January 24, 2016 ~ Sufi Islam: The Way to Peace

                                                                              ~ART MCDONALD


The first encounter I remember with Islam was in the South Bronx in the late 1970s. There was a large mosque not far from the church I served from 1978-82. However, other than an occasional gathering, I remember very little of what went on there. But in the mid-1990s in Pittsburgh, I developed a very close relationship with many leaders in a rather large mosque in the city. When we were first invited to a Friday afternoon prayer service and meal, it was like entering a foreign country. After taking our shoes off and getting into prayer lines on our knees, with men in the front and women in the back, we simply followed the gestures of the Imam and the members of the mosque. We faced Mecca, the holy land for Muslims, we bowed and touched our foreheads to the carpet, and we listened respectfully as prayers were recited in Arabic, the language of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. After prayers, men and women were segregated for the meal, men upstairs, women and children down. The women all wore distinctive, modest clothing. We wanted to object, but we were guests, trying to understand and build relationship. The crowd was incredibly diverse, ethnically, culturally, socially and economically; it was a United Nations’ body in microcosm.  Everyone was welcoming. They were serious yet warm and friendly.


Over the years, we developed strong connections. I invited several leaders to preach in our church and conduct classes. In the classes, some UUs were hostile around issues of gender, hierarchy, international politics, etc. They responded calmly, even if not always satisfactorily. At times the cultural and theological and social gaps seemed large. They loved UU because they thought we were monotheists, i.e., most UUs didn’t by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus as equal to God. They thought most Christians were polytheists, a heresy for Muslims. At lunch one day, I ordered my favorite beer; I sensed some discomfort. My closest Muslim friend, Hassan, a Syrian, asked to talk outside the dining room and begged me not to drink the beer; it was against their beliefs. I re-ordered an O’Doul’s! Not bad, I thought! On a public panel one day which was focused on family life, with news media all around, I was compelled to acknowledge that I and many UUs supported gay marriage; they were upset with me. Some tensions we never resolved, but as time went on, I could feel a certain distancing by some. It made me sad. But my friend Hassan never let it get in the way of our relationship. I was grateful.


We live in a time in which there is heightened concern across the world about Islam, what it teaches, what are its intentions, why some limited actors who call themselves Muslims are so violent. What to make of all of this? Personally, I’ve tried to keep up with the news and my reading on Islam. I’ve preached at least 2/3 times a year about Islam, especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I’ve tried to hold a balanced approach, trying to go deeper than the newspaper commentary and the superficial and uninformed views of many in the political realm. And I’ve had to admit that I’m still a novice, full of ignorance and bias, passed on in this culture and in most of the western world. There is so much to understand and such gaps in our awareness. We need to acknowledge this with deep humility, and despite the terrible acts of a limited number of Thugs and criminals who call themselves Muslims, we must, as one American Muslim suggests, engage Islam with “curiosity not anxiety.” We must not give in to the heightened fears we hear of all the time, despite the necessity of making sure we defend ourselves against potential terrorist acts, here and abroad. Nevertheless, I believe we need to change the current narrative about Islam, mostly fueled, in my view in an arrogant and completely irresponsible manner, by any number of politicians running for President who have ignorantly and irresponsibly played on our fears and concerns by suggesting we need, once again, to lead the charge to destroy such terrorist wherever they are. Truth be told, in my view and in the view of so many social commentators and religious leaders, such brutal acts of terrorism have only been fueled by a long history on the part of Western Europe and, more recently, our own country, by our political and military interventions over these last decades, and for the Europeans over the last centuries all the way back to the Crusades.


