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Standing on the Side of Love: Common Ground between Unitarian Universalist and Muslims

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Sep 14, 2011

photoThe author was raised in the Unitarian Universalist tradition and embraced Islam later in life.

There are two phone calls that reached me ten years ago that remain with me: my mother’s call that loved ones were inside the towers, and that of a woman I’d met by chance at the local Unitarian Universalist church I’d attended for the first time just a few days before. The first left me feeling alone and far from home on a college campus I’d only just moved to. The second offered me exactly what my heart was seeking: a community of common faith to gather with. “Come,” she said, “we are having a potluck, but just come, there will plenty. Bring any students who want a sacred space.”

Comfort in faith communities is something many people sought that week. For American Muslims, however gathering in large numbers brought a degree of apprehension as some Americans responded to the violence of 9/11 with their own violence. The Council on American-Islam Relations had over 1,700 reports of violence against Muslims reported in the six months following 9/11. Those acts of hate were not limited to Muslims – Arab Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, fair skinned African Americans of different faiths and others mistaken to be Muslims were attacked as well.

As we stand on the side of love by “thinking interfaith” during the 10th anniversary year of the 9/11 attacks, many of us will do so by attending interfaith gatherings, hopefully these will be reoccurring events. I’d like to share with you some of the common ground shared between Unitarian Universalists and Muslims in hopes that your interfaith experiences may be a further act of understanding.

  • Unitarianism began as a faith embracing the oneness of God, in contrast to the trinitarian approach. Like Unitarians, Muslims respect and love Jesus (pbuh*), who is a revered Prophet in Islam. Also like Unitarians, Muslims rejecting the trinity and the greater divinity of Jesus that is a core part of Christianity today. We call the oneness of God tawhid.
  • Universalism began as a faith embracing salvation for people beyond the boundaries of acceptance of Jesus as the messiah. In Islam this message is found in the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256) and “yea, indeed: everyone who surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good withal, shall have his reward with his Sustainer” (Qur’an 2:112).
  • In Unitarian Universalism we “covenant to affirm and promote” our seven fundamental principles. Our principles are not merely to be tangential to the way we live our life, but something that we strive to develop in the world around us. In Islam, we share this commitment, calling it a surrender (Islam) to God’s will. This is an engaged surrender**, constantly enacting our free will in work towards the creation of a justice based world. Those of Christian background might relate this engaged surrender to the concept of carrying the cross.
  • In Unitarian Universalism, one part of what we are working towards affirmation and promotion of is “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” These are three of God’s ninety nine names in the Islamic tradition (Ar-Rahman/All Compassionate, Al-’Adl/The Just, Al-Muqsit/The Equitable) and integrating them into our lives is a part of our surrender.
  • Our UU living tradition includes that we are “grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, and we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” In Islam, we find this truth in God’s words above regarding the lack of compulsion. Beyond fostering respect for the diversity of religious practice as God’s intention, we are also compelled to learn from others: “We have created you of different tribes and different tongues so that you might learn from each other.” (Qur’an 49:13)
  • UUs reject the notion of original sin and in our Child Dedication Ceremony we recognize the spark of the divine in each child. In Islam, we speak of the fitrah, God’s life breath blown into each human being.
  • While Muslims share the Adam and Eve story with our Abrahamic brothers and sisters, responsibility is shared equally between Adam and Eve. It is also an isolated act, with guilt not being passed onto future generations in the way of the original sin.
  • When God is spoken of in UU congregations, gender pronouns are often mixed or eliminated. In the Qur’anic Arabic, God takes on both male and female pronouns and adjectives. God is both genders, neither gender, and beyond gender all at once.
  • Drawing on our 7th UU principle of respect for the interdependent web of life of which we are all apart, environmental issues are of critical importance for many UUs. In Islam, this principle appears in the in the same concept of tawhid I spoke of before, or the oneness of God. Humans, with their God given free will, are to be the stewards of God’s presence in all living things. There is a growing movement of Muslims who are pressing for tawhid halal food – local, organic, and humanly raised in addition to the baseline requirements of halal. When halal requirements were laid down these were the norm. Now, following in the spirit of the law, Muslims see the need for taking things further. Other environmental movements are rapidly picking up pace in Muslim communities environmental and several books have recently been published.
  • Like the Unitarian Universalist congregations, Sunni Muslims (approximately 80% of the global Muslim population) choose their leadership at the local level and the person may or may not have chaplaincy training. Imam is simply the person leading prayers.^ Increasingly, and particularly in Western Muslim communities, this position is becoming a more organized position involving ministry similar to other faith counterparts and congregational community leadership, but not always. Take this into consideration when you hear about “an imam” saying something in the news. This local leadership without a hierarchy is also why it can be difficult to hear the “moderate Muslim voice” that many non-Muslim are looking for – we don’t have a Pope or other hierarchy that speak for the followers.

