Friday, May 16, 2008

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and My Year Inside Radical Islam - Part 1

About six or seven months ago I read the book My Year Inside Radical Islam by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. While reading the book, a number of thoughts and emotions bubbled to the surface, among which were a certain sense of resonance with various facets of the author's experiences, as well as a sense of empathy for him because of his worries that he might be assassinated by some radicalized, fundamentalist, self-appointed, presumptuous 'agent' of an invented theology who believed that if anyone became Muslim and, then, moved on to some other faith system, then such an apostate must be killed. On the other hand, I also found myself in disagreement with a number of the author's ideas and some of his conclusions.

Once I finished the book, I had intended to write something at some point, but the project kept being put on a back burner as other contingencies of life took on more immediate importance. However, now the original intention has been taken off the back burner and moved to a front burner where an analytical stew is being simmered in the form of the present essay.

Earlier, when I indicated that I felt a certain resonance with some of Mr. Gartenstein-Ross's experiences that had been described within the aforementioned book I did not mean to suggest I have spent time inside any sort of radical, fundamentalist Muslim group. Nonetheless, during various situations and circumstances, I have come in contact with such individuals along the path of my own spiritual journey, and I am familiar, to some extent, with the mind and heart-set of those people.

I always have felt very uncomfortable with these sorts of individuals, and there are many reasons for this sense of discomfort. For example, some of these people are quite ignorant about the nature of Islam, and when one couples such ignorance with an arrogance which is unwilling to entertain the possibility that maybe they don't know as much or understand as much about Islam as they suppose is the case, the result has truly frightening implications … both for them as well as for others.

Yet, as problematic as this kind of ignorance and arrogance may be, what is even more worrisome is the inclination of such people to feel entitled to impose their views on other human beings … whether these latter unfortunates be Muslim or non-Muslim. These self-proclaimed true-believers imagine themselves to be God's gift to humanity and, as such, they operate in accordance with a delusion which maintains that Divinity has assigned them the mission to cleanse humanity of its spiritual impurities.

I have met this kind of individual in the Muslim community. I have met such people in the Christian community. I have met similar people in the Jewish community. In addition, I have met such people in other communities as well. Apparently, ignorance, arrogance, and presumption know no community boundaries.

On the other hand, I also have met some wonderful, sincere, rigorous, compassionate, loving, considerate, kind, generous, and courageous seekers of truth in all of the foregoing communities. Such qualities are not the province of any one faith but are manifested in the lives of those who have been blessed with grace irrespective of the formal character of the spiritual path out of which they may operate.

It is a person's personal relationship with God or a person's personal relationship with the reality which makes everything possible that matters not the theology. What matters is our heart and soul realized connection to the truth which lies at the center of our being and not the theological concepts and terms through which one wishes to label that truth.

In fact, more often than not, theology merely serves as a lens which introduces distortion into spiritual dynamics, and theology, more often than not, gives expression to a paradigm which filters out anything which is inconsistent with itself. In the end such paradigmatic filters frequently miss the truth as we become preoccupied with viewing life in terms of what we theologically project onto life rather than what being has to reveal to us on its own terms … if we would just be willing to listen to what it has to offer free from the chattering, accusations, and machinations of our ego-driven theologies.

Having said the foregoing by way of preface, the plan for the remainder of this essay is as follows: Since Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' book My Year Inside Radical Islam consists largely of a series of observations, reflections, insights, and reactions to what went on during his life in the period covered by the time-frame of the book, my plan is to do something similar. More specifically, within the framework of the present essay, I intend to put forth an array of observations, reflections, reactions, and, possibly, insights with respect to the time I spent inside of the aforementioned book … some of these thoughts and feelings will be more developed than others.


By way of a very brief overview, the book entitled My Year Inside Radical Islam describes a journey which starts in Ashland, Oregon where Daveed Gartenstein-Ross grew up as the son of parents who were nominally Jewish yet had become dissatisfied with various aspects of the Jewish faith and who, as a result, went in search of a ecumenical approach to spiritual issues. Although, from time to time, a little more is said in the book about his relationship with his parents, most of My Year Inside Radical Islam provides an account of how he came into contact with Islam, followed by a detailed description of how he became involved with a group of fundamentalist Muslims, and, then, an account of how and why he left Islam and made a decision to become Christian.

