Greeting means peace and blessings upon you in Arabic. Good morning!
Today, I am going to talk about Islam, but you need to know that I am far from an expert on the Muslim faith. I took two classes on Islam while in seminary. I have had a few Muslim friends and colleagues and have participated in Muslim prayer and Sufi chanting. This gave me the gift of a glimpse into a different faith, a glimpse that moved me and filled me with wonder. I hope to share some of that wonder with you today.
There are somewhere around 1 billion Muslims worldwide and as many as 8 million in the United States. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. The rate of growth of Islam in the United States is also very high. 40- 60% of American Muslims have African-American heritage.
Those two statements make some people nervous. Racism and Islamophobia can be a powerful combination if fear is what you are looking to inspire. This fear is actively encouraged by our current national leadership, but even among liberals, there is a certain almost dumbfounded lack of comprehension, a confusion even, about why anyone would freely chose a religion that is perceived as monolithic, extreme, and oppressive.
I had some of that same confusion myself before I had the privilege of working with and studying with actual Muslims. The media portrayal of Muslims tends to focus on the extremes. Women certainly were oppressed in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The so called Islamic state is frightening, but those are the extremists among Muslims, just like the Westboro Baptist Church promotes an extreme interpretation of Christianity.
It was interesting to learn that Islam, when it first began, brought many new rights to women, including education. Gay and lesbian people are still oppressed in much of the Islamic world, but it was interesting for me to learn that while the Qu’ran has the same old Sodom and Gomorrah story that Christians have misinterpreted for centuries, those ugly Leviticus verses are not repeated in the Qu’ran. It is important to not judge any religion by its extremists. The term “Progressive Muslim” is not an oxymoron.
First, a little history.
Remember learning about Christopher Columbus and his brave voyage? I do. Columbus and the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, he discovered America, right? Later I learned, as you probably did, about the Norse explorer, Leif Erickson. Still later, there was a little bit of discussion about how the American continents weren’t exactly empty when Columbus and Erickson came. I learned tidbits about the complex civilizations and cultures that flourished in this hemisphere prior to the invasion of the Europeans.
What I didn’t learn about until I took a class is that there were African Muslims who traded with the peoples of the Caribbean and Central America for hundreds of years before Columbus. It is well documented, just not well known.
It was not a coincidence that Columbus sailed from Spain, a country that had been under Islamic rule for 700 years. Trade and travel throughout the Muslim world was common in those times and Africa was a center for Islamic study. One would guess that Columbus was actually pretty darn sure what he would find by sailing west, since so many African Muslims had already made similar voyages.
Then there were the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. Estimates vary, but approximately 30-40% of the people captured and transported to the Americas as slaves were practicing Muslims.
Quite a number were literate and could read and write in Arabic and recite large portions of the Qur’an from memory.
One of the more famous Muslim slaves was Job Ben Solomon who was able to win his freedom and return to Africa in 1734. He was highly literate and knew the Qu’ran by heart.
This history shows that Islam was part of the religious landscape of America from the very beginning.
Many of you may have heard of the five pillars of Islam.
The first pillar is Shahadah, or witness. It is an affirmation. La ilaha il Allah – Muhammadun Rasul l’Allah: There is no God but God and Mohammad is the prophet of God. Muslims are decidedly NOT Trinitarians.
They believe that Jesus was an important prophet, but not the literal son of God. Sounds a lot like the original Unitarian theology doesn’t it? We could also do a bit better on witness, sharing with others what we love about our faith.
The second pillar is Salat, or prayer. A devout Muslim prays 5 times a day in praise of and in gratitude to God. There is an old joke that most Unitarian Universalists are very opposed to prayer in schools and a few are not terribly fond of it in their churches either. Still, even for a devout atheist, it is hard not to be impressed. To spend several minutes, 5 times a day, every day, focusing on gratitude and on something larger than yourself is a pretty awesome spiritual practice.
The third pillar is Zakat, or alms. Once a year, a Muslim is supposed to give 2 ½ % of his or her assets, or capital – not just income, capital – to the poor. Talk about a culture of generosity! In the Qur’an the giving of alms is associated with worship since faith in God is expressed by good deeds. Deeds not creeds. That sounds pretty familiar too, doesn’t it?
