Spiritual Gems of Islam

We begin with a remarkable story about George de Benneville, who in later years would become a leading prophet of Universalism in America. But our story takes place long before that, when he was a much younger man and travelling the world. In his own words, he says,

Being arrived at Algiers, as I walked upon deck I saw some Moors [an antique way of saying “Muslims”] who brought some refreshments to sell. One of them slipped down and tore a piece out of one of his legs. Two of his companions, having lain him on the deck, each of them kissed the wound, shedding tears upon it, then turned towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was much moved with anger at their making such a noise and ordered my waiter to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their noise, they perceived that I was angry, asked my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it and took part with him; and as tears were saltish, they [were] a good remedy to heal the same; and the reason of their turning towards the sun’s rising was to invoke him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother, and prayed he would please to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced, and moved within, that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me. My eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation, that I was obliged to cry out and say, “Are these Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!”

Picture it. The young George de Benneville, sitting there at his table on the deck of a ship in port at Algiers, and he sees people who are completely Other to him. He is a Christian, and he knows God loves him. But those strange Muslims? Noisy. Bothering him. Going to hell. But then the remarkable exchange takes place. The Muslims explain their noise, their tears, their turning towards the sun’s rising, and suddenly it dawns upon the young George de Benneville that he does not have exclusive rights to being human and being good. He glimpses the sweet humanity and goodness in the Muslims taking care of their fallen friend, and that glimpse transforms his entire life and leads him to throw away the idea that God favors the few and to accept into his heart the very different idea that God loves the entire world, no exceptions. His encounter with Islam did that for him. From here, he would go on to be the very first person—the very first!—to openly teach the Universalist conviction of “no hell” in America, way way back in pre-Revolutionary War times, in the mid- to later-1700s.

That’s what I call a spiritual gem of Islam. At least in the sense of Islam’s gift to our historical movement, through a direct impact on one of our spiritual ancestors. It’s not the only instance of this, I hasten to add. In small but powerful ways, Islam has helped us become the movement we are.

You might not have known that.

But there’s another takeaway from the story. How so many people today can be just like the young George De Benneville in their snap-judgment dismissal of Islam. Muslims are noisy. Muslims are Other. “Waiter, bring them before me!” we say imperiously, so we can interrogate Them.

One way this tendency to “Other” manifests is in the anxiety around what to do with figures like Osama bin Laden and suicide bombers when you are trying to appreciate what is positive and good about the faith. Such destructive figures loom large in our imaginations. It feels we can’t get to the good stuff unless, first of all, we put the bad in some kind of decontamination zone.

Well, all I will say is that, in appreciating the good things about Christianity, few to no one feels any anxiety about having to first explain the Ku Klux Klan. It’s because we know that Christianity and Christians are only human. Christianity has passages in scripture that are positively sinful (like the ones about women keeping silent, or gays being condemned) and just people see them as reflective of the regressive values of past times, which the best voices in the religion were actually trying to transcend, but they wormed their way into sacred scripture anyway…. Whatever the reasoning, just people ignore sinful scriptures, and good riddance. Not-so-just people, on the other hand, love to use these passages to rationalize their hatred and fear. Rationalization—motivated reasoning—is as old as time and extremely human, and guess what? Muslims do it too. Muslims are human and they make noise and they cry salty tears. Islam (like all our great world religions) is profound in its understanding of what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience, and we can get so much from it, but it, too, has sins of scripture—the infamous “sword” passages of the Qur’an, for example. Just people must practice wisdom and discrimination, no matter what religion they espouse.

We will not belabor the subject of terrorism and violence and “how could Islam allow that?” any further. I recommend that you take a look at my sermon entitled “Befriending Islam” from back in 2011 if you’d like to hear my specific thoughts on it. Today, it’s pure appreciation time for this amazing religious tradition that helped shaped the history of Unitarian Universalists in America and which can touch each Unitarian Universalist listening in, if we are willing to receive…

Spiritual gems of Islam.

Let’s shift imaginative gears. We leave George de Benneville behind, there in the early 1700s at a table on the deck of a ship docked in Algiers, and we go back in time a thousand years earlier, to a place called Basra in Iraq. Under a well-lit streetlight, a woman by the name of Rabia is looking for a lost key. Her neighbors notice, and soon they‘re all out there with her, joining her in the search. But no success. “Where did you drop it?” someone finally asks, hoping to make some progress.  “Oh,” says Rabia, “I didn’t lose my key here but over there in my house.” And her neighbors just look at her. You know—THAT look? But they happen to respect her—she has a reputation as an Islamic saint. So someone asks, in careful tones, “Why then did you not look for the lost key in your house?” And she replied, “Because my house is dimly lit, but out here it is so much brighter.” This cracked everbody up, even as they shook their heads in disbelief. But then Rabia said this: “Friends, it is clear you’re intelligent. Then why is it that when you lose your peace of mind, perhaps because of a failed relationship or a difficult job, you look for what was lost outside of you and not in your own heart?” Rabia then pointed to her chest. “Did you lose your joy out there or in here? Do you avoid looking inside you because the light is dimmer, and therefore, more inconvenient?” At this, her neighbors were silent.

