Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 5, 2017
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
The poignant opening of this poem is remarkable this week. “Today,” he wrote from the 13th century, “like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.” Rumi was a Muslim from Persia – the geographical region known today as Iran. We in America and I am sure in many places around the globe, are very aware of the violent and extreme forms of Islam that are constantly in the news. Many Americans on both sides of the political divide are frightened of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and numerous other examples.
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.” In Islam there is great stock placed in learning, in the study of the Qur’an as well as in the study of the natural world. Does that feel familiar to you? There is comfort to be found in figuring things out, in learning.
But Rumi advises to forgo the usual remedy. “Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do.” Make of this world some beauty, do something you love and let that love be your response to the fear and devastation, the slander and ill news. “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
This closing line is both a reference to Rumi’s Islamic prayer practice as well as an appeal to pluralism and tolerance among the religions. Rumi was a Sufi poet, scholar, and mystic. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and perhaps the aspect most familiar to Unitarian Universalists. If we use a passage from an Islamic source in our services it will likely be from Rumi, Kabir, Hafiz, or some other mystic Sufi poet.
It must be admitted however that Sufism is far from the central perspective of common practice among Muslims. Still, it is a doorway into understanding, a place to begin. And it there is a great need in America to begin to understand Islam. Islam is the 2nd largest religion in the world and the fastest growing religion in the world today. Over two decades ago, a Newsweek article stated
No part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us than that complex of religion, culture, and geography known as Islam. (Meg Greenfield, Newsweek, March 26, 1993, p 116)
That assessment holds still today, over 20 years later.
This past Friday the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier invited the community and the news-media to join them in their regular Friday prayer service. Muslims pray five times a day, and I have attended those prayers a few times in the past. This invitation was to the main weekly event. Christians hold their services on Sunday mornings, Jews on Saturday, and Muslims have their primary weekly service on Friday. The service consisted of a sermon bookended by prayers, and it was clear that the final prayer was the feature.
The prayers are open, anyone is welcome to attend. After leaving my shoes near the entryway, I went up and sat in the back on the men’s side of the room. I wasn’t expected, or really even invited, to stand, bow, kneel, and pray along with the regular people. I simply witnessed and respectfully offered my own silent prayers.
As the men in the room sat on the ground listening to the Imam, there were a few young preschool boys making noise or looking around. Later, when most of the room was prostrate with their heads on the ground, one little boy was looking around with a big grin on this face. A few minutes later he was climbing around the Imam’s chair. Seeing that made me smile, and seeing the response of the community kept me smiling. No one scolded him or even commented on it. I heard that on the women’s side they experienced the same sort of thing; children were part of the event but not expected to mimic the adults by sitting quietly.
The prayers were spoken in Arabic, or the case of the call to worship it was sung in Arabic. Imam Anas Shaikh’s sermon began with a recitation from the Qur’an in Arabic. Then, throughout the sermon he spoke in English and Arabic. Whenever he quoted the Qur’an or a passage from the Hadith, Anas would saying first in Arabic and then in English. This is a distinctive feature on Islam. There is only one Qur’an and it is written in Arabic. There are no disputes about a mistranslation or mis-transcription or a lost version of this or that passage. There is only one version. Now, there are many English translations to be sure. I have five different English translations up here on the focal point. But Muslims learn the Qur’an in Arabic as well as their native language so every Muslim is taught the exact same Arabic as the beginning point. Whenever the Qur’an is used in worship or sturdy, the text is in Arabic or in both Arabic and English – or whatever other language is spoken.
For all the differences in the form and style of gathering, the content of the Imam Anas’ sermon was remarkably similar to the content of many liberal religious messages. He talked about how we can respond to hard times with resilience from the evidence of renewed unity. And he said that a significant task for all Muslims is to help others.
Imam Anas spoke directly to the Muslim Ban by order of the President’s Executive Order. He mentioned the outpouring of protest and support that followed as an example of renewed unity among Americans of goodwill. He encouraged his hearers to reach out the Jewish Community Center and Jewish people following the bomb threat our JCC and many other JCCs receive this past week. His sermon was about having hope and resilience in the face of difficulty, and about reaching out to help others. He grounded those two points in stories and teaching in the Qur’an.
I have made the claim before and I will offer it again now. Any religious or spiritual path, well-travelled, can lead you into compassion, truth, and service. And conversely, any path can be rationalized to support a culture of disharmony, selfishness, and violence. I occasionally hear the question, ‘Does Islam promote violence?’ There is nothing inherently violent about any religious path. It is in the way it is practiced. There are passages in Jewish and Christian scripture advocating for violence. Five years back there were Buddhist monks in Myanmar leading violent mobs against Muslims. Many religions are coopted for violent purposes.
