Humans love to tell stories. Our stories range from the small dramas of life – something that happened in the office or on the road or at the store – to longer tales of people we’ve known or read about or seen on TV. These narratives help us make sense of the world.
In most cases, we’re not protective of our narratives. When new information comes along, we roll with it. Millions of people once loved the story of how young George Washington was unable to lie about chopping down that cherry tree. We now know that was made up by hagiographer Mason Weems. OK, so Washington wasn’t a saint. No big deal.
The most powerful narratives on earth are found in the scriptures that encode the world’s religions. If religion were mere history, scholars could produce a generally accepted version of what was said and done by Siddhartha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and other religious pioneers. The religious nature of their careers, however, complicates scholarship. Their words are deemed sacred. Who are we to challenge them?
Case very much in point: Muhammad. In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), Taylor Luck, an Amman-based correspondent and observer who has covered Islamic movements, Jordanian society, and politics across the Arab world for nine years, looks at competing narratives in the world of Islam. Many young men (less frequently women) have been drawn to the Salafist version, the militant, convert-or-die school that animates Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and other offshoots.
There is no need to describe the pain this version of Islam has inflicted. You see it every day in the news.
Taylor writes about another, faster-growing version of Islam. Dawah and Tabligh isn’t liberal Islam. The best that can be said of it is that it appears to be nonmilitant and apolitical. It urges small acts of kindness. That quiet form of Islam is more in sync with the Islam practiced by the vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the ones who abhor violence and just want to practice their faith, raise their kids, and live and let live. Dawah thus is an improvement over Salafism and seems to be channeling militants into an inner struggle rather than violent jihad. But it is still a far cry from an Islam that treats women as equals and accepts secular government as valid.
If you read the Bible with a generous heart, you’ll want to avoid some of the verses in I Kings, Leviticus, and even some of Paul’s epistles. Deuteronomy 17:12 counsels putting to death unbelievers, much as Quran 9:5 does. If you read the Quran with a generous heart, you’ll look for passages such as Quran 2:256. “There is no compulsion in religion” is pretty close to the sentiments in Romans 14:2-6.
Scripture can justify terrible things. Scripture can justify brotherly love. If scripture is the only source of spiritual inspiration, religious movements will always swing between intolerance and generosity. The narrative needed to end religious violence can’t be written in words alone. It needs a generous heart.