Friday, July 29, 2016

Essay: Believing and Belonging - Islam Amid the Constellation of MyFaith

I don’t know when in my life I originally started to think about Muslims and their faith, but I know I did think of them. Probably young. Many years before September 11, 2001. Perhaps as young as 10 or 12. I no longer remember what my early impressions were. Perhaps from the movies. My later impressions were forced to be concluded against a social backdrop of war and politics, colored by personal experience. At the age of 23 in 1993, I was only a few blocks away having lunch when Islamic terrorists bombed the basement of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. I felt the ground shake. I assumed it was an earthquake. I was wrong but correct. Eight years later, I had dinner reservations at the Windows on the World Restaurant on top of the North Tower scheduled for Sept 12, 2001. I was packing for my trip into the city when I saw the second plane hit the South Tower on the news. The restaurant where I was to have dinner the following night was already gone.

Early the next morning, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in his press conference that we should go on living. So I got on the first train from Worcester, Massachusetts to Manhattan that morning of the 12th as originally planned. Once in the city I smelled the very particular smoke of Ground Zero as it wafted up 6th Avenue. I will never, ever forget it. A midtown building I was in later in the day was evacuated for a bomb threat. Ours was not the only one. I stood in the street with them waiting. Everyone either joked or wept. The whole city was on a near-hysterical edge. I cried and prayed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral until I was tired. I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown paper about my grief. I didn’t go near Ground Zero that day. In fact, I avoided it for fifteen years despite multiple trips into the city. I went back for the first time in May. I rode the elevator of the new Freedom Tower and looked out at the old view through new windows.

These kinds of formative moments invite one to consider the difference between fear and love.  I made the choice to divorce the the faith of Muhammad, peace be upon him, from the actions and ideologies expressed by Islamic extremism. There are always those of every faith who use God as the ‘unassailable’ argument to justify their terrible acts. God does not condone violence, even if It is allowing of it. Terrorism is not a religious act in any way by any spiritual metric. There is no spiritual logic to violence. Despite my proximity to the events which crafted a propaganda of hate against Muslims in this country, I did not have to sift through the media’s fearful portrayals in order to form my own more peaceful relationship with Islam. As was true of my curiosity regarding all faiths for me as I grew up, I was now more interested than ever in what Muslims believe. What is their view on the Ultimate Reality? For most of my philosophical life, Islam was something like a glacially-encroaching idea in the back of my mind to which I hardly paid any attention, even as it grew. It was just...there, sitting patiently, an as-yet unanswered question. Much like Judaism, Paganism, Buddhism, or Hinduism—alongside my lifelong exploration of Christianity—each are faiths I have spent considerable amount of passion studying, each in their own time. Now, in my late 40’s, I finally turn my heart toward Mecca to see what I might learn about God from there.

I already knew some of the basics of Islam. I knew that Muhammad was its prophet, Muslims pray five times a day and face the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia when they do. I also knew that non-Muslims cannot enter the city. They are immediately deported. That fact created in me an enormous sensation—an awareness of not being welcomed, not belonging, not wanted. At least, not unless I BELIEVE. But what does that mean? When one decides to take the Shahadah, or convert to Islam they learn the salat practice of daily prayer and supplication. Is practicing a conduit to deeper believing? I could imagine one might faithlessly go through the physical motions of the salat without much suspicion, as is true for most faiths. Alternately, can one believe and not perform the rituals, as so many Christians and Jews do? Are there lapsed Muslims? Is a true believer one who does all the rituals, says all the prayers, believes all the teachings?  How can one fulfill it all?  Assuming that no one can fulfill it perfectly, where is the line between believer and non?

The prayers and supplications of the salat are comforting and physically empowering. The regularity and procedures encourage us to be clean, to take time out of our day on a regular basis to contemplate our gratitude, to be mindful, to connect with God. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final and definitive prophet of God’s word which had been previously given in various ways to tens of thousands of prophets in the past—Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Jesus among them. Islam also concludes that God is separate from His creation, not a part of it. That I struggle with and yet I wonder if it’s just one more aspect of Reality through which to view God. Cannot God be viewed as both immediately present in every component of Creation and also entirely distinct from it? To ascribe either one seems inadequate. Combining the two feels somehow philosophically complete. Perfect in its contradiction. Neither solely within, nor out. Entirely out, yet existing within. Balanced, yet demanding exploration. Compelling us to orient ourselves if only to know.

Regarding Muhammad’s authenticity as a messenger of God, why shouldn’t I believe he spoke with an angelic entity? Many people have reported such things including those from my own faith. Ultimately, only the wisdom of the message itself defines its own value or provenance, not the messenger. I do believe that God speaks. Am I qualified to conclude to whom Source has spoken or not? Hardly. Ergo, I use my own discernment to decide the value a message has for me. I use my own God-given intelligence to fit the pieces together of various faiths to see where God speaks to me. I do not speak for, or decide how God speaks to others.

