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The sermon for week October 25, 2015

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Interfaith Series: Islam

Islam is a hard one to talk about, especially in the post-9/11 world. Some of us think of Muslims as “the bad guys.” Or at least our defenses go up. I too, struggle with it.

I was a student at Ohio University on 9/11. A few days after the horrific events that day, , I went to the mosque in town. I didn’t want to fear, I wanted to engage. There I learned a little about the religion of Islam. Later at OU, I met and befriended another student named Ausaf. We ended up working together and even started a blog together about religion and politics. He is a Sunni Muslim. He taught me a lot about Islam.

Ausaf taught me that Islam has 5 Pillars. These pillars are the testimony of faith, prayer, support of the needy, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime for those who are able.

Where Judaism is complex, Islam is simple in the basics. The primary mission of the Prophet Mohammad was to preach faith in one God. The whole system rests on faith in and worship of the one God, Allah.

Allah is not the name of any particular deity, but the Arabic name for God, “the Lord of All Beings.” As scholar Mahmoud Ayoub points out, “The name Allah for God is used by Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians, and Jews and was also used by the pagan Arabs before Islam.” (51)

Muslims believe that Mohammad is the true prophet and that the angel Gabriel recited the first 5 verses of the Koran to him during the month of Ramadan. The Koran was then revealed gradually over the course of 23 years. “This,” says Ausaf, “implies that becoming a Muslim is not an overnight transformation. For that first and best generation of Muslims, it took 23 years to acclimate themselves from their cultural norms to become Muslim.”

The Koran is all about a high level of personal commitment and submission, total surrender of human will and destiny to the will of God.

Muslims believe that their faith came from Abraham. And Arab Muslims believe, like the Jewish people, that they came from Abraham as well. Instead of coming from Isaac, like the Jews did, Arab Muslims say they came from Ishmael, which we heard about it today’s scripture. The Koran also has Jesus and claims he is the Messiah and will come back on judgment day, although Jesus is not God and God is not a Trinity. There is more about Mary in the Koran than in our own Bible. Many scholars suggest that Islam was meant to unite Jews, Christians and Muslims together and believe in one God. Yet this didn’t work. The biggest claims that alienated both Jews and Christians alike is that Mohammad is God’s prophet and is infallible, and the Koran is the literal word of God, period, full stop.

Now Jewish people don’t believe the bible is the word of God. They argue with it, they are surprisingly nonliteral in their interpretive work. And many Christians believe that Jesus was indeed God-made-flesh and is Trinity. Yet if you like the idea that your religion’s holy text IS the direct word of God or if you like the idea that the more faithful you are, the more you submit to God the more God will reward you, then Islam is for you. This is where I struggle the most with Islam. I question, I think, I don’t submit well. Islam literally means “submission.”

Now the majority of Muslims are in South East Asia, but my experience is largely with Islam in Middle East.

In 2009, I traveled to Egypt with my seminary class. Each year, students from Lancaster Theological Seminary head out to experience Christianity in a different context. My class went to Egypt. We stayed in a hotel right in the middle of Cairo. It wasn’t in the tourist part, it was in the neighborhoods. There were cafes where the men would congregate every evening and talk. There were streets with people just hanging out. Our instructors told us to stick to the main roads and thorough-fares. But my friend Jim read of this great bakery that was right near our hotel down one of the side streets.

So that evening, Jim, myself, and a few classmates headed down a side street. It was evening time. The streets were about a car and a half wide. Though no cars could go down the streets because people were just everywhere.

One group of young men called out, “Hey, Americans!”

Jim, who is 6ft, 250 lbs of muscle and looks like the actor Brenden Fraiser stopped and gave a friendly, “What’s up?” while the rest of us cowered behind him.

“How do you like Egypt?” they asked.

“We love it,” we said.

“That’s because everyone is Muslim,” they said.

We did encounter wonderful hospitality. Everywhere we went, no matter if the hosts were Christian or Muslim, we were treated like royalty. Tea and snacks were served up front without exception. It was only after the second cup of tea did we get down to business.
We spoke more, and they wondered about us, if we were from New York or Hollywood. They asked if we were Christian. They wondered what we thought of them, if they were all terrorists or not.

They said, “We here are Sunni. There is a word for the other type of Muslim. It sounds like your word for poop.” They didn’t say poop though.

