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Christianity tells stories; Islam finds designs



My year ten class studies Islam, one of the most formative influences in the world that my students will inhabit and hopefully improve. I have a profound respect for Islam. Westerners, and especially western Christians, often fail to acknowledge the debt they owe to Islam, a tradition that had a huge role in bringing Europe through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.

Michael McGirr Books That Saved My LifeI tell students and anyone else who expresses a mindless contempt for Islam that if they truly feel that way then they should have the strength of their convictions and stop using Arabic numerals. The reason we use Arabic numbers in the first place is that they embody a philosophical concept that was inaccessible to Roman numerals and that, indeed, was threatening to medieval Christianity. That is the idea of zero, the representation of nothing, the articulation of the void.

Zero is a wonderful image of eternity. If you try to divide anything by zero, you have an experience of both the eternal and the absurd right before your eyes, beneath the tip of a cheap pencil. Zero is a perfect circle with nothing to enclose: it has neither beginning nor end. Christians sometimes scratch their heads when Muslims speak of the impossibility of creating visual images of the divine. Mosques don't have statues or pictures. But zero is, in fact, not a bad representation of the sacred.

Christianity tells stories; Islam finds designs, patterns, mosaics. These communities should love each other. Often enough it looks like there is zero chance of that. The prophet Muhammad was one of the liberators of history. It's a pity that a small number of his followers are hell-bent, to use the expression literally, on poisoning their own water. I wouldn't want Christianity judged by the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.

I offer my students a more sympathetic account of the mysticism of Islam than they are likely to get from the media at large. We visit mosques. On one occasion, an imam explained the beliefs of Islam, then quickly moved on to a range of herbal cosmetics and medicines which he was selling, clearly as part of a pyramid scheme. There was comfort in knowing that dodgy practices could cross religious boundaries.

Another mosque, in a northern suburb, occupied a former showroom on top of nondescript shops. It was so plain that, looking for a minaret or a dome shining in the sun, we were 20 minutes late. The imam spoke simply about the need for community and belonging and a moral structure for living, precisely the messages we try to impart to the students on our side of the tracks. Someone asked about 'jihad'. The imam explained that it has nothing to do with violence.

The word means 'struggle'. He hoped that all of us were engaged in the struggle to become the best people we could be. To achieve that, we needed both ancient wisdom and a contemporary community. It was important not to struggle against but to struggle with.


"The act of memory requires humility; you have to surrender yourself. The great traditions of wisdom are inaccessible without it. Apps are handy. You can carry a thousand works of literature in your phone. But they will never be part of you."


'Why do we have to take off our shoes?' asked one student.

'It shows respect. Respect is one of the crutches we need to help us learn reverence.' It was an interesting image. 'No one runs to God. We only get there on crutches.'


In another mosque, Sherene Hassan, the founder of Melbourne's Islamic Museum of Australia, tells us that there are about 6200 verses in the Qur'an and less than a dozen suggest any kind of violence. Sometimes the Qur'an pacifies its biblical antecedents, such as in the way it retells the story of the world's first murder, that of Abel by his brother Cain, an event that does not record history but, like so much in sacred texts, is more focused on creating a future. The Qur'an's version ends with the words: 'the one who kills a soul ... it is as if he killed the whole of mankind.'

Imam Mehmet Salih Dogan told us about his journey from Turkey and how he was proud of the work his wife was doing as a midwife in the enormous public hospital just across the road from where his community was trying to build a new mosque. 'She helps bring life into the world. That is what Islam is all about. Bringing life to the world.'

The imam introduced us to a year ten student from the local high school, a young man in a cheap tracksuit. He wore his baseball hat backwards. We had to remove our shoes, but hats were acceptable. This chap had already committed a third of the Qur'an to memory. In Arabic. It poured out of him as if it was too much for a single body to contain.

'Wow,' said Shaun, one of our group, seldom short of a word. 'That's incredible.'

