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Islamic and Jewish Views of Jesus

Image via Pixabay

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Although Judaism, Christianity and Islam all assert that they teach pure monotheism, only Christianity proclaims that Jesus was the Son of God; and a third of a Divine trinity (a trifold unity. Christians also believe Jesus was a Divine Messiah (Greek Christ) predicted centuries before by several Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Jews say the Messiah is always human.

In the Qur’an, Jesus is referred to in ninety three verses in fifteen surahs; and mentioned by name twenty-five times as “son of Mary” or “Messiah Jesus, son of Mary”.

Islam agrees with Christianity that Jesus was born to a virgin, was sinless, performed miracles, and was superior to other prophets. Both Islam and Judaism teach that Jesus was not in any way Divine. Jews think Jesus was only a Rabbi. Islam teaches Jesus was no more than a prophet.

Islam, denies the central teaching and belief of Christianity by denying Jesus’ divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection. Judaism denies divinity. Both religions deny original sin.

Jews and Muslims are both in fundamental agreement that neither Jesus, nor any other human, should be worshiped as a God or as any part of the one and only God.

But doesn’t the Qur’an state: “The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of Allah, and the Christians call the Messiah a son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (thus) they only imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say (pagans who believed their many Gods had many divine or semi-divine children). Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth! (Qur’an 9:30)

English: Baptism of Christ

Baptism of Christ via Wikipedia

Now there are a half dozen different places in the Qur’an where the Christian claim that Jesus is the son of God is refuted and denied. For example, “Jesus son of Mary, did you ever say to people ‘worship me and my mother as Gods beside Allah?’ and he will answer, ‘How could I say what I had no right to say?’” 5:116

Also, “Jesus in the sight of Allah is like Adam” 3:59. and “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger of Allah…do not say :Trinity. Stop saying that.” 4:171 Jews agree 100% with these ayahs.

And general statements like “those who say, ‘Allah has begotten a son.’ have no knowledge about it, nor did their forefathers; this is a monstrous word that comes from their mouths. They utter nothing but a lie.” 18:4,5 and 5:72-75, and 19:30. Jews also agree 100% with this.

Indeed, the verse that follows 9:30 specifically applies to Jesus: They take their priests (Ahbar) and their monks to be their Lords in derogation of Allah, and (take as their Lord) the Messiah the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but One God: there is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him: (Far is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him). (Qur’an 9:31)

Then how shall we understand the Qur’an’s statement: ‘The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of Allah”?

Al-Tabari and Abdallah ibn Ubayd state that only one Jew (Pinhas) viewed Uzayr as the son of God. Ibn Abbas and Qurtubi say only four Jews, whose names they record, believed Uzayr was a son of God. Ibn Hazm said that just a small group of Jews in Yemen worshipped ʿUzayr as a son of God in some remote period.

Since the Jews of Yemen, who have lived there since the third or fourth century, do have an old tradition not to name their children Ezra, perhaps there was such a small, short lived, heretical sect that later generations wanted to forget.

English: child Jesus with the virgin Mary, wit...

Child Jesus with the virgin Mary, with the Holy Spirit (represented as a dove) and God the Father, with child john the Baptist and saint Elizabeth on the right via Wikipedia

But most Christians to this day, proudly proclaim that they do indeed worship Jesus, the Son of God. Jews however, have always vehemently denied that they worship any partner or other God except the one and only God. So how can we understand the difference between the two seemingly parallel statements in ayah 9:30?

There is a Hadith in Sunan Al-tirmidhi which says that the Jews worship their Rabbi’s. One of the companions said that this is not true. Then Muhammad said that they accept what their Rabbi’s say over the word of God; so in this way they worship them. This Hadith provides an important clue.

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians actually do venerate and pray to both Jesus and his mother Mary; but only a small party of Jews figuratively venerate their rabbis as Muhammad says because, “they accept what their Rabbi’s say, over the word of God, so in this way they worship them”.

This Hadith is correct. Orthodox Jews believe in both a written Torah and an oral (unwritten) Torah which has been handed down for over 3,200 years, ever since Sinai. They often observe Judaism according to the rabbinic interpretation of this oral Torah.