Our stewardship drive is coming up soon, so start tallying up your assets so you can calculate the 2 1/2 percent. If you prefer, you can follow the Christian practice of 10% of your income. Or maybe the UU practice of 5% to the church and 5% to other causes.
The fourth pillar is Sawm or fasting, which is done worldwide in the month of Ramadan.
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed. Like the daily prayers, this is a very personal and intense focusing on God. It involves sacrificing for your faith.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or Pilgrimage. Muslims from all over the world gather in Mecca during the last month of the Islamic year. It is the largest annual assembly of people in the world and dates back to the days of Abraham. It is a profoundly religious experience.
It is interesting that four out of the five pillars of Islam involve a spiritual practice or discipline. It is a religion of doing and being much more than it is a set of particular theological beliefs. This is even truer for the Sufi tradition within Islam which focuses on a mystical relationship with the divine.
Let’s look now at some of the traditional theology of Islam as contrasted with traditional Christian theology. There is some overlap of course. Islam is part of the Abrahamic tradition along with Christianity and Judaism. Followers of those three faiths are often called People of the Book.
I also stress the word traditional because there is a lot of diversity among Muslims just as there is among Christians and Jews – and of course, Unitarian Universalists.
First, there is no concept of original sin in Islam. People are born essentially good and not deserving of punishment.
How similar to our Unitarian Universalist principle about the inherent worth and dignity of all! The original sin concept has been used to keep the downtrodden in their place, from the peasants in the middle ages to the slaves in the Americas. If the theology is such that people are evil then why bother to treat them humanely on earth?
Human suffering is, in fact, a very bad thing, and Muslims are called to work to end it. They are not asked to “turn the other cheek” and to suffer oppression and injustice as the cross that God has somehow sent to them to bear.
I quote from Malcolm X:
There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion.
Let me be clear, however, Islam is NOT a religion that glorifies aggressive violence.
The Qur’an is very specific in saying that violence is only justified as a defensive measure, and that it should be used at the minimal level required for that defense.
Most Christian imagery has pictured Jesus with white skin and God as an old white man with a beard. Muslims do not make images of God at all and God is described as containing all genders.
All genders and all races included. From the beginning, Islam was racially integrated. The Qur’an says quite explicitly:
Among other signs of His is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variety of your tongues and complexions. Surely there are signs in this for those who understand. All those who are in the heavens and the earth are His.
There is also an important historical connection between Islam and Unitarian Universalism.
Back in the 15th century, the Unitarians in Transylvania were vulnerable during the religious wars in Europe and so they formed a partnership with the Islamic Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire. They were brought together by their shared conception of God as one. Turkish soldiers protected the only Unitarian King in history, and supported his claim to the throne. At one point the Sultan sent a gift of 1000 Turkish prayer rugs that were hung in Unitarian churches throughout Transylvania.
The connection in Transylvania is an important and powerful one. It was a significant part of how our tradition survived in that part of the world.
So we can celebrate, in gratitude, our history with Islam.
I am not going to stand here and pretend I like everything about the Muslim faith. I don’t like everything about any faith other than my own.
That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist. And as a Unitarian Universalist, I try to learn what I can learn from other religions.
Islam got it right, from the very beginning, about racism. The Qur’an has never been used to justify racial discrimination like the Bible has.
And Islam also got it right about religious freedom. A quote on this from the Qur’an,
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks.”
Unitarian Universalists can certainly celebrate “no compulsion in religion” as it is very close to our own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
As we are gathered today, in this religious community, we know how much it means to us to have found this space. Our religion is one of practice too. How we live in the world, with each other, with the whole of creation is what is most important to us. For many of us, finding Unitarian Universalism has been a coming home, a sanctuary from a sometimes not very life affirming world. Our principles guide us and hold us to the hope of making the world a better place, building a world community with peace, justice, and liberty for all.
For many people of color in particular, discovering Islam has been a similar coming home: a sanctuary from a racist society, a religion that affirms the humanity of all races, one that is filled with hope for a better world.
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. How can we not celebrate these principles of ours wherever they might be found?
I wrote this back in May of 2006, during the Bush years. Little did I know I would need it again.
Wheel of Justice
The wheel is rolling backward.
Listen to the voices shouting,
In anger and in rage.
