Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians by Deacon George Dardess. by Deacon George Dardess. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Mass., 2005). 242 pp., $16.95.
When America started dropping bombs on Muslims in Iraq, Deacon George Dardess decided it might be a good time to get to know them here in America.
Watching Desert Storm unfold on his television set in 1991, the author realized that he knew next to nothing about the nation America was fighting or about the Islamic faith of most of Iraq’s citizens.
“My ignorance and indifference had contributed in a tiny but perhaps significant way to the ease with which the war fever had been whipped up and to the glorying in violence manifested by the politicians, the generals and the media,” Deacon Dardess wrote.
So begins Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians, which primarily tells the story of the deacon’s encounter with Islam through the people he met at the Islamic Center in Rochester. It is a journey that has led the deacon, who serves Blessed Sacrament Parish in Rochester, to a lively appreciation of the Islamic faith. It’s an appreciation that has led him to learn to recite the Qur’an in Arabic; play temporary pallbearer at a Muslim funeral; and serve on two groups devoted to improving Christian-Muslim relations — the Muslim-Catholic Alliance and the Commission on Christian-Muslim Relations, which he co-chairs.
Although America’s struggle with terrorism is referenced throughout the book, Meeting Islam is less about war and more about the sense of peace Deacon Dardess found in Islam. Indeed, Meeting Islam makes clear that Deacon Dardess loves Islam, seeing it as a beautiful, vibrant and worthwhile faith that has much to offer Christians. Without downplaying the differences between the two faiths — the fact that Christians see Jesus as God and Muslims do not, for example — Deacon Dardess nonetheless shows how studying Islam improved his own Christian meditative practices and enlivened his sense of God’s universal mercifulness.
“As a Christian, I find that Islam illuminates the path toward God,” Deacon Dardess wrote. “It does not darken it.”
Much of the book’s strength lies in the fact that Deacon Dardess chose to approach Islam the way a polite neighbor chooses to approach someone who has just moved in next door. Instead of prejudging his neighbor and dismissing him, the deacon befriends the neighbor through several small gestures, up to and including the sharing of meals. That doesn’t mean Deacon Dardess approached Islam without trepidation — in fact, he poked fun at his own apprehensions the first time he visited the Islamic Center.
“The heavy door slowly, ominously opened … Frenzied assassins with their own bloody swords raised high on the other side?” he wrote.
Actually he was greeted by Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, the center’s imam, who was there to teach an Arabic class Deacon Dardess decided to take. Imam Shafiq blessed and welcomed Dardess, putting his mind at ease, and the deacon then shook hands with his fellow classmates. (The deacon notes that most of his classmates were Muslims, and that only one-fifth of the world’s Muslims speak Arabic, the language of the Qur’an.)
“Truly I was meeting Islam for the first time, by meeting real flesh and blood Muslim people,” the deacon wrote.
Through his years of association with the center, Deacon Dardess learned much about what Christians and Muslims share and what they do not. Both groups revere Mary, for example; indeed, the Qur’an speaks of her more often than does the New Testament. Both groups, albeit in crucially different ways, revere Jesus and his prophetic, miraculous life. And, on a dark note, both groups have experienced violent divisions not just from each other, but among their own brethren, he wrote.
In fact, during an interview at his Rochester home, the deacon noted that in writing Meeting Islam he wasn’t trying to gloss over the sins of contemporary Muslims nor, for that matter, Christians.
“I don’t deny that there are a lot of stinkers among Muslims, and I wouldn’t deny that there are a lot of stinkers among Christians,” he said.
However, he noted that he wrote the book, in part, because of his concern that more and more non-Muslim commentators on the war on terror seemed to be seeking an “inherent evil” in Islam that drives a minority of Muslims to violence. Instead, he noted, terrorism is a complex phenomenon rooted in the Arab world’s colonial and post-colonial relations with the West. Similarly, he said, Northern Ireland was long riven by Protestant and Catholic terrorism that never elicited the same kind of analysis.
“There’s violence in Ireland — would you say there’s an inherent evil in Christianity?” the deacon asked.
Meeting Islam contains a valuable glossary that defines many oft-heard but misunderstood terms, including “jihad,” which the deacon defined as Arabic for “striving for a righteous goal.” Jihad has been mistranslated in the West to mean “holy war,” the author wrote, examining the concept in one of the book’s best chapters. He noted that jihad’s modern connotations of anti-Western violence took shape as the Muslim world felt threatened by the West — and as certain extremist Muslims adopted the word for their own ends.
Meeting Islam won’t satisfy anyone looking for easy answers to such questions as “What is jihad?” and “What does Jesus mean to Muslims?” And that is the book’s greatest value. In an era when political and religious extremists on all sides seek to oversimplify issues, Deacon Dardess asks us to stop a moment and relish the complexity of it all.
Quite possibly, he hopes we’ll be distracted long enough to stop fighting altogether.