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Islam: A Neighboring Faith

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, November 12, 2000
Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss

Opening Words

A Jewish Prayer

Grant us the ability to find joy and strength,
Not in the strident call to arms,
But in the stretching out of our arms
To grasp our fellow creatures
In striving for justice and truth.

A Muslim Prayer

Save us, our compassionate Lord,
From our folly, by your wisdom
From our arrogance, by your forgiving love
From our greed, by your infinite bounty
And from our insecurity, by your healing power.

Reading from: Islam: A Brief History by Karen Armstrong

Fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of modernity. There is fundamentalist Judaism, fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Confucianism.

Fundamentalist movements in all faiths share certain characteristics. They reveal a deep disappointment and disenchantment with the modern experiment which has not fulfilled all that it promised. They also express real fear. Every fundamentalist movement I have studied is convinced that the secular establishment is determined to wipe religion out.

Fundamentalists look back to a golden age, yet all are modern movements and could have appeared at no other time. All are innovative and often radical in their interpretation of religion. They are all highly critical of democracy and of secularism.

The founder of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sunni world, in Egypt was Sayyid Qutb who had in 1953 been a reformer hoping to give Western democracy an Islamic dimension that would avoid the excesses of a wholly secularist ideology.

Fundamentalists within Islam have believed they were fighting encroaching secularism that would crush their religiously based societies.


Muslim mystic poet, Rumi teaching in approximately the 12th century said; "All religions, all this singing, is one song."

As I wrote this sermon, I listened to Sufi chant. I listened to the song of the Muslim faith. Listening to the Arabic, I did not understand the words, but I heard a familiar rhythm, a familiar movement of body and spirit, a movement that I feel when hearing Catholic Mass chanted in Latin, a movement I feel in a gospel service of a southern Baptist church or during the Shaker hymn singing, it is the same movement I feel in the voice of the cantor in synagogue at Yom Kibbur. There are times when I feel this unity of body and soul here within our Unitarian Universalist worship. It is what I seek in my religious practice, the embodiment, the physical, visceral experience of my faith.

I long for our rational faith to take root in the body. It is one of the things we give up when we give up prayer. One of the babies we throw out with the ritual bath water. When we give up prayer we often give up bodily response and engagement in our worship life.

One of the amazing, beautiful things about Islam is its grounding in a life of prayer - a prayer form that is very physical. Five times a day, faithful Muslims around the world and here in Bethesda and Rockville, and Washington, turn toward the East, unroll a prayer mat, bend and bow - kneel and prostrate, open their hands and hearts in full submission to their God.

It is one of those practices of Islam that attracts and fascinates me. I can't imagine praying like that. I can't imagine building my day around prayer. I can't imagine understanding God in a way that requires my submission. Yet, over a billion people around the world join in this religious practice. We should try to understand it. Muslims are our neighbors and we should try to understand them.

Sufi teacher Rumi, says, "Anything you do every day can open into the deepest spiritual place, which is freedom." Any of you who meditate or exercise regularly, or garden or sit in contemplation with your tea or coffee- know the value of daily spiritual practice...it can open a spiritual place in you...a place which offers a new kind of freedom.

But freedom is scary, opening new places in our heart is scary, moving in rhythms we don't understand is scary, even thinking about the word submission or prayer is scary. And so we look away from our Muslim neighbors. We look away and hold onto our fears and our prejudice.

I speak to you this morning about Islam...a faith that is most foreign to me. A faith that many of you know more intimately than I. A faith that comes from a part of the world in which I have not lived or traveled. A faith that comes out of past centuries I only dimly understand, a faith that has survived like Judaism and Christianity through history being both the victor and the vanquished. I have read and studied some, but I have not experienced Islam. So forgive me my misunderstandings, my naivete.

I tell you this morning that we must learn about Islam because we stand in need of forgiveness.

I ask forgiveness from my sisters and brothers who worship at the Mosque, who kneel on prayer rugs at American University, next door to the UU's Campus meeting room, who stop each day, five times each day, to practice their ancient faith.

I need forgiveness because I have thought that my religion was better than theirs. I have thought that they were strange. I have felt that they would not want to meet me or talk to me. I have been afraid of them, my fellow human beings. I have forgotten that we sing the same One Song.

I speak, in spite of my ignorance, asking for forgiveness, because I want to be a good Unitarian Universalist. I want to move beyond hubris. I know that I have succumbed to negative images about the Muslim world.

For a long time, I thought all Muslims were Arabs. I thought all veiled women were sorely oppressed and miserable. I thought all Palestinians were Muslim. And I thought all Palestinians were terrorists. Therefore, I thought all Muslims were terrorists, at least potentially. Oh, intellectually I knew better, but emotionally, I was hooked into the fear and the hate. It is time to confront my bias and prejudice. I want to free myself, not in order to help others, not to contribute to world peace, but because it is the right thing to do, and my spiritual growth is hampered by my ignorance and fear.

I tell you this morning, we must learn more about Islam if we care about peace in the world.