When examining the theology of Islam, my beliefs do not differ from at least as much of the Qur’an as they do from the Bible or the Tanakh. Each challenges me equally. Each offers grace and opportunity to exhibit mercy toward one another. Each hints at a deeper life practice which promises an enhanced reality proportional to effort. Yet I identify as a Christian for all intents and purposes. But why? I see equal wisdom from each of the three religions that have sprung from the lineage of Abraham. Why am I Christian? Is it simply because it’s my first spiritual language? I know that’s not entirely true, because I still thoughtfully chose Christianity as an adult. But now that I’m here, what does that even mean? How does it intersect with other religions as I study them? Where do these different/not-so-different traditions intersect? That’s what intrigues me. That’s where I feel the face of God is visible—in the multi-dimensional view of Wisdom as it is spoken through the mouths of many different prophets. Muhammad very much included. So what am I? Where am I welcome?

I have spent a considerable amount of time with Islam over the past many months. For several days earlier this year in May, two weeks before I returned to lower Manhattan again, I fellowshipped, prayed and learned at the Shadhiliyya Sufi Center in Pope Valley, California. Along with my classmates and professors from Andover Newton Theological School, afterward we visited the fledgling Zaytuna College in Berkeley, the first accredited Muslim college in the United States. And this summer, as I had long hoped to be able to do, I fasted, prayed and studied the Qu’ran in observance of the holy month of Ramadan. As a Christian.

I cannot nor would not un-know Islam, not after it's made such an impact on me. I'm not sure, however, what that impact means when it isn't actually moving me to convert. What does it mean that I don't wish to become a Muslim, even though I would consider myself a believer? At least I believe in many if not most of the concepts which Islam asks me if I believe. I see no reason to disbelieve that Muhammad was a prophet of God. The Qur'an is an enormous accomplishment regardless of its source. Depending upon how one chooses to look at it, I see no reason to disbelieve that he was the “final” prophet. However, none of these aspects of faith strip away nor add additional value to the teachings on their own. Regardless of its reported source, if a message is sound and valuable, if it brings humanity closer together, it is sacred wisdom. If it tears it apart, it is not. The same shall be true of any word spoken or written by man. Truth is what ultimately joins us together, lies are what ultimately tear us apart. When wisdom is misused, or twisted to authorize violence or subjugation, it is an undeniable corruption of the original. No true spiritual text authorizes violence, even though violence may be included among its parables and tales. Despite the fact that the world appears as though it has been rent apart by religion, religion has had nothing to do with it. Only men. None of them a prophet.

Admittedly, I don’t know the criteria for determining such a role as “Prophet” in the scope of humanity. What makes a person a prophet? In today’s world the word can also mean someone who calls out a truth, however uncomfortable. The truth called out can also be grand, grander than ever expected. Comforting. Real. Tangible. Are all truth-tellers prophets? Likely not.

Frankly, I have greater confidence in the reliability of the Qur'an as a still-living, first-generation text than I do either the Christian or Hebrew Bibles; at least when using these traditions to assess the reliability of their own canons. Christianity doesn’t claim Jesus wrote his own teachings, nor necessarily expected them to be shared by anything other than word of mouth. If he did, writing them down might have been a visible part of the early tradition. However we do not know for sure. Jesus is not recorded as having dictated any text although it has been concluded that much of the Gospels are translations of earlier documents now lost. An assumption could be made that teachings were written down soon after being spoken, but we do not know. If not intended for immediate transcription from prophet to scribe it was apparently meant for others to write it down as oral tradition retained it, which in the instance of the Bible didn’t occur until decades after Jesus’ death as far as we are aware. The Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) has a varied authorship mainly attributed to traditional historical figures not literally assumed to have actually written them. But the Qur’an was dictated during Muhammad’s lifetime and by his own mouth. In addition to the Qur’an, Muhammad’s own teachings and commentary on the messages given by the Archangel Gabriel, called hadith, are corroborated by others and their value is contingent upon the strength of multiple sources. The Gospels in their own way are meant to serve as mutually-corroborating evidence of Jesus’ teachings, his life, and the story of his death in somewhat the way the Islamic hadith are ranked according to how well they corroborate the teachings of Muhammad. None of this careful provenance automatically confers proof of a divine source, however—that is for the faithful to conclude for themselves—but in the instance of the Qur’an there are far fewer middlemen between the First Tongue to recite it and the ear who hears it now.

I personally have no difficulty believing that a divine being gave sacred information to a special person who was destined to share it with humanity to help save it from itself. And yet I think I prefer to be an advocate rather than an adherent. I think I would like to spend time focusing on where these three sibling faiths (and others) theologically overlap. I have always believed that God shows Itself most clearly in the places where we all tend to agree. Islam, alongside Judaism and Christianity. These three faiths together have beautiful consistencies. Yet where they differ, we are given an opportunity to glimpse the multifaceted God. But only if we are comfortable enough with our neighbor to share what we believe while remaining humble enough to hear the beliefs of others.

