Oil and Water

Two Faiths: One God


Listen to any news broadcast today and the message comes through loud and clear: Islam is a religion of violence and behind every Muslim there lurks a potential terrorist. Islam is a threat to values of the Christian West. They are like oil and water. Clearly, they don’t mix. Oil & Water: Two Faiths One God confronts these popular perceptions head-on. With keen insight and gentle understanding, it explores the differences between Christianity and Islam, as well as the many things these two enduring faith traditions hold in common – including, first and foremost, their belief in and desire to be faithful to the one, true God; their shared roots and scripture (from the Jewish faith); and the spiritual values of peace and social justice. Written for Christians by Muslim world-religions scholar Amir Hussain, the book is divided into two parts. Part 1, provides an overview of the Islamic faith and of the lives of Muslims in North America today. Chapters focus on the place and identity of Muslims in society, as well as on the importance and role of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and basic beliefs and practices (The Five Pillars of Islam). Having provided a foundation for understanding, the book moves on, in Part 2, to explore key points for dialogue today, including issues of violence and jihad, the roles of women and men, and the mystical tradition within Islam. The final two chapters look at interfaith dialogue and the practical aspects of being good “neighbours. ” In all of this, the book invites the reader to a place of reconciliation, to a place where the truth and value of each of these great faith traditions can be recognized and honoured by the other. In the end, the metaphor of oil and water is an interesting one for the reality of conflict and the hope for reconciliation between Islam and Christianity today.


Oil and Water is a rare book in its field. Here one finds an introduction to Islam written primarily for a North American Christian audience (religious or cultural) by a Muslim thinker and Canadian scholar of religion. In a book that seamlessly and freely moves between biography, exposition and apologetic, Amir Hussain (Associate Professor of Theology, Loyola Marymount University) effectively introduces the Islamic tradition, challenges misconceptions and inspires better interfaith relations in its audience.

In a wonderfully personal book, penned from a self-confessed “admirer of Christianity,” Hussain punctuates his text with personal stories about Christian loved-ones, being Muslim in America, and his reactions to prominent events that have impacted the Muslim community (e. g.. 9/11, Patriot Act, War in Iraq and faith-based arbitration). The first part of the book, chapters 2 to 5, provides a brief introduction to Islam. Beginning with “Who are the Muslims,” Hussain aptly introduces readers to both the historical birth of Islam and the distinctions and diversities within global Islam. From there he introduces “Muhammad: the beloved Prophet,” where, in addition to the prophet's biography, the reader is shown the significance of Muhammad as a “beloved and respected” family member; as such on can understand why events like Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the Danish newspaper cartoons were so offensive. In “The Qur'an: the Ultimate Revelation,” Christian readers are taught both how to approach the sacred text from a biblical reading background and how to appreciate the text through traditional Muslim forms of art and recitation. Finally, in “Surrender to God: Muslim faith and life,” Hussain outlines the articles of belief and practice, the annual festivals and the nature of shari'ah law within the ethos of ihsan (“beautiful” or “excellence”); in that the true worship of God characterizes the intention behind all action and devotion in the believer's life.

The second part of the book, chapters 6 to 10, focuses on issues regarding interfaith dialogue. There is no doubt that this part is equally important, if not more so, to Hussain's overall purpose. Well aware of the issues that separate American Muslims and Christians, Hussain begins with discussing the issues of violence and gender rights. Regarding violence, Hussain not only presents linguistic and legal evidence against the militant interpretation of “jihad,” but he advances a historical contextual hermeneutic to interpret particular events in Muhammad's life and affiliated Qur'anic revelations deemed violent or militant. In addition, Hussain dispels many common misconceptions, like conversion by the sword and suicide-bombing as “Islamic,” and reminds readers about the violence committed by their own traditions and governments. Regarding gender issues, Hussain admits that there are oppressive abuses of the tradition within the Islamic world, such as patriarchal authority and marital inequality, but these are inconsistent with the example of Muhammad; especially within the fundamentally proscriptive example of his marriage to Khadija. Hussain, moreover, points out the advances made in gender rights by Islam historically and how seemingly oppressive things like the hijab are actually marks of personal freedom and moral protest against Western Values.