The boy explained that the word Qur'an meant 'recitation': it is a work that doesn't yield its magic on the page, but only in being heard aloud within a community. His life's goal was to memorise the entire book.

The Prophet Muhammad could neither read nor write, a fact often mentioned to support the belief that the Qur'an is divinely inspired. A better proof, in my view, is not so much how a book was created as what it, in turn, creates. All of my students were struck dumb by the commitment of this young man to the Qur'an and to the Arabic well from which it was drawn. I was having a holy struggle of my own to get some of them to read the 50 small pages of Mark's Gospel, let alone commit any of it to memory.

Modern education is prone to neglect the importance of memory. This does not mean rote learning. It means taking something important into the fabric of your being. People who have memorised great poetry will speak about this. So will actors who have performed Shakespeare and other major texts, as well as pianists and singers who have remembered breathtaking works. Such things shape the memory and in turn shape the person. The memory is like a muscle. It needs to do heavy lifting to gain its strength and power. The act of memory requires humility; you have to surrender yourself.

The great traditions of wisdom are inaccessible without it. Apps are handy. You can carry a thousand works of literature in your phone. But they will never be part of you.

The students always ask the same question. 'Why do we have to remove our shoes?' Shaun queried the imam.

'Because when I smell your feet,' he replied. 'I know we share the same humanity.'

We all laughed.

'And if we share the same humanity,' he continued, 'we can only share the same God.'


This is an extract from Books That Saved My Life, by Michael McGirr. Read Andrew Hamilton's review of the book here.



Michael McGirrMichael McGirr is the bestselling author of Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep, Bypass and Things You Get for Free. He has reviewed almost one thousand books for various newspapers; his short fiction has appeared in Australian and overseas publications; and he has been a publisher of Eureka Street and fiction editor at Meanjin.

Topic tags: Michael McGirr, Islam, Books That Saved My Life



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Orientalism, the politics of oil and Western hegemony have worked powerfully to 'barbarise' Islam and demonise Muslims. Our children risk inheriting hatred. We have an enormous task ahead of us to enlighten our youth. Education is our hope for shattering the darkness of ignorance and fear; hope for the restoration of Muslim-Christian respect. Islam is a compulsory study for my senior students. Their experience is that the sharing of sacred stories, insights to the Divine - and food - build friendships. And it is difficult to hate those whom you like! Thanks Michael.

Phil Worrad | 01 November 2018  

Thank you Michael. In a time when Pauline Hanson and her ilk receive so much media coverage about those others, Muslims, it is good to hear of the positive links your students are seeing. I too used take my students to other religions centres of worship and they always found the experience enlightening even if they refused the biscuits offered at the Hari Krishna temple in Middle Park which ironically was, in a former life, a Christian Brothers school.

Tom Kingston | 01 November 2018  

bismillah ! Thank you, good Michael. I taught Muslim high-school students in France and adults in NSW. I esteemed them and they esteemed me. At the Gt Synagogue a Muslim speaker cried, "Let us Jews, Christians & Muslims rejoice together at our differences." "My Egyptian Coptic friend told me that the only tenderness in his life as a child was from Muslims. Algerian semi-literate worker friends in France often joked about cutting throats and liked to humiliate there wives using "prostitute". I heard a high Imam on the ABC say, "In thousands of mosques throughout the world Muslims are being taught to hate". Egyptian Christian friends told me that in there experiences their Muslim friends were the most trustable. Bism'al-Lah ! Kevin Smith []

Kevin G Smith | 01 November 2018  

The late Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, who could be seen as a modern advocate of ecumenical understanding within Islam, said that Islam was obscured by a thick cloud of Muslims. I think the same could be said of many Christians. The search to understand one another is often obscured by the raucous voices of controversialists. Many of these controversialists on both sides are ignorant or dissimulating. Christianity and Islam have had a mixed record of war and peace. I guess the answer is to seek the common core without attempting to pull off a conversion.

Edward Fido | 01 November 2018  

And I’d remind my students of the directive ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Never more vividly demonstrated than at Mass when the priest quietly removed his shoes at the Eucharistic Prayer.