Is there a violent side to Islam? Of course there is. But it is not a central or common aspect of the faith. It is the extreme and has been rightly condemned by many. The problem is not in the religion of Islam. The problem is in the politicization of Islam. It is the state using the religion as a tool to oppress people and incite hatred, nationalism, and violence. The trick is many Americans have bought into the idea that the religion of Islam is synonymous with the political extremists and terrorists causing trouble in the world.
ISIS is essentially a militant group of fundamentalist using Islam who have taken over key areas of Iraq and claimed themselves to be the Islamic State. They have recently pushed into eastern portions of Syria. Thus ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is why there are massive numbers of Syrian refugees – they are fleeing from ISIS. ISIS is unrecognized by other Muslim countries, they do not acknowledge its legitimacy. The United Nations has named ISIS as a terrorist group. ISIS is definitely a problem.
When I and other protest the Muslim Ban, we are not saying there is no threat. We are saying instead, this Ban is a poor response that will exacerbate the threat rather than alleviate it. I am not saying we should let any odd person in, I get it. I’m saying the vetting we already do is strong. This ban serves to keep these Syrian refugees in the path of harm as well as to create more opportunities for the extremists to recruit from the suffering population.
And part of what I protest is more than this moment, this particular executive order. I object to the negative prejudice against all Muslims as the enemy, as a backward and violent people. I protest the misrepresentation of a religion. The Muslims in our local community are largely wonderful people.
And there are numerous examples in history and in contemporary times of Islam having a positive impact on local communities, culture, and indeed civilization as a whole. If you think about it, four of the five Pillars of Islam which serve as the centering point of Muslim life are not beliefs; they are practices that help build community and personal discipline. The first is a doctrine, a declaration of faith in Allah with Muhammad as his messenger. The next four are practices prescribed to every believer: prayers five times each day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, Almsgiving to support the poor and needy, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
For all the ways Islam is markedly different from other religions, certainly it is different from Unitarian Universalism, there are also some significant similarities. It is valuable and useful to explore the differences, for that is usually where the unique beauty of different religions and beliefs will be found. But when there is rampant Islamophobia and the dissemination of misguided stereotypes and falsehoods, it becomes very important to consider the similarities.
One of the obvious similarities between Islam and a lot of Jewish and Christian thought is the recognition of the ‘inner light,’ the divine spark within every person. That is one of our most helpful commonalities as well. There is a lot we can do together across our differences when we can start by affirming that every person has an inherent worth. It is a central belief in Islam.
Another particular common value we Unitarian Universalists share with Islam is the honored place of scientific inquiry and an appreciation of the natural world. Muslims have a proud history of scientific inquiry and discovery. There is an unfortunate pattern in the Western world of ignoring the history and culture of places other than Europe. Islam gave us quite a share of astronomers, chemists, mathematicians, philosophers, and doctors.
Go read about the Cordoba community in An-Aldalus, an Islamic city in southern Spain during medieval times. Read about the Ahmad ibn Tulun hospital in Cairo founded in 872. Learn about the history of Algebra – an Arabic word which means “reunion of the broken parts.” Read up on
…a surgeon named Al-Zahrawi, [from the 900’s] often called the “father of surgery,” [who] wrote an illustrated encyclopedia that would ultimately be used as a guide to European surgeons for the next five hundred years. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-considine/overcoming-historical-amnesia_b_4135868.html
This was all before the Renaissance in Europe.
One of the stories we tell about our Unitarian history in Europe has Muslim antecedents to it that are often overlooked. In Hungary in the 1500’s John Sigismund became the first and only Unitarian king in history. His most famous act was to issue the Edict of Torda which is noteworthy as the first edict of religious tolerance in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. We lift up this story from our history proudly. Tolerance is one of our watchwords – indeed we often chide ourselves to do more than merely tolerate other religious beliefs and customs.
But the Edict of Torda did not drop out of nowhere. The historical context that made it possible was built over a generation and more. The Ottoman Empire was receding from that area but when the Muslims had ruled that part of Europe they did so with a notable policy of religious tolerance.
Indeed, history records that
when Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire first learned of the birth of John Sigismund, the son of the King of Hungary, he felt it be such an important event that he sent a personal representative to stand in a corner of Queen Isabella’s room to watch over her and the infant. (Jason Goodman, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, p 86)
It could be argued that this foundational portion of our Unitarian history would never have developed without it being first sheltered by the tolerant perspective of Islam.
Back on Friday when I listened to Imam Anas’ sermon, I heard him recite one of my favorite passages from the Qur’an.
O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware. (49:13)
This passage encourages Muslims, indeed all humanity, to learn about different people. It essentially says the reason we have differences is so that we can learn about those differences. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” And Lo! The noblest people are the ones best in conduct.
In a world without end,
May it be so.