For example, the Torah states that the new Jewish year starts: “On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a day for you to blow ram horns”. (Numbers 29:1)

This one day holy day, was turned into a two day holy day some 17-18 centuries ago, when most Jews lived outside the Land of Israel and could not be sure exactly when the lunar new year calendar began. A similar issue exists for Muslims in determining the start of Ramadan, which is why in some years two different days mark the beginning of Ramadan in various parts of the world.

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622 via Wikipedia

Thus, different circumstances produce different rituals and legal systems, but basic theology can differ only in unessential details. As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49)

The Qur’an also states 4:171 “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ (Messiah) Jesus the son of Mary was (only) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His messengers. Say not “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah: Glory be to Him: (He is far) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth.”

The Qur’an credits Messiah Jesus as being a Word of God. What does this mean? The Qur’an also states 43:61: “And (Jesus) shall be a Sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment): therefore have no doubt about the (Hour), but you (should) follow Me: this is a Straight Way.”

Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, son of David; because the Messianic Age of international peace clearly has not yet come about. But Jesus could have been the Messiah, son of Aaron or Joseph (Yusuf) who according to rabbinic teachings will be killed by the anti-Messianic forces (Romans) before the coming of the son of David Messiah, and the final judgement and resurrection.

Bernardino Luini – Holy Family with the Infant St John via Wikipedia

The belief in two different messiahs, one a moral political leader from the house of David (Davidson) and the other, a religious reformer from the house of Aaron (Aronson), and a special “end of days” prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14) is also found in inter-testament literature.

A Dead Sea scroll states that the Qum’ran community must live according to the original discipline “until there shall come a prophet (Elijah) and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (Manuel of Discipline 9:11). There is also a rabbinic belief in a messianic figure from the northern tribes; a son of Joseph, Mary’s husband, who is killed by Roman enemies.

Rabbi Maller’s website is: www.rabbimaller.com. An ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California, Rabbi Maller has published over 100 articles about Islamic and Jewish connections on Islamic and Jewish web sites. His newest book is ‘Judaism and Islam: Synergistic Monotheisms.’ He is also the author of a book on Jewish mysticism.

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Is Islam Anti-Judaism?

The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan (il...

The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan – illustration by Gustave Doré via Wikipedia

By Rabbi Allen S Maller

The Koran is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. There have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged their society to avoid destruction by turning away from its corrupt and unjust ways and  turning to the One God who created all humans. The Koran mentions 25 prophets by name (most of them known to non-Muslims too) and Muslims believe there were one hundred twenty four thousand others, whose names are now unknown.

Of the 25 mentioned by name in the Koran only five revealed books of sacred scripture, and only Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad revealed books of sacred scripture that are the bases for three religions that still flourish today.

According to the Koran, every nation in the world receives at least one prophet who speaks to it in its own language. However, one nation, the Children of Israel, has received a great many prophets. The Koran doesn’t explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose within the Children of Israel but a careful reading of the Koran reveals the answer.

This was what I learned from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn in a book entitled Jewish-Muslim Encounters edited by Charles Selengut (Paragon House 2001). The book is a collection of 11 papers given at a conference in Cordoba, Spain sponsored by the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace.

Almost all prophets, according to Kahn, are like Hud who was sent to Ad or Salih who was sent to Thamud to warn them of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways and to call them to repentance. However, the prophets of the Children of Israel are somewhat different. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of, whose two sons, Isma’il and Ishaq, are also prophets. Indeed, Abraham’s grandson Ya’qub and great grandson Yusuf are also prophets. Thus starting with Abraham Allah established a family dynasty of prophets.

English: English translation of hebrew version...

Map of the twelve tribes of Israel, before the move of Dan to the North – Wikipedia

With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family became the 12 tribes of Israel or as they are usually called the Children of Israel/Ya’qub. The Children of Israel were blessed with many prophets inviting them to stay firm in their faith to God; this is expressed in various places in the Qur’an “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?’ They answered, ‘We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Issac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves.’” (2:132)

Second, when Moses/Musa is sent by Allah he comes not primarily to warn or rebuke the Children of Israel (his own people) but he is sent “to Pharaoh” ( 20:24, 51:38, 73:15 and 79:17), “to Pharaoh and his chiefs” (al-mala) (7:103, 10:75, 11:97, 23:46, and 43:46) “to Pharaoh and his people” (27:12). Musa is sent to Pharaoh to warn him of the destruction that will fall on Egypt if he doesn’t stop setting himself up as a God and doesn’t let the Children of Israel go free. Musa comes to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel.

