What is Islam? And who is a Muslim?

Religious identity can be a tricky problem. I remember one time seeing a man standing on a street corner with a sign that said "Jews for Jesus." Some time later, I was not surprised to learn that orthodox Jews deny that such a person could even exist -- that if a Jew decides to be "for Jesus," they cease to be a Jew. So as a non-Jew, what am I supposed to decide? Was the man with the sign a Jew? Whose side was I supposed to take?

Actually, this wasn't really that much of a dilemma. I was a Religious Studies major at the time, and the question of identifying a person's religious identity had been addressed in several of my classes. The simplest solution was this: if someone claims to be a Jew, we, in the field of Religious Studies, would call them a Jew.

Conversely, if someone did not identify themselves as belonging to a particular religion, we would not label them as if they did. So the Apostle Paul was not, strictly speaking, a Christian, because he never identified himself as such. Describing him as a Christian might be acceptable from an insider (i.e. Christian) perspective, but it is not from such a perspective that one partakes in the academic discipline of Religious Studies. As a Christian I can (and do) identify St. Paul as a Christian. As a student of Religious Studies, I don't. And when it comes to non-Christian religions, I'm inclined to accept that a person's religious identity is whatever they happen to say it is. So if the man on the street corner insists that he's a Jew for Jesus, I'm not going to argue with him.

It has become fashionable among well-meaning people to say that the extremist ideology espoused by Osama bin Laden is not a true form of Islam (and that, consequently, the adherents of this religion are not true Muslims). This is understandable, and there is no doubt that Islamist extremism represents in several respects a radical departure from the Islamic tradition. But as an outsider to that particular tradition, I'm not sure if I'm comfortable defining what is and is not authentic "Islam." After all, I'm not opposed to radical departures from a religious tradition. My own particularly progressive brand of Catholicism would have had me burned at the stake a few hundred years ago, and I don't have any illusions about that. Strict definitions can create the illusions that religious traditions are static and unchanging. But no religion deserves to be unchanging. The kind of Islam I would like to see would also be a radical departure from tradition -- except that it would be in the opposite direction that Osama and his ilk have taken it.


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