“…increasingly religious…” and Other Words

Several recent articles describe the Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev as having become, “…a fervent Muslim…” and “…increasingly religious…” I want to scream, “NO! He was NOT becoming a fervent Muslim! He was becoming a fervent KAAFIR (unbeliever) and increasingly IRRELIGIOUS! He took SATAN as a guide instead of ALLAH!”  Those articles were written by non-Muslims, while imams across the nation condemned the tragedy and even dared to say what they should have been saying loud and clear:  These men are not brother Muslims, but heretics. 

Instead of preaching to the choir, imams and Muslim writers need to clean up our language. There is no such thing as “radical” Islam. There is Islam, and there is other than Islam. There is no such thing as “fundamentalism” in the sense that one goes back to the founding (fundamental) principles of Islam to concoct justifications for terrorism.  There is no such thing as “extremism” which condones violence, and “non-extremism”, which does not. Do I need to cite Qur’anic ayahs regarding  malicious killing and all manner of violent behavior that wrecks havoc and brings suffering instead of peace? I think not.

In addition to disowning terrorists, we Muslims really need to change how we describe our religion and its associated perversions. WE know what is meant by “radicalism”, but the non-Muslim rightly thinks that “radicalism” is simply an exaggeration of established guidelines. “Fundamentalism”, with regard to Islam, is not actually fundamental; it does not go to the founding principles, and cannot claim right guidance. “Extremism” is not the outer edge of acceptable practice; it is not the purified, rarified essence of what we ordinary Muslims accept as Islam.

It’s bad enough that groups of Muslims in many countries learn corrupted ideas that subvert Islam, commandeer its theology and hijack its purpose, but even worse that the majority of  Muslims are not finding more effective ways to counter the development.  

One way, one small but important way, is to change how we describe our religion and the people who arose from our religion but who’ve stolen it, used it in service to the most heinous of evil acts. This post is my contribution to that goal. If you agree with me, speak up. Talk about this, especially to imams and Muslim leaders. If nothing else, post something on another blog, an article, a letter to the editor.

A Disturbing Khutbah

Last Friday, the imam gave a  twenty-minute khutbah that can be reduced to just one sentence: “Those who use their brains will know that Islam is the true religion.”

Well, I am surprised he doesn’t know that millions of intelligent people have used their brains, and have decided that religions other than Islam are “true.”  He doesn’t know that Christians have constructed a complex and convincing theory for their trinitarian god. Hindus and Buddhists have used texts more ancient than the Bible for informing their concepts about ultimate reality. All religions provide an intellectual framework  through which followers can navigate, contemplate and reaffirm basic tenets.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is no less convincing than Mohammed’s journey through the heavens. Both religions maintain belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, and who can reaffirm that by using their brains?

My brain tells me that babies don’t get started without sexual intercourse, and that the live body does not levitate through the sky except by way of an airplane. My brain tells me that the body stays dead after death.  To believe otherwise requires a leap of faith which inactivates  the brain rather than uses it. Indeed, believers who wonder about religious  “facts”, or dare to question them, are taught that their faith needs strengthening.

That is absolutely true. One’s faith, not one’s brain, must take the lead in deciding which religion is “true”.  Once you are there, your brain must remain inert. Faith and Intellect are mutually exclusive, at least with regard to the daily lives of ordinary people.

One reads nowadays that certain scientists are finding ways to meld — not merely reconcile– their intellectual development with  faith. Quantum physics shows us that  matter and non-material reality exist as a continuum, not an absolute, and that previously illogical concepts can actually become logical, under certain conditions.

This is where using one’s brain will reaffirm religion. Until science can establish the possibility that religious “facts” could have indeed occurred as taught by religion, my brain will not be in use with regard to faith. My brain and my faith live in different realities. I daresay I speak for the majority of “believers”. The imam would do well to address his next khutbah on the necessity of suspending intellectual function, rather than using it, as a means to decide which religion is “true.”

A Sacred Trust

 

Yesterday was Friday, and I went to jummah prayer with my grandson. The khutbah was about children as trusts from Allah. My heart squeezed a little when the imam said that children are Allah’s trust to us, but that they can be taken from us at any time. In fact, they are supposed to leave our care when they get old enough to start  their vocations and new families.  My five year old grandson was cuddled in my lap as I listened. I hated to imagine that he could ever be separated from me, but I also knew my relationship with him was nothing if not a sacred trust. My actions today and every day will put their mark upon him.

