Happy Independence Day, Americans! Happy Monday, everyone else! In celebration of the day, here’s my absolute favourite rendition of the Founding Fathers discussing our homeland.
God bless the American turkey!
Speaking of Turkey (how was that for sequeways!?), Turkey is in the news this week for offering a rather unusual vacation package – Muslim for a Month. The anachronistically-named programme lasts for nine days, and focuses on teaching basic Islamic thought and ritual, as well as some basics in Sufi belief. They also offer a twenty-one day programme, that includes time in Konya, home of Rumi, as well as Istanbul.
As far as I can tell, all of news reports on the programme ask the same question – can you test-drive a religion? (Well, to be fair, 90% ask that question; the remaining 10% ask ‘is Islam contagious?’, but I’m ignoring those.)
Firstly, the programme itself makes very clear that it’s not interested in missionizing or conversion, but just in combating Islamophobia by giving more people a personal experience of Islamic ritual practice and Islamic custom. As someone who has worked closely with Muslim communities and spent time in the Middle East, I am all in favour of this plan. Islam is a very public religion, and this seems to unsettle people. It’s not a terribly invasive religion – Islamic thinkers are generally tepid on the subject of missionary work – but particularly in Muslim countries, and even Muslim communities in the west, it’s very hard to miss the ‘Islamic-ness’ of a place. The call to prayer, public displays during Ramadan, Islamic style of dress – these things stand out, and, to a certain degree, are meant to stand out.
At the same time, these public displays are both ordinary and part of the cultural background for people from Muslim communities, and the difference between how Muslims and non-Muslim experience them often leads to massive misunderstandings. In this way, exposing more people to the simple realities of life in Muslim communities, to my mind, can only help things.
But I’m struck by the question of whether you can ‘test-drive’ a religion. It would seem to me obvious that you can test-drive a religion – that’s obviously one of the first steps in changing religions, same as it’s one of the first steps in buying a new car. We like to think about religions in very lofty terms, but the sociology of religion always includes aspects that are far more pedestrian. As the works of people like Alan Wolfe and Steve Bruce have illustrated, choosing religion isn’t just about doctrine and theology. Those things enter into it, certainly, but religion is also experiential, so the kind of experience a person has will impact significantly on how they feel about the religion.
At the same time, I think in modern discussions of religion, we also have the tendency to overestimate people’s reasons for being part of a religious tradition. For any given tradition, there are people who are thoroughly versed and deeply committed to their theology. There are also people who enjoy the experience of being part of that tradition, the day-to-day rituals and sense of community they create (as Eddie Izzard said of Anglicans – it’s much more of a hobby). And then there are people who are just part of the community purely out of tradition – really, just because that’s what’s always been done. I always think of these people as practicing ‘the religion of my grandmother’, which, incidentally, is not my grandmother, but Wadad al-Qadi’s grandmother – I worked with al-Qadi in Chicago, where she’s a lecturer on Islamic heresiography, and occasionally in her classes, which were always about very complicated, often convoluted theological principles, she would point out that these things didn’t matter in “the religion of her grandmother”, her grandmother apparently having grown up in a small village in Lebanon, where she, and everyone she knew, was a Muslim, who all practiced in the same way.
There seems to be a tendency in many modern discussions on religion to want to discount these people. Ritual practice we’re sort of okay with, although we’re not sure that makes you religious so much as a voyeur. But there does seem a heavy pressure that everyone within a religious tradition should be able to write their own Confessions at the drop of a hat (probably preferably in the style of Augustine and not Usher, although personally I find it hard to decide which of the two is more tedious). But I’m not sure that’s reasonable, particularly in comparison to any period of history. Augustine’s work stands out partly because there was so little else being written about Christianity. For most periods of history, people were part of a religious tradition based largely on the random chance of where they were born – they might have some choices available, but even those choices were dictated by location. We still speak of the Islamic world in the Middle East in the Medieval period or the Christian world in the west, and we presume that this means something, mainly because from time to time you get stuff like Augustine, so we presume there must have been some surviving, continuous religious undercurrent, of which we see only glimpses.
Which I suppose gets us back to the conversation of the definition of a religion. Personally I think it would be kind of cool for it to be social acceptable to test-drive religions, as it would recognize the basic fact that religion is experiential, and would open up new realms of religious expression and spirituality that people might not have thought of before. But I think also we just need to lighten up about religions, and accept that not everyone who calls themselves a member of a religion is going to be able to prattle off the core tenants. And what better time than Independence Day, when we celebrate, among other things, our right to practice our religion freely. So everyone, go celebrate the birth of our nation by blowing up a small part of it, and try to relax!
 I know from experience how effective an alarm clock the morning call to prayer makes. Not that I’ve ever had a desire to be awake before sunrise, but if I ever did, I know how I’d go about it.
 As an illustrative anecdote, I remember a few years ago, the Cowley mosque, here in Oxford, announced that it wanted to put up a speaker to announce the call to prayer. They specified that they were willing to use it only for the three day-time prayers, but still got complaints from their neighbors, until finally someone pointed out that Oxford has at least forty chapels and cathedrals, all with their own bells, and that if we can put up with them every hour, we can probably stand the call to prayer three times a day!
 That is still one of my favourite descriptions of religion ever. Martin Luther, he was from everywhere.