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Oil and Water - Two Faiths: One God
by Amir Hussain
reviewed by David Denny

Canadian Muslim Amir Hussain teaches at Loyola Marymount University. His immersion in North American culture and acquaintance with Christianity make him an approachable and, in this book, a very readable guide to Islam. Oil and Water is divided in two parts: “Introducing Muslims and Islam” and “Issues for Dialogue.” On page 20 Hussain wades boldly into the dark waters of 9/11, recounting his experience of the days immediately following the attacks and lamenting the ignorance about Islam he encountered among neighbors and the media.

Oil and Water - Two Faiths: One God by Amir Hussain Given this ignorance, he aims to introduce readers to contemporary Islam, Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the practices that arise from the Prophet’s example and the Qur’an’s revelations. Anyone who knows little about Muhammad must hear his life presented by a Muslim, and Christian readers may be surprised to learn how often Jesus and Mary are mentioned in the Qur’an. It is also crucial for non-Muslims to know the five pillars of Islam and the four articles of faith. Hussain does not present all this as esoteric theology, but in the context of lived Muslim family and community life.

One of the essential virtues in conversations between religious traditions is to listen to your neighbor’s understanding of his or her tradition, not the views of outsiders. This book gave me the opportunity to welcome “neighbor Amir” into my home and listen to him. It was not difficult. In fact, it was fascinating, edifying, sometimes provocative, and always informative.

For readers who may not have time to read widely and deeply about Islam, Hussain’s brief but thoughtful chapters serve to correct misconceptions, make readers feel less fearful about Islam, and give practical suggestions about what Muslims can learn from Christians and how Christians can learn from Muslims. He gives Christians five very sensible guidelines:

  1. Make an effort to find a Muslim friend. Make yourself receptive, not confrontational. Don’t begin with controversy.
  2. Don’t assume you know the other’s beliefs already, especially if your assumptions are based only on what you hear in mass media or from non-Muslims.
  3. Don’t assume the worst of your Muslim friend’s community. For example, don’t place responsibility for terrorist attacks on your friend, as if even peaceful Muslims are guilty by association with acts that Islam itself condemns.
  4. Know the difference between Muslim ideals and the realities of the Muslim world. Hussain cites theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s keen observation that “Normally persons talk about other people’s religions as they are, and about their own as it ought to be.”
  5. Engage with Muslim culture. (My friend George Dardess, for example, who is a Catholic deacon, studied Arabic and the Qur’an at an Islamic center in his home town.) Listen to Muslim music or find films made by Muslims. I am a lover of Arabic calligraphy and was thrilled to see “Traces of the Calligrapher” and “Writing the Word of God”, a recent exhibit at the Asia Society in New York.

Interestingly, Hussain says, “Reading the Qur’an itself should be the last stage in this journey of dialogue” (p. 211). It is very different from the Torah or the Gospels. It is best approached through a Muslim friend’s understanding. But for the adventurous, I highly recommend Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, which includes translations of some of the older, shorter surahs, commentary, and a marvelous CD recording of chanters from around the world. The Qur’an, like poetry, must be heard, not silently read.

Although Hussain wisely counsels against seeking controversy when beginning a friendship, he does not shy away from it in the second half of his book, in which he examines violence and the role of women in Islam. He often returns to a distinction between socio-political motivations and religious teachings, cautioning readers not to assume that a cruel act committed by a Muslim is perpetrated because he or she is a Muslim. It may rather be driven by anger or despair over a political injustice, or a lust for power that co-opts “religion” in order to further its ends. Hussain also offers historical and cultural contexts for teachings and beliefs that may seem especially perplexing to outsiders. But he comes back to the need for reconciliation, and notes that Sufism can be a profound meeting place between Christians and Muslims, especially for Christians exposed to contemplative practice.

He makes a strong case for the importance of pluralism and distinguishes it from mere diversity, tolerance, and relativism:

People from different religions and ethnic backgrounds may be present in one place, but unless they are involved in a constructive engagement with one another, there is no pluralism … Second, the goal of pluralism is not simply tolerance of the other, but rather an active attempt to arrive at an understanding … Third, pluralism is not the same thing as relativism. Far from ignoring the profound differences among and within religious traditions, pluralism is committed to engaging the very differences that we have, to gain a deeper sense of each other’s commitments. (196)

Hussain cites Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s reminder that “The religious history of the world is the history of us.” Not us and them. It reminds me of Raimun Panikkar’s emphasis not on inter-religious dialogue, as if we are carved up into completely separate territories with impermeable boundaries, but intra-religious dialogue, a dialogue between members of a family: us.

 

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