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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The Optimistic Muslim: David Liepert and the “Faith of Life” Network

Over the last several months, I’ve corresponded with David Liepert, a Calgary anesthesiologist and father of four. His new book, Me and You: Beyond Belief, Toether: A Path to Peace All Our Faiths Can Share, tells the story of his conversion from Christianity to Islam, and all the insight he gained along the way. He looks deeply into the Bible and the Qur’an and argues: “Our holy books agree: From God’s perspective, we start off the same and become better by doing good and living well.”

Personally, I don’t think scripture and theology matter much in the current “Islam vs. the West” situation; I think it’s much more to do with politics. So Liepert’s observations that the Abrahamic scriptures have so much in common and why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along — well, they don’t grab me. But Liepert is not jaded in that way, and I think that is where his value lies.

Yesterday, Liepert described to me how he became a Muslim. First, he talked about his life as a Christian:

I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel I served God, or didn’t feel I had a specific personal relationship with God. There was a time, though, that I stepped so far into Christian doctrine that it affected that relationship and required me to come to Islam. Up to that point, I listened to and followed Jesus, but I didn’t worship him — I did not embrace that concept of the Trinity. I think if you believe that doctrine in the wrong way, you can believe you have power over God [i.e. that you can ensure your passage to heaven.] It’s the same problem the suicide bombers have. They blow themselves up believing they have an immediate pass to heaven. You can’t try to gain control over God.

He said he first learned about Islam in his 30s, while experiencing some “significant tragedies” in his life:

I discovered the people around me who were supporting me at that time just happened to be Muslim. I decided to prove to them that the Bible supported Christianity and use the Qur’an to show them that it, too, led to the path of Christianity. Instead exactly opposite happened. I discovered the two books had the same message, a message of submission, of trust and obedience.

But it wasn’t all smooth-going for Liepert. Becoming Muslim, he said, was in some ways “profoundly terrifying:”

I read the Qur’an, and it described my faith exactly. But there were aspects of Muslim practice I found noxious, particularly the treatment of women. There’s an ayat [verse] that seems to allow men to beat their wives. And then there is the verse about killing enemies wherever you find them. But when I looked at these verses in the context of the Sunnah — the life of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him — that completely changed the meaning of the verses into something wonderful.

Liepert then shared the common apologetic readings of those verses: that the verse about husbands and wives in fact restricted men’s power over women, and that when it came to warfare, the Prophet only led his men into battle when it was a matter of self-defense, and even then he was restrained. Back on the women question, Liepert shared the view often heard among mainstream Muslims that men and women have unique and distinct roles. This language is often translates into practice as “a woman’s place is at home, caring for the family.” But Liepert didn’t go that route. He talked about his relationship with his wife, who is also a doctor:

I serve God by caring for my wife, and she serves God by caring for me. I’m not subservient to her, and she is not subservient to me.

That view — that marriage is an equal partnership — is actually quite a radical break from mainstream Muslim interpretation, which usually conceives of the man as the head of the household and the leader of the family. So this is what I find amazing about Liepert: On the face of it, he accepts conventional Muslim explanations of problematic aspects of the religion, but in the very next sentence, he will put a radical spin on things. Sometimes I wonder if he is aware of how much some other Muslims would disagree with him. For example, in his book, he writes:

Muslims have been fighting over the [meaning of] the Quran for the last thousand years…Fighting over the path has driven us so far from it that many of us don’t even recognize it anymore.

Liepert implicitly criticizes the strict adherence to details of the religion developed by scholars in the centuries after the death of the Prophet, and he criticizes Muslims for coming close to worshiping the idea of their religion rather than God Himself. If Liepert brought some of these observations down to a detailed level — he might perhaps argue, for example, that headcovering for women is not mandatory — they would cause considerable controversy.

