as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 13, 2011
This morning we return to our series on the world’s non-Western religions with a sermon on Islam. As you may recall, we embarked on this series in the autumn as the children and youth began their study of world religions. Each year the religious education program has a particular subject matter it focuses on–rotating between Unitarian Universalism, biblical stories and the world’s non-Western religions–and each year I preach ten sermons related to that subject.
This Sunday’s sermon is the first of four on Islam offered between now and the end of April. This first sermon will try to provide a brief overview of the Islamic tradition. Next week, in honor of Women’s History month, we will tackle the subject of women and Islam. In April we explore what I suspect will be two fairly hot topics: first, Islam and Terror, and second, on Easter, Islamic views of Jesus.
Though planned several months in advance, these sermons come at a timely moment. The revolutions and protests in Northern Africa and on the Arabian peninsula are stirring up the American public’s interest in, and in some cases fear of, Islam. And Congressman Peter King’s congressional hearing this week on “homegrown Islamic terrorism” is only the latest example of fear mongering directed at Muslims. In the past year we have also seen a marginal Christian church in Florida try to launch “Burn a Qur’an Day” and a major media controversy over the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.
Lost in most of these controversies is the actual content of the Islamic religion. Instead of acknowledging the rich variation of belief, practice and culture found in the world’s Islamic community, politicians, ideologues and pundits frequently reduce Islam and Muslims to a caricature. Usually that caricature is not flattering. The prominent evangelical Franklin Graham, son of Billy, went, a few years ago, so far as to call Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Others are more mild but, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, still tend to equate all Muslim symbols with violent radical strains of Islam. Gingrich, for instance, spoke out against the proposed mosque near Ground Zero by saying: “It is simply grotesque to erect a mosque at the site of the most visible and powerful symbol of radical Islamist ideology.”
Gingrich’s problem was that a mosque, any mosque, was a symbol of, and perhaps a haven for, violent Muslim extremists. Such views suggest that all Muslims are cut from the same cloth and are all somehow connected to acts of terror.
This attitude was present during Congressman King’s hearing. He took Muslim leaders to task for not preventing a handful of youth from joining various terrorist organizations. Such attempts to imply that everyone in a community is responsible for the actions of its most misguided members leads directly to the dangerous myth that the world is locked in a religious war with righteous Christians on side and wicked Muslims on the other.
The absurdity of all of this was captured in a Venn diagram that circulated the internet several months ago. Some of you may remember it. It consisted of two large slightly overlapping circles. One was labeled Muslims. The other was labeled Americans. The Muslim circle listed the world Muslim population at a billion and a half. The American circle listed the population of the United States at three hundred million. The area where the two circles overlapped, labeled American Muslims, listed a population of 18 million. Finally, a small red dot, labeled Al Qaeda, floated in the middle of the Muslim circle. It listed Al Qaeda’s membership at less than ten thousand.
The point of the diagram is clear. The world’s Muslim population should not be judged upon the less than ten thousand members who make up Al Qaeda. Judging all Muslims in this way would be like judging all Mormons based upon the practices of the Fundamentalist Church of Later Day Saints, a polygamist group that arranges marriages between teenage girls and much older men. It would be like labeling all Catholic priests as pedophiles. It would be like describing all white people as racist for the sole reason that the members of the Klu Klux Klan are all white. Or… Well, you get the idea. You simply cannot judge a group of people by the actions of its worst members, especially a group that comprises close to a quarter of the world’s population.
That said, it is true that there are some Muslims who are violent extremists. But that fact needs to be kept in perspective. Many religions have violent adherents. The inventors of suicide bombing were Hindu. In this country Christians have bombed women’s reproductive health clinics and assassinated doctors who provide abortions. Islam does not have a corner on the market for violent extremists.
Most Muslims are like most people everywhere. They want to live decent lives and practice their religion in peace. Congressman King’s hearing obscures this fact. One of the troubling things about it—there are many—is that the hearing did not examine other kinds of homegrown terror. He targeted only Muslims. In doing so he implied that they have some sort of unique relationship to terrorism. As he said in the hearing’s opening statements, “There is no equivalency of threat between al-Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al-Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation.”
Data from the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that Congressman King is wrong. The number of white right-wing extremist groups in this country has been steadily rising for the last few years. Such groups have been linked to the Oklahoma City bombing and many smaller acts of violence and terror. They represent a violent threat, a threat has resulted in the murders of at least three Unitarian Universalists in the last two decades. Yet, Congressman King does not seem eager to chastise the white right-wing for failing to keep its more violent elements in check.
I suspect that this is because the Muslim community provides Congressman King with an easy scapegoat. Muslims are a minority religion in this country. Targeting them makes for political theater. Portraying the community as harboring terrorists offers Congressman King and his allies an enemy to organize against. And it allows him to appear to do something about terrorists. It also helps to create a climate of fear and stifle public debate, to the extent that it exists, on the real causes of terrorism–which usually are economic and political rather than religious.