Janet Morrissey | 01 November 2018  

A beautiful piece. Thanks

Peter Goers | 01 November 2018  

Getting really knowledgeable and insightful information about Islam is very similar to getting the same about Catholicism. You need to go to the right source. If I were enquiring about the latter I would go to someone of the calibre of Bishop Robert Barron. As someone of the same calibre in Islam I would recommend the Iranian scholar Seyyid Hossein Nasr whose 'Ideals and Realities of Islam' is a must for anyone genuinely interested the relationship of Christianity and Islam. Nasr makes the point that the revelation in Islam is not Muhammad but the Quran, whilst in Christianity the revelation is not the Bible but Jesus. I find this informative and illuminating. It explains why the Quran is so revered in Islam and why the Eucharist has that place in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Both are integrally sacred in their tradition. Regarding the removal of shoes at the mosque it was the custom in the Arabia of Muhammad to remove your shoes when entering a house so as not to bring sand or worse, like possible animal droppings, which you might have accidentally picked up on your shoes. Anyone who has lived in the Middle East would understand this.

Edward Fido | 01 November 2018  

Thank you Michael for this beautifully written piece. There's zero I would change.

victoria graham | 02 November 2018  

Yet another corker of a piece of writing from McGirr! I pray that our kids encounter a teacher like him..... Many moons ago I was hitch-hiking through France and arrived in Avignon at the incredibly busy and overstretched time of its famous Festival to try and hear Teresa Berganza perform in 'Carmen'. There was no room at the proverbial inn, so in despair I went to the Arab quarter for coffee and bread and some time to reflect about whether to press on to the next town and surrender my ticket to see Europe's then outstanding performer of the role star in Bizet's extravaganza. The owner of the café asked me where I was staying and I explained my embarrassing plight. Without hesitation, he invited me to spend the night in his humble abode with him and his numerous companions. A mattress was rolled out onto the floor and I slept there, to be woken with coffee and bread in the morning. How's that for Muslim hospitality to an itinerant Christian infidel!

Michael Furtado | 02 November 2018  

It strikes me that so few modern day Christians attend their churches or read the word of their God in the Bible when so many Muslims pray daily in their mosques and read or listen to the word of their God in the Quran. Two and a half years ago our Muslim gardener stopped working in our garden. He always came to work bearing gifts of fresh fruit or plants from his garden. We haven't seen him since we sold our house and he lost his job. He rings me at Christmas and Easter with best wishes. This morning he rang me out of the blue to arrange bringing some fruit for us. We love him dearly.

john frawley | 02 November 2018  

We now live near Geelong - and a refreshing thing for me is being able informally to connect with newcomers from Africa: Geelong WAS so 'white'....and I'm reminded when the post-war migrants from Central and Eastern Europe cam to our Catholic primary schools back then: yes, they were 'strange' at first: their LUNCHES; the boys' LEATHER shorts; the NAMES.... Thetywere Catholic,of course. Now we have a real csll to EVANGELISE. i am tyring to begin by reading what a young Moslem friend gives me She was educated in a Pakistan college with an Aussie Mercy Sister as Principal.] New times call for new calls.

bernard ryan | 03 November 2018  

Sorry, this propbably wont get published because Eureka is all about PC. We dont share the same God Michael. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand." Matt: 12;22 ISIS cant advocate killing us and be part of Christ's kingdom. And you can't trivialise their mantras by saying its a few of them or by demeaning the majority of Christians by invoking the nonsense of the KKK.

