Rabia of Basra has the distinction of being the first female Sufi mystic in the history of Islam. She lived around 1300 years ago, and one of her stories is about the time a robber broke into her home, and what happened next. The robber broke in, only to find that there was nothing worth stealing. He only found a sleeping mat, a brick which served as Rabia’s pillow, a Qur’an, and the water pot she drew from five times daily (at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and at night), to wash herself of life’s impurities in preparation for salat, or prayer.
The robber also found Rabia. She was there too. Now imagine a regular person in Rabia’s shoes. Perhaps they would have reacted in outrage and reached for a weapon. Perhaps they might have cringed in mortal terror. Rabia is a woman, and a man had just broken into her home, and very bad things might ensue.
But what happened next is evidence of religion at its finest. Rabia responded to the robber from a place of peace, not reactivity. Rabia saw before her a human being with inherent worth and dignity, but one who had forgotten God and the proper role of being human, which is to worship God (which is to equally say, to keep God close constantly). This is what Islam teaches. Rabia therefore said, “If you are indeed a robber, surely you cannot leave empty-handed”—and then she gave him the practice of prayer, for prayer is a powerful means of connection with God.
Rabia’s kindness blindsided him. He was completely caught off guard, and this served to crack open his heart. He received her teaching, tried it for himself, and was mightily surprised. God’s Oneness became clear to him, a Oneness in which there is no room for anything else but all that is truly good—a Oneness that is worth more than all the riches in the world.
The robber would no longer feel a need to steal, ever again.
He could have all that truly matters, freely.
Fundamentally, this is what Islam is about, whatever branch we are talking about: Sunni, Shi’ah, or the more mystical and liberal sect of Sufism. Islam says that all people are ultimately in search of fullness and richness in life—we are all driven by the ceaseless hungers of a restless spirit to find peace. Furthermore, the search has an end, and peace can indeed be found, in the Oneness of God. But people are also human, and can make mistakes. We can use our freedom destructively. We can become robbers and break in and steal. Yet Islam says it does not have to be this way. There are robbers, yes. But there are also Rabias.
Spiritual transformation is real.
How this happens from the perspective of Islam—and some of the major challenges to be faced along the way—are our subjects this morning.
Start with the historical context into which Islam came into being. Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, portrays the situation memorably: “People felt almost no obligation to anyone outside their tribes. Scarcity of material goods made brigandage a regional institution and the proof of virility. In the sixth century political deadlock and the collapse of the magistrate in the leading city of Mecca aggravated this generally chaotic situation. Drunken orgies were commonplace, and the gaming impulse uncontrolled. The prevailing religion watched from the sidelines, providing no check.”
Into this was born a man called Muhammad around 570 C.E. From childhood to youth and from youth to adulthood, he grew, witnessing the violence and chaos of his day, and he would never accept it as inevitable. He never stopped insisting that Life could be different.
It was in a cave on a mountain on the outskirts of Mecca, known as Mount Hira, where Muhammad came to know Allah, the One God. The revelation was mystical in nature, and ongoing, during vigils that would last all night long, night after night, in deepest contemplation. And then, on what history now calls the Night of Power, in that mountain cave, it is said that an angel came to him in the form of a man, and the angel commanded, “Proclaim!” To which Muhammad immediately replied,” I am not a proclaimer!” The angel insisted a second time; Muhammad resisted once more. The third time, the angel would not take no for an answer:
Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created!
Created man from a clot of blood.
Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous,
Who teaches by the pen;
Teaches man what he knew not.
This was all simply terrifying to Muhammad. He rushed down the mountain and home to his wife, Khadija, and shared his fear that he had gone mad. He shared his anguish and self-doubt. But his wife, who by now had known him for decades and had witnessed his kindness, his honesty, his sensitivity to human suffering, and his thirst for social justice, told him, “You will be the Prophet of this people.”
She was the first convert to Islam, and by no means the last of this world’s fastest growing religion, now 1.7 billion strong worldwide.
