Islam and the Shariah

The Vision of Islam

The Vision of IslamI’ve noted in the past how an imam here in Oxford once was asked by one of our Summit Oxford students, “What is the difference between Islam and Shariah law?” The imam was perplexed by the question. His answer revealed why that was so: “Islam is the Shariah. When one practices Islam, one is practicing the Shariah. One cannot reject the Shariah, or criticize it, and be Muslim. That person would be an apostate, an infidel.”

Such a tight identification of Islam and Shariah may seem perplexing in our world today. In part, this may arise from the great diversity one may find among Muslims. Another is the great diversity of opinions one may find among Muslims. Another simply is that, as non-Muslims, we might have a difficult time figuring out just what Islam is and what Muslims are obligated to believe and do. Yet another is that Muslims living in non-Islamic contexts might not live or think or speak as they might if they lived in Islamic states or thickly Islamic cultures. And so the perplexity remains.

A book arrived in the post today: The Vision of Islam, by Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick. It was recommended to me as a helpful introductory survey of Islam, as if I needed yet another volume in that category among the handfuls that I have on my shelves. And yet, I’m ever interested in understanding and making sure to have and state correctly the convictions of others.

Readings at Summit Oxford

Summer Term 2015

Readings at Summit Oxford • Summer Term 2015

It undoubtedly is a truism that one can be wearied by the reading of many books. Perhaps even more so, the reading of many online articles, a bulk of blogs, frenzied Facebook statuses, hasty hashtags, and awful opinions. Even so, some publications actually can be enlightening and perhaps challenging. Some most certainly are fuel for our conversations at Summit Oxford.

Often I am asked about what we are reading in the Summit Oxford program. The list changes a bit from term to term. New books are published, older ones seem less pressing or helpful, and there is ever a steady stream of articles and chapters on subjects that beg to be included. We do read a lot, mind you, exceeding 2000 pages.

For the upcoming coming Summer Term (9 June – August 10), along with a selection of articles, essays, and other items, we are reading and discussing the volumes listed below. I have listed them roughly in the order we will read them. I also have provided links to Amazon, if you care to purchase any of them.

Summit Oxford Study Centre -

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 5

Ritual Impurity

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics

5 – Ritual Purity

The previous four installments in this series are linked below. While when combined, they exceed 6500 words. This post provides another 2000 words. Once you are a little over halfway, I think the momentum of curiosity will carry you to the end, though I could be mistaken. Regardless, I would recommend that the series be read in order. There is a madness in the method, if I’m honest, though it’ll test our endurance.

1 – Prefatory Playfulness

2 – Love and Leviticus 

3 – Practice and Priorities

4 – Abominations

Some elements in this series will be seen as provocative. That is inevitable — even intentional, at times. So, without further delay, lets move on to some impure thoughts.

Islamic Imperialism

As I continue my study of Islam (which began over two decades ago when I first began conversations with Muslim students at Utah State University shortly after I had become a Christian), I’ve recently turned my attention to the history of things: tribes, empires, nations. Recently my attention was brought to Efraim Karsh’s study of Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007, 2013).

Much in this volume has not only informed me but given me pause to reflect on the convictions and history of the grand Christian tradition. And is there ever much to learn about and from history. One can at times feel so very small against a growing knowledge of historical episodes and eras. Alas, it is so. Yet we must not pale before the task of knowing ourselves in the mirror of history. There is no other way to know ourselves. 

Legislate Morality?

The deep truths of the following excerpt about legislating morality has never been so clear as it is right now in American history and culture. It is from Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution, 63.

It is often said that we cannot legislate morality. Yet we are constantly doing just that. The most dramatic example is the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, which illegitimated — morally as well as legally — racist conduct. But if laws can illegitimize certain kinds of behavior, they can legitimize others. The welfare system, for example, by subsidizing out-of-wedlock births, implicitly legitimizes such births. Or local ordinances requiring a school to distribute condoms may be said to legitimize promiscuity. Or the no-fault divorce law, by de-stigmatizing divorce, legitimizes it. William Gladstone, the political scientist and former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, has observed: ‘Law can change incentives, and incentives can shape behavior. It is amazing how many people who believe (rightly) that civil rights laws helped change racial attitudes deny that any such consequence can flow from changes to the laws of marriage and divorce.’ 

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 4: Abominations

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics

4 – Abominations

We are now to the fourth installment in this serious on the relationship of Old Testament law and New Testament ethics. We’ve moved from  some Prefatory Playfulness, to Love  and Leviticus, to some instructive analogies regarding Practices and Priorities. I realize we haven’t come very far just yet. Frankly, this is going to take some time.

Since we are scheduled to discuss the subject of abominations in our weekly Bible study this evening, I thought I should post some (though not all) thoughts on the subject. The biblical teaching regarding abominations draws both interest and ridicule, depending on where you’re standing. And when you say the term, abominations, it should be pronounced with some sort of deep, gravelly voice, almost as if either divine or downright villainous — which can be confused, depending on where you’re standing. You can follow it with a bwahahaha, if you feel need to. 

