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Author: John Kaltner. (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN 2003.)

At the time of publication, Kaltner was Associate Professor of Religion at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. He apparently has made a diligent study of Islam, in books and in person, his lifework.

Dedication: To the members of the Muslim Society of Memphis

Kaltner’s intent: “. . . to introduce non-Muslims to the basics of Islam so that they will be encouraged to expand and develop their knowledge of it.” It’s a small book (7.5 inches by 4.4 inches) and a short one (136 pages), and Kaltner is deliberately picking among the main characteristics of the faith as an introduction. So far, so good.

There are profound concerns, in the Western world at least, about the burgeoning growth of Islam — especially in lands where the Muslims may become more numerous than the current natives. I ordered this book interlibrary loan, with great hopes of easing my unease stemming from newscasts and articles about the varieties of Muslims and their variety of practices. I hoped this book would put my heart at ease. Having read and reread, my mind has more knowledge, but my heart is still not at ease.

Some knowledge gained:
1. To use 50-cent words, Islam is a faith of orthopraxy and Christianity is a faith of orthodoxy. In Islam, more emphasis lies on obligations the faithful are to perform; while in Christianity, there is said to be more emphasis on precepts and teachings than on obligations to perform. However, as a practicing Christian, I find faith and works equally bound up together. The demonstration of the faith in practice is key to success. I hope my Muslim fellow citizens of the world feel the same.
2. Kaltner says that Islam did not spread through forced conversions. He quotes a Qur’an passage: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) but then goes on to say that when Islamic forces take over a territory they offer the population three choices:
a. Convert and have full rights and privileges
b. Christians and Jews may keep their freedom of worship as long as they pay special taxes to the Muslims. Those that pay would have the status of a “protected minority” — hardly the same as full citizenship.
c. Otherwise — “military confrontation and violence ensue” (p. 14).
This array of options seems very much like coercion, does it not?
3. Scriptures:
While the Muslims consider the Bible to be of both human and divine origin (a point I would not contest) and therefore respectable but inferior (a point I do contest), they consider the Qur’an to be 100% divine, unchanged by human hands. This view of the Qur’an as superior does not seem supported by what was quoted of its content. I would refer anyone interested in that point to the article “What is the Koran?” by Toby Lester, in the January 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
4. But this is one point where I gained much more empathy for Muslims world-wide. Their ancient, core concept of the ummah asuniversal humanity — Islamics all, under the rule of one God, Allah — received an unempathetic blow when, after the Second World War, the Middle East was divided arbitrarily into the countries we know as Lebanon, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, etc. The ummah was divided, perhaps not with an axe, but with a slide rule. One wonders, to what extent were those geopolitical divisions made with an eye to divide and deter, or simply to divide up the oil pie for the West.

Despite the careful scholarship and earnest intent, it seems that almost every point at which Kaltner tries to make a benign comparison, this reader finds weakness in the evidence and is not yet quite convinced that Muslims — in the aggregate — are willing to be congenial neighbors in a pluralistic society.