Matthew Kaemingk: Welcome to Zealots at the Gate, a podcast of Comment magazine. I’m Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: I’m Shadi Hamid.
Matthew Kaemingk: Together we research, politics, religion, and the future of democracy at Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life.
Shadi Hamid: We are writing a book together. This podcast represents an informal space where we can talk about how to live with deep difference. Thanks so much for joining us.
Make sure to subscribe wherever you listen, leave us a review, give us a rating. We really appreciate that. And if you have questions or comments or want to engage directly, you can do that on Twitter, at least for the time being, I think, at #ZealotsPod. So use that hashtag, #ZealotsPod, and we will keep an eye on that and hopefully have a conversation with some of you. You can also email us at email@example.com. With that, Matt?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, so Shadi and I are good friends, but perhaps we shouldn’t be. I’m a Christian; he’s a Muslim. I’m a conservative; he’s a liberal. I’m white; he’s brownish. I study theology; he studies political science. I’m a man of the people from the rural Northwest, and he is part of the urban elite Northeast. So in many ways our identity markers indicate that we shouldn’t be friends, that we shouldn’t be talking with one another, and yet we are, and we actually value this relationship and think something might actually come out of engaging these deep differences that in some ways divide us. And, Shadi, that brings us to our topic for today, which we have called the topic of learning from heretics, or infidels, or the unwashed.
Shadi Hamid: Don’t say that word. We don’t use that word.
Matthew Kaemingk: Now, tell me, why don’t we use that word “infidel”?
Shadi Hamid: Okay, so you want to hear a funny joke about that? Well, it’s not a joke. It actually happened. So when I was in college, in undergrad, I was part of a band very briefly. I don’t think I told you this or really anyone. Some people know about it, obviously. And it started out as a Muslim rock band, and we did, for example, a cover of “Sweet Home Alabama,” but instead we made it “Sweet Home Medina.” So we did kind of lame . . . that kind of thing for Muslim banquets and that sort of thing. And then after that we tried to go mainstream and not just be Muslimy.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: So we brought on a Christian guitarist, and then the joke was that we renamed the band Three Muslims and an Infidel. And that was our sort of running joke among the four of us. And he appreciated it. He was into that. But it was meant as a joke because the word “infidel” is obviously very pejorative and also misleading.
Matthew Kaemingk: Mm-hmm.
Shadi Hamid: So there’s that and obviously a heretic. And these are different categories of, let’s say, unbelief or disbelief. And I think one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with “infidel,” besides the fact that it’s used in a certain way in popular discourse in media, is that . . . Well, I guess that is a big part of the reason—“infidel” sounds really bad. It’s hard for me to think of a word that has a more negative connotation. The word in Arabic that is sometimes controversial—folks might be familiar with it—is kafir or kuffar in the plural, which, I guess, the more neutral translation would be “disbeliever.”
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: But the problem, even with using that word, is that the root of the verb kafir, which is kufr in Arabic, it means “to cover” or “to hide.” So it has the implication that someone knows the truth but is recklessly and knowingly hiding it, covering it, or obscuring it in some way. So, with some more reform-minded interpretations, it’s very hard to be a kafir because that requires a very conscious act of covering really. And most people aren’t actually doing that. If they don’t believe in Islam, whatever they might be—atheist, agnostic, polytheist, other monotheist, take your pick—there isn’t a purposeful and reckless rejection of the truth. And for most people, if they know the truth and are exposed to it, then presumably they wouldn’t reject it. But there’s a lot we can unpack there. But that’s one of the reasons that I tend to prefer not using the word kafir. And it also sounds pretty bad too, because I guess it is.
Matthew Kaemingk: Kafir.
Shadi Hamid: It’s someone who’s hiding the truth.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. No, that’s really helpful. But essentially our topic for today is exploring why—why should we talk or listen or potentially even learn from those who are outside, from the outsiders.
Shadi Hamid: Yes.
Matthew Kaemingk: And for Christians, we can call them heretics, pagans, nonbelievers, gentiles if you will, but outsiders in general. And this is a core question for pluralism and pluralists, which you have talked multiple times, Shadi, about having a sort of presumptive generosity—presuming that we have something to learn from those who do not have the same faith or the same truth that we have. And this is a problem for religious communities, who believe that they have a revelation from God that others do not. So every religious community has to ask this question of “Do I have something to learn from someone who has not received this revelation?” That said, I think it’s also a problem for nonbelievers, atheists and agnostics. I think of the ways in which secular people can talk about believers in many ways as being heretics and outsiders. “What could we atheistic, rational people learn from religious people, those who are outside—”
Shadi Hamid: And evangelicals in particular—oh my god, they’re the worst.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So it seems to me to be a question that is relevant not simply for Muslims and Christians but for atheist and agnostics as well. How might you listen and learn from those who see the world in very different ways? So that’s the way I describe the problem. But, I mean, how would you enter into this issue?
Shadi Hamid: Well, I would say that we have a particular modern reality, which is that we live in diverse societies where disagreement is rampant. We can’t pretend that . . . We’re no longer homogenous, if we ever were. And homogeneity in a population is generally out of reach. And even countries that until recently were quite homogenous, like say Sweden or Norway, are changing because they have significant numbers of recent Muslim immigrants and now Muslim citizens. So really anywhere we look, the major democracies . . . Obviously, small democracies might be different, like Luxembourg—they probably don’t have a lot of outsiders or people who have decidedly strange or different beliefs. But if we’re talking about big countries with big populations, diversity is just a fact of life. And there’s no way we can return to some kind of imaginary consensus or imaginary homogenous situation where we’re all more or less the same. We’re not and we never will be.
