Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gabriel Whispers to Muhammad: Be a Prophet of Peace

by Morgan Zo-Callahan and Ken Ireland

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate One, the Merciful, Praise be to Allah. And we add, “Praise Compassion, Praise true Love for ourselves, others, the environment, and the poor.”

This joint piece began as a reflection about Morgan’s real face-to-face meeting with three American Muslims at the Rosemead Buddhist Temple where he practices. That was a very interesting story and so characteristic of the way in which he approaches his interior life—always seeking and always looking for an outer expression of interior work. I recalled that John Lounibos in his essay in Intimate Meanderings, My Path to Islam, made the observation that most Americans are uneducated about religion, including “their own.” Suddenly, a new focus for the article about Morgan’s experience began to take shape: How to begin a conversation among ordinary believers from any religious community and the followers of the Prophet, religious people, who after 9/11 had real questions for one another? What resources would you try to have on hand as everyone was grappling for his or her own answers? What are good ways to frame questions? And finally, what, if any, results you might be able to expect? – ed.

This paper will cover these topics:
• Talking with real Muslims
• Poets and Sufis, Rumi and Hafiz
• The Five Pillars
• Ordinary Muslims and Christians and reform
• The Shari’a and the roots of radical Islam
• Antidote to extremist interpretation: View the entire life of the Prophet.
• New voices! Support the best spokespersons for Islam
• Muhammad’s Dream of Gabriel

The events of 9/11 shocked our political sensibilities as liberal Americans with some religious sensibility; we’d always assumed that religion, at least the kind of core beliefs in the Deism of the founding fathers, was good, even essential, for our democracy. That day, radical Muslim fundamentalists claimed their god was pleased that they drove two aircraft into New York City’s twin towers killing a huge number of innocent people.

Those horrible events, plus the actions-reactions that followed, left most of us feeling helpless. Morgan and I shared the impulse to do something, but visceral reactions to what we read in the press open very few possibilities other than attack and reprisal. Given our education and, especially, our shared Jesuit and Buddhist training, we knew that any course of action we chose had to involve a deeper understanding of Islam as a religious expression of living a life dedicated to God. Although neither of us was completely ignorant about the teaching and history of Islam, there was some blind spot, and the worst part was that there was no strategy to guide action, study and prayer.

At an inter-faith conference at Rosemead Buddhist Monastery, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims held talks and discussions, prayers and meditations; there was also sharing about various programs that serve the poor and promises of mutual support. At the conclusion of the meeting, as people mingled in small groups, continuing conversations from the formal part of the gathering and saying good-bye, Morgan found himself talking with three Muslims and a Buddhist monk from Thailand.

Morgan had read Karen Armstrong’s warning: “To cultivate a distorted image of Islam, to view it as inherently the enemy of democracy and decent values, and to revert to the bigoted views of the medieval Crusades would be a catastrophe.… Be kind to everybody. It doesn’t matter what tradition you belong to.” Though he knew it wouldn’t be easy, he had to say what he felt in his heart: “Why aren’t there more protests from Muslims against violent terrorism, against intolerance towards women and gays?” he asked animatedly. The Muslims were calm and direct saying Muhammad was a prophet of peace; the Thai monk commented that he seemed angry, that this interfaith conference is all about espousing peace.

There was an insight in that moment, and the beginnings of a real conversation: Morgan knew he had both to look inside for the source of his feelings, and talk to real Muslims, not some impressions that he carried from his reading or the press. And he began a conscious effort to clarify and deepen his understanding of Islam. Some of his feelings were deeply angry, but the monk, just by his comment and presence, helped Morgan see that he could engage in conversation without being angry. At the same time, this encounter in an atmosphere where shared humanity felt more important than any particular religion, stimulated a desire to go deeper into Islam and the mind set of Muslims, especially those who are our fellow citizens. Morgan was talking sincerely and directly with Muslims; he did not hide his anger; and he asked some difficult questions.

The Muslims that Morgan encountered that day wanted to answer his questions as honestly they could. They pointed out that in many of the fifty-three Muslim countries being a moderate could be a ticket to jail or, even, to beheading. So we have to consider the circumstances and conditions of the one who is speaking out. But “we are American Muslims,” they said. “We want to live in a pluralistic democracy.”

They had a fairly long, friendly conversation, first connecting as humans, some attitude adjustment, some levity and laughter, which allowed for meaningful interchange. Morgan felt he was listening to real people, not from Rumi’s thirteenth century, not in an idealized or merely intellectual way, but now, talking with believers who embrace Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.

