The Search for Truth About Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction
A Book that Transforms the World
Written By Rev. Ben Daniel
Review by Craig Wiesner
Synopsis (from the publisher): Are Muslims infiltrating American society? What does Islam really teach about women's roles? Does the Qur'an condone violence? Presbyterian pastor Ben Daniel tackles common stereotypes and misconceptions that tend to define Islam in the popular imagination. Daniel also looks at Christianity's own history of violence and explores what he calls "the American cult of fear," particularly as it relates to the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. Blending travel narrative, interviews, and well-crafted storytelling, Daniel helps debunk the myths and put a human face on Islam in America.
How Reach And Teach Approaches this Book
As with most reviews we do at Reach And Teach, we want you to understand the lens through which we view this book. If you want to skip that lens, suffice it to say that this is one of the best books about Islam that I have ever read, and I'd go further to say that it is one of the best books about religion that I have ever read. Buy it. Read it. Gift it. Click here to buy it now.
Now.... back to the lens.
Our 2002 interfaith peace delegation to Afghanistan had just left one of the most horrific scenes we in our lives, the near total destruction of a once-thriving and beautiful town, having heard the story of a child who had nearly lost both arms and both legs to a U.S. cluster bomb, having seen his scars and infected wounds still struggling to heal, and we were all shaken to our core. Our driver, whom we had nicknamed "Crazy Driver" (which sounded much better in Pashto than English), had this strange smile on his face. "What are you thinking about?" I asked him, wondering how he could be smiling driving through the rubble of a place that had once been so beautiful, and having spent two hours with a boy in terrible pain, in a family at wits end on how they might survive. "I'm remembering how ignorant I was when I lived here under the Taliban. They told us what the Koran said, and we believed them. We had memorized everything, but had no idea what we were saying. All we knew was what they taught us. Then I escaped and got to Pakistan. There, I learned how to translate, and I learned what the Koran really said. The Taliban was bull****. Islam isn't about this (he waved to the rubble). Education is the only way out and I'm going to make sure children like Narisula (the boy whom we had met) learn."
We were a collection of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics, accompanying two women who had lost loved ones on September 11th to meet with Afghans who had been injured or had lost family members in the U.S. response to that tragedy. Ignorant about Islam and terrified about going to Osama Bin Laden's Afghanistan, this Jew did everything he could to learn about the people called Muslims and their religion. Sadly, much of what Americans know about Islam and Muslims matches our friend "Crazy Driver's" feelings about the Taliban. It's bull***. Yes, people like Karen Armstrong have written wonderful books on world religions, including Islam, and her work was helpful as I prepared to travel to Afghanistan, but I would have been so much better off if Rev. Ben Daniels' book had been written back then. But of course, before September 11th we weren't paying much attention to Islam, despite it being one of the world's must populous religions. Now, we're paying attention, and this new book offers a great introduction that hopefully will help Americans step out of their comfort zones, going as near as the corner store and getting to know "Bill" (the guy who owns the place) or going as far away as Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Saudi Arabia, or Spain, or..... anywhere in the world to meet some of the billions of Muslims who populate our planet.
Why We Love the Book:
Ignorance is dangerous. Learning can be boring.
Ignorance about Islam is rampant and misinformation about a religion that boasts billions of followers is dangerous. Trying to learn about Islam from many of the resources in the world today can be deadly dull. Rev. Ben Daniel has created a book that teaches about Islam and Muslims in a way that is anything but boring. In the book he explains the basics of Islam, the Five Pillars, introduces us to many different Muslims, provides a historical overview of Islam and its healthy and often not-so-healthy interconnections and relationships with other faiths, and illuminates the lives of Muslims in America and around the world in our post-911 21st Century. He does all this by weaving together history and facts for a few pages, with stories of his own travels to learn first-hand about that which he is seeking to explain in a few more pages, and then shares conversations with people ranging from the corner grocer to the man in charge of the key to Christianity's most holy shrine in Jerusalem.
As we like to do, Rev. Daniel starts by explaining the lens through which he approached writing this book. I was surprised to learn that his aunt was Donna Reed (Donna Belle Mellenger), famous star (and secretly co-producer) of the Donna Reed show. That program, according to popular memory, epitomized what a "Real American Family" was supposed to be all about in the 1950's and 1960's. It was during that time, however, that one of the worst witch hunts in American history was going on, the hunt for "Communists" in the television and film industries. According to Rev. Daniel in the first part of his book, the Donna Reed show employed blacklisted writers and actors, in defiance of the rage against "reds" going on in the country at that time. In the midst of "red scare" hysteria, she bucked the powers that be and helped people whose lives were being destroyed. Today, in the United States and other countries around the world, "Islamophobia" is raging and Rev. Daniel is channeling his Aunt Donna in fighting against that hysteria. He does a great job and I think Aunt Donna would be proud.
The writing is engaging, enlightening, light-hearted at one moment and severely critical at another. It is intensely detailed historically for a few pages at a time, and then intensely personal and emotional a few pages later. The rhythm of the book is like a train rolling down the tracks with a few stops along the way to take a breather outside. You're glad for the break, but you look forward to getting back on the train.
Despite saying that he wasn't trying to be "balanced" in this book, Rev. Daniel actually does manage to provide a very balanced portrayal of Islam and Muslims historically and in modern times. He rightfully claims that the demand for "balance" often results in imbalance.
"Despite the considerable havoc violent extremists have wreaked in the name of Islam, the number of such extremists is negligible in comparison to the population of Muslims worldwide. In order to create a "balance" between extremists and the rest of Islam, the fulcrum must be moved ridiculously far to one side. Such attempts at "balance" serve to distort rather than clarify our understanding of Islam."
I find the book to be very balanced. More importantly, it is immensely readable. And, having been on my own journey learning about Islam and getting to know Muslims during the last decade, I find Rev. Daniel's experiences and understanding match my own. For example, in all the interactions I've had with Muslims, no one has ever tried to convert me. That is NOT the same as my interactions with Christians (I'm Jewish and my husband is Christian). Rev. Daniel was having lunch with one of the folks he writes about in the book, talking about that very fact (no one had ever tried to convert Rev. Daniel to Islam). His lunchmate pointed that out as he bit into his vegan sandwich and Rev. Daniel realized his lunchmate was correct, as he bit into his ham sandwich. Oy vey! The book is filled with wonderful moments like that!
Beyond enjoying his writing so much, I also learned a lot of new information to which I had never been exposed, not being much of a history buff (especially Muslim and Christian history), and his writing sparked a renewed desire to travel more and learn more!
It really doesn't get better than that.
Hatem Bazian (Berkeley scholar/activist), pretty much sums up why we need to read books like this and venture out of our comfort zones. He told Rev. Daniel "Remember, we are the 'strangers' that you are asked to take care of, and we look at you as the strangers we need to care for. We're all traveling in the world, and we need to find ways for us to sit down and talk and know one another."
This is a terrific book, artfully crafted, and unique in its approach, and it achieves that most important goal of helping us to sit down and talk and know one another. I'm proud that Rev. Daniel will do his first book talk at our shop in San Mateo on April 6th at 5pm. Join us if you are local, sit down and talk with us, and let's all get to know each other!
Click here to buy the book!