Frank Armstrong | 03 November 2018  

1 of 2: Frank Armstrong “ We don’t share the same God”… “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.".. I do not have a comprehensive understanding of the Muslim religion but it is fair to say they relate their beliefs to the God of the Old Testament (Our Father) also I have read that they acknowledge Jesus as a prophet. I have seen virtue in many, possible emanating from Psalms that relate to the Beatitudes, manifest by the desire to love God/ 'Truth' within their own given situation, and only God knows where that may lead to.. I live within ten miles of a large Moslem community and have encountered Moslems throughout my life, as an example, I will describe two encounters with two Moslem men over the last five years, one in his mid to late twenties the other in his mid-thirties. One of them was in the employment of an English boss who asked, ‘Told’ him to do something unchristian, as he gave me my purchase and change, he blushed and turned his eyes away from me, and finally bowed his head. May God help him! On another occasion I was discussing with a Moslem his ethics and our Christian ones, it became apparent that one of the topics related to him personally, as through genuine gesture and demeanor he acknowledged in humility his own sin and went quite pale. What we are seeing in these two given situations are lively consciences,.. Continue

Kevin Walters | 05 November 2018  

2 of 2 which I have seen in many other Moslems also, but not all, as culture and sin also plays a part in individual behavior. This may not be ‘perfect’ love nevertheless it is a manifestation of the love of God/'Truth' As a Christian I do not see myself as been superior before God in relation to these young men, rather I would ask for them that which I asked for myself, that is God’s infinite mercy and love, while reflecting on these words… “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”…To diminish the genuine brotherhood (Unit of Purpose) that is often manifest before mankind in Muslim communities, is to bury ones head in the sand so to say. Rather we should work to confront a Godless Western Culture and the evils committed by the elite within our own Church, evils that would certainly not be tolerated by Muslims in their faith. And then perhaps, if we practiced what we teach, His Word (Will), we would possibly see many of them converting to Christianity. kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 05 November 2018  

There are many Christians who would share your view of Islam, Frank Armstrong. One who would not was the late Arthur J Arberry, who was Professor of Arabic at Cambridge and the renderer of what many Muslim scholars would regard as the best version of the Quran in English. In his foreword he referred to 'whatever Power or powers' which inspired Muhammad. That did not compromise either his Christian beliefs or practice. I would be a wee bit cautious about Bernard Ryan's idea of evangelising newly arrived, often highly traumatised Muslim arrivals in this country. Islam, like Catholicism or Judaism, is often central to a person's identity. The attempted converts may react badly to this. We already have enough Christian/Muslim problems in the world. This is a situation which needs to be hosed down rather than fired up. Better to work on lapsed Christians.

Edward Fido | 06 November 2018  

Frank Armstrong. Regarding your point about Christians and Muslims not sharing the same God. I respectfully point out that in fact we do. Jews, Muslims and Christians share the same Old Testament God, or the Creator, or Father or, yes Allah, which simply means God. Some Arabic Christians including those who are in union with the Holy See use the term Allah for God. Jews, Muslims and Christians share the same Abrahamic faith, that is, the God of Abraham, as the foundation of their faith. Christians of course acknowledge Christ as God, as part of the Trinitarian God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons, or more correctly hypostases (from the Greek hypostasis = substance, which is better than persons. This suggests three gods) Thus, Christians, Muslims and Jews can actually pray together addressing the same God the Father, or Creator, without necessarily sharing the same understanding of God, who, afterall, is Divine Mystery, beyond human comprehension. I have been present at, and often watch various online services from around the world where these three traditions (and others) worship together, in prayer, scripture and song, and this often includes Catholic bishops and clergy. It’s a pity we do not see more of this in Australia. It would help us to understand and respect each other better, and love each other as children of God, regardless of our human understanding of that God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church article 841 has it this way: ‘The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place, amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."’

