What We Can Learn From Islam
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 14, 2001
As Unitarian Universalists who are especially cognizant of the importance of the Universalist side of our heritage, we might feel almost duty bound to try to consider what various religions might have to add to our own journeys of faith. Most of the time, this is pretty easy and straightforward. For instance, I can find many good things to say about Buddhism, and in many ways I’m a Taoist at heart; I can even find numerous aspects of the Hindu faith which intrigue me and which resonate with my own belief system. But Islam? That’s a tough one for most of us, I would bet. It always seemed like such a harsh, brutal religion—and now more than ever, perhaps. What could it possibly have to say to us, children of the Enlightenment, defenders of diversity, trumpeters of toleration at all costs? What could we possibly have to learn from Islam? Do we even want to know? Why bother?
My dear mother always told me (she still does): “You have to look for the good in everyone. You have to find it.” But, of course, throughout my life, there have been many people that I just didn’t want to find the good in; I didn’t like them; they didn’t like me; and that was that. Why do we need to go any further?
Because, you see, we travel together as passengers on this tiny spaceship Earth, as Adlai Stevenson said a long time ago now. We inhabit one planet, and our histories, our destinies, like it or not, are inextricably joined. So, if we’re going to live with other people on this Earth with some modicum of comfort and security and peace, we have got to try to like them—or at least, to understand them. Dialogue means, at least in part, that we have to stop talking long enough to let the other side talk; that we have to listen to what they have to say; perhaps even that we have to hold open the possibility that their insights can change us, maybe just a little.
All I’m saying here this morning is that we have to give Islam a chance. And perhaps if we do, we’ll find there is a thing or two that we can learn from its history and its beliefs…
In the year 570 of the Common Era, Buddhism was just arriving in Japan. The English were still in the process of converting to Christianity. The Visigoths were plundering Spain. John III was pope in Rome. The so-called Dark Ages were descending over Europe (they really weren’t so dark, but we haven’t got time to talk about that now). And in the year 570, Mohammed was born in the city of Mecca, in what is Saudi Arabia today.
His father had died just days before his birth. His mother would die when he was only five years old. He joined his grandfather’s family when he was six, but his grandfather died three years later, and Mohammed was then sent to live with his uncle, a not-so-prosperous merchant-trader. The young boy traveled with his uncle on caravans throughout the Middle East. Then, a few years later, his uncle’s tottering business finally failed, and Mohammed returned to Mecca where he became a lowly goatherd.
Mecca was already a religious center at the time, and its central shrine, the Ka’ba (that’s that big black box-liked building that you might have seen in Muslim art work or in photographs) attracted thousands of pilgrims each year. In all, 361 gods and goddesses were worshipped at the Ka’ba, one of whom was Allah, a powerful and mighty god of creation. There were also many Christians and Jews in Mecca at the time as well.
This is because Mecca was an important trade center, at a crossroads between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It was a rich city, but this wealth had a darker side (as wealth always does). Mecca displayed all the familiar evils of a successful commercial city: extremes of wealth and poverty; an underclass of slaves and hirelings; rigid class barriers; and lots and lots of “rampant immorality”, if you know what I mean. The city was ruled by a loose council of elders made up of members of the well-to-do families, who tried to enforce some kind of law and order. But they also spent a lot of time fighting among themselves, and family feuds and vendettas and rampant violence was more the order of the day.
Mecca was a very unruly place, but Mohammed seems to have been quite a sensitive soul, so when he was young man, in his early 30s or so, he began to go off into the hills by himself, to meditate upon the times in which he lived. Here, in his fortieth year, it is said (always a dangerous age), the angel Gabriel appeared to Mohammed, and told him to preach to the people about Allah, the one and only true God. And so, Islam was born.
Islam means, literally, “submission”. (It is also related in its root, it seems, to the Arabic word salam, which means “peace”.) Its full meaning, then, would denote the peace which comes in submitting oneself totally to Allah, submitting oneself to God. Mohammed’s chief message to his people was a radical monotheism: There is no other God but Allah, he taught. There are not 361 different gods—there is but one God, one lord over the entire universe.