The soft sobs at the end of the day
Echo through the valley of despair.
The city streets are baking,
The countryside is gray with dust.
There is a heartbeat Somewhere.
Feel it pulsing.
A small sprout of green
Rises up through the cracked pavement
A sparrow drops a seed.
If we cannot stand it
Then we have to stand.
If we cannot stand
Then we have to crawl.
Don’t wipe the tears.
Let them run
Through the fields,
Water for the crops
That we must grow.
The wheel is rolling backwards
But that doesn’t have to be.
We will feel the good ache
Of holy muscles
Working with us,
As we place
Our shoulders to the wheel
Love is more
Than a valentine
A sunset beach
Or a fancy meal
Love is more than
Than a roaring fire
On a snowy night
Or dreams of sweet delight
Love runs deep
Flows on and on
It lives in all we do
Washing the dishes
Raking the leaves
Tending the children
We sing a song
Hearing our days drift by
We pray that love
Will grow and spread
To wrap the world around
Feeding the hungry
Caring for the sick
Healing the earth
The work of love
Is just what we must do
We talk about love a lot here. Standing on the side of love is one of our slogans. It is what it says on the stole I am wearing. It is how we describe our national social justice work for immigration, for racial justice and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. Love is part of our tradition. It is the doctrine of our church. Our Universalist ancestors believed in a loving God, one that would condemn no one to hell, no matter what they believed or did not believe and no matter what they did or did not do.
But what is this love we talk about? That is a complicated question. Most of you know by now that this congregation is not a place to come if you are looking for easy answers.
We are doing some songs about love today. The one the choir just sang is a fun one. Some of you likely remember the Frank Sinatra song about love being a many splendored thing. We aren’t doing that one today, but it goes…“It’s the April rose that only grows in the early spring. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living.”
The Greeks, who were quite excellent at philosophy, broke love down into four different types: Eros, a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic feelings,
Storge, (store gay) which is family or brotherly love, something you might feel for your children or your very best friend, Phileo, is the affection you feel for the people you like, and last, but not least, there is Agape, (ah gah pee) which is love in the verb form, an unconditional love that requires action.
The Greeks distinguished their forms of love not only by the qualities of the different types of love they were defining, but also about where that love was directed: to a lover, a family member, a friend, or to the world.
What they left out was love of self, which is an odd and significant omission I think. I have no clue as to why, except maybe it was just assumed that people love themselves. The Greeks were much less guilt ridden and prone to self-esteem issues than are people in our modern culture.
It is very difficult to love anyone else if you don’t love and respect yourself. Could we apply all four of the Greek forms of love to ourselves? Can we like ourselves as in Phileo? Other people like us, so it shouldn’t be that hard for us to like ourselves as well. Can we love ourselves like a close family member? After all, we know ourselves better than we know anyone else. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with self-love in terms of Eros. We are all sexual beings; passion is part of our nature as biological beings.
And then there is Agape, love as a verb, love as unconditional. Agape love directed inward is a form of radical self-acceptance.
It drives us toward spiritual health, and moves us to make the changes in our own lives that allow us to focus that Agape love on other people and on the planet.
And it is agape love that helps us love our neighbor, and we know that everyone on this planet is our neighbor. Agape also helps us feel love toward people we don’t like, and even toward our enemies. Both of those can be difficult, and it is important to remember that it is fine to set boundaries. Spiritual maturity can even mean that you decide not to be around people whose behavior is harmful to you or others. You can love them but you can also set limits on your interactions with them. Communities, and even churches, can also define what is acceptable behavior and what is not. That can be confusing in a liberal faith such as ours. We don’t judge people for who they are or who they love, and we say we welcome everyone, but we also don’t want to let pedophiles near our children. We don’t think it is ok to steal from the offering plate or another member’s wallet. We don’t think it OK to spread malicious gossip or to demonize other people.
Let me repeat that. It is not OK to demonize other people, even when their actions are really offensive. It is hard to do that when you are hurting. It can be hard not to see the other party to a conflict as having purely evil intentions. It is especially difficult when there is a serious power differential, say if someone is president of the United States. How do we love that person even as they do harm to others we love?
Agape love calls us to see differently, to remember that everyone has pain, and that most of the time, unpleasant or even evil behavior comes from pain.