So that means that everyone who lives in a democracy has to contend with this question. There will be people who we perceive as being outside the fold or they don’t share our same belief structure. And that can even be within religion. So if you look at Muslim-majority countries, even if 98 percent of the population is Muslim, there still is a fundamental intra-Muslim divide between those who are Islamist or secular and all the shades in between. And those are pretty foundational disagreements. So in some ways, wherever we look, there are outsiders. They can be ethnic, religious. They can be within our own religion. And we have to figure out whether or not we feel comfortable with that and whether or not we’re willing to learn from the people who are outside of our own particular community. It would be pretty hard, though, to live in a society where you refuse to learn from those who are not of your own faith. You’d be pretty much cutting out hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
So in some ways, if we want to . . . We have to figure out some kind of arrangement there. And I think there are major resources in our respective faiths that allow us to do that, because Christendom was a multi-religious, multi-ethnic empire—empires; or Christendom itself, it had to bring in different kinds of people and accommodate them. And the same was the case for the great Caliphates. Actually, in the first few centuries of Islam, Muslims were not the majority in much of the territory that they controlled. So it was just a fact of life that you had to figure out a way of coexisting with Christians, Jews, other monotheists, and so forth. So I think that rather than saying that this is just a modern thing where it’s only moderns who have figured out this idea of learning from the other, it’s not true. And in our traditions, they had to learn from the other because the other was there. The other was present and part of their own societies.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. And this lack of curiosity, once again, it’s not simply an issue for the ancients, but it’s an issue for today. A lot of my own research had to do with how Europe was responding to Muslim immigrants. And one thing that is common . . . A lot is made in Europe of the conflict between the political right and the political left on the issue of Muslim immigration, right? That one side wants a hard, exclusionary posture and the other is very inclusive and tolerant. But something actually binds the European right and the European left, which is fundamentally a lack of curiosity about what Muslims could contribute to European public life in terms of its thinking and its structure.
So those on the right think particularly of Islam as a threat to European life, culture, politics. Those on the left tend to think about Muslim immigrants in terms of their needs. So they need health care, they need education, they need empowerment, they need to be enlightened. But this lack of curiosity about what Muslims might teach them in Europe is common on the right and the left. And it’s that lack of curiosity, presumptive generosity, that the other might have something to contribute to the way that you see the world, that seems to me to be a problem for all of us.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. Yeah, well said. And there’s also . . . I don’t want to bring up too controversial of an issue, and Matt—
Matthew Kaemingk: Do it. Do it.
Shadi Hamid: I didn’t give you a heads-up, but think it’s inevitable that we would have to touch on this. We do want to save a proper episode for salvation and damnation in our respective faiths. That’s long been a preoccupation of mine; I find it fascinating. But I think this question of learning from the other does relate in some way to the question of who is saved and who is not. And there are different strains in political theory that take different perspectives. I mean, Rousseau has the famous quote, and let me see if I have it here. Yes. He says, “It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” And I think that’s one view, that if you have religions where, let’s say, some Muslims may view Christians as beyond salvation and Christians may view Muslims to one degree or another as not being saved because they don’t believe in Christ, this raises, I think, a very important question.
Can we live at peace with those people if we say that they aren’t saved and they’re outside of that? Then does that make it harder? Do we have to find a way to have a different understanding of salvation for other faiths? There’s a lot to unpack there, but I think it does relate in a very interesting way to this question of the afterlife and what happens to us.
Matthew Kaemingk: So when it comes to learning from heretics, the ways in which Christians tend to frame this question is: “Is God speaking outside of the church. Is God speaking outside of the Bible? Is God moving and active beyond Christian people? So can I learn something about what God is doing in the world or what God wants by listening and learning to those outside?” And I’m curious, Shadi, from a Muslim perspective, how do you and how have other Muslims thought about God revealing God’s self and God’s will beyond the Quran, the Hadith, the tradition? How do you enter into that discussion?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, so maybe just for starters, I can drop some Quranic verses on all of you, if you’re amenable to that. But there is this famous Quranic verse that I’m sure you’ve heard quite a bit, Matt, where God says, “Oh, mankind, we have created you male and female and appointed you races and tribes so that you might come to know one another.” The idea here being that if God had willed it, he would’ve created us all the same. He very much did not do that, and there is a kind of inherent wisdom to that. And the idea is that if people are of different faiths or ethnicities, genders—well, not to get into that, but here we’re just talking about two, to be clear—you learn from them, and they’re very presence is an invitation to be exposed to something a little bit different.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, that last line, Shadi, it was “So that you might come to know one another.”
Shadi Hamid: Yep. Exactly.
Matthew Kaemingk: It is through the engagement of difference that you might . . . Yeah, that’s wonderful.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. There’s also, in chapter 2, verse 212, this Quranic verse I think is really useful as well: “Mankind was one community, then God sent the prophets as bearers of glad tidings and as warners, and with them he sent down the book in truth to judge among mankind concerning that wherein they differed.” So there’s an idea here of constructive competition, that you want different levels of religious commitment and you also want different starting points in regards to belief because that creates a situation where you’re competing with each other to see who can be better, do more good works, and so forth. So this idea of generative competition comes through as well. And I think all of this is really helpful. You can always, of course, cherry-pick verses and emphasize the ones that are more pluralistic in orientation. But I think the point here is that the resources are there for those who would like resources.
And just so I don’t engage too much in apologetics—and there might be some scrupulous listeners who might bring this up, at least in their own minds—there are verses in the Quran that are seemingly less pluralistic. And not to get into a debate about those, but that is a subject of a lot of modern debate over how we should interpret verses that seem less pluralistic in light of modern developments. And people feel like there’s a gap between what the Quran might say and what they’re expected to believe in terms of international human rights norms. And I think it’s worth emphasizing that medieval interpretations of some of these verses tended to be more exclusivist. And there’s a reason for that. I’d be curious what you think about this too, Matt. You also don’t want to have too inclusive of a vibe when you’re building a new religion and you’re spreading, because you want to impress upon people that your religion is the better one, that there is one truth that is preferable to others.
