Dr Chris Hewer
St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations, London, where he runs popular adult education courses on Understanding Islam, Understanding Christianity for Muslims and Christian-Muslim relations.

How the Western mind reads Islam

What does the average person in the West know about Islam?  Not a lot!  Generally people only know the bits that they hear from TV programmes and in the news.  Very few people have read a book explaining Islam and if they have then mostly these just talk about the mechanics of Muslim rituals like prayer and fasting or going on pilgrimage.  Even though there are nearly two million Muslims in Britain, most people don’t have any Muslim friends or neighbours.  Maybe the only Muslims that they meet are in an Indian restaurant.  Not surprising that for the vast majority of people in Britain, Europe and North America, any knowledge that they have about Islam is likely to be sketchy.

The West has traditionally understood Islam to be “something foreign” and not really part of their zone of experience.  It has been thought of as something exotic: The Mystique of Islam.  There has been little opportunity for even those who are interested to interact with Muslims until the last fifty years.  Many Muslims themselves have a poor knowledge base about their religion and so even if people go out of their way to engage with Muslims that they meet, they are likely to get a limited account of what Islam is all about.  Even if one takes a group to visit a mosque and someone there gives a talk about Islam, it is likely to be about the ‘Five Pillars’.  When does one hear a speaker in a mosque begin by talking about Islam as the natural way of life for the human being; the last and definitive edition of the perennial guidance that God has sent to all the peoples of the earth since the time of Adam?

In a world of fleeting media images, most of us have short-term memories.  How many of us remember the contribution of Muslim soldiers during the 1939-45 War? How many of us remember the contribution of Muslim workers to rebuilding our economy in the 1960s and 70s?  Even people who have been educated to university level in the West are unaware, when they come to think of Islam, of the great contribution made to European civilisation and knowledge by the transfer of Greek wisdom, via 500 years of Arabic scholarship, back into Europe in the Middle Ages?  All history is written from a certain perspective.  Europeans have learnt history, like that of the Crusades, from a European perspective, which all too often portrayed Muslims as savage warriors.  How many pubs are there around Britain with names like “The Turk’s Head” or “The Saracen’s Head”?

Many people in 21st century Britain would not describe themselves as “religious” and so have a limited view of what that might mean.  They see Islam as “a religion” or “their religion” and not as a way of life designed to help human beings reach their full potential.  The humanity of Muslims is often lost sight of and Islam is reduced to being a religion – and we’re not interested in religion, thank you.  The Islamic way of life does not encourage mixing in the places where many people in the West congregate: a drink in the pub after work or going to a club for the evening.  How then are non-Muslims to gain an insight into what Islam really means in the human life of a Muslim?  What is the function of religion in a modern European democracy?  To provide a critical voice based on a set of ethical values.  Does that include Islam?  How many Muslims formulate their Islamic contributions that way?  And how many non-Muslims in the West want to hear a challenging alternative perspective on what it is to be truly human?  In our European history, we learnt the consequences of an over-bearing Christendom and so moved to a definite division between religion and the state.  When Europeans look at Islam, they see an integrated religious-political-economic-social system and that rings alarm bells; it reminds them of a system that they moved away from in earlier centuries.

In a similar way, to the Western mind, the idea of a religious law or a religion based on law often has negative overtones.  Law is something to be bent or broken!  Religious law provokes the question: what happens to you if you break it? The concept of Sharia as guidance for how to live a balanced human life is not well-understood; of course, it is often not spoken of that way by Muslims as well.  People see it as God “nit-picking” in the lives of believers.  With the concept of Sharia nearly always goes ideas about the situation of Muslim women; normally thought of as the “oppression” of Muslim women.  This is one of the greatest challenges facing us in communicating effectively about Islam for western hearers.  It is not helped by the realities of the way that some societies in the world treat Muslim women.  Similarly with Muslim extremists and questions of violence, terrorism and suicide bombers; many people in the West hear only these extreme voices and thus believe that “that is Islam”.

When western Christians look at Islam, not surprisingly they look at it through the lens of their Christian beliefs, even though these may not be well-informed.  It is often those who would say that they do not actually practise Christianity who are the most vehement defenders of what they see to be “a Christian way of life that is threatened by Islam”.  When Christians think about the Quran, they find it hard to imagine that it can have been “sent down” from God, especially six hundred years after the time of Jesus, and so they assume that the Prophet must have got it from somewhere else.  Again, the Christian view of an ideal human being and “man of God” is shaped by the life and person of Jesus and so they see contrasting elements in the life of Muhammad as being hard to reconcile: his multiple marriages, his holding political power and being the commander of the army in time of battle.