First, though, it is incumbent on all of us to learn this history and to attempt to understand the major teachings of Islam and who is a true Muslim. We begin by acknowledging the distortions and our inherited biases. Having Molly and Jerry’s friend, Yusef, and his family here in this pulpit last week, was a good place to start. That was merely the first chapter in our relationship. Yusef and Maria will be back. I’ve also asked the director of the Mosque in Boston to visit; he declined but promised to send another leader in the near future. And we’ll visit there as well. We often here of the internal problems of Islam, the rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Sunnis representing the largest group, and Shi’ites a much smaller component. In the Middle East, the Saudis are predominantly Sunni, whereas Iran and Iraq are mostly Shi’ite. There is major tension in the region between these two countries. Diplomacy by all major world actors is needed to bring these factions to the table.


A group we don’t hear much about, the Sufis, we are told by scholars, actually represent roughly 1/5th of all Muslims, who, of course, are not only in the Middle East, but also Africa, all over Europe, India, Pakistan, etc. One can actually be a Sunni or Shi’ite and also identify as Sufi, but it seems that Shi’ites (Iran, Iraq) are much more conversant with Sufis. Turns out, if you were here, you heard Yusef say he identified as Sufi. The Sufi tradition in Islam dates back to about 800CE, approximately a century and ½ after the revelations of the prophet Muhammed. Sufis are mystics who preach peace and harmony and mystical union with God or Allah. And Sufis are very interfaith oriented, i.e., they are very conversant with other religious traditions, especially the mystical elements in Judaism, Christianity, as well as many eastern traditions. And much like our own Universalist tradition, Sufis are less concerned about dogma and doctrine, and more focused on the principle of universal love. They are not pacifists and have been part of defensive wars, but they seek universal peace and understanding. Unlike many Muslims, they are less interested in law and more in loving practice, much like the Jewish Jesus in his relationship to the legalism of certain Jews of his time. And, sadly, in certain Islamic countries, Sufis are vilified and persecuted, most especially by the followers of what’s called Wahhabi Islam, the predominant branch found in Saudi Arabia, and the branch many scholars suggest that is responsible for the growth of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and, more recently, Daesch (ISIS). Some scholars suggest that Sufism is key to the future of Islam’s relationship to the West if there is ever to be a meeting of the minds. Sufism is very open to Western religion and Western values. One scholar, Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University, argues the following: “Nobody is pretending that building bridges with Sufis will resolve the many problems that divide the West from the Islamic world. In countries like Afghanistan or Somalia, warfare and violence might be so deeply engraved into the culture that they can never be expunged. Yet in so many lands, reviving Sufi traditions provide an effective bastion against terrorism, much stronger than anything the West could supply by military means alone. The West’s best hope for global peace is not a decline or secularization of Islam, but rather a renewal and strengthening of that faith, and above all of its spiritual and mystical dimensions.” This is a far cry from the views of liberals like Salman Rushdie who, arrogantly in my view, suggests Islam must submit to Western secularism and its values, totally privatizing its religion, or be crushed.


For us Westerners, I think we must begin, humbly and with curiosity not anxiety, by acknowledging that like the Jewish biblical prophets, and like Jesus, Muhammed was a prophet; he received revelations from God and sought to bring people together in an area of the world in the 7th century that was very volatile. (We may not appreciate all that is in the Koran from Muhammed; that’s fair. The Older testament in the Bible also has teachings that we now find objectionable) And we must learn enough history to know that over the centuries Muslim dominated societies were often very tolerant of other religious traditions, especially Jewish and Christian, despite their teaching that Muhammed had the final revelation and truth.


