Interview: Rumee Ahmed

Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview about scriptural reasoning with Brown University Muslim chaplain Rumee Ahmed:

Q: Tell me what scriptural reasoning is, how it works, and what the benefits of it are.

A: I think scriptural reasoning is a little different for everyone. But for me scriptural reasoning is an opportunity to sit down with people who take their faith very seriously, who take their scripture very seriously, who demonstrate a commitment to that scripture as the word of God, and to work out some of the same problems and same issues that I’m having in my own faith. The result is, number one, I understand my faith better, I think. I understand the stories in my texts better. If I’m studying the story of Cain and Abel, for example, I only understand the true fullness of it, the richness of it, in conversation with other people who share that story, even if their versions are a little different or their understandings of it are a little different. And then I can take the ways that they think about those stories back into my own tradition and see if that’s an authentic expression of it. But also, I’m able to understand how another views the world, someone who doesn’t share my faith tradition, so that whether I agree with them or disagree with them, at least I understand where they’re coming from and how they view the world and the same stories that I grew up with and I understand, but differently.


Rumee Ahmed

Q: Have you had the experience of coming through a discussion of differences with somebody else of another religion and not resolving that difference, but somehow feeling close to that person?

A: Yeah. Probably the clearest example or most powerful, at least for me, was discussing grace in Christianity. I could not understand the concept of grace, and for Muslims and for Jews — we found it very, very difficult to understand, you know, the way it relates to their understanding of God. But when I was able to hear it a few different ways I actually — I could feel resonances in my own tradition…and in that way I was able to at least relate. When talking about God’s providence, when talking about grace, in the Christian tradition it’s a term that is vernacular. I mean, it’s understood by — you know, if you talk to any Christian theologian about grace it’s something that is commonplace. It’s a common term. It’s not in our circles, but it goes by a different name. There were debates throughout Muslim history between rationalists and those who would say that God is beyond rationality. And there were debates about predestination and about determinism that have very strong resonances [with] the history of Christian debate on this topic. And whether or not the terms are exactly the same, the ideas are, and that’s where we can start to feel a collegiality. I know I didn’t agree with the understanding of grace that was being presented. But at the very least I could understand and I could respect the position. Another example is the Jewish relationship with God. Well, not to say there’s one specific Jewish way of relating to God, but in the way that many Jews spoke about God and God’s relationship with Israel was one that I had a very hard time respecting until I understood the Hebrew behind the word. The word for “to turn towards, to turn from,” is very similar to the Arabic root, and so, again, I was able to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re saying.

Q: After 9/11 there were many efforts to learn more about Islam. People tried to seek common ground. It’s my understanding that approach seems inadequate to people doing scriptural reasoning. Why is that?

A: Scriptural reasoning understands that we have very deep-rooted differences, and though we may both believe in God, we may relate to that God very, very differently. So to say that you believe in God and I believe in God may mean very different things, and it isn’t particular to different faith traditions. Two Christians in a room may understand their God very, very differently, which leads them to different results and different ways of viewing of world. And so to simply stop at saying, well, I believe in God and you believe in God is to ignore all those latent disagreements in the way we view the world.

Q: What would be an example of different ways of thinking about God?

A: Well, let’s take scripture, for example. If one person were to say that scripture is the literal word of God for all times and all places in exactly the way it is now, and someone else who believes in the same scripture was to say, “Well, it’s to be understood allegorically” or “It was inspired by God,” that leads the person to view the way they act in the world very differently, though they both may be Muslim, or Jewish, or Christian. And so to stop at saying, “Well, we both believe in the Qur’an” is really not to hit at the core of beliefs, and it fails in understanding the other person.

Q: Identifying differences can often lead to the problem of worse relations with the other, but scriptural reasoning blunts that because of its assumption that the other person is devout, believes in God, worships God, and thinks his sacred text is very important. How can scriptural reasoning overcome that problem of exacerbating differences?

