First of a two part series
Rev. Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, February 19, 2017
Last Fall I planned to do this series on Islam because some people were asking me to take a look a look at world religions now and then, to explore the meanings of some of the banners hanging around the room. When we first planned this month on Islam I had no idea it would be so relevant to current events. I chose it because we had just settled the Adam family, our Syrian refugees. They are Muslim, but not particularly religious or observant. They no more understand the craziness that has possessed their nation than any of us do. Like most refugees they were just caught up in something terrible.
But recent events like so-called ‘Muslim bans’ and this week’s small “Ban Muslims” protest show a steady uptick of racist rhetoric that has given this series a whole new meaning. Guest speaker Salima Versi started us off last week. I understand that she offered insight into one of the more liberal branches of Islam, one that seems to share a lot in common wit UU’s. This week I want to offer some thoughts on the core teachings and traditions of Islam and to do away with some popular misconceptions. Next week we will consider current contexts and political concerns.
Some years ago in Boston I went along with a junior Unitarian Universalist youth group trip to a mosque. A friend of mine was teaching them about neighbouring faiths.
For most of us Islam seems mysterious and distant. While we know there are about 4 million Muslims on this continent, we – or rather I- tend to see it as foreign in language, custom and theology. The prayers are all in Arabic, aren’t they? The music is all middle eastern, isn’t it? And then there are those crazy terrorists who die in the name of Allah led by those even crazier mullahs? What kind of religion can that be?
Well, in fact everything I have just said is mostly false, taken out of context and blown way out of proportion. One of the most interesting facets of our visit was the reaction of the children and parents who accompanied us.
As we arrived at the Islamic Center, they all took a quiet deep breath. The people looked strange, the women wore head scarves and we weren’t sure what would happen.
What did happen was a fairly typical ‘church mom’ took us inside a classroom, welcomed us and began to teach. From time to time she went to the adjoining room to shush the kids who were getting a little too rambunctious. One of the men of the mosque occasionally tried to take over the question and answer session in the way that some folks in love with their own voices are wont to do. Our church mom did a wonderful job of politely shutting him down.
Towards the end, she explained the proper manners required in the prayer room (it’s very simple and naturally respectful) and then took us over. When all were assembled, we sat through too many announcements that went on too long…it sounded like church!… At that point we all felt quite at home. A brief 10 minute prayer service followed. Islam expects prayers five times a day, but has little else in the way of ritual or ceremony. Oh, at the end there was a homily. It lasted four minutes. There are, perhaps, things UUs can learn from Islam!
Throughout children ran around and some of the women were busy in the kitchen getting food ready. It all felt like any UU church… except perhaps that there were more kids.
For us visitors, left feeling a little uncomfortable and maybe a bit embarrassed about our earlier apprehensions, some of the misconceptions began to melt away. Let’s look at a few:
The role of mullahs
There are no ordained clerics in Islam. Mullah is simply the leader, often a scholar usually elected by the congregation. Some are very highly educated. Some are charismatic leaders. Some are both. Some are neither. The point is they are not ordained or certified by a central church. In fact, Islam is the most radically democratic major faith in the world. Each person has the right to read and interpret the Koran for themselves. Indeed, is expected to read and even to teach at times. There is no required belief except when people give that power to a charismatic leader.
The terrorist question
It is as wrong to see ISIL terrorists as representative of Islam as it is to see the young man who murdered nine black churchgoers in South Carolina as representative of Christianity. Terrorists are deeply angry people, usually deeply disturbed people. They have been twisted by hate and given a particular focus for their obsession by charismatic leadership. This formula transforms them into killing machines. They lack every compassionate and forgiving quality their religion names as its highest values. They grab the banner of religion in order to gain support and to lend legitimacy to their psychopathic desire to destroy.
Let’s now pull away a few more veils and look at what Islam professes to be.
Islam began in the year 610 CE when Mohammed, a young businessman was chosen by God (Allah) to be his 25th and final prophet. The angel Gabriel Jalazreel) revealed the first five verses of the Koran to Mohammed in the Cave of Hira near Mecca. Mohammed, himself illiterate, dictated them to scribes. It would take several years before the Koran was completed in this fashion, but Mohammed began preaching the religion of submission to a single God right away.
Islam was not created out of whole cloth. As Christianity was an offshoot of ancient Judaism, so is Islam. As we know from the Hebrew Bible, Abram would one day be made Abraham, the leader of the Hebrew tradition. Now he was an old guy and his wife Sarai had never had children, so she arranged for Abram to sleep with her maid Hagar.