If you pretty much have this relaxed approach of saying that all approaches to the truth are equally valid, then you lose the impetus for internal discipline, for cohesion, in the group. And that becomes just a social requirement. That’s something that you need. So people should also keep in mind that there are sort of practical requirements for new religions that require a certain kind of intensity, and to say that “Oh yeah, our religion is better.” And I think that we, as moderns and people who are part of liberal societies, feel uncomfortable saying that our religion does reserve unto itself a kind of truth claim and that the others might have bits of the truth, but they’re not as true.
Matthew Kaemingk: So, Shadi, can I ask you more personally for you—I mean, you are out there; you’ve gone to secular schools, to Catholic schools; you’ve engaged atheists in conversation; you’ve read a wide variety of philosophies and engaged with lots of different people in conversation with a presumptive generosity that you have something to learn from them. And yet you believe that the Quran is the word of God, is God’s revelation to humanity. And so how is it that you hold these two things together? Why not simply read the Quran, the Hadith, and say, “This is the revelation of God. This is the truth”? What do you imagine you might have to learn from these non-Muslims? Why this presumptive generosity towards them? As a Muslim, why do you have that generosity?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. Yeah. Look, it’s a great question. First of all, I can just say that personally I have learned so much from Christians. So it’s just something that I’ve experienced in my own life, and that feels very important to me. And that’s been one of the wonderful things about engaging more with Christian audiences over the past few years, in part because of our friendship, Matt. I feel like there are insights that I can now apply to my own faith. And in previous episodes we’ve mentioned Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian who’s been a big influence on me. Learning more about Kuyper and the notion of Christian pluralism encouraged me to go back to my own sources, the Quran and the Hadith and the classical tradition, and see what pluralistic precedents there were there. And I did discover quite a lot that maybe I was vaguely aware of but hadn’t really dived as deeply into.
So that’s where it’s not just about learning; it’s not just about appreciating the insights of the other. I think that I can say that I’ve become, at least in my own way, a better Muslim the more I’ve engaged with Christians. Christians in some sense encourage me to think more about the big spiritual and religious questions, about the good and existence, and so on. But I should say that it’s possible to appreciate the beauty that is in Christianity, and I’m actually willing to say that. I think there are things in Christianity that I find compelling and even beautiful. That doesn’t mean that I believe they’re true. In other words, I think it’s possible to separate these things.
You can say that, as a matter of belief and my own perception of reality and fact, I don’t believe that Jesus Christ was divine. For us as Muslims, he’s a prophet—a revered prophet, but a man nonetheless. But I can also hold the other thought and say that even though this part—I don’t believe it’s true. And obviously, it’s a very big part of Christianity; it’s at the credal centre of the religion. But I can still, as an observer, as someone who does seek to extend this presumptive generosity, I can take the pieces of beauty and insight and grace from the Christian tradition.
So for me, those things are not in conflict. Obviously, there are Muslims who will say that because the origin of Christianity is false, anything that comes from it is sort of a tainted fruit, if you will. That to me is a subjective approach and doesn’t really have any strong basis in scripture. People can think that way, but I’ve chosen a different approach. And we’ve talked, Matt, about how the idea of grace is one that really resonates with me. We don’t have as strong an emphasis on grace in the Islamic tradition.
So the word for grace and Islam is fadl, F-A-D-L. And it’s there, but it’s just not a big part. We talk much more about mercy or rahmah in Arabic and that is . . . But mercy and grace are not quite the same thing. So learning about grace from my Christian friends and even seeing how grace is discussed in popular culture. So, for example, it’s become one of my favorite songs just in the past year and I’ve listened to it a lot—“Grace” by Jeff Buckley, for example. Or U2 has a lot of references to grace in some of their earlier work, which was more Christian inspired and influenced. And also the ideas around surrender. I just think because it’s foreign to me, because I don’t have as much of it in my own experience with Islam, it’s just a way of going beyond my own confines and extending myself and pushing myself. And to be fair, I can’t define grace even though I’ve thought a lot about it and read more and more about it. It’s one of these concepts that I think is sort of beyond a clear definition. It’s got this . . . Maybe you can give us one.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, well, you shouldn’t feel bad about that, right? I have a PhD in Christian theology, and I could not give you a perfect, holy definition of grace.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, of course. But that’s part of what’s appealing about it.
Matthew Kaemingk: Exactly. Christian theologians have been trying for two thousand years to summarize what grace is. And I still remember the night you really pushed me to explain grace to you, and I couldn’t fully do that. And that was actually a wonderful experience for me because that helped me to see the beauty of the concept. And of course, it’s not just a concept for me; it’s a reality that God’s grace for us is just true. But that was a wonderful experience. But what I hear coming up for you multiple times that I would love to return to some other episode is a sort of positive competition between faiths, or this sense that Christians push you to be a better Muslim. It’s by hanging around with . . . To return to our term of heretics, by hanging around outsiders, we have to reflect on what it means to be an insider and what it is we care about most. And it sharpens us in really important ways.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, exactly. Well, can I ask you a question? And I’m going to push a little bit to see if we can excavate some contrast. But I think one reason that I think . . . So I feel very comfortable saying what I just said, in part because Christians and Jews are in this kind of place of honor and respect in the Islamic tradition. They’re known as People of the Book. And the kind of classical Islamic position is that . . . How do I put this? Yeah, I think it’s okay to say this. Christianity and Judaism were true and in some sense still are true in their original form. But through human interference . . .
Matthew Kaemingk: Corruption.
