Presbyterian Men's Breakfast
November 18, 2001

Islam: Our Younger Brothers in Faith

Good morning. When Jack asked me to speak on Islam some time ago he was responding to the PBS TV series. Since then, events have brought Islam to the forefront of our attention. I'll try to tackle a couple of questions: First, what sort of religion is Islam? And how does it relate to Judeo-Christian beliefs that we're more familiar with? We also know we're at war as a country. That brings another nagging question; is this a religious war we are in? I happen to think the answer is "Yes", but the war is not with Islam. It is with narrow thinking literalists, those who reduce God's words to fit their own small vision. I'll be sharing some of my thoughts with you this morning; then we'll leave time for some questions.

First let's look at the roots of Islam. At the outset let me say I believe Islam is a partner religion to Christianity and Judaism. All three great religions worship the One God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Mohammed. All three religions declare, with Jesus and the prophets -- including Mohammed -- the first great commandment, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."

You've heard me say before how I believe that Judaism and Christianity are the trunk and branches of one great faith in the one God of creation and revelation. Islam is related as well. Here's how the history unfolded.

God spoke first through Abraham; then Moses, to his first called people, the Israelites, the Jews. Then God spoke through Jesus, born of a Jewish virgin, a New Covenant fulfilling the First Covenant. The start of the Christianity.

Then, 600 years after the birth of Jesus, God spoke again through the angel Gabriel, to a middle-aged Arab named Mohammed, from the Arabian city of Mecca. Mohammed recorded these revelations, creating the Koran, which is the scriptural base of Islam. In fact, for some Muslims, the Koran is Islam. Muhammed was an orphan raised by his uncle, and as was the custom, he spent several years as a boy traveling the desert with a Bedouin family. When he was in his 20's he went to work for an older wealthy widow as a merchant trading with caravans. He later married the widow and had daughters with her. In his forties he began meditating in a cave outside of Mecca. It was in this cave he heard the voice of Gabriel, who gave him an order: These first words are recorded in the 96th Sura, or Chapter of the Koran. Many Muslims believe the Koran is not translatable and must be read in Arabic. Since neither you nor I can read Arabic, here is one of the English translations. The first word can be translated as "Read", "Recite", "Write", "Say" or "Proclaim". The words Gabriel announced to Muhammed were:
[96.1] Read in the name of your Lord Who created.
[96.2] He created man from a clot.
[96.3] Read and your Lord is Most Honorable,
[96.4] Who taught (to write) with the pen
[96.5] Taught man what he knew not.

The revelations began sometime around the year 600 and continued over some 40 years. God told Mohammed that the people of "the book" - meaning the Jews and the Christians -- had received the truth, but had fallen into apostasy. They were not following what they knew to be true. So now God speaks the words of warning to the world through Mohammed. Islam, which means "surrender", the religion of Mohammed, acknowledges the truth of the Torah given to the Jews, and the truth of Jesus' message. The Koran even acknowledges, in the Surah on Mary, that Jesus was born of a virgin.

The belief in the unity of God is paramount in Islam; from this all else follows. The Koran stresses God's uniqueness, warns those who deny it of impending punishment, and proclaims His unbounded compassion to those who submit to His will. The Koran rejects the polytheism of Mohammed's age and emphasizes man's moral responsibility. There is one God and mankind owes God praise and obedience. The principal difference between Islam and Christianity is the idea of God having a son. This was anathema to Muhammed. Polytheism, the worship of many gods, was the pagan practice Muhammed put to an end in Arabia. The idea of a trinity or God having sons or partners was also unacceptable. In fact, on Al-Aqsa, the mosque of the dome of the rock in Jerusalem, paintings on the wall proclaim God has no partners, and no sons. You might say there is a little reaction here to Christianity.

The Koran stands alone as the scriptural base of Islam, it's not a "Third Testament." Still, the Koran as a scripture seems familiar in many ways: it includes promises of peace and serenity to believing men and women, it includes exhortations to peace, hospitality and good will to others, it includes uplifting praise of God for the goodness of his creation. For example, from the Sura entitled "Immunity"9:72 …"Allah has promised to the believing men and the believing women gardens, beneath which rivers flow, to abide in them, and goodly dwellings in gardens of perpetual abode; and best of all is Allah's goodly pleasure; that is the grand achievement."
The Koran, like our familiar Bible (especially the Old Testament) also includes some bloodcurdling imprecations against sinners, and calls to war against unbelief. For example, to continue the same passage from "Immunity"9:73…"O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell and evil is the destination."