These Muslims told Morgan that the Islam they follow and were taught is fundamentally rational and human which translates as being peaceful and non-violent. “No rational person is a suicide bomber.” The majority of Muslims are not radicals or terrorists. They reminded everyone that all prejudice is wrong. They related personal incidents that happened to them in the milieu of the heightened emotions after 9/11. One related an experience of racial and religious hatred directed at her, just for being a Muslim. She was yelled at, pushed, called names. She said she felt as if the frustration of 9/11 was being screamed and spat upon her. She added with a smile, that she had plenty of understanding American friends who comforted her.

Since 9/11 many Muslims complain that they have been stereotyped, automatically considered fanatical; compared with other religious traditions, inferior and, compared with other people culturally, as not quite human. They say other Americans assume that they must be silently in favor of terrorism; they’re called “brainwashed,” afraid to speak up for tolerance, civility, and mutual understanding. This is a very harsh indictment of prejudice. Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the total US population (2.3 million). Sixty-five percent are immigrants who hail from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, not Arabia (most Arab immigrants are Christians). So the numbers are small enough in this country that their complaint can be overlooked.

However, it is not an American tradition to allow racial and religious prejudice to remain unchallenged. The Iranian-born American writer and scholar of religions, Reza Aslan says, “There are millions of Muslim Americans who have fully reconciled their Islamic and American identities and who are solidly middle-class and integrated into every level of American society. They’re our doctors, our lawyers. Sixty percent of them own their own homes. They’re the most educated ethnic minority in this country. And they’re living proof that this idea that there is one fundamental clash between Islam and the West is absurd. Here is Islam in the West, and it’s doing just fine. They are working diligently to provide a counterweight to these ideologies of fanaticism and Puritanism and violence and extremism, but they’re being ignored.” (Sun magazine, December 2006)

Such interfaith conferences have stimulated Morgan’s interest in continuing to learn and become friendlier towards Islam and Muslims, to develop a sense of what Muslims are about in a most genuine sense. This has to happen before we can all open our hearts, while at the same time being vigilant against violence in Islam, or in any religion, or in ourselves. We cannot change Islam to suit our expectations, but we can educate ourselves, and experience ourselves as equals, whatever our religion or spiritual practice, believer, atheist or agnostic, man or woman, gay or straight. Our study and conversations have helped us see that American Muslims are people of good heart, who have no intention to follow blindly tribal norms of their ancestors or their native lands, and it is only a small number of radical Muslims worldwide who hold “ideologies of fanaticism and Puritanism and violence and extremism.”

We would like to encourage the kind of dialogue that Morgan experienced at the interfaith dialogue at the Rosemead monastery, and the rest of the paper will be suggestions about the conditions that encourage these kinds of exchange. We both hope that this produces a balanced image of Islam and the followers of the Prophet.

لا إله إلا الله

In the late 70s, Morgan began a Ph.D program in Comparative Religion under Professor Haridas Chaudhuri at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. His work included Arabic, and comparative religion—Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism—but his first real encounter with Islam was reading about Sri Ramakrisha’s three-day retreat of worship, meditation, prayer, based on the teachings of Muhammad. During the retreat, Ramakrishna said he felt no attraction to do his Hindu rituals. He immersed himself in Islam and would go on to praise and honor Islam as a true way to know the Eternal.

Muhammad, as Karen Armstrong writes: “made a distinctive and valuable contribution to the spiritual experience of humanity.” Our minds may immediately go to the heart-felt wisdom of the Islamic poets, Hafiz and Rumi whose wonderful human touch expresses a most exquisitely true religion as lived and practiced. Genuine teachers and teachings point the individual to life and joy within one’s own being.

Reading Rumi and Hafiz has been a continued habit, but after 9/11, Morgan wanted to go back to deeper study, and if possible, some conversations about Islam. He says: “I’ve been learning that my own level of human maturity and understanding has a lot to do with how I relate to someone else and how I talk to them about the two most interesting but taboo subjects: religion & politics. How do we each live in a religiously plural society? Can this pluralism, with welcoming conversations, be enriching for us all?”

