Troubling Islam (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

I used to wonder where the Judeo-Christian image of God came from. The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent father. All knowing, all powerful, and everywhere at once. From what experiences would the early Jews draw such a picture? What could they have encountered in their social history that would lead to such a symbol? Why that particular image of God?

I pondered that question for years without coming up with an answer. But then my daughter began to date boys. And suddenly I knew. I knew where the image came from. All knowing, all powerful, and everywhere at once. That is the precise image, not of God, but of me, that I want in the mind of every single boy who dates my daughter. And truthfully, I have engineered the experience of coming to my house to pick up my daughter, and having to face me, so that every element reinforces the boy’s sense of weak vulnerability.

By the way, that is not just the Judeo-Christian image of God. It also can be found in Islam. It is said in the Koran that Moses requested to see God. After all, if God was sending Moses on a mission, the least God could do is show up. Well instead, God revealed Himself – and please excuse my use of the male-oriented language of the Koran but I want to tell the story as it is written – God revealed Himself to a mountain. And the mountain instantly crashed down, reduced to rubble. So Moses wisely withdrew his request to see God.

I’m still working on how to pull off that trick at the start of my daughter’s dates. I’ll get it some day. But if my theory about the origins of the image of God in dating behavior is correct, it just goes to show you that whether Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or Unitarian, when it comes to their daughters and dating, fathers have always been the same.

As my opening remarks suggest, I have been trying to find common ground with Islam. It is a difficult search for me as a religious liberal. There is much that I recoil from when I look at both historical and contemporary Islam. I have very little trouble admiring the life of the Buddha or of Jesus. But Muhammad is a different story. I have to confess that the most revered figure in Islam leaves me a bit cold.

True, any fair reading of the past will put Muhammad among history’s greatest figures. He united warring tribes into an empire that within a century dominated the world and became the focal point of the best in science and philosophy. Muhammad transformed the moral life of ancient Arabian society. He halted the rampant slaughter of unwanted children, most of which were girls. He gave women the right to choose whom they married, the right to divorce their husbands if they so wished, and the right to inherit property. He made it an obligation to give annually to the poor and thereby helped mitigate the disparities in wealth and material comforts that had been the order of the day.

Pre-Islamic Arabia was a culture dangerously out of control, always on the brink of chaos and collapse, with much of the populace enthralled by one vice or another. Muhammad made Arabia into a land of order and discipline.

But Muhammad plays the role of King David in Judaism, or of Constantine in Christianity. He promulgates his religion through political and military conquest. Muhammad is not, nor did he ever claim to be a Buddha or a Christ. He claimed to be a prophet – indeed God’s final and most significant prophet – this was his claim. But he did what prophets don’t normally do. He succeeded, not just in word, but in deed as well.

We admire those who seem to exemplify the best that human beings can become. We admire those who have the courage of their convictions and who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for truth and justice. Hence we admire Jesus, regardless of whether we think he was Christ. We admire his courage, his convictions, his life, and his ultimate sacrifice. We admire his willingness to speak truth to power, regardless of the consequences. Muhammad, on the other hand, didn’t just speak truth to power, he became the power. And in so doing he was complicit in acts of assassination and even genocide.

Yes, it is wrong to judge the past by today’s standards. Muhammad was no more brutal or ruthless than others of his era. But it is precisely because a Buddha or a Jesus manages to transcend their era that they become revered across time and circumstance. And that is what I cannot find when I look to Muhammad for inspiration. In building one of the world’s greatest empires, he lost the capacity to inspire those who are not among his true believers. I do not have to think as Buddha thought, or believe as Jesus believed, to find inspiration in their words and deeds. I must believe as Muhammad believed to find similar inspiration in his life and accomplishments. And since I am not Islamic, it is a slippery path to common ground that I must tread. But the search for that common ground is, I believe, of great moral and political importance for us, for religious liberals living in this illiberal age.

Of course, I am not the first among us to seek this common ground with Islam. Our former associate minister, Rev. Suzanne Meyer, sought it in a sermon she delivered from this very pulpit during her time with us. She intended that sermon to be a kind of primer on the Muslim faith. I think she wrote that sermon in the spirit of those books that purport to be able to explain the most complex subject in the simplest of terms. You know those books with titles like “Quantum Thermodynamic Gravitational Spectroscopy …for Dummies.” Suzanne’s sermon was sort of an Islam for Unitarian dummies. By the way, just in case you were wondering, there is no such thing as quantum thermodynamic gravitational spectroscopy. At least I hope there isn’t.

