compose the whole of the Koran. Unlike other sacred texts, the Koran does not present a progressive revelation from start to finish. Instead, we discover that it is the product of the Prophet seeking guidance for addressing specific, timely situations and the revelation he received in response. 

Aslan is a compelling writer and he carries the story of Islam through the Prophet’s life and into the internecine battles that have divided the religion since his passing. The divisions occur along leadership lines (Shiite / Sunni) and belief lines (Suffi). The reader comes to understand much of what the modern world is witnessing in the intra-Muslim violence that is so widespread and we can formulate a response as to why an Islamic reformation is long in coming.  

The latter chapters are especially instructive as Aslan helps us to understand how Islam, in its divided state, combined with imperialist and cultural conditions fomented the radical Muslim so often in the daily news. It is crucial for modern non-Muslims to grasp the intricacies of this religion and its traditions in order to understand its radicalization and Aslan traces these well. Often unknown for example is the hadith, the collected sayings and stories of the Prophet and his early inner circle, that often supplements the surah of the Koran in order to arrive at Islamic positions and beliefs. Were the hadith products of a single author and time with a direct witness relationship to the saying or event? The answer to this and other questions helps us to form a more complete picture of the religion that is front and center on our newspapers every morning.

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