Many years ago, when I learned that my first cousin had become a Muslim, I was surprised. Central Illinois is not the environment in which I expected Muslim conversion to occur. My cousin, however, met her husband at the University of Illinois, where many students and teachers represent the wider world. He was from Iraq, and they fell in love. She found enough affirmation of her Christian beliefs within Islam to convert, which was easier for her than for him, considering his strong Muslim family ties. Their marriage occurred in the years in which Saddam Hussein and the United States’ administration were on friendly terms, and she went with him to live in Iraq for several years, while his work in agriculture—teaching and government administration—proved rewarding. Then life began to change for everyone concerned, and they found their way back to Illinois and the university. Meanwhile their family grew, and soon I had many Muslim cousins. We were an ecumenical family, with Jews, Christians—both Catholic and Protestant, Muslims, and Buddhists, all related to one another by close family ties.
By the time I had learned of her conversion, I had read a few books on Islam and its practices and history, as well as other faiths. That was an interest of mine, which I pursued in college as well, majoring in philosophy and religion at Illinois Wesleyan University. My instructors were not advocates of Islam; most of them were professing Christians, but they were for the most part fair in their presentations of other faiths, and they encouraged our open-minded communication and visits to the worship and study centers of other faiths, which I did enthusiastically.
Although I was secure in my own faith traditions, aspects of Judaism and of Islam were still attractive enough for me to develop both sympathy and admiration for the faithful people I met from those backgrounds. Clearly a spectrum of beliefs, from hardline and literalistic to permeable and metaphoric, existed in the three branches of the children of Abraham. We were cousins, both in fact and in faith, not always friendly and loving cousins, but potentially so.
A biography of Moses ben Maimon—Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher—fascinated me. Like many of our ancestors of all three faiths he had to flee Spain at one of the historic points of intolerance and expulsion. His refugee journey ended in Egypt under Islamic rule, and he soon found his way into the medical service for the ruling family. His dilemma was whether he could declare himself a Muslim. It would ease his entrance into Egyptian society. Was there a sense in which he could accept the faith of Islam?
As far as the meaning of the word ‘Islam’ was concerned, there was no problem. Being subservient or obedient to the One God was what their faith was about, and so was his faith. That they called him Allah presented no problem, for he understood that ‘Allah” was an Arabic word for God, much as the English people had adopted the old English word ‘God.’ Hebrew had adopted many Semitic words from their cultural environment as names for ‘YHWH’ as well. The practices of Islam—profession of faith, daily prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Medina and Mecca—presented no insurmountable obstacles; those practices were familiar and admirable.
The main question for Maimonides was whether he could affirm that Mohammed was a prophet of God. He didn’t have to declare that Mohammed was the only prophet, since their writings affirmed the prophetic gifts in Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and even Jesus and his mother Mary. Certainly in practice Islamic attention was fixed on Mohammed, but they accepted the prophetic roles of the others as well. Finally, after much thought, Maimonides decided that Mohammed had at least as much prophetic spirit as some of the earlier prophets of Israel. Mohammed had repudiated and replaced the idolatry and polytheism of Arabia with a clear monotheism, he had accepted the validity of the faith of other People of the Book (Jews and Christians), and he had stressed the many attributes of God that Maimonides praised as well—mercy, justice, wisdom, compassion, and patience, among others. Therefore he could affirm the name of Muslim as long as he could continue to practice his Jewish faith as well. That seemed to me a fair and understandable position for a wise man to take.
If I were to live in a world where we were required to affirm a single faith in order to be accepted, I wondered and still wonder what I would do. If the required faith was a form of literalistic and fundamentalist Christianity, I would be as hard-pressed to affirm it as I would be to affirm the same kind of Islam, or Mormonism, or Lutheranism for that matter. As long as our attention is fixed on God and human need, whether I try to live under the title of Jew, Christian, or Muslim, I still have a long way to go to learn how to do it well.