After her sermon, Suzanne admitted to feeling a sense of disappointment, maybe even failure. Because although she had succeeded in writing a sermon that made Islam understandable to those of us who were not familiar with it, she had failed in her attempt to find any significant points of correspondence between Islam and UUism. It was almost as if this was the one faith tradition with which we could find no commonality.

Is Islam really that different? Is Islam so foreign to what we Unitarians acknowledge that even our ministers can find no way to welcome its perspectives into our broad canon?

In one sense, all of us in the West should feel right at home with Islam. It is one of the Abrahamic faiths. Its tenets are based on Judaism and are heavily influenced by Christianity. Muslims pay homage to both Moses and Jesus. The same cultural heritage that spawned these two other great faiths also gave rise to Islam. So it should seem familiar to us.

Yet, Huston Smith in his landmark book “The World’s Religions,” notes that the West has been at war with Islam for 14 hundred years. Quoting an American columnist, Smith notes that Islam “‘is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood'” by us than any other religion. And certainly recent events, which may have made it seem that we were under attack by Islam itself, have done nothing to foster any better understanding.

For many of us Islam is troubling. Let me read you a few lines from a recently published book that is in fact entitled “The Trouble with Islam.”

I have to be honest with you [the author writes]. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I’m hanging on by my fingernails in anxiety over what’s coming next … I hear from a Saudi friend that his country’s religious police arrest women for wearing red on Valentine’s Day, and I think: Since when does a merciful God outlaw joy – or fun? I read about [married] victims of rape being stoned for “adultery,” and I wonder how a critical mass of us can stay stone silent.

This particular critique of Islam is unique because it comes from the inside. The author is Irshad Manji, a feminist Muslim whose family fled Uganda when it was taken over by Idi Amin. Manji’s family immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia where she grew up under the auspices of a very traditional Muslim family, but with a heavy influence from Western secular society. It is hard to describe just how contradictory these influences were as Manji was growing up. A couple of stories from her teenage years may help.

During the week Manji attended a secular high school where boys and girls mixed freely, but on weekends she went to a Madrasa, or Islamic school, where the genders were strictly segregated. At a time when Manji was debating her fellow students, male and female, as part of her campaign to be elected class president in her secular school, she was being shown the door by her Islamic teacher for the crime of asking too many questions about the role of women in Islam.

At a time when Manji’s articulate arguments about the right to free speech convinced her high school principal to let her display a radical political poster on her locker door, she was forced to hide on the roof of her house so that her father would not beat her for forgetting her place as a girl.

With experiences like these, you might think that Manji would shut the door on Islam as soon as she was old enough to get out of her father’s house. Indeed, this seemed to be the direction in which she was heading when she was told to either shut up or permanently leave the Madrasa. Confused, enraged, and bitter, Manji took a last look at the gender-segregated classroom of her Islamic school, shook her head and muttered “Jesus Christ,” and stormed out for good. I suspect that was an evening she ended up hiding on the roof. But amazingly, Manji did not leave Islam. Instead, she embraced it.

Interestingly, some Muslims in the United States have made a choice similar to Manji’s. Some Muslims, who had not previously worn outward symbols of their faith, began to do so after the tragedy of 9/11. Some female Muslims put on head scarves even if they had not previously worn them. Why do this knowing the negative attention it would draw? Why do this and risk ridicule, rejection, and even violence from one’s neighbors?

Bashir Mundi, a theological student at the University of Georgia and a Muslim from Nigeria, helps us to understand this choice. Bashir was quoted in a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “When 9/11 happened, “Bashir tells us, “a lot of Muslims felt that Islam had been hijacked.” Islam was being used as an excuse for unspeakable violence. Islam was turning into something unrecognizable and evil. Muslims who did not embrace such a transformation of their faith, felt that they were about to lose their religion. “Sometimes,” Bashir continues, “it is when you are losing something that you really want to grab onto it.” In that same vein, the teenage Irshad Manji grabbed on to this faith that was letting go of her.

I think it is important for us, practitioners of a liberal non-Muslim faith, to understand the consequences that liberal Muslims face when they choose to stay and try to redeem their faith. The consequences were evident to me when I had the opportunity to actually hear Irshad Manji speak on “The Trouble with Islam” in Emory University’s Canon Chapel. My first hint that there was going to be trouble came when I glanced at the flyer that listed the campus organizations sponsoring Manji’s visit. Notably absent was any Muslim sponsorship.

