Book Review: Inter-faith dialogues and debates on Islam

“Interfaith Dialogues and Debates: What Would a Muslim Say (Volume 3)” by Ahmed Lotfy Rashed

This is the 3rd volume of Ahmed Lofty Rashed’s book, a set of e-mail correspondences that focus on constructive inter-faith dialogues, as well as answering to blatant insults and attacks on Islam.

As the title suggest, the book answers the many misconceptions on Islam and its relationship with other religions, most notably Christians and Jews. For instance, contrary to popular believe, in the middle ages Jews were actually able to live peacefully under the rule of Muslim, can earn prosperity, and even have intellectual freedom as the Golden Age of Jewish Philosophy occurred simultaneously during the Golden Age of Muslim Rule. In fact during the Spanish inquisition and when the Crusaders swept through Jerusalem, the Jews fled to neighbouring Muslim lands and found save haven there.

Rashed further commented that “in Europe, while Muslims were never able to live as Muslims, and Jews were only marginally able to live as Jews, it is a historical fact that Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus were able to live their faiths in Muslim lands.” And he also points out that “a Muslim man is also allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian woman. It is obvious that one marries someone for love and friendship. If friendship between Muslims and Jews or Christians was forbidden, then why would Islam allow a Muslim man to marry a Jew or Christian woman?”

Nevertheless, while Islam and other religion can live peacefully side by side, there are indeed several different theological point of views among them. For example on Noah’s flood, “in the Qur’an it was a localized flood of Noah’s valley, not an earth-spanning deluge [as described in the Old Testament].” Another impasse is on Jesus’ crucifixion. Rashed remarked that from Islam’s point of view the sequence of the events leading up the crucifixion is not refuted, but it is believed that the person who WAS crucified was not Jesus, as Jesus (PBUH) was raised up to God beforehand. And this has been the subject of peaceful theological debates among scholars, and the reason for war for extremists.

Indeed, the book also discusses one of the most hotly debated topics on Islam, i.e. the despicable conducts of radical terror groups that act in the name of the religion. Rashed explains “[w]hile radical groups do hold religious supremacist ideologies, the main reason for all the fighting is simply people wanting self-determination and rights to benefit from their natural resources without exploitation from external powers or internal Mafia families.” This point is also echoed by Karen Armstrong, in which she dedicates an entire book for it in Fields of Blood.

But what about how prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had an army and fought battles, while other prophets were [seemingly] more pacifist? Rashed answered: “Moses (PBUH) commanded armies. He sentenced criminals to death or punishment. He fought battles. So did Joshua and David and Solomon and other Hebrew prophets. Why? Why did Jesus and some other prophets (like Abraham or Jacob or Joseph) not do this? The answer is not due to what each prophet wanted or desired but rather due to the circumstances that each prophet lived in and what God’s Wisdom commanded each particular prophet to do. Jesus lived in a time and place where there was established authority, so he was not commanded to rebel against that authority. Moses and Joshua and David and Solomon and Muhammad, in contrast, did not live in such a time or place. They were charged by God to ESTABLISH such an authority. They were political as well as spiritual leaders, responsible for material security as well as spiritual felicity.”

Furthermore, it is mentioned in the book that there are over 100 scriptures that have been revealed by God since the descent of Adam, 5 of which are mentioned by name in the Qur’an: the Scrolls of Abraham, the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Evangel of Jesus, and the Qur’an of Muhammad. But why does Muhammad (PBUH) claimed to be the last Prophet? As Rashed mentions repeatedly throughout the book, every single one of the Prophets acknowledged by Islam brought the same message to humankind, most of which were lost in translation and got distorted, corrupted, edited, and exploited. That is until The Qur’an was revealed, during the time when technology already enabled people to preserve the original message in writing, which remains authentic till this modern time.

Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is actually not the most frequently mentioned in the Qur’an. Instead, the most frequently mentioned Prophets are Prophet Moses (136 times), Prophet Jesus (59 times), and Prophet Noah (43 times) (Peace Be Upon Them). Nevertheless, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is mentioned in the Shahadah because by “believing in Muhammad’s (PBUH) message means you accept all previous prophets and messengers”, which is an important point to distinguish in advocating inter-religion peace and tolerance.

Another interesting topic is on angels, demons, and Jinns. Rashed explains that Jinn are part of the unseen world, like angels, but they have free will, like humans. While Christianity teaches that angels and demons are opposite sides of the same creation (good are called angels, and evil are called demons), Islam teaches that “angels are a distinct creation that have a fixed status with God due to their lack of free will”, while conversely “humans and jinn (demons) are two other separate creations that have free will and therefore both can be either good or evil.”

Rashed then elaborate, “the understanding is that before the creation of man, there were jinn on the Earth, and they were the Keepers of God’s Covenant. After their term came to an end, the best of the jinn, named Iblis, was allowed to dwell in Paradise with God’s angels. When God created Adam, it was then that he commanded all in Paradise to bow to Adam out of respect and humility for God’s handiwork. All the angels did so because angels have no free will; they cannot disobey God’s commands. However, the Qu’ran (8:50) states that Iblis “was one of the jinn, and he broke the command his Lord.”” The role of Jinn is how Islam explains all sorts of paranormal events like ghost sightings, psychic powers, black magic, poltergeists, possessions, etc.

Moreover, there is also a question in the book on why there is no monastic life for Muslims, in which Rashed beautifully explains “In terms of spirituality, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught moderation and balance in all acts. So indulging in food, sex, and merriment in a hedonistic way was condemned. Abstaining from food, sex, and merriment was also condemned. Both are considered extremes against the idea of living a fulfilling but God-conscious life. The Prophet taught us that we were not created except to worship God, but that worship is by acknowledging His Beneficence and enjoying His bounties in a lawful, ethical way. For this reason, monasticism is not encouraged.”

There are many more intriguing questions asked in the book, that we cannot possibly discussed in this short review one by one. This shows that there is seemingly no end on the variation of questions and attacks, on possibly the most misunderstood religion in modern age. And for that reason, this conversation-style book is an important book to read, for us to gain more understanding of the contexts, the many angles, and ultimately the truth of the real Islam.