Only when the Jewish nation is free from Egyptian bondage do they receive the Torah from God, by the hand of Moses without any mediation of an angel. This very enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn stimulated me as a Reform Rabbi to realize that the evidence from the Qur’an shows that Islam praises the unique place of the Children of Israel among other nations as opposed to the accusations of some who blame the Qur’an as being antagonistic toward Jews.

From Abraham’s descendants comes a religious community based not just on belief but also on family and tribal ties. Converts to Judaism, who usually marry into the Jewish community, are like adopted children. This is why Judaism, although it welcomes converts from any people, has never engaged in a determined large scale missionary enterprise.

The principle that God makes a covenant with a whole people and not just with the faithful believers helps me understand a powerful verse in the Koran. At Sinai, when Allah gives the Jewish People the Torah, He makes a covenant with the Children of Israel. Allah raises the mountain above the whole people saying, “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it.” (2:63) The whole nation’s fate stands under the shadow of mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant. This may be the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel but directly from Allah.

Isaiah via Wikipedia

Isaiah via Wikipedia

Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but when God Himself makes ‘an offer that you can’t refuse’, everyone is in for all generations to come, and then has to struggle with living up to the deal. The many prophets that address the Children of Israel are teachers and guides more than rebukers because the covenant between God and the Umma of  b’nai Israel is for all generations.

Thus the covenant is not just for the community of the faithful; but for the whole community of Israel, which includes some whose hearts are like rocks that spring forth streams, while others only yield water when split, and others sink for fear of Allah.(2:74) It is this last segment of the Children of Israel that Prophet Muhammad refers to when he rebukes the Children of Israel.

The Koran correctly understood doesn’t attack all of Israel. Every community, including the Muslim umma contains groups of faithful believers and a party who disbelieve. All the prophets of Israel opposed the same kind of religious hypocrites in their day, as Prophet Muhammad did in his day.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com

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A POST RAMADAN LESSON: TWO BOYS FORGO A ROYAL FEAST

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Once upon a time a King went out to hunt on a very warm day in the Fall of 2007. After a few hours he felt very hot and tired, so he decided to stop for lunch. His servants unpacked a large picnic basket they had brought with them and set up a table.

Now the King didn’t want to eat together with his servants, nor did he want to eat alone. The King told one of his servants to find someone to come and eat lunch with the King. The servant walked to a nearby road, saw two 13-year-old boys walking along, and told them that the King wanted to see them.

The boys were very surprised, and a little frightened, but they went with the King’s servant. When they arrived at the picnic, the table was set with all kinds of wonderful foods and drinks. The King told the boys to sit down next to him and eat. The boys sat down next to the King, but they did not eat.

After a few minutes the King said, “Why are you not eating? My food is prepared by the best cook in the Kingdom. It is the best tasting food in the country. Doesn’t it look good to you”
“It looks great, and I am sure it is the best food I will ever taste,” answered one boy, “but I can’t eat it.”

“Did you just finish eating lunch? If so you do not have to eat a whole meal, just have some of these great deserts” said the King.

The other boy replied, “Actually we did not eat lunch today, but we cannot eat anything, not even one of those really good looking chocolate covered candies.”

The King was surprised and asked, “Are you sick? Is that why you have lost your appetite?”
“No,” said the boys, “We are not sick and we haven’t lost our appetites.”

“Then why are you not hungry?” asked the King.
“But we are hungry” said one boy, and his friend added, “Neither of us ate lunch, and I did not eat breakfast. We are very, very hungry.”

The King looked bewildered and shouted, “Then why don’t you eat since both of you are hungry and the food is delicious?”

“Because this month is Ramadan* and I am a Muslim” said one boy. The other boy nodded and said, “And today is Yom Kippur* and I am Jewish.”

The King was astonished and said, “Why shouldn’t you enjoy yourselves? This is the best tasting food you will ever eat and you are hungry.”

“That is true, but that makes it even more important for us to fast,” answered the boys. “It is easy not to eat food you do not like. The test of a person’s self-control is best when the temptation is greatest.”

“Do you think God cares if you eat or not? Go ahead and eat, I will not tell anyone, especially your parents.”

