infinite incandescence of Islam (sermon; 090607)

Elements of a service celebrated at
the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse
on 07 June 2009
Rev. Chip Roush

BELLSOUND
The Holy Cross Catholic church, up on Beaver Island, just finished tolling its bells to begin their second service of the morning; our friends of Congregation Ahavat Shalom
began their Hebrew School an hour or so ago; the Islam Center of America, downstate in Dearborn, the largest mosque in the U.S., when it opened four years ago, played its call to prayer a little over four hours ago; and the members of our own UUCGT, each of us on our own path, are beginning our weekly communal journey. Let us ponder the similarities and the differences of these spiritual expressions, as we follow the bellsound to the silent depths of this, and every, moment… {bell}

PRELUDE
Five times per day, devout Muslims face the holy city of Mecca and pray. Most of their prayers begin the same way, repeating the first chapter of their sacred text, the Qur’an; they also pray for their own specific needs and hopes. For almost 14 centuries, since the year 622 of our Common Era, Muslims have called each other to prayer with song. The song is almost always sung in Arabic, although it may be sung in other languages; the call to prayer we’ll hear today is in Turkish.

By listening to, and singing, songs from the Islamic tradition, we are *not* pretending to be Muslims; we do hope to approach the tradition with respect, to see how its teachings and practices might resonate with our experience.

The call to prayer has four basic lyric lines, and each line is repeated a few times. There are a few differences, between Sunni and Shi’ite traditions, but essentially, the call to prayer is: “God is the greatest; there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger; make haste towards worship; hasten toward deliverance; God is the greatest; there is no God but God.” If it’s the first prayer of the day, at dawn, Sunnis include a line in the middle that “prayer is better than sleep”

I invite us all to relax, and allow ourselves to drift with the sound of this call to prayer:
{music: Ezan}

OPENING WORDS
Having been called to prayer, Muslims would usually begin with the first sura, or chapter, of the Qur’an. Without implying that any Muslim would accept or approve, and with hopes that at least a few would appreciate my attempt, here is my own, non-theistic translation of that chapter:

In the name of Life, growing for sixteen billion years and evolving in and through us, this very moment, and in the name of the life-affirming virtues of truth, goodness, beauty, grace and mercy, we praise the wonders of this universe and pledge ourselves to living and promoting virtue; we know that upholding truth and goodness is not always easy, and still, we endeavor to embody goodness and truth, and all virtue, and if and when we fail, we desire to get back in right relation quickly, and we desire forgiveness, grace and mercy, from ourselves and from each other as we do; praise for living. So may we be.

OFFERING
One of the five pillars of Islam is “zakat”—the giving of a small percentage of one’s wealth to charity. Your house and personal transportation is not included in the determination, but good Muslims give about one fortieth, or two and a half percent,
of everything else they possess. ..
{collection; offertory=Daoona Nayeesh}

READINGS
Our readings this morning are from Muslim poets; this first is by a man, Hafez, from the 14th century; and the second is from the first Islamic female saint, Rabia of Basra.

“One day the sun admitted,
I am just a shadow.
I wish I could show you
the infinite Incandescence that has cast my brilliant image!
I wish I could show you,
when you are lonely or in darkness,
the Astonishing Light of your own Being!”

SECOND READING “Jealous of a Pond” by Rabia of Basra, trans. Ladinsky
When God said, “My hands are yours,”
I saw I could heal any creature in this world;
I saw that the divine beauty in each heart
is the root of all time and space.
I was once a sleeping ocean
and in a dream
became jealous of a pond.
A penny can be eyed in the street
and a war break out over it amongst the poor.
Until we know that God lives in us and we can see Him there,
a great poverty we suffer.

SERMON
As-salaam alaikum! This is a traditional Arabic greeting, spoken by Muslims around the world, and by Arab Christians and Jews, and really by about anyone in the Middle East and much of Africa. As-salaam alaikum means “peace be upon you,” and the return greeting, “wa `Alaykum As-Salaam” means “and upon you, be peace.”

The word salaam means peace; it is a cognate of the Hebrew shalom. It is also the root of the word Islam, which is usually translated as “submission,” as in “submission to Allah’s will,” but it does come from the same root as peace.