The purpose of this essay is not to find fault with Mr. Gartenstein-Ross's decision to become Christian. Such a decision is between God and him, and, quite frankly, I have absolutely no idea how God views such a decision.

Mr. Gartenstein-Ross made choices based on his circumstances, his understanding, and his needs at the time his decisions were made. During the present essay, I will have some things to say about various aspects of his understanding concerning different issues, but the rest is not my business.


On page 6 of My Year Inside Radical Islam Mr. Gartenstein-Ross mentions a book by a Christian author Josh McDowell and says:

“McDowell discussed at length C.S. Lewis' claim that there were three possible things Jesus could have been: a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord …. This is because Jesus claimed to be God in the New Testament.”

As is the case with many theological meanderings, certain possibilities have been left out of the foregoing set of choices. For instance, maybe, Jesus (peace be upon him) is neither a liar, nor a lunatic, nor the Lord, but, instead, individuals – such as Lewis -- have interpreted the New Testament in accordance with the requirements of their own (i.e., Lewis') theology.

To the best of my knowledge, Jesus (peace be upon him) never claimed to be the Lord in the New Testament. What he is reported to have said in John 10: verse 30 is that:

“I and the Father are one."

However, almost every form of mysticism – not just Christianity -- touches upon this issue of oneness which seeks to reconcile our usual perceptions of multiplicity with the idea that, according to the mystics of just about every faith tradition, in some sense creation and Creator are joined together in a unity. What the nature of this unity involves is a mystery except to those to whom the secret has been disclosed.

To say that creation is other than Divinity is to give expression to the idea that something apart from God exists, whereas to say that creation is the Creator reduces things down to some form of pantheism in which anyone or anything – not just Jesus [peace be upon him] -- may make the claim that 'I and the Father are one'.

The truth to which mystics allude is more complex and subtle than either some manner of dualism or some form of pantheism. In some sense, all of creation is one with Divinity, but, simultaneously, Divinity transcends all of creation. Creation is dependent on Divinity, but Divinity – aside from the purposes inherent in creation – is quite independent of creation.

When Jesus (peace be upon him) taught people to pray, he is reported to have begun with: “Our Father in heaven hallowed be Thy name [John 6: verse 9]. Jesus (peace be upon him) did not say “Jesus' Father in heaven”. Rather, Jesus (peace be upon him) made it clear that, as creation, everyone had the same kind of connection with the One Who brought forth creation and, as such, God was the 'father' of all being, not just Jesus.

Furthermore, in Mathew 19:17, Mark 10:18, and Luke 18:19, Jesus (peace be upon him) is reported to have said variations upon the following teaching theme:

“Why callest me good? God alone is good.”

A distinction is being made between God and creation. Whatever goodness we have – even that of Jesus (peace be upon him) or Moses (peace be upon him) or Muhammad (peace be upon him) -- is borrowed and derivative from Divinity.

Earlier in his book, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross echoes the foregoing when he says:

“I rejected the Christian idea that Jesus had been God; no matter how deep a person's spiritual insight, there's a fundamental difference between the Creator and his creation.”

I agree with Mr. Gartenstein-Ross on this issue. However, the point of the foregoing discussion is not meant to be a critical exegesis of certain Christian beliefs as much as it is an attempt to point toward the fact that all of us stand in the middle of the vastness of mysterious being and try, as best we can, to make sense out of what we encounter. Some of our attempts may be better than others, but it is not human beings who are the measure of truth, but, rather, it is truth which is the measure of human beings.

