One of the defining features of Islam is its monotheism. Anouar Majid thinks it is also one of the religion’s stumbling blocks.
“The defining characteristic of Islam is that it is the most elaborate and the most radical expression of monotheistic tradition that emerged out of Judaism and Christianity,” said Majid, vice president for global affairs and communications at the University of New England. “And while Judaism and Christianity evolved over time and had to battle different circumstances, the Muslims kept rigorously attached to this brand of monotheism that is causing a lot of trouble today.”
Majid will discuss “Islam and the Problem of Monotheism” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Majid said monotheism causes problems in society because it establishes strict cultural boundaries defined by which god a person devotes himself or herself to.
“What monotheism did was impose a draconian religious culture on everybody, stifled diversity, and then therefore laid the ground for Islam to emerge for the expression that we know today,” he said. “Islam is an inextricable part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that is something that seems to get lost in the discussion because people think that there is a West and Judeo-Christian culture as opposed to Islam. This polarization is absolutely confusing and false.”
The false dichotomy set up by these monotheistic lines means that Islam is frequently misunderstood by non-Muslims, Majid said.
“We are very much in the dark when it comes to Islam,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of talk in the media and a lot of scholarship, but I think think the general public and most of the politicians are totally misinformed and absolutely have very little idea about this religion.”
In addition to his work with global affairs and communications, Majid is the founding director of UNE’s Center for Global Humanities, and has published six books and many articles and op-eds about the relationship between Islam and the West.
This perspective has led Majid to see the troubled relationship between the two caused not only by misinformation, but also a lack of critical thinking about religion.
“There is a tendency to associate Islam with Christianity; [people] think they are the same, that religious people are more or less the same,” Majid said. “That is not true. [However], people in the West are willing to be brutally critical of Christianity, for example, but the mainstream media are reluctant to question Islam. They usually cast blame on fringe movements of Islam, the extremists, the people hijacking the peaceful message of Islam, but no one is questioning Islam itself.”
Part of this questioning, Majid said, should be a critical look at the place of religion in the modern world.
“One thing people have to do is understand what these religions are,” he said. “It’s baffling to know that people in this day and age, people who resort to modern medicine and fly planes and take photos of Pluto can still believe that their identities are shaped by a few men who lived 2,000 years ago. That we believe God selected [them] for no reason whatsoever and spoke to them, and therefore their message is eternal and the basis of our identity — it just doesn’t match anything else we do with our lives. It is the most archaic element in the landscape of modernity.”
The archaic nature of religion means that it must be examined carefully, said Majid.
“We’re looking for a better civilization for all, [and] critical thinking is indispensable,” he said. “Is religion, which is a relic from antiquity, still relevant to the present and the future? Or are we being called to reimagine ways to be together in communities and to experience spiritual fulfillment or to do things that are in sync with modern realities or future aspirations?”