A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 7, 2016
University Baptist Church
I love August at UBC. For the rest of the year, the Worship Planning Team chooses a yearlong theme that we take apart and put back together. You know that this past year, our theme was “For the Beauty of the Earth.” Other years, we have had year-long topics that had names like: Recovering the Sacred; Imagine That!; Subversive Spirituality; Rooted in Courage, Sustained by Grace; P’s on Earth; Holy Now; Saving Paradise and so forth. In the coming year that begins in September, we’ll be focusing on the criminal justice system. Our working title is “Just Mercy: Proclaiming Peace and Working for Justice.” We’ll join the College of Education and Human Development in reading Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy.
But in August, we get to stretch ourselves a little bit. It’s when you get to choose the topics—maybe to get a break from the worship planning team’s ideas, but also to push us deeper. I always enjoy the grab bag sermons. They make me do my homework. So, this past Sunday, Anita Hill picked out the topic that read, “What are the pillars of the Muslim faith, and how do they relate to Christianity?” That is a great topic—more than one summer sermon can capture. We have all sorts of prejudgments about the Muslim faith, just as people have prejudgments about the Christian faith. And we need to respect and understand the faith of our sisters and brothers. In our neighborhood there is a large and growing Muslim community. What do we know about them? What do we want to know about them? I think the real question is how can we be neighbors with those we don’t understand.
The first step in understanding Islam is letting go of what you think you know about Islam. For instance we hear: Islam is a violent religion. It’s true, there are scriptures in the Koran that advocate violence, against those who would oppress the Arab people, but no more than are in the Psalms. Dare we even talk about Judges and Joshua? And certainly Revelation is a violent book, even more violent than the Koran. Islam actually means peace. Salaam has the same root as Shalom. Jihad means struggle and each Muslim ought to struggle to live a righteous life. That’s the root of Jihad. Actually, Scholars say that Jihad is the struggle against oppression, tyranny and terrorism. We all struggle against that.
Here’s another one: Islam oppresses women.
Islam is often seen as misogynistic. But like Christianity, in its purest form, it advocates equality of men and women. Karen Armstrong in her book, The History of God, writes that Islam, like Christianity was “hijacked by the men, who interpreted texts in a way that was negative for Muslim women. The Koran does not prescribe the veil for all women but only for Muhammad’s wives, as a mark of their status…today Muslim feminists urge their menfolk to return to the original spirit of the Koran.” (p.158)
One more misconception: All Muslims believe the same thing.
As Islam developed, it developed in sects. The most well- known is the Sunni and the Shia. It all had to do with who would succeed Muhammad after his untimely death. The dispute continues to today.
Okay, those are a few of the assumptions about Islam. We can be better than that in our understanding. The question for today is, what are the pillars of Islam and how do they relate to Christianity?
Islam has five pillars to it. We heard these in the call to worship. Five pillars of Islam: devotion, alms, prayers, fasting and pilgrimage. All of these have parallels in Christianity and Judaism. We all love God. We all give to charity and to support the greater good. We all pray. Some of us fast more than others, but it’s a tradition in Christianity often observed around Lent. We do make pilgrimages to holy sites, although the Christian temple is seen as in our hearts, not someplace far away. So there are similarities. But to understand the differences, we need some historical context.
The Story of Islam began with Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish and Arab people. Like Christianity and Judaism, we have a common iconic ancestor, long before there were nation-states. Six hundred years after Jesus and one hundred fifty years after the fall of Rome, the Arab people were broken up into tribes that fought with each other. Materialism and individualism were fracturing the community and the prophet Muhammad sought to find a way to bring the people together for not only their survival, but to help them thrive. The only way they could do that was by a religion that emphasized a communal spirit.
Muhammad was a religiously- minded reformer. In the year 610 he began receiving messages from God or Allah through Gabriel, like the Holy Spirit. These words became the Koran. Over the next 23 years, Muhammad would receive the words, recite them and then some literate people would write them down. The result was a book that is part liturgy, part history, and part proscription for living a just and holy life. Most of all it was a unifying document that spoke to the needs of a people struggling for identity.
The Koran is written and read in Arabic. There are no valid translations. Unlike the Bible, it does not have different versions. To understand it best, one needs to understand Arabic. I don’t, but that’s why we hear Muslims chanting in Arabic. As I understand it there is a beauty in the Arabic that is lost or watered down in translation.
Before receiving his message from Gabriel, Muhammad was a reformer concerned about the individualism and infighting between the Arab people. He was seeking to find a uniquely Arab spiritual renewal that would give the Arabs a focal point. He melded it with an already existing desire to recover the faith of Abraham before he was appropriated and interpreted by Judaism and later Christianity. So, in the Koran you have stories about Abraham and his son Ishmael, son of Hagar as the firstborn and favored son, not the second-born Isaac, son of Sarah upon whom Judaism was formed.
Islam is monotheistic, meaning they recognize one God. God is called Allah and it is synonymous with the Hebrew God YHWH or El Shaddai. They don’t recognize the Trinity, because they see everyone, even Mohammed as less than God. Islam recognizes many prophets, including Jesus. But they fall short of saying that Jesus is the unique Son of God.
And it worked. The Islamic faith was and is a unifying principle. And like all faiths it has had its share of infighting. After the death of Muhammad, the people broke into groups, kinda like denominations, trying to decide who would be the most faithful successor. The main groups are the Sunnis and the Shias. The dispute continues to today. Although other sects have followed. By the way, most Muslims would say that ISIL is a misuse of the Koran and Islam, much like the Ku Klux Klan is a misappropriation of the Bible and Christianity.
