I finally finished my book on Islam and thought I'd follow up on what I learned.
The book met my expectations because it clearly articulated a belief system that is appealing and attractive and helped me understand why many good people can believe in Islam. As long as I restrained my critical thinking and an instinct to mentally rebut what he was saying I found myself agreeing with a lot of his philosophy and doctrine. In fact, at one point what he was saying resonated to the point where I felt that he was teaching a universal truth that would be helpful for me to follow.
It's tough for me to review an audio book because I have no text to refer to and as a result I'm really relating my recollections and what I received and perhaps not what the author originally intended, but I'll briefly relate the key points.
The author clearly and repeatedly stated that no follower of Islam would ever use violence or coercion or harm another person. Despite the teachings in the Koran and Hadith that can be used to justify violence, he believes that true Jihad is a spiritual battle using the spiritual tools of the teachings of the Koran to help each person conquer their natural "monkey man" and exemplify the divine attributes of God. This strongly follows Paul's teaching that the natural man is an enemy to God that must be conquered and also reminiscent of Paul's whole armor of the Gospel.
So, the whole point of Islam is to follow certain practices that aid people to overcome their 4 trillion and 10 thousand base attributes and learn to have the attributes of God. The author repeatedly used such numbers, but I suspect that this is shared by the Bible where numbers are not meant literally but figuratively. Anyway, some of the practices include certain declarations of belief such as that there is only one God and that Mohammed is his messenger. Another is praying 5 times a day. Another is to fast. Another is to pay alms. And others that I can't recall. It doesn't really matter to me; the point is that the practices are to serve as a constant reminder of an ideal that you are trying to achieve.
As I was listening I was strongly reminded of the appeal of religion. First and foremost is the belief in an idealized being who is perfect in every way. This belief in perfection is very important because it is the measure by which we judge good and evil and that is the ideal to which we aspire. Mormons capture this in their belief that our ultimate goal is to be perfect like God and to eternally progress until we become gods ourselves. While this is heresy to some, it mirrors what I think is a core belief for devout religious people: God is a model of perfection that we try to follow in our lives.
This lead to a realization on my part. I feel like my loss of faith in Mormonism and a personal God has left me somewhat adrift and cut off from the one part of my religious life that I valued. I realized that I still valued that and that there was no need to lose it. The only thing that has changed is a realization that I can't rely on authorities, whether they be sacred books such as the Bible or Koran, or people such as Abraham or Mohammed or Joseph Smith or a pope or a pastor to set my ideals. Those may be useful sources, but I believe that rationalism, evidence, and reason need to be the basis of my ideals. This leaves me free to draw on the strengths of the worlds great thinkers and religions and also to reject their errors. Along with that freedom comes the burden of accepting responsibility for my own beliefs; I can no longer say I believe because of my book or my prophet, it has to make sense to me. I think that religious people vilify atheists because they think that along with rejecting God they've also rejected the ideals that God represents for them. At least in my case, that is not the case. I've rejected some ideals that are unjustifiable, such as that coffee drinking is a sin, but retained others such as that we should treat others the way we'd like to be treated.
In that context, the five daily prayers of Muslims makes a lot of sense, not in a literal sense, but in a figurative way. It is a call to regularly form in our mind an ideal of what we would like to be and then to reach out to that regularly throughout the day in an appeal to try to conform to what we want to be. For me, that would mean to control my anger, to try to have more empathy for others, and to work toward my goals instead of getting distracted. For you it might be something completely different. If God represents our personal ideals, then regularly touching base with those core beliefs throughout the day would seem to be a good thing. I think that for me this would be more a meditation or perhaps some time of cognitive behavioral therapy, but I think it would be a good thing and make me a better person.
The best analogy I can think of in my personal life is weight loss. I have in my mind an ideal body composition that I'd like to attain. I know what it takes to lose weight, but I've only ever been successful when I log every calorie I eat every day. What essentially happens is that the logging make me very conscious of all of my eating. I have limited calories each day and try to make them count. Every bite involves a conscious decision because I have to log it. The goal is my ideal and life becomes a journey of changing my life to meet that ideal. The process takes something that is otherwise impossible for me and sets me on a long term journey of personal transformation.
Anyway, I can now see both sides of Islam. It's very clear that it can be used to justify horrific human behavior. It is equally clear that at least some Muslims are horrified at the atrocities committed in the name of Allah and that they believe that such things are completely incompatible with the true nature of God and Islam. I hope that the latter group grows stronger in the same way that Judaism and Christianity have mostly moved past their violent pasts to become more moderate and compassionate religions.
One last interesting observation was the very Mormon belief of the author that Islam is a superset of all the good of all the religions of the world. For him a good Jew or Christian or Hindu is practicing Islam because they are trying to be peaceful and godlike. To him since there is only one God that he calls Allah, everyone is really worshiping the one true God. This is very like Mormons who believe that all religions of the world have a part of the truth, but the complete and pure truth is only found within Mormonism. The only difference is that he thinks that everyone will ultimately follow Allah and Mohammed and Mormons think that ultimately everyone will follow the Godhead and Joseph Smith. My belief is that they are all wrong and that ultimately everyone has to be accountable for forming their ideals as best they can and trying to live them as well as they can.