Rumi and Hafiz can open our eyes to spiritual dimensions never seen before. “The word Sufi comes from the Arabic suf, wool, for the simple coarse, woolen garments worn by early mystics. Sufis were concerned about the new wealth and excesses that accompanied imperial expansion and rule.… They emphasized the importance of a spiritual life of piety, fasting, and prayer. Sufis stressed the spirit over the letter, seeking to experience enlightenment or the presence of God. In place of intellectual or legal understanding, they followed a more mystical path.” (The Geography of Religion, p. 359)

Poetry is also a way to begin to read scriptures of the great religions as literature, rather than as historic or literal fact. We value them as evoking imaginative and poetic modes of consciousness that point the way and encourage us to be better human beings. Every religious tradition is given much of its heart and inspiration from its particular forms of mysticism and from its highest moral values for the individual who requires respect, rights and dignity. This mysticism promotes a feeling of connectedness to all others. Gary Schouborg, who is a scholar and contributor to Meanderings, says that this kind of knowledge is esoteric rather then exoteric understanding, expanding in a useful way the meaning of esoteric understanding beyond some specialized, ritualized secret knowledge.

What a marvel Rumi is! He inspired the Mawlawyiwah order, better known as the Whirling Dervishes. We have both witnessed their sacred dance, twirling elegantly, chanting Koranic verses, tall red cone hats, thick black belts cinching their flowing white skirts—spinning yet focused, centered, graceful, swinging in ecstasy. This is art, poetry, dance, and prayer all together. As young seekers in the late 1970s, disillusioned by our own Catholic religion as the only, true faith, Rumi taught us to look for a faith behind all faiths, the inner confidence of goodness and genuine joy, and pointed a real path to the heart of real religion through the cultivation of the interior life.

Rumi is now well known in the United States, but perhaps Hafiz is not. Morgan only became aware of him when his friend, Lily Hsu, gave him a copy of The Gift, poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master. Born around 1320 in Shiraz, Iran, Hafiz (Shamseddin Muhammad) is a phenomenon of insight, poetry, intelligence, love that can arise in any human. Can such a revered poet offer the world, in the present circumstances of religious fanaticism, an artistic call for the respect for human freedoms and one’s own deepest desires? Goethe wrote of Hafiz that he “has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly, a madness I know well.” And Emerson said of him, “He fears nothing; he sees too far; he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to be.”

In one poem Hafiz asks,

Do sad people have in
It seems
They have all built a shrine
To the past
And often go there
And do a strange wail and
What is the beginning of
It is to stop being
So religious

Our religion can either be fresh, friendly, and of service, or it can become just a stale shrine for worshipping past religious expressions or, even worse, it can inspire violence. A tentative answer is also found in his poetry:

Do I
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
Speaking to me
Words …

(The Gift, p. 99, translated by Ladinsky)

This is how we might listen to Americans who are Muslim if we are courageous and able to be completely open to the religious expression of another. It has some of the feeling as Merton’s description of listening in The Hidden Ground of Love, 1985: “By being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of love for which there can be no explanations.”

The great periods in Islamic history when Muslims scholars inter-mingled peacefully with other religious scholars could serve as models, and provide possible remedies to stop destructive conflicts and wars. Political, civil and religious freedoms allow for creativity to flourish. To extend true inner happiness into our own intimately inter-related world, these conditions have to be encouraged.

By the eighth century, it took one year to get from one end of the vast Muslim empire to the other. Yet Baghdad’s House of Wisdom invited scholars who were Hindu, Christian, Jewish, as well as Muslim, to think collaboratively, to do art, philosophy and science. In medicine, the first study of germs began, as well as the hospital system; mental illness was addressed. Western medicine would use their anatomical descriptions for six hundred years. The Muslims developed Arabic numerals; trigonometry; algebra; astronomy; engineering. It was a period of respect for the various cultural and religious sources of knowledge. The Muslims made a gift of Greek writings by first translating them into Arabic. From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, there were more religious, philosophical, medical, geographical, historical, and astronomical works in Arabic than in any other language.

In Cordova, Spain, this ninth and tenth century Muslim “City of Light,” was filled with libraries, open tranquil streets, large homes, running water, when in Paris people lived in shacks, along the sides of the river. Viewing the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, when he visited, Morgan felt imbued by lovely textures, space, light, water fountains, marble pillars, artful designs and curves, inter-playing to delight and facilitate the flowering of human hearts.

لا إله إلا الله

It also seems, before any real conversation can begin, that there ought to be some understanding of the basis of Islam and the Five Pillars: faith in one God; charity; prayer; fasting at Ramadan; if possible, pilgrimage to Mecca.

The first pillar, shahada, is “bearing witness” to Gabriel’s message to Muhammad: There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. There’s also a bearing witness to all the great teachers and prophets who preceded Muhammad in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels of Jesus.

The second pillar is salat, group prayer and worship, most commonly five times a day (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, evening). Muslims prepare by cleaning their space of worship and by ritual washing with water or with sand if water is unavailable, bowing to the knees, making prostrations, and finally sitting or kneeling for recitations and meditation.

