It's worth thinking about the contrast with Western Christianity. For the Jesus movement's first couple of hundred years, it was a blasphemous Jewish cult (on account of denying the Emperor's divinity) that attracted subversive outsiders in the Roman world. When the apostle Paul called the Christian community "one body" in Christ, he was exhorting, not laying down the law because he had no power except persuasion. No Christian leader had state power behind his dictates until the emperor Constantine (306 CE) converted; the early ethos involved individuals turning away (repenting) to form an outlaw community among the Roman empire's many niche groups. Until Constantine and his successors began enforcing credal orthodoxy, probably every bishopric and local group had their own emphases among the traditions.
The era of Christendom (324-1521 CE) did try to mandate a universally authoritative Christian community that enforced peace and justice in addition to providing a path for individual salvation. But the Reformers, beginning with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin -- and abetted by rulers chafing under a declining Papal claim to state authority -- blew the unity of that Christian community to bits. The bits claimed and delved into their particular ways of knowing God in Jesus, but universal Christianity became impossible to imagine (though popes and some bishops still try, anachronistically).
According to Ansary, Muslims not only can imagine a universal community sharing belief and law, but consider the existence of such a community necessary and normative. The Umma community is the embodiment of God's will for humanity.
Modern Westerners simply cannot find mental houseroom for such a conviction. We expect to find our truths individually -- and to maintain whatever social cohesion we value by tolerating the individual beliefs of others. In the realm of religion, we have little room for imposed orthodoxies. In the realm of law, we place our hope in socially negotiated group consensus arrived at more or less democratically.
This is a challenging thought within our Western civilization that assumes that our material mastery proves we've got the only way.
Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes was the most interesting book I read during 2009. What's your nominee for that position from your reading?
(Photo is of Ansary speaking at a peace vigil in San Francisco. This is the third of three consecutive posts about this fascinating book.)