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The Islam I Love

The Islam I Love

Image credit: The Ta-Sin of Self-Awareness in Tawhid II, Amar Dawod, 2013

In my last couple of posts I “came out” regarding my relationship to Islamic spirituality—that it's been a nourishing and significant part of my spiritual journey over the last several years.  In this post, I want to reflect a bit on what Islam means to me.  But before that, a few framing remarks seem relevant and helpful.

First, simply an acknowledgment that we can never truly speak of “Christianity” or “Islam” (or “Buddhism,” etc.) but only of “Christianities” and “Islams,” of Christians and Muslims.  No religion or spiritual tradition is a monolith; each exists in multiple forms and expressions—from conservative to progressive, from exclusive to inclusive, from literalist and fundamentalist to metaphorical and mystical. 

We can never really say “Islam says” but rather “Muslims say”—and then only “some Muslims say.”  There will always be outliers, even to the most popular and widespread interpretations of a tradition.  At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as an abstract or essentialized “Christianity” or “Islam”—only the flesh and blood Christians and Muslims who embody and interpret (and reinterpret) these traditions.

Second, not only is there not only one Christianity or Islam, but Christianity and Islam (and again, all religious traditions) are also evolving realities, constantly adapting to new contexts, cultures, and time periods.  As humanity evolves, our religions evolve.  And so, there can be no “finished” or “final” version of a tradition—only specific instantiations within an ever-flowing stream.

Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  If we accept this as true (and I do), as humanity evolves (yes, it seems, often at the infuriatingly slow rate of three steps forward, two steps back), we are moving towards ever-greater levels of justice—of inclusion, equality, understanding, unity, and love.  To serve this current is to serve the essential spiritual impulse of the universe.

In this light, we can see our religions as having been born in service of this evolutionary current, pushing the cultures out of which they emerged forward in the movement of expanding justice and love.  But religions can become stagnant, detached from this universal movement, and end up serving the very status quo they once exploded.  And so it follows that a religion only continues to serve its purpose in so far as it stays aligned with the bending arc of the moral universe.

Finally, following from this last point: any religion worth its salt is not primarily a system of doctrine or a legal code (though it may contain both of these).  Rather, it is a path of transformation: a path working to awaken humility and servanthood; a path in the service of our individual and collective evolutionary unfolding.  When a tradition devolves into merely doctrine or law (and rapidly from there into identity-boundary maintenance), it is no longer serving its reason for being.  In so much as it reinforces egoism, it becomes anti-religion (which is the case with much of what passes for religion today).

And so, my interest in any spiritual tradition is ultimately practical: how well does this path awaken love and justice within those who claim to be its followers?  (And as an aside: by “love” I don’t mean a warm and fuzzy feeling, but rather a cultivated perception of the oneness of existence; by "justice" I mean that perception spilling over into action.)  For my money, the degree to which a tradition is doing this work is the degree to which it can be called an "authentic" expression of the religion it represents.  Devolved (inauthentic) religion serves the forces of hatred, division, and bigotry easily and well.  And so, up front: my purpose here is not to explain or defend against this form of religion—which all too certainly exists in Islam (and Christianity, etc.).  I reject that Islam outright.  My purpose here is to tell you about the Islam I fell in love with...

For those of you who don't know the story, in the year 610, a prophet began preaching in the Arabian city of Mecca.  His language, metaphors, and stories placed him firmly in the biblical lineage of prophecy; he spoke of Jesus and David and Moses before him; of justice and mercy and the oneness of God.  His name was Muhammad. [1]

A natural contemplative, Muhammad often spent time on retreat in a cave on the nearby Mount Hira; it was during one of these retreats that he first felt the force of divine inspiration welling up within his soul.  What would flow for the next 23 years through Muhammad's heart we know today as "the Qur'an" (literally, "the Recitation")—a reminder that he spoke what he received—or found reflected in the mirror of his heart—and not what he had conjured up with his own rational intellect or will.

The Qur'an acknowledged the traditions that came before it, affirming the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel, and stating that throughout time God had sent messengers to every people in the world, revealing the same basic truths.  In that sense, what Muhammad brought was not a new religion, but a new eruption of the universal truths at the heart of all authentic religion.

