Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Breaking the Stereotypes

I am a bit over writing and talking about stereotypes. The way Muslims keep harping on about stereotypes, you’d think they were the only group subject to them.

But I guess the word is here to stay. Though I’d much rather refer to them as simply untruths or simplifications or myths or even … another dreaded cliché … as generalisations.

Whatever you want to call them, the best antidote is the facts. When John Howard and Peter Costello (who now seems to be Rupert Murdoch’s favoured choice as PM in the new year) made their woefully ignorant and imbecilic remarks about Muslim Australians and their religious symbols, many Muslims were in shock.

Similarly, when Cardinal Pell showed a most unscholarly attitude toward a non-Catholic scripture in his treatment of his alleged 70 or so pages of Qur’anic readings, Muslims were astounded.

Yet we shouldn’t be astounded. Their ignorance is a symptom of our laziness in educating and “mainstreaming” our cultures.

It seems absurd that at the beginning of the 21st century, mainstream Australia regards Islam as a threat to “Judeo-Christian values”. Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Islamic beliefs and practices and scripture and law would see enormous similarities between Islam and its Abrahamic spiritual near-twins.

Indeed, many writers and theologians hostile to Islam keep harping on about how it plagiarised so much of itself from Christianity and Judaism, how the Prophet copied his teachings from Christian sources and how Islamic texts are little more than a re-hash of Talmudic and Apocryphal sources.

Yet at the same time, these same writers and theologians (and their fellow travellers) then claim that Islam (and, by extension, its followers who have migrated to the West) is alien to Judeo-Christian values.

Seriously, you can’t have it both ways. Either Islam is similar to Judeo-Christian values or it isn’t. If you claim Islam is plagiarised from existing religious cultures, you can’t then turn around and claim it is nothing like them.

Of course, Muslims believe that the similarity between Islam and its two elder-statesmen faiths is caused by all three having a common origin – Abrahamic monotheism. For this reason, we need to emphasise the similarities and educate people about them.

Last December, I managed to get 3 versions of an article on the Qur’an’s account of Christ’s birth published in three separate publications – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, the New Zealand Herald (reproduced at Online Opinion) and NewMatilda.com.

In response to those articles, I received many e-mails from readers expressing surprise and dismay at the extent to which the New Testament and Qur’anic versions of Christ’s birth were similar. Many weren’t even aware that Muslims honoured Jesus and Mary or that Muslims believed Christ was conceived miraculously.

But it isn’t just Christ’s story where so many similarities lay. The Qur’anic account of the life of Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) is virtually identical to that contained in the Old Testament. Then there are the stories of Musa (Moses) and Firaun (Pharaoh), of Yunus (Jonah) and the whale, and of Yahya (John the Baptist).

Similarly, Islamic spirituality (known as tasawwuf in the sunni school and 'irfan in the shia school) shares much in common with the few remaining remnants of Christian Gnosticism largely confined to the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Perhaps one way to illustrate this could be for Muslim scholars to study Musa bin Maymun al-Qurtubi’s work on comparative religion. Translated into English as “Guide to the Perplexed”, this Arabic work is a classic of Andalusian spirituality and religious philosophy. It was read and admired throughout the Arab world, despite being authored by a prominent Jewish physician (known in the West as Maimonides) and sought to establish that Judaism was superior to Islam and Christianity.

(Perhaps it is a reflection of how low we have sunk that a modern-day Musa bin Maymun would probably be lynched or sentenced to death if he were to write a similar book today.)

With an exposition of the facts and an open mind, we can change people’s perceptions about ourselves. But that involves reading and research beyond the usual stuff we find in (allegedly more) Islamic bookstores and written by (allegedly more) Islamic writers.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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1 comment:

dawood said...

Agreed. Not much more I could say that you didn't already mention.