Posts Tagged ‘Muslim’

Because No One Else Had: Why a Buddhist Wrote a Book about Islam

No Comments | Share On Facebook| Because No One Else Had: Why a Buddhist Wrote a Book about Islam Share/Save/Bookmark Oct 23, 2013

I may be Buddhist, but I’ve spent a good portion of my years building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. As I was preparing for a reading recently of my second multigenerational book on Islam, Muhammad: the Story of a Prophet and Reformer, I pondered this rather unexpected vein in my life’s work.

Long ago as an undergrad in religious studies at the University of Colorado, long before the words Islam and terrorist were coupled together in our media, I sensed the profound Otherness of Islamic cultures for Americans. I remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and leaving the theater before the movie finished, fuming at the stereotyping of volatile, threatening Arabs. In that moment I recognized that Hollywood had used this shoddy currency throughout its history, lodging harmful images deeply in our cultural unconscious as what Sam Keen called the Faces of the Enemy.

A few decades and careers later, one of the first things I wanted to teach in public school was media literacy, most of all to help students identify The Other embedded in our everyday news—especially visual news. As U.S. involvement ramped up in the Middle East, it was almost too easy for my students to find images in newspapers, magazines, and TV of an angry, violent Arab mob. During these years in education, I was fortunate to receive several grants from the State Department to travel to the Middle East twice and collaborate with Muslim teachers and their classes. All of my U.S. students had email-pals in Egypt during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and we studied both countries’ unfolding media narratives. Believe me: They were two very different stories.

The stereotyping continues unabated. Most recently, I was deeply disappointed that the film Argo received such accolades. If you time the angry mob scenes, which front the film, as well as the turbaned gun-toting men running amok in the city, they take up about 50 times more of the narrative than the single, rather touching scene in which an Iranian actually voices her feelings about the U.S. role in aiding the Shah’s brutal regime.

I had my first book on Islam, Ayat Jamilah, Beautiful Signs: a Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents, with me when I visited teachers in Jordan. Some people actually wept at a book reading held in Amman—amazed that an American made the effort to present a respectful collection of the Islamic stories they’d grown up with.

So why did this Buddhist write the first multigenerational narrative about the life of Muhammad for non-Muslims and Muslims? Why did Skinner House Books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association, publish it? Because no one else had. Because our collective ignorance about Islam fuels our willingness to let our government wage wars again and again. Because Americans need to know why the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is so beloved by millions around the globe. Because, whether one is a Believer or not, Muhammad’s story is one of the most remarkable and influential hero’s journeys in history. Because one man risked everything to follow a spiritual calling and guide others on a path of virtue. Because such a rare and courageous life is always worth our time and understanding.


This post was written by Sarah Conover. Although many of Sarah’s books target a multigenerational audience, she insists on accurate scholarship and a sensitivity to the complex, culturally embedded perspectives of religious faiths. She facilitates religious literacy through her writings, writing workshops, books on world wisdom traditions, interfaith dialogue, and media literacy training. Her web site is

Standing on the Side of Love with Muslims in Terre Haute

No Comments | Share On Facebook| Standing on the Side of Love with Muslims in Terre Haute Share/Save/Bookmark May 24, 2013
Group of participants from the Terre Haute interfaith event.

Credit: Emhemed Hamed

This spring, the members of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Terre Haute, Indiana, are working to build relationships with our Muslim neighbors.

We invited members of the local Muslim community to join us for conversation and dessert. Our Social Action Committee worked with a Muslim student, Emhemed Hamed, to plan the program in partnership with the Islamic Center of Terre Haute, the Indiana State University (ISU) Muslim Students Association, and the ISU Interfaith Fellowship.

The event involved 45-50 participants and was extremely successful. The evening included a call to prayer and we were all invited to watch and listen to it. Later, we UUs sang our closing Sunni hymn that we sing at every Sunday service at the end of the event.

The conversations made a big difference for all who came. One man said he would never forget the evening and some Saudi women invited one of our members to lunch. A woman who adjusted my new bifocals and is studying Arabic said that her Muslim friends who had gone told her how great it was and how comfortable they felt. They especially enjoyed a painting by one of our members (now deceased) that displays many different symbols for the major world religions.

Check out this slideshow of photos that Emhemed made from the event:

We, in turn, were invited to attend a celebration for all the Muslim students who graduated from Indiana State University this year. Our congregation was given a very lovely thank you certificate for our support of the Islamic Center of Terre Haute. We are excited to build on these relationships and collaborate more in the future.

Our congregation has also been inspired to join the Shoulder to Shoulder campaign, which will help support our interfaith work.

This post was submitted by Catherine Mcguire, a congregant at the First UU Congregation of Terre Haute.

Running for Someone Else’s Life

2 Comments | Share On Facebook| Running for Someone Else’s Life Share/Save/Bookmark May 07, 2013

This post was written by Helene Newberg. Helene is an avid runner and a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Marathon 2012

Smiling Shaira holds her hands in a peace sign for the camera.