How a religion based upon peace can be used for so many violent and life-threatening activities should not really be difficult to understand. The crusades of Catholicism; and the bomb-throwers of different so-called “Christian” denominations; the wars and “settlements” of Israel; the attacks made by Hindus and Sikhs and yes, even Buddhists, prove that we humans often use religion to justify our violence. And should Christopher Hitchens get too smug, let us remember the genocides of Josef Stalin and Pol Pot, done in the noble name of atheist societies.

Our human violence is almost always attributed—or blamed, I am not sure which word to use here—the perpetrators of violence frequently rationalize it by referencing some higher cause—a use which virtually *none* of those causes ever intended.

Now, let me pause a minute, and issue a disclaimer: I am not a scholar of Islam. And even if I were, I could not fit a full description of the depth and breadth of Muslim beliefs into a single morning lecture, much less a twenty-minute sermon. So, in a more qualitative than quantitative way, we’ll explore Islam in general, and the role of Muslim women, and talk a little more about violence and Islamic fundamentalism.

As the story goes, Muhammad was born in the year 570. He lived among many Arabic clans, all farming and herding and trading silk and spices between the Mediterranean and Asia. Arab traders came in contact with many other religions, including and especially the Christians and Jews who lived nearby. When Muhammad was forty years old, he went into a cave to pray, where the angel Gabriel grabbed him and told him to read what was written on the rock. Although Muhammad protested several times, that he was illiterate, the angel would not relent, and eventually Muhammad began to speak, as if he were reading something that was written on his heart.

They found an old blind man who could write in Arabic, and he recorded what Muhammad told him. From then on, from time to time over a long while, Muhammad would have revealed to him more wisdom.

The way of life that Muhammad talked about was attractive and compelling to many people. Many clans and tribes began to follow him. For the first time in Arabian history, people lived and worked together, not because they were related by family ties, but because they shared a common ideology.

Muhammad died in 632, and there was soon a disagreement over who should be his successor. One group believed that a blood relative should take over: in particular,
his cousin and son-in-law Ali. They became known as the “partisans of Ali,” or Shiat-Ali. Now known as the Shiites, they make up about 10% of the Muslim ummah, or community.

Others believed that any worthy person could lead the Muslim faithful. They favored Abu Bakr, and were known as “followers of the prophet.” We know them as “Sunnis” which comes from the Arab word for “follower.” The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni.

Abu Bakr expanded the Muslim empire, as did the leaders who followed him. By 638, only six years after Muhammad’s death, Jerusalem had become an Islamic city; and three years after that, all of Syria, Palestine and Egypt were under Muslim rule. One hundred years later, Islam had spread westward across Africa, and up into the Iberian peninsula of Europe; and eastward through Afghanistan into southern Russia.

For 500 years—half a millennium—the Muslim empire expanded and thrived. Eventually, it included northern Africa, southern and eastern Europe, central Russia, India and Indonesia.

Like every other empire, it would eventually fade. The Catholic crusades finally recaptured Jerusalem in 1171, and the Inquisition helped retake Spain by 1492, and the Turks took back Constantinople and etc. Today, Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents, and it is the dominant faith in many countries, and it is still proportionally smaller than it once was.

Although Arabic is still the only language in which the Qur’an is written—translations are not considered as beautiful or as powerful, nor as “authentic”—there are more Asian Muslims than there are Arab Muslims. Of the ten nations with the largest Islamic populations, beginning with Indonesia and India, only one of the ten is Arabic, and that is Egypt. Perhaps that is why President Obama began there, last week.

Muslims follow the “five pillars” of Islam: the declaration of faith, prayer, charity, Ramadan and the Hajj. One enters Islam by simply declaring, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of God.” Muslims believe that Noah and Abraham and Moses and Jesus were all prophets, too, but Muhammad was the final prophet.

Muslims pray five times per day; and they give one-fortieth of their net worth to charity; they fast during daylight hours of the month of Ramadan; and once in their lifetime, if they can at afford it, they make a Hajj—a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Like every other tradition, there is a spectrum of belief within Islam. There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians, Orthodox and Reform Jews, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists, Atheist and Agnostic nontheists.

There are schools of interpretation within Islam that are quite conservative, and there are schools which are quite progressive.

All traditions come from specific places and times. People tell stories from those times
to illustrate life lessons, and those lessons get interpreted in different ways. An ancient story about the proper treatment of slaves might be interpreted as a lesson in how to treat *all* people better, even slaves; or it might be interpreted as a model for living today, and theological permission to enslave one’s enemies.