Congressman King’s hearings should make Unitarian Universalists nervous. During the McCarthy era—before the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists—Unitarian ministers like Stephen Fritchman were subpoenaed by the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee. Some of our congregation’s had their tax exempt status threatened with revocation. And many Unitarian congregations, including ours, found themselves under the surveillance of the FBI. We were accused of harboring Communists, the 1950s equivalent of terrorists. Leaders in our faith tradition were encouraged to spy on clergy and congregants. The reasons then were the same as they are now, dangerous elements were supposed to be in the midst of the community. If the community wished to continue to be welcome–to continue to have status as a religious institution–then those elements had to be purged. Fortunately, after a legal case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, freedom of religion prevailed and attempts to revoke the tax-exempt status of several Unitarian congregations were thwarted.
Unitarian Universalists should also be nervous about the Congressional hearings because the fate of our own tradition in society has been not infrequently tied to the fate of the Islamic community. Indeed, Unitarianism in parts of Europe probably owes existence to Islam. Early European Unitarians recognized that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worshipped the same God. Unitarianism flourished in Transylvania during the 16th and 17th centuries at least partially, if not primarily, because for much of that time Transylvania was part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Unlike other parts of Europe, the Ottomans in Translyvania did not persecute our religious ancestors as heretics.
The difficulty of present events and the need for calls of tolerance and solidarity make it a little challenging to focus on our main task this morning: the core teachings of Islam itself. In this I am reminded of a story of the philosopher-king Chanakya.
One of Chanakya’s disciples is reported to have once asked him what he meant by saying that one could live in the world and also not live in it. The king told his disciple then to carry a full pitcher of water through a holiday crowd without, upon pain of death, spilling a drop. When the disciple returned his teacher asked him about the holiday merrymaking. The disciple reported that he was like a blind man, so focused on his task was he that he could only see the jug on his head. He knew nothing of the festivities themselves.
If I do not shift us from the current intolerance directed towards Muslims to Islam itself I risk becoming like the disciple, failing to offer an appreciation of the religious tradition because I am focused too much upon the threats that its adherents face.
It is a basic premise of this sermon series, and Unitarian Universalism itself, that there are many paths to the divine. As a sort of motto for the year’s sermons we have adopted words from the Hindu Rig Veda, “Truth is one; the wise call it by many names.” This sentiment and these words would undoubtedly be viewed as offensive and heretical by many Muslims. Islam is nothing if it is not a monotheistic faith.
Indeed, the words of the first of the five pillars of Islam, the five practices that one needs to engage in to be a Muslim, are often rendered “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.” This statement is probably best viewed as a supercessionist statement. Islam emerged in a society that included Christians and Jews. Its progenitor understood himself to worship the same God as other monotheists. He was just that God’s latest, and ultimate, prophet. Christians and Jews did not worship the wrong God, they were wrong in understanding how to worship that God. God revealed proper worship and religious practice to Muhammad, and in turn the world, through the Qur’an.
It is impossible to understand Islam without understanding either Muhammad or the Qur’an. For Muslims the Qur’an is the word of God. Islamic scholar Farid Esack describes it as “God speaking, not merely to the Prophet in seventh-century Arabia, but from all eternity to all humankind.”
Muslims acknowledge that the earlier scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament also contain the word of God. Like Muhammad, Moses and Jesus were prophets. But over time the earlier scriptures, and teachings of earlier prophets, became corrupted. The Qur’an is the uncorrupted word of God. Following its teachings is a necessity for salvation. The paths that the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament offer are false paths.
The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad over a period of more than twenty years. Born in the late sixth century, Muhammad lived in the Arabian city of Mecca. A prosperous merchant, Muhammad was known to retreat for several weeks each year to meditate alone in a cave. In the 610, when he was forty, the angel Gabriel appeared before him commanded him to “Read in the name of your Sustainer who created humankind from a clot! Read!” Muhammad is said to have responded “I am not a reader” or “What shall I read?” or “I do not read.”
Whatever Muhammad said, the angel Gabriel’s response was to sit upon him and press him until he lost all strength. Then the angel Gabriel commanded Muhammad to read again. Again he claimed “I am not a reader.” And again the angel Gabriel sat on him and pressed him to the earth. Only when he was commanded a third time did Muhammad submit and begin to receive the Qur’an.
The Qur’an came to Muhammad section by section and as he began to gather followers he recited it to them as it was revealed. Often he would he go off by himself to meditate and then, after having encountered the angel Gabriel, return with new verses of the text.
The basic teachings of the Qur’an in many ways mirrored the basic theological ideas of Christianity and Judaism. Indeed the three faiths are often considered together as part of the same Abrahamic monotheistic tradition. All three trace their origins back to God’s covenant with the biblical patriarch Abraham.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is monotheistic. There is only one God, unseen and immaterial. Since God cannot be seen all images of God are idols. Likewise, human efforts to anthropomorphize God—cast God with a human face—are foolish. Thinking of God as a parent makes God too human. God is not a person. It is wrong, as the Christians do, to understand him as a being who can have had a son. Jesus was a prophet, second only to Muhammad, but not the son of God.
