Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
The relatively young Muslims, who were seated among a circle of tables with about 20 Uniting Church people, gamely waded into these deep theological waters.
Reem Sweid is president of the Muslims for Progressive Values chapter in Victoria. She said that, according to her opinion and the teaching of the Quran, it was indeed the same God.
“We have to respect Christians and Jews and other people of the book,” Reem said at one point of the evening.
Addressing religious differences, Reem said that according to Islamic teaching God had decided to create different faiths so they may learn from each other and strive for righteousness.
The other Muslims in attendance, Ifrah Nasser, Zahirah Johari and Faisal Mahboob agreed, stressing the value of diversity.
Last night’s event was organised by Uniting through Faiths in partnership with Muslims for Progressive Values. It was a test run for what both groups hope will be an ongoing forum hosted by different Uniting Church congregations to promote interfaith understanding and discussion.
Interfaith network developer April Robinson introduced the event and encouraged people to join the conversation.
“We know that there are spaces that need to be created where people can feel comfortable asking questions, whether they think they are silly or inane or if they’re a bit too scared and think will be labelled a racist,” she said.
Reem said she had been compelled to create an Australian chapter of the Muslims for Progressive Values, which started in the US in 2007, to show that not all Muslims ascribed to the more conservative or fundamental interpretations of their faith, She also hopes to combat misconceptions and misrepresentations of Islam in the wider community.
In Melbourne the group has about 400 associated people, mostly aged between 20 and 40, and Reem said it was growing fast, with chapters also being established in Sydney and Canberra.
“People are joining us because they are looking for a group that they can feel comfortable in, that shares their values,” Reem said.
“I think there’s a lot of desire for something like this among the Muslim community.”
Reem said the group had a good relationship with other Islamic bodies. Most of the internet trolling she had seen nearly all came from nationalistic Australian groups and followers of Pauline Hanson.
The questions for the visiting group came steadily from around the gathering. While some wanted to explore the way Islam enriches the lives of those who practice, curly and contentious issues were broached.
The visitors were asked what they would say to those who use Quranic verses to promote values against those advocated by progressive Muslims, what was the meaning of ‘jihad’ and why was it associated with terror and war, and what the Quran says about slavery.
The recent controversy over whether the Quran instructs husbands to beat their wives was also raised.
Reem suggested there was an alternative way to interpret this verse.
The group argued that – considering the time period in which it was written – there were many positive depictions and progressive values in the Quran relating to women, but these had been obscured by later practice.
The tricky question of whether politics drives interpretation of the Quran or whether the Quran moulds politics was asked. The general answer was that both applied but that a conservative authoritarian interpretation had largely been imposed on the Islamic world.
“Unfortunately the politics in the Middle East is really bad and has been for centuries now, repressing critical thought,” Reem said.
Taking a positive view, Reem said she believed change was happening, being led by some of the progressive Muslim thinkers who were given freedom to explore their religion in the West.
“Maybe the extremism is a reaction to that, that things are going to change, the fear that things are going to change, things have to eventually change,” she said.
She said the idea of Islam being a rigid, rule-bound religion was a major misconception in the wider community.
“They are buying this line that Islam and modernity can’t coexist, that Islam is some sort of a static religion that can never change,” she said.
“That is the biggest misconception that even some Muslims have. We need to address that one Islam is a fluid religion that laws and principles are the same as any other religion and it can co-exist like any other religion.”