Both boys said, “No thanks. Even if you don’t tell anyone else, we will know that we failed to live up to our religious duties to God.”

The King thought for a moment and then asked the Muslim boy why the Muslim God made Muslims fast for a whole month while the Jewish God only required one day of fasting.
The Muslim boy answered, “Muslims fast on Ramadan because that is the month that Prophet Muhammad received the first verses of the Holy Qur’an. Fasting brings us closer to God, inspires us to seek to reconcile with our adversaries, and stimulates us to give charity to the hungry.

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (...

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jews fast for one day because that is what the Torah requires of them. There is only one God. Jews and Muslims obey the same God, but God asks each religious community to do different things. God judges us according to how good we are in our own religion, not according to somebody else’s religion.

The Holy Qur’an in Surah 5, Verse 48, says: “If Allah had so willed, He could have made humans a single people, but He tests you in what He has revealed to you, so strive to compete in all virtues.”
My father says that this is one of the most important teachings of the Qur’an for both Muslims and everyone else in today’s world. Muslims fast everyday for the whole month of Ramadan, but only from sunrise to sunset. We can eat dinner after sunset and breakfast before sunrise. Jews have to go without food or drink for a full 24 hours on Yom Kippur. Each community must be faithful to its own religion.”

The King asked the Jewish boy, “What is Yom Kippur?”

“Yom Kippur teaches us that we must improve ourselves each year by changing some of our bad habits or behavior. We must admit we have done bad things and hurt people. We have to go face the people we hurt and make peace with them. This is not easy to do.

My father says that to improve oneself takes lots of self-discipline. Fasting is good training in one of the most basic and difficult self-disciplines; dieting. It is easy to eat food that tastes good. But to limit yourself by restricting your diet every day, and not eating at all on Yom Kippur, is a real challenge and helps Jews improve their self-control and spiritual self-discipline.

All faithful Jews who are 13 years or older, are commanded by God to fast on Yom Kippur, so I have not eaten since dinner last night. I knew fasting 24 hours on Yom Kippur would be a test of my will power, and my commitment to be a faithful Jew, but I never thought I’d be challenged by being tempted to eat a meal fit for a King.”

The King was very impressed by what the boys said. He was even more impressed by the boys’ self-discipline and commitment to be faithful to their own religious teachings. So the King told the boys to come to the palace the next evening, along with their entire family, and have dinner with the King and the Queen. And that is what they did.

One year, the King also tried to fast on Yom Kippur, but he was only able to fast until 4 pm when he gave up, saying “I couldn’t do it for even one day. I guess if you don’t start when you are young it is a lot harder than it sounds.”

*Ramadan: Both the Jewish and the Muslim calendars are based on the moon; so the dates of Muslim and Jewish holidays change each year in terms of the solar calendar, The Jewish calendar is connected to the solar calendar so the changes are not cumulative. The Muslim calendar’s changes are cumulative so Ramadan falls 11 days earlier every year. In every generation (31-31 years), Yom Kippur and Ramadan coincide at least 2 or 3 times; and September 22, 2007 was the third year in a row that Yom Kippur coincided with Ramadan.

*Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement, the last day of the ten days of Awe during which Jews examine their hearts and minds and seek out people they think they have hurt or ignored during the last year to make amends and reconcile. God will forgive their sins when they have both reconciled with others, and reformed themselves to not repeat their bad behavior.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com


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An “unbiased” view of Islam?

My feeling is that the author of this worthy article means well but makes the same kind of philosophical mistake that so many do when promoting a particular agenda, religious belief or greater cultural awareness. Avoiding bias and attaining objectivity probably isn’t possible. Maybe we can achieve degrees of objectivity, but unless we have a pipeline to God, I doubt anyone can claim pure objectivity. That’s why we need to talk, bounce perspectives off one another, and come to working solutions.


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Is Islam incompatible with modernity?

Asma Afsaruddin, Indiana University, Bloomington

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, political leaders have lined up to denounce the acts as inhuman and uncivilized, unworthy of our day and age.

French President Francois Hollande denounced them as “a barbaric act,” while President Obama called them “an attack on the civilized world.”

Unfortunately, the horrific actions of ISIS – done in the name of Islam – often get attributed to Muslims as a whole. There is the underlying assumption that there must be some core aspect of the religion that is at fault, that the religion is incompatible with modernity.