Abusers have often been abused themselves. Limits and boundaries are important ways that can help us still feel some love and compassion, even for those who behave very badly.
Healing, reconciliation, restoration, is always possible. The God imagined by the Universalists loved everyone and they believed that everyone would eventually find salvation in that holy love.
So what do you think love is? Do you think it can be divided into categories like the Greeks did?
Some quotes about love:
Rita Mae Brown: “Sorrow is how we learn to love. Your heart isn’t breaking. It hurts because it’s getting larger. The larger it gets, the more love it holds.”
Marianne Williamson:”Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.
Lord Byron: “There are four questions of value in life: What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
Everyone, it seems, has something to say about love.
The minister who officiated at my wedding asked both Anne and I what we had learned about love what was then our 39 years together. This is what I wrote:
“What I have learned about love is this: it doesn’t come easy. It isn’t a happily ever after riding into the sunset with a prince or princess by your side. Soul mates aren’t magic mirrors reflecting back how you want to see yourself or them. Reach through the mirror, pay attention to the cracks. They are how the love – and light gets in. Leonard Cohen taught me a lot with that line. You aren’t royalty either, just a frog like other frogs. Life is the swamp can be lovely though. It is not necessary to sing every song in tune or dance in time with a perfect rhythm.
Marriage means so much more if you have been engaged for decades.
I know this from experience. Because engagement is the thing, one of them, that can make a marriage, a partnership work. Be real and honest and yourself. Listen carefully. Pay attention. Hold your lover’s hand, but don’t hold them back, and try to catch them when they fall. You will stumble too. Stay engaged even after you are married. I think that might be the key.
In any case be grateful. If someone really loves you, it is a miracle.
Love, like justice, does not come easy, but with enough grace, with enough effort, it comes. Engagement is the key, in marriage, in justice work, and in congregational life.
During our wedding reception, our daughter gave a toast that expressed what she had learned from Anne and I about love. It really moved me, and I am going to read part of it for you.
“Some of you might know that last summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail. It’s a backcountry trail that runs 218 miles from Yosemite, over 8 mountain passes to Mt. Whitney, all in the backcountry. This is something I would never have considered if not for the wonderful summers my mothers spent taking the three of us camping in Yosemite, in Yellowstone, in Glacier national parks.
One of the things I was thinking about as I was hiking, was my moms. I had called them from an outpost a week into the hike, and they told me that they had been officially married in California.
It’s good I had my moms to think about because while the trail was beautiful, actually hiking it was also the hardest thing I have ever done.
My backpack was too heavy; it weighed 45 pounds.
I had to clamber up these endless 10-mile inclines, up thousands of feet in elevation, to get to each peak.
And then I had to do it all over again. Those climbs were absolutely horrible.
But then, I’d get to the top.
And the top was unfailingly the most beautiful place I’d ever been, each peak more breathtaking than the last. There were turquoise alpine lakes, wildflowers, and snowcapped peaks, the whole world spread out below your feet.
And I realized, this is what I know about love. And I learned it from my moms. It is hard sometimes. It can be horrible. There are endless switchbacks and sometimes you don’t know if they’ll end, you’re not sure if you’ll make it to the top.
But you keep working at it, you put your head down and put one foot in front of the other and you make it to the top. And at the top is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.
And then you do it all over again.”
Her words made me cry when I heard them, and they still make me a bit teary-eyed.
All of us here have known hard times over the years. Life is like that. But even in the midst of pain, we know that life is better because of love. Love can make life better.
Love can make the world better. We just have to keep our heads down and put one foot in front of the other.
The road has gotten harder lately, but perhaps we are made for these times, times where we can move and march, sing and dance our way by the light of love, by a fire of commitment that will burn within our hearts. Keep your flames bright my friends, love will find a way.
I saw Fun Home last night at the Curran in SF. This song was the best.
I pulled out my old key ring this morning that I wore back when I looked like this (I am on the left – my wife looks pretty much the same 40+ years later.)
It made me think of the need we all have for more keys, especially when there are so many doors slamming in so many people’s faces. I am going to keep mine handy. Keys are great and also can be used in self defense in case of attack. Keep your keys in your hand, lace them through your fingers so you are ready if a new executive order comes down. Pray for the lights to come on.