Continuing a conversation

By Andrew Juma

The final session in the Understanding Islam series at North Ringwood Uniting Church featured a panel discussion with invited Muslim guests.

Sheik Ali Dirani from the Shia Al Sadiq Foundation and Imam Wadood Janud from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association of Victoria spoke alongside Vickie Janson and Elizabeth Kendal, with Dr Bernie Power facilitating.

As articulated by Robert Latimer, the master of ceremonies, the ultimate purpose of the panel was to promote harmony and understanding.

The spirit of togetherness was reiterated by Dr Power: “One way to break these barriers down is to speak face-to-face with each other, and another is to address these issues in a very respectful manner.”

The evening’s plan was to start with a comparative study of Jesus, Muhammad, the Bible and the Qur’an and finish with a conversation on the social aspects of Islam – terrorism, gender issues, Sharia law and inter-religious relationships.

The panel presented a range of viewpoints, starting with Vickie Jensen, state director of Australian Christians party and author of Ideological Jihad, who posited that religious beliefs have political consequences and Islam is a way of life.

“Without freedom of speech, all other freedoms are indefensible. So it is about being able to have a conversation and I certainly advocate decency in that freedom.”

Seated next to Ms Janson, the widely-travelled Sheik Ali Dirani, a Shia Muslim who has lived in Australia for 43 years, believes that religious intolerance stems from a lack of understanding and personal prejudice.

“Religion is represented by individuals and sometimes it is in conflict because each individual based upon their knowledge and based upon their ignorance compounding, represents what they believe.”

Elizabeth Kendal’s ministry life and desire to monitor Christian persecution was sparked by the murder and detention of Egyptian Coptic Christians in 1998 Sydney.

“Aware that a lot of persecution was perpetrated by Muslims, who claimed to be acting in the name of Islam, I started reading up on Islam, its history, its politics and its theology”, Ms Kendal said. “It is because I love Muslims that I desire that they come to know Jesus because he has changed my life and made it wonderful”.

Lastly, Imam Wadood Janud who was raised in Adelaide, studied theology in Canada and worked in humanitarian aid in Liberia and the Middle East, also argued misunderstanding stoked fanaticism.

“I am extremely honoured and humbled to be seated before you to represent and perhaps enlighten my fellow Australian about a religion which I believe has been broadly misunderstood by Muslims and others alike.”

The panel began by discussing Jesus in Islam. While on the surface many Christians would think Muslims do not know Jesus, there is in fact a whole chapter dedicated to Mary in the Qur’an. All believers are also told to aspire to be either like Pharaoh’s wife who took Moses in, or Mary.

However, the understanding of who Jesus was differs between different Christian denominations as it does between the different Islamic groups. This is a theologically dense subject requiring many hours of discourse, but the panel’s explanation was sufficient.

There was also great debate about Muhammad and the perfection of prophets. Imam Janud argued that the Qur’an teaches prophets are perfect, hence their selection by God.

Ms Kendal noted the contradiction with the Bible: “Christians admit readily that the prophets in the Bible were flawed human beings…King David…was close to God’s own heart but he was still flawed…he committed murder.”

This segued to the fascinating exposition of the contentious story of Muhammad ordering the beheading of 600 men of a Jewish tribe. While ostensibly a wanton act of cruelty, Imam Janud gave a detailed account, showing the execution was a judgement made by an independent arbiter, chosen by the tribe who hoped he would favour them.

He chose to follow the laws of the Old Testament, condemning the men of the tribe to death for their betrayal.

Another compelling exchange focused on the Islamic code of dress and the burqa in particular.

Rising to prominence during the recent Afghanistan war, to some the burqa illustrates the oppressive, patriarchal, nature of Islam with regard to women.

However, the audience was reminded that the Qur’an actually does not say anything about the burqa, but instead speaks broadly about modesty, much like the Bible.

In fact, the Qur’an commands men “not to look at women with regards to bad intentions. So the first form of modesty that is taught is to men”.

There was agreement with the notion of women removing religious garments on national security grounds.

This, Imam Janud stressed, should not circumvent freedom of expression: “I do believe that if a Muslim lady wants to express her faith by wearing a burqa, then it is her life”.

Ms Janson chose a different tack, arguing “… what about goodwill … in Australia you cannot run around naked, that is indecent exposure, and I would argue that being completely covered is counter-cultural for us and it is a form of indecent under-exposure … you cannot see the person.”

To read more about the first session of the Understanding Islam series, click here.

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