Islam and Unitarian Universalism @UUP 2/26/1
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?