It hasn’t helped that some non-Muslim thinkers have conflated ISIS with mainstream Islam. They’ll often point to ISIS’ desire to return civilization to the seventh century as further proof that Islam – and its followers – are backwards.

Yet many leading Muslim thinkers are going to some of Islam’s earliest texts to actually promote reform. Contained within these texts are ideas many consider progressive: peaceful coexistence, the acceptance of other religions, democratic governance and women’s rights.

Indeed, Islam and modernization need not be at odds with one another. And in the aftermath of tragedy, it’s important to not lose sight of this.

A single model of modernity?

The question is posed, time and again: will Muslims ever be able to reform and modernize and join the 21st century?

Yet the subtext is almost always that the Western paradigm of modernity – the one that developed in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, that firmly embraced secularism and the (sometimes ferocious) marginalization of religion – is the only one worthy of emulation. Muslims, the thinking goes, have no choice but to adopt it themselves.

However some scholars have increasingly challenged the notion of a single model of modernity. According to them, there’s no reason that religion and modernization must inevitably be at odds with one another for all societies and for all time.

In 16th-century Europe, the priesthood had achieved considerable wealth and political power by often allying themselves with local kings and rulers. The Protestant reformers, therefore, regarded the Church as an impediment to political empowerment.

But Muslims, due to their unique religious history, continue to view their religion as an ally in their attempts to come to terms with the changed circumstances of the modern world.

Muslim religious scholars (ulama) never enjoyed the kind of centralized and institutionalized authority that the medieval European church and its elders did. The ulama – from the eighth century’s al-Hasan al-Basri to the 20th century’s Ayatullah Khomeini – traditionally distanced themselves from political rulers, intervening on behalf of the populace to ensure social and political justice.

Such an oppositional role to government prevented the emergence of a general popular animosity directed at them, and by extension, toward Islam.

For this reason, today’s Muslim thinkers feel no imperative to distance themselves from their religious tradition. On the contrary, they are plumbing it to find resources therein to not only adapt to the modern world, but also to shape it.

Islam turned on its head

Yet 21st-century Muslim religious scholars have a challenging task. How can they exhume and popularize principles and practices that allowed Muslims in the past to coexist with others, in peace and on equal terms, regardless of religious affiliation?

Such a project is made more urgent by the fact that extremists in Muslim-majority societies (ISIS leaders currently foremost among them) vociferously reject this as impossible. Islam, they declare, posits the superiority of Muslims over everyone else. Muslims must convert non-Muslims or politically subjugate them.

As a result, many have accused these extremists of trying to return Muslim-majority societies to the seventh century.

If only that were true!

If these extremists could actually be transported miraculously back to the seventh century, they would learn a thing or two about the religion they claim to be their own.

For starters, they would learn to their chagrin that seventh-century Medina accepted Jews as equal members of the community (umma) under the Constitution of Medina drawn up by the prophet Muhammad in 622 CE. They would also learn that seventh-century Muslims took seriously the Qur’anic injunction (2:256) that there is to be no compulsion in religion and that specific Qur’anic verses (2:62 and 5:69) recognize goodness in righteous Christians and Jews.

Most importantly, fire-breathing extremists would learn that peaceful non-Muslim communities cannot be militarily attacked simply because they are not Muslim. They would be reminded that only after 12 years of nonviolent resistance would the Prophet Muhammad and his companions resort to armed combat or the military jihad. And even then it would only be to defend themselves against aggression.

The Qur’an, after all, unambiguously forbids Muslims from initiating combat. Qur’an 2:190 states, “Do not commit aggression,” while Qur’an 60:8 specifically asserts:

God does not forbid you from being kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on you on account of your religion nor driven you from your homes; indeed God loves those who are equitable.

Extremist groups like ISIS are often accused of being scriptural literalists and therefore prone to intolerance and violence. But when it comes to specific Qur’anic verses like 2:256; 60:8 and others, it’s clear that they cherry-pick which passages to “strictly” interpret.

Going to the source

Not surprisingly, Muslim reformers are returning to their earliest religious sources and history – the Qur’an and its commentaries, reliable sayings of Muhammad, early historical chronicles – for valuable guidance during these troubled times.

