We've just finished watching Rageh Omaar's Life of Muhammad, although the BBC series finished a couple of weeks ago - the joys of the PVR. In spite of a snarky piece in Private Eye, I really enjoyed it. I probably know more about Islam than the vast majority in Britain, but this programme revealed how little I actually know. And while being appropriately respectful, the programme did not shrink from posing many of the challenges made by people today.
Of course, the benchmark I measure Islam against is Christianity, about which I do know something. Islam is clearly from the same family of religions, and like it sprang from nowhere to become one of the world's great religions. Unfortunately, since the programme focused on the life of Mohammed himself, we did not get much insight into how it took the world by storm, merely its eventual success in Arabia.
Islam clearly has many strengths against Christianity. Its core narrative and doctrine is much better worked out. Christianity is an accidental religion bursting forth from the teachings of Jesus over a very short period. So there's a lot of muddle at the heart, the doctrine of the trinity, the incarnation, virgin birth, and the idea of the Atonement, and so on. Compared to this Islam is a model of clarity, with the overwhelming dominance of the one God at its heart.
Still, I had not appreciated that the Koran, the revelations of God's word that came to Mohammed, built up over a period of quite a few years as the prophet struggled from crisis to crisis before his eventual triumph. This leaves it with a certain amount of ambiguity, which is clearly a problem today. What makes it worse is the idea that the Koran, as the direct word of God, is sacrosanct and incapable of being wrong. This is an even harder doctrine than than the popular Christian one of absolute faith in their Book.
Two examples were discussed at some length in the programme. First there was women's dress, and the popular idea that Islam means that women should be veiled in public. Several modern scholars popped up to say that this was not what Koran teaches, with the offending verses being both vague and explainable in context. Set this against the absolute confidence of a fully veiled woman who believed that the more modestly she dressed, the more pleasing it was to God. No number of urbane scholars were going to convince her otherwise.
Likewise the jihad doctrine behind terrorist movements like Al-Qaeda. An even wider range of scholars was on hand to say that this was a misinterpretation of the idea of jihad, and that the killing of innocent bystanders was absolutely forbidden. Again this had to be set against the conviction of a pair of young men that jihad exactly meant war against the infidel, supported by a blood-curdling looking verse from the Koran itself (which the programme flashed across the screen without reading out); they also had difficulty in accepting that there was such a thing as an innocent bystander.
This kind of irresolvable dispute is all too familiar in Christianity - consider the issues of homosexuality and women priests. No amount of scholarship will help here, since the believers on either side feel the truth deeply in their hearts. There is enough in the writings and doctrines of Islam to give terrorists and oppressors of women's freedoms what they need. But at the same time these are far from necessary implications of the faith. In fact Islam is remarkably similar to Christianity in being a basis for all manner of good works and liberal ideas.
My understanding of Christianity is that it has a stronger pacifist element than Islam, though pacifism was not absent from Mohammed's message. It will, of course, be very difficult to persuade Muslims of that, given the wanton violence committed in the religion's very name in the Crusades, and by many Christians since. Indeed, it only recent political correctness that is taking the positive connotations away from the word "crusade" in the West.
Islamic scholars and imams clearly have a job on their hands in adapting their religion to the needs of the world around them. But this is not an impossible task, as this wonderful religion, and the life of the great man its prophet, has all the required raw material. We westerners should respect it more; the basics of Islam should be taught in all our schools, along with those of Christianity. It is above all the sense of threat that drives so many followers of Islam into an extremist path. We must reduce that feeling of threat, while standing up for women's rights and peaceful coexistence.