When, in 1996, I attended the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in Columbus, Ohio, I ran into Dr. Jeffrey Lang’s book Struggling to Surrender at the amana bookstand. At first I thought that it was just another “confession” – popular since St. Augustine and Abu Hamid al Ghazali – in which converts (or reconverts) enthusiastically explain their very special way to their very special religion.
How astonished I was when I realized that this book was of major general import, very well written (as one might not expect from a math teacher) and well researched. Yes, it was a vivid description of how Jeffrey Lang, almost torn apart in the process, felt irresistibly drawn to Islam. But the book also offered a solid, well reasoned platform for all other Americans who, like him, require considerable depth of rational inquiry before surrendering to Allah’s call.
Even Angels Ask, Dr. Lang’s second book – not without significance, written after a year’s stay in Saudi Arabia – shows the very same virtues: Total honesty, common sense, a rigorous level of theological investigation, and a thrilling oscillation between gifted story telling and exposition of doctrine. Again, the author demonstrates that (if only as a mathematician) he can only believe in a religion that he finds compelling – rationally, intellectually and spiritually – and that the religion is Islam: A thinking man’s faith.
When the author alleges that (Christian) religious dogmas in modem times are only deepening the crisis of faith and religion, he echos a prediction made by Muhammad Asad (author of Islam at the Crossroads and a leading Muslim intellect of the 20th century) in 1934 when he foresaw that the doubts raised by the Nicene Creed, especially the notions of incarnation and trinity, would not only alienate thinking people from their churches but from the belief in God as such. Dr. Lang is also in line with an observation made by Karen Armstrong (author of On God) according to which Judaism suffered from closing itself off (by considering itself as the “Chosen People”) while Christianity suffered from the opposite, its universality (by absorbing a multitude of traditions into itself). Islam, according to Dr. Lang, is positioned to avoid both pitfalls, and I agree with him.
In Saudi Arabia, the author came to realize that for him “there was no escape from being an American,” i.e., an “investigative Muslim”, whose way of inquiry into the basis of Islam was considered dangerous, even suspected of leading to “innovation” and even heresy. (To be sure, there is not a single instance in which the author’s approach leads to even the slightest deviation from the tenets of Islam.) The conservative attitude that Dr. Lang encountered overseas, had years earlier also affected Muhammad Asad (alias Leopold Weiss). From my association with him I am certain that he would have endorsed both of the author’s books wholeheartedly.
Given this background, the book’s title is not just an opening gambit but a program: According to the Qur’an, surat al Baqarah ayah 30, even the angels (who are never rebellious) were moved to question God’s wisdom of creating man (who is rebellious and mischievous). Thus, Muslims too must never stop asking pertinent questions about God, the world and themselves. Nevertheless, in view of the opposite orthodox view, it takes some courage for Dr. Lang to propose that every generation of Muslims is obliged to reinvestigate the foundations of its faith “since knowledge grows with time”. As a matter of fact, he holds that it would be a grave error, indeed, to rely blindly on past judgments and to “dogmatize opinion”, unless one is willing to accept “atrophy and decay”.
This, of course, the author certainly does not accept. On the contrary, he tackles head-on many rather delicate issues, like questions about predestination and theodicy. He offers no solutions to these problems but points out, like Immanuel Kant (Critique of Pure Reason) before him, that they cannot be solved because of man’s captivity in his mind’s categories of time and space, proper to him alone. Thus the author lifts unsoluble problems to a higher level of awareness. More cannot be asked.
Even more important is, however, his substantiated critique of Muslim shortcomings, both inside the United States and aboard. In particular, he denounces
- subculture trends within the American Muslim community;
- the lack of tolerance between Muslim schools of thought;
- the dominance of Middle Eastern and Arabic features of merely cultural, not religious significance;
- traditional Muslim attitudes toward women that violate Qur’anic norms often causing Muslim women to feel unwelcome in mosques;
- over-focusing on nonessential, marginal aspects of the Islamic way of life, instead of looking for the general ethical and spiritual lessons of the Prophet’s Sunnah; and
- the systematic distrust shown by “native” Muslims toward contributions by Western converts.
Jeffrey Lang wrote this book first and foremost for his children – leading them through the Qur’an in an eye-opening way and introducing them to the five pillars of Islamic worship in a manner which stresses spirituality rather than legalistic routine. In that, he has done a tremendous service once more to all Muslim parents in the United States who are often wondering, worrying and fretting whether in a permissive, consumer and drug-oriented society it is possible to transmit their faith to the next generation. In this respect, the author seems to be somewhat pessimistic. I, however, am inclined to see things in a more optimistic light – if only for one reason: There are two good books that just might move the scales in favor of Islam – Struggling to Surrender and Even Angels Ask by Jeffrey Lang.
Istanbul, April 1997
Source: Foreword | Even Angels Ask