In the past decade, a cottage industry has developed to explain “true Islam.” Those who wish to learn about Islam can find hundreds of books, visit countless websites, attend interfaith dialogs, tour mosques, or listen to university lectures. Despite all this, many Americans are still unsatisfied and hungry for answers about Islam; they are bewildered by the diversity of conflicting answers and explanations, and want to find the truth once and for all. I shared some of my thoughts on this elusive quest in an article titled How to Teach About Islam, but would also like to share ten principles for motivated self-learners who sincerely want to learn more about Islam. Actually, these are good principles for learning about anything.
1. Be open and objective. The worst thing you can do is approach the study of Islam by seeking to confirm your preconceived ideas. If that’s all you want to do, you will find plenty of resources–and won’t be any wiser for it. Approach your studies with openness and objectivity, on the other hand, and you will discover a rich and complex subject that will stretch your preconceived notions, whatever they might be.
2. Seek out varied opinions. No single person can speak for the religion of more than a billion people, who are scattered across countless cultures throughout the world. Just as you will find tremendous diversity in opinions about Christianity and its impact on the world, you will find a broad range of ideas about Islam. Deliberately seek out voices who take different approaches or even disagree with each other. If you accumulate diverse perspectives and opinions, these will add up to a wealth of knowledge and wisdom; you will have no choice but to think, evaluate, and synthesize.
3. Learn from books. If you want to learn in-depth, you need to seek out well-reasoned books. This doesn’t mean you should only read books that adhere to a certain ideological position; it means finding books that are “logically argued with skill or care”, are rooted in hard data, approach that data with sound methodology, and make a genuine effort at objectivity. If the author sounds extreme or uses passionate language to arouse emotions, you should be careful. I won’t tell you not to read them, but counterbalance them with books that are just as passionate about the opposite position. Then think hard about where the truth lies.
4. Learn from people. Islam is not about dusty texts in ivory towers; it is about the faith and lives of human beings. Unfortunately, too many people try to learn about Islam without every getting to know any Muslims. In fact, some of the self-proclaimed experts on Islam have almost no contact with Muslims. We need a real-world context in which to interpret academic knowledge; that comes from actually stepping out into the real world. If we don’t have this crucial firsthand experience, we are susceptible to unique biases and can run down intellectual rabbit trails that have almost nothing to do with reality.
5. Learn something about holy texts, interpretative texts, and lived experience. Consider these as concentric circles, each broader than the one before. You won’t learn about true Islam by reading a Qur’an cover-to-cover. You need to understand how Muslims interpret the Qur’an, which means knowing something about the sunna, shariah, and commentaries. But even mastering 10th century books about shariah won’t teach you a thing if you exclude the third circle: how Muslims actually interpret and live out this body of knowledge in their lives. All three circles are important.
6. Expect complexity. No matter how hard you look, you will never find “true Islam.” You will find a contested faith, with complex doctrines and a complex history, for which radically different individuals and organizations are debating and competing. Some of these you will respect and feel kinship with; others will terrify you. Both groups will ground their beliefs in Islamic doctrine and tradition in ways that sound convincing. If your brain is hurting and your feelings are torn, you’re probably on the right track.
7. Eschew generalizations. The corollary of #6 is that you should immediately suspect simple conclusions or sweeping generalizations about Islam. Nothing is that easy.
8. Let everyone speak for himself. Intellectual honesty and basic human decency demand it. Popular books about Islam are full of takedowns and character assassinations, on both sides of the spectrum; they are very good about telling you who you should hate. Have principles and stand for them, but before you declare war on a new enemy, make sure you at least read something they’ve written or watch them on YouTube. Then decide.
9. Take everyone with a grain of salt. As the proverb says, every man seems right in his own eyes. Most people with strong opinions about Islam sincerely believe what they say, and they can all sound convincing. Hear them out, but also recognize that there are real tensions and conflicts between different sides; this becomes more apparent as you gather more viewpoints. It takes patient investigation to reach the heart of the conflicts and make judgments about where the truth lies.
10. Expect common ground with other religions. People are the same everywhere. They love their families, want lives of dignity and happiness, and want to provide good futures for their children. They uphold virtues like kindness, charity, respect, and fairness. People are also equally flawed. They are at times mean, selfish, greedy, and intolerant of those who are different. The great religions attempt to make sense of this dual nature of mankind and its relationship to God and the cosmos, so it’s unsurprising that we find similarities among them. It’s also unsurprising that our religious doctrines and practices are susceptible to this same dual nature. Religion can be a powerful moral influence and inspire tremendous works of humanitarianism and charity, but it can also be a powerful exclusionary force that feeds hate and intolerance. Expect to find both aspects in Islam, and consider how this compares to other religions.
11. Expect differences from other religions. Just because human nature is constant, and our religions share similarities, does not mean that all religions are identical. Each major religion developed in unique circumstances, with substantially different holy texts, founding experiences, hermeneutics, and histories. These differences can have important ramifications in the real world. Don’t buy the mushy modern idea that all religions are the same; they aren’t. Carefully consider what is the same and what is different, and what these differences might mean.
12. Consider dimensions other than religion. Religion cannot be separated from other dimensions of human experience like history, politics, sociology, and economics. Contemporary discussions about Islam’s nature are inseparable from subjects like political theory, colonialism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American foreign policy, immigration policy, gender issues, and human rights. Understanding various viewpoints requires understanding something about many of these subjects. You didn’t know what you were getting into, did you?
13. Examine yourself. The reason many non-Muslims want to learn about Islam in the first place is because they are curious about how Islam might affect them or their society personally. They are interested not just in Islam, but its interaction with their lives. That means this is an equation with two parts, and we need to give equal thought to our own lives, religions, societies, and politics. There are two dangers here. One is drawing moral equivalencies between every negative or concerning thing we find; the other is refusing to examine ourselves or admit any possible wrongdoing on our own part. Don’t let that stop you; in between these two extremes is plenty of room for serious thought and vibrant discussion, and this is where much of the hard work needs to be done.
14. Be civil. Contemporary debates about Islam’s nature are nasty. Heated rhetoric and vicious accusations often substitute for reasoned discussion. Many voices so despise each other that meaningful dialog has become impossible. The debate would benefit from a little more civility. Stand up for your beliefs and advocate for them without apology, but have some human decency; let your arguments rest on principle and not hatemongering.
15. Never stop learning. You’re embarking on a big quest. Don’t let me scare you away; if you only have time to read a book or two, by all means go ahead. Just have the humility to recognize you that you are still in the shallow end of the pool, and be on the lookout for further opportunities to grow your knowledge. Enjoy the quest, enjoy the people you meet along the way, and always remain open.