I have spent hours thinking about a conversation I had with the editor of this book in the security line at the San Francisco airport this past spring. I told her that, in principle, I agree with all religions. As a Unitarian Universalist, this is not much of a stretch in the broad sense, but it is a very large pill for most people to swallow. Especially if they take me literally. I could see the struggle she had when we discussed it and I suddenly realized I had reached a critical point in my interreligious studies. In a major sense, however, I do mean what I said. I feel that each world faith has something to add to the spiritual conversation on this planet regarding the best practices for our human civilization as well as a more productive view of God. That being said, I know I don't agree with literally everything that each faith purports to be true. I emphatically do not agree with any idea that prevents relationship among people. That to me is the definition of sin and goes against the true purpose of all spiritual teachings as I understand them. But I am willing to admit that I am reflecting not on the original intent of the texts, for I was not there when they were originally given. I am reflecting on reflections of the originals. How do I know I'm not missing something in translation? Or in my own scholarship? Especially with the Bible things can be taken so far out of context. There are so many generations of oral tradition and multiple languages standing against the trustworthiness of their documents. The Qur'an is considerably closer to the concept of a direct quote in its originally transcribed language.

I think part of the reason I am moved and fascinated by Islam so much is that it helps me embrace the teachings and tales of my Christianity even more. It somehow validates, grounds, and reinforces it. The Qur’an is full of many of the same stories and cast of characters Christians well know. Hearing the stories of Jesus and his mother told from a different tradition made them feel even more real. Islam, like Judaism, make me feel not quite so out of place for not personally believing Jesus was God. But I do believe he was a prophet. A mystic. A healer. A changemaker who knew exactly what type of change humanity must endure in order to survive the age. Someone with a direct connection to God. Someone who is trying to teach us that we too are capable of such a connection. We only have to believe and the mountain would leap into the ocean. I believe.

The Qur’an is understood to be the final and encapsulating word of God. Not to exclude the earlier messages given to Noah, Joseph, Moses and the others, but to clarify them, tighten them. Giving a clearer transmission with fewer translation problems. Arabic is the only language of Islam. All translations into other languages are considered commentary. Perhaps that criteria should be placed upon the other faiths as well.

Where does Islam fit into the constellation of my own personal faith? Especially when each individual faith that comprises it would probably rather not be only one piece of a larger puzzle. They would rather stand on their own, but that is not a relationship. And I must concede that I am still as yet naïve about this third offspring of Abraham. I still have so much to learn. Islam believes it is the final message of the Abrahamic God. Although I would personally conclude that Muhammad’s message was perhaps the last of the Abrahamic series of dispensations, not necessarily the last Word ever spoken by God to humankind. I believe that God still speaks and continues to speak in the same way God always has. Over time, however, our ears have become far more refined. We are becoming increasingly sophisticated, both socially as well as spiritually, and what we hear from God becomes ever more intelligible as a result. God’s message has not changed so much as the instrument with which we hear that Voice has.

Despite what the media would lead us believe, we are learning to get along with our neighbors, locally and otherwise. All you have to do is look at the arguments we're having (and about what) to see that we are crafting our debates according to a very different societal metric than ever before. Compassion is gaining a foothold in this world. God’s mercy as it is described by Islam (both in the divine names ar-Rahmān, or all-merciful, and ar-Rahīm, ever-merciful) is not the same as the western concept of mercy. The English word mercy implies that a punishment is being withheld which is otherwise deserved. Mercy is an inadequate word in English to describe the Islamic concept of a mother’s enduring compassion for her child, one that does not reference the existence of a punishment or threat. This is in line with much of what Christian theology would like us to believe about God so long as we also maintain a healthy fear of the alternatives. But I don’t think there is an alternative to God’s mercy, compassion, or love. It simply is. No fear is required to understand love.

I believe Muhammad, like Jesus (peace be upon them both), were and are deserving of respect, emulation, and spiritual orientation, but not necessarily overt worship as if they were God Itself. Which also invites me to consider the Kaaba. The stone cube in Mecca toward which Muslims orient themselves for prayer is not worshiped. Muhammad is not worshiped. This is a direction, a qibla toward a teaching and a Teacher with which and toward whom we are meant to deliberately align ourselves, not worship. Only God is worthy of worship. I think it harkens to a similar philosophy in Christianity that says, "When two or more gather in my name, I am there." To me, when I put the two ideas together, it tells me God is trying to teach us that when we focus our collective energies on a particular idea at the same time together in and toward the same places, the sacred occurs. Through multiple prophets over the ages God has taught us how to improve ourselves, relate with one another, and how to find the sacred amid even despair. I'm definitely a believer. But will that alone gain me entrance to Mecca? I fear not. But I shall nonetheless align my heart with the Kaaba often and from time to time may even recite the Surat Al-Fatiha just to feel closer to God through the song of it.

There is more to be learned from the parallel exploration of the three sibling faiths of Abraham. Perhaps God is waiting for us to not only tolerate, but accept one another. To become curious about one another. To feel safe enough to reveal our hearts to one another. Is the Qur’an the final message from God? Perhaps, but hopefully not. Am I a Christian or a Muslim? Something else?  Perhaps, but hopefully not. I’d prefer to view God as an ongoing continuum of learning and exploration; a never-ending story unfolding throughout the ages to an ever-increasingly sophisticated ear and heart of humanity. An ear and heart which hear the plural voice of God without conflict, without sorrow, without shame. Proving nothing but that only Love exists and always has.    ♥

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