05/31/2012 06:59 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

My Neighbor's Faith: Belief-O-Matic and Me

According to the Internet, I am 100 percent Reform Jew. This came as something of a surprise to me since I'm a Muslim.

Let me explain. In the wake of Sept. 11, I was invited to contribute an essay to a short book on Islam sponsored by the religion website Beliefnet. I poked around the site and came across the Belief-o-Matic quiz, which uses 20 theological and social questions to pinpoint "what religion (if any) you practice ... or ought to consider practicing." I answered the questions, which included issues of theism (a-, mono- or poly-), Christology, afterlife and various contemporary topics, with a lot of attention to sexuality and social policy. It also inquired whether each issue was of minor, middling or major importance to me. Since I favored a single god (no divine Christ), a single lifetime and socially liberal stances, it judged me a perfect match for Reform Judaism. Islam appeared seventh on my list of religions to try, after Unitarian Universalism and Sikhism.

As the reference to Sikhism makes clear, the religious options are global but the quiz itself is unmistakably American in spirit. Though conversion is a worldwide phenomenon with deep historical roots, the notion of shopping for a religion rather than fitting oneself more or less comfortably into the religion one was born into is both modern and very American. The Pew Forum's 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found:

"More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion -- or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether."

Beliefnet places the quiz in its entertainment section but its categories (never mind its sheer existence) reveal something serious, since my combination of non-Christian monotheism with lefty social views simply does not compute. The quiz endorses and reinforces the perception that there are several kinds of Christians and two kinds of Jews (Reform and Orthodox, in the Belief-o-Matic list) but only one kind of Muslim.

In practice, though, the spectrum of views among Muslims is wide. Progressive voices and practices coexist, sometimes uneasily, with conservative discourses and norms. A few mosques have fractured over issues of doctrine and ritual, but many, perhaps most serve theologically and politically heterogeneous congregations. In the last decade or two, some people have debated whether there ought to be denominations among (American) Muslims. Rhetoric about unity -- which you especially need if you are a community under siege -- coexists with divisive stances: if you're not our kind of Muslim, then you're not a Muslim at all. Though intolerance is not new, and a minority has always been concerned with border patrol, these exclusivist voices are perhaps louder than they have been historically, in part because petrodollars buy a lot of (metaphorical) megaphones, subsidizing pamphlets and glitzy websites.

In some ways the borders between Islam and other traditions are less fraught than the boundaries among Muslim groups and tendencies and cliques. As someone who studies Islamic law, my most obvious conversation partners are scholars studying rabbinic tradition. My conversations with Jewish feminists are productive and exciting. And these interfaith conversations (I cannot think of a single colleague in Jewish studies who is not, in one way or another, Jewish) are invariably illuminating. Disagreements are expected, inevitable and do not cause consternation. But when normative issues are at stake, intrafaith conversation can be tricky, especially for Sunni Muslims. Observant Shiite Muslims are, for the most part, very clear about the authority structures that govern their religious lives. If they are Twelvers (the most populous of the Shiite groups), they identify themselves as followers of a particular scholar whose guidance they have chosen to accept. Nizari Ismailis have only one Aga Khan. Among Sunnis, the situation is profoundly different. Theologian Amina Wadud once aptly described the interpretive chaos that prevails as a "Sunni free-for-all." Who gets to decide? On what basis? For whom?

Which of course leads me to think about what it means that this interpretive diversity coexists with a certainty on the part of Beliefnet's programmers that they know what makes a Muslim. The same problem of choosing a "representative Muslim" affects invitations to interreligious dialogues and media roundtables. Who shall give the Muslim perspective? (Which of course assumes that there is a Muslim perspective.) There are gendered dimensions to the problem: when clergy and clergy-equivalents are invited, women are not usually among them. There are also racial dimensions: it's usually brown rather than black Muslims who are called upon. But even more basically, the premise of inter-religious conversation -- that there are bounded entities called religions -- masks the internal diversity of each tradition.

Of course this internal diversity is not unique to Muslims, nor is the existence of a gap (sometimes a chasm) between traditional doctrine and individual belief and practice. The Belief-o-Matic (which, by the way, asks nothing about ritual performance: do I pray? fast? tithe?) cannot capture it. Life, including religious life, is messy and resists categorization. And even when categories exist, they often hide more than they reveal. Though the Belief-o-Matic has been revised at least once since I first took it (my distant-second match was most recently Liberal Quaker), I am still closer to Sikh than Muslim according to its reading, and I remain, stubbornly, perfectly a Reform Jew.

This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'