Some interpretations are made worse by taking them out of context, or by choosing which passages to use.

Some people use passages from the Hebrew Bible to support their disapproval of homosexuality, yet those same people simply ignore the verses which allow selling your daughter, and those which prohibit eating shellfish or working on the Sabbath.

According to Asma Gull Hasan (Red, White and Muslim p134-5) when so-called “Islamic courts” sentence women to be stoned to death for adultery, they are guilty of both misinterpretation and taking things out of context.

The actual punishment is not stoning, but flogging (24:2) AND the Qur’an requires that there be four witnesses to the actual act. (4:15) Since it would be extremely rare for there to be four witnesses, the Qur’an is having its cake and eating it, too. Adultery is discouraged, but in practice, would not be severely punished.

In fact, the Qur’an states that if the accuser cannot produce those four witnesses, then the *accuser* will be flogged instead, (24:4-5) so it mostly discourages false accusations.

Unfortunately, people wishing to provide scriptural rationalization for their own desires
and cultural beliefs often mis-use those scriptural passages.

In 1999, shortly after graduating from Harvard Divinity School, Tom Levinson drove across the United States, interviewing people about their beliefs. One of his first stops was in Dayton, Ohio, where he talked to Roxanne Masni, a woman whose family was from India, and who had converted from Christianity to Islam. She wore a cream-colored, body-length covering—a hijab.

After Levinson asked her, “is it hard to be a Muslim in America?” (and remember, this is before the September 11th bombings), she replied, “No. Because if you go back and read, everything that’s in the Bible is in Islam…the covering of the hair, modesty, pork is forbidden—it’s all in there…”

Masni continued, “No man makes me cover my hair. I cover *my* hair on *my* own.
This [covering] comes from Allah. This is why my hair is covered. No man told me to dress the way I’m dressing.”

Later in their conversation, she said, “Modesty [is] a very, very big part of Islam. Men have a code of dress, too, and a code of conduct…Men and women are each responsible for their own actions. I’m not going to care what my husband looks at. He’s responsible to God for how he behaves, and I’m responsible to God for how I behave.”

Roxanne Masni considered her covering not demeaning, but elevating. It was not a humiliation, but an honor.

She finished, “You have to understand, this is religion. To understand Islam, you have to know the religion, and not mistake it for the culture…My husband is Egyptian. If I know Qur’an and…the teachings of the Prophet, and my husband is behaving in a certain way and he says, ‘That’s part of Islam,’ I can say, ‘No it is not. That is only a part of culture.’”

This highlights a very popular misconception. While the Qur’an is quite feminist, radically so, for its time, many Muslim cultures are still patriarchal, even repressive.
From the west, especially in certain newscasts, who are interested in promoting this misunderstanding, the feminism of Islam is ignored for the oppression of Arabic—especially Saudi—culture.

Muhammad’s words ended the practice of female infanticide. He encouraged women to participate in politics and encouraged them to keep their maiden names when they married. He said that women must give their consent to be married. After Muhammad recited the Qur’an, women were allowed to own property; before that, women *were* property.

Islam can be interpreted as very pro-feminist. Yes, in many Arab nations, and in some Asian nations, women are still oppressed. I imagine you’re aware that a Saudi judge recently ruled that a husband may slap his wife, if she spends too much money. That’s a cultural issue, not an Islamic issue.

And while we’re talking about disrespecting women, let’s think about some of the things that people in our country have said about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor—some of the ridiculous, not only prejudiced but *superstitious* things that people have said…I won’t dignify them by repeating them here, but our culture has a lot of gall to judge other cultures on feminism.

Most Muslim *non-Arabic* countries have had female leaders: Pakistan, Turkey, and Bangladesh have all had women prime ministers. Indonesia has had a female president, and many parts of India have had woman leaders. Even an Arab country, Syria, has had a woman vice president. At this point, my friend Nadji asks, “how many has the United States had?”

Again, I am not saying that women are not still oppressed in many places, but that oppression is less an Islamic thing, than a cultural thing. People may prop up their cultural beliefs by referencing some passage out of the Qur’an, but those verses are usually taken out of context and/or deliberately misinterpreted, to achieve the culturally-desired result.

Misogynists rationalize their own beliefs with whatever they can find, just as violent people rationalize their violence.