How can we pray sincerely for peace in the Middle East, if we empathize only with one religious/cultural group engaged in the conflict?

Like many of you, I have more understanding of Judaism than Islam. I have known more Jews than Muslims. I have supported the State of Israel as a fair and necessary response to the Holocaust. I have blindly sided with Israel over Palestine because my government convinced me to do so. And I supported my bias because Islamic fundamentalist sects in the Middle East have engaged in terrorism. But I haven't educated myself fully. I haven't been open-minded.

The present political situation in the West Bank and Gaza seems finally to be getting a fuller and fairer coverage. The oppression of the occupation by Israel is being seen more clearly. The aggression and dispute is about land. It is tragic that this is the land of Israel, the birthplace of the worlds' three great faiths. It is tragic that holy sites are at risk, and that citizens and children have been killed. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in the holy land.

These sites; this land, has been in dispute from the beginning. Long before 1948 creation of the Israeli state, long before the 1979 revolution in Iran, long before the six days war. Religious scholar, Karen Armstrong in her book, Jerusalem, gives a sense of the layers of history that lie under the Dome of the Rock, how one religion literally built upon another and how much conflict there has been. World history is marked by the dates of destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Understanding the Muslim world today requires an accurate historical perspective. I encourage you to get better educated.

I read three texts for this sermon. 1) Islam: A Brief History, by religious scholar and former nun, Karen Armstrong....who also wrote The History of God and Jerusalem. 2) Islam in America, by Jane I. Smith- professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut...member of the Commission on Interfaith Relations of the National Council of Churches, and 3) The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis based on words of Persian Poet, Rumi. I also followed current newspaper accounts of the violence in the Middle East and changes in the Muslim world regarding their internal struggle with fundamentalism. I also spoke to some of you, who have more intimate experience of Islam.

Armstrong's small book holds a wealth of data on the history of Islam. It is easy to read. I recommend it. There is a wonderful timeline and a good glossary.

I tell you this morning we must learn about Islam because we share religious roots as monotheistic religions of the Book.

Armstrong reminds us that Islam was not a new religion, but a continuation from Judaism and Christianity. When the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations of the Quran in 610 in Mecca and later in Medina, he believed he was bringing the old faith in the One God to the Arabs, who had never had a prophet before.

The new sect came to be called Islam which means surrender. A Muslim was a man or woman who had made the submission of their entire being to Allah and to his demand that human beings behave to one another with justice, equity and compassion. Islam calls for a surrender, not of the mind or will, but of the heart. Islam is a religion of the soft heart.

Like many new religions, Islam was intended as a reform of pagan polytheism and a return to an earlier egalitarianism and humility. As you know, Islam is a way of life, centered on Five Pillars:

  1. Witness to the One God (Like UU's Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet rather than an aspect of God) and the Prophethood of Muhammed
  2. Ritual prayer
  3. Almsgiving
  4. Fasting during month of Ramadan (Ramadam begins this year on Nov 28th and marks the time that the Prophet, Muhammed, first heard the God's dictation of the Quran)
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca once during lifetime
The way forward, according to the Quran, lay in a single God and a unified ummah, or community which was governed by justice and equity. Social justice was/is the crucial virtue of Islam. (This is another thing we UU's have in common with Islam).

With Muhammed's death in 632, there began a struggle for leadership of the faith and definition of the community. As Islam spread through conquest and conversion, as it brought renaissance in arts and sciences in Spain and Egypt- long before it came to the west, as it survived the Crusades- the attempted extermination by the Roman Church, as it broke into factions and sects (both political and religious) within Islam, the faith took on variations of cultures beyond the Arab tribes where it began.

It is important to understand that the Muslim community today is diverse.

For centuries and centuries there have been Muslims in Africa, Asia, in Pakistan and India, Indonesia, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. And for most of the 20th century, there have been Muslims in America. (They first came to America in 1895) In the past decade the numbers and variety of Muslims in America has grown. California in the 1990s has had a noticeable increase in its Islamic population and both Los Angeles and San Francisco have vibrant centers of Muslim life...there is a Islamic center in southern California where over 1000 people attend Friday prayers.

In New York City the Islamic Cultural Center brings together Muslims from different immigrant groups as well as both Sunnis and Shiites. Chicago is a center for The Nation of Islam - a Muslim community that is uniquely American though is inspired by its historical ties to Africa. Unfortunately, the affirming message and intent of the Nation of Islam has been overshadowed by the messages of hate and anti-semitism of its primary spokesman, Louis Farrakan.

There is a Muslim commune in New Mexico and in Detroit, Michigan in collaboration with the Islamic Health and Human Services organization, a hospital which has provided for Muslim practice including whispering the call to prayer in the ear of a newborn, providing halal (or Islamically blessed) food in the hospital kitchen, and making space for Muslim patients and care-givers to practice alat - prayer, in the hospital meditation room. Acceptance of Muslims in America is beginning to change. But there are great complications from outside the Muslim community and from within.