But back in Muhammad’s time, when he took up the call to proclaim, the response of his fellow Meccans quickly escalated to open persecution and violence. What Allah wanted him to proclaim went completely against the grain of Meccan society. For fourteen years, he and his slowly growing group of followers suffered, but Muhammad’s response all along was nonviolent resistance. Fourteen years of nonviolent resistance! It was only after the Hejira in 622 A.D–the migration 280 miles north of Mecca to a city called Yathrib (which would soon be renamed Medinat al-Nabi, the City of the Prophet)—it was only then that Muhammad went beyond nonviolent resistance and allowed the use of physical force, but only defensively and never as the aggressor.
It was after one of these moments of self-defense—of fighting for his survival and that of Islam—when Muhammad said something that can help us get more fine-tuned in our exploration of Islam. He said, “We are finished with the lesser jihad; now we are starting the greater jihad.”
This introduces us to a key concept of Islam: “Jihad.” Not only that, but we are also informed that there is a greater form, and a lesser form.
When I say that word, jihad, does anything spring to mind?
If you were here in the sanctuary with me, I’d ask for a show of hands, for folks whose minds immediately go to the phrase “holy war.”
That’s the most common go-to definition in the West, as it tries to wrap its mind around events like 9/11 or other instances of suicide bombings and terrible violence in the name of God. I’ll have more to say specifically about this in a moment.
For now, just know that jihad most generally means struggle.
And also that, as Muhammad implies, there are several kinds.
One kind does indeed involve warlike violence, of the sort that we saw employed by Muhammad once he and his followers migrated to Medina; but it is a violence that is extremely disciplined and permissible only in cases of self-defense against an aggressor.
Listen to the rules that would make warlike violence legitimate in the eyes of Allah:
· The opponent must always have started the fighting.
· It must not be fought to gain territory.
· It must be launched by a religious leader.
· It must be fought to bring about good – something that Allah will approve of.
· Every other way of solving the problem must be tried before resorting to war.
· Innocent people should not be killed.
· Women, children, or old people should not be killed or hurt.
· Women must not be raped.
· Enemies must be treated with justice.
· Wounded enemy soldiers must be treated in exactly the same way as one’s own soldiers.
· The war must stop as soon as the enemy asks for peace.
· Property must not be damaged.
· Poisoning wells is forbidden. The modern analogy would be chemical or biological warfare.
If there is to be fighting, let it be in the way of Allah. As the Qur’an says, “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.”
Now this is the lesser jihad. The greater kind refers to what is inside one’s heart and mind, as suggested by the following Islamic wisdom quotes:
“The spiritual warrior is he who breaks an idol; and the idol of each person is his Ego” (Imam Abul Qasim al-Qushayri).
“Fight against your ego with the four swords of training: eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you. Then the ego will walk the paths of obedience” (Yahya ibn Mu’adh al-Razi).
These quotes equate the mentality of the robber (from the story we heard a moment ago) with the ego: the part in us that separates us from God. Separation is the problem; separation is the motivator of survival strategies that try to heal the restlessness but only make it worse; separation is why our restlessness never goes away. So, says Islam, fight the ego. Take up the “four swords of training”: Eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you. Another quote, from the great Sufi mystic, Rumi, puts it like this: “When someone criticizes or disagrees with you, a small ant of hatred and antagonism is born in your heart. If you do not squash that ant at once, it might grow into a snake, or even a dragon.”
Isn’t that imagery powerful?
The small ant of antagonism that grows into a snake or even a dragon?
Above all, do you see the link between the lesser jihad of just war and the greater jihad of self-struggle with one’s ego? For when the ant of antagonism is allowed to grow, one loses a capacity to wage war justly. One loses a capacity to follow the strict rules of engagement that Islam lays down. One rule says that “every other way of solving the problem must be tried before resorting to war,” but when the ant has grown into a dragon, your hunger to wound others won’t wait for a search for alternatives. Another rule says, “Innocent people should not be killed,” but the ant-that-has-become-a-dragon spurs you on to kill indiscriminately, without mercy.
There must be the greater jihad first–the self-control first—in order to make the discipline of the lesser jihad possible.
