Matters of faith: Updates on the world of religion

Prominent Muslim thinkers are responding to Washington Post readers online through July 27.

Online dialogue about islam

Despite the plethora of news media today, most Americans say they know little about Islam, and most Muslims say the media doesn't make room for their voices to be heard. This week, a major news company is going all out to try to change that.

Through "Muslims Speak Out," an online open forum with clerics and scholars from around the globe, The Washington Post Company has invited Muslim leaders to address the issues most on the minds of ordinary Americans. For example:

What would you tell suicide bombers who invoke Islam to justify their actions? Is it permissible for a Muslim to convert to another faith? What are the rights of women in Islam? Under what conditions does Islam sanction the use of violence?

From July 22-27, some 20 prominent Muslim thinkers are responding to these and other questions from readers via the Post's online "On Faith" discussion. Since all were asked to answer the same questions and some do so at length, poring through them can be repetitive, but also highly enlightening.

Disappointing so far is the quality of readers' comments, which tend toward misinformed, uncivil venting rather than a serious interest in dialogue. Where are the Americans who want a genuine, respectful conversation?

The site also provides helpful background information on Islam as well as the latest data from polls taken in the United States and in Muslim countries. Thought-provoking articles from citizens at home and abroad add a very human touch based on personal experiences. Other Post media outlets have joined in the ambitious project: is offering daily articles and Islam is the cover story in this week's Newsweek.

Muslims reach out

American Muslims are most aware of the paucity of understanding on both sides, and some are experimenting with their own remedy. Earlier this month, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a grass-roots group aimed at strengthening Muslims in their faith practice, had a full-day "Window on Islam" for non-Muslims at their annual convention in Hartford, Conn.

Imams and scholars held a lively seminar with more than 100 guests on such topics as what Muslims believe, jihad, how Muslims view other religions, the status of women, the role of the prophet Muhammad, and how Islam views evil.

In a discussion on jihad and terrorism, Dr. Jamal Badawi, a prominent author and scholar from Canada, said "holy war" is not in the Koran, but is an English phrase – and an oxymoron. Jihad refers to various means of striving and relates to combat only for "just causes, such as to repel aggression or resist severe oppression, and only if peaceful means to achieve peace fail." Such war is strictly regulated, including not hurting noncombatants and not destroying infrastructure or the environment. The Koran condemns excesses, even in worship, he added.

Imam Shabir Ally, an expert on biblical religions, discussed similarities and differences in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Two converts – a former evangelical pastor from Texas and a British woman journalist – shared their perspectives.

ICNA invites questions on Islam at their hot line: 877-Why-Islam.

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