And much of what we regard as “modern, progressive values” – among them religious tolerance, the empowerment of women, and accountable, consultative modes of governance – can actually be found in this strand of Muslims’ collective history.

Like 16th-century Christian reformers, Muslim reformers are returning to their foundational texts and mining them for certain moral guidelines and ethical prescriptions. For one reason or another – political upheaval, war, ideological movements – many had been cast aside. But today they retain particular relevance.

As a result, the reformers are distinguishing between “normative Islam” and “historical Islam,” as the famous Islam scholar Fazlur Rahman has phrased it.

But unlike the earlier Christian reformers, Muslim reformers are hardly ever left alone to conduct their project of reform. Their efforts are constantly stymied by intrusive outsiders, particularly non-Muslim Western cultural warriors who encroach on the Muslim heartlands – militarily, culturally and, above all, intellectually.

Such a multipronged assault was particularly evident during George W Bush’s presidency, during which the neoconservatives championed a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world, a theory popularized by political scientist Samuel Huntington.

Western Muslim reformers are not immune to this onslaught, either. They are frequently derided by self-styled “expert” outsiders for subscribing to what they characterize as newfangled beliefs like democracy, religious tolerance and women’s rights. According to these “experts,” there is supposedly no grounding or room for these beliefs in their religious texts and tradition.

One wonders how effective Martin Luther would have been in 16th-century Europe if he had to constantly deal with non-Christian “experts” lecturing him about Christianity’s true nature.

Meanwhile, there are a number of pundits who are eager to tie the actions of Islamist terrorists to mainstream religious doctrine.

Journalist Graeme Wood’s alarmist article in The Atlantic is a most recent example of such intrusive punditry.

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” he wrote. “…the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Caner Dagli, a well-known scholar of Islam, rejected Woods’ argument:

All of this puts Muslims in a double bind: If they just go about their lives, they stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims “speak out.” But if they do speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us.

Despite such formidable challenges, reformist efforts continue unabated in learned Muslim circles. Sometimes crises and the subsequent marshaling of moral and intellectual resources can bring out the best in an individual and in a community.

The Qur’an (94:6) promises that “Indeed with hardship comes ease.” Committed Muslim reformers who take the Qur’an’s injunctions seriously (unlike the extremists) are working toward the easing of current circumstances of hardship – and calling on others to help, not impede, them in this global human endeavor.

The Conversation

Asma Afsaruddin, Professor of Islamic Studies and former Chairperson, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Is your religion ready to meet ET?

David A Weintraub, Vanderbilt University

How will humankind react after astronomers hand over rock-solid scientific evidence for the existence of life beyond the Earth? No more speculating. No more wondering. The moment scientists announce this discovery, everything will change. Not least of all, our philosophies and religions will need to incorporate the new information.

Searching for signs of life

Astronomers have now identified thousands of planets in orbit around other stars. At the current rate of discovery, millions more will be found this century.

Having already found the physical planets, astronomers are now searching for our biological neighbors. Over the next fifty years, they will begin the tantalizing, detailed study of millions of planets, looking for evidence of the presence of life on or below the surfaces or in the atmospheres of those planets.

And it’s very likely that astronomers will find it. Despite the fact that more than one-third of Americans surveyed believe that aliens have already visited Earth, the first evidence of life beyond our planet probably won’t be radio signals, little green men or flying saucers. Instead, a 21st century Galileo, using an enormous, 50-meter-diameter telescope, will collect light from the atmospheres of distant planets, looking for the signatures of biologically significant molecules.

Astronomers filter that light from far away through spectrometers – high-tech prisms that tease the light apart into its many distinct wavelengths. They’re looking for the telltale fingerprints of molecules that would not exist in abundance in these atmospheres in the absence of living things. The spectroscopic data will tell whether a planet’s environment has been altered in ways that point to biological processes at work.

What is our place in the universe?
Woman image via www.shutterstock.com

If we aren’t alone, who are we?

With the discovery in a distant planet’s light spectrum of a chemical that could only be produced by living creatures, humankind will have the opportunity to read a new page in the book of knowledge. We will no longer be speculating about whether other beings exist in the universe. We will know that we not alone.

