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MASTER OF ISLAMIC STUDIES SAMPLE

ULC SEMINARY – Paul Culp

Hello!

 

Welcome to a sample of week 1 of the Master of Islamic Studies program. This course is no longer offered, but this is an interesting lessons, so I'm still sharing it here.

Master of Islamic Studies

www.ulcseminary.org

   Universal Life Church Seminary

**********

Lesson 1 - Santa Claus

 

LESSON ONE

SANTA CLAUS, OSAMA’S CAUSE, AND WHY YOU NEED THIS COURSE

Think about Christmas.

Better yet, think about the Christmas season. Imagine that you live in a highly commercialized contemporary Western society (as most of you do) and that you must explain the Christmas season to someone from a completely different culture. Now, considering how early the shopping season begins and the decorations go up, you might need to be an expert on Halloween and Thanksgiving as well, but let’s be merciful here.

To explain the Christmas season, really explain it to someone who knew nothing about it, where would you start? Logically, you could begin with Christianity, which would require some understanding of Original Sin, monotheism, Judaism, the Greco-Roman world, Trinitarianism, and the Bible, to name just a few obvious—and challenging--topics. No doubt your alien friend would think of others. You would then need to explain why so many of the symbols and ceremonies of Christmas—like the tree and the December 25 date--have nothing whatsoever to do with the life or death of Jesus.

In other words, how did non-Christian images and customs get mixed in? The whole topic of Santa Claus—from the historical St. Nicholas through all the iterations and evolutions, down to the contemporary Santa Cult—would test your powers considerably.

Having covered the preliminaries, then—because that’s what we’re talking about so far—you’d need to explain to your interlocutor the role Christmas plays in national life and consciousness, even among (perhaps especially among) people who are only nominally religious or not religious at all, or of some other religion entirely. Why has the Christmas season become the pattern for other holidays? What is its role in the annual cycle of life? What is its place in the economy? How does the Christmas season relate to our assumptions about life, to our hopes and dreams, our childrearing practices and adult expectations, our national and cultural mythos?

Now imagine a different culture with a different religion and a different history and a different mixture of religious and secular symbols and customs and lifeways. Think about being in the same position, relative to that tradition, that your alien friend is in regarding the Christmas season.

Welcome to the serious study of Islam. You have just stepped, naked, out of mainstream thought (or non-thought) and into the real world.

The author of this course is not arrogant enough to think that he can do for you what you have just imagined trying to do for a hypothetical acquaintance. Even the Encyclopedia of Islam cannot do that—in twelve volumes and at a cost of more than $4,000. What this course can do is enable you to think intelligently about Islam and Muslims, weigh the opinions you hear from friends and strangers and pundits and politicians, and lay a foundation for further study. The relationship between Islam and the West—often fruitful, sometimes stormy, and usually complicated—is a long story, and probably of no less importance at any time in the last thirteen centuries than it is today. It’s just harder to ignore today—though millions of people want to keep trying. This course will relieve you of your ignore-ance and a fair amount of your ignorance. It will serve as a sort of primer or summary, and although you will not emerge from it as an expert, you will be responsibly informed.

Responsibility matters. Yes, it’s important to be informed about Islam because of its role in history and its effect on Western culture--such as the contribution Muslim scholars made to the Renaissance by preserving and distributing ancient Greek manuscripts, or widespread fear of the Turks as part of the apocalyptic backdrop to the Protestant Reformation, to name two ready examples.

The latter very much resembles today’s evangelical Christian preoccupation with the Middle East and the role of Arabs in the end-time, concerning which more later. Knowing something about Islam is part of being an educated person with a proper appreciation for Western and other civilizations.