A: Well, one understands things other than oneself through difference. Otherwise it would be simply an equality. But when one explores that difference, one then sees also the similarities, and those similarities come out once you explore those differences. One sees, for example, the dedication, the love of God, in another person. That can’t be discounted. You can’t simply say, “Well, that person is disingenuous. They don’t really believe in God.” Well, that person really believes in God, and they really believe in their scripture in a way that I have to respect and take into account when I view that other person. So yes, it’s different, but I can recognize that devotion, that love, in the other.

Q: What are the biggest theological problems between Islam and Christianity?

A: Well, the clearest one is the doctrine of the Trinity. Are there three Gods? [Is] there one God? Islam predicates itself on radical monotheism — that both in word and in deed the Godhead has to be completely unified under all circumstances, and three Gods is anathema to that. I think the interesting question is does that theological difference automatically have practical consequences? That is, can the two never reconcile, then, if such fundamental doctrines are different? And my reading of the Qur’an is that, yes, the Qur’an criticizes the idea of saying that there are three Gods while at the same time recognizing that devotion within people who believe that, and saying that, well, your devotion to God is commendable even though we disagree with you. And that’s the same process that comes out in scriptural reasoning — that on the practical level people are known as servants of God. You can recognize a servant of God regardless of their tradition. But to say that we’re all the same based on that is incorrect. A Muslim would be perfectly within their rights to say, “I don’t agree with you. I think you’re wrong.” But that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk, or that we can’t live together, or that you have to be just like me.

Q: What are some of the other major theological differences?

A: The other theological differences, I would want to say, are as strong as the doctrine of the Trinity versus a more radical monotheism, but in practice you see a lot of the other doctrinal differences between mainstream Islam, as we see it today in the 20th century, and mainstream Protestant Christianity or even mainstream Catholicism — you see resonance of that in Muslim history, of different groups claiming to have similar doctrines whether or not they call them, you know, they recognize that or not, whether or not that similarity is conscious. You find those ideas throughout Muslim history and Muslim thought.

Q: Do you prefer to talk about other things than the differences between Islam and Christianity?

A: There are different types of difference. If someone were to have a very strict interpretation of the Qur’an, a very literalist interpretation of the Qur’an, then most things are different, because the Qur’an is not the same as the Bible and it’s not the same as the Torah. But on the spirit — the spirit is very similar, and Muslims throughout history have such a diverse understanding of the religion that to say there is one Islam, and to say that there’s one Christianity, and hear the differences between the two, would be to deny that entire rich history. There are differences in the way, however, we view the narrative of history — the reason why prophets came. There are differences amongst Muslims in their historical thought about the place of Jesus, but really the main doctrinal differences are monotheism and the doctrine of the Trinity — in its expression, not necessarily in its understanding. But those differences in narrative can’t be so easily fleshed out and said, you know, “This is the difference between the way I view the world and the way you view the world.” Nor can it be reduced to a singular view. There are narratives of Islam that different people have articulated throughout Muslim history, and narratives of Christianity that Christian theologians have expressed.

Q: Can you find in scriptural reasoning grounds for hope that discussing different scriptures, different beliefs, can have practical consequences in reducing tensions between lots of Muslims and lots of people in the West, many of whom are Christians? Can you see it trying to work out peaceful relations between Islam and the West?

A: I have seen it. But more importantly, I believe it. I have to believe that this is going to work because the alternatives are so dire. When we’re talking about relations between people of difference, you really only have a few alternatives: You can destroy them. You can make them all like yourself. Or you can engage them and try and understand them. This process of understanding is very, very immature, both in the Muslim world and in the Western world. And I don’t say that in the sense that the West doesn’t understand Muslims. But in our modern education system, we often don’t understand religion and religious people, and we don’t take their religious conviction seriously the way that they take their religious conviction seriously. We have people graduating from universities in political science departments, in economics, in sociology, where people are studying the practical impacts of individuals all over the world. And these people are given — these students are given very little religion vocabulary, if at all, to relate to their own tradition if not other people’s tradition. The idea that we don’t take religion seriously is, I think, the vacuum created that scriptural reasoning steps into, to say that, you know, your religious conviction actually is important and we’re going to approach you on that level, not as though we don’t have any differences and as though it’s a surface belief, but taking very seriously your conviction.