And of course they were silent. What she is saying gets to the heart of the problem.

Some historical context is in order. Rabia of Basra was a Sufi, which means that she saw herself as part of a rising protest movement within Islam, together with other teachers including one with whom we might be more familiar: Rumi. For both Rabia and Rumi, to stand under the streetlamp is to immerse oneself in the external aspects of religion like scriptures and doctrines and rituals and laws and customs and authorities and the rational method; but as for the dim and difficult place where the key is actually and truly lost: inside. The heart. The heart’s method of art and emotion and intuition. The heart’s knowledge that, at bottom, all good religion is about LOVE. It’s not that the externals are bad, or not useful. They can be very useful. But only as pointers to where the essence is, which is the heart. When people start seeing the “right” sort of externals as silver bullets that are automatic guarantees of spiritual integrity and wellness—well, that’s when the trouble begins. That’s when babies start to get thrown out with the bathwater.

Thus Sufism’s protest. In the 9th century, roughly two hundred years after the Koran had been written and the Islamic era had begun with the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to the city of Medina, Islam was triumphant. It had successfully restored civilization to the Middle East, and this civilization was more sophisticated and far more tolerant towards religious diversity that the Christian civilization of the time. Islam was working. Islam was exceeding. So much so that its emphasis on order and focus started to grow imbalanced, and its energy shifted towards a greater conservatism and a focus on organization and identity. Islamic philosophy, for its part, mirrored this in its growing emphasis on reason, which it increasingly saw as the only valid way of knowing there is, in sharp contrast to other forms.

Thus the tone of some of Sufism’s characteristic slogans: “love the pitcher less and the water more”; “We have taken the heart out of the Qur’an, and have left the skin to the dogs to fight over.” The protest here is a protest against externals, and a protest for individual integrity and inner depth. “A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.” The very word, “Sufi,” means “wool,” which touches on the story of how early Sufis donned coarse woolen garments to protest the silks and satins of sultans and caliphs. Rich on the outside, but on the inside, so poor.

At one point Rumi says,

Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.
Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.
Love says, There are.


But what happens when Love speaks and we can’t hear it, since the culture we live in and the religion we follow tell us to look somewhere else? How will we then find the key?

So we must learn how to go onto the dark of our own hearts, and to listen. We must not confuse externals for the essence. Value the externals for what they are, but never confuse them as the core.

The reminder is a spiritual gem.

So how do we do that? Get to the core?

From writer Susan Piver comes the main insight. She herself is not a Muslim, but her insight is right on target. See if you can relate. “One night she found herself at the end of her rope. It was almost four o’clock in the morning and she was sitting on her sofa, surrounded by earmarked self-help and psychology books, dozens of journals in which she had kept track of her self-investigations, and nearly an empty bottle of wine. Although she had learned a lot during this time about her wounds from her family of origin and what circumstances in particular were likely to trigger her, she had made almost no progress in actually feeling better.” Susan Piver then goes on to say, “This is because the only thing that really helps emotions is to shine the gentle light of awareness on them, to get to know them as sad and lonely friends, and hold them to you for comfort.”

It’s like the whirling dervishes of our video from a moment ago. Nothing abstract and theoretical about that. You encounter your aliveness raw and unfiltered and this is how you enter into the truth and meaning of your life. Learning how to hold your emotions in awareness is like learning how to spin and spin and spin and spin with your arms out and your head at an angle and you are spinning yourself into the arms of Comfort, the arms of Allah.

Sometimes you just have to trust the process and see where it takes you.

Sometimes you just have to jump and experience what it is like to build your wings on the way down.

Sometimes you just have to enter into the darkness, to find the key.

We can’t forget the emotional, physical, mystical, soulful, nonverbal, just-wait-and-see side of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The aspect of our lives that’s not under the streetlamp, that’s not necessarily user-friendly, that’s not necessarily rationally clear or organizationally risk-free, that’s often extremely inconvenient—THAT aspect of our lives—and yet nowhere else but THERE does our aliveness wait for us.

It is a wilderness, and what Islam teaches is that, to survive, there needs to be some orderly things you practice regularly. There needs to be disciplines that open you up and help you to receive spiritual wisdom. The wilderness seems like a desert, and yet, if you practice these disciplines, you will be able to catch and condense whatever moisture is in the air and live and keep on living, while others around you are withering away….