In 2012, I was out of town on Patriot’s Day. Watching social media for Boston Marathon news, I started seeing reports that a student was found drowned in a local pond, less than a mile from our house. My heart sank; I did not want to believe that a child maybe from my community could die on what was reported to be a gorgeous day – marathoners were suffering in surprise early heat, but for others the warmth would be welcome.

Over the next several hours, the story emerged. Foul play was not suspected and, yes, the child was the sixteen year old daughter of friends we had known since our daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Shaira suffered from depression and died by suicide. I knew Shaira as loud and brilliant and creative and gorgeous.

Our hearts broke for our friends, Shaira’s family, who had done everything possible to support their daughter, whom I knew they loved and cherished with their every breath.

Samaritans, Inc.

Shaira's 5K team

Team #7 Running

Years ago, a friend who knew me as a runner asked if I would support a new fundraising race for Samaritans. I thought I was in for a depressing experience, raising money for suicide prevention. It was anything but. One of Samaritan’s goals is to remove the stigma from loss by suicide. The 5K day is a chance to “run for someone else’s life,” supporting helplines and ongoing survivor services.

Last year, with the help of a teen Samaritans volunteer from Shaira’s youth group community, we built a 5K team with members from her home, school, and faith communities. Her dad said running is #7 on the list of things that made Shaira happy, so we called ourselves “Team #7 Running.”

Marathon 2013

I had run marathons before, but never Boston. Not fast enough to qualify, I had never been motivated enough to take on the fundraising commitment, although like many I really wanted to run the storied course.

Consoling anyone in the wake of such a loss seemed futile. However, I knew the family was active and I offered to be company on short runs. It was on one of these runs that I asked about applying for a John Hancock Charity Program Boston Marathon number for Samaritans to honor Shaira’s memory. My thought was that I could use tools I had available – including my near-obsessive passion for distance running – to be supportive in this time of loss.

The idea was a win all around. Samaritans would get needed support. I would spread the word about this resource for those in need and for kids who might volunteer. The community would have a place in which to continue supporting Shaira’s family. I would get to run Boston. All I had to do was raise more than $5,000 and train for a marathon.

My fundraising efforts were humbling. I almost didn’t have to ask and donations poured in.

Six weeks before the marathon, my knee fell apart. I restricted my training and was almost certain I should not start the race. My community support never wavered.

For the one year anniversary of Shaira’s death, her family held a prayer service at their mosque. There I reunited with some of the 5K team and made new friends who lent me a headscarf (but did not insist I cover up), showed me where to stow my shoes and where to sit in meditative prayer for the hour before brief remarks by Shaira’s family and Imam. I opened an English translation of the Qu’ran to page one and gained a deeper appreciation for the strength Shaira’s family finds in their faith and their faith community.

Helene gets a high five from a spectator as she runs the Boston Marathon.

Helene gets a high five from a spectator.

A week later, I got on the bus for Hopkinton, nervous about my injury. I wound up with the best running day of my life. Crowds cheering Boston Marathoners are the best spectators on earth. I flew past my cheering section. I was going to finish this thing. After six weeks of not running, Shaira was with me. I felt amazing.

Until 2:50pm. I heard strange fireworks sounds up ahead, then sirens and helicopters, and finally I pulled off the course at mile 25.2 where my personal story becomes far less important than other things that happened that week.

As what many feared became true – the perpetrators had some vague connection to Islamic extremist ideology – a detail of my story that I had not given second thought began to attract attention. As Muslims across the country braced for anti-Muslim backlash, I had run this now hyper-symbolic marathon in memory of a beautiful, beloved Muslim girl who struggled with mental illness. I am blessed to live in a community where support for all, regardless of faith, is the norm.

Marathon 2014

Shaira, you and I have unfinished business. We’re not done yet. You propelled me through 25.2 miles. I pledge to cover the entire distance next year. You bet I’m all in. Who’s with me?

Running medals with Boston skyline in the background.

Boston strong.

In times like these, when our different faiths are more likely to tear us apart than to bring us together, it is vitally important that we stand with one another on the side of love, working with interfaith partnerships to strengthen and support our neighbors and our communities. Thank you for your support of Standing on the Side of Love as we work toward this goal.

Rev. Jay Leach: My Forthright Dialogue with Lowes Executives

8 Comments | Share On Facebook| Rev. Jay Leach: My Forthright Dialogue with Lowes Executives Share/Save/Bookmark Jan 11, 2012
Post by Rev. James C. (Jay) Leach, Sr. Minister, UU Church of Charlotte, NC

Post by Rev. James C. (Jay) Leach, Sr. Minister, UU Church of Charlotte, NC

“Lowe’s pulls ads from Muslim show, draws fire.”

This was the headline of a December 11 article appearing in the Charlotte Observer. Some variation of that headline appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and in print media outlets throughout the nation.

