Befriending Islam

From Rabia of Basra comes today’s story, of the water pot and the thief. A true story, from more than 1200 years ago. A robber breaks into Rabia’s home, but to his eye, she’s got nothing worth stealing. There’s only a sleeping mat, a brick which is her pillow, a Quran, and the water pot she draws from five times daily, at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and at night, washing herself of life’s impurities so as to prepare for prayer. He’s about to leave, but what happens next is not what he or anyone would expect. Imagine a regular person in Rabia’s situation. Cringing in fear, or reacting in outrage and reaching for a weapon. Remember also that Rabia is a woman, and a man has just broken into her home. Very bad things are possible here. Yet what happens next is evidence of religion at its finest. Rabia acts from the place that Islam has taken her, which is a place of spaciousness. Rabia sees before her a human being with inherent worth and dignity. Rabia says, “If you are indeed a robber, surely you cannot leave empty-handed”—and then she gives him the practice of prayer. It seriously confuses him. Not what he was looking for. Not what he was expecting, at all. But the confusion works to open up the tightly shut door of his heart. He gives prayer a serious try, and it surprises him with joy. He experiences God’s forgiveness. He taps into the sort of richness that is worth more than even the most expensive trinket. He can have it all, freely. No need to steal, ever again.

Fundamentally, this is what Islam is all about. All people are ultimately in search of fullness and richness in life—we are driven by the ceaseless hungers of a restless spirit to find peace. But in the pursuit of this noble goal, we can be mistaken about how to actually go about doing it. We can use our freedom destructively. We become robbers. We break in and steal. Yet Islam says it does not have to be this way. The robber does not have to remain a robber. The robber can be transformed into a saint like Rabia. Islam says this universally, to all of us, but it also says it to itself. I’m talking internal crisis within the worldwide Muslim community of 1.2 billion people in more than 60 countries. People calling themselves true Muslims, but they are nothing like Rabia at all. They are radical, fanatical, extremist, terroristic, robbers of the faith—and even though they represent a minority of Muslims worldwide, they get most of the media spotlight, eclipsing the vast majority of people who are moderates or progressives and who are talking back to them, trying to take back their religion. Right now is internal crisis in the faith, and we need to talk about this as well. A tall order for today’s sermon.

We begin with the theme of transformation. How it happens. Listen to these Islamic wisdom quotes:

“The spiritual warrior is he who breaks an idol; and the idol of each person is his Ego” (Imam Abul Qasim al-Qushayri).

“Fight against your ego with the four swords of training: eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you. Then the ego will walk the paths of obedience” (Yahya ibn Mu’adh al-Razi).

These quotes equate the mentality of the robber (from our story) with the ego: the part in us that separates us from God. Separation is the problem; separation is the motivator of actions and habits that try to heal the restlessness but only exacerbate it; separation is why our restlessness never goes away. So fight the ego. Eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you. Another quote puts it like this: “When someone criticizes or disagrees with you, a small ant of hatred and antagonism is born in your heart. If you do not squash that ant at once, it might grow into a snake, or even a dragon” (Rumi).

And with this, what comes to mind is a snippet of dialogue between “Religion and Ethics” reporter Bob Abernathy and Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Professor at the UCLA School of Law. “Professor El Fadl, the Qur’an is very clear about not killing innocent people. Why has it been so difficult for some Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism?” Dr. El Fadl’s reply: “Well, in many ways because they are human. The Qur’an is very clear about the prohibition against killing innocent people and against punishing people for the sins of others. The problem is that for many leaders, there is a sense that they are the victims of some injustice or another. There is a very strong sense of victimology, and when you have that sense of being aggrieved, people start finding creative ways to say well, I am actually not killing an innocent, I am killing someone who is guilty of something.” That’s the telling dialogue. Terrorism is a dragon born of an ant of hatred and antagonism not squashed. Ego running rampant. Self-deception. Victimology.

The fight against this is all important. Internal jihad. And one of its primary expressions we have already seen: prayer. Five times a day, at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and at night. In the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting. Saying words like this:

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world;

Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

Master of the Day of Judgment.

Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.

Show us the straight way,

The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,

Those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.

