Claiming a Religion— an Active Choice?

images bismillah Who is a Muslim? Who is a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc? Is it enough to call oneself by any one of these names, or must we actually observe the distinguishing rituals?

No one has a problem with taking someone’s word for it, when the statement is heard. “I am a Christian (Jew, Buddhist, etc…).” That’s the end of it, but when someone says, “I am a Muslim,” we don’t always know what that means.

Before 9/11, we knew. We may have known nothing about Islam, yet had we heard, “I am a Muslim,” we would have said, “Oh, OK.”

After 9/11, we didn’t know. Now, when we hear, “I am a Muslim,” we want to know what kind of Muslim— Fundamentalist, Moderate, Reform, Observant, Non-Observant, Born, Convert, Revert, Muhajibah, Beard, no beard, drinking, not drinking, praying, not praying, Arab, non-Arab… you get the idea.

What’s going on here?

Movie Review: Hereafter

Yesterday, I saw the movie Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood.  In terms of pure entertainment, it succeeded. The acting and photography were excellent. Each actor performed beautifully, to the extent that that they didn’t seem like actors at all, but real people, and here is where the line lies between fantasy and documentary.

I expected a serious examination of how the Near Death Experience occurs, and how it affects those who experience it and those who study it. I expected a serious inquiry into the idea of personal consciousness beyond death, and I expected it from at least a quasi-scientific viewpoint, but no, I didn’t get that.

Instead, I got great entertainment, made better by the omission of even a single naked boob, and barely one “f” word stuck quickly between the words “hocus-pocus.” Additionally, no sadistic behavior or masochistic pathology afflicted any of the characters.

The visual highlight of the film occurs in the beginning, when character Marie Lelay gets swept into a tsunami. That scene alone mimics what really happens in a tsunami. We compare what we see in the film to tsunami footage seen a few years ago of Indonesia; we come away with a renewed appreciation for the breadth of such a catastrophe.

The bulk of the movie narrates the unrelated stories of three people who experience encounters with death. Eventually, the three connect and influence each other. None of the three stories is totally convincing, but since the acting is so good, one goes with the flow, so to speak.

Nothing new is on offer here. People have been fascinated with the death experience, life after death, the hereafter, and communicating with the dead, for eons. This movie deals with all of that, but in a generic way, almost a trite way, and certainly not from any religious viewpoint.

If this movie is nominated for awards, it will be for cinematography, and perhaps acting. See it for diversion, but not much else.

A New Perspective on Islam

I’ve been ruminating on my waning connection with mainstream Islam. Ever since we came to the United States, I’ve been slipping away from ritual practice. The events of 9/11 pushed me to the brink of apostasy. I’ve been sitting on that prickly fence ever since.

Islam keeps pulling me back, in unexpected ways. Last week, as I put my grandson bed, his mom said, “Read Qur’an on him. He likes it,” so I read a few suras, surprising myself that I remembered how to do so with tajweed.

The child lay quietly, and a little smile settled over his face as he gazed into my eyes. I kissed him, said I love you, and good-night. He was asleep almost before I closed the door to his bedroom.

I do not call myself a moderate Muslim. I dislike the word “moderate” because it calls up the notion of immoderate Islam, or extreme, thus giving legitimacy to what is often called extremism, or fundamentalism.

I also dislike the word “fundamentalism” because it implies that its followers observe the fundamentals of their religious beliefs, and that’s far from the truth.

I’m not a “progressive” Muslim, either. That word implies that those who came before were not civilized enough to develop the religion to meet the needs of modern life, as if Islam needs to grow  from a state of immaturity.

So what kind of Muslim am I? I don’t know anymore.

Am I a “reformist” Muslim? What’s that? Did you know that there is now a Reformist Qur’an available?

Did you know that the number 19 has been analyzed and found to reveal a code of some sort that lends credence to Islam’s claim of authenticity of the Qur’an?

I keep these ideas at arm’s length for now, but they are interesting. What do you think? I’ll study them; perhaps they will resonate with me, and I’ll feel secured in faith once again.



The “Bismillah”

One of the joys of living in Saudi Arabia was seeing Arabic calligraphy, especially the “bismillah” and other  renditions of  verses  from the Qur’an,  expressed artistically  in various media.  “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” is a key phrase in Islam. It prefaces ritual prayer, and is said often throughout the day, to oneself or out loud, when embarking  upon a task.

I remember an outing to the desert with a group expats from  King Faisal Specialist Hospital, in which I worked. Our Saudi driver said it before starting the bus. He said it quietly, almost to himself.  After that, I noticed other Muslims saying it, often before doing something new or something that involved the well-being of others. I liked the phrase. It encompassed the best of intention, the realization that we act in faith, without  the assurance of  the consequences of our actions, and in the acceptance of whatever result followed.

I began seeing calligraphy everywhere, especially the bismillah, which always graced the letterhead of official stationery. In the suq, I saw wonderful wall hangings, some painted, some inked, some sewn with gold letters on black velvet.  Book covers in the Arabic section of bookstores showed dramatic, often shiny gold calligraphy, and I never could decipher the titles, even after I learned how to read Arabic. In the women’s cafeteria of the hospital hung a large panel painted in bold brush strokes of mauve, purple, blue, yellow, green, with flecks of gold and diamond-like textures that caught the ambient light.

I know nothing of the art or science of calligraphy. All I know is that seeing it pleases me immensely, fascinates my eye and  engages my heart. I won’t mind learning how to do it. Until and if I ever do, I’ll remain content with looking at it, especially at the bismillah.