The imam continued. The point is that we must love our children and be active in their lives as they grow, and give them our wisdom, especially about matters of Islam.  This advice is nothing new.  Suddenly I was very thankful I’d come to jummah prayer.  I nearly stayed home. In going to jummah, and bringing my grandson, I showed him what I believe, and showed him what is expected of him.

When the khutbah ended, and we rose for prayer, I nudged my grandson to join his grandfather in the men’s rows, and he balked. He  knows he’s supposed to pray with the men, but I could not force him. Maybe the other sisters found fault with me; maybe they didn’t. My grandson jumped on my back as I made sujuud, and I nearly laughed, astaghfirullah, but I continued my prayer and ignored his antics. He’ll grow up soon enough , and face difficult choices as he carves his path. I need to give him the best of myself to take with him. I need to teach him many more things, including our religion.  Some people would say especially our religion. 

 

The Saint Movies

Even before I became a Muslim, I was never Catholic. I knew very little about Catholicism or the lives of the saints, nor was I interested. Now, I am interested.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a movie entitled, “Papa Luciani.” This movie was available on-line via http://www.rai.it/, the Italian network. It was one of a handful of Italian language movies I could watch on-line as an exercise in improving my Italian. This biography of Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I, engaged my heart and mind. The acting and photography was so excellent I watched the movie repeatedly. Not only did I improve my comprehension of Italian, but I learned about a most remarkable man who continued to inspire, years after he died under mysterious circumstances in 1978 the age of sixty-five years.

After digesting this film, I discovered another film biography of a Catholic saint, this one called, “St. Giuseppe Moscati,  Doctor to the Poor”.  Moscati was a physician whose compassion and bravery made an indelible mark upon the subsequent development of medical care. Many people have never heard of this man, who was declared a saint in 1987.                   

After seeing these two films, my motives for watching them expanded. Not only was I interested in improving my Italian, but also now interested in exposing my spirit to the examples of human beings whose lives of love and sacrifice transcended religious constructs. These saints lived using Roman Catholicism as a matrix because that’s what they knew. The ultimate verity of Catholicism, Islam, or even Buddhism, for that matter, does not matter. The messages in these films transcend the incompatibility of theologies. In fact, most of these saints endured harsh criticism and even torture because they did not adhere to the decreed set of contemporary (for their day) Catholic rules.

As a Muslim, I can appreciate these saints and take lessons from them, apart from ideological dogma that drags upon all organized religions. I am not interested in leaving Islam or embracing Catholicism, but I am always interested in the lives of people who exemplify the most simple and universal of religious truths:  Love each other.

I’ve since watched other “saint” films— all extremely well done artistically and philosophically– documenting the lives of the saints. Among my favorites are:

 

Bakhita

From Slave to Saint

 

Padre Pio, Miracle Man, starring Sergio Castellito, one of Italy’s most respected actors.

 

Saint Francis

(of Assisi)

 

Saint Philip Neri, I Prefer Heaven

This one made me cry.

I

 

St. Giuseppe Moscati

Doctor to the Poor

(and one of the most handsome actors!)

 

All are available at http://www.ignatius.com and http://www.amazon.com.

If any reader happens to see one of these movies, please let me know your thoughts about what you saw.

Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.

Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.

I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.

Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.

Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.

I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!

Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.”  I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or  any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.

Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think,  “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!

Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.

Confession– Envious of Evangelicals

My mother worships at an evangelical mega-church, one of those “born-again” organizations that have sprung up across the United States in recent years. Her church, like others of its kind, has attracted thousands of members and their dollars, keeps growing year after year, adding programs and services, expanding and developing its capacity for Christian outreach, with single-minded focus, dedication, and effectiveness.

This particular church dedicates itself to global ministry. It now trains and supports full-time missionaries to dozens of countries around the world. The missionary families go to “third world” countries ostensibly to teach, administer medical care, or develop cottage industries for women and children. They return to the States from time to time to give presentations on their progress.  They sometimes bring back human proof of their success.

