This article appeared in the 17 December issue of The Church Times, United Kingdom, and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission.
As the son of a Christian mother and Muslim father, I spent much of my life navigating between two very different cultures. When, at the age of 29, I chose Islam as my religion, daily life took on a new complexity. Among other things, I avoided pub get-togethers on account of alcohol, and cut up my credit cards to avoid the sin of usury. One day, when my boss suggested that I could improve my sales volumes by changing my name to "something English-sounding", I finally realised that growing up in England doesn't necessarily mean you belong here.
As the subject of Islam became more common in private discussions, I began to notice significant gaps in the understanding of friends and colleagues. For many years, I had assumed that the Muslim community would eventually bridge these gaps, but today they have widened to the degree that they threaten both the Muslim and non-Muslim population of Britain. We have seen often enough in history what can happen when a minority is demonised in the popular conscience: a multitude of books and films exist to warn us that this is precisely how a Holocaust begins. And if such trials seem unlikely now, there remains the risk that more British troops will be sent to war on a groundswell of uninformed public opinion regarding Islam.
The word "Islam" means submission to the will of God, and from it comes the term "Muslim" - one who submits to the will of God. In the Qur'an, God confirms that the purpose of life is to worship Him alone (51.56), and that life is merely a test to distinguish those who will do so from those who will not (3.142). Wealth, fame, and physical pleasure are among the false objects of worship which have always tempted humankind away from the straight path; but for those who pass the test of life, paradise is the eternal reward. On this matter, the Creator has informed every era of mankind by means of scripture, prophethood, and the inspired guidance that he gives to every soul that seeks him.
The implications of this theology are profound. Because of it, as a Muslim, I believe in Jesus and the gospel that God revealed to him. I believe in Moses and the Torah, in Abraham, Noah, and many dozens of other prophets who are known to students of the Old and New Testaments (peace be upon them all). Each submitted to the will of God, and each was therefore a "Muslim". And if I were to deny the truth of Jesus's prophethood, then I could not claim to be a Muslim. For this reason, I have always found talk of a "Judaeo-Christian tradition" rather strange, for of the three religions it is Judaism that has tended to deny Jesus.
Nevertheless, the commonalities between the three faiths go deep and wide. The word for God in Arabic ("Allah") is almost identical to the word for God in the language of Jesus ("Allaha" in Aramaic), and similar to the word for God in the language of Moses ("Elloha" in Hebrew). When Jesus greeted his disciples, he said: "Peace be with you" (John 20.19), and when speaking of the future, James advised Christians to add the words "if God wills" (James 4.15). In Arabic, these two statements, "Assalamu Alaykum" and "insha'Allah" are respectively a staple diet of interaction among Muslims. They are signs of a religion that instils peace and humility among its followers.
It is sometimes forgotten that Jews, Muslims, and Christians have lived in harmony for most of the 1400 years since the advent of modern Islam. Yet current media narratives paint an entirely different picture of Islam. Muslims blow up planes and oppress women. They deny freedom of speech and propagate an austere life. Even where such views contain an element of truth - and occasionally they do - it is grotesque that the actions of a few should be used to besmirch an entire faith. Is Christianity to be blamed for the near-genocide of the Aboriginals, or for the carnage of Hiroshima? Is the Allied bombing of electricity stations in Iraq an act of Christian terrorism? While Islam is attacked for religious intolerance, passages such as Deuteronomy 13.6-10 pass by unmentioned. Anyone can take verses out of context or quote them selectively; so why focus on Islam alone?
The challenge before us now is for people of genuine faith to work together to help prevent further downward spirals in the cycle of propaganda and misunderstanding. This effort will require sincerity and knowledge of the other, a respect for the rights of people to live by their own religion, and a willingness to stare down those whose intentions are malign.
There are also many specific policy issues on which faith groups can adopt a common stand. For example, we may differ in our approach to religious education, but we have much to gain by defending one another's right to provide such an education in the first place. Similar opportunities for co-operation have arisen in my own field. I have campaigned over many years with Canon Peter Challen of the Christian Council for Monetary Justice to highlight how usury is leading to increases in poverty and economic instability throughout the world. We have put our theological differences aside, focused on areas of agreement, and got on with the job of delivering a united message to decision-makers. In this way, we have reached many audiences that would have been denied to us had we acted alone.
In a world that can be aggressively secular and materialistic, our various faiths can offer powerful remedies to the problems that now confront society. It is sad therefore that organised religions should so often find themselves being marginalised in the crucial debates of our time. This very fact indicates that, in at least one sense, our communities are sailing together, in the same ship. Who knows? By working together, we may not only save the ship, but also come to know and like each other better. Insha'Allah.
The author is a partner at a London-based company which provides advice on Islamic finance.