According to her, “other” is “code for anyone of a different religion or religious perspective.” The Qur’an deals with this concept in a very complex way, for it has a lot to say, both positive and negative, about religious communities (e.g., Jews, Christians, Nazareans) and human diversity (e.g., believers, unbelievers, hypocrites, pagans). For example, what is meant by the phrase “believers among the People of the Book”? Are they really believers (i.e., Muslims)? If so, might there be some value in other religious communities? The revelation also critiques other communities by saying that they have hidden or distorted what they have received. As God has given every community a “rite and a law,” difference must be intentional. But then what about the verse that “only Islam is acceptable in God’s eyes”? Given the Qur’an’s complex nature, what do all of these (and other) “pieces of the puzzle” mean?
According to her, classical-era Muslim exegetes, scholars, and jurists adopted the following approaches: specifying/limiting certain verses (e.g., explaining the “believers” among the People of the Book by citing the Negus of Ethiopia) and abrogation (naskh) (e.g., the “pluralist” verses, which were mainly revealed during Islam’s early period, were abrogated by verses revealed at a later date. All of these scholars were well aware of these issues and knew that the Qur’an was a very complex text. Other complexities are the Qur’an’s claims to continuity, being a reiteration of earlier revelations, and its allusions to values outside of Muhammad’s community. A final conclusion was never reached, and so they continued to posit various interpretations.
She then discussed how their contemporary counterparts deal with this diversity. In her opinion, Muslims need to embrace pluralism (i.e., multiple ways to salvation) and thus have to formulate a pluralistic theology to get along with others. They are very sensitive to this need, but remain entangled in historical Islamic traditions. There are two contemporary American discourses. The first one, “sameness,” focuses on those verses that affirm religious diversity and commonality. Although this is an Islamically acceptable approach, it fails to engage those verses that are ambiguous when it comes to pluralism. For instance, they have nothing to say about “it is the good deeds that you do, not the dogma, that matters.” They like Sufis quite a bit, but simplify them and diminish the particularities so much that Rumi and other masters may not even be recognized as devout Muslims. A leading scholar here is the Indian reformist-writer and social activist Asghar Ali Engineer (d. 2013). The second one, talking about what is shared but paying attention to the particularities, is done mainly by establishing hierarchies. An important figure here is the Iran-based American philosopher Muhammad Legenhausen. In sum, this view holds that Islam has succeeded all other religions (i.e., you can only have one tradition at a time). Muslims can talk about what they have in common with other religions yet still maintain that Islam is still the best religion.
She critiques both of these approaches as being premised on one idea: religious practice has to be something divisive (i.e., which one is better) with the subsequent need to “fight it out.” The first approach, which does not deal with difference at all, treats all religious communities as distinct, separate, and isolated entities, a view that forces scholars and others to evaluate them.
In her book, she argues that neither trend really grapples with the Qur’an’s complexity. In fact, they need to be transcended so that we can find another way to talk about human difference. Female scholars on the Qur’an and feminist scholars of other traditions critique the whole theory that biological difference means that one gender is inherently better than the other. They also critique the sole focus on commonality on the grounds that “we are not all the same – there are real differences.” She introduced the concept of “lateral difference,” which posits that not all differences need to be evaluated to “prove” which one is “superior.” Hierarchical differences, upon which the Qur’an’s evaluative discourse is based, are located along the “axis of taqwa” (God-consciousness): “the best of you is the best in the sight of God.” Others evaluations are found in verses dealing with heaven and hell; good and evil; hypocrisy, unbelief, and associating others with God. The Qur’a defines taqwa as how one relates to God and reflect that belief in one’s social manifestations (e.g., ritual actions, treating others, benefitting society).
In closing, she stated that her book seeks to challenge the belief that all good or positive characteristics mentioned in the Qur’an are exclusive to Muslims. A different way of thinking about communal values and inherent communal identities is needed, especially in the United States, where so many different communities live together.
During the Question and Answer session, she made several interesting points:
• In the United States we tolerate the “other” relatively well, but we “know” that we are “better.” She finds this “practical tolerance” fascinating. It works well in the “lap of luxury,” she stated, but not when people or communities have to compete with each other.
• The Qur’an is talking about something more than “practical tolerance,” for “if we reduce the complexity of the Qur’an we can’t hear God.” Our personal struggle is to “implement God’s will in our life.”
• A Muslima theology states that Muslim women have a particular approach and insight. Therefore western feminism is not needed because “we have a lot of good stuff of our own.”
The event ended with Dr. Jerusha Tanner Lamptey signing copies of her book.