An affirmative answer to the question “Does life exist anywhere else in the universe beyond Earth?” would raise immediate and profoundly important cosmotheological questions about our place in the universe. If extraterrestrial others exist, then my religion and my religious beliefs and practices might not be universal. If my religion is not universally applicable to all extraterrestrial others, perhaps my religion need not be offered to, let alone forced on, all terrestrial others. Ultimately, we might learn some important lessons applicable here at home just from considering the possibility of life beyond our planet.

In my book, I investigated the sacred writings of the world’s most widely practiced religions, asking what each religion has to say about the uniqueness or non-uniqueness of life on Earth, and how, or if, a particular religion would work on other planets in distant parts of the universe.

Extrasolar sinners?

Let’s examine a seemingly simple yet exceedingly complex theological question: could extraterrestrials be Christians? If Jesus died in order to redeem humanity from the state of sin into which humans are born, does the death and resurrection of Jesus, on Earth, also redeem other sentient beings from a similar state of sin? If so, why are the extraterrestrials sinful? Is sin built into the very fabric of the space and time of the universe? Or can life exist in parts of the universe without being in a state of sin and therefore without the need of redemption and thus without the need for Christianity? Many different solutions to these puzzles involving Christian theology have been put forward. None of them yet satisfy all Christians.

Mormon worlds

Mormon scripture clearly teaches that other inhabited worlds exist and that “the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (Doctrines and Covenants 76:24). The Earth, however, is a favored world in Mormonism, because Jesus, as understood by Mormons, lived and was resurrected only on Earth. In addition, Mormon so-called intelligences can only achieve their own spiritual goals during their lives on Earth, not during lifetimes on other worlds. Thus, for Mormons, the Earth might not be the physical center of the universe but it is the most favored place in the universe. Such a view implies that all other worlds are, somehow, lesser worlds than Earth.

Bahá’í without bias

Members of the Bahá’í Faith have a view of the universe that has no bias for or against the Earth as a special place or for against humans as a special sentient species. The principles of the Bahá’í Faith – unifying society, abandoning prejudice, equalizing opportunities for all people, eliminating poverty – are about humans on Earth. The Bahá’í faithful would expect any creatures anywhere in the universe to worship the same God as do humans, but to do so according to their own, world-specific ways.

Light years from Mecca

The pillars of the faith for Muslims require the faithful to pray five times every day while facing Mecca. Because determining the direction of Mecca correctly could be extremely difficult on a quickly spinning planet millions of light years from Earth, practicing the same faith on another world might not make any sense. Yet the words of the Qu’ran tell us that “Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth do prostrate themselves to Allah” (13:15). Can terrestrial Muslims accept that the prophetically revealed religion of Muhammad is intended only for humans on earth and that other worlds would have their own prophets?

Astronomers as paradigm-shatterers

Philosophers and scientists have forced worldviews to adapt in the past.

At certain moments throughout history, astronomers’ discoveries have exerted an outsized influence on human culture. Ancient Greek astronomers unflattened the Earth – though many then chose to forget this knowledge. Renaissance scholars Copernicus and Galileo put the Earth in motion around the Sun and moved humans away from the center of the universe. In the 20th century, Edwin Hubble eliminated the very idea that the universe has any center at all. He demonstrated that what the universe has is a beginning in time and that, bizarrely, the universe, the very fabric of three-dimensional space, is expanding.

Clearly, when astronomers offer the world bold new ideas, they don’t mess around. Another such paradigm-shattering new idea may be in the light arriving at our telescopes now.

No matter which (a)theistic background informs your theology, you may have to wrestle with the data astronomers will be bringing to houses of worship in the very near future. You will need to ask: Is my God the God of the entire universe? Is my religion a terrestrial or a universal religion? As people work to reconcile the discovery of extrasolar life with their theological and philosophical worldviews, adapting to the news of life beyond Earth will be discomfiting and perhaps even disruptive.

The Conversation

David A Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy, Vanderbilt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Surfin’ with Sufis

Sufism was perhaps first popularized in a 1968 film, The Mystic’s Journey, which featured the religious studies scholar Huston Smith.

In keeping with the times, Smith depicted Sufis as exotic whirling dervishes, reminiscent of the inside sleeve of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour lp.

This contributed to a Western myth of Sufis as itinerant mystics, blissfully dancing through enchanted, far away lands.

While this depiction may not be entirely wrong, like most religious and spiritual traditions, Sufism is about real people with definite roots and different schools of organized belief.