We have already seen one of the primary expressions of the greater jihad of self-struggle, and that in Rabia of Basra’s life: salat, or prayer. Five times a day (at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and at night) in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting. Saying words like this:
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
Those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.
About Islamic prayer, religion scholar Diana Eck makes a key observation: “Muslims speak not just of praying every day but of ‘establishing’ prayer as a part of everyday life. In Islamic understanding, our human condition is not so much a matter of [Christianity’s] original sin but of perpetual forgetfulness. We do forget God and thus fail as well to remember who we are as human beings.” That’s how Diana Eck puts it. Muslims hope to establish prayer in their lives so thoroughly that, even when they are not literally praying, their hearts and minds are still inclined towards Mecca, towards the larger sense of who they are as spiritual beings.
What we habitually think on and love, we become.
Islam’s question to all of us, as we are early in the new year of 2021, is What are we habitually thinking on? How might we establish prayer in our own lives? What ants of hatred and antagonism might be in us, with the potential of becoming snakes or even dragons? How serious are we Unitarian Universalists in the spiritual fight against things like a sense of personal entitlement, and self-pride, and ego?
Powerful questions, indeed.
But now let me say that Islam joins the five-times-a-day prayer with four other practices, and collectively, Muslims call them The Five Pillars. The Five Pillars are a Muslim’s main way to practice the greater jihad.
The Pillars are:
· Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith
· Salat, which we already know: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day
· Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy
· Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan
· Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca
These Five Pillars are the way to practicing the greater jihad and to thereby live a good and responsible life according to Islam.
So much more could be said about Islam’s history and basic practices and beliefs, but we are nearing the end and I will have been remiss if I do not say anything about Mideast violence and terrorism. People calling themselves Muslim but they violate the rules of the lesser jihad and they murder innocents and they are the aggressors.
What is going on with this?
And here it is: what’s going on. Three things. First is just the basic risk inherent in any and all religion, which is that people might not learn what it really is. They don’t know what their Qur’an really says. They don’t know what their Bible really says. They don’t know that they don’t know, so it becomes altogether too easy for them or their leaders to marshal religion’s power and make it serve unholy ends. People can SAY they are Muslim or Christian or Unitarian Universalist or something else—they can claim this all day long—but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They’ll say it because it’s to their advantage to do so; part of religion’s power has always been to rally gathered communities to action. But their motivations might be more about venting rage or securing political power or satisfying greed than anything else. The ancient message of love to God and love to humanity somehow gets transformed into the ugliness of suicide bombing or worse.
This is the first thing going on.
The second thing has to do with why and how people become terrorists to begin with.
The ground-floor reality of potential terrorists is that they feel betrayed by their government’s inability to provide basic services and protect human rights. They are shaken by the collision of modernization and globalization with traditional values and commitments. They have endured some historical injustice that seems like it will never be righted. They suffer the failed promises of military intervention in their country to bring security, rebuild the economy, and ameliorate poverty. All of this feeds a sense of humiliation and weakness and pent-up rage. Into this situation now comes the terrorist leader and terrorist group. Terrorist leader and terrorist group bring in the potential terrorists who are feeling humiliated and weak and angry, and they give them friendship, they give them a sense of adventure, they give them the glamour of belonging to a militant group, they give their families cash payments and all sorts of goods, and above all, they give them a crystal-clear new identity with crystal-clear purpose. They preach that true faith is in jeopardy and emergency conditions prevail; they preach that what has been morally wrong to do is now perfectly right; they preach that they must do whatever it takes to create a perfect world.
This is how potential terrorists become actual ones.
This portrait I’ve just painted comes from a book entitled Terror in the Name of God, by Harvard professor Jessica Stern, and she goes on to make it clear that the terrorist’s crystal-clear new identity is all-important. Modern culture, with what she calls its “God-shaped hole,” does not feed people’s deepest hungers. But the laser-sharp thought-process and purpose of terrorism does.