About this, religion scholar Diana Eck makes a key observation: “Muslims speak not just of praying every day but of ‘establishing’ prayer as a part of everyday life. In Islamic understanding, our human condition is not so much a matter of original sin but of perpetual forgetfulness. We do forget God and thus fail as well to remember who we are as human beings.” That’s Diana Eck. Muslims hope to establish prayer in their lives so thoroughly that, even when they are not literally praying, their hearts and minds are still inclined towards Mecca, towards the larger sense of who they are as spiritual beings. What we habitually think on and love, we become.

That’s Islam’s question to all of us here this morning, as we begin a new year. What do we truly think on, and love? How might we establish prayer in our own lives? What ants of hatred and antagonism are running around like crazy in us, becoming snakes or even dragons? How serious are we in the fight against things like victimology and self-deception, self-pride and ego?

There’s so much more that could be said here, about Islam’s basic beliefs and principles, but we must move on to the issue of Islam’s internal crisis. Robbers trying to steal the religion and make it serve a radical, violent political vision. It’s like the proverbial elephant in the living room. Can’t really pay attention to anything else until it is named.

Fact is, this fastest growing religion in all the world is also one that raises up big questions in the minds of many people today. Raises up confusion, suspicion, fear. Listen to the voice of Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer-prize winning author and columnist for the New York Times. In a column from several years ago, he writes, “As someone who has lived in the Muslim world, enjoyed the friendship of many Muslims there and seen the compassionate side of Islam in action, I have to admit I am confused as to what Islam stands for today. Why? On the first day of Ramadan last year, a Sunni Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Shi’ite mosque in Hilla, Iraq, in the middle of a memorial service, killing 25 worshippers. This year, on the first day of Ramadan, a Sunni suicide bomber in Baghdad killed 35 people who were lining up in a Sunni neighborhood to buy fuel. […] I don’t get it. How can Muslims blow up other Muslims on their most holy day of the year—in mosques?” This is Friedman’s honest question, and it is ours as well.

Do you know what the word “Islam” actually means? It’s a verb that denotes action, the action of seeking peace through a life lived in submission only to God, shorn of every idol that stands in the way. Islam is the activity of seeking peace. But many sincere people wonder about that today. Is Islam a religion of seeking peace? They say, I hear you about all its blessings, but I also read website and newspapers and watch the news. Tell me: what is going on?

And here it is: what’s going on. Four things. First is just the basic risk inherent in any and all religion, part of which is that people might not learn what it really is. They don’t know what their Bible or their Quran really says. They don’t know that they don’t know, so it becomes altogether too easy for themselves or their leaders to take religion’s power and make it serve unholy ends. People can say they are Christian, or Muslim, or Unitarian Universalist, or something else—they can protest this all day long—but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They’ll say it because it’s to their advantage to do so; part of religion’s power has always been to rally gathered communities to action. But their motivations might be more about venting rage or securing political power or satisfying greed than anything else. The ancient message of love to God and love to humanity somehow gets transformed into the ugliness of suicide bombing.

Then there’s a second thing going on. If the basic risk of all religion is people stealing its power, then who are the people whose understanding is so distorted that they hear in Islam justification for the atrocities they commit?

Here’s the ground-floor reality of many would-be terrorists: They feel betrayed by their government’s inability to provide basic services and protect human rights; they are shaken by the collision of modernization and globalization with traditional values and commitments; they endure some historical injustice that seems like it will never be righted; they suffer the failed promises of military intervention in their country to bring security, rebuild the economy, and ameliorate poverty. All this amounts to a felt sense of humiliation and weakness and pent-up rage. And into this picture comes the terrorist leader and the terrorist group. Leader and group bring these people in, who are feeling humiliated and weak and angry, and they give them friendship, they give them them a sense of adventure, they give them the glamour of belonging to a militant group, they give their families cash payments and all sorts of goods, and above all, they give them a crystal-clear new identity with crystal-clear purpose. They preach that true faith is in jeopardy and emergency conditions prevail; they preach that what has been morally wrong to do is now perfectly right; they preach that they must do whatever it takes to create a perfect world.