Mohammed’s early preaching at Mecca met with limited success: during the first three years, he gained only thirty converts, a modest beginning, certainly. But Mohammed persisted and gradually his following grew. Indeed, it grew so much that the powers-that-be in Mecca started to get alarmed. They tried the carrot approach first: They sent a delegation to Mohammed and promised him great riches if he would just stop preaching. But Mohammed would not be bought off: “Woe unto you idolators,” he told the city’s officials. The authorities realized they were going to have to take more definite action if Mohammed was to be stopped.
In 622, then, they moved against Islam with the force of arms. Mohammed and his followers fled to Medina, where the prophet had been invited by city officials to mediate a civil dispute. The escape to Media is known as the hajira in Islamic tradition; Muslims today see the hajira as the great turning point in all human history. In no time at all, Mohammed converted most of Medina over to his new faith. Armies from Mecca tried several times to capture the city, but to no avail.
Eight years later, in 630 of the Common Era, Mohammed led 10,000 soldiers on a march against Mecca. This time, the city surrendered without a fight. The once-despised former goatherd entered the city in triumph, went straightaway to the Ka’ba, and destroyed the idols of the 360 “false gods” and re-consecrated the shrine to Allah alone.
Then, instead of taking vengeance on the city which had harassed and persecuted him for more than20 years, Mohammed declared a general amnesty. It was a new beginning, he said, Allah be praised.
From Mecca, Islam would spread quickly. Mohammed died in the year 632; within a century, the empire of his successors would stretch from Spain to India. It would engulf the armies of the Persians and the Byzantines, and would reach as far as the gates of Vienna. In a recent article on “The Rise of Islam”, Mauricio Obregon writes: “No great empire has [ever] shown a greater capacity to assimilate the best of the cultures it overran, while adding to its own abundant creativity.”
And, Obregon continues: “As the great empires of the Mediterranean weakened, the horsemen of Islam led a charge that aroused three continents. Its architects glorified God in structures as magnificent as the Alhambra [in Spain] and the Taj Mahal [in India]. To painting, weaving, poetry, and song it brought fresh visions… Its scholars preserved the learnings of the ancient world… and laid the foundation of the Renaissance.”
Islam as the precursor of the Renaissance? Not exactly the common image we have of the faith of Mohammed, is it? The popular picture is more one of the “[turbaned] man marching with a sword aloft, followed by a long train of wives,” as Huston Smith has aptly characterized it. From where did our stereotypes about Islam arise?
Well, for one thing, the earliest proponents of Islam did have inordinate zeal and enthusiasm for their faith, which did (and still does) often seem downright fanatical. The followers of Mohammed were (and still are) out to make converts. But we forget that Christianity is a missionary-based religion too, of course. So is Buddhism, which we often see as the meekest and mildest of world religions. And throughout history, East and West, missionaries are sometimes, by their very nature, prone to fanaticism.
Historically, at least, Islam has been quite tolerant toward other religions. More tolerant, in the main, than Christianity, certainly. It has been more adaptive to the prevailing cultural images and ideals and impulses of its age, quicker to assimilate the prevailing aspects of other cultures.
On top of this ability to adapt, Islam also offers a cosmology, a view of the universe, especially comforting to people in troubled, rapidly changing times—like Mohammed’s times, and like our own. The absolute transcendence and unity of God, of Allah, is a very powerful idea for people who feel themselves without power or control over their lives—as is the radical equalitarian nature of Islam: In Muslim eyes, all human beings—-kings and goatherds alike--are equal in the eyes of Allah.
Another of the great strengths of Islam, I think, lies in its simplicity, its directness. The responsibilities of individual believers are clearly laid out in the Koran. There aren’t a lot of gray areas; Muslims clearly know what is expected of them—what they are supposed to believe, how they are supposed to live their lives, based upon these beliefs.
The Five Pillars of the Faith sum up Islamic religion:
The first pillar is the creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” God is One, and the number one sin in Islam is idolatry. We must never confuse human-made idols and artifacts with the one true God. Islam reminds us always to remember that which is truly important. Allah is central to everything, in the heart and in the mind of a Muslim believer. A Muslim cab driver responds to a request to go somewhere, saying: “If Allah is willing…” A farmer, as he plants seeds, will whisper to them: “In the name of Allah…” To the devout Muslim, there are always beneath us “everlasting arms” which sustain us and protect us, especially in times of our greatest need.