As Jose Ortega y Gasset warned in The Revolt of the Masses, we are not behaving well if we take for granted the world we live in and care nothing for the attainments which make its blessings possible. Today, however, responsibility takes on an added dimension, inasmuch as public opinion can play a crucial role in the formation of public policy, diplomacy, and war.1

You owe it to yourself and to others to become the sort of person who is suspicious of “experts” who use “Muslim” and “Arab” interchangeably (most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims; just ask any Lebanese), who refer to Iranians as Arabs (they’re mostly Persian and Azerbaijani, and the national language is Farsi), who refer to Shi’ites as more radical than Sunnis (which is like saying that Catholics are more radical than Protestants), who speak as if most imported oil comes from Arab countries (estimates range from twenty to thirty percent, and Canada is the leading foreign supplier of U.S. oil)2, who speak of the Qur’an as if it were the “Muslim Bible” (in fact it’s more analogous to Christ as the Word of God made tangible), who argue that Allah isn’t the same deity as “God” in Judaism and Christianity (Arabs of all religions naturally refer to God in their own tongue, just like German Lutherans with “Gott” and French Catholics with “Dieu”), who say that “Muslims believe Jesus was just a prophet” (true in the sense that Muslims don’t believe in his divinity, but not quite right in the sense that Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth, the Second Coming, the miracles tradition, and—for some Muslims—the Immaculate Conception, or something akin to it), who state confidently that “Islam is a religion of peace” (for some Muslims it is, for others it isn’t) or that it isn’t a religion of peace (for some Muslims it isn’t, for others it is).

1.Osama bin Laden justifies his attacks on civilians by arguing that since democracy is government by the people, the line between combatants and non-combatants is erased in democratic societies. Perhaps we should have been more precise in our use of the word “democracy,” for bin Laden’s argument would be somewhat weakened if we accurately referred to the U.S. as a democratic republic. Be that as it may, our opinions count for a great deal, even when they count only because a terrorist decides that they do and plans his activities accordingly. Perhaps Osama bin Laden has unwittingly empowered the ordinary American voter.

2. Jonathan D. Strong, “A Proven Way to Lessen Dependence on Foreign Oil,” American Thinker, 4 September 2006. www.americanthinker.com/2006/09 Access date 16 March 2007.

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Islam is many things to many Muslims. How many? Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, compared with about 2.1 billion Christians. Muslims outnumber Roman Catholics (1.1 billion) and dwarf the number of Protestants (370 million). In the United States, Muslims number about 4.66 million. To put that in perspective by looking at a few other religious groups, the U.S. has 5.3 million Jews, 4.9 million Mormons, 4.7 million Eastern Orthodox Christians of all jurisdictions, 3.2 members of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and 2.3 million Episcopalians.

The number of Muslims in the U.S. is about equal to the population of Colorado or Lousiana, or of LA proper, and a bit less than that of Minnesota. It’s slightly larger than the population of the metro Boston area. The U.S. is a big country, of course—big enough that its Muslim population is larger than the total population of Ireland, Singapore, Norway, or New Zealand.3

Returning to the theme of Muslims and Arabs, it’s instructive to note that if we rank countries according to the size of their respective Muslim populations, only one of the top ten is an Arab country.

Top 10 Largest National Muslim Populations

 

Country Number of Muslims

 

Indonesia 170,310,000

Pakistan 136,000,000

Bangladesh 106,050,000

India 103,000,000

Turkey 62,410,000

Iran 60,790,000

Egypt 53,730,000

Nigeria 47,720,000

China 37,108,0004

3. World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2006.

4. www.adherents.com/largecom/com_islam.html Access date 17 March 2007. One wonders whether the U.S. government has considered the significance of the Muslim presence in China, where Muslims serve in the military in numbers disproportionate to their share of the population, according to a Chinese Muslim interviewed by the author.

_______________________________________

Most people realize that Islam predominates in North Africa, but they might be surprised to learn that the rest of Africa trumps the North by a score of 232 million to 180 million. The Middle East, with its 252 million Muslims, tops Southeast Asia’s 239 million, but South Asia has a whopping 456 million Muslims.5 Europe has 44 million, with Muslims comprising nearly a tenth of the population of France, at 5 to 6 million. Germany has about 3 million adherents to Islam, mostly of Turkish descent, and Muslims account for 4.2 percent of the population of Switzerland and 2.8 percent of the population of the United Kingdom.6

My own introduction to Islam occurred at Oxford, where my teacher was a Belgian convert who had been raised Roman Catholic. I also lived in a heavily Muslim neighborhood. After teaching academic writing and research methods at a university in the West Bank, I spent a few months teaching high school English in a Muslim school in the U.S., one which was just beginning to serve as a magnet school of sorts for Muslims from throughout the United States and even abroad. I was one of about thirty teachers, and I was responsible for about sixty students, not exactly a vast number of people.