This portrait I’ve just painted comes from a book entitled Terror in the Name of God, by Harvard professor Jessica Stern, and she goes on to make it clear that the terrorist’s crystal-clear new identity is all-important. Modern culture, with what she calls its “God-shaped hole,” does not feed people’s deepest hungers. But the laser-sharp thought-process and purpose of terrorism does. Just listen to part of her interview with a senior Hamas operative named Hassan. She says, “I ask whether [Hassan] feels any remorse about the lives of the young men that were lost when they carried out suicide attacks against the Israelis. [In reply, he says,] ‘The terrible things that have happened to the Palestinian people are far bigger and far stronger than feeling sorry or guilty. As a Palestinian, I feel that my people and I have been murdered in the soul by the Israel occupation. The feeling stays with me in every situation. There is a big difference between murder and killing to defend his country—attacks against Israelis … are the latter kind of killing, not murder. All religions allow people the right to kill in self-defense, or to defend their land. Land has been taken from us with violence, and we have the right to take it back. You must understand the difference between Hassan the person and Hassan the Palestinian’” (59).

The ant has become a dragon. The culture is in crisis, people are longing for a world of peace and prosperity, and so it is apocalypse now. Time to purify the world, by any means necessary.

But explanation is one thing, approval another. Which leads to the third thing going on: how the vast majority of Muslims have not kept their mouths shut about how Islam is being stolen from them. Most of the time, the media seems to be looking the other way when this happens, but it’s been happening. For example, right after 9/11, Egyptian poet and playwright Ali Salem wrote these words: “Extremism may claim God as its redeemer, but it’s really the selfish product of lunacy…. These extremists are pathologically jealous. They feel like dwarfs, which is why they search for towers to destroy.” Muslims are talking back. Dial up the Council on American-Islamic Relations website, or the American Muslim website, and you’ll see plenty of talking back and talking THROUGH to a different, better vision for the future.

Which takes us to the fourth thing going on. Islam is just not a monolithic entity. There is no one person or one viewpoint that defines correct Islam. It’s got lots of different rooms and corridors, like every other religion out there. One fascinating example of this relates to Shariah law, which defines the how of submitting to God in all realms of life, personal and interpersonal and social and economic and political (Islam rejects the distinction between the sacred and the secular, so the religion has implications for every part of life). But Shariah law requires interpretation; the gap between abstract principle and concrete circumstance must be bridged. Muslim call such interpretations fatwas; and for every particular of life, there’s a fatwa to cover it. But the key thing to know about fatwas is that they are binding only if the person receiving them recognizes the authority of the one pronouncing it. This has led to something that should not sound too strange to our ears—“fatwa shopping”—in which people fish around for religious scholars who will endorse whatever they want. Ultimately, it means that Islam is a religion with many authorities, many centers, many voices. The upside (which we know directly as Unitarian Universalists) is rich diversity and integrity of conscience. The downside (which we Unitarian Universalists also know) is superficiality, confusion, people getting lost amidst all the voices, people being led down destructive pathds by demagogues who sound like they know what they’re doing, but really don’t.

What is going on is that Islam has a powerful message which, as with every religion, can get co-opted to justify destructive means and evil ends. Islam just happens to prevail in many regions of the world that are desperately hurting. Islam contains many sub-groups, and while some of them are extremest, most are not. Most are trying to live up to the meaning of that word “Islam” and seek peace.

That’s what’s going on. And it is a challenging time for all of us. Not just because the entire world suffers from the culture crisis and resentment that radiates out of the Middle East. But also because no religion is an island. Every religion’s fate is caught up in the fate of the others. Each one suffers from the evil things the others do; each one benefits from the good things. The interdependent web vision applies to religions as much as to anything else.

My hope today is that we Unitarian Universalists might honestly look at all the fears and stereotypes we might have. Time to see the ant for what it is, and crush it. Time to open our hearts and minds that we might know our brother and sister Muslims and befriend them. There is so much we might learn. It’s also the practical thing to do. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, especially because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do, then Muslims here are going end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle. We have to be like Rabia from the story, in the way she received the robber. Yes, Islam is in a state of internal crisis. Bad things have been done in its name. But if we don’t allow it to be anything other than that, then where does that leave us? Where does that take us?

We don’t dare allow this. Too much is at stake. Let’s be inspired by Rabia’s spaciousness and peace, and Islam’s faith in the ever-present possibility of transformation. Let’s help each other in the search that makes life worth living.