Islam spread from Mohammed's Mecca to Medina and throughout the Arabian Peninsula, even after Mohammed's death in 632. Soon Islam's temporal rule had evicted the Byzantine intruders in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Persia. The Muslims administered the conquered areas with unheard-of tolerance. Jews and Christians who acknowledged the Muslim conquest - paid the "poll tax" - were free to worship as they wished. Pagans and polytheists, however, were not tolerated.

Within Islam, different branches appeared. By the year 660 a split over the choice of caliph or successor of Mohammed led to a division within Islam. Shi'ites believed that the caliphate, the leadership, is a hereditary role. The Shi'ites split with the Sunnis who supported the elective selection of the caliph. These two branches of Islam have persisted to today and other divisions, such as Wahabbism in today's Saudi Arabia also appeared within the overall umbrella of Islam.

By the 8th century Islam-the-religion was entwined with a geopolitical empire that spanned the Middle East. The growth of Islam was phenomenally fast, and in part was due to their tolerance of Judaism and Christianity, and their opposition only to polytheism. When the Moslems conquered a territory, they moved in with unheard of tolerance. In fact, this was a period where the leaders were called "the Rightly Guided Caliphs." After the pomp and tyranny of the warring Byzantine Christians and the Persians, the people often welcomed a tolerant Islam. Within this Islamic empire, education was encouraged, culture was supported, science advanced. Trading and economic interests supported the spread of different ideas and cultures - and Islam spread knowledge, art and culture to Europe. They rediscovered and revived the ideas of the Greek philosophers, and invented much of mathematics, including Algebra. A mixed blessing for many of us. Muhammed Ibn usa al Kwarazabi described this new science in a book called "Kitab al-Jabr wa-I-Maqabalah. Al-Jabr literally means "bone-setting" and that's how I feel about quadratic equations.

Much of Islamic scientific pursuit came from demands of the religion to face Mecca during the five daily prayer periods. Where was Mecca if you were standing in Afghanistan, or Cordoba, or Alexandria? Thus, a little math to figure it out.

Islam was an empire of glory, culture and expanse - from Southern France, around North Africa through all of the Middle East and Asia Minor, up through the Balkans and on over to Southern Russia, across Afghanistan to the borders of China and India. It was in the forefront of civilization. But that was when it was in ascendancy. Then the Mongols swept through Turkey and the glory of the Islamic empire waned. The Ottoman Turks imposed a rigid order on the Middle East, but they were more like Rome than Greece - administrators, not innovative thinkers. Europe and the West came into cultural ascendancy. Islam the religion was now centered in a region that worldly progress passed by. I have a theory that many of the distortions of Islam as a religion are tangled up with the desire to regain the temporal power of the Islamic culture of earlier centuries. A very human confusion.

The PBS video series does a dramatic job showing the rise and richness of the Islamic civilization. Jack got me a copy of the video and I'll leave it here so you can borrow it if you are interested. I want to leave the geopolitical sphere and turn to my second question.

Why is it with a common faith, a single father, why do Islam and Christianity often seem at sword's point? How can our younger brother religion be "hijacked" and used to justify intolerance and murder? I think the answer lies not in Islam, but in a universal human failing. That failing is to take religious scripture in a literal way, not as a guide to spiritual and human development, but as a rulebook. And rulebooks often represent human intolerance and sinful power more than spiritual tools.

God speaks to us in parables. That's true of our Bible, it's true of the Koran, and it's true of other great wisdom teachings. Parables illustrate patterns. Think how many of Jesus' parables are about farming. But we read the parables to learn about people, not about agriculture.

Similarly, God's commandments are to train us in what faith is. If you have true faith, following the commandments is natural. In the meanwhile, while our faith is imperfect, the commandments are training wheels to teach us what living by faith feels like. And if faith is strong, keeping the commandments is a teaching example to others. The law is a tutor to teach us until our faith in Christ is full.

What happens if you focus literally on the commandments without thinking and teaching about the faith to which they point? It's like having perfect attendance at school without ever listening to the teacher. At the end of the year, you fail. Islamic scholars share this belief. As one explains, "Because the believer acknowledges God as the one and only, he expresses this acknowledgement in devotional obedience. Reward is not the reason, but the result of his faith."

No one can fulfill the law completely. "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God". Jesus set us free from the law, to go above and beyond, not by breaking the law, but by entering into the place where the law points us, the kingdom of faith.