From these divisive matters, Hussain concludes his second part with establishing a foundation for better interfaith relations. This begins, interestingly, with a chapter on Sufism (chapter 8). While it appears, at first, that a survey of this mystical tradition is out of place, Hussain cleverly argues that characteristics within the tradition lay the theological groundwork for effective interfaith relations. He states, “Sufism and other mystical traditions challenge us to focus on the transcendent reality. ..rather than remaining confined to our own separate understandings of God” (176). From this foundation, chapter 9 establishes a theological rationale for interfaith relations that focus upon inclusive and pluralistic elements in Islamic and Christian sources, actuates the value of person Jesus in both traditions, and preaches the value of genuine understanding of each tradition. Hussain concludes his book (chapter 10) with the story of his mentor Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and how this Canadian Christian minister became a leader in Islamic studies and an advocate for interfaith relations. With Smith as the model, the reader is given poignant and practical suggestions on how the two traditions can learn from each other and how Christians can develop relationships with their Muslim neighbors.

Since the primary audience of Oil and Water was intended to be American Christians, however Hussain has admitted in interviews that he sees a secondary audience being Muslims searching for better interfaith dialogue, I had my upper-level world religions class at a Canadian Christian university read this book in Winter 2007. These responses, all from conservative Reformed and Evangelical students, reveal the book's success in all communicating to its primary audience. In their reviews the majority of my students commended Hussain's book for its readability and its personable character. They unanimously wrote that Hussain's presentation of Islam was “refreshing,” allowing them to realize how their previous  understanding of Islam was often one-sided. Oil and Water gave them an alternative, and I would add a more characteristic, view of an American-born Islam that was not found in their church-teaching or media diet. They appreciated Hussain's simple presentation on the Islamic faith and practice, especially ideas regarding the diversity within the global Islamic tradition and more positive views on contentious issues. While many students felt that Hussain was somewhat too liberal in relating Christianity and Islam together, some questioning whether he truly understood how central the doctrine of Jesus Christ as divine Saviour was to their tradition, they came to value the central commitment to interfaith relations themselves; as one student wrote: “It is difficult to preserve a faith, clarify misunderstandings and promote interfaith dialogue in a single book, but Hussain has done it. ”

While neither an extensive introduction to Islam nor a comparative theological treatise on Christianity and Islam, Oil and Water is a bit of both and a strong addition to the growing field of academic interfaith studies. It is suitable for Christian Seminary/University world religions survey course, a university religious diversity course or a church's mosque;s religious education program, as it both provides fundamental information and inspires valuable discussions among readers.

- Chad Hillier, PhD Candidate Wycliffe College, University of Toronto

Islam is no long pietas incognita in the Western publishing world. Since the public interest watershed following September 11, 2001, there has been a steady stream of books about Islam, including several by Muslims intent on providing a view of their faith outside the narrow political lens of “terrorism. ” Much of what is written sums up the basics of Muslim doctrine, usually by avoiding the varied range of interpretations within the tradition over the centuries. Few take the path chosen by Amir Hussain, a Muslim scholar in Religious Studies who teaches at Jesuit University. Knowing the kinds of questions many Christians have about a sister faith, Hussain provides a readable survey that places Islamic beliefs and the behavior of Muslims in comparison to Christianity as practiced in the West. The next time someone asks you for a book that explains Islam in clear and responsible terms to a Christian audience, I suggest that Hussain's Oil and Water be recommended. Do not let the fact that it is published by a small and little known press deter you. This is a book that should be available in plain site in every bookstore.

The title itself is informative of the book's approach. Acknowledging the apologetic venom directed against Islam and the prophet Muhammad by several well-known Christian leaders in the recent past, Hussain observes:

“They see Islam as a threat to the values of the ‘Christian West. ’ Like oil and water, they do not mix. As a Muslim, I am deeply concerned about violence committed by Muslims, especially when it is done in the name of Islam. However, as a Muslim, I also see the truth and beauty in my religion, and I choose to remain a Muslim. As someone who loves to eat and cook, I know that oil and water can often be combined to produce delicious results. I see oil and water as necessary ingredients, not as mutually exclusive categories. ..” (pp. 11-12)