As in the other monotheistic theistic traditions, God is viewed as all powerful. God has ordered the universe. God has created a path to salvation. But God has also given human beings free will and choice. They can follow God’s path and obtain heaven in the afterlife. Or they can make choices that lead them to stray from God and suffer in hell. Peace and assurance come from submitting to God’s will, following the path that God has offered. The roots of the word Islam are arabic words for peace and submission.
God is both the creator of the world and of humanity. Life is a gift from God. Unlike in the Christian tradition, humans are not stained with original sin. As the Qur’an reads: “Surely We have created humanity of the best stature.” The problem is that people forget their divine origin and fail to follow the path that God has offered them. The purpose of the Qur’an and Islam is to teach them that path. As the opening of the second surah, or section, of the Qur’an clearly states, “It is a guide for the righteous…” Follow the guide and you may “have absolute faith in the life to come.” Fail to follow it and “grievous punishment awaits…”
The two main tasks that the Qur’an lays out for the faithful are gratitude and surrender. Since life is a gift from God we should be grateful for that gift. Interestingly, the scholar Huston Smith points out, the Arabic word for infidel leans more towards “‘one who lacks thankfulness’ than one who disbelieves.” The more we understand life to be a gift the greater our alignment with God will be.
The second religious task in Islam I already touched on earlier. It is to surrender one’s self to the will of God. For through the will of God lies salvation.
I have also already suggested the final doctrine of Islam. Again, it is similar to that of Christianity and Judaism. Like these other faiths, Islam is inherently apocalyptic. There is to be a future day of judgement both for the individual after death and for all of humanity. Judgment comes for individuals when we die and God determines whether we go to heaven or hell. Eternal judgment comes at the end of time.
The purpose of Islam is to ensure that its adherents are judged to be worthy of heaven. As a religious practice, it commands five central activities. The first, as I mentioned earlier, is to declare “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The second is to pray five times a day. The third is to engage in charity, those who are middle income or higher are commanded to annually distributed one-fortieth of everything they possess to the poor. The fourth is the observation of Ramadan. Ramadan is Islam’s holy month because it was during Ramadan that Muhammad received his initial revelation of the Qur’an. The fifth, and final, pillar is to make an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the site where the Qur’an was revealed and the prophet lived much of his life.
This is the barest sketching of the central teachings of Islam. This morning we do not have time to explore the differences between Sunnis and Shiites or delve into the rich tradition of mysticism that is Sufism. Instead, by way of closing, I would like to lift up two aspects of Islam that I think Unitarian Universalists might be find both challenging and helpful.
The first is practice. When I look at Islam and talk with friends who are Muslim I am impressed with the rigor by which Muslims pursue their daily prayer. One friend reported to me that in the summer months, when the days were long and the mornings early, she and her husband would take turns splashing cold water on each other’s faces to wake up in time for their first prayer. Often, after praying, they would go back to sleep. But no matter what they would make sure they prayed five times a day.
So dedicated are many Muslims to their commitment to pray five times a day that they will do it even when it is inconvenient. The Muslim taxi drivers at the Cleveland airport take out their prayer rugs and pray on the sidewalk when in line for taxi fares. Airport management has refused them access to the inside of the terminal so they pray together on the snow and ice during the winter.
I can only aspire to that sort of discipline in my own spiritual life. My regular spiritual practice takes me half an hour to complete. Yet, with the challenges of family and parish life I only manage to perform it three to five times a week. It is easy to get distracted or feel like other priorities—be they making family dinner, helping with homework, visiting parishioners or preparing for a Board meeting—are more pressing. But I know I lose something by not maintaining my practice with as much rigor as I should.
And I know that there is a lot to be gained from regular spiritual practice. When I do it daily I find myself more centered and more thoughtful than when I struggle to maintain it. It adds a level of richness to my life.
The second aspect of Islam that I want to bring forward is submission. Submission is probably a controversial word for a lot of you. Many members of our congregation are refugees of religious communities that demanded absolute submission to an authoritarian God. That is not what I mean by submission.
What I mean by submission is a willingness to accept and recognize human limits. As the tragic events in Japan are showing us, no matter how advanced our technology is, we remain somewhat at the mercy of nature. Instead of thinking we can conquer the natural world we should recognize that we are part of it. No matter what our level of preparedness there are some things that we cannot control. Three back-up systems are not enough to stop a nuclear melt-down in the wake of a massive earthquake. A sense of humility and submission to the awesome forces of nature might lead us as a species to make wiser choices in our relation to the natural world.
Combined a sense of submission and a regular practice might lead us as individuals to unusual places in our own spiritual lives. It certainly led the poet Rumi to mystical states and ecstatic visions. And Rumi is probably one of the spiritual teachers most admired by Unitarian Universalists. His words appear in our hymnal and are often used in services. I suspect that the reason why is that his practice and submission lead him to a sense of God that was universal. As he wrote: “Yesterday God was / everywhere / throwing / bliss / balls, planets, and / their kin.”
That is a sentiment that appeals to both our universalist heritage and to the spirit of this sermon series. From a Unitarian Universalist perspective, there are many paths to the divine, of which Islam is one. Each path offers something a little different, another way of seeing and experiencing the unnamable. But all lead to the same destination, whatever we understand that destination to be. Or, as a poet once wrote, “everywhere I look it is all God.”