Robert A. Hunt. Muslim Faith and Values: A Guide for Christians. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019. 179 pp. $19.20.
The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz once noted that deep understanding of another’s point of view is less about description and more like “grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke…[or] reading a poem.”
In a similar vein, Robert Hunt introduces Muslim Faith and Values: A Guide for Christians by noting that while descriptions of the religion of Islam are fairly straightforward, he has a more “ambitious intent” (ix). He wants to help fellow Christians develop deep appreciation for Islam and what makes their Muslim neighbors tick. To the extent that a book can, Hunt delivers on that promise and the result is remarkable. In 180 pages, he draws on years of careful study and personal experience to offer a concise and accessible introduction.
This is not a typical “Islam 101” introduction with tight categories and linear descriptions, and it certainly does not take a polemical or apologetic approach. Rather, Hunt invites readers to circumambulate the religion, like Muslims circling the Ka’bah, while he provides commentary on its various angles and corners. Sometimes he stops and ponders, other times he points out features and moves on, only to circle back to them later when relevant to other topics. He focuses on the ideals that undergird the details and offers valuable glimpses into the beauty, complexity, and sometimes troubled paradoxes of Islam.
Muslim Faith and Values is an updated edition of a 2004 publication of the United Methodist’s General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and is formatted for study groups. Between the short introduction and concluding epilogue, six chapters address the following: Religion and Faith, The Oneness of God, Muhammad, The Quran, The Quranic Generation, and The Shari’a and Civilization. In addition to Hunt’s lucid presentations, each chapter is richly supplemented with thematic summaries, suggestions for further exploration, discussion questions, relevant passages from primary materials, brief selections from classical and contemporary scholars, excerpts of interviews, poems, and more. The book concludes with a glossary, maps, appendices, and a brief bibliography. There are also accompanying YouTube videos in which Hunt adds commentary and clarification. He also encourages readers to visit local mosques and invite Muslims into their gatherings to further expand or even challenge the book’s content. All considered, Muslim Faith and Values offers a wealth of resources for Christians to dive deeply into their explorations of Islam, as well as consider how such explorations challenge and enhance their own faith. In other words, the content and tone invite the opening of the reader’s imagination rather than a closing-in on basic details or essentialist understandings.
I found the first chapter, “Religion and Faith,” especially compelling. Rather than jumping into introductory material, the chapter provides snapshots of modern Islamic diversity as represented by influential leaders and scholars such as Mawlana Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini, Fazlur Rahman, Said Nursi, Seyyed Nasr, and Ingrid Mattson. While the profiles would benefit from updated and more specific chronological references, they provide an important starting point for the book contrasting other approaches that caricature Islam as monolithic. Accentuating Islam’s complexity, the chapter concludes with a mystical love poem to God by none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and leader of the 1979 revolution which established Iran’s cleric-based theocracy (18–19). Significantly, this picture of diversity is immediately followed by the second chapter’s focus on the central notion of God’s oneness (tawhid) and its implications for Muslim experiences of religious and cosmic unity and coherence. I found the synergy and juxtaposition between these first two chapters enlightening.
The last chapter, “The Shari’a and Civilization,” is also effective although, interestingly, it is nearly twice as long as all other chapters. While the book in general is more impressionistic than precise, this chapter presents a fair amount of detail on the meaning, historical development, interpretive schools, and religious and sociopolitical implications of Muslim law. The material is relevant and well-presented, but the chapter’s comparative length and detail concludes with an uncharacteristically essentialist summary statement: “For Muslims obedience to God’s law is the essence of religion” (142). By contrast, the earlier chapter on the Quran is much shorter and provides only minimal details on the sacred text’s actual content, structure, style, and development. Hunt rightly highlights how Muslims experience the Quran more as a sign and event than as a mere book, and he effectively draws out the relevant aesthetic, esoteric, and cosmic dimensions. Nevertheless, readers learn less detail about Islam’s central text then they do about Sufi-oriented perspectives on its mystical power.
Sufi orientations also shape much of the chapter on Muhammad. The chapter presents the basics of the Prophet’s life and establishes his centrality to the core message of the religion. From there, the chapter emphasizes mystic traditions that depict Muhammad in almost messianic terms as the one through whom followers can achieve a mystical union with God or even the extinction of the self. While such traditions are important, readers are left on their own to wonder how they relate to other theological emphases such as Muhammad’s ordinariness, longstanding Muslim resistance to being identified as Muhammadeans, and key Quranic teachings: “‘I am only a human being like you. . . . So go straight to God.’ . . . Woe unto the idolaters” (Q 41:6).
Finally, it is worth noting that many of the contemporary sources referenced in the book are dated, especially those from the 1980s and 1990s. Hunt is clearly aware of more recent sources, but few are explicitly engaged. The target audience of small groups may not require such engagement, although it potentially limits the book’s value in academic settings. But even more generally, the book’s content would be enhanced by recent and evolving developments in Quranic hermeneutics, reassessments of the classical “consensus,” post-Caliphate political theologies, the study and legacy of West African pacifist traditions, engagement with the longevity and mulitplicity of American Islam, and others.
Nevertheless, Muslim Faith and Values is one of the best available resources for those wanting more than simplistic introductions or contentious polemics. Hunt delivers on his “ambitious intent” to provide Christians an opportunity to grasp something of the appeal and complexity of Islam. In doing so, he also opens opportunities for greater understanding of Christian faith, service, and neighbor-love.
In an unfortunate conclusion to this otherwise positive review, it must be noted that the book is littered with editorial problems. From the opening pages, there are typos, repeated words, misspellings, and misreferenced appendices. There are also a number of inconsistencies and outright errors with regard to the spelling of personal names and transliterated terms: Medina is rendered “Median” (p. 127); the hermeneutical term ijtihad is frequently misspelled; inconsistencies occur, sometimes even on a single page, between ‘Uthman/Othman, Khatijah/Khadija, Shari’a/Shari’ah, Shiite/Shī’ite, Tarik Ramadan/Tariq Ramadan, Fetullah Gulen/Fetulah Gulen, and others. These editorial oversights are distracting at best, confusing and misleading at worst.
Director, Center for Faith and Learning
Professor of Religion
Malibu, California, USA
1 Clifford Geertz, “From a Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding,” in Interpretive Social Science: A Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 241.