How many of you are aware of the Five Pillars of Islam? Muslims, you need to know, are a complex group; Muslims are Sunni, or Shi’ia, or Sunni Sufi or or Shi’ia Sufi, or Ahmadiyya, or Ismaili, or Druze … but one thing every variety affirms is the Five Pillars, upon which the entire structure stands.

Pillar number one is the Shahadah: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” You say it every day, as a way of affirming and reaffirming your Muslim identity.

Pillar number two is Salat, or prayer: five times a day, in the direction towards Mecca.

Pillar number three is Zakat, or financial generosity: to ease the hardship of others less fortunate, for sure; but also for the sake of the giver’s soul, which withers if it is not generous…

Pillar number four: Sawm, or fasting: observed during the month of Ramadan, which we know begins today. A way of entering into the question: what is my true source of nourishment. What feeds my heart and spirit, and what am I eating that is actually more like spiritual fast-food?

Finally, Pillar number five: Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the place where Islam began.

You know you are Muslim when you do these things. And when you do these things, as you are wandering the wilderness of the difficult places of life, because you are doing these things, you keep things moist, you keep on showing up with an open heart.

The spiritual gem here is the encouragement to develop a spiritual discipline in our own lives, not to neglect this dimension of our search for truth and meaning.

Happily, Unitarian Universalism invites folks to engage their lives in some ways that clearly parallel Islam. Islam says that you should recite the Shahadah every day (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”) and Unitarian Universalism says that, every day, we should affirm the Seven Principles. Islam says that you should pray five times a day, and Unitarian Universalism says that you should come to worship weekly, get involved in religious exploration for yourself and your kids, develop a spiritual practice that makes sense for you (prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, creative writing, Sufi dancing, whatever deepens you and WORKS!). Islam says you should be financially generous, and so does Unitarian Universalism, for exactly the same reasons. Where the first three Pillars are concerned, Islam and Unitarian Universalism see pretty much eye to eye.

(As a side note, let me say something about the spiritual movement that is to American Protestantism as Sufism is to Islam: Transcendentalism, which is the direct spiritual parent of Unitarian Universalism as we know it today. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, were engaged in distinctive practices that I recommend to everyone: journal writing; reading; contemplation; deep conversation; and also walking in nature. The Transcendentalists are known for these. To the extent we practice them, Transcendentalism comes alive for us today….)

But back to the main thread. Where the first three Pillars are concerned, Islam and Unitarian Universalism see pretty much eye to eye. But as for the Pillar about fasting, or the Pillar about going on a pilgrimage at least once in your life, to the place where it all began…. Here’s where Islam can get us thinking. Wondering. Should I try fasting, to see what that’s like, what that might bring into my life? And if there is a place in this world that I see as truly holy, what would that place be? What would it be like to go there?

It is a gift from Islam to us, to be in a place to wonder about such things…. To be led out of the daily habits of thinking and acting that keep us small … To dare to think that there are larger possibilities, that the size of our souls can be larger than we’d ever imagined….

It’s a spiritual gem.

I’ll close with a story that’s about Mulla Nasrudin, Islam’s great comic foil. Village simpleton and sage all rolled into one. One favorite portrait is of him as a middle-aged man, dressed in turban and cloak, seated on a donkey and rushing through the marketplace. When the townsfolk greet him, he replies to them hastily, “Sorry—can’t stop to talk. I’m looking for my donkey!”

Remind you of anyone you know?

Mulla Nasrudin likes to laugh at himself, and he invites you to join in—and along the way, your mind just might be blown wide open.

And so: the story is told of the Mulla, opening his brown bag every day at lunchtime, discovering yet another cheese sandwich. It makes him crazy! He complains loudly, to everyone who will hear. “I’m sick and tired of these lousy sandwiches!” Finally his coworkers suggest that maybe he should persuade his partner to pack a different kind of lunch. “But I’m not in a relationship,” he says. “Well then, who makes your lunch every day?” Says the Mulla, “I do!”

To find the key, we go into the darkness, where the key was lost—and it can be the darkness of our own self-undermining habits and “cheese sandwiches.”

To open the heart, we close our eyes and spin and spin and spin. We practice some version of the Five Pillars.

To be transformed, like George de Benneville was, we encounter the Other and in the end realize they are human just like us—through their noise, their salty tears, their turning towards the sun’s rising, all for love of a friend.

In all these ways, and more, what we will find is peace.

As Muslims and as Unitarian Universalists, we find it.

Spiritual gems.

Peace be upon you: Salaam alaykum