Shadi Hamid: . . . there has been a kind of corruption and they no longer reflect, at least to the same extent, the original truth, so on and so forth. But still, because there is this place of respect and because we come last, I think it’s easier for us to bring in what came before into the broader Islamic universe. Where if you look at breakaways from Islam after Prophet Muhammad . . . So he’s considered the seal of the prophets in the Islamic tradition, which is a very definitive thing. Once something is sealed, you’re pretty much done, right? So that’s why the breakaways that came after that try to elevate new prophets, like in the Baha’i faith, for example, Islam has more difficulty looking at them positively.
So I think this does affect sometimes, at least in my experience, how Christians view Muslims. We’re sort of similar to . . . So Baha’is to Islam are maybe in some sense similar to Muslims to Christianity, in that we came after and we claim to be a better version, that we’re somehow superseding what came before. And Christians then are more likely to see that as a heresy. So there isn’t anything, to my knowledge, equivalent to People of the Book. We’re not necessarily, as Muslims, considered by Christians as People of the Book because our book, the Quran, is not considered to be originally true, partly true, half true, half corrupted. So I wonder, Matt, does that make it a little bit more difficult for Christians to learn from Muslims because, for them, they can’t draw on this shared understanding of People of the Book or a shared tradition as much as maybe we can vis-à-vis Christians? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, so I think that is an issue. I think in general, for Christians, all outsiders are equally outside. But they are all a part of God’s creation and are all made in the image of God. And those two things are really important for understanding why a Christian would want to learn from non-Christians and would believe that it was worth their time. So there’s two key terms that I want to just throw out there if you want to understand a Christian case for learning from heretics, as we’re going to go with the term “heretic.” The first is natural law, and the second is common grace.
So natural law is this understanding that God’s will, God’s law, God’s limits are built into all human beings and to the whole creation. And so God’s will is something that we can know by paying attention to the world and paying attention to ourselves. And so all people have somewhat some bit of access to God’s truth. For example, we all know that we need to rest—that if we do not rest, if we do not take a day of rest, the human body begins to break down. So this understanding of Sabbath or Sunday rest is built into us. We all have this sense that murder is wrong. Now, of course, we’re going to disagree about what falls into the category of murder, but we all have this built-in moral code that we all have access to, and we wrestle with that. Different cultures, different religions, different philosophies wrestle with: How do we respect life? How do we tell the truth? How do we keep our promises? How do we be a person of honor? And throughout history and throughout diverse cultures and faiths, we’ve been wrestling with these kinds of questions of what is the natural law.
And so because of that, because all of humanity has been wrestling with these questions from diverse parts of the globe and diverse times, we as Christians can engage other cultures and other philosophies and other religions and listen to them as they wrestle. So Islam and Christianity both know that you are supposed to care for the poor, right? That we have this internal sense that we must care for the poor. And Muslims have been wrestling for centuries with how do you care for the poor well, and so have Christians. And so it stands to reason that if I want to care for the poor well, there is this civilization that’s been asking that question for a thousand years—maybe, just maybe, I could learn something from them. And so this natural law, this understanding of natural law, helps me in that way.
The second term is this term “common grace,” which is that God is actively moving and speaking and blessing those outside of the Christian church—that God is blessing Muslim philosophers and atheist scientists and Buddhist historians. And so I could go to a university and I could learn from professors who are of all these different philosophies and religions because I believe in God’s common grace—that God is out there blessing and speaking and directing them as well. Now of course, there’s always going to be disagreements and there’s going to be critiques, but the presumption is that they are not beyond God’s hand, that God may have something for me out there to learn.
Shadi Hamid: Well, let me push you on this because I do appreciate the generalized love of humankind and all of God’s creation. But as a Muslim—maybe I’m being a little bit selfish here—it’s almost as if I want special recognition for Islam. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, we can learn from all humankind because of God’s common grace.” But then when we get to Muslims and Islam more specifically, I wonder if there’s anything that can be done from a Christian perspective to take it maybe one step further and say that Muslims qua Muslims offer something. Because it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that I as a Muslim can offer something, some insights or things to learn for Christians because I’m a human, not necessarily because I’m a Muslim. And those are two different categories, right?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. So I’ll be interested to see what Christians have to say about my answer to this because the way you have articulated things from a Muslim perspective is that Jews and Christians are on a higher level, according to Muslims, than those who would be atheists. You’ve created a bit of a hierarchy between human beings who are worth listening to. Which I’m happy about because I’m in the hierarchy, I’m up here, as opposed to the atheist. I guess that I would say my initial response to your question is no, that Muslims as Muslims don’t have something special that atheists don’t. Muslims are worthy of my listening and learning because they’re human beings, not because they’re religious.
And that goes to my general critique that I don’t really like the term “religion” at all, because I don’t believe that there are religious people and nonreligious people. I believe that we are all, in a very important sense, religious. We all hold certain things sacred, we all hold certain things by faith, and this term “religion” is a modern invention. It’s an invention essentially to divide the world between those who are superstitious and those who are rational. And I don’t think it’s terribly helpful. So in general, no. When I meet a Muslim, I don’t think I have more to learn from them because they’re Muslim. I believe I have something to learn from them because they’re human.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. That’s an important distinction.
Matthew Kaemingk: But I’m anticipating pushback not only from you; I’m anticipating pushback from Christians on this question. So anyways, what’s yours?
Shadi Hamid: I hope we get some of that. And just a reminder, you should tell us if you have a disagreement on that. We’d love to hear a range of perspectives and how you react to this.