In that group, however, I encountered ample variety: Jordanian, Chinese, Palestinian, Somali, Sudanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Indian, Indonesian, Moroccan, Ethiopean, Egyptian, Afghan, Albanian, Alabamian, African-American, Anglo-Saxon, Turkish, and Hispanic. Most of these acquaintances were Sunni, some were Shia, and at least one was from the Nation of Islam and therefore a Black Muslim and not merely a Muslim who happened to be black (to use George Carlin’s phrase).

5. “Islam by Country,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_by_Country. Access date 17 March 2007.

6. “Muslims in Europe: Country Guide.” British Broadcasting Corporation. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4385768.stm. Access date 17 March 2007.

The corruption of the financial aid process, which involved quite a bit of prevarication and tax evasion followed by boasting about the good deal one had gotten, tended to make the true economic condition of some families a bit tricky to assess.

Some were impoverished, newly arrived refugees, but many were from wealthy business and professional families. I suppose most were from somewhere in between.7 Some had been victims of racism—especially in liberal New England--while others exemplified it. At no point did I encounter anyone who approved of politically or religiously motivated violence, as far as I know. The attitude toward other religions was generally benign. As we all realize, this is not to be expected in every case. To the best of my knowledge, only one of my colleagues was a polygamist. If there were any among the parents, I never knew it.

The point I am attempting to make here is that Muslims are an extremely diverse, widely distributed multitude, and not at all marginal in today’s world. They are not going to disappear. Whether we regard Islam as good, bad, or indifferent—or something to be taken on a case-by-case basis—to remain ignorant of it is absurd.

Now that we’ve looked at the numbers, the “how many,” what different things does Islam mean to its adherents? Islam purports to be the definitive and final form of the original, archaic monotheism of Abraham, but different Muslims practice their religion in different ways, or choose not to practice it to any significant extent. This should not surprise us, if we consider more familiar phenomena.

Those of us who have lived in countries with large Christian and Jewish populations are familiar with one or more of the following:

the hard-shell fundamentalist Protestant, perhaps with a streak of apocalyptic fanaticism and a marked willingness to embrace war as the ultimate solution; the strict ultramontane Catholic; the theologically moderate believer who accepts traditional authority but allows for evolving interpretation; the liberal or progressive adherent who regards his or her innovation as the fulfilment of an ancient faith; the “Christmas Christian” or “Easter Orthodox,” for whom Christianity is for certain special days and no more; the Pentecostalist; the Charismatic, who practices Pentecostal fervor in a mainstream religious milieu; the lax Roman Catholic who sins enthusiastically and with premeditation on Saturday nights and then goes to confession on Sunday mornings for a dose of Grace, a clean slate and a new start; his Protestant counterpart, who has his “fire insurance” and therefore lives a less than exemplary life in his antinomian certainty of Grace and forgiveness without all that messy confession business introduced by those corrupt Papists; the dissenting Roman Catholic who openly disagrees with the Church on many (perhaps most) points but who remains in the fold and identifies himself as Catholic; the Eastern Orthodox who knows little about the Faith and for whom the Church is largely an ethnic club in which one eats certain foods and wears certain clothes at certain times of year; 8 the observant Jew, whether orthodox, conservative, or reform; the Jew who is largely secularized but somewhat observant; and the thoroughly secularized Jew, with few if any religious beliefs, who definitely identifies himself as Jewish, though he might or might not give it much thought unless asked about it.

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but it aids appreciation of the varieties and levels of religious affiliation and observance in our surroundings. Very well, Islam has its equivalent of all of the above, and then some. As with almost any other belief system or group affiliation, there are shades and gradations to take into account. Religion is religion and people are people.