Now faith is not visible. It is the proof of things you cannot see. There is a world outside the range of our vision. We cannot see the real light and the real world...except through eyes of faith.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all point to the same place…to reveal the Mind of God within us. The Christians have the Saints and mystics of the Contemplative traditions, the Jews the Cabbalists and Hasids of their mystical traditions, and Islam the poetic beauty, ecstatic worship and mysticism of the Sufis. All three religions could read each other's mystical writings and practice each other's practices and see no difference. The goal of all three sister religions is the same; to experience our oneness with God and the unity of each of us, and in silence, to come to know our role in creation. The Christians call this awareness of unity with God and crucifixion of self, acquiring "the Mind of Christ"; the Jews call the restoring of the scattered divine sparks of creation into full union with God, "Tikkun Olom"; and Sufi Islam; they, too, seek Unity with God and annihilation of Self.

Let me read a brief quote from a famous Sufi mystic poet from 13th Century Afghanistan, called Rumi. The poem is called, "Send the Chaperones Away" and teaches about the role of religious rules and traditions. Rumi describes how, once religion has helped you "get together" with God, too much talk and rules can get in the way:

"Inside me a hundred beings are putting their fingers to their lips and saying, "That's enough for now. Shhhh." Silence is an ocean. Speech is a river. When the ocean is searching for you, don't walk to the language-river. Listen to the ocean, and bring your talky business to an end. Traditional words are just babbling in that presence, and babbling is a substitute for sight. When you sit down beside your beloved, send the chaperones away, the old women who brought you together. When you are mature and with your love, the love letters and matchmakers seem irritating. You might read those letters, but only to teach beginners about love. One who sees grows silent…."
As you can hear, Rumi might well be describing Christianity. However, today's extreme Islamic reductionists stress law and behavior. The West today stresses freedom of choice rather than coerced behavior. But we have had our own Talibans: Think of Puritan New England of the 17th Century or Oliver Cromwell. Think of the Crusades or the Inquisition. In our own time think of the literal reductionists - often miscalled "fundamentalists" - who coercively stress strict behavior codes and lip service. But while you can force conforming behavior, you can't force faith.

The reductionist is a reductionist because he reduces. He brings God down to something his mind can contain. He does not let his mind be remade. He is in fear of being transformed. He wants a community of belief, a way of believing which can be seen and measured and evaluated. This community of visible belief must behave in certain ways. You must pray at the right times, or be forced to do so. You must clap your hands at services and say; "Praise the Lord" at the right times. Your beard must be the prescribed length, your women perfectly veiled and cloaked and silent. What goes on in your mind is less important, as long as your behavior is right and your mouth controlled. Today's Islamic fundamentalists have forgotten how Islam won so many converts in their glory days of empire. The tolerant, compassionate behavior of the Muslims won believing converts, not beating people with a stick.

So, before we close, let's look at a more moderate Muslim voice. We're used to thinking of Iran as an extreme Islamic state. We were at war with Iran not so long ago. I had fallen into a provincial view that Iran's outlook on the world was anti-freedom, anti-Western, and anti-Christian. I was startled last week by a statement from the president of Iran. He said, "There are two ways to look at religion. One is the extremist, narrow-minded approach to religion, which is inhumane, and the second is an interpretation of Islam based on wisdom. God willing, as God has wanted for us, all of us, Christians Jews, Muslims, everyone, can interpret religion in a free manner based on wisdom and foresight. Just as the Crusades should not lead to a point of view that says Christianity was the reason for war, or for example, what is happening in Ireland or in the Basque region should not be blamed on Christianity. If there are extremist movements and terrorist movements around the world, we should not blame Islam for that. Islam brings a message of peace for humanity. I think there are dirty hands involved that are trying to take advantage of this situation. They want to stir negative feelings against the west in the Muslim world and against the Muslims in the West. So we must strongly prevent a clash among civilizations and religions and the spread of hatred."

In closing, we have to ask ourselves; what is our view of our own religion? Are we reductionists looking at God as a rule-making God only; as God of the Presbyterians only, of Christians only; of Americans only? Or God as God of the world and all the world's people? Do we bring God down to fit inside our understanding of Him, as a God who can be appeased into granting our childish wishes? Or do we struggle to acquire the compassionate mind of Christ? The Moslems are correct: There is one God. We all pursue him within our own culture, family and religion framework. But all are leading to the praise, love and mercy of the same one God. I'd like to end with a brief prayer that seems to fit today:

God of power and mercy,
Protect us from all harm,
Give us freedom of spirit
And health in mind and body
To do your work on earth. Amen.

  back home top of page