Learning to Admire Allah (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Although I’m not quite conventionally religious, I do believe in a higher power: God as a force of nature. And I’m deeply fascinated by theology, and the sectarian cultural behaviors. I was  born a Roman Catholic, which as a young child growing up in the USA had little meaning for me beyond amazing architecture, lovely hymnals and dazzling new outfits (and gifts!) for Christmas and Easter. As I became more self-aware (not to mention conscious of the world beyond my wardrobe), it became apparent that since very primitive peoples through the ages have exhibited an impulse to religiosity, the drive must run deep, possibly even ingrained in our DNA. Kind of like people who weren’t “taught” religion would, absent outside influence, invent it (or, in the case of atheists, invent something to argue against).

It quickly became apparent to me that aside from the details, all religions are basically the same, and that the belief in a higher force means people of all denominations have much more in common than they do differences. I’m sure this impression isn’t unique, and that the irony of “holy war” is not lost on the majority of the population (albeit not the most vociferous part). Islam is not a subject to which I’ve been much exposed, and while I imagine that is true of most Westerners, I’m consistently surprised at the authority with which many Americans will hold forth on a topic they’ve researched no further than a handful of op ed pieces in a favored reinforcement media of choice.

With that in mind, I hit Wikipedia, to gain some semblance of conversational fluency on this rather exotic belief system. Okay, so it’s a complicated subject (brace yourself for the Cliff Notes version), but the general take is not unlike the more geographically accessible Christianity, or Judaism: “Proper moral conduct, good deeds, righteousness, and good character come within the sphere of the moral guidelines” in Islam. While punishment in proportion to offense is permissible, forgiving the offender is better and offering a favor to the offender is best yet.

Possibly all this is has been “cleaned up” by evangelists eager to repair a reputation damaged by a fringe group of psychopaths. (I agree with those who feel it’s unwise to attach a particular faith to militant extremists.) But really, it just sounds like standard-issue faith-based stuff, which is no doubt why some 75-85% of the world’s practicing Muslims are peaceful. Depending on which interpretation one chooses, apostasy could be said to incur death, but there are many blood oaths in the Bible as well, and that a sort of “reform Islam” has dawned wouldn’t be unthinkable.

As befits society’s mania for cult of personality, it didn’t take me long to chase down Muhammad to check out his Q-score. Seemed like a very cool fellow — a human rights crusader, even, leading slaves and the poor in a rebellion against repressive authorities. “Historians generally agree that changes in areas such as social security, family structure, slavery and the rights of women improved on what was present in existing Arab society. For example, according to the historian Bernard Lewis, Islam “from the first denounced aristocratic privilege, rejected hierarchy, and adopted a formula of the career open to the talents.” Like Jesus, Muhammad meets the Bernie Sanders test.

Sounds like a go-getter who took matters into his own hands, drafting a constitution under which Muslims, Jews and pagans could live, designed to end tribal infighting. “In the earliest centuries of Islam, the position of women was not bad at all. Only over the course of centuries was she increasingly confined to the house and was forced to veil herself.” Sociologist Robert N. Bellah (Beyond Belief) argues that Islam in its 7th-century origins was, for its time and place, “remarkably modern…in the high degree of commitment, involvement, and participation expected from the rank-and-file members of the community.”

There is much to admire and respect. And of course, if I went into this research determined to support a negative assessment, I could no doubt find support for that too. It comes down to evaluating the authority of the sources. In the massively decentralized peer-sourced Wikipedia, I trust. I also find value in watching Al Jazeera’s English-language UK feed, because logic thrives on a datastream of all points of view.