No doubt the reader will start with the assumption that “oil” here is Arabian Petro, but the intellectual cuisine provided by the author will soon be recognized as the fruit of an olive branch held responsibly by a devout Muslim who shares a deep respect for the rituals, hymns, and morality of Christianity. By his own admission, he has developed a “gut level” respect for a faith not his own, one that resonates more from hearing Johnny Cash sing ‘A Man in White’ than reading a host of scholarly articles, including his own. Amir Hussain has a keen ear for contemporary music, even as far afield as Leonard Cohen from Madonna, and a discerning eye for film and media. The material for his book evolves from Professor Hussain's Long involvement in interfaith dialogue in Canada and the United States with Christian and Jewish communities. His book is also a personal testament about a Pakistani child growing up in Canada, receiving his education in Toronto (including graduate work with Wilfred Cantwell Smith) and teaching in California since 1997. Ironically, he now finds himself treated as much a foreigner for being Canadian as he does for being Muslim.

The easy going style of the narrative is driven by the basic questions he has hear over and over again when speaking in churches and synagogues. What does Islam mean? Who is a Muslim? Who was Muhammad? What is Qur’an? What do Muslims have in common with Christians and Jews? Are all Muslims the same? Why do Muslim women wear veils? Does Islam preach violence? It is not that Hussain has something new to say about the content of is faith. As author he takes closed-minded doors. He allows the Qur'an to speak for itself through long contextual passages and notes that Muslim reverence (not worship) for the life of Muhammad is not unlike the popular Christian phrase “What would Jesus do?” The freshness of his book is that it reads like a friendly talk, unencumbered by the footnotes and technical jargon that many academics routinely use in their published work. For someone who is genuinely interested in learning why a Muslim living in America feels so positive about his own faith, this is a must read. It is not directed primarily at the apologists who revile his faith, although he addresses these attacks. Indeed it is less a defense of Islam than a celebration of the beauty to be found in Islam. The chief value of the text is its style, so that reading is like listening to songs by a favorite artist.

The book lays out the absurdity of many of the misconceptions about Islam in the West. For example, Christian fundamentalists often claim that Muslims do not worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus but a pagan moon-god. Hussain takes this prejudice to takes with a simple analogy:

“In the Arabic language of the Qur'an, God is known as Allah, cognate with the Hebrew word for God, eloh, used in the Bible. To claim that Muslims do no worship God but Dieu, or that Spanish speakers worship Dios. Indeed, Arabic translations of the New Testament–and about half of the Arabs in North American are Christians–refer to God as Allah” (p. 27)

The primary focus of Oil and Water is practical advice for Christians who have a sincere interest in learning about what Muslims find valuable in their own faith. Comparison to the Bible is inevitable, so Hussain notes how the Qur'an reads differently as a text, starting with the need to hear it recited in Arabic (p. 82). He explains the prohibition of non-Muslims entering Mecca by comparison to the Catholic insistence that only Catholics may receive communion (p. 98). He shows the Jesus' principle of forgiving enemies was practiced by the Prophet Muhammad when he entered Mecca victoriously after exile (p. 124). It is important to note that as a believer on a path beyond tolerance toward genuine and mutually satisfying dialogue. And this is not just a book for those ignorant of Islam. Indeed, fellow Muslims and scholars in Religious Studies should sit down under the shade of a tree on a sunny afternoon and read through Oil and Water to see why faith is so much fresher when not trapped in cant nor fixated on proving someone else wrong.

Noting the popular appeal of Sufism in America, especially California, an entire chapter is devoted to Sufism as a spiritual movement that cuts across denominational barriers and has inspired some of the world's most loved poetry: Rumi, for example. One of the Sufi aphorisms quoted is ‘Love is the water more and the pitcher less. ’ The water poured out in the pages of Hussain's text flows along a path he hopes can lead to  ‘coexistence in a shared future’ (p. 199). The last chapter suggests ways in which Muslims can learn from Christians and Christians from Muslims. Noting that  ‘diversity’ in itself is not necessarily a virtue, he argues for greater emphasis on pluralism, defined as ‘committed to engaging the very differences that we have, to gain a deeper sense of each other's commitments' (p. 196). It is fitting that Hussain ends his book with a call for reconciliation: “If we really believe that we have obligations to the one true God, then we will recognize that we have obligations to each other as well” (p. 216)

- Daniel Martin Varisco