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 3: Practices and Priorities

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics

3 – Practices and Priorities

We’ve been discussion the relationship between Old Testament law and New Testament ethics. What we have discussed thus far is a sort of teaser, a taster, some initial sorts of sorties to help us loosen our grip on certain assumptions by bringing our attention to features of the biblical text that often get overlooked — overlooked especially in the heat of the rhetoric of the so-called culture wars. We yet have a way to go in gaining traction on a huge number of the relevant issues and questions and texts. So, again, you’ll need to be patient. The first two posts were:

In this post I’d like to attempt a few analogies that could help us move forward in our wide-ranging explorations on this very large subject. Imagine situations in our own day when one might assign certain practices for the service of certain ends, and not as ends in themselves. It may sound a bit paradoxical, but let me explain.

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 2: Love and Leviticus

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics

2 – Love and Leviticus

Note: If you haven’t read the previous post, you shouldn’t be starting here. Just do the right thing and behave yourself. Please. 

The first post in this series was a bit of stream of consciousness, sometimes minus the stream, at other times minus the…. (Look, please avoid micro-aggressions this early in the series.) I hope you didn’t mind, even if you wanted to ask “but what about?” from time to time. As I noted, we’ll eventually get to some, or most, if not all of the but what abouts that might come along. For now, in this post, I’d like us to explore some things often overlooked about the law, Leviticus, and love. 

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 1: Prefatory Playfulness

Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics

1 – Prefatory Playfulness

I think it is high time to post a series of ruminations on the relationship between Old Testament law and New Testament ethics. There simply are so many mistakes to be made and mishaps to muddle through on this subject, not to mention the myriad of simply sincere disagreements. And there are so very many attendant and related issues. In fact, the wide significance of the subject is such that one could suppose that it touches on all of Scripture, and perhaps on all of life.

This scale of significance can be downright off putting. It would be a sign of hubris to suppose that one has figured out all the issues, solved all the problems, and mastered all the implications. It would be worse still if one supposed not only that but also that one was able to persuade all people of these profound truths.

What I would like to offer are some observations and suggestions for your consideration. But I do beg your patience: I’ll leave comments on for this series of posts simply, though most are likely to be disregarded. Time is short. There is much to be done in life. And I really want to avoid the inevitable horde of but what abouts. On this subject, as on none other save perhaps eschatology, does one find conversation partners blurting “but what about” with such haste, rapidity, and regularity. I imagine that a number of but what abouts will be addressed in due course, anyhow, but I’d like to keep the relevant material in the posts and not in an unwieldy wake of comments. So, again, I’ll beg your patience on that front.

Purpose and Meaning in Life

Here are some Saturday morning thoughts from London. A Summit alum had asked about knowing the purpose for, and the meaning of one’s life. Here are some thoughts (not all of my thoughts, mind you).

As I’ve reflected on this over the years, I’ve felt the modern striving for purpose and meaning somewhat self-centered. It needn’t be, though it seems to tend to be. Then I’ve also wondered about what biblical teaching might have a bearing on these sorts of inquiries. What I’ve noticed is that often highlighted in the Bible are patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, apostles — people in rather peculiar circumstances and positions. At times we read that God directly appears to or speaks to and through these individuals. I think it is rather natural to suppose that these are normal experiences…or, worse, that if we don’t have these kinds of experiences, then we’re not walking with God, baptized by the Spirit, or otherwise being attuned to God’s voice enough. But the scriptures don’t seem to say that everyone is to be like these individuals in their experiences. God speaks to these people, then they speak to God’s people more generally. Not all are called to be prophets or kings or such, though all are called to follow God’s path, to participate in the grand mission of God.

So, as I’ve pondered these things, I’ve been struck by how we are called to love God and to love our neighbors (and this is our calling when stated in the Torah — Deuteronomy and Leviticus, no less — or when restated by Jesus in the gospels). (Love here is not mere sentiment or feeling or emotion; rather, it is seeking to enhance the genuine well-being of others. It is loyalty, allegiance, devotion, generosity, mutual care.) It appears to me that even if we are not granted by God specific guidance — a specified purpose or direct calling, such as “go to Nineveh” — we nevertheless are called, as God’s people, to loyally honor God and to genuinely enhance the well-being of others. As such, when I wonder what our “purpose” might or should be, I think about the needs of the church and the needs of the world. Aren’t we called to seek to meet those needs? Even if it makes us uncomfortable? And, depending on the needs, perhaps, even if we are not otherwise gifted to do the tasks that need doing. They need doing! (Just think of the parable of the good Samaritan.) As I’ve reflected on this over the years, I’ve come to be very satisfied with it, rather than stressing over whether I’ve missed God’s voice somehow. Sure, we could pull a Jonah: hear God’s voice and then flee from it. But God knows how to deal with that sort of response.

One final thought or two or three: I am struck by how some people lived at a time when Jesus walked the earth in the first century. What a special time that must have been. And yet it wasn’t a delightful time, much of the time. It was highly stressful, threatening, even downright deadly. Even so, some people were able to walk and talk with Jesus, and to see him after his resurrection (though some doubted; see Matt 28:17ff). I’ve noticed that these people were called, directly, by Jesus, vocally, and in person. And yet Jesus also said, “Blessed are those who believe and have not seen” (John 20:29). There is a deep satisfaction, and even a restfulness, in simply following Jesus, walking in faithfulness and trust, seeking better to know and honor God and genuinely enhance the well-being of our neighbors.

The burden is light.