Sunday Sermon

This week’s sermon was presented Nov. 18, 2001 (the third day of Ramadan in the year 1391), by the Rev. Brian J. Kiely of the Unitarian Church of Edmonton, Canada. What follows in an excerpt.

For most of us Islam seems mysterious and distant. While we know there are 10 million Muslims on this continent, we – or rather I – tend to see it as foreign in language, custom and theology. The prayers are all in Arabic, aren’t they? The music is all like middle eastern, isn’t it? And then there are those crazy terrorists who die in the name of Allah led by those even crazier mullahs? What kind of religion can that be?

Well, in fact everything I have just said is mostly false, taken out of context and blown way out of proportion. One of the most interesting facets of our visit [to a Boston mosque] was the reaction of the children and parents who accompanied us.

As we arrived at the Islamic Center, they all took a quiet deep breath. The people looked strange, the women wore head scarves and we weren’t sure what would happen.

What did happen was a fairly typical ‘church mom’ took us inside a classroom, welcomed us and began to teach. From time to time she went to the adjoining room to shush the kids who were getting a little too rambunctious. One of the men of the mosque occasionally tried to take over the question and answer session in the way that some folks in love with their own voices are wont to do. Our church mom did a wonderful job of politely shutting him down.

Towards the end, she explained the proper manners required in the prayer room (it’s very simple and naturally respectful) and then took us over. When all were assembled, we sat through too many announcements that went on too long. At that point we all felt quite at home. A brief 10 minute prayer service followed. Islam expects prayers five times a day, but has little else in the way of ritual or ceremony. Oh, at the end there was a homily. It lasted four minutes. There are, perhaps, things Unitarian Universalists can learn from Islam!

Throughout children ran around and some of the women were busy in the kitchen getting food ready. It all felt like any UU church… except perhaps that there were more children and youth.

For us, some of the misconceptions began to melt away.

Let’s look at a few:

* The role of mullahs

There are no ordained clerics in Islam. Mullah is simply the leader, usually elected by the congregation. Some are very highly educated. Some are charismatic leaders. Some are both. Some are neither. The point is they are not ordained or certified by a central church. In fact, Islam is the most radically democratic major faith in the world. Each person has the right to read and interpret the Koran (indeed, is expected to read and even to teach at times).

* The terrorist question

It is as wrong to see Al Qaeda terrorists as representative of Islam as it is to see the Irish Republican Army as representative of Catholicism or the Ku Klux Klan as representative of Protestantism. Terrorists are deeply angry people, in some cases deeply disturbed people. They have been twisted by hate and turned by charismatic leadership into killing machines. They lack every compassionate and forgiving quality their religion names as its highest values. They grab the banner of religion in order to gain support and to lend legitimacy to their psychopathic desire to destroy.

Now it’s true that there is usually legitimate anger and injustice to be found among the peoples where terrorism rises. Terrorists gain support from moderates because levels of frustration at that injustice come to a rolling boil. But to suggest that terrorism is an expression of the message of any world religion is completely wrong and an insult to all people of faith.

Let’s now pull away a few more veils and look at what Islam professes to be.

Islam began in the year 610 CE when Mohammed, a young businessman was chosen by God (Allah) to be his 25th and final prophet. The angel Gabriel Jalazreel) revealed the first five verses of the Koran to Mohammed in the Cave of Hira near Mecca. Mohammed, himself illiterate, dictated them to scribes. It would take several years before the Koran was completed in this fashion, but Mohammed began preaching the religion of submission to one God right away.

Islam was not created out of whole cloth. As Christianity was an offshoot of ancient Judaism, so is Islam. As we know from the Hebrew Bible, Abraham became a messenger of God. Now he was an old guy and his wife Sarai had never had children, so she arranged for Abram to sleep with her maid Hagar.
The result was a son Ishmael. Now God made a promise to Abram and soon Sarai conceived in her old age and gave birth to Isaac and so began the Jewish race. Hagar and Ishmael were turned out into the desert.