The third pillar is zakat, meaning “to purify,” “to bless,” “to increase.” It consists of tithing, alms giving—both of which I consider forms of activism—for the poor, for worthy causes. “Alms are for the poor and the needy.… ” (Qur’an 9:60) “By paying it, one is aspiring to attain blessing, purification and the cultivation of good deeds.” Muslims contribute 2.5 percent of their annual income as a compassionate practice. (Islamic Free Market Institute, Vol. V, No. 1, Dec. 10, 2002)

The fourth pillar is sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month; continuing the purification, the practitioner examines his or her thoughts, actions, intentions, relationships, much like in the Examen of St. Ignatius or Buddhist mindfulness meditation. One releases such rocky emotions as jealousy, greed, excessive lusting. We’re encouraged to let go the emotions which torture us, into the spaciousness created by meditation. Eid-al-Fitr is the happy celebration of breaking the fast and cleansing introspection. It’s time to play and be happy, to socialize, to give and receive gifts.

The fifth pillar is the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, usually about sixty days after Ramadan. Mecca is sacred to Muslims. Ali Sharitate writes in The Geography of Religion: “As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka’aba, you feel like a small stream merging with a big river.” Morgan had that same feeling of awe when, many years ago, he entered the sinking cathedral in Mexico City to see paintings of St. Ignatius and other saints. Pilgrims spend five days in Mecca, worshipping, meditating, visiting various holy sites, such as Medina where one can touch the tomb of the Prophet, just as in Vatican City, Morgan was able to “touch” the tomb of St. Peter.

لا إله إلا الله

If we look for nourishment and wisdom within what’s best in the great religious traditions, as lived and taught by seasoned, accomplished practitioners who are sensitive to contemporary culture, this is the place to begin a conversation. Muslims can turn to the Five Pillars to find a way of peace and happiness. For Buddhists the way out of inner and outer violence is through the Four Noble Truths and practice.

Several years ago, Morgan heard the Dalai Lama speak at the University of California Irvine. While struck by his good humor, and lack of anger, his really listening and refraining from the blaming of others, Morgan couldn’t help thinking about the sufferings of Tibet. Here was a man full of joy and intelligence. What could be a better ‘advertisement’ for Buddhism? One woman, a Roman Catholic, asked him if she should convert to Buddhism to find “liberation.” The Dalai Lama said all religions can lead to liberation, and laughing said “perhaps no official religion at all.” He said it’s usually best to stick to your own religion and really live it—study other religions, so you can practice your own religion even better! “I reverence all the religions,” he said. “And I reverence each person.”

The dark side of human nature, however, can be a stronger force than any religious ideas. Not all Buddhists conduct themselves with the non-violence and poise of a Dalai Lama; not all Buddhists are free from using violence as a tool for control and domination. In Korea Morgan watched mobs of Buddhist monks hurling bottles and fists at other monks, fighting over who would control the largest temple in Seoul. He had a sinking feeling, but also saw a lesson of how strong a force our attachment to power can be. What conditions all conspired together to bring about this bloody conflict? We can appreciate that this angry confrontation doesn’t exemplify the rich ground of Buddhism.

More recently we saw the attempted uprising in Burma (Myanmar). The military oligarchy there claims to be Buddhist, yet they kill and imprison Buddhist monks. They also have a dreadful history of forcing children to be soldiers. As American Buddhist practitioners, and to most of the world, this is totally contrary to Buddhist practice.

The limitations of both ordinary Muslims and Christians with regard to real, widespread reform are apparent. If we cannot cause real reform in our own religions, how can we ask Muslims to clean up their own houses? “Ordinary believers” are not so encumbered by theology and tradition as the higher level within churches and mosques, we can begin to have real conversations with real people, working on our own prejudices and feelings. Not entirely wed to the past, this is the only possible course of action.

It is unfair to use Pope Benedict’s apparent faux pas in a public lecture (September 2006) at the University of Regensburg where he once taught, to denigrate the authority of his position as a teacher of the Gospel message, but it might be an example of how not to set up a useful conversation. It does not seem possible for believers of various religious faiths to speak to one another if the past keeps getting in the way?

The Pope quoted a 1301 work attributed to Manuel II Paleogus, who was one of the last Byzantine emperors of Constantinople before its fall to the Ottoman Empire: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Very few people heard anything other than the quote, and didn’t care that it was taken out of context.