Recently, my mom came back from church energized by one of these presentations.  A pair of Romanian girls gave a heartfelt speech about they had been rescued from prostitution by the missionaries, and how thankful they felt for their new faith in Jesus. My mom wanted me to be interested in the story, and I pretended, for her sake, to be interested, but inside, my heart cringed.

While Christian mega-churches organize, proselytize, work together, and rejoice in their success, Muslims are still trying to separate Islam from political terrorism. While Christian evangelicals bury their real goal in the delivery of desperately needed social and economic services that should be available to all people in all places, without an underlying religious impetus, Muslims are still fussing about head-scarves and the rights of women to drive cars and work outside the home. 

The Christian evangelicals, like the Tea Party to which most of them belong, are doing something right in America, right in terms of achieving their goals. I don’t like evangelicals, with their back-door approach, and I despise the Tea Party, with its contempt for the rest of us. I recognize that my negative attitude towards these groups masks a sort of jealousy. I want to see Muslim mega-mosques– here,  in the United States—- doing the rescuing, the teaching, the doctoring, and the ministering to populations that need these services. 

Oh, I know, we are making progress. My community’s Islamic Center continues to grow in size and influence. An additional mosque is planned for my end of town, but maybe I’m still “homesick” for the Muslim majority environment in which I cultivated my Islam. Maybe I still miss hearing the azan from a dozen nearby mosques. Maybe I wish daily activities could be planned around prayer times rather than business hours. Maybe I wish restaurants could close during the days of Ramadan.

Evangelicals are certainly supported by the culture of the masses. American culture has evolved around the daily practices of Christians, not Muslims, and therein lies an impediment to the further integration of the Muslim lifestyle into the American mainstream. Muslims must insert themselves into this pre-existing culture, rather than build one from scratch. My community offers instruction on Sundays and calls it, “Sunday School.”

The evidence does show that Muslim communities are growing is size and influence, right here in my community. I must give thanks for this, rather than let my heart sink because of the superiority of evangelical efforts. Islam has not matured in America, and will not mature in the near future. In some ways, living here as a Muslim is more difficult for me than for a Muslim who was either raised in a Muslim society or converted to Islam without having lived in a Muslim country. I was raised as a member of the majority, and converted to Islam while living in a Muslim majority. I don’t like being a member of the minority with respect to religion.

This is my personal struggle. I accept it.

A Difference of Degree, not Substance?

With the approach of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are seeing many programs on TV, on the Internet, and in print media, programs that honor the lost lives as well as try to heal the residual emotional trauma felt as a nation and as individuals. We see programs outlining the museum and park that has been built on ground zero,and also programs that underscore the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America.

This last focus– upon the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America, concerns me.

I was laying on an acupuncture table when the planes hit the towers. The partitioner did not know I was Muslim– I do not cover. My gut reaction was that “Muslims” did it, and that I did not want to be associated with those who had caused the catastrophe. I did not want to belong to same religion they belonged to, especially after they’d used that religion to justify their heinous, megalomaniac cruelty.  From that day forward, I stopped efforts to practice Islam here in America, where the practice of Islam is a challenge, to say the least. This was not an active decision on my part. I merely stopped. If I had not embraced Islam years before 9/11, I would not have done so afterwards.

As the chain of events leading to the catastrophe unfolded, two words were heard repeatedly: extremists and fundamentalists. I cringed, as I still cringe, every time I hear these words. They imply that those who fit the definitions are indeed Muslims, just like the rest of the Muslim community, with the exception that their ideology had taken on an “extreme” character. Their ideology is one of degree, not substance.

That means that the entire Muslim community holds similar views, but stop short of committing murder. First-hand accounts from Middle Eastern countries support this idea. Muslims were seen celebrating, smiling, cheering, as the images of the falling towers dominated the screens and headlines. Those Muslims, surely, endorsed the ideology of the terrorists, and were maybe too cowardly to act upon those convictions, therefore cheered the handful of brave souls who gave their lives for their ideals.  Books have been written to prove that Islam is a religion of force, misogyny, and oppression of all.

Over the years, Muslims groups have denounced the terrorists and tried to convince the greater society that Islam does not condone terrorism and murder in the name of Allah. Qur’anic ayahs have been dug up to testify to Islam’s peaceful nature. Why has that message not prevailed? Why, for instance, does the opposition to the New York Mosque project still chug along?