A new religion, nevertheless, did emerge—what we know today as “Islam.”  For that reason, it’s important to note that in the context of the Qur’an itself, the word islam simply refers to "self-surrender" to the Divine Reality, understood as the essential gesture required by all authentic religion.  The root letters S-L-M are also connected to the Arabic words for peace (salaam) and wholeness (salim).  A muslim, then, is one living in (or striving towards) this state of surrender, peace, and wholeness—of harmony with God.  In this sense, the Qur’an recognizes prophets and peoples of previous revelations as muslim on equal footing with those following the Qur’anic revelation.  Bearing this in mind, it becomes possible to speak both of a “universal islam” (present within all spiritual traditions) and also the distinct sociological reality that we call “Islam” today. [2]

At the beginning, the revelation flowing through Muhammad constellated what we might today call a “radical interfaith movement”: a diverse group made up of converted polytheists, Christians, Jews, and a category known as hanifs—unaffiliated monotheists or “seekers”—all united as a single believing body—which is what this rag-tag band of disciples first called themselves: “the believers.”  The believers accepted the message flowing through Muhammad (and thus his status as messenger, or prophet) and embraced a simple creed: There is no god but God.

The Qur'an would go on to assure the new community that "those who have attained to faith, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabaeans—all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds—shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve" (2:62).  The new revelation was not in opposition to previous revelations, but instead confirmed their basic teachings: the faithful were "commanded no more than this: to worship God, sincere in their faith in God alone, turning away from all that is false; to remain constant in prayer; and to practice regular charity: for this is the true and straight Way" (98:5).

As for the differences inevitably found between the various religious communities, the Qur'an stated that this diversity was not a problem or error, but rather divinely appointed:

Unto every one of you have We appointed a different law and way of life.  And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but God willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you.  Vie, then, with one another in doing good works!  Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (5:48)

Amazingly, differences were not to be erased, nor to become a source of conflict or division, but accepted as an interesting "question mark," prodding all on toward good works, a puzzle not for humans to solve, but best left to God.  This vision of pluralism, with its explicit embrace of religious diversity, was not only new within the Abrahamic traditions—it's still revolutionary today.

The emerging community represented a radically inclusive and egalitarian movement, born out of a deeply tribal and patriarchal society.  In the world they lived in, various tribes were always in play for honor and power, and the deeply entrenched tribal divisions—and the hierarchy they created—worked counter to the possibility of a truly just and equitable social order.  Muhammad's message posed a direct threat to this existing order.

The Qur'an's insistence that there was only one Divine Reality, and its rejection of the multiple gods of the Arabian peninsula, was not in principle a statement of religious intolerance or exclusivity; instead, it was a recognition that the Arabian gods served to reinforce tribal division (different tribes worshiped different deities), an unjust social order, and promoted limited and regressive religious practices.  Acknowledging a single, shared Divine Reality (who revealed itself through multiple revelations to all peoples) was a way of acknowledging universal humanity while dissolving tribal boundaries.

The Revelation also uplifted women, granting them property and divorce rights, condemning the widespread practice of female infanticide, and breaking with linguistic convention in addressing itself equally to "all men and women who have surrendered themselves to God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women" (33:35).  This explicit inclusion was not simply novel but, yes, again, radical (I meant it when I called this a "radical interfaith movement"!).

The Qur'an also set important limits to the use of violence.  In the earliest days, the community of believers essentially took a pacifist stance, and Muhammad modeled "turning the other cheek" when faced with opposition.  As the community grew, however, the fabric of the existing social order was increasingly threatened, and tribal forces conspired to plot a literal extermination of the believers.

At this time, revelation granted permission for the fledgling community to fight defensively (and only defensively), adding a stark caution: "Fight in the way of God against those who wage war against you, but do not begin hostilities; for verily, God does not love aggressors" (2:190).  Limiting violence even further, the believers were commanded to cease fighting the moment their opponents backed down: "But if they cease—behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace" (2:192) and again "if they desist, then all hostility shall cease" (2:193).

Revelation also reiterated a Jewish teaching that if one kills an innocent person, "it would be as though they had slain all humankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it would be as though they had saved the lives of all humankind" (5:32).  In comparison to what was permissible or normative violence by tribal standards, for the believers violence was vastly limited in scope, to be used only as a last resort, in situations of actual aggression and oppression, with great restraint and care taken to not harm non-combatants, and to be ended at the first possible opportunity.

It's all too easy to condemn this permission for defensive violence, pointing to Jesus as a model for total nonviolent resistance.  But again, context matters.  Jesus' message was born in the context of Roman imperial occupation, where movements of violent resistance were squashed overnight; in his reality, nonviolent resistance was not only a "higher road" but also a better strategy.