The Pope’s staff was perhaps unaware of modern Islamic scholarship that contradicted the Pope’s implied objection to Islam. Mustafa Akyol, a Muslim journalist from Turkey, observes: “Pope Benedict said that the Koranic verse ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ is ‘of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.’ However, that verse, numbered 2:286 is actually a very late verse. The traditional Islamic consensus was that this verse was revealed in the Medinan period, when Prophet Muhammad and Muslims were not powerless, but in fact, were the rulers of their own state. This is one reason why the great majority of Muslim scholars accept that forced conversion is against Islam.”

History shows that violence is possible within all religious traditions, at various times and to varying degrees. The Church of the early Middle Ages actively promoted warfare and violence against Muslims; the Pope organized armies and lobbied with kings and princes to recapture Jerusalem. Plenary indulgences combined with looting and plunder seemed to be a winning combination. And to be fair, the Pope ought to have acknowledged that “forced” conversions were practiced by the clergy who followed Portuguese and Spanish armies to the new world and India.

It also seems that the Pope’s remarks have to be seen in light of a very different situation in Europe. As distinct from the United States, the population of immigrant Muslims into the EU is substantial and gaining in political power. The European press is filled with anecdotal reports that seem to reinforce the prejudice that Muslims will not and cannot integrate into the culture of western democracies.

But as one Muslim critic of the Pope’s remarks, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, said: “most westerners don’t listen to him anyway, so why should we?” (MSNBC Sept. 17, 2006). After examining the situation carefully, Thomas Haidon, of the Free Muslim Coalition (; 1/18/08) makes an insightful criticism: “The current model of interfaith dialogue which superficially focuses on general high level and common traits of faiths has failed.

An effective meaningful framework for “safe” dialogue must be developed which also focuses on the “difficult” issues in Islam that Muslims have failed to address.” And, from the perspective of Roman Catholics, the top-heavy authority within the Church either is unable to address these issues or refuses to see them outside ancient history.

What might a “framework for ‘safe’ dialogue” look like? This would be a good beginning: if your words inflame the person or persons you’re talking with, quickly acknowledge it, and then try to see where you were misunderstood, or what in you seems to be blind to the other person’s point of view. You may have been wrong in your assumptions.

لا إله إلا الله

The Shari’a and the roots of radical Islam

Wahhabism (from Saudi Arabia, eighteenth century) and Salafiyya (late nineteenth, early twentyieth century in various countries) are usually puritanical, extremist, intolerant, homophobic, militant, and violent. Since 9/11, we’ve paid more attention to religious extremists coming from these two movements. Wahhabism is a form of Sunni Islam, coming from Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab (1703–91) who called for a “pure” practice of Islam. Followers of Wahhabism have fought with other Sunnis, as well as Shiites and non-Muslims. In the 1920s, Wahhabi-trained warriors, Bedouins, allied with the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, Abd al Aziz ibn Saud, attacking fellow Sunnis in Arabia (western part) and also Shiites in Iraq. So Wahhabis became, and remain, a politically powerful faction in Saudi Arabia and within the Saud family.

Salafiyya, sometimes used interchangeably with Wahhabism, became very strong during the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s. During that period, the fighters would be indoctrinated in large numbers in mosques. Al Qaeda comes from elements of this movement.

Power and dogmatic religion do not combine gracefully. So when there’s no separation of church and state, there’s power and money available to back up violence, to provide madrasas, mosques, which indoctrinate young people into intolerance and militancy. Studies show that there are some tolerant Saudi school textbooks, but many which are not. Students are forced to conform to Wahhabi beliefs. Law and belief are mostly undifferentiated in Saudi Arabia. Radical Islam lacks the freedom of thought based in reasonable discourse, at least by western standards.

Islam is dangerous when viewed and lived as a religio-political dogmatic ideology of authoritative Shari’a, which calls for violent imposition of jihad as war, waged against “infidels” and also against Westernized Muslims who are considered “apostates.” Such radical Islam wants to control and impose its dogmatic interpretation of the Shari’a on others.

We feel that even dealing with the terror of this fundamentalist interpretation of jihad, there is an opportunity to understand Islam more deeply. We are still faced with the question what can I do? I want to change my own attitude to be jihadist in a spiritual, inner way, rather than in violent, destructive ways. There is an inner, spiritual meaning of jihad within the heart of Islam. We have had to face our own confusion about Islam. Muhammad said that it is wrong to take one’s own life, so how can terrorism be justified? Professor Carl Slawski comments: “It is important to emphasize the theological difference between greater (or primary) jihad (work to perfect oneself) and lesser (or secondary) jihad (converting unbelievers, which via individual extremist textual interpretation, gets morphed into violence unto death of the infidel).”