Another follow-up, and I wasn’t planning on this. As someone who always says that I’m comfortable with deep difference and how that’s really at the core of my own project as a researcher and writer—to interrogate deep difference, to confront it—I have to say that sometimes I’m flawed. I do get a little bit uncomfortable when one dives into a lot of theology as we’re doing here because I just don’t think we’re prepped for it. Like these things, as you would say, drawing on William Connolly, make us hunch up our shoulders and we feel almost like a little bit defensive. How much apologetic should we engage in? And I can imagine if I was talking to a different Christian, a more progressive, maybe mainline Protestant-type Christian—not to say there’s anything wrong with that—they would maybe be a little bit more apologetic and try to meet me halfway, where you’re basically saying, “Shadi, you want special status as a Muslim? I’m not going to give it to you.” And what you said is interesting—that everyone who is non-Christian is in effect on the same level as being outside of being saved, outside of the personal relationship with Christ.
But let me just say that my worry there . . . You’re able to take that and still find a way to apply common grace, and that allows you to be hospitable to your Muslim neighbour, and you’ve modeled that in your own work. I do wonder, though, that if you take an ordinary, let’s say, evangelical who hasn’t thought as much about common grace or the kind of inherent hospitality that’s in Christianity, and for them they would say, “Okay. Muslims, none of their faith is based in truth.” So I guess I would maybe want . . . Or can Christians recognize that there is some truth in Islam insofar as Muslims believe in one God? And we debated this a little bit in the first episode, whether we even believe in the same God. But the fact that we are part of an Abrahamic family tradition because we are monotheists, at least to a large degree . . . We don’t have to get into the trinity right now, but wouldn’t those things offer a stronger anchor for, let’s say, an evangelical who doesn’t know much about Islam to say, “Well, actually there is truth in that. There is truth that they have recognized at least some concept of monotheism; that they have recognized the idea of hell and heaven and a day of judgment and angels and a kind of metaphysics; that Muslims have recognized a lineage of prophets that goes back millennia.”
Wouldn’t all of these things offer some sense that the Quran . . . Fine. Christians, obviously, that would be crazy if they considered the Quran to be in any sense God’s word. But they would be able to recognize that there is some truth that Muslims have found, even if their means of getting there hasn’t necessarily been right. But some of the conclusions do seem to comport with some of the Christian traditions. So maybe that’s one thing.
Matthew Kaemingk: So—
Shadi Hamid: But also I worry that the reverse is that if X evangelical Bob friend. I don’t know . . . well, there is actually, I suppose, an evangelical who I have in mind who’s named Bob and that’s why I just came up. But there’s also the reverse that if we as Muslims are seen as being outside of being saved, outside of the relationship with Christ, and an evangelical might say, “Why should I even pay a lot of attention to Muslims? Why should I focus on that? They might even be a little bit worse because they claim to be better than us. They’ve come after, and they claim to be the seal of religions, the final religion, the final revelation. So in some sense they might even be worse than a regular theist, deist, agnostic, blah, blah, blah, whatever.” So I’m just wondering, how do we protect against that? Because I know that there are evangelicals who feel this way, who have a negative sentiment towards Islam because we come after.
Matthew Kaemingk: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I guess I would say I regard Islam as a centuries-old tradition, a reservoir of human wisdom and reflection on life and justice and flourishing and a search for God and a debate over what the good life is. And so any tradition that’s lasted this long and has wrestled so hard with these questions is going to produce some wisdom. And so that is where my curiosity comes. Moreover, the tradition itself has existed by the grace of God—that God has been active in and through the Muslim community in a general and common way, as opposed to the special and salvific way in which God has been revealed in and through the person of Jesus and scripture. So that’s about as generous as I can get on that.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. Well, that’s good because I think that helps us figure out where some of the lines are, and that gives us some perspective and clarity, because that is a challenge I think at least for some people. I mean, like I said, it’s no secret that the most unfortunately anti-Muslim group in America . . . At least, maybe it’s ebbed a little bit because no one really cares about Muslims all that much. But there was a time in 2016 to 2018 where, in the relevant polling, evangelicals as a group would express the most disproportionately anti-Muslim sentiments. So clearly there is an issue, and I wonder if part of that is the inability to recognize Muslims as sharing in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Which leads me to another question. I honestly don’t know the answer. You said that in some sense all non-Christians are outside, right? But the phrase “Judeo-Christian” does suggest that there is a somewhat elevated place for Jews and Judaism in the Christian imagination. And Jesus, obviously, as we know, was Jewish himself. That makes it maybe easier. But I wonder . . . And I know Eboo Patel has made the argument in some of his writing: Why don’t we find a way to have a Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition and expand it? And why not? I don’t love that, because I think it’s too kumbaya, it’s too universalist. That, to me, feels too much like it’s papering over difference. It’s trying too hard, it’s engaging in this kind of pre-emptive apologetics. I don’t love it. But I wonder what you would say to someone like Eboo, because if we’re all outside of Christianity and we’re all on the same level, if you can bring in Jews, why not bring us in too?
Matthew Kaemingk: I love it. So you’re like—
Shadi Hamid: Unless Jews are a little bit of a different category in the Christian imagination.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So which is it? Do you want it or don’t you?
Shadi Hamid: I don’t know. I’m torn. I think this is why . . .
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: . . . contending with deep differences is so challenging, because in one sense I want to belong, and I want to find ways for Muslims to feel they are part of this broader tradition and they’re not kind of kept out and it’s just a Jewish-Christian club, right?
Matthew Kaemingk: Right.
Shadi Hamid: At the same time, do I really want to be that similar? It’s cool that we’re different because we’re Muslims and we like that we’re Muslim. But I think everyone contends with this, right? How different versus how same do we want to be? And part of that is a choice that we make. We can draw on certain things that bring us closer; we can draw on certain things that take us apart.