Q: Can you see scriptural reasoning playing any part in the development of better relations between the West and the most radical, violent, fundamentalist Islamists?

A: I love the belief that there are radical fringes in every community, and if history continues, there will always be radical fringes in every community. There are some who will be excited about scriptural reasoning, and there will be some who are not and are not interested in the project at all. I think scriptural reasoning is meant to give voice to those people who belief that dialogue is possible; that respecting individuals as human beings is paramount and to give those people voice. At the moment we say that the fringe radical groups of certain religions are a small minority, they’re fringe. But yet they’re the ones that we always hear from. Whether they be Muslims or not we are regularly hearing from these groups. The ones who are working on peace, the ones who are working on reconciliation, we very rarely hear from. And so the hope is that scriptural reasoning will give voice to these individuals. Oftentimes what happens, at least in Muslim circles, is that we don’t have the vocabulary necessary to converse with you, converse with Christians and Jews on a theological level. Scriptural reasoning allows that conversation to happen and allows those understandings to develop over time, whereas without it we would continue to talk past each other, even though the ideas might be exactly the same. Simply because we’re using different terms, and simply because we think that those terms are mutually exclusive, we talk past each other.

Q: What do you make of the apparent fact that an enormous number of people in the Muslim world think the West is out to destroy Islam?

A: Yes, that’s right. There’s a very prevalent view — that America is at war with Islam and Muslims in particular. And when you think about, well, where would they get that idea, well, what do we hear of the West? If you imagine a Muslim living in a Muslim country, what you see of the West is Afghanistan, is Iraq. It’s foreign intervention. What Muslims know of the West is their foreign policy. We don’t hear voices from the West saying to us, “You know, we value you as individuals, and we are not our foreign policy.” And it’s funny, because in America, we hear the same thing about Muslims: Where are the moderate Muslims? Where are their voices? And when I go to Muslim countries I hear the exact same thing: So many Americas are against the war? Where are they? We never hear about them.

Q: How can scriptural reasoning deal with this huge problem of millions of people in the Islamic world thinking the United States and Christianity are out to destroy Islam?

A: Scriptural reasoning allows the opportunity for Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are committed to each other, as they are committed to their texts, to demonstrate their commitment — at the round table. What Muslims need to see, and what the West needs to see also, are the vast numbers of people who are committed to reconciliation, and who are committed to their texts, so they can see there’s a Christian here who really cares about me and cares about my text and isn’t trying to convert me but just wants to understand me. And what happens then, the hope is that there will be a de-linking between a Christian in the West and American foreign policy. And hopefully there will be a de-linking between a Muslim living in a Muslim country and that Muslim country’s policies. It’s interesting that the rhetoric is so similar in the Muslim world as it is here — the way we talk about radicals and fringe movements as though they were normative, as though the foreign policy of different countries in the Middle East is equivalent to the sentiments of individuals in the Middle East or in the Muslim world. Similarly, when I go to Muslim countries I hear the same thing about an equation between the citizens of the countries of the West and their country’s foreign policies. So many Muslims have asked me where are the moderate Americans telling us that we’re not interested in your land, we’re not interested in your oil, we’re not interested in this war, we just want peace? As far as they’re concerned and as far as what they see and hear, the Christian West is invading Muslim countries and intervening in their policies, and so they don’t hear the voices of moderate, peace-loving Americans, and so they wonder, well, does that voice exist or do they really care about us?

Q: And how can scriptural reasoning help that, if at all?

A: Scriptural reasoning says to Muslims, Jews, and Christians we believe, and our belief is important, and we’re not the same, but we all want to live in peace, and we all want to understand one another. Not in a way that collapses our differences, but a way that celebrates them and allows them to come out and come forth so that we can live together. If the underlying ethos is that we want to live together, such dialogue will produce those fruits.