The Observer article explained explicitly: “The retail giant stopped advertising on TLC’s ‘All-American Muslim’ after a group called the Florida Family Association complained the show was ‘propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.’”

Like many, I was deeply bothered by this action. Lowe’s claims to make “diversity and inclusion a conscious part of how we run our business.” (see To capitulate to fear-mongering is antithetical to that claim. So, I was pleased when I began noticing email petitions taking Lowe’s to task for its actions.

On Thursday, December 15, I was contacted by a representative from an organization called “Faith in Public Life” based in Washington, D.C. asking if I would deliver tens of thousands of these signed petitions to the Lowe’s corporate headquarters in nearby Mooresville, N.C. I contacted some other colleagues to ask if, on very short notice during the holiday season, they’d join me. My longtime friend Russ Dean, one of the co-pastors at Park Road Baptist Church, agreed. We talked with the organization and made our plans to go.

On Tuesday, December 20, Russ and I, accompanied by our Director of Religious Education for Children and Youth, Kathleen Carpenter, in her role as the current president of the board of Mecklenburg Ministries, were joined by three other Christian clergy in a board room conversation at Lowe’s. Representing Lowe’s were four high-level executives who thanked us for our visit.

They asked what we wanted to say. I invited them to tell their side of the story first. To my surprise, they began with an unequivocal admission: we have handled this whole thing very poorly. We’ve done a very poor job of communicating; we understand why people are upset; a part of why we agreed to meet with you is in hopes of saying more clearly what transpired and of addressing the damage we’ve done.

They proceeded to explain that they had bought a block of advertising on the cable channel TLC aware that “All American Muslim” could be one of the shows on which their ads might run. We knew about the content of the show, they said, and had no problem with a Lowe’s ad being aired on it.

One Lowe’s commercial ran during an episode of “All American Muslim.” By the next morning, Lowe’s Facebook page had filled with vitriol. Some of it was directed at the company for running its ads on the show. But, other messages spewed invectives back-and-forth between those posting on the page. That morning a Lowe’s team met and, aware of the thousands of strident postings prompted by the advertisement on this particular show—some directed against the company, some simply deriding others—decided to contact TLC and request that their ads not be aired again on “All American Muslim.”

Only after the decision had been made was Lowe’s contacted by the American Family Association. They indicated that they simply sent a form letter explaining the decision they had already made.

Our decision was solely a business decision, they explained. We advertise to attract customers. We didn’t think this was going to help attract customers so we discontinued them. The maelstrom that resulted, they admitted, took them completely by surprise. In trying to explain their decision, they communicated very poorly, only further fueling the backlash.

We then talked for over an hour. I left with several conclusions. First, I don’t now think Lowe’s was motivated by bigotry or acted out of some deeply held Islamaphobic attitude. To reduce it to those highly-charged accusations is neither fair nor accurate.

Second, Lowe’s clearly failed to live up to its own high corporate values. They acted solely out of concern for their bottom line without considering other implications. They had a great opportunity to respond to the backlash by holding up their own statement: “Lowe’s is committed to maintaining an environment of inclusion, fairness, and respect by understanding and valuing the many ways people are different.” They profess to “lead by example.” In this case, they offered no leadership at all. It is not what they did that I find disappointing; it is what they failed to do that troubles me.

A group of American Muslim women in "All-American Muslim" (Photo: TLC)

Third, the national media was quick to accept a self-serving claim from the Florida Family Association (which is actually little more than a website operated by a deeply divisive individual.) Though there is no evidence that this website motivated Lowe’s action, the national media immediately gave that claim credibility. I am newly chastened to question more deeply, especially when statements are made by those who are hoping to create division and rancor.

Fourth, we engaged in a forthright dialogue, one in which there were clear disagreements. However, we did so civilly, maintaining dignity and respect. I was pleased that Lowe’s accepted my request to join us in speaking to the press afterward. Doing so gave us an opportunity to demonstrate that differences need not result in name-calling, single-minded accusations, or the kind of “us/them” discourse so disappointingly prevalent now.

Did Lowe’s decide to reinstate their advertisements on “All American Muslim?” No. Would doing so have been better and more in keeping with their stated values? I certainly think so. But, for me, the issue was and is larger than that one choice. I find no value in denouncing this whole corporation as bigoted and am disappointed by those who continue to reduce their decision to that simplistic invective. Will Lowe’s keep their commitment to us that they will be more attentive going forward, actually leading by example in “valuing the many ways people are different?” Only time will tell.

Will we embody our own highest values? Our words, our choices, our actions will be integrity’s proof.

Peace, Jay

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

18 Comments | Share On Facebook| Standing on the Side of Love: Common Ground between Unitarian Universalist and Muslims Share/Save/Bookmark 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:

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

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:

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:

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*:

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

5. Orientalism by Edward Said*:

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 (

* “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