C.S. Lewis stood within the vastness of being and claimed that everything could be reduced down to one of three possibilities concerning the alleged claim of Jesus to be God, the Lord. Either Jesus (peace be upon him) was a liar, or he was a madman, or he was, indeed, God. Apparently, Lewis didn't consider it worthwhile to examine either the possibility that, perhaps, Jesus (peace be upon him) didn't mean what Lewis believed him to mean when Jesus (peace be upon him) said what he is reported to have said [i.e., that I and the Father are one], nor did Lewis appear to examine the possibility that, maybe, Jesus (peace be upon him) didn't claim what some people have attributed to him.

In this latter regard, there is a very interesting book by Bart D. Ehrman entitled: Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman began his spiritual explorations very much in lock-step with the sort of literalist fundamentalism which is taught at many Bible colleges in the United States, but as a result of some very rigorous exploration into the history of Biblical transcription and translation, Ehrman underwent tremendous transformations in his perspective concerning the nature of the New Testament.

Despite his findings, Bart Ehrman remains a very committed Christian. Nonetheless, Ehrman's aforementioned book takes the reader through a litany of hermeneutical problems concerning the reliability of, and inconsistencies among, the texts given expression through, among other things, the first four books of the New Testament.

I do not say the foregoing in order to try to cast doubt upon Christianity. Indeed, I do not believe such is the intent of Ehrman's book for, as indicated above, he remains, in his own way, a believer in, and follower of, Jesus (peace be upon him).

In any case, I am not the one who will sit in judgment of people either in this world or the next concerning their spiritual beliefs and actions. Rather, I, like others, am one of the ones who will be judged for my deeds and misdeeds … my true beliefs and my false beliefs.

There are those, however, who would try to argue that by merely raising questions concerning the reliability or accuracy of certain textual sources – as Bart Ehrman does in his book Misquoting Jesus -- one is something of an apostate and, therefore, one is not deserving of the moniker: 'Christian' … and similar absurdities take place within both the Muslim and Jewish communities. Indeed, there are many so-called religious leaders of all manner of theological persuasions who would have everyone believe that the truth comes directly from God's lips to their ears. Moreover, such spiritual luminaries would seek to imbue people with the working principle that to disobey such individuals is tantamount to disobeying God and, consequently, that the wrath of God will descend on all who would deviate from the 'teachings' of these self-appointed spokespeople of God.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes in My Year Inside Radical Islam that it was the dogmatic force with which some Christian fundamentalists sought to impose on him their ideas about God and, in the process, seemed intent on creating a sense of inferiority in the author's own ideas concerning God and Jesus (peace be upon him) that actually moved the author a little further down the road toward becoming involved with the Muslim community. And, ironically, it was also this same kind of dogmatic intransigence on the part of the Muslim community with which he was involved that helped move him along a path away from that community and toward Christianity.

Mr. Gartenstein-Ross first encountered a Muslim and Islam while attending Wake Forest University in North Carolina. The Muslim was in the form of al-Husein Madhany who was of South Asian ancestry and had been born in Kenya. Initially, the relationship between the two of them revolved around political issues concerning campus life as well as issues that overlapped with, but extended beyond, the horizons of the university.

Little by little, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross leaned about his friend's beliefs concerning Islam. According to the author, some of the things he learned were that:

“the Qur'an is God's direct, literal word. I was also interested to learn that Muslims believe that the Old and New Testaments are earlier holy books inspired by God – but those books became corrupted over time and are no longer completely reliable.” (page 18 of My Year Inside Radical Islam)

There are a few problems inherent in the foregoing 'learnings'.

For example, what does it mean to say that the Qur'an is God's direct, literal word? Literal in what sense? Direct in what sense? In what sense is the Qur'an the word of God?

To be sure, on one level the Qur'an is manifested in the Arabic language. However, it would be a mistake to try to reduce the Qur'an down to merely language.

The Qur'an is infused with the barakah or Grace of God. Words may be the portals through which one encounters such Divine barakah, but the barakah is quite independent of the words, and, in fact, this is why some people can read the words of the Qur'an and, yet, derive no spiritual benefit because all they have engaged is language while remaining untouched by the Divine barakah associated with those words.