———————————————

During the time of Islam’s early development it represented a truly incredible social justice movement: Female infanticide was prohibited and women were given inheritance, property ownership, court testimonial and divorce rights. Slave owners were urged to grant freedom, inter-racial marriages were arranged by Muhammad (pbuh), freedom of religion was allowed to exist, the collection of usury was prohibited, and practitioners were urged to see people beyond their own tribe and equal members of the human family.

At a low estimate there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. Only 20% of them reside in the Middle East. There is still much work to be done fully achieving the vision that God laid out for Muslims, but it is also important to consider the historical and cultural contexts when looking at Islam. Just as with the move towards tawhid halal, there was no need for organic, local, or humanly raised in historical context of the time.

As Islam spread, local customs continued to be practiced and some of the things that are now seen by as being “Muslim practices.” Common examples include the strict practice of separating men and women or female genital circumcision/mutilation. Female genital circumcision/mutilation is practiced in many places throughout Africa by people of all locally practiced faiths.  Anyone who has traveled in some Hindu communities in India knows that the separation of men and women is far from unique to their equivalent Muslim communities.

I include these last three paragraphs to encourage Unitarian Universalists to learn more. There is much written on these topics, I suggest the following:

1. Being Muslim by Haroon Siddiqui: http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9780888998873

This is a short and easy guide to the foundations of Islamic belief and practice. Its opening provides important perspective on the abuse of Muslim’s civil rights in America while giving accessible information about Islam.

2. The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing by Sumbal Ali-Karamali http://www.amazon.com/Muslim-Next-Door-Quran-Media/dp/0974524565

This is a casually written piece for a reader with a little bit more time. The author shares anecdotes from her life experience growing up as a Muslim in America.

3. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity by Seyeed Hossein Nasr: http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9780060730642

I suggest this one for those who believe in an Abrahamic-like God as it provides a good understanding the role of God in Islam.

5. In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan: http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9780195374766

If you would like to understand Muhammad (pbuh) this is a beautifully written account of his life that speaks to some of the common misunderstandings that are held.

4. The History of Islam in America by Kambiz GhaneaBassiri*: http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9780521614870

This is for the more academic reader who wants to understand the long history of Muslims in America.

5. Orientalism by Edward Said*: http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9780394740676

If you want to understand where most Western misconceptions about Islam and the Arab world come from, read this.

*UUs often ask me why Muslims are not doing more to debunk the common misperceptions, these two books will help you understand that this is something we’ve been asked to do for generations.

When you are reading any book in Islam be very wary of absolute statements about Muslims beyond the 5 pillars of the faith (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, and the testament of faith). Muslims are a complex group – we are Sunni, Shi’ia, Sunni Sufi or Shi’ia Sufi, Ahmadiyya, Ismaili, Druze**….and we do not do everything the same. Culture and time period also change. The books above do a good job at speaking to the diversity of Muslims as do the online resources provided by Hartford Seminary’s McDonald Center (http://macdonald.hartsem.edu/answers.htm)

* “peace be upon him/her” (pbuh) is said by Muslims following the names of the Prophets

^ in the Shi’ite tradition the Imam holds a Devine family connection to Muhammad (pbuh) and there is more of a leadership system

** “engaged surrender” is a concept that was, to the best of my knowledge, introduced by Dr. Amina Wadud

^^ Druze’s full name is sometimes translated as People of Unitarianism

19 Responses to “Standing on the Side of Love: Common Ground between Unitarian Universalist and Muslims”

  1. Christie Shahin says:

    This is very well written and I learned much! I recently watched a movie called American East which was very educational. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

  2. Sarah says:

    This is wonderful, thank you for sharing!

  3. Maggie says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Showing the connections and similarities between Islam and UU helps bring Islam away from being ‘other’ and into being another religion and way of living.

  4. Barbara UU says:

    My only ‘objection’ to Islam is if I have to acknowledge Mohammad as the _final_ prophet.
    I’m ok with any compassionate faith that does not think their followers are the only ones ‘saved’!

