Zeitoun: What I learned from my religious studies minor

I have been reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and part of the book is about what it is like for an American woman to convert to Islam—I imagine that converting would be confusing and require a lot of bravery, especially given a lot of people’s conceptions. There is a section that discusses her first impression after converting:

There were so many basic things that defied her presumptions. She’d assumed that Muslims were a monolithic group, and that all Muslims were made of the same devout and unbending stock. Bust she learned that there were Shiite and Sunni interpretations of the Qur’an, and within any mosque there were the same variations in faith and commitment as there were in any church. There were Muslims who treated their faith lightly, and those who knew every word of the Qur’an and its companion guide to behavior, the Hadith. There were Muslims who knew almost nothing about their religion, who worshiped a few times a year, and those who obeyed the strictest interpretation of their faith. There were Muslim women who wore T-shirts and jeans and Muslim women who covered themselves head to toe. There were Muslim men who modeled their lives on the life of the Prophet, and those who strayed and fell short. There were passive Muslims, uncertain Muslims, borderline agnostic Muslims, devout Muslims, and Muslims who twisted the words of the Qur’an to suit their temporary desires and agendas. It was all very familiar, intrinsic to any faith.

I learned many things in my religious studies classes. I learned that there are two accounts of creation in The Bible, that reading Buddhist scripture is usually extremely dull, the Japanese word for no, about theodicy. The most important lesson was that religions are diverse. That they are rich and dynamic. That if someone was to ask me what do Buddhists believe I would ask them, which Buddhists? Eggers points out the important fact that Islam and Muslims are diverse. If you lump them all together then you run the risk of judging something people and a religious community for things that they don’t actually do or believe. I took my first religious studies class in large part because I knew nothing about religion. The more classes I took the more I learned about what Muslims and other religious groups actually believe, and the more I learned that the word Muslim casts a wide net over people who believe a diverse number of things, the more I learned that everything I thought I knew was wrong, the more I came to be open minded about religion and to respect the diversity of what faith can mean.

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