As far as the Qur'an being the literal word of God is concerned, I'm not really sure what this would mean. Of course, there are those who would wish to make their literalistic interpretations of the Qur'an be what they claim is meant by the literal word of God, but I also know from the reported words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that:

“the Qur'an has an outward and an inward dimension, and the latter has its own inward dimension, and so on, up to seven dimensions.”

In addition, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said that:

“All of the Revealed Books are contained in the Qur'an. And the meaning of the Qur'an is contained within surah al-Fatiha [that is, the opening chapter of the Qur'an]. And, the meaning of surah al-Fatiha is contained in Bismillah ir-Rahaman ir-Raheem [that is, in the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful], and the meaning of Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem is contained in Bismillah [that is, in the Name of], and the meaning of Bismillah is contained in the dot beneath bey [that is the Arabic letter with which Bismillah begins].”

So, what is meant by the literal word of God in all of this? There are literalist understandings of God's meaning, but God's meanings transcend all such understandings even if some -- but by no means all -- of those literal understandings may, within certain limits, give expression to part of the truth.

We may engage God's guidance through the language of the Qur'an. However, God willing, eventually understanding goes beyond mere words and gives expression to the light of God which illuminates faith, the heart, the spirit, and the entire soul of an individual.

Aside from the foregoing considerations, I would also take exception with the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam when he says in the excerpt quoted previously that “Muslims believe that the Old and New Testaments are earlier holy books inspired by God.” To begin with, revelation and inspiration are two different phenomena.

God did not inspire Muhammad (peace be upon him) to write the Qur'an. Rather, the Qur'an was Divine guidance that descended upon the heart of the Prophet and which he was commanded to recite to others in the manner in which it had been revealed to the Prophet.

Artists are inspired. Song writers are inspired. Poets are inspired. And according to the nature of their God-given talents and life experience, they translate the Divinely bestowed inspiration into a visible form … such as paintings, songs, and poetry.

Revelation is Divine guidance which is disclosed to special individuals who are the recipients of such guidance and are known as a Rasul or one who proclaims to others the received revelation. These messengers do not transform the revelation as artists do with respect to inspiration, but, rather, the task of a Rasul is to relate to others the linguistic form of the revelation precisely as it was bestowed upon such an individual.

Furthermore, while some Muslims may believe, as Mr. Gartenstein-Ross claims in the quote given earlier, that the Old and New Testaments are earlier Holy books inspired by God, this may be a very problematic, if not overly-simplistic, way of looking at such matters. What is referred to as the Bible is largely a human construction which contains remnants, here and there, of what had been revealed to earlier messengers.

The books of the Old Testament and the New Testament represent choices made by human beings concerning what they believed to be authentic spiritual scripture. Over the years, different books have been included in the Bible, and, as well, various books have been taken out of what is called the Bible because the latter books were considered, rightly or wrongly, to be apocryphal with respect to Divine guidance.

As my shaykh once said to me with respect to the Book of Revelations: “There is truth there if one knows how to look.” So, too, with certain other portions of the Bible, both in relation to the New and Old Testaments … there is truth there if one knows how to look, but the corruptions which have entered into the historical process of translating, transcribing, interpreting, and compiling the various books of the Bible -- while excluding various other books that some claim to possess spiritual authority -- have made differentiating the true wheat from the false chaff a very difficult process.

To give but one example of the complexities which enter into such matters, consider the writings of St. Paul that are included in the New Testament. Whatever truths and spiritual inspiration may be contained in the letters of St. Paul, those letters are not revelation. Those letters are not the spiritual equivalent of the Divine revelation which was given to Jesus (peace be upon him), and St. Paul is not the spiritual equal of Jesus (peace be upon him).

St. Paul's letters give expression to his understanding of spiritual matters. There may be many truths contained in the text of his epistles, but while such truths might resonate with certain aspects of the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus (peace be upon him), the teachings of St. Paul cannot necessarily be considered to be coextensive with the teachings of the revelation given to Jesus (peace be upon him).

Different strains of Christianity have developed their own style of hermeneutically engaging such theological issues. While there are many themes and principles on which such different strains of Christianity might agree, there are also many themes with which they have differed and over which blood has been spilled.