The result was a son Ishmael. Now God made a promise to Abram and soon Sarai conceived in her old age and gave birth to Isaac and so began the Hebrew tribes. Hagar and Ishmael were turned out into the desert.
In Islam, Ishmael became the next prophet in a line leading towards Mohammed. Similarly, Jesus becomes the 24th prophet, Mohammed the 25th. Islam accepts and honours the wisdom and value of Christianity and Judaism. It simply believes that Mohammed received the updated and final teachings of God. But all three religions worship the same divinity. It is merely the vagaries of language that label them God, Yahweh and Allah.
I’ve often said that religion cannot be separated from the culture in which it arises. This is true of Islam. A major part Mohammed’s mission was to bring an end to the kind of inter-tribal and inter-faction slaughter we still see today. He was sent to unite the people and end tribal warfare. Things didn’t work out exactly as planned.
Pre-Islamic Arabia was caught up in a vicious cycle of warfare in which tribal vendettas were a way of life. Mohammed himself survived several assassination attempts and once had to flee for his life to Medina.
Islam was born in a deadly war of survival, but as soon as a feeling of security developed the Prophet began to preach peace and compassion. Indeed, he spread Islam across the Arabian peninsula through an ingenious campaign of non-violence and coalition building. When he died in 632 he had almost singlehandedly brought peace to Arabia.
Because the Koran was revealed in the context of all out war, several passages do deal with armed struggle. But violence and warfare are only legitimate as means of self-defence. You must be attacked first, and it is always more meritorious to forgo revenge in favour of charity.
Like some fundamentalist Christian preachers who sell more hate than religion, some religious leaders cite the passages on war selectively, ignoring the longer compassionate and peaceful verses which almost always follow. Like the Bible, you can prove just about any point of view with Koranic verses taken out of context.
And they can twist words. We are all familiar with the word ‘jihad’ which we are told means ‘holy war’. That’s not true. It means ‘struggle’ and usually means an internal personal struggle to submit to God’s will (inshallah).
There is one Koranic passage where Mohammed returning from battle says it was a ‘jihad’ but that now the far greater ‘jihad’ to seek peace and begin to act with compassion.
The word Islam means ‘submission’ meaning complete submission to a single God, and the word is related to ‘salaam’ which means peace. Every Muslim I have ever talked with has asserted that Islam is a religion of peace. As well, Muslims believe that no one can be forced to convert. The Koran insists “There must be no coercion in matters of faith”.
In the 7th and 8th centuries when Islam spread so rapidly through all of North Africa and up to the Franco-Spanish border in the west and the Balkans in the east, Jews and Christians were never forced to convert. The best example is probably the Eastern Orthodox Church. It has been based in Constantinople (or Istanbul) since it split from the Roman church in 1054. For almost all of that time, that city has been under Islamic rule. The orthodox Christians were allowed to gather, to worship and were given full rights as citizens – something no Muslim experienced in any Christian country during the same period.
In one of his last sermons, Mohammed said, “O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” — not to conquer, subjugate, revile or slaughter, but to reach out towards one another with intelligence and understanding.
While the Koran is complex and requires a lifetime of study, the basic teachings of Islam are very simple. They resolve into what are called the five pillars:
- Accept that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his messenger. Say that aloud with belief in your heart and you are a Muslim. No complicated applications or rituals required.
- Pray five times a day in the prescribed manner… This involves ritual ablutions, face a prayer mat towards Mecca, following some simple motions and reciting easily learned short prayers and finally prostrating yourself.
- Charity. You are expected to share of yourself and your wealth, to model Allah’s compassion in your life.
- Fast during Ramadan from sunrise to sunset.
- Make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your life if health and money allow. Do that and you are a good Muslim.
I would leave the conclusion to a 17-year-old Jewish lad I met at the mosque.
He had converted to Islam after the September 11th attacks in New York. “Don’t make the mistake of confusing the faith with the society,” he said. “Sure there are repressive regimes and anti-woman societies within Islam, but that’s the society they live in, not the religion we practice. It’s no different from the way we Americans had slavery and denied women the vote once upon a time. Those things had to do with culture, not Christianity or Judaism. It’s the same with Islam.”
I have found nothing in the classical understanding of Islam as a religion of peace that I cannot fully respect and honour. If Islam seems to fail to live up to its origins in any particular nation, it’s only because the religion is in the hands of fallible human beings, just like every other religion on earth.