  5. Soraya Deen says:

    Thank you for your great insights.
    As a professional speaker, I have spoken at many UU Chruches.
    The last time I spoke, there were a group of people outside the UU Church, chanting “Terrorist”, “Don’t let her speak”
    My friend and now sister Pamela Lopez created a net of safety and held me with great love and care.
    That evening I said to the congregation, UU phylosophy is not confined to Judeo-Christian values but also Islamic values..:)
    I am grateful that UU has held and supported the voice of Muslim communities not with caution but with courage….

  6. Georgia Ireland says:

    I have attended Unitarian Universalist Services since 1973. I also studied Sufism with an outstanding teacher, Yannis Toussulis, Ph.D. Your summary on the connections and similarities between Islam and UU ring true to me. I suggest that you add the book “Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology,” by Yannis Toussulis, PhD. to your reading list. It provides a useful description of Sufism. Thank you for your contribution to demystifying Islam.

  7. Hafidha Saadiqah says:

    Salaam!

    Thanks for sharing! Yes, there are many points upon which UUism and Islam agree. But sad to say, I don’t think that there is room for a UU with a Muslim identity. Buddhist? Yes. Pagan? Yes. Christian? Yes. Jewish? Yes. I am convinced that the same misconceptions and fears that prevail in certain quarters in U.S. society and Islam, are present within Unitarian Universalism.

    As a Muslimah who also shares a history with UUism, one organization that I have found articulates an active, thoughtful and forward-looking Islam is ‘Muslims for Progressive Values’. You can find them here:
    http://www.mpvusa.org/. More dialogue is needed between these two faiths.

    Salaam!

  8. Tynan Power says:

    What an excellent and well-written article! Thank you!

    One thing I would add regarding understanding the Muslim idea of local leadership and the “imam” role is that common Judeo-Christian notions of “clergy” result in exclusion of Muslim faith leaders. The expectation that all religions have an ordination process and/or religious hierarchy perpetuates the Judeo-Christian hegemony in this country. As a Christian friend of mine recently noted about this, “I’d like to believe that UU ministers would be on the forefront of acknowledging that, but unfortunately it seems they’re not.” What this means in practical terms is that when we seek out Muslim religious leaders, we need to remember to think outside of the box of “ordained clergy with a congregation in a brick building.”

    In response to Hafidha, as a UU Muslim, I have to say that I believe you are wrong, at least in the big picture sense. There are many UU Muslims, including the Provost of the (UU) Starr King Theological Seminary, and Jamilah Tharpe, a UU minister-in-training in Utah. While it’s true that bias and prejudice are wide-spread and exist within UU congregations, I don’t attribute that to anything specific to Unitarian Universalism but rather to a cultural and media phenomenon in our country at this particular time. (Though I totally agree re: MPV—fantastic organization! I’m privileged to work with MPV in their Literary Zikr project, adapting academic texts to make them more accessible.)

  9. I’m surprised ou missed the UU Common Read in your suggested reading: Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel. It’s a beautiful book that articulates both his own Muslim faith as well as why he is strongly committed to religious pluralism.

  10. Hafidha Saadiqah says:

    Salaam, Tynan ~

    Thanks for your kind and insightful words, particularly that you know of several UUs who are also Muslim! It would be my good fortune to hear of their experiences.

    In response to your comment regarding UUs and Islam, yes, I agree with you that there is nothing in UU philosophy that precludes an adherent from embracing any religion, or none at all. Nevertheless, within the congregation that I have served, and conversations I’ve had with colleagues about this phenomenon, there remains great hesitancy to acknowledge a Islamo-Christian heritage as much as a Judeo-Christian heritage. It could be that I’m hearing the strident arguments of my atheist and Christian friends within the tradition who insist that Islam is “too different” than other religions. In my estimation, this feeds into our already ill-informed, suspicious and hostile society.

    Sometimes my heart sinks, but I remain hopeful that UUism can find a way to inspire a still more radically inclusive community.

    In all things, peace and blessings!

    Hafidha

  11. [...] blog post/news article going around last week, written by a Unitarian Universalist. It is titled “Common Ground between Unitarian Universalist and Muslims.” It makes a lot of very important and positive points. But one point made by the writer struck a [...]

  12. the blog author says:

    Greetings and Salaams to all,

    Hafidha and Soraya, thank you for sharing your experience. I too have experienced deep islamophobia in UU communities and I am glad that you brought these issues up because there is much work to be done! I very much agree that the UU teachings resonate as strongly with Judeo-Christian teachings as they do with the teachings of Islam, but I am aware of how few UUs would be inclined to embrace this.

    Ty, thank you for speaking to the presence of Muslims within the UU community and for helping to articulate some clarity to the confusion many UUs and others have regarding the leadership structure within Islam.