Similarly, there are many themes and principles upon which Muslims and Christians might agree, but, unfortunately, there also are some themes and principles over which differences have arisen. As a result, blood has been spilled in all directions.

People – whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews … or anyone else for that matter – who believe they have the right to play God and not only serve as arbiters of truth but, as well, to serve as judge, jury and executioner on behalf of God with respect to the identity of such truth may not have as firm a grasp of the nature of Divine Guidance as they believe. Anybody who believes that God is in need of human beings to spill blood to serve Divine purposes may want to meditate a little more deeply and longer on Who and What God is and who and what human beings are.

All that has been said in conjunction with the foregoing comments concerning St. Paul and Jesus (peace be upon him) can also be applied to any number of Muslim theologians, philosophers, scientists, theoreticians, and leaders. Irrespective of whatever truths may, or may not, be contained in their writings, what such people wrote is not the Qur'an, and those people are not the spiritual equals of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) … even though many of these same individuals would like to induce others to believe that the so-called “experts” – often self-appointed -- have somehow been authorized to speak for God and/or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Confusion has been let loose across the surface of the Earth. The lesser is conflated with the greater; the counterfeit mingles with the real, and that which is false is treated as being synonymous with that which is true.

On page 25 of My Year Inside Radical Islam, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross briefly discusses the part of Houston Smith's book The World Religions that examines Islam. One of the quotes drawn from the latter book has to do with Houston Smith's belief that the Qur'an “does not counsel turning the other cheek, or pacifism.” Without appropriate qualifications, the quote from Professor Smith is not correct.

Throughout the Qur'an one is enjoined to have patience, to do righteousness, and not transgress beyond boundaries of propriety.

For example, in Surah 103, one finds the following:

“By the declining day, indeed human beings are in a state of loss except such as have faith and do righteous deeds, and join in the mutual teaching of the truth and of patience and constancy.”

Moreover, in Surah 5, verse 8, God provides this guidance:

“O ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah with respect to fair dealing and let not the hatred of others seduce you away from doing justice. Be just: that is nearest to Piety. Remain conscious of God, verily God is aware of all that you do.”

Elsewhere in the Qur'an, one finds:

“The blame is only against those who oppress human beings with wrong-doing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land defying right and justice.” [The Qur'an 42:42]

And, finally:

[But whatever they may say or do] repel the evil [which they commit] with that which is better.” (Qur'an, 23:96)

There are many other passages in the Qur'an beside the foregoing ones which speak about the importance of exhibiting patience in the face of adversity, doing justice, not transgressing proscribed boundaries of behaviour and approaching life through understanding and insight. In addition, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

“The right and the left are both ways of error, and the straight path is the middle way.”

Sometimes pacifism is warranted, and sometimes it is not. Life is nuanced, subtle, complex, and intended by God to be a considerable challenge to all who encounter it.

One principle – such as pacifism -- does not necessarily fit all situations. Rather, the guidance of the Qur'an gives expression to an array of spiritual principles which can be combined in different ways in order to resolve problems.

Consequently, to say as Houston Smith does in his book that the Qur'an “does not counsel turning the other cheek” is incomplete, and, as such, inaccurate. Sometimes turning one's cheek is the best recourse, and in such circumstances one should be governed by patience and restraint.

On other occasions, justice and equity may require one to defend against oppression in other ways, but these other ways do not necessarily entail using force or violence. For instance, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said that:

One performs the best kind of jihad or spiritual struggle when one stands up and speaks out against injustice in the face of tyranny and oppression.


lee said...


lee said...

''sa laamu alaikum''...i only know and see, and make salat with muslims. it doesn't make difference to me that they be shia/ sunnni/ amaddiyah/ sufi or a new comer to the deen, as i am a convert to islam... you are all my brothers and sisters/ i will fight with you, for you, and when you are wrong- i will oppose you. none the less i love you...''ALLAHU AKBAR''... ISLAMICALLY, OHOHO OMAR NEHESI/LEE