So let’s look again at the five pillars and see what we can learn from Islam that can help make us more faithful.
The first pillar is Shahadah or devotion. The Muslim says that there is only one God, Allah and his messenger is Muhammad. They recognize Jesus as a prophet. They also see Allah, YHWH, El as all the same God. Allah is Arabic for God. The difference with Christianity is to say that Mohammed is a unique messenger. Christianity would say that Muhammad is one messenger, but not the only one. Christianity would say that Jesus is the Word, the Logos, the messenger. But also that we are messengers.
Karen Armstrong writes that the God of the Koran is more impersonal than the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible. Allah lacks the passion and pathos of YHWH. Allah was experienced, as in Judaism, as a moral imperative. The Koran sees God in parables, in nature. Muslims are to encounter the world with curiosity and wonder. They embrace science in a way that traditional Christianity has not. Scripture about judgment, and joys of paradise are meant symbolically, but not literally—they point to a higher, more ineffable reality. (Armstrong p.144)
The second pillar is Zakat or alms. This is the commitment, not just to give charity, but to establish justice. It is to have a level playing field with all people. Alms redistributes wealth but it also helps us to be compassionate and to not be haughty. History is full of wars being fought over property. Making people equal is the point of the Muslim religion. “The early moral message of the Koran is simple: it is wrong to stockpile wealth and to build a private fortune, and good to share the wealth of society fairly by giving a regular proportion of one’s wealth to the poor.” (Karen Armstrong, A History of God pp 142,3).
One of the ways Islam can inform Christianity is its dedication to harmony among the people, and taking care of the poor. A kind of welfare and an eschewing of individual wealth.
The third pillar is Salat or prayer. The Muslim people pray five times per day. At sunrise, sunset, noon and twice in between. The prayers are rote and ritualistic. They point their gaze toward Mecca, the place where Abraham’s temple lies. And they know that all of the other Muslims around the world point in the same direction at the same time. I travel to and from Ohio several times a year. We always stop to refuel at the Belvidere Oasis on the Illinois Turnpike. This past year, I noticed an arrow on the eastern end of the covered restaurant area, pointing the way to Mecca. One lunch hour, I witnessed the quiet dignity of Muslim travelers doing their oblations. I was glad that people gave them the space and the respect that they needed to do such a thing. The prayers are embodied prayers, filled with ritual. It is not something that you do only in your mind. It is something that you do with your whole being. And it changes you. When Muslims pray, they do so without shoes on, on a prayer rug facing Mecca. They listen for God, they recite the words of the Koran in Arabic, they prostrate themselves on the ground three times, they look to the right and left to listen to the angels who guide their lives, the good and the bad. And they are at peace.
Jesus told the parable in today’s scripture reading about the proper way to pray. Jesus criticized those who prayed thanking God that they were better than all of the lesser people. But God listened to the words of the supplicant sinner the best. It’s all about how you bring your heart to the practice of prayer. That’s the important thing. We can learn a lot from our Muslim sisters and brothers on the ritual of prayer.
The fourth pillar is Sawm or fasting. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown for an entire lunar month. The fasting is done to remind us of the fact that so much of the world goes hungry. It reminds us to resist our urges, and the world has a lot of them. It helps people to prioritize their lives. And it also builds community and joy. For after sundown each night there is a communal meal and a celebration. We hosted a Muslim community here a few summers ago for their breaking of their fasts. There was great food and great rejoicing every night for a month here at UBC.
Finally, there is the pilgrimage. If you are able, you are encouraged to go to Mecca one time during your life. It’s called the Hajj. It’s an intense communal affair. You shun worldly goods and don simple clothing. You circumambulate around the Kabah, the temple built by Abraham and all sense of self washes away. You rotate around there seven times. You eschew violence and ignore cultures and race. You are one with God and one with God’s people. Seeing pictures of everyone in complete unison bowing in reverence is a powerful image. Malcolm X told about how his life was changed after he went on the Hajj. After the Hajj, he moved away from the Nation of Islam and toward a purer Islam which saw people of different races working together.
Remember, Islam was an attempt to create a just society where the poor and vulnerable are treated decently. Islam does not seek converts and respects the revelation brought by the other religions. It is intolerant of injustice, but is tolerant of other religions.
The same could be said about Christianity. The jury is still out on which one does it best.
Many months ago, we had a forum where we talked about what we needed to do to be more faithful people during this day and age. The word came back that we needed to learn more about Islam. You demonstrated this by placing a sign in the UBC lawn wishing our Muslim sisters and brothers a blessed Ramadan. I know this brief sermon is another small step, but it is a step by an outsider, and it’s full of my own myopic assumptions and generalizations.
I think it would be better to hear from our Muslim sisters and brothers. I hope that in the coming months, we can find a way to do just that.
But you don’t have to wait until we bring someone here. Why not engage your Muslim neighbor in dialogue? Why not invite them to your home? Why not say you are curious and want to find out how we can work together? That would be a great way to make religion real and relevant. Who knows, we may learn a bit about our own religion in the process.
For we are all on a pilgrimage, sisters and brothers. We all seek to be devoted to God. We want a just society. We want our prayers to mean something. We want our hunger to be satisfied and we want faithful companions on our journey through this land.
That’s the core of our faith and it seems to me that we have more in common than we have difference. So let’s match the energy we use to demonize the other, with the energy to understand one another. That’s a pilgrimage I can get excited about. It might be closer to God’s ideal for peace, prayer and purpose.