In Islam, Ishmael became the next prophet in a line leading towards Mohammed. Similarly, Jesus becomes the 24th prophet, just before Mohammed. Islam accepts and honors the wisdom and value of Christianity and Judaism. It simply believes that Mohammed received the updated and final teachings of God. But all three religions worship the same divinity. It is merely the vagaries of language that label them God, Yahweh and Allah.

I’ve often said that religion cannot be separated from the culture in which it arises. This is true of Islam. A major part Mohammed’s mission was to bring an end to the kind of mass slaughter we witnessed both on September 11 and in the zealotry of both Iran and Afghanistan in past decades.

Pre-Islamic Arabia was caught up in a vicious cycle of warfare in which tribal vendettas were a way of life. Mohammed himself survived several assassination attempts and once had to flee for his life to Medina.

Islam was born in a deadly war of survival, but as soon as a feeling of security developed, the Prophet began to preach peace and compassion. Indeed, he spread Islam through the Arabian peninsula through an ingenious campaign of non-violence and coalition building. When he died in 632 he had almost singlehandedly brought peace to the peninsula.

Because the Koran was revealed in the context of all-out war, several passages do deal with armed struggle. But violence and warfare are only legitimate as means of self-defence. You must be attacked first, and it is always more meritorious to forgo revenge in favor of charity.

Like some fundamentalist Christian preachers who sell more hate than religion, people like Osama bin Laden cite the passages on war selectively, ignoring the longer compassionate and peaceful verses which almost always follow. Like the Bible, you can prove just about any point of view with Koranic verses taken out of context.

And they can twist words. We are all familiar with the word ‘jihad,’ which we are told means ‘holy war’. That’s not true. It means ‘struggle’ and usually means an internal personal struggle to submit to God’s will (inshallah). There is one Koranic passage where Mohammed returning from battle says it was a ‘jihad’ but that now the far greater ‘jihad’ to seek peace and act with compassion begins.

The word Islam means ‘submission’ meaning complete submission to a single God, and the word is related to ‘salaam’ which means peace. Every Muslim I have ever talked with has asserted that Islam is a religion of peace. As well, Muslims believe that no one can be forced to convert. The Koran insists, “There must be no coercion in matters of faith.”

In the 7th and 8th centuries, when Islam spread so rapidly through all of North Africa and up to the Franco-Spanish border in the west and the Balkans in the east, Jews and Christians were never forced to convert. The best example is probably the Eastern Orthodox Church. It has been based in Constantinople (or Istanbul) since it split from the Roman church in 1054. For almost all of that time, that city has been under Islamic rule.

In one of his last sermons, Mohammed said, “O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” — not to conquer, subjugate, revile or slaughter, but to reach out towards one another with intelligence and understanding.

While the Koran is complex and requires a lifetime of study, the basic teachings of Islam are very simple. They resolve into what are called the five pillars:

1. Accept that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his messenger. Say that aloud with belief in your heart and you are a Muslim. No complicated rituals required.

2. Pray five times a day in the prescribed manner.

3. Charity. You are expected to share of yourself and your wealth, to model Allah’s compassion in your life.

4. Fast during Ramadan.

5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your life if health and money allow. Do that and you are a good Muslim.

I would leave the conclusion to a 17-year-old Jewish lad I met at the mosque.

He had converted to Islam after September 11. “Don’t make the mistake of confusing the faith with the society,” he said. “Sure there are repressive regimes and anti-woman societies within Islam, but that’s the society they live in, not the religion we practice. It’s no different from the way we Americans had slavery and denied women the vote once upon a time. Those things had to do with culture, not Christianity or Judaism. It’s the same with Islam.”

I have found nothing in the classical understanding of Islam that I cannot fully respect and honour. If Islam fails to live up to its origins in any particular nation, it’s only because the religion is in the hands of fallible human beings, just like every other religion on earth.

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