They were referring to Shia. There are two major sects or denominations of Islam. The BBC points out that the split originates in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammad over who should lead the Muslim community.

The Sunnis believe that the leaders of Islam after Mohammad should be the most reverent man selected to lead. In contrast, the Shia claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community. And thus the leadership of Islam would be hereditary based on the descendants of Mohammad (BBC).

Last I spoke to Ausaf, I asked, “Are you still Sunni?” He said, “Sort of. I’m more mystical now. I’m more of a Sufi.”

According to the scholar Ayoub, Sufism is less a sect of Islam than a mystical way of approaching the Islamic faith. It has been defined as "mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God (146).

The Sufis gave the world two of my favorite poets of all time, the esoteric Rumi and the hilarious and gritty Hafiz. Islam gave us a fully formed doctrine of Just War. They gave us the concept of the university, the concept of zero and algebra. The Sufi’s are super cool and we would have a lot in common with them.

However, I will give a passing mention of the fanaticism of Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her book "Infidel" talks about this and her experience and I’m afraid to approach it because it’s a challenge to my positive view of Islam. Ayaan was born in Somalia and fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. She talks about the dark side of the religion. You can read that for yourself. Today, I want to point to the good parts of Islam.

Looking at just the fanatics of Islam would be like trying to learn about Christianity by only looking at the KKK, the Westboro Baptists, or the Kentucky snake-handlers. And I would be remissed not to mention that the biggest act of terrorism on our soil before 9/11 was a Christian separatist blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma.

Today is about what we can learn from the many positives of Islam. I like the simplicity of the beliefs. I like the focus not on belief or orthodoxy, but on practice or orthopraxy. “Ortho” meaning “right or correct” and “praxy” meaning “practice or action.” Are you not eating pork or drinking wine? Are you praying 5 times a day? That is what makes you a good Muslim, not what you believe.

We Christians can learn from that. Are you acting like Jesus and not just believing in him? Acting like Christ is what makes you a good Christian.

I like the radical hospitality in the Arab culture. And it comes directly from Mohammad. I heard this story from Brian McLaren: Christians were meeting with Mohammad and his crew in Mecca. At that time, Christians prayed 5 times a day as well, just on a slightly different schedule. The time came and the Christians said, “We need to pray, we’ll head off into the desert.” And Mohammad said, “We’ve just built this mosque, please pray here.” So the Christians went to the mosque and prayed. His followers turned to Mohammad and started giving him a hard time. And Mohammad said, “They are praying!”

I think the founders of our religions would be more tolerant and patient with one another than we, the followers of our religion, are. May we all seek to be more like our founders, like Jesus and Mohammad.

That is my experience of Islam. If you have more questions about Islam, please come to the lectures and conversations here at our church with the Interfaith Amigos November 7-8, where you can ask Iman Jamal Rahman anything you are wondering about.

Until then, may we follow in the path of Mohammad and Jesus and seek to speak to one another like my favorite poem by the Sufi master Hafiz.

Why ask the donkey in me to speak to the donkey in you
When I have so many other beautiful animals and brilliant colored birds inside that are all longing to say something wonderful and exciting to your heart?
Let’s open all the locked doors upon our eyes that keep us from knowing the Intelligence that begets love.

Let’s find a more lively and satisfying conversation to have with the Friend.

Let’s turn loose our golden falcons so that they can meet in the sky, where our spirits belong—necking like two hot kids.

Let’s hold hands and get drunk near the sun and sing sweet songs to God until God joins us with a few notes from God’s own sublime lute and drum.

If you have a better idea of how to pass a lonely night, then speak up sweetheart, speak up. For Hafiz and all the world will listen.

Why just bring your donkey to me asking for stale hay and a boring conference with the idiot in regards to this precious matter--such a precious matter as love.

I have so many other divine animals and brilliant colored birds inside that are all longing to so sweetly greet you.

Works Cited
Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Islam: Faith and History. One World Publishing, Oxford, England. 2004.

BBC. Sunnis and Shia: Islam's ancient schism. Posted June 20, 2014.

Farooqi, Ausaf. Email entitled FeedBack.

Ladinsky, Daniel. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the great Sufi Master.

McLaren, Brian. Notes from his visit to Sylvania First United Methodist on March 12, 2013.

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