لا إله إلا الله

Faith demands that we acknowledge the absolute accountability of each individual before God, and that communal solidarity should never impede honest self-criticism, nor should it lead to injustice against other groups. –Ingrid Matteson

As Americans we find great wisdom in the U.S. Constitution to protect freedom of religion, religious expression and to ban government from dictating what the people must believe. But this tradition, and its common law roots, are not something that are shared with the Muslim code of law, the Shari’a, where the basis is that entire polity, the Ummah, be in accord with God’s will as envisioned in the Qu’ran. Although there is still concern for what we would call “human rights” in the west, there is not the same legal recourse as in the United States for those who are suffering oppression, even if it were in the name of religion.

Muhammad says: “A person should help his brother, whether he is an oppressor or is being oppressed. If he is the oppressor, he should prevent him from continuing his oppression, for that is helping him. If he is being oppressed, he should be helped to stop the oppression against him.” Does this mean that contemporary Islam encourages more individual personal expression and choice? Will Islam protect human rights or stop oppression, because it is truly a serious Islamic obligation? Reza Aslan says, “If we are going to talk about human rights, we have to discuss them on a country-by-country basis. Nobody in their right mind would say that the Muslim world is free of human-rights violations, but to say that human rights and Islam are incompatible is ludicrous.”

Doug McFerran, another contributor to Meanderings, writes privately: “Just as Muslim businessmen have managed to work around the Islamic prohibition against lending or borrowing money at interest, Muslim citizens, in the United States at least, have accepted democratic values without feeling they have betrayed their religion. Islam today is going through a difficult time of adaptation; the fundamentalism found in such places as Saudi Arabia and in Bin Laden’s movement will be seen for the anachronisms they are, rather than as the wave of the future.” The Islamic fundamentalists would like the Sahari’s to be seen as set in their efforts to purify within Islam. Yet history again shows that the system was developed over several centuries after the death of Muhammad and his early followers.

Within a Western context, it’s certainly legitimate to challenge Islam’s religious and societal leaders, just as Catholics question and criticize their pope and bishops. Our contemporary circumstances force us to fiercely criticize crimes, even if they are supported by religious leaders and their followers. It does not seem acceptable to allow the Vatican or fundamentalist Christians to meddle in U.S. elections or in same sex marriage debates just as much as it does not allow the justice system here or in Europe to turn a blind eye to honor killings.

We need to be clear what is acceptable behavior in affluent, tolerant democracies and what is unacceptable: homophobia, abuse of women, honor killings, what is called euphemistically “family law” in some western countries (i.e. that a Muslim household stand outside the rule of law and is allowed to continue practices of “tribal” justice which often contravene western notions of individual rights). We do not and will not condone slavery—Muhammad had slaves and slavery still exists in parts of the Islamic world—yet slavery remains unacceptable in a civilized world. The practice of polygamy, common in Arab culture at Muhammad’s time, will not find wide acceptance in modern western cultures. The execution of women for a variety of offenses by stoning or the beheading of homosexuals cannot be tolerated by the international community. This is barbarism.

لا إله إلا الله

Antidote to extremist interpretation: View the entire life of the Prophet.

There are many qualities that make Muhammad a compelling spiritual figure for our times. He is the only major religious founder who was a family man, not a celibate, throughout his entire career—he fathered six children and was totally devoted to his wife, Khadijah; he was a successful merchant who conducted his affairs in an ethical, admirable and profitable way and did not withdraw from the world after his experience of the Transcendent; he was a mystic who spoke very personally about his inner turmoil—he went through a genuine spiritual transformation, rooted in his whole-hearted devotion to the one God, the Compassionate. He was also a reformer and innovative spiritual leader. He wasn’t always a man of peace—he lead armies and killed in battle, but by the end of his life, he actively sought peace, and we will argue, by extension, would have no part of today’s terrorist actions or fanatical interpretation of the Qu’ran.

The story of Muhammad’s life has been told by biographers and historians with more knowledge and skill than we have. We will consider in broad strokes a few incidents that tell of the times when Muslims lived in peace and inspired diversity and acceptance of others, a story that we as non-Muslims have to consider.

When he was forty years old, Muhammad retreated to a cave, questioning the materialistic aspects in the Meccan market places. We have heard the story of how he heard a voice telling him to “Recite … recite in the name of your Lord who created; he created man from a clot. Recite, by your Most Generous Lord, Who taught by the pen; He taught man what he did not know.” At first Muhammad fled to the lap of Khadijah, terrified by the voice, confused, but impelled irrevocably into a deep spiritual life in response to Gabriel’s message. As he gained in his confidence as a messenger of God, however, he preached against greed, materialism, and covetousness.

Over the period of twenty-two years during which Muhammad ‘recited’ the 114 chapters of the Qu’ran, he proclaimed there was only one God and that surrender to God brings true peace. After he had finished writing down the last verses of the Qu’ran, he is reported to have said, “It was as if the scripture were written on my heart.”

Islamic scholars have noted the differences between the verses of the Qu’ran that date from the early, Meccan period and later Medinan verses. The verses can be viewed as either contradictory, or evolving in wisdom, and in some cases abrogating the earlier verses. This type of textual analysis is now widely accepted by most Christian scholars and theologians, though not in the most fundamentalist readings. And that is certainly reflected in the range of Muslim understanding of the Qu’ran. Muhammad grew in his understanding over the span of his life, just as we all change, adapt, and grow in our own practice.

Muhammad insisted that Christians have the right to practice their religion without fear. After he was established in Medina, a community of Christians lived at Najran was under his care and protection: “If anyone infringes upon their rights, I myself will be their advocate.” He also wrote one of the world’s first constitutions, the Covenant of Medina.

He promoted rights and privileges to women in his early community. Muhammad was married to Khadijah for twenty-two years, giving them two boys who died in childhood and four girls who survived. Khadijah and Fatima, his youngest daughter, were said to have best exemplified his teachings. Muhammad defended the rights of orphans, widows, and the poor.

Muhammad challenged the conventional, age-old society of many tribes, many gods. During Muhammad’s early life as a community leader, when the Ka’aba fell into disrepair and the sacred black stone fell (Abraham was said to have founded the Ka’aba and the black stone to have fallen from the heavens), the chiefs of four clans argued bitterly about who should return the black rock to its proper place. Muhammad suggested that all four carry the black symbol reverentially, each holding a corner of a rug on which the rock was placed.

He asked his disciples to be accepting and understanding, even when confronted. He taught by example: in Mecca, he was constantly berated and taunted by an opponent to his teachings. This “protester” would throw garbage and obstacles in Muhammad’s path, and his disciples urged him to retaliate, but Muhammad refrained. When he noticed no trash or obstructions in his path, he inquired about his “adversary.” It seems he was deathly ill, confined to his bed. Muhammad then went to the man’s home to ask after his health, to wish him well and to say that he missed the encounters on the road.

After Muhammad and his followers were in control of Mecca, he gave up warring and made a treaty with tribes who had been adversaries. He did not demand that his religious title as “Prophet” be put on the document, which horrified some of his followers. He signed as “Muhammad, the son of Abdulla” to the treaty that brought an extended time of peace. Peace. Why won’t we let it last?

Muhammad’s farewell teaching, “to regard life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust,” ended long held customs of raiding and vendettas. “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.… Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord … it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women but they also have rights over you … an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab, also a white person has no superiority over a black person nor a black has any superiority over a white—except by piety and good action” (The Geography of Religion, pgs. 350-1).

لا إله إلا الله

New voices! Support the best spokespersons for Islam

If this is to be a conversation, and it has to be, at least in Europe and the United States, how does one enter in without prejudice and without dictating?

Writers like Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong and scholars-activists such as Ingrid Mattson point out one possible direction. Movements for reform are growing within Islam; inter-religious dialogue and learning are increasing. There are dedicated activists and dedicated thinkers arising within Islam. Let’s listen to each other.

In October of 2007, prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars, clergy and laity met in Los Angeles to discuss scriptural passages that are “hostile” to other religions (Cf. Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2007). Similar conferences are planned in 2008 and 2009 in Germany and in Israel, respectively. Muzammil Siddiqui, chairman of the Islamic Law Council of North America, spoke of a “troublesome” passage in the Qu’ran (5.51) which says: “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies; they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them—God does not guide such wrongdoers.” Siddiqui explains that it is only extremists who use such texts to promote distrust of other religions. “The idea behind this verse is not that Muslims should shun Jews and Christians, but that they should stand up on their own feet and do their best.” It was written at a time when Muslims of Medina were a minority and some Muslims wanted to ally themselves—from fear—with Jews or Christians for protection. It was saying if you really are into what I’m saying as a prophet, then strap on your balls and engage the practice, even if we’re not popular or influential. Don’t run to religion just for its security. This is an important step in the direction that faces the “difficult” differences within religion. These conferences are being given to implement what Thomas Haidon recommends: inter-religious talking about important, serious, “difficult” topics, to really ask each other our most burning questions.

On October 13, 2006, thirty-eight Islamic authorities, leader and scholars—with differing denominations—from all around the world delivered a letter to Pope Benedict XVI by the Royal Academy of The Toyal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan. They proposed offering the true teaching of Islam to affirm the common ground between Muslims and Christians: to be in love of God and of our neighbor, the two great commandments (

Muslim women will be at the heart of the leadership for a renewed generation of Islam. Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel, Free Press) calls for a reform, “Enlightenment,” within Islam to overcome the inequality, the fundamentalism, the abuse of women in the name of religion, in particular, in Africa.

Irshad Manji is a thirty-eight year old Canadian Muslim, a self-declared “mouthy chick” and “out” lesbian. She wrote The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith ( “Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves.… Will we move past the superstition that we can’t question the Koran? By openly asking where its verses come from, why they’re contradictory, and how they can be differently interpreted, we’re not violating anything more that tribal totalitarianism.… ”

Mohja Kahf (author of  The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf) encourages respect for all religions despite differing customs and beliefs. “Does wearing a veil make you less American than wearing a yarmulke or a Mennonite bonnet?” Mohja also criticizes her own Islamic religion. “The egalitarianism that the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached never much budged Arab tribalism. The Qu’ran’s sexual ethic, enjoining chaste behavior and personal responsibility was for both men and women, not tribal ownership of women’s sexuality.”

The Pakistani-American writer Munawar Anees was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work encouraging cultural and religious pluralism. Munawar Anees received his Ph.D in biology (Indiana University) and has dedicated his life to the study and teaching of Muslim religion and science. He’s written six books, including Islam and Biological Futures and Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Language. He founded the journal Periodica Islam; he’s religious editor of the online encyclopedia, Nupedia. He co-founded the Journal of Islamic Philosophy which can be found on the scholarly and extensive Web site Anees calls for reform—intellectual, economic and cultural. He says “a strategy of change in the Muslim world is one of the crying needs of the hour … how to revive the culture of learning, how to revive the culture of tolerance, how to revive the culture of liberalism.” (Cf. What is Enlightenment magazine, May-July 2004) Anees wants to get at the roots of why an “ossification” has happened in Muslim thought and behavior, why “an inward-looking attitude” has led to literalism, fundamentalism and the rejections of others’ opinions and ways of living. Muslims must learn “the magnanimity of critical self-analysis.” Anees points out that Muhammad in the later part of his life allowed Jews and Christians to live as they pleased, without trying to force conversion. In fact, Anees says that this openness to other schools of thought is inherent in Islam: “According to the teaching of the Prophet, one’s cognizance of the Almighty is inseparable from the cognizance of the Muslim tradition of liberalism and tolerance.”

لا إله إلا الله

Muhammad’s Dream of Gabriel

Once Muhammad dozed off after evening prostrations and found himself in the angel Gabriel’s company, riding on horseback from heaven to Jerusalem. “Muhammad alighted on the Temple Mount, the Temple of the Israelites, where Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets welcomed him into the circle. Offered goblets containing wine, water, and milk, Muhammad selected the one with milk—a sign of the middle way of Islam, neither indulgent nor austere.…

From that spot, Gabriel led Muhammad up a ladder into heaven, where God greeted him and told him that the devout must pray fifty times a day. On the way down the ladder, Moses advised him that daily prostrations could number as few as five but still fulfill God’s wishes,” (The Geography of Religion, p. 344). How interesting that Moses trimmed down God’s demands by 90 percent! And that some of the greatest prophets from Judaism and Christianity are together in this communication.

This is a dream of unity and cooperation among the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Muhammad finally fully drank from the milk of a “middle way,” a balance to promote harmonious living, that we all together “have life more abundantly.”

A final story shows a human, light and wise Muhammad.

Muhammad goes out late at night to pray in the desert. And his young wife, Aisha, thinks he’s going to meet another woman. So as he’s going out into the silence of the desert (as Jesus would do), Aisha, full of anger and condemnation, stomps out to confront him. Muhammad looks at her enraged face and says, “Oh, Aisha, Lovely, have you brought your little Satan with you?”

“What little Satan?” she answers, calming down in his serene presence.

“Every human being has a little devilish part, their nafs.”

And she, softly now, roundly open-eyed, asks sweetly: “Even you, O prophet of God?”

“Yes, even me. However, I made mine a Muslim.”