Furthermore, we must verse ourselves in the more recent history of the relationship between Islam and the Western powers, and acknowledge that Western, first European, then American Empires have dominated Muslim countries over the past century and one-half, leaving Islamic countries on the defensive and very bitter about such oppression. Especially for us from the United States, I believe we must acknowledge that our involvement and interventions in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and now Syria, have only fueled this anger and created these horrendous examples of backlash that some call “radical Islamic terrorism.” Most Americans think Iran is the gravest threat to our security, being reminded over and over again about the brutal theocracy that took over that country in 1979 and kept U.S. hostages for over a year. However, we are rarely reminded that what led up to that theocratic revolution was the intervention of the CIA in 1952 to help overthrow a democratically-elected President in Iran whom we judged not friendly to our foreign policy interests. So we helped impose the Shah of Iran, a friend of some in the U.S., who turned out to be a brutal dictator and whose overthrow was supported by most Iranians, unaware that what was to follow was an authoritarian, religious fundamentalism which has continued to oppress the Iranian people. We must know this history to understand the current dynamics. Recently there is hope that despite ongoing hate and mistrust, diplomacy is possible. In fact, in the greater Middle East many believe the only way out of this horrific quagmire and suffering is bringing together all the possible parties who are willing to talk and, through diplomacy, and united action, counter this terrible violence, which is mostly visited not on us but other Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples. In fact, if we could help bring Saudis and Iranians to the table, two Muslim countries locked in a brutal conflict of values and ideas and politics, we would help reverse many decades of mistaken policies and decisions. We can only work hard and pray! And learn. In my mind the call for a U.S. led coalition to destroy these thugs would be the worst possible response. I am aware that this is all sounding way too political for a simple preacher to engage in but I am convinced that the intersection of religion and politics in this case makes it imperative that religious leaders be involved to insist on highlighting the moral dimensions of the deep struggles we are all experiencing at this moment in our history and also insist that our own country play a more constructive and morally positive role in world politics.


So what’s a UU to do? We can began as we have, i.e., building relationships and creating bridges to understanding. As a religious denomination I believe we have a fairly unique role to play as a faith that believes in religious pluralism, that is, we accept truth from many traditions, not just one. We are a perfect tradition to create and promote dialogue across belief systems, as we encourage one another to deepen one’s own spiritual journey. We can bridge differences. When in Pittsburgh my friend Hassan said UUs were the main reason that the Islamic Mosque joined our faith-based community organizing group, as he and the other Muslim leaders felt that UU theology understood and accepted Islam and its tenets, whereas they were skeptical that Christian and Jewish congregations would be so welcoming. That was a huge realization for me as to the role that UU can play in interfaith work and collaboration. Furthermore, and I’ve shared this previously, we had a young woman in our Allegheny congregation who had left a pretty conservative Baptist Christian denomination and was exploring Islam a bit but needed a religious home where such exploration could happen without judgement; in fact where it was encouraged. We welcomed Monica and did encourage her to dabble in Islam at the same time that she worshipped with us. She so appreciated that we did not pressure her to become a member of our church, yet we encourage her own spiritual journey. She eventually left and joined the mosque, and was ever grateful that we played an instrumental role in her discernment. On a somewhat humorous note, it reminded me that one of the jokes about UU is that it is a denomination that welcomes folks from mostly Christian denominations, Methodist, Baptist, UCC, Catholic, as a mid-way stop eventually on the way to the golf course. It’s funny and, possibly depressing, yet real in that instead of preaching ours as the final truth, we preach individual exploration and honesty, encouraging folks on their own path. We hope everyone stays (and many do, thank you very much!) but realize that some, like Monica, will eventually move on, not so much to the golf course, but in this case to a serious religious practice. Actually we are a congregation in which you can go to the golf course and still stay as one of us! A brilliant option!


But beyond encouraging each other’s spiritual journey, especially regarding our understanding and relationship with the Islamic faith, there are many things we can do as UUs to promote peace, harmony and respect and understanding across differences: build relations, promote dialogue, invite Muslims to church and dinner, talk to your kids, challenge Islamophobia whenever you hear it, read and study, talk to your political representatives about your concerns, face your own prejudices, and so much more. Do what you can to change the narrative from fear and hate and anxiety and violent threats and language to curiosity and openness and dialogue and learning, humbly and with love. Like the Islamic Sufis, let us all, as UUs, be a voice of peace and harmony, always believing that peace is not only the goal as Dr. King would say, but also the way. Shalom. Namaste. Amen. So be it.