Muslims were not, however, absent from the audience. Half to two-thirds of the audience were Muslims. And it was to this part of the audience that Manji addressed her comments. She spoke passionately, but politely. Her remarks were challenging, but hardly confrontational. Nonetheless, throughout the full hour of questions and answers that followed her talk, not a single Muslim expressed sympathy for her point of view. Manji was, in fact, attacked every way imaginable. I remember being relieved that we were not a country that permits stoning because in a different environment I could easily imagine this being the outcome of Manji’s lecture.

What did Manji say that provoked such anger from her fellow Muslims? Well she said many things, but really was only challenged for over an hour on one single point. What generated such controversy was Manji’s strong stance against literalism. The trouble with Islam today, Manji said, is its insistence on a literal interpretation of the Koran. The trouble with Islam today is its insistence that the Koran is God’s final, unequivocal word to humankind. How can this be, Manji asks. Because the God she knows is first and foremost a God of surprise and novelty, one who never ceases to have one more truth to whisper to the listening ear, one more revelation for the receptive mind.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Such words could easily be coming from a Unitarian Universalist. We are a minority faith, one that troubles the fundamentalist Christians with whom we share this country just as Irshad Manji troubles her Islamic brothers and sisters. I have little doubt that some fundamentalist Christians would be more than willing to pick up and cast the first stone at us, if stoning was acceptable in this country.

But stoning and other forms of religious violence are not acceptable in the West. And because of that Manji’s calls for reform are not primarily directed at people in the Arab, Asian, and African countries where Islamic law rules. Instead, her appeal is to Muslims in the West. Muslims who will never face death for speaking out against injustice committed falsely in the name of Allah. Muslims who will never face stoning for challenging literalist interpretations of ancient Koranic passages. Muslims who have the freedom, and therefore the responsibility, to trouble their faith. To disturb their faith. To redeem and reform their faith.

In the final analysis, the trouble with Islam today, Manji argues, is that not enough Muslims are troubling Islam. Not enough Muslims, especially in the West, are exercising their freedom and their privilege to shape the course and direction of their faith. To non-Muslims in the West who question whether Islam is capable of such reform, Manji points to Islam?s past.

We think of Islam as being monolithic. As being centered around one set of beliefs shared by all who pray towards Mecca. This was not so in the beginning. In its early centuries, Islam divided into dozens of sects, each with distinctly different points of view. Islam was much like Christianity with its differing denominations.

Muslims split along some of the same theological fault lines as Christians did. The Jabrite and Mutazilite Muslims were in many respects like the Christian Calvinists. They believed in absolute predestination and doubted the existence of free will. The Murji’ite Muslims were like our Universalist brethren in that they believed God was too good to condemn anyone to everlasting damnation. The Qadarite Muslims defended the existence of free will. Though puritanical in their values, the Kharijites were staunchly democratic. The Muslim Sufi produced a mystical tradition that is as rich and visionary as the Jewish Kabbalah. The early Shi’ites, who remain an important minority within Islam today, were heavily influenced by Buddhism. They came to regard their religious teachers, in a manner that paralleled the way Buddhists regard a Bodhisattva. To the early Shi’ites, their teachers were an incarnation of divine wisdom who served as exemplars to humanity.

Through the various peoples and cultures that came within the scope of the early Islamic empire, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian influences entered into Muslim thought. And unlike other empire builders, the early Muslims were not out to convert everyone they conquered. Jews viewed the Arabs as liberators, because they relieved them of persecution from Christianity. Jewish communities prospered and entered a golden age in Asia, Egypt, and Spain, something that had never happened under Christian dominance. Syria remained predominantly Christian for three centuries under Muslim rule, and indeed Muslim countries became a safe haven for Christian heretics. One can easily imagine our own Unitarian forebears finding a safe place to practice their faith under Muslim protection. Muslim governments even intervened with armed guards to keep Christian sects from attacking and slaughtering one another over differing theological points of view.

The influence of Greek philosophy on Islam was especially strong. Indeed the fact that we even know about Aristotle and Plato is due significantly to Muslim efforts to preserve and transmit their writings to future generations. Westerners had largely forgotten about these Greek philosophers until they rediscovered them in translations from Arabic. A generation of Muslim philosophers arose to proclaim that faith must be reconciled with reason. That the Koran must not be taken literally, but must rather be interpreted symbolically. These philosophers formed learned societies within Islam that questioned and debated everything. Islam even had the equivalent of a Jesus Seminar ? a group of scholars who met, debated, and issued consensus statements on various questions in religion and philosophy.