Matthew Kaemingk: So I think this is important. I hear this in your voice throughout this conversation—this wanting to belong, this awareness that I’m different, that I don’t fit, and the sensitivity to those who would tell me that I don’t belong when I want to. And so my response to . . . So Eboo Patel has written this book talking about American civil religion and democracy. I think it’s called Out of Many Faiths, talking about how of the glory of America is its religious diversity. And talking about how Islam has historically been a part of America since it’s very beginning—a small part, but it’s been a part. And he’s making an argument to a general American populace that we need to be more inclusive religiously, that America’s not just a Judeo-Christian community, but we should see it as Judeo-Christian-Islamic.
And so when he’s using civic language, I think absolutely that there are lots of political issues upon which Muslims, Christians, and Jews can agree and can work together in really important and fruitful ways. And I think throughout this podcast we’ve seen that monotheism—and we will continue to explore this—that monotheism itself can be really helpful in how we think about democracy and navigating issues of deep difference. So I am absolutely fine with talking about a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition when we’re in political context.
Shadi Hamid: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Kaemingk: That said, when we’re talking about the church itself, no, the church and the mosque are very different things. And if I want to learn how to run a church, I’m not going to go across the street to a mosque, right? And similarly, I don’t think too many imams are going to go across the street to a church to learn how to run a mosque. And so what Eboo Patel is looking for there is guidance on political community, and that’s different, I would say, than guidance on a religious community.
Shadi Hamid: So then you take Judeo-Christian, just keeping it to those two faiths, as being a political statement, not a religious one. Because you would say that even Jews and Judaism are outside the way Islam is outside. Or am I . . . I’m just trying to understand how—
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. Okay. So you asked multiple questions there. You want to talk about the status of Jews within Christianity?
Shadi Hamid: No, I’m just trying to understand if Judaism is elevated and is held in a place of honor and respect, then it isn’t quite the case that all non-Christians are on the same plane. There are different gradations among non-Christians, right?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yes, that’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. So Jews are . . . As Christians, we have been grafted or joined to Jews in a very, very important way. And so Christians should and ought to always have a debt of gratitude and respect and curiosity towards their Jewish neighbours because we share the Hebrew scriptures and the God that is revealed within them. And so that is a very special relationship; that’s different from any relationship that Christians would have with any other human being. So, yeah, absolutely right.
Shadi Hamid: So then it does make it harder, then, to have the kind of trifecta of Judeo-Christian-Islamic because there is something special theologically and religiously about the Jewish-Christian relationship, and it’s just going to be harder for Muslims—
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. So if I’m having dinner with you and a Jewish buddy, there is a bond between my Jewish friend and I that I don’t share with you, I guess, is what you’re trying to say. Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: So that’s true?
Matthew Kaemingk: That is true, yes. Are your hackles up? Do you feel your shoulders coming up a little bit?
Shadi Hamid: But then this does relate a little bit to the conversation we had in episode one. And for those of you who didn’t listen to our inaugural episode, you really should, where we lay out some of these fundamental questions, including on how Christians and Muslims don’t necessarily believe in the same God, and that’s an issue that can be contentious. And I always thought that they did, but I’m becoming now more sympathetic to the view that many Christian conservatives in particular have that we don’t necessarily share the same God. But then I would ask if the Trinitarian God, in that that’s what makes the Christian God somewhat distinctive from the Islamic conception of the divine, wouldn’t that also apply to Jews? So if Jews and Christians believe in the same God, then it seems reasonable to extend that and say that all three of us believe in the same God because the Trinitarian God in the Christian imagination is different than the Jewish God and the Muslim God.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So, I guess, the entire “same God” discussion, generally I don’t find it to be very helpful or very revealing because the Ku Klux Klan claims to be Christian, right? But if I sat down and listened to the Ku Klux Klan talking about God and what God wants for the world, I would come back to you and say, “I don’t worship the same God those guys worship.” And yet they call themselves Christian and I call myself Christian. So the “same God” discussion—I just don’t find it terribly helpful.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah.
Matthew Kaemingk: People bring that up—they use that language of “we all worship the same God”—fundamentally because they desire peace, they desire coexistence, they want connection, they want to avoid violence and hatred. And so they think that by emphasizing sameness, by emphasizing commonness, they’re going to get peace. And that’s fundamentally . . . I think you and I would both agree that sameness, emphasizing sameness, is not actually the path to peace, but actually having a curiosity about our difference and a level of respect and generosity, hospitality even.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah.
Matthew Kaemingk: So that’s why I just never find a discussion of “same God” leading to anywhere productive or interesting, I guess is what I’m saying.
Shadi Hamid: Unless they agree in the end after that conversation that they believe in the same God. I mean, that would be productive even if it’s not theologically accurate. But anyway, putting that aside, so I think what I’m hearing from you, and I think this is maybe what I find most helpful about you being very clear about where your lines are and that you’re not going to theologically compromise in the name of some kind of political accommodation. That’s important because we shouldn’t expect people to alter their theology in order for us to live in the same society, because that’s asking a lot of people. If I’m going to evangelicals and I’m saying, “Recognize Muslims as believing in the same God. Recognize some truth in Islam. That way we can live more comfortably together,” I’m going to lose a lot of them from the get-go. Because they’re going to say, “Well, I can’t do that theologically. That’s a non-starter for me.”
And your approach becomes helpful because it says, “Forget about all that. Don’t try to get people to be more theologically inclusive if they don’t want to be. It’s about conviction, it’s about what’s in your heart.” But then take that as a given, take people as they are and then say, “Still, there are compelling reasons to learn from your Muslim neighbour that don’t rely on those theological innovations, let’s say.” Even if you believe Islam is 100 percent false, that we’ve gotten things terribly wrong and we are just off, that by itself does not justify shutting the door in front of your Muslim neighbour.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: That’s the argument.