And Liepert does not work alone. He is founding director of the Faith of Life Network, which seems to have a mildly progressive approach to “educating, informing and engaging in dialogue within the Muslim community and building bridges with society as a whole, in order to address the negative and inaccurate perceptions of Islam and Muslims.” The key phrase there might be “engaging in dialogue within the Muslim community” — therefore recognizing that Muslims have a big role to play in building bridges with other civic and religious groups. The network publishes its own magazine, which you can read here in PDF form. The spiritual leader behind the group is Imam Hamid Slimi, who I know little about, but who seems like a pretty interesting guy.

I started out talking about David Liepert’s value, and here’s how I see it: Orthodox Muslims who work from within the mainstream Muslim community have the greatest chance of transforming the Muslim community. I see this important work being done by bloggers like Tariq Nelson and even, to some extent, in the leadership of Ingrid Mattson, who is currently president of ISNA, the largest umbrella organization of Muslims in North America. So Mr. Liepert, carry on — You have an optimism and lack of bitterness that not everyone shares. I hope it will do some good.

There Are 5 Responses So Far. »

  1. Can’t wait to read his book - sounds interesting - thanks for reviewing it. But I have to disagree w/ your conclusion that it’s “Orthodox Muslims who work from within the mainstream Muslim community have the greatest chance of transforming the Muslim community”. I value the diversity from Muslims from all ends of the spectrum - why should the most orthodox (do you mean conservative?) dictate the future of Islam, especially in the West? I see more embrace of community service, educational outreach, & interfaith activities being undertaken by the unsung Moderate Majority…but their events are often snubbed by Orthodox Muslims due to petty details such as the presence of music, discussion between the sexes, refusal to acknowledge the importance of interfaith discussion etc. We all need to come together in tolerance & productive unity rather than hewing to the most narrow interpretation of the faith.

    Also - I do view marriage as an equal partnership - I don’t think that’s an unIslamic viewpoint. After taking into account our biological differences - I’ve seen plenty of happy Muslim marriages where men may believe that they are the head of their household…alas, they are sadly mistaken!

  2. This should be an interesting book; I too am looking forward to reading it!

    As a Muslim convert myself, I would like to point out: When God Speaks, He does not Stutter! There is an Ayat where Allah (SWT) tells us “I have made women for you to be a comfort AND A HELP” (emphasis added)

    I beleive when He said this, he meant “help” to mean FAR more than “Woman, go do the dishes.” I believe he meant it in the context of, she’s a doctor? Go practice! Help the family be lucrative! I’ve got my head in the no-sunlight region? Help me see daylight! PLEASE!

    Sorry, Brothers, “Help” extends far beyond the “Me Tarzan You Not” that most of us seem to believe…

  3. […] Go to article… […]

  4. Faith and Life:
    Every creation of God is in the act of Tasbih (praising God). Qur’an says from heavenly bodies such as stars,etc., to God’s creation on the Earth, such as trees are in the act of prostration (and bowing) to God, meaning every creation is in the act of following God’s laws, which may be physical or social. Only human being have been given the power of choice. For a perfect Muslim, all our actions are religious, hence he tries to fulfil God’s commands and his happiness in every action. If he ever gives in to the temptations of life then, then it is as if he is defying the laws of God who has given him the freedom to follow Hid commands or not.
    Therefore, from simple things such as eating food and drinking water which are needed to sustain life, to work to make this World a better and just place are all actions for which we shall be rewarded in the hereafter, because in doing them we are establishing the laws of God. Thus it is very correct that I serve my God by caring for my wife, and she serves God by caring for me. I’m not subservient to her, and she is not subservient to me.

  5. “Personally, I don’t think scripture and theology matter much in the current “Islam vs. the West” situation; I think it’s much more to do with politics.”

    Proof is what Sheïkh Osama Bin Ladin himself said in one of his video tapes aired on aljazeera. “When I saw U.S. planes bombing towers in Beirut in 1982 (…) this rankled within me and I vowed to take my revenge one day by doing the same to the Americans on their own soil”, said Bin Ladin, in essence. In other tapes, he declared (addressing Western governments), “If you stop aggressing us, we’ll stop our attacks on you”. The problem is that some people in the West too want to look at things from a religious perspective.

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