“Islam Is Not a Religion”

“Islam is not a Religion.” At least that is the argument being made in a court in Murfreesboro, TN, in a suit filed to stop the building of a mosque there.

Tennessee Lt. Governor and current gubernatorial candidate, Ron Ramsey took a similar position last spring.

Without a doubt, these two instances represent disingenuous attempts to gain an edge in a political dispute. But the ambiguity in what counts as a religion creates a space for such rhetoric as well as for some profound miscommunication in contemporary debates about religion.

In another example, during ABC News’ town hall meeting on whether Americans should fear Islam last weekend, a Muslim leader was trying to defend against the charge that Islam permits a husband to beat his wife. “Show me where in the Qur’an it says that,” he said. “Where in the text?” he repeated. But they weren’t talking about the text. And unfortunately, his point was lost.

Scholars of religion and professors of religious studies are all too familiar with this problem. First, when believers make category distinctions between religion and not-religion they are concerned with authenticity: the Christian who murdered an abortion doctor on the basis of his commitment that he was called by God to do so is considered — by other Christians who oppose his actions — to be not authentically Christian. The Muslims who flew planes into buildings on September 11 are considered by Muslims who oppose them to be not authentically Muslim.

But this problem also occurs when people are working with a taken-for-granted (or what we call “untheorized”) definition of religion; usually one that privileges texts and authorities. Christianity, for example, is not just the Bible; nor is it the Bible and what leaders say it means. Christianity is the Bible, canonized and then interpreted by religious authorities over centuries and then received by a group of people who consider themselves Christian and seek to live by what they believe it teaches. Religion includes texts, beliefs, practices, authorities, but importantly it also includes what scholars call “reception.” This is the basis upon which people say, “there are as many versions of Islam as there are Muslims” (or fill in any other religion).

Who is “more” Christian: the priest performing a mass, the family practicing morning devotions, or the believer lighting votive candles to St. Anthony to find lost keys? You might have an answer to that question from the standpoint of a believer, based in which of these practices you consider “authentic.” But that’s a conversation not usefully had across religious lines; can Buddhists really weigh in (as Buddhists) on what beliefs or practices are most authentically Christian?

On the other hand, outsiders trying to make observations about religion and the impact it has on the world, cannot resort to debating which interpretation of the text is best, as though the texts exist independent of the people who read them. So Islam can be violent, and so can Christianity. Thankfully other Muslims and Christians want to say that those folks are not “really Muslim,” or “really Christian.” But if all we have is that which scholars call “insider discourse,” then conversations across religious divides become, at worst, disingenuous rhetoric, but even at best fruitless miscommunication.