The Qur’an says, “let there be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) In other words, there should be no forced conversion to Islam from other religions—especially from Judaism or Christianity. The Qur’an says that Allah sent different prophets to different peoples: “Unto every one of you, have We appointed a [different] law and way of life.” AGHp98 (5:48) Remember, Muhammad grew up among Christians and Jews. He recognized the core teachings were all about compassion and justice.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are rightly proud of our heritage of inclusiveness and tolerance. We tell the story of the one Unitarian king, John Sigismund, of the land known in Latin as “that place beyond the woods,” or Transylvania. King John Sigismund ruled at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when people all over Europe were killing each other over religion—usually in the most unpleasant way they could come up with.

Sigismund issued the Edict of Torda, saying that everywhere in his kingdom, people could practice any religion they chose, and they would not be killed, or tortured or even harassed because of their beliefs.

Recently, thanks to the research of the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, we have learned where King John learned his tolerance. It appears that John Sigismund, and his advisor, Francis David, both lived in Hungary, as young men, while the Islamic Ottoman empire still ruled there. They saw the Muslim leader of that area, the Pasha, issue a similar command about tolerance, allowing preachers to preach and individuals to listen to whatever preaching they found most compelling. European history was influenced by King John Sigismund; and he was influenced by Muslim tolerance and inclusivity.

So how did we get from such tolerance to fatwas and jihad?

First, we should not that the word “jihad” means “struggle,” and the Qur’an usually uses it to refer to the inward struggle, with our own conscience. Jihad was originally about personal growth. Later, it was used as a metaphor for internal struggle between factions within the Muslim community, within the ummah. And much later, it has become a word used by violent people to rationalize their violence on people outside Islam.

…Well, even if all this is true, even if Islam is wrongly used to quote-justify-unquote
the behaviors of repressive cultures and violent individuals, then why don’t more Muslims denounce the misuse of their faith?

There are undoubtedly many complex reasons, but I will offer just one. After that lunatic killed Dr. George Till last week, the physician who provided late-term abortions to women whose lives were threatened, did we require our every Christian friend and every Christian leader to denounce the murderer? No. We knew the man was a lunatic, and we knew that most compassionate, justice-seeking Christians do not support cold-blooded murder. That’s because we know more Christians, and know their history better. We don’t know as much about Islam, and so we are not as comfortable with Muslims.

If we become more familiar with the spectrum of conservative and progressive Muslims, if we learn more about culture-versus-religion, if we pay attention to the difference between the vocal lunatic fringe and the peaceful majority, then we’ll have a much better understanding of world events.

Hafez wrote about the Infinite Incandescence that casts our sun as its shadow: “I wish I could show you… the Astonishing Light of your own Being!” Rabia wrote of the divine beauty in each heart, and lamented how we too-often forget it—we are oceans of love, yet we become jealous of mere ponds.

What if, five times per day, we were reminded of our incandescence, our true ocean-hood?

What if our alarm clock woke us each morning with a message that Life Itself was restless inside us, and wanted to get up, and go shine truth and goodness through us, out in the world? What if, before we even got out of bed, we were reminded of the strength and beauty, and the courage and compassion within us?

What if we got a phone call, or an email, four more times each day, giving us strength and hope and connecting us to the vast power of Evolution inside us, and reminding us that while upholding truth and goodness is not always easy, still, we endeavor to embody those virtues; and if we fail, we try to get back in right relations quickly, and we offer forgiveness, grace and mercy, to ourselves and to each other? What if everybody we knew got the same calls and emails, encouraging *them* to live out their highest ideals, too?

What if, at least once in our lifetimes, we went to a place where there were millions of people who got the same emails and phone calls? What if we saw, with our own eyes, the global reach of our values, and the amazing diversity, of people of every size, shape, color, race, ethnicity, nationality or culture, paying homage to the same ideals of beauty, goodness, truth and mercy? What if, even when we weren’t traveling to Mecca, we heard about it from our friends and family, every year reminded of the grand scope and power of our highest ideals?

If we got those kinds of significant reminders, that Life was burstng through us, growing and evolving and blossoming ever-more-beautifully, several times per year and five times each day, how might our lives feel different?

We are incandescence and oceans. We have only to remember, and to act.

As-salaam alaikum

So may we be.

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so may we categorize: