- Published Date
- Written by Rev. Tim Kutzmark
A Sermon Offered by Rev. Tim Kutzmark
Sunday, April 25, 2010 • Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading
“O people! Behold,
We have created you . ..
and have made you into nations and tribes
so that you might come to know one another.”
How do we come to know something? How do we seek the essence of something? How do we discover the truth within complexity?
Dr. Martin Luther King once said: “We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew [and] Muslim . . . —a family unduly separated by ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
And yet, today, the gulf that separates us, Easterner from Westerner, the so-called Muslim world from so-called Judeo-Christian world, remains immense. Today, the United States is at war in two Muslim countries. Today, marginal Militant Islamists have co-opted the banner of their faith, taking focus from the moderate Muslims who make up the majority. Today, our Western media and opportunistic politicians have been only too eager to promote the image of most Muslims as violence prone and anti-Western. Today, in France, Muslim women are banned from wearing their headscarf in public buildings, and on Wednesday French President Nicholas Sarkozy told his cabinet that he would put forward a bill to make wearing full body veils—the Burqa—illegal. In Germany public school teachers are forbidden to put on the headscarf if they wish to keep their job. It is as if some believe that Islam can be legislated in oblivion, or be militarily made to simply go away. But, as author John L. Esposito writes in his just published book, The Future of Islam, “ Today, Islam is among the fastest-growing religions in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. More than 1.5 billion Muslims live within some fifty-seven Muslim-majority countries . . . in Europe . . . some twenty million Muslims make Islam the second-largest religion . . . and [in] America . . . six to eight million Muslims make it the third-largest and fastest growing religion.” (p. 4)
Esposito, a leading authority on Islam, echoes the words of Dr. King, when he writes: “The Future of Islam is about all our futures. Islam and Muslims today are integral players in global history. They are part of the mosaic of American and European societies. In a world in which we too often succumb to the dichotomy between “us” and “them,” we are challenged to transcend (though not deny) our differences, affirm our common humanity, and realize that “we,” whether we like it or not, are interconnected and co-dependent, the co-creators of our societies and our world.” (p. 5)
The story of Islam is a fascinating one. The essence of Islam is revealing. It is worth remembering that the anxious, unharmonious world that gave birth to Islam is, in some ways, similar to our world today. In remembering Islam’s beginnings, perhaps we can find a way to envision more fully the future we must share.
So let us go back to where it all began.
There was no harmony in the land of Arabia in the Sixth Century. The tribal people living between the Persian gulf and the Red Sea did not seem to share very much in common. In the North country were wandering nomadic peoples, tent-dwellers living on the edges of fierce desert wastelands. They barely forged a living from the harsh soil, and their herds of camels, sheep and goats. In the South, near the Arabian Sea, the peoples were blessed with warm rains that gave rise to lush, fertile lands. But because of their abundance, these Southern tribes were constantly attacked by outside invaders. To the East, lay another region, bordered by the Red Sea on one side and mountains rising 10,000 feet on the other. These tribes were the traders, the link between the fertile south lands and the rest of the Mediterranean world. Glorious spice-laden caravans traversed this region, trade routes spreading not just rich product but revolutionary new ideas. (A History of the World’s Religions, David Moss)
Around the year 600 C.E., religious belief in Arabia was as varied as the topography. Some might say it was as varied as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Some Arab tribes worshipped the Moon god, others made offerings to a female trinity made up of al-Lat, a mother goddess, ‘al-Manat, the goddess of fate, and al Uzza, the morning star. (A History of the World’s Religions, David Moss, p. 531). Some tribes, especially those around the city of Mecca, recognized al-Llah, a creator God. Other tribes worshipped the mysterious and dangerous desert herself, and her inanimate rocks and caves. For others, allegiance was pledged to various Babylonian gods, or remnants of Roman deities, or even the wild animals they hunted. In the midst of such theological diversity, many of the Arab tribes suffered from a sense of spiritual inferiority. They were surrounded by established religions such as Judaism and Christianity, all who had received a Divine scripture uniquely their own. Not so for the Arab tribes. The Holy had never spoken uniquely to them. They wondered—were they the forgotten people?
There was no political harmony either. The well-off Southern tribes were constantly defending themselves from invaders and from the greed of each other. Inter-tribal warring was even more pronounced in the nomadic North, the land of the desert. Individual survival in that harsh land required absolute loyalty to a small group. Out of this shared survival ethic grew the concept of muruwah—submission to the greater needs of the tribe. As religious scholar Karen Armstong writes: “Only the tribe could ensure the personal survival of its members, but that meant that there was no room for individualism . . . nor the rights . . . associated with it. Everything had to be subordinated to the interests of the group.” (Muhammad, Armstrong, p. 58) Muruwah was a kind of principles and purposes that demanded loyalty to the tribe, including the responsibility of avenging the wrongs done to fellow members of the tribe. (Muhammad, Armstrong, p. 58) This concept of muruwah created constant bloodshed throughout the regions as tribes defended their own turf and interests. “One tribe fought another, in a murderous cycle of vendetta and counter-vendetta.” (Islam, Armstrong, p. 1) In Mecca the preeminent crossroad for the trade routes and caravans, two main tribes vied for supremacy inside the city walls. Each of the two warring tribes were themselves further divided into dozens of clans. And these clans fought among themselves even while together fighting the opposing tribe.
This was the Arabian Peninsula in the year 571, the year the prophet was born.
The name Mohammed means “highly praised”, and is today the world’s most commonly given name. But 1400 years ago the name held little significance when another infant boy was born into the dirt and despair of poverty. Little Mohammed ibn Abdallah did not inherit an easy life. Even before he was born in Mecca, his father died. This spelled economic disaster in a patriarchal world. Mohammed’s mother died when he was six. A homeless orphan, little Mohammed then lived with his grandfather, who died two years later. At eight years old, young Mohammed was adopted into his Uncle’s family, where he worked as a shepherd boy. Growing into young adulthood, Mohammed apprenticed himself into the caravan business, hoping it would bring him riches and let him travel to exotic places. It more than fulfilled his dreams; it let him see the whole Arab world. He proved himself an able trader and, at twenty-five years of age, he was employed by a wealthy older widow named Khadija. She was impressed with more than just his business skills, and Mohammed was soon a married man.
Fifteen years passed. But something besides business was tugging at Mohammed’s soul. He cringed at the bloody world around him, filled with cycles of tribal violence and retribution. He knew firsthand the pain of being an outcast, of being poor and shoved to the fringes of society. He hated the economic injustice that accumulated wealth for a few while condemning others to live with nothing. The social climate also horrified him. Everywhere he looked he saw irresponsible and immoral living. The promise of life was being compromised by decadent sexuality, widespread drunkenness, and gambling rackets that exploited the most vulnerable. Mohammed recoiled as he saw women treated as property by fathers and husbands. Daughters had no inheritance rights. Females were so disvalued that it was common practice to simply bury infant girls alive. (Smith, p 251) Mohammed saw all this; and he saw there was no political or religious unity to provide a foundation to address these wrongs. These fractured times ached for change. But what could usher in transformation?
More and more agitated at the world around him, Mohammed began to flee the confusion of Mecca, climbing into the quiet stillness of nearby Mount Hira. He took refuge in a cave, spending more and more time in mindfulness and prayer. As time went on, Mohammed felt some strange power pulling his heart and mind. He found his thoughts led towards al Llah, the creator God of his tribe. Mohammed wondered: could al Llah be the unifying power his world so desperately needed? As Huston Smith writes: “Peering into the mysteries of good and evil, unable to accept the crudeness, superstition, and fratricide that were accepted as normal, [Mohammed’s] fiery heart, seething, simmering like a great furnace of thought, was reaching out for God.” (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 225) The Holy, it seems, was ready to reach back.
The promise of harmony descended in the year 610. As this 39-year-old Arab businessman “lay on the floor of the cave, his mind locked in deepest contemplation” he believed the Angel Gabriel appeared to him in a blazing vision. (Smith, p. 225) The Angel told him he had been sent by the one true God, Allah. He then commanded Mohammed to: “Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created! Proclaim: Allah is the Most Generous!” (Smith, p. 226) “Proclaim: Allah Akbar!” God is Great! Then, in exquisite ecstasy, chanted verse poured into the heart and mind of Mohammed, the first of twenty-three years of ongoing revelations from Allah. These revelations would eventually become the sacred scripture known as the Qur’an. These revelations, Mohammed believed, could be a new unifying truth for the tribes of Arabia. These revelations could usher in a new world order, one that joined “faith to politics, religion to society” (Smith, p. 249) and society to God.
The religion Mohammed believed he was called to proclaim began with the concept of muruwah—the behavior code of devotion, loyalty and submission to the tribes. But Mohammed took tribal muruwah and transferred it to Allah. The center of life was no longer the individual tribes; the center of life was now Allah, the great chief of the one true tribe. Tribes that previously fought were now joined in a shared submission before the greater Truth. And that submission is how the religion got its name. Islam means submission. And Islam demands submission: submission to the word and will of God. But Islam is also derived from the Semitic word, salem, which means peace. Mohammed believed that submission to Allah would bring peace to the land.
The five foundational practices Mohammed taught all work to weave unity and to create peace. To begin with, there is a common creed that eliminates warring theologies: La e laha illa allah; Muhammad rasul allah. Translated, the creed proclaims: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. Case closed. But more than creed joined the tribes. Practice cemented their union. They shared prayer five times daily: at dawn, midday, late afternoon, sunset and bedtime, thus repeatedly unifying everyone in allegiance to the greater Power. Only a few hours can go by before everyone is literally together prostrating themselves while chanting: “Allah Akbar,” God is great!”
And while reaching to God in prayer, Mohammed also required that the faithful reach out to each other. Financial support for the needy, debtors, slaves, travelers, or beggars was not an option but a religious requirement. Two and one half percent of income and property value was given yearly to the needy.
To further cement their union, for one entire month each year, the faithful share a time of fasting, with food and drink consumed only after the sun has set. This unifies everyone in vulnerability, purification, and renunciation of worldly ways. This is the month of Ramadan. All followers of this religion were also required to make a pilgrimage to the central city of Mecca. There, everyone, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, young or old, dress in the same simple white garment and prostrate together, all equal before Allah.
But Religious law reached beyond those practices. In areas of social justice, Mohammed’s revelation “stressed racial equality and interracial coexistence.” It forbid any caste systems that categorize people’s worth or status. Preventing the exploitation or degradation of anyone is the basis for rules against alcohol consumption, gambling, and promiscuity. Through Mohammed, Allah also proclaimed religious law for economics by insisting that competition and consumerism be balanced by ethical business practices and accountability. Money must flow through society and not be hoarded by a few. This was Allah’s law.
Today we may look on Islamic law as patriarchal and hostile to women; but in its day, 1400 years ago, it was radical in affirmation. Under Islamic law, women were given the right to inherit wealth and property, something denied them prior to Mohammed’s revelation. The killing of infant girls was forbidden. Prior to Islam, women in Arabia had no voice in marriage; now, they were given the right of consent or refusal. In an attempt to keep women from being exploited for sexual pleasure, sexual relations were forbidden outside marriage, forcing the man to provide for and protect the women he pursued. (Smith, p. 251-52) For that time, Islam gave women a status much higher than they had ever known before.
Needless to say, submission to Allah ignited massive societal change in Mohammed’s world.
But with growth and time came changes in understanding and interpretation. With differing interpretation came dissent and division. With division came struggles for leadership and power, seen most strongly in the Sunni/Shiite split. With struggles for power came a harsh underbelly, hard and unyielding. From this hardness grew dangerous Fundamentalist sects that slice and draw blood. Western colonialism and imperialist greed further complicated and exacerbated it all. The history of what happened to Islam after it began, and how it evolved, is long and complex, as is the evolving history of Christianity, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or any other religion.
Complexity and difference are part of any religion, including Islam. Its inspired beginning, its growing and transforming, and its minority fundamentalism are all part of Islam. The initial impulse for unity and peace is part of Islam, as are the majority of moderate Muslims who practice their faith gently. The fundamentalist Imams who call for bloody jihad against the West are part of Islam, as is today’s little discussed Muslim reformist movement that hopes to remake Islam for the new century. Lesbian feminist Muslim author Irshad Manji is part of Islam, as are bombs that explode in marketplaces in Baghdad. No matter what anyone says, no religion is as simple as its diverse followers like to pretend. No religion that has grown through time preaches just one truth, or teaches just one way. The gentle and the harsh claim the same name of God. Inevitably, humanity corrupts what the Divine may have inspired.
How do we find the essence of a religion? We find the essence by first learning about it. We find the essence by avoiding sweeping generalizations. We find it by looking at all the parts. We find it by being open to the possibility of conflicting truths. We find it by accepting challenging paradoxes and polarities. We find it by seeing the evil within the good, and by seeing the good within the evil. In doing so, we learn that religion and life share one lesson: only by seeing the whole can we learn to move towards true harmony.
May it be so. Blessed Be. Amen