The fledgling believers' movement was born not in Empire, but in the context of Arabian tribal alliances and tribal warfare—where a non-defensive tactic—at this delicate stage—would have meant the total erasure of the community.  Later, when the community returned to Mecca after a period of exile, Muhammad would again model the way of nonviolence and mercy.  Ultimately, the Qur'an reminded the believers that, should they follow the way of kindness, even their adversaries could become dear to them: "Good and evil are never equal.  Repel evil with what is better, and your enemy may become like an intimate friend" (41:34).

I make these points about the peaceful, inclusive, and egalitarian nature of the beginnings of Islam to counter a dominant, media-driven narrative that says Islam is actually violent, exclusive, and misogynist.  Of course, both of these realities are true—because there is no "Islam"—only Islams.  But I believe the vision I've presented is closer to the actual origins of the tradition, and is certainly closer to what I've encountered in the lived Islam of the Muslims I've known.

The Qur'an, of course, was revealed in a specific time, place, and culture—and the conditions of its revelation no longer exist.  No one in the world today lives in 7th century Arabia.  And so when I read the holy text, I read it for direction, movement, trajectory.  The current of love and justice that I find flowing through this sacred scripture—in what direction is it pointing?  (Towards increasing inclusion and justice for all.)  If I follow that trajectory in my time and place, at humanity's current level of cultural development, what does it look like?

I have no doubt that certain verses of the Qur'an are not meant for my world—they were contextual revelations, and that context is not my own.  Perhaps I can discern a principle that still applies, but no longer the letter of the text.  With this understanding, I feel no need to make excuses for misogynistic passages that, though perhaps an advance for women at their time, are so no longer.  Again, what is the trajectory to which the text points, and where might it carry us in this time and culture?

The heart of Islam, and of islam, is the first half of the Shahada, or statement of faith: La ilaha illallah—"There is no god; only God."  This can be read in many ways, on many levels.  The first half is a negation: negating all of the false gods, the forces of separation, that too often drive our lives—greed, ego, selfishness, intolerance, hatred.  The second half is an affirmation: only God is real.  There is no reality but the Divine Reality.  What we take to be real, to be important, to be worthy of worship—is it?  La ilaha illallah.

This can also be read as "There are no isolated parts; only the Whole."  Our culture teaches us to value the individual, the part, above all else; islam teaches us to find our proper, balanced place within the Wholeness of things—to live consciously from oneness and interconnection.   My shaikh recently went so far as to offer this interpretation of the Shahada: "There is no God"—simply put, the old man in the sky does not exist—"there is only the field of Oneness we call Allah."  In other words, "Forget the Big-Person-Sky-God; there is only This."

Within this field of Oneness, Islam (the unique, historical path—which must include islam, the universal gesture of self-surrender, if it is truly alive and not simply an empty form) offers practices such as a rhythm of daily, embodied prayer (salaat); fasting; and zikr (literally "remembrance"—a practice of audibly or silently chanting/breathing the names and qualities of God).  These practices serve as a balanced method of awakening into that Oneness by cultivating humility, presence, and love.

Understood in this way, Islam is both wide and deep enough to hold a variety of expressions and approaches.  People of other traditions (or no tradition)—Christians, Buddhists, the unaffiliated—may take on the vision and practices offered by Islam, but holding them within their own context or tradition (that is, without adopting Islam as a sociological identity)—or they may embrace Islam outwardly as well.  The goal of sociological Islam, however, should always and only be islam—and not simply the propagation of an identity marker.

Unfortunately, today we often see what passes for outer Islam serving primarily to promote certain cultural markers and social distinctions (an Islam overly obsessed with clothing styles, beard length, and head coverings).  Aside from such distractions, however, a minimum of shared, collective identity does prove helpful (that is, functional) in the transmission of a tradition—but the vehicle should never be mistaken for the goal.  And that goal is simply God, the One, the Only—the Source of all Mercy, Compassion, and Love.

These are a few words about the Islam I've come to know and love; admittedly, not "Islam," but an Islam (and islam).  I've not found this vision to contradict in any essential way the Christianity that I know and equally love.  In fact, it's breathed a fragrance of warmth, oneness, and unitive love into that Christianity, enlivening things that had always been there, and drawing me even more deeply into the heart of Jesus and the Eucharistic universe he reveals—but I'll save that for the next post!  Until then...

May it be love.

[1] For an excellent introductory biography of the Prophet Muhammad, I highly recommend Omid Safi's Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, Harper One, 2009.

[2] For an engaging read on where Islam came from and where it may be going, check out Kabir Helminski's Holistic Islam: Sufism, Transformation, and the Needs of Our Time, White Cloud Press, 2017.

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