    Georgia and Jessie, thank you for your book suggestions! I’ll add Toussulis’ to my own reading list and I feel terribly silly for having forgotten Eboo Patel’s book – especially in light of its choice as the UU Common Read. I do indeed recommend it!

  13. Don White says:

    This is a very well done and clearly presented piece without preaching or trying to establish a greater value in one faith over another. Indeed it is the universality of the values in Islam and Unitarianism that draws the comparison together.The book references are very welcome.

  14. Chereen says:

    I have long understood that Islamic writings include some very good and peaceful text. That is true about scripture from all religions. However, a religion is more than just what is agreed upon in religious text. I believe religion has more to do with the characteristics of it’s people. Granted, this can change over time. But the important questions for today are, “Who are the Muslim people of today? What do they stand for? Are they peaceful?” These questions cannot be answered by religious text. These questions can only be answered by the thoughts, heart, and action of the Muslim people. Now I understand that all Muslims are individuals. Every individual Muslim is going to present different answers to those questions. But I still would be interested to know if there is a majority-answers to those questions. If so, I think it would be important to know if the majority-answers are friendly or not.

  15. the blog author says:

    Greetings & Salaams Chereen,

    I suggest the book Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think for an answer to your question. It was complied through extensive research by a well respected Georgetown professor and it provides a comprehensive statistically oriented, but readable, understanding:

    http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9781595620170

    To learn more about the experience and thoughts of a selection of American Muslim women you may want to read the book I Speak For Myself: American Women Speak about Being Muslim:

    http://bbpbooks.teachingforchange.org/book/9781935952008

    (I should note that I haven’t read this one myself yet, but it is on my list!)

    I hope these help to provide some insight and I encourage you to let our UU principals guide you on this joruney so that you might remain open to what you will find.

  16. allison says:

    Wonderful piece of this puzzle. Really insightful!

  17. muhammad nadeem says:

    i agree its a wonderful article showing similarities between the basic concepts of islam and UUs ,,my question to author is that ,what was stopping GOD to make just one religion? why GOD sent down 4 holy books for the guidance of mankind following many prophets ? the message that UUs wana spread in world is already exist in Qur’an and other holy books ? why there is a need to promote that message of love peace and respect with liberty which is already there in most authentic form, to promote it under the falg of a new faith “and so called trust prevailing among UUs ” ?

  18. Natasha says:

    Assalaamu ‘alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatu,

    I am a middle-aged, Afro-Caribbean American who embraced Islam in my late teens and has also been intermittently involved with UUs for more than a decade. I have just resumed attending a UU fellowship in Central Florida after a three-year hiatus and recently learning of other muslims who may have an affinity for UU principles and practices. I relate to so much of what has been shared in this forum and get new light every time I revisit this and other pertinent UUA sites. Thank you all so much for sharing your heartening insights.

    When I first learned about UU congregations as an interfaith family solution, I don’t think I found the word “Islam” once on the website and somehow never heard Islam addressed in any UU fellowship until a couple of months ago. Most recently, I’ve felt deeply conflicted about singing certain hymns with the choir, while in the past I’ve felt condescended to for personally deciding against agnosticism, atheism, and paganism. Nonetheless, UUs’ strong practice of service, seeking, and valuing diversity and equity offers spiritual uplift unlike anything typical of muslims I’ve known. I wish the last comment posted here mentioned masjids that actually do have a strong culture of love, peace, respect, and liberty for all. I wonder if others (in my area or region) share these sensibilities and still comfortably engage with UUs.

    Thank you in advance for all replies.

    Peace,
    Natasha

    By the way, is anyone familiar with the new Islamic Studies programs @the UU seminary (gtu.edu/academics/areas/islamic-studies#m-a & sksm.edu/faculty/ibrahim_farajaje.php)?

  19. Ali beydoun says:

    I think it should be important to note that Ralph Waldo Emmerson who’s philosophies have largely influenced the UU church was hugely influenced by the writings of Muslim Sufi mystics like Rumi or Hafez. These Islamic scholars’ teachings inspired Emmerson to develop his ideas on transcendentalism. While in America Sufis are often regarded as fringe Muslims and often disconnect from mainstream Islam, Sufism is on the contrary a massively influential force within mainstream Islam in both Sunni and Shia sects and therefore Emmerson’s connection to Sufi writings establishes a direct connection between Islam and the UU church with regards to the church’s origins. For more information read Syed Hussein Nasr’s book The Garden of Truth.

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