Matthew Kaemingk: That is it. That’s exactly the argument. People can be wrong about five things and still be very, very right about five other things. And so you don’t need to claim that we have this perfect agreement in order to say, “Conversation needs to happen.” And so that’s the beauty of a doctrine like common grace that says that God is moving and speaking and he is teaching and giving gifts of wisdom to people that you would not expect. So there’s all kinds of examples in the Bible of unexpected people being wise and teaching God’s people. So there’s, of course, this biblical story of Jonah and the whale. I have three little boys, and they love Jonah and the whale of course, because—
Shadi Hamid: It’s an awesome story.
Matthew Kaemingk: Right? It’s awesome. It’s a great story. But in that story, the Jewish man who’s supposed to know God so well—famously, he runs away from God, and he’s with these sailors and there’s this big storm, and he tells the sailors, “Well, this storm is happening because I ran away from God.” And these sailors, they’re not Jews; they’re not faithful Jews at all. But they say, “How could you run away from God? How could you be so stupid as to think you could run away from God? Why would you disobey him? That’s a terrible thing to do.” And so in this particular story, the wise ones are the outsiders; the wise ones are those who do not go to temple, and they’re teaching him something new.
Similarly, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. There’s this man who’s in need of help, and it’s a Jewish man who’s been beaten up by robbers. And the Jewish priests don’t help him. The Jewish Levites don’t help him. But then this outsider, the Samaritan, has the moral conviction to help him. And in this case Jesus is telling the story to demonstrate that even outsiders can morally go beyond you and insiders, and that there’s something to learn, right? There’s a way in which the Jewish people who heard that story were shamed because the Samaritan was the more moral person. So presumptive generosity, for me, means that I presume that God is going to surprise me, that God is going to teach me in and through people that I don’t expect.
Shadi Hamid: So—
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, go ahead.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, so not to cite another U2 song, but I’m thinking about “Mysterious Ways.” I think that in the song Bono says, “She moves in mysterious ways.” I can’t remember the lyrics if it’s a metaphor for the divine, yeah?
Matthew Kaemingk: I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for the divine, but maybe it is. I thought it was about a girl, but I don’t— [Laughter.]
Shadi Hamid: Oh, yeah. Maybe. Maybe. Hey, there we go.
Matthew Kaemingk: But no, I mean, there is this important sense that both Islam and Christianity understand that God is beyond our grasp, right? And that God is capable of surprising us, that there’s sort of a wild freedom to God that we don’t control.
Shadi Hamid: Wild freedom, I like that, actually. Well, so then I wonder because when we talk about God working in mysterious ways and that God has ultimate freedom. And not to get into a complex theological debate about whether God could lift a boulder so heavy that he himself would fall under its weight. I mean, those kinds of intellectual riddles are fun but are a little bit hard to resolve. But I am curious about the mysterious ways, if we take that too far, then . . . And I’m just thinking about this because I was at a conference that included a theologian or two, including Miroslav Volf, who is remarkable and who I met in person for the first time. And we had this conversation about—I don’t want to call it a doctrine, but let’s say the doctrine of the flawed vessel. That God chooses through his mystery and his unintelligible ways, because we as humans cannot access his divine will. That he can choose someone like Donald Trump, an imperfect, flawed vessel to make his will known through him.
And as you can probably see where I’m going with this, you can use this to justify pretty much any political outcome. You can say, “This person beat his wife or did God knows what.” There’s some debate around Herschel Walker, for example, a very flawed vessel, his own history. Here I’m referring to the Senate race in Georgia, that God is choosing to work through these people. So even if they are bad, even if they are ungodly, even if they have committed evil in their own lives through fornication, adultery, domestic abuse, whatever it might be, this is part of God’s mystery. I’m just wondering how you would respond to that, because I feel like that does come up a lot.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So the way you protect against that is the earlier care that I showed in creating two different levels of revelation, right? That God is active throughout the world but in sort of a common and general way, and that is different from God’s revelation in scripture and in Jesus. And that sort of higher, special revelation is what judges any claim below. So if someone is trying to claim Donald Trump is a gift from God, or Herschel Walker is a gift from God or a vessel from God, that’s a theological claim. And I have to be open to that being a possibility. However, I have to interrogate and judge that theological claim using scripture and Jesus as my guide.
So if Herschel Walker and Donald Trump don’t sound like Jesus, don’t walk, talk, smell like Jesus, that’s a pretty good indication that something is off here. And so holding scripture, holding the Christian Bible as a higher revelation, enables me to critique claims about God moving through a particular political leader or political movement or a religious movement as well. So if I have a friend that says, “I think Islam and Buddhism are just as good as Jesus in terms of saving our souls.” I can say, “Well, let’s go and look at the Bible and see what we find there.” So there’s sort of a hierarchy of revelations there, and that holds me safe from divinizing Donald Trump or Herschel Walker, I guess.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. Yeah. That’s helpful. That’s helpful. Yeah, go ahead.
Matthew Kaemingk: Well, can you say similarly something like that about Islam, that you can learn from outsiders? But how do you discern what is true and not? Do you go back to the Hadith and to the teachings of Muhammad to discern those kinds of things, or what does that look like for you?
Shadi Hamid: It’s a very good note to start to wrap up on. And I would say that . . . So there is a classical Islamic tradition, which is very detailed and rich. There’s this entire corpus, and sometimes people have the impression that it’s quite legalistic. I don’t think that’s quite right. Obviously, there is a legal aspect to Islam that is not present in Christianity. And Sharia does include positive law. It’s not completely positive law because it also includes things like private practice. So when Newt Gingrich said in 2016 that he wants American Muslims to disavow the Sharia, I think a lot of us were like, “This is impossible because if we disavowed the Sharia, we wouldn’t know how to pray five times a day, or even that we should pray five times a day, or fasting.” This is all part of Sharia, which, if you take the broader translation of the word, means “the path,” so it’s more than just about law.
