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