So what happened to all of this rich intellectual heritage? How did we end up to where we are today with highly conservative Islamic governments desperately trying to enforce stability on restive populations? What happened to the Islamic culture that tolerated religious diversity and provided a fertile plain for scholarly debate? It used to be the Muslim philosophers who shook up Islamic society with their probing and questioning. Now it is the Muslim fundamentalists, with their hatred of the West and of modernism, who seem to have all the revolutionary fervor in many Islamic countries.

What happened is a complex and multifaceted story, which I can’t hope to tell today. But it began centuries ago with a fundamentalist backlash against Muslim philosophy. And indeed much of Muslim philosophy has been locked away. The popular historian Will Durant once estimated that thousands of Arabic manuscripts in science, literature, and philosophy lie hidden in the libraries of the Muslim world. In Istanbul alone are 30 mosques with libraries whose manuscripts have hardly been touched. Huge collections of Muslim writing in Cairo, Damascus, Mosul, Baghdad, and Delhi have not even been catalogued. What we know of the rich and varied perspectives that came out of Islam’s intellectual golden era in the 10th century is but a fragment of what lies collecting dust in these libraries.

It is to this intellectual heritage that liberal Islamic thinkers like Irshad Manji are drawn. It is to this heritage that they turn as a buttress against the repressive and rejecting forces within the religion they wish to reclaim and redeem from those who would subvert it to a specious political agenda.

But why should you and I care about this beyond perhaps an intellectual curiosity about what truths may lie in the depths of the Islamic heritage? Why not content ourselves with the many sources of spiritual inspiration already available to us as Unitarian Universalists. Buddhism is unlikely to incite terrorism on our soil. “Bombs for Buddha” just doesn’t work as a terrorist recruitment slogan. There are a lot more accessible religious traditions with which UUs could connect.

Manji offers some very practical reasons for why we should pay attention to her faith tradition. The birth rate is much higher in Arab and Asian countries than in Western countries. Indeed the birth rate is higher in the Muslim communities of Western countries than in the rest of Western society. In terms of sheer numbers, Islam will be the dominant religion in France within the lifetimes of our children. That’s an interesting point to consider when you think about the fact that France has just outlawed the wearing of head scarves by Muslims in public places. The needs and perspectives of Muslims will be hard to ignore as their ranks continue to grow worldwide. It is in our best interest that we understand those perspectives better than we currently do.

But besides these practical reasons, there is an even more compelling reason for us, as members of a liberal faith, to reach out to Muslim reformists. Irshad Manji confided in us during her lecture that she has received death threats for what she has been saying about Islam. And she lives in Canada. Think about it. Death threats for just asking the kinds of questions you or I might ask without even batting an eye. I think we have a moral imperative to reach out in support of those who care enough to trouble Islam from the inside.

And lastly, I think we have a political imperative to reach out to the Irshad Manji’s of every faith tradition different from our own. Multi-faith work with liberals of other traditions is not a nicety, it is a necessity. Liberals are often an isolated, and sometimes a persecuted, minority within their respective faith traditions. If we want a world in which an Iraqi scientist like Hussain Al-Shahristani would not have to spend 11 years in solitary confinement for following the dictates of his faith by refusing to participate in research that could lead to genocide, then we must engage in multi-faith work. If we want a world in which Israelis will find security in building bridges to the international community rather than in creating barriers, a world in which Palestinians will realize their aspirations in dialogue rather than in death, then we must engage in multi-faith work.

If we want an educational system in this country in which no one seriously proposes taking evolution out of high school science textbooks while putting prayer back in the classroom, then we must engage in multi-faith work. If we want a country in which politicians stop getting in the way of people who love one another, being together before the eyes of the law, irrespective of their sexual orientation, then we must engage in multi-faith work. If we want a country in which politicians stop claiming to be defending the American family while all the time they are only succumbing to fear and perpetuating hatred – who do they think they are fooling – then we must engage in multi-faith work. If we want a country in which hearing the voice of God tell you to run for election lands you in the nuthouse instead of in the White House, then we must engage in multi-faith work.

As religious liberals, we are isolated and alone, rowing against a rising tide, only as long as we refuse to look past the superficial so that we might see the essential. To our Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Pagan, and yes Muslim brothers and sisters in this holy mission of making the world make sense, of making the world just, let us say we are like you, and we are with you.

Salaam.

Benediction

I?d like to end with a reading from another Muslim named Saadi. Saadi wrote:

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people. It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes. All people are members of the same body, created from one essence. If fate brings suffering to one member, the others cannot stay at rest.

And I would add, along with Irshad Manji, that we here in the West with all the freedom and privilege we enjoy, we especially cannot stay at rest in troubling Islam.