Well, Muslims themselves have not eradicated these two words: extremism and fundamentalism.

They have never said, “There is not such thing as extremism. There is no such thing as fundamentalism. The majority Muslims practice Islam using the customs and rituals into which they have been born, and much diversity flourishes. Men and women who murder in the name of Allah are not Muslims. The constellation of ideals and acts that are commonly referred to as extremism and fundamentalism do not embody the spirit of Islam, nor illustrate its teachings. People who subscribe to them are not Muslims. They may have been born into Muslim families, or they may have embraced ideals of terror and murder as a result of mental illness or severe political oppression that have nothing to do with Islam, but they are not Muslims.”

As long as the Muslim community cannot say the above, it implies that extremism and fundamentalism are indeed, part of Islam, and that the difference between peaceful Muslims and terrorist Muslims is one of degree, not substance.

Are You Fasting?

“Are you fasting?”

I hate that question. My friends in Riyadh used to ask each other that question all the time. The appropriate answer was, “Yes.”  An answer of, “No,” meant that the woman was menstruating or that she was sinning by not fasting. No one wanted to admit either of those two conditions.

Nevertheless, “Are you fasting?” was asked repeatedly, and I always said, “Yes.”

Many years ago in Riyadh, one of my close friends invited me to go with her to an iftar at a Saudi home. Both of us qualified to say, “No,” to The Question, and I asked her, “What shall we do? What shall we say? How can we go to an iftar when we are not fasting?”

“Pretend,” she said.

“Well, what about the prayer? Everyone prays Maghrib after breaking fast, so what shall we do?”

“Pretend,” she said again. “Just go through the motions without really praying.”

“Are you kidding? Isn’t that a sin?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but what can we do? We are excused from fasting today, and we want to attend this gathering, but we don’t want the other ladies to look down their noses at us. Allah will forgive us.”

So we pretended, and I felt like a fraud, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the food and friendship of that rare night out on the town. I still say, “Yes,” to The Question, regardless of the correct answer, but I never again pretended anything beyond that.

Relish, Sauce, or Chutney?

My mother, sister and her husband are football fans and Tea Party Republicans. As far as they lean to the right, I lean to the left, and they know it. By virtue of numbers, however, they feel no restraint in verbalizing their dislike of America’s president and all of what he symbolizes. We were together last night for dinner. My sister cooked a roast with potatoes. She also made salad, and my mother contributed a cranberry relish.  I contributed nothing.  I do not muster much enthusiasm for this sort of dinner. By way of showing appreciation, I offer to clean up and wash dishes. This is my usual contribution. My sister and her husband would not enjoy the kind of food I’d like to cook for them– Arabic or Indian style recipes I’ve become comfortable with over the years.

The three of them conversed, as usual, slugging insults at the Democrats, predicting doom and damnation for the country unless the Republicans get back in power, because the Republicans are the only real patriots, you know. The rest of us have wandered too far off the “right” path, ha ha ha…

I kept my mouth shut during this, because I had nothing to say. They are full of emotion. I am not. I do not get excited over political differences, but I do get excited about people who are narrow-minded, who do not recognize that this is a world of full of societies that get along just fine using rules that could turn the stomach of an American of either political persuasion. Representatives from those societies are permeating every corner of American life, doing so legally, even.

Years ago, kids were taught that America was a “melting pot.” That meant that American culture would be an amalgam of the many cultures from which Americans had risen. America had no historical identity of its own, no national character (we weren’t taught about Indians, in those days.)  The original immigrants were supposed to pool their cultural identities to craft something from which an American identity would emerge. So today, do we now have a national identity? Does America have an identifiable character which is desirable and should be striven after?

My table companions would not have considered such a question. They already knew the answer, evident in the speeches of Sarah Palin and and FOX “news” celebrities.

Halfway through the meal, my mother offered my brother-in-law some relish. He said, “I don’t eat relish.”
She said, “Well, call it sauce. Have some sauce. How about chutney? Have some chutney.”
He said, “Chutney? That’s even worse.”

They continued, moving from politics to football. They actually feel a sense of personal worth that’s attached to the local team and the skill with which the team plays and wins games. This is another area with which I have no resonance, no connection at all. The relish dish was in front of me, so I put a dollop on my plate, and tasted it.