Just listen to that, and double-track your attention for one quick moment. We’re talking Mid-East terrorism, yes, but what I’ve just said can be adapted to speak to the Jan. 6 insurrection at our nation’s capital and QAnon conspiracy theory which was one of the drivers. QAnon is described by Wikipedia as the “disproven and discredited far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring, and plotted against former U.S. president Donald Trump while he was in office.”
Some of you may have family members or friends who have drunk this Kool-Aid, and you know first-hand how compulsive and persistent the QAnon thought process is.
In a world that has a God-shaped hole in it–a world that is confusing and complicated—narratives that are laser-sharp and leave nothing in doubt can be very tempting indeed.
But back to Mid-East terrorism. The ant has become a dragon. The culture is in crisis, people are longing for a world of peace and prosperity, and so it is apocalypse now. Time to purify the world, by any means necessary.
There is so much suffering triggering this. So much trauma.
And traumatized people just spread more trauma.
Trauma begets trauma.
We need to understand this. But understanding is one thing, approval another. Which leads to the last thing going on: how the vast majority of Muslims have not kept their mouths shut about how Islam is being stolen from them, and they are decidedly not giving their approval. Most of the time, the media seems to be looking the other way when this happens, but it’s been happening. For example, right after 9/11, Egyptian poet and playwright Ali Salem wrote these words: “Extremism may claim God as its redeemer, but it’s really the selfish product of lunacy…. These extremists are pathologically jealous. They feel like dwarfs, which is why they search for towers to destroy.”
Muslims are talking back. Dial up the Council on American-Islamic Relations (or CAIR) website, or go to the American Muslim website, and you’ll see plenty of talking back and talking THROUGH to a different, better vision for the future.
I am so proud to be in this congregation, which for years now has been in relationship with CAIR Ohio, and which, back in 2015, did something to respond to the false stereotypes about Muslims that were being put out there by Presidential election candidates like Donald Trump. The results were threats and hate crimes made towards the Muslim community. So, back in 2015, Muslim leaders like Julia Shearson and Isam Zaiem and Unitarian Universalist leaders like April Stoltz came together to organize what we now know as Teatime for Peace. Teatime to come together and know one another, not through the lens of false stereotypes, but through honest and generous conversation. Teatime for Peace was and is about Servants of God coming to know each other as Servants of God.
Let there be more Teatime for Peace events in our world. Amen.
A moment ago I asked, “What’s going on?” And it’s this, essentially: Islam has a powerful and life-transforming message, but people are people, and they can be ignorant of that message. Their ignorance makes them vulnerable to manipulation by leaders with an unholy axe to grind. Add to that ignorance trauma, and potential terrorists become actual terrorists. But this does not tell the story of authentic Islam. That story is truly told by the vast majority of Muslims who are promoting the greater sort of jihad that is positively and spiritually transformative and which restricts physical violence—when absolutely necessary–to the very disciplined and restricted lesser jihad type.
Most are trying to live up to the meaning of the word “Islam” and seek peace.
That’s what’s going on. And it is a challenging time for all of us. Not just because the entire world suffers from the culture crisis that radiates out of the Middle East. But also because no religion is an island. Every religion’s fate is caught up in the fate of the others. Each one suffers from the evil things the others do; each one benefits from the good things. The interdependent web vision applies to religions as much as to anything else.
My hope today is that we Unitarian Universalists might honestly look at all the fears and stereotypes we might have. Time to see that ant for what it is, and crush it. Time to open our hearts and minds that we might know our brother and sister and sibling Muslims and befriend them. There is so much we might learn.
It’s also the practical thing to do. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, especially because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do—if we freeze it in the moment of its worst example—then Muslims here are going end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle.
And we are left without hope.
We don’t dare allow this. Too much is at stake.
More than 1400 years ago, an infant was born into a world as chaotic as ours. From childhood to youth and from youth to adulthood, he grew, witnessing the violence and injustice of his day; and he would never accept it as inevitable. He never stopped insisting that Life could be different.
With the help of an angel, his wife, and his God, he showed the world a better way. A life-transforming and society-transforming path.
His name was Muhammad. Peace be upon him.
Let’s join him on that path.
Let’s get on that path with him.