So we do have a lot to go back to, and sometimes people would say we have too much to go back to, that the corpus is so detailed and rich that it actually narrows the room for maneuver that Muslims actually have living in different and diverse contexts. I disagree with that, but that’s a conversation for another time. But, yeah, the two kinds of primary sources scripture-wise are the Quran and the Hadith. The Hadith are the sayings and the actions of the Prophet. And so we know, for example, to pray five times a day, not because it’s in the Quran. The Quran doesn’t actually say how many times you should pray, because the Quran can only go into so much detail. I mean, I’m not here to speak for God, but it is understandable intellectually that with a lot of details you might lose people.
So the Quran does have details, but you only want to take it so far. If you’re going into all the minutia of how to pray, you’re going to lose a little bit of your audience, right? So you find that in the Hadith we know that the Prophet prayed five times a day and that his followers did as well. So we take that . . . That is sort of foundational. Now, there’s a distinction between foundational, credal things and then secondary matters. And this is oftentimes how legal scholars and theologians kind of distinguish. On dogma Islam is pretty intense about the truth. So, for example, monotheism—that God has no partners, that Prophet Muhammad is the seal of the prophets—that is dogma. So there isn’t room for internal pluralism on that. So if a Muslim says, “Well, actually I no longer believe that Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet,” we can’t really accommodate that within Islam because Islam doesn’t work without some basic credal requirements. If a Muslim says, “I’m down with everything, but I think that Muhammad wrote the Quran, that it’s not actually from God,” Muslims can’t really accommodate that within Islam. That puts you outside the fold, so to speak.
On the secondary matters, there is considerable diversity and room for disagreement, as we talked about in previous episodes. And I think that’s a part of Islam that isn’t appreciated or recognized as much. There is this sense that Islam doesn’t have this flexibility, but it actually has a lot of flexibility, but not on the credal requirement. So when people say, “Well, can you be flexible on eating pork?” Well, that’s difficult. If you want flexibility on saying that not every part of the Quran is divine, then we as Muslims would probably have to say—no, not probably—we would have to say, “Sorry, we can be flexible, but not on that.” So I think it’s important to keep those distinctions in mind.
And that’s a big part of how we ascertain what is true. So we can take things from other faiths or tribes . . . Tribes sounds weird because there aren’t really tribes in . . . well, I guess there are tribes in America, never mind. But we can take things from others as long as they don’t violate core dogma.
Matthew Kaemingk: Right.
Shadi Hamid: Once you start getting into core dogma, it becomes more challenging to kind of take wholeheartedly from the other, if you will. Does that make sense?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, it does. It does. And I think this might be a good point to wrap up on, which is an invitation to our listeners to ask this question for yourself. Think about, whether you are Christian, Muslim, or none of the above—think about those who are outsiders to you, who maybe your particular group thinks are beyond the pale. And ask yourself, what would it look like to demonstrate a sort of curiosity towards them and what would it take? Why don’t you demonstrate curiosity from them? Why don’t you imagine that you have something to learn from them? Because fundamentally, if we understand democracy to be both a contest and a conversation, good conversations involve speaking, but also listening. And so—
Shadi Hamid: Preach, brother.
Matthew Kaemingk: Right? And so I think every democracy can handle a few citizens who don’t want to listen, but not a large amount. And our need to actually listen is an aspect of a democracy that does not really get a lot of attention in our dialogue about the future of democracy today. And so I extend this conversation to each of you as an invitation. Why should you listen to heretics? Why should you listen to outsiders, to pagans . . .
Shadi Hamid: Yes.
Matthew Kaemingk: . . . to those who we describe as deplorable, beyond the fold, are they worthy?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah.
Matthew Kaemingk: Are they worthy to be listened to? And what—
Shadi Hamid: And just to be clear, when we say listen, we don’t mean agree. So I think oftentimes the misunderstanding is people say, “Well, if we listen to someone who we think is bad or has terrible ideas, that requires us to compromise on our own commitments.” But, no, listening does not require foundational compromise. You’re talking to someone you disagree with—you can keep your own beliefs. And I think this is actually something . . . Maybe it sounds obvious to our listeners, but it is really worth reiterating because I think the assumption often is that if you talk to people, if you’re talking to the bad people or the heretics or the outsiders, the very act of speaking to them is a compromise. And I guess we’re trying to say, no, that’s not true. That’s not the right way to look at it. And also that each individual has a chance to make a conscious choice.
So what we’re saying here is that when you do meet the outsider, the stranger, the weird person, the bad person, the deplorable, in that moment—it’s not an automatic thing—you have to decide that you’re going to extend presumptive generosity to them. You have to decide that you’re going to be willing to listen and to extend to them the benefit of the doubt. And I think for most of us it isn’t automatic. So for most of you, I think, and even for us, we have to make a decision every day to engage with our fellow citizens in this spirit. You can’t just read a book and then you just do it. It’s a choice that has to be renewed. So we invite you to renew that choice each and every day you’re engaging with people who aren’t like you or that you disagree with.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: Amen.
Matthew Kaemingk: Well, hey, we’ve been talking a lot, and we’re looking forward to listening to all of you. So if you’ve like what you’ve heard, check out the podcast’s intellectual seedbed at Comment.org. You’ll find illuminating essays on politics, culture, and faith. But also feel free to talk back. We would like to hear from you. You can connect with us at Twitter for as long as Twitter lasts. You can connect with Shadi at @ShadiHamid, and you can connect with me at @MatthewKaemingk. Those are our handles. You can also write us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can expect a sincere exchange. You should not expect agreement, but you should expect some hospitality. Our thanks as well to our sponsor, Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life. Zealots at the Gate is hosted by Comment magazine, produced by Allie Crummy, audience strategy by Matt Crummy, and editorial direction by Anne Snyder. I’m Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: And I’m Shadi Hamid. Thanks for joining. We’ll see you next time.