Theo the Theologian | 09 November 2018  

1. Frank Armstrong: this is a difficult but extremely pertinent issue. Despite Church statements, I don't think it's a settled issue that Muslims worship the same god, or not. I believe it's open to Catholics to differ. But a very powerful argument that Muslims and Catholics DO worship the same God is IMO made by the great neo-Thomist philosopher Ed. Feser at http://tinyurl.com/y8sghk4u. Interestingly, he concludes that the God of Islam ("Allah") is the God we Catholics worship, as was the God of the heretical Arians, but that the God of Mormonism is so alien in concept to the Catholic God that the Mormon God is certainly not that worshipped by Catholics. Of course, even if he's correct, this doesn't mean we shouldn't in all charity and indeed justice go all out to convert all Muslims (and of course Mormons ... and Jews, etc) to the One True Faith - something which Professor Feser himself unhesitatingly affirms: anyone outside the visible Church and lacking her sacraments is in peril of damnation. These and such like questions could, I believe, be discussed to great profit with high school students. (BTW: as far as I can gather, many Muslims DON'T believe we worship the same God as they do. They believe the doctrine of the Trinity is an affirmation of Tritheism. ) 2. What is not headlined in the contemporary media is the huge number of conversions from Islam to Christianity occurring around the world, largely because of an appearance of Christ to Muslims in wait-for-it: their dreams! Youtube this (say, "Muslim Christianity dreams"), or read this fascinating article by Uwe Siemon-Netto, a Lutheran journalist. http://tinyurl.com/y9lc3nmy Something is going on out there!

HH | 22 November 2018  

A very good article written by Michael McGirr. As a visitor to the Islamic Museum I have been very impressed by the designs and bought a book on Islamic design. The Art historian Waldemar Janusczak explores Islamic art in the visual feast "Paradise Found" where he visits the Taj Mahal, I think the Blue Mosque and others in this video. I would have like Michael to have touched on the differences of the art in the semitic traditions and to have commented on iconoclasm and the prohibition of one of the ten commandments on the "graven image", which I suspect is the reason for the differences in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A good argument against iconoclasm in the Christian tradition and western art has been the "Incarnation" and being able to explore with images the reality that we are fully made in the image of God and that Christ was "fully human" which has enabled us to reflect poignantly on the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As a contemporary religious artist I am aware of the theological tensions posed between the written word and the image in faithfully representing the truths of our religious traditions but the problems are not insurmountable. I like the fact that through the Islamic museum artistic expression is being embraced in its contemporary expression. We in Melbourne would benefit from a Contemporary Christian/Catholic Museum, just as we have have an Islamic and Jewish Museum in Melbourne. The "Midrash" of our Christian, stories through art, music, dance,poetry, drama and through expression of the history of exile of Christian populations and how their faith maintained them in their struggles,is important to present to future generations and not only through the written word.

Ros Beer | 24 November 2018  

Every theologian, artist, art historian, and student of comparative religion should be required in first semester to read the history of the second council of Nicea (787). It would save a lot of time. It was there that one of the decisive moments in the history of human expression occurred, when the Christians agreed that icons were permitted, within certain terms. The Muslims across the street and down the road stuck with the view that God must not and cannot be pictured figuratively, which is why Islam is a religion of non-figurative design. The rest is ... history.

Philip Harvey | 26 November 2018  

Most of the commentators on this article seem to be mature people who know their Christian faith. Looking back to the 1960s, it seems that most Catholic schoolchildren then were more religiously knowledgeable than many Anglican clergypersons today. To understand other people and their religion you need to know yourself and your own religion. Dialogue with others needs to be more than well meaning waffle. Sadly, Modernism, now rebranded as 'Liberal Christianity', has helped enormously in the dereligionizing of the West. The effects of this can be seen most readily in Continental Western Europe, but the Anglophone world is not so far behind. There are intelligent, knowledgeable Western Muslims, like the American convert Hamza Yusuf who can see this more clearly than many Western Christians.

Anonymous | 30 November 2018  

Interesting Michael that you don't disclose that your Year 10 students were all boys. My daughter's (Catholic) school also took her on an 'enlightenment mission' to a mosque in Melbourne. However, as a female, she was not allowed to enter the main prayer hall. The inbuilt message when women are excluded from a congregation (relegated to hidden-from-view rooms/balconies) is that they do not quite 'share the same humanity' your Imam refers to. I recommend you read the following article from US Muslim Academic Dr Shabana Mir www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2018/02/27/where-my-female-friendly-mosque

Emilia Jo | 08 February 2019  

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