Not Theology

August 27, 2009

The terror attacks of September 11 caused millions of internet users to search online for their concerns and issues involving religion. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (, 23% of users used internet sources to get information about Islam. No doubt, these people wanted to educate themselves on what they were hearing in the media. And since that tragic time in American history, people have continued to use the web as an enormous sacrosanct library. Not only searching for Islam, but a myriad of religions. In doing so, they travel from site to site like virtual pilgrims, they read articles which claim intellectual authority, and they interact with strangers as they swap guidance. In this way, the internet has become a medium for religious communication. However, there is a danger of obtaining inaccurate information on the web. In a world where anyone can post, credentials have become increasingly important. 

Religious Studies is an academic field of secular study that interprets, compares, and historicizes religion in a systemic and cross-cultural way. It analyzes religion from a third party perspective. Therefore, someone who studies a particular religious tradition is not necessarily a member of that religion. Religious Studies is NOT Theology. The field of Religious Studies exists in contrast to Theology. A theologian utilizes scripture as evidence for religious beliefs. A scholar in the field of Religious Studies attempts to study religious behavior and belief. One must study some theology in order to put religious actors in their proper context; but again, Religious Studies is a secular look at religious individuals and belief systems. 

I have found in my conversations over the years that people still have inaccurate information on what is happening in the Middle East; even though, there is both more information about and more interest in religion in the media, including the internet. People still ask “Why do they hate us?”; “What is jihad?”; and “Isn’t Islam a violent religion?” These misconceptions and misinformation can be mindboggling. 

It can be argued that what is occurring in the Middle East is a religious schism. Or more accurately, schisms. There are some concepts within Islam that have never had universal understanding. Jihad, apostasy, and women’s rights are but a few. Acceptance of these concepts differ by country, region, religion, denomination, and culture. Such concepts of doctrine are made problematic when extremists, moderates, terrorists, reformers, feminists, etc… use them to justify their arguments in societal debates. Consequently, looking at what Islamic history, tradition, and law have to say about such concepts becomes critical. 

However, it is important to understand that all religions change over time. They are never static. They evolve through reform, revival, and novel developments. Religious understandings change and new beliefs emerge. They both influence and are influenced by the teachings of other cultures. In the end, religion is a cultural product. How it is understood and how it evolves is dependent upon cultural attitudes and cultural arguments. This blog will attempt to navigate some of those cultural tides. Is Islam a violent religion? Emphatically, no. But, individuals, groups, and networks are attempting to hijack Islam to justify attacks and murders against those that disagree with them. These men and women have aligned themselves with a violent interpretation of Islam in order to draw media attention and encourage recruitment.  


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