The second pillar of Muslim faith is prayer—five times a day, facing Mecca. When the time of prayer is at hand, Muslims are expected to stop whatever they’re doing and pray. An old Bedouin tribesman described it this way: “If I don’t pray, my heart stays angry. When I pray, my heart is still.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful, we might well ask ourselves, to know that in our hectic and frenzied lives, that we, too, had five times of spiritual refreshment to look forward to each day? If some of us manage to schedule a few cramped moments of contemplation, prayer, or meditation in the course of the day, we think we’re doing great! But fivetimes of peace and rest each day—what as spiritual feast that would be, for some of us at least.
The third pillar of Islam is the annual period of fasting at the time of Ramadan (which we will quickly skip over, for I am not the one to give the sermon of “The Joys of Fasting”, I’m afraid). The fourth pillar is thehaj, the pilgrimage at least once in one’s lifetime to Mecca, and the fifth is the practice of giving alms to charity. (Islam requires that each individual should give 1/40th, or 2 ½%, of his income to charity. That’s not exactly tithing, but it does seem like a reasonable, common sense, but nonetheless significant, amount to expect from everyone.)
The five Islamic Pillars of Faith serve to unify Muslims throughout the world into one chosen community of faith. However different the social, economic, and political systems out of which they emerge, all Muslims know that they share five critical aspects of faith with Muslims the world over.
But in spite of this theoretical unity of all Muslims, it would be incorrect to see Islam as absolutely united and monolithic, because it isn’t. In fact, it hasn’t been since the death of Mohammed way back in the year 632. Following the Prophet’s death, the struggle for leadership of his movement immediately led to the first (and greatest) division within Islam—that between Sunni and Shiite. Simply stated: most of the movement (who became the Sunnis) followed the caliph Abu Bakr; a sizeable minority (who became the Shi’ites) sided with Mohammed’s son-in-law, Mohammed Ali. There has since that time been other divisions as well, not quite as many as within Christianity, but close.
In looking out as Islam in the world, especially today, it is critically important to remember these differences. The Shiite group in Iran that still reveres the Ayotollah Khomeni and supports the fatwa, or death sentence still standing against the British writer Salman Rushdie, comprises less than 15% of the world’s Muslim population. Likewise, islamo-fascists like the Taliban in Afghanistan represent but a small minority within the Muslim world. Just as Jerry Falwell doesn’t represent “all Christians”, for instance, we ought not to blame all Muslims for the lunacies of bin Laden—any more than we should blame Karl Marx for the terrors of Stalin, or (for that matter) blame Jesus for the terrors of the Inquisition.
The goal of religion, I think, is to help us make sense of life. That’s the goal of Islam, too. Throughout its history, Islam has seen itself primarily as a way of life, and not just an empty creed. The Koran is a scripture which emphasizes deeds, and not mere theological speculation. Its stress is more on how people are suppose to act, rather than on the fine points of what they are supposed to believe. As one writer has put it: “Islam is no Friday-go-to mosque” kind of religion.” It is a religion that declares that all days, all hours are, indeed holy—because each and every moment is a gift from God. True religion has to go beyond the church, the temple, the synagogue, or the mosque. It engages us where we are—where our lives are: as we awake in the morning; an we engage in our labors; as we gather with our families and friends; as evening falls about us; as we retire into the dark of night.
The Koran acknowledges the importance of Moses and Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. It acknowledges that Judaism and Christianity were also, in their day, valid and true religions. But Islam also declares that the Holy Koran is the sealed, final revelation of God to humankind; it is, according to Muslim’s, humanity’s only guide to holy living. That is, of course, much too limiting a view of religion for most of us to accept. The idea that “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet,” is just too narrow for for those of us who want to “Bring many names” to our celebration of the Spirit.
And yet, the voice of the Prophet Mohammed can speak to us:
No one is a true believer unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself,” Mohammed said. His words could be those of Jesus. Or Buddha. Or Isaiah. Or Gandhi.
“What actions are most excellent? To gladden a human heart, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the downcast, and to remove the wrongs of the oppressed.” So teaches the holy scripture of Islam. And Christianity. And Judaism. And Hinduism.
“When we die, our neighbors will ask what goods we have left; but God will ask of is ‘What good have we done?’” So taught the prophet Mohammed. So have taught prophetic women and men of all centuries, including our own. And such is a lesson we could all afford to ponder in our hearts, in our own age, in our own land: What good have we done?
Salam Alakum. Peace be upon you. Blessed be. Amen.