The important and complicated question today for Muslims everywhere is "What does it mean to be Muslim?" This is the question for all faith groups. Religious Jews struggle today with "What does it mean to be Jewish?" Catholics struggle with "What does it mean to be Catholic?" Baptists, Episcopals, even Unitarian Universalists struggle in a secular pluralist global society to understand their unique identity and what it means to be faithful to their beliefs and values.

There is no one Muslim experience. Within Islam there is a struggle. The fundamentalist pressures are being brought to bear in different ways in many countries where Muslims practice diverse expressions of their faith.

The debate often rages around the role of women. Fundamentalist interpretations weigh heavily on women within Islam, just as they do within Judaism and Christianity.

In a memoir of her life as an Egyptian, Muslim, Arab woman of the 20th century, author, Leila Ahmed, writes of the inner conflicts of coming of age in Egypt during and after the collapse of European Imperialism. She writes;

It was grandmother who taught me the fat-ha (the opening verse the Quran and the equivalent of the Lord's Prayer). When she took me up onto the roof of the Alexandria house to watch for angels on the night of the twenty-seventh of Ramadan, she recited the sura about that special night, a sura that was also by implication about the miraculousness of night itself Even now I remember its loveliness.

There was little direct instruction, but I remember my mother quoting to me the sura that she believed summed up the essence of Islam; "He who kills one being, kills all of humanity, and he who revives, or gives life to one being revives all of humanity."

Because Islam was passed on in everyday practice within a variety of cultural settings, there developed many different understandings and many different ways of being Muslim. This is most true among women, who historically did not have access to the textual heritage. So part of the struggle around Islamic identity is a struggle between textual Islam and oral Islamic traditions - a struggle between the past and the present.

The fundamentalist leaders of today in Islam are trying to impose law from classic, Islamic texts that date from medieval times. They are imposing separation of women from the secular culture in ways that are contrary to how the world works today.

There is a rise of radically fundamentalist Islam today in Indonesia, where some religious leaders are trying to enforce a ban on alcohol consumption and gambling.

Fundamentalists often try to push their agendas through political systems as they are doing in Malaysia. And in the Philippines, Muslims experience discrimination by the religious majority in that largely Roman Catholic country. Women must remove headscarves in order to get hired...and children in public schools are forced to participate in mass.

Yet, nothing is clear and simple, even while in some countries women resist being forced to cover themselves for modesty, in places like Turkey and they are fighting for the right to choose being covered. In Turkey, an historically secular state, Muslim women who wish to wear head covering are barred from college campuses, and even sent to jail. The Turkish government has prosecuted writers and journalists it says have espoused the spread of Islam.

It is important to understand the continuing struggle within Islam concerning the boundary between the secular and the sacred.

Karen Armstrong's book, makes it clear that Islam is built on the tenet that all of life is sacred....that there is no boundary between one's religious, family, cultural, vocational, or political engagements. There is nothing that is not holy.

Therefore all of one's life should be lived within the Islamic way, according to its law and practices. This is the point where Islam falls into much difficulty in the de-sacralized world. There is to be no separation between mosque and state...or between one's personal religious practice and anything else. To understand the significance of this point, is to understand a great deal about Islam and the conflicts it has fallen into.

At their center, all religions say the same thing. All of one's life should be lived according to one's religious values and beliefs. If one takes this seriously, whether they are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim - they will have difficulty in living in our very secular world. Most of us make compromises, hopefully they are compromises of integrity - but if no compromise is acceptable, it is a tough path.

There is much more for us to understand...but let me stop here with a brief story. A story that reminds us to honor all religions, to be respectful, even if we don't understand.

I read a short story, about a young immigrant couple in America, it was a present day setting. The couple were Pakinstani Muslims. They had just moved into a small house...and while the husband was away at work, the wife in putting things away in the new house, began to find things - things hidden in the nooks and crannies of the house...things pushed way back on the closet shelf. She found a small wooden crucifix, she found a rose colored glass rosary, in the basement, she found an old prayer book, and in the garage a small picture of Christ. As she found these things over the course of a few weeks, she would dust them off and put them on the mantel. Her husband was dismayed. "Why are you putting these Christian objects on our mantel? We are Muslim. What will people think?"

But the wife thought her discoveries were beautiful. She felt they were precious and representative of a true faith. She felt the love and meaning that these objects held. And so she put them on the mantle. She heard the One Song these objects represented. She felt the embodiment of the sacred...and she wanted to honor that by putting these symbols of another faith on her mantel.

I encourage you to explore more carefully the Islamic tradition. I encourage you to discover its symbols, to hear its call to prayer, to imagine the beauty of its prayer rug, and to feel the ethical tradition from which it springs.

It is a faith more diverse than our own. A faith grounded in the golden rule. A faith which teaches love and tolerance. A faith that just might have something to teach us.

Let us open our hearts and minds. Let us continue our search for truth and meaning.

Amen/Salaam Alekim