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Acts of Faith: The Story of An American Muslim in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

Eboo Patel
Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007
217 pages

Author's Thesis

Eboo Patel makes the claim that religious leaders have a determinative influence on whether a young person becomes a religious totalitarian or a pluralist that works for peace and the common good. The religious formation of young adults, according to Patel, is almost completely dependent upon the leaders who shape their teens and early twenties-- the years during which they form an identity and find a purpose.  Therefore, Patel states, it is imperative that pluralistic religious leaders influence youth and young adults in ways that will guide them toward pluralism and peacemaking.  The best way to accomplish this, according to Patel, is through having young people from different religious traditions work side-by-side in serving those in need.  Patel has found that the best context for this work is the college campus.

Development of Argument

Eboo Patel lays out his thesis in the introductory chapter, “The Faith Line.”  In the eight chapters that follow he makes his argument and tells his story.  In “The Crossroads of the Identity Crisis,” Patel offers brief profiles of several recent religious terrorists and draws parallels between their upbringing and his own.  “Growing Up American, Growing Up Other,” tells the story of his own adolescence and the challenges he faced as a minority in race, ethnicity, and religion.  “Identity Politics” tells of how most of his close friends in young adulthood had very strong religious identities, while he did not, and how this sent him on his own search.   In the fourth chapter, “Real World Activism,” Patel writes of his time living and volunteering in a Catholic Worker house, of his friendship with a Christian monk named Brother Wayne, and of his visit with the Dalai Lama, and of how his discovery of the depth of other religious traditions made him long to reconnect with his own Ismaili Muslim background.  He made this connection by visiting his grandmother in India.  This story is told in “An American in India.”  The following chapter, “The Story of Islam, the Story of Pluralism,” makes the case that in its origins and at its core Islam is a pluralistic faith.  This chapter on Islam is followed by “The Youth Programs of Religious Totalitarians,” which offers evidence that terrorists are focusing on young people while religious peacemakers often ignore them.  The final chapter, “Building the Interfaith Youth Core,” tells of the origins and growth the Chicago-based organization, Interfaith Youth Core, which was founded by Patel.  He makes one final plea that the reader join his cause in “Conclusion: Saving Each Other, Saving Ourselves,” which is followed by a brief postscript and an afterword. Eboo Patel lays out his thesis in the introductory chapter, “The Faith Line.”  In the eight chapters that follow he makes his argument and tells his story.

In “The Crossroads of the Identity Crisis,” Patel  offers brief profiles of several recent religious terrorists and draws parallels between their upbringing and his own.  “Growing Up American, Growing Up Other,” tells the story of his own adolescence and the challenges he faced as a minority in race, ethnicity, and religion.  “Identity Politics” tells of how most of his close friends in young adulthood had very strong religious identities, while he did not, and how this sent him on his own search. 

In “Real World Activism” (Chapter 4), Patel writes of his time living and volunteering in a Catholic Worker house, of his friendship with a Christian monk named Brother Wayne, and of his visit with the Dalai Lama, and of how his discovery of the depth of other religious traditions made him long to reconnect with his own Ismaili Muslim background.  He made this connection by visiting his grandmother in India.  This story is told in “An American in India.”  The following chapter, “The Story of Islam, the Story of Pluralism,” makes the case that in its origins and at its core Islam is a pluralistic faith.  This chapter on Islam is followed by “The Youth Programs of Religious Totalitarians,” which offers evidence that terrorists are focusing on young people while religious peacemakers often ignore them. 

In his closing chapter, “Building the Interfaith Youth Core,” Patel tells of the origins and growth the Chicago-based organization, Interfaith Youth Core, which was founded by Patel.  He makes one final plea that the reader join his cause in “Conclusion: Saving Each Other, Saving Ourselves,” which is followed by a brief postscript and an afterword.

Author Presuppositions

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based international nonprofit building the interfaith youth movement.  He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, NPR, and CNN.  In addition to Acts of Faith, he is the author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America and Interfaith Leadership: A Primer

The most obvious and important author presuppositions in Acts of Faith are that religious pluralism is necessary for the survival of humanity and that religious pluralism is at the core of every major world religion.  Patel distinguishes himself as a proponent of pluralism, not relativism.  Religious relativism claims that no religion can make statements of absolute truth over and against any other religion.  Each person simply believes what they have been conditioned to believe by their culture and experience.  A pluralist, however, does believe that their own religion can make claims of absolute truth, and at the same time strives to find common values (identified by Patel as hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and mercy) with those of other religions (and no faith) in order to work together for peace and the common good.  Eboo Patel has no interest in turning young people into relativists.  He has dedicated his life, however, to guiding them toward pluralism.  Whether hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and mercy are at the core of all world religions, as Patel presupposes, is, of course, subject to debate and varying interpretations.

Theological Norms

Eboo Patel is an adherent of the Ismaili form of the Muslim faith, a subsect of the Shia branch of Islam that originates in India.   Acts of Faith is the autobiographical story of how Patel returned to this faith. Patel’s own theological norms are, in essence, the norms of the book.  Throughout the book, Patel confirms his belief that Allah, (the Muslim name for God) “chose humanity as his vice-regent on Earth with the purpose of creating a moral social order; that he sent messengers with guidance for the world; that the final prophet was a merchant named Muhammad, who received the message we call the Holy Quran through the angel Gabriel…” (113).

Patel summarizes the version of Islam that informs his life and work by paraphrasing the view of the late Muslim intellectual Fazlur Rahman, who said that “the core message of Islam is the establishment of an ethical, egalitarian order on earth.”  He continues, “The central aspect of this moral order is merciful justice, embodied first and foremost in Allah- the Arabic term for ‘the God’… God also gives each human an inner light… the writing of God on our souls” (111).  As mentioned above, this “core” that shines from this “inner light” includes hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and mercy.  Patel believes that Islam shares this core value with other world religions.

While Patel believes that Islam, especially Ismaili Islam, is “unique and powerful,” he avoids what “mutually exclusive” discussions, that is, arguments about which religion is right and which is wrong (165).  He writes, “The truth is, our religious traditions have competing theological claims, and we simply have to accept those… Even when we feel like we have found theological common ground… we quickly discover that even those paradigms have their limits” (166).

Ismailis belong to the Shia branch of Islam which originates in India.   Acts of Faith is the autobiographical story of how Patel returned to Ismaili faith. Patel’s own theological norms are the norms of the book.  Throughout the book, Patel confirms his belief that Allah, (the Muslim name for God) “chose humanity as his vice-regent on Earth with the purpose of creating a moral social order; that he sent messengers with guidance for the world; that the final prophet was a merchant named Muhammad, who received the message we call the Holy Quran through the angel Gabriel…” (113).

A paraphrase from the late Muslim intellectual Fazlur Rahman, is an apt characterization of Patel’s own view: “the core message of Islam is the establishment of an ethical, egalitarian order on earth.”  He continues, “The central aspect of this moral order is merciful justice, embodied first and foremost in Allah- the Arabic term for ‘the God’… God also gives each human an inner light… the writing of God on our souls” (111).  As mentioned above, this “core” that shines from this “inner light” includes hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and mercy.  Patel believes that Islam shares this core value with other world religions.

While Patel believes that Islam, especially Ismaili Islam, is “unique and powerful,” he avoids what “mutually exclusive” discussions, that is, arguments about which religion is right and which is wrong (165).  He writes, “The truth is, our religious traditions have competing theological claims, and we simply have to accept those… Even when we feel like we have found theological common ground… we quickly discover that even those paradigms have their limits” (166).

Aim of the Book

In his early twenties, Patel began to attend interfaith gatherings.  He was disappointed to find that the average interfaith gathering consisted of middle-aged and elderly people sitting in a meeting hall listening to panelists discuss their academic work on interfaith engagement.  He found the gatherings to be incredibly dull and passive, and noticed that the very few young people in attendance would often slip out at some point.  When he spoke to pluralistic religious leaders about his observation, they were often dismissive of the role of youth in the process of interfaith engagement.  Meanwhile, each night when Patel turned on the news he would see stories of religious terrorist training facilities in which young people were being engaged in leadership and given a purpose.  It became obvious to Patel that those in favor of religious totalitarianism and violence valued and focused on young people, while religious people in favor of peace and the common good often ignored and patronized them. 

The aim of Acts of Faith is to persuade the reader, especially the religiously devout reader, to share Patel’s vision for remedying this imbalance and to invest the time, resources, and energy into guiding young people to become religious pluralists that work for peace and the common good.  Patel aims to convince the reader to get involved in the interfaith youth movement.  Acts of Faith is a call to action for those who are both religiously devout and interested in loving, learning from, and serving alongside people of faith traditions different from their own.  This call is to stop ignoring young people and to start guiding them and engaging them in the cause of interfaith cooperation and friendship.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Acts of Faith is well written, interesting, insightful, and filled with engaging autobiographical narrative.  Patel makes his case for engaging young people in interfaith work clearly, repeatedly, and with ample evidence.  He presents a clear call to action for the reader.  The book is a quick read, accessible to both adult readers and older youth.  Patel anticipates the many concerns of religious leaders in regard to training young people to be religious pluralists and addresses those concerns (164-168).  Acts of Faith fills a gap that exists in much of the Christian writing about college ministry, which often focuses on the numerical growth of the ministry and the spiritual growth of the individual but rarely on any engagement with classmates of other faiths (other than for evangelization).

Perhaps the only weakness of Acts of Faith is that while it does clearly define the difference between religious relativism and religious pluralism, it offers very little guidance for interaction with those religious persons who oppose both relativism and pluralism.  The book assumes that everyone who might become a pluralist already has inclinations toward pluralism even if they do have some reservations.  However, many university students may come from families and communities of faith that, while not being anything close to terrorists, have been taught that the only appropriate ways for a person of their faith to interact with persons of other faiths is either to work aggressively to convert them or to avoid them as “unclean.”  In a similar vein, this book does not give much guidance for interacting with atheists/humanists, which is a fast growing percentage of the student population.  There is no discussion of atheist/humanist totalitarians who claim that all religions are delusional and harmful and that all religious persons are ignorant whether they are pluralists or not.  Even with this omission, however, Patel’s work is valuable for collegiate ministers and the students they serve. It is a solid introduction to interfaith engagement. The book can serve as both an inspiration and a guide to interfaith service and friendship on the college campus.

Review by Everett Miller