“EWE!” I exclaimed, with wrinkled lips and squinty eyes. “This is sauce! I don’t eat sauce— I eat chutney!”

All three of them fell silent, looked at me blankly, and then resumed whatever it was they were saying about the football game to be played next week. I didn’t laugh– didn’t need to laugh. They’re not stupid; my point had not been lost on them, but they couldn’t say anything. That’s OK. I enjoy cleaning up. I also enjoy washing dishes. I can excuse myself from having to sit like a lump on a log and listen to more of the same.

It’s not their viewpoints that offend me; it’s their arrogance, their assumption that no other political party could possibly work for the betterment of American society. They are Christians, and they “know” that only Christians will go to Heaven. How can I exchange ideas with people like that, how can I examine doctrine or delve into any system of belief– political or spiritual– within the framework of civil social intercourse?  All I can do is tell them that I eat chutney, even though they know that already.

My Father’s Birthday, Death Day, and a Possibility

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been ninety years old. He died three years ago at the age of eighty-seven. He died consciously, albeit full of oxycodone. He died with his eyes open, searching the ceiling, but he couldn’t tell us what he was looking at. His mouth drew down into a frown of awe,  or fear, maybe, or even a great new emotion he had never felt before in his life. I could not read his face at that moment, except that his eyes focused intently on something above, something on or through the ceiling.

The day before, he had lapsed into unresponsiveness, except for an occasional foray into the world of the family surrounding his bedside. My sister had been sitting beside him, when suddenly he looked into her eyes, called her by the nickname only he ever used, and said, “People upstairs are waiting for me.” Then he slid back into his journey.

My sister said, “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for you, and Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose.” She named his brothers and sisters who had died ahead of him. I don’t know how she did that, how she sat there and talked to him normally, but she did. She knew that “upstairs” referred to Heaven. That’s how our father always referred to Heaven— Upstairs.

Recently, I’ve been watching a program on cable TV about Near-Death Experiences, which have been documented often enough now to reveal a pattern. The sick or injured people recognize the moment they slip out of their bodies. They feel peace, euphoria, and indifference to whatever  brought them to the point of death. They see or feel white light, a tunnel, sometimes, and the presence of God. They might hear beautiful music, or see gorgeous panoramas of flowers or amorphous colors,  and relatives who had preceded them in death. The spirits of the dead ones always stand waiting.

This is the point that connects the documented  Near-Death experiences with what my father said just before he died. He “saw” his loved ones who had already died, waiting for him.

This phenomenon of seeing dead relatives is also well-documented by hospice workers who sit with people who actually die. Atheists would have us believe that the brain is fooling us, that at the critical moment, it fulfills our dearest wishes, which are to be reunited with dead loved ones. I don’t know; no one knows, and we cannot know, so discussing the phenomenon with respect to learning the truth is pointless.

However, what seems important is that all these stories of near-death experiences have much in common, regardless of whatever religion the person believed before they arrived at the point of death. This fact suggests that the dying process is more or less universal for human beings. It raises the possibility that whatever happens afterwards may also be universal. Whatever occurs to the spirit after the body completes the death process may well be marked by universal qualities, regardless of what a person believed in life.

Adherents of this or that religion will be with me so far, but will say that only their version of the afterlife will apply from that point onwards, and that it will apply to everyone. There’s something inherently wrong with that concept, but I’m not sure what.

What if the dying experience, and what occurs afterwards, has nothing to do with anyone’s concept of God, Heaven, Hell or how one should conduct one’s earthly life? What if no one religious concept of life after death really applies? What if our actual death experience, with its own, unique sequelae, occur pretty much the same for everyone, and that religious matters lose all relevance? The evidence of the Near-Death Experience, coupled with the reports of actual death experiences, suggest that this possibility cannot be overlooked.

Think about your own struggles with religion, if you’ve had them. Think about the conflicts between you and your family or friends who believe differently with respect to religious systems? Could all of that be meaningless? Could none of it come to bear upon our ultimate experience of death and the persistence (or lack thereof) of consciousness? Could our spirits actually unite in the joy so often related to us by survivors of the Near-Death Experience?

What if all our religious dissension, wars, murders, torture and annihilation of entire populations have no ultimate meaning whatsoever?