The Sufis emerged from Islamic orthodoxy. The word sufi (Arabic = mystic) is likely based on the root suf (wool), recalling the simple woolen garments worn by ascetics. The Sufi generally believes in a kind of natural pantheism, where creator and creation are seen as one unbroken whole. So the goal of the Sufi is to totally immersed themselves in this undivided oneness.

Sufism became an organized movement around the 7th and 8th centuries, mostly in reaction to the Middle-Eastern Umayyad dynasty, which was perceived as too worldly. The most publicized Dervish orders of Sufism arose in India around the 12th and 13th centuries. These emphasized ecstatic states and were criticized by some orthodox believers but, nevertheless, remained influential into modern times.

Like any kind of religious experience, we can’t say too much about what a Sufi actually feels, or how the numinous, inner light – if any – is experienced by them. But there’s no shortage of Sufi literature that might give us some kind of clue.

The following beautifully reveals Abul Cheir’s particular identification with all aspects of existence and his understanding of cosmic totality.

I am the mote from the sun, I am the sun’s round.
I am the first light of dawn, the sighs of eve, the rustling of the branch, the roar of the sea.
I am mast, tiller, skip, and vessel. I am the shoal upon which I sink.
I am bird-catcher, bird and net. I am face and mirror, voice and echo.
I am the living tree and the parrot of the branch.
I am silence and thought, tongue and speech.
I am the breath of the flute, the glimmer of stone, the shining of metal.
I am the drunk and the grape, the winepress and tavern, the crystal of the cup.
I am the candle and the moth that circles round it.
I am doctor and illness, poison and cure.
I am war and peace, battlefield and victory; village and conquerors, hordes and wall.
I am the mortar and trowel, worker and plan, cornerstone and high tree, structure and ruin.
I am the hart and the lion, the lamb and wolf. I am herdsman of all.
I am the chain of being, the ring of all worlds, the ladder of creation, the rising and falling.
I am what is and what is not. I am the soul inside All.¹

Again, this kind of identifying with the ALL was criticized within some orthodox circles. Sayings like “I am truth” and Praise be to me” are bound to raise a few eyebrows among any kind of orthodoxy that believes everyday human beings can never be equal to God.²

Professor Alford T. Welch likens the Sufi’s quest for mystical union to the 14th-century Christian treatise, Theologia Germanica.³ Welch says that both types of mystics, Sufi and Christian, undero distinct phases in the pursuit of the ultimate realization of love and continual God-awareness.

I Purification

1. Remorse for sin
2. Confession of sin
3. Reconciliation of life

II Enlightenment

4.  Avoidance of sin
5.  Living life of virtue and good works
6.  Bearing trial and temptation

III Union

7.  Pureness and integrity of heart
8.  Love
9.  Meditation on God

However, this comparison might be a bit forced. A moment’s reflection tells us that we can’t really know if Sufi and Christian mystics experience (what they see as) God in the same way. Certainly their respective conceptions of God differ. For the Sufi, God is everything. Whereas the Christian sees God in sharp contrast to that which is “not from” or which has “rebelled against” God—i.e. Satan or evil. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Sufi and Christian experiences of God also differ.

Theological speculation and debates aside, the essence of Sufism might best be expressed by the 13th-century and increasingly popular poet Jala ud-Din Rumi. Rumi’s verse can be found in most bookstores and his message prefigures Joseph Campbell’s dictum of “follow your bliss”:

Why are your lips dry when the cup is full?
Conceive an impossible plan – as Noah did!
Live the life that you love!4

Sufism Links

Notes

¹ I stumbled upon this passage at the University of Ottawa library in the 1990s, before the birth of Earthpages.org. Unfortunately the complete reference is currently unavailable, although I’m hoping to track it down.

² See William Theodore de Bary (ed.), Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1958, p. 407.

³ Adapted from Alford T. Welch, “Islam” in John R. Hinnells (ed.) A New Handbook of Living Religions, Cambridge Mass: Blackwell and Penguin, 1997, p. 204.

4 Cited in T. Freke and P. Gandy, The Complete Guide to World Mysticism, London: Piatkus. 1998, p. 111.

Surfin’ with Sufis © Michael Clark.
Photos Jelebia and Rainbow over Rabat © Michael Clark.