Malise Ruthven, a leading scholar in Islamic studies, describes the matter succinctly:

Defining Islam is far from a simple matter. Using Western categories that may be alien to Muslim perceptions, we may state from the start that Islam may be both a religious faith and a political ideology; it is also, in some contexts, a mark of personal and group identity. These three definitions neither exclude nor include each other.9

Daniel Brown (not to be confused with Dan Brown of The DaVinci Code fame) issues a friendly warning:

[A]bout one-fifth of the world’s people call themselves Muslims, and…many of those…people disagree vehemently with one another on the most basic matters of faith and practices. One cannot begin to study such a subject without some effort. Those who shy away from complexity had better stop here.10

I do not cite such caveats in order to discourage the reader; quite the opposite. I wish to offer reassurance and dispel false expectations. This course will not attempt to cut through all of the complication, or to do justice to every nuance, or to satisfy every appetite for information. It will (one hopes) give the reader a compass and map with which to navigate some demanding but fascinating topography. In the next chapter, we’ll begin reducing the task to manageable proportions.

8. When my wife worked in a department store as a teen, one of her colleagues was a Greek-American girl, proudly Orthodox. When asked about the teachings of her church, all she could say was, “Oh, I love being Greek.” Many years later, after extensive experience with various Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S., we attended an Orthodox service in Palestine. Palestinian Christians complain that their Western brethren do not love them or understand them—which is generally true, sad to say—but the Orthodox there clearly preferred persecution to visitors. Our experience was not unique; we knew an Orthodox priest from the U.S. who was treated the same way. The Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims were much more hospitable.

9. Malise Ruthven. Islam: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1987, p.2.

10. Daniel Brown. A New Introduction to Islam. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, p. xv.

STUDY QUESTIONS

What self-described European country—an ally of the United States—has one of the ten largest Muslim populations? What is the only Arab country among the nations with the ten largest Muslim populations? What are the two largest or primary varieties of Islam? About what percentage of the U.S. population is Muslim? What distinguishes a Black Muslim from a black Muslim? In your own words, why is knowledge of Islam important today?

Osama bin Laden justifies his attacks on civilians by arguing that since democracy is government by the people, the line between combatants and non-combatants is erased in democratic societies. Perhaps we should have been more precise in our use of the word “democracy,” for bin Laden’s argument would be somewhat weakened if we accurately referred to the U.S. as a democratic republic. Be that as it may, our opinions count for a great deal, even when they count only because a terrorist decides that they do and plans his activities accordingly. Perhaps Osama bin Laden has unwittingly empowered the ordinary American voter.

Jonathan D. Strong, “A Proven Way to Lessen Dependence on Foreign Oil,” American Thinker, 4 September 2006. www.americanthinker.com/2006/09 Access date 16 March 2007.

World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2006.

www.adherents.com/largecom/com_islam.html Access date 17 March 2007. One wonders whether the U.S. government has considered the significance of the Muslim presence in China, where Muslims serve in the military in numbers disproportionate to their share of the population, according to a Chinese Muslim interviewed by the author.

“Islam by Country,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_by_Country. Access date 17 March 2007.

“Muslims in Europe: Country Guide.” British Broadcasting Corporation. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4385768.stm. Access date 17 March 2007.

The corruption of the financial aid process, which involved quite a bit of prevarication and tax evasion followed by boasting about the good deal one had gotten, tended to make the true economic condition of some families a bit tricky to assess.

When my wife worked in a department store as a teen, one of her colleagues was a Greek-American girl, proudly Orthodox. When asked about the teachings of her church, all she could say was, “Oh, I love being Greek.” Many years later, after extensive experience with various Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S., we attended an Orthodox service in Palestine. Palestinian Christians complain that their Western brethren do not love them or understand them—which is generally true, sad to say—but the Orthodox there clearly preferred persecution to visitors. Our experience was not unique; we knew an Orthodox priest from the U.S. who was treated the same way. The Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims were much more hospitable.

Malise Ruthven. Islam: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1987, p.2.

Daniel Brown. A New Introduction to Islam. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, p. xv.

 

 

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