2016 Is a Time to Learn about Islam’s Mercy

Earlier in December, I published the following piece in National Catholic Reporter. It speaks about the centrality of mercy in the Islamic tradition, something that is unknown by many in the West. During this time of increased Islamophobia — when anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks against Muslims are at a post-9/11 high — it’s ever more important to become better acquainted with Muslims and their tradition. I hope this piece can aid in that endeavor. 

Dec. 8 marks the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, a yearlong celebration of God’s compassion. Pope Francis, who has made mercy the motto of his papacy, hopes that this year will be “a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God.” One way Catholics can become better acquainted with this divine mercy is by more deliberately encountering another religion that takes God’s mercy as its central focus: Islam.

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Faced with news media images of violence and black flags in the Middle East, the last thing many Catholics might associate with Islam is mercy. Aside from knowing about Muslims’ frequent prayer and Ramadan fast, most are unaware of Muslim religious practices, let alone their beliefs about God. But written at the beginning of every chapter of the Quran but one, and recited by Muslims at the start of every meal, prayer and task, is the invocation Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, which can be translated “In the name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.”

In his papal bull announcing the jubilee, Francis referenced both Islam’s and Judaism’s emphases on God’s mercy, writing, “There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church.” He urged Catholics to use the Year of Mercy as an opportunity to learn about Islam and other religions to “eliminate every form of close-mindedness and disrespect … violence and discrimination.”

Like a parent

As Francis has described in homilies throughout his papacy, God’s mercy isn’t simply pity or forgiveness after we’ve done wrong. Rather, mercy is God’s overarching disposition toward creation, a parental love that extends to all. This is also true in Islam.

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Ya Rahman, “Oh, the Most Merciful.”

Muslims don’t refer to God as “Father,” but the parent-like nature of God in Islam becomes clear when we examine the Arabic roots of the word for mercy: rahmah. This word — and the names for God al-Rahman (the Entirely Merciful) and al-Rahim (the Especially Merciful) — comes from rahm, the Arabic word for a mother’s womb. The Prophet Muhammad compared God’s rahmah to that of a nurturing mother.

In the Quran, God identifies rahmah — which Muslims also translate into English as graciousness, compassion and loving kindness — as His chief attribute, and says that the name al-Rahman is but a synonym of Allah, the Arabic word for God. In a famous hadith, or saying of the prophet, Muhammad tells his followers that God has more mercy toward his servants than a mother does toward her child.

CXfgANnWkAQV8-T.jpg-largeFor both Christians and Muslims, God’s mercy is also characterized by infinite patience and a constant reaching out to wayward humanity.

Francis frequently cites Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, or what the pope calls the story of the “merciful father.” In the parable, a young man runs away from his family, abandoning his elderly father and living a life of selfishness. After he squanders his money, he returns ashamed to his family home.

As the Bible tells it, “While [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”

An oft-cited saying of Muhammad echoes this picture of God. He said, “God says: When a servant of mine draws nearer to me by the length of a hand, I draw toward him an arm’s length; and when he draws near to me an arm’s length, I draw near to him the distance of a wingspan; and if he comes to me walking, I go to him running.”

‘My Mercy encompasses all things’

The motherly quality of God’s mercy in Islam also speaks to God’s creation and sustaining of the universe. All things have been created by God, who, as the spiritual master Ibn Arabi put it, “mercified” the universe into being.

God’s infinite compassion (Quran 7:156) embraces the whole world (as a mother’s womb), and his attributes are partially made manifest in his creatures, particularly humans.

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This universal and constantly flowing mercy of God is also paired with what scholars of Islam have called God’s particular or secondary mercy, which is bestowed in response to humans’ efforts to live as God wants. This special mercy (ultimately achieved in salvation at the end of life) is not guaranteed, since humans are free to turn away from God’s universal care.

Still, like a patient parent, God constantly offers mercy, which, as Muhammad described, always “prevails over” his wrath.

Model of mercy

Muslims also believe God’s mercy was expressed through messengers who conveyed his revelation to humanity. These messengers include many figures that are familiar to Christians, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, of whom God says in the Quran, “We have not sent you [Muhammad] but as a mercy for the universe” (Quran 21:107).

12274415_10153167320776631_884562967806251597_nFor Muslims, Muhammad is the model of merciful living. They look to his example of rahmah toward animals, the elderly, his grandchildren and everyone he met as a blueprint for their own lives, striving to emulate his caring nature and to be a mercy to their own universe.

CelebrateMercy,” an online educational initiative started by American Muslims, strives to share the life and legacy of the Muhammad not just with Muslims but with those who have only countered negative stereotypes about Islam and its prophet.

Mercy is our motto, too

In learning about the centrality of mercy in Islam, Catholics can become more cognizant of the emphasis of mercy in our own tradition, finding resonances to the Islamic notion in passages like this one, in Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”

This Year of Mercy is a time for Catholics to re-encounter God’s rahmah through our own Scriptures and tradition, but also through the religion of our Muslim brothers and sisters. What we will discover is that, even with our doctrinal differences, Muslims and Christians share a core belief in a God who approaches all of creation with the loving kindness of a parent.

Perhaps then, we’ll find ourselves beginning each prayer, each task and each meal with an invocation of God’s mercy on our lips.

[This story appeared in the Dec 4-17, 2015 print issue of National Catholic Reporter under the headline: The Year of Mercy is a time to learn about Islam.]

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“My Mercy encompasses all things.” Qur’an 7:156

Make Jesus and Muhammad Proud

This week, I published two new articles, one focused on the Middle East, and another about domestic events. Both, however, deal with Islamophobia and the necessary interfaith response to it.

Sojourners was kind enough to ask me to write a piece in response to the anti-Muslim rallies which were planned throughout the country last weekend. Fortunately, many of these protests didn’t materialize, and often the ones that did were met with loving responses from Muslims and other Americans. Still there is always more that can be done.

A Muslim woman embraced a lone protester outside an Ohio mosque on Saturday. After visiting the mosque at the encouragement of the worshippers, the protester said, "I had no idea Muslims could be nice to me, even after I stood out there with those signs. Sorry."

“I had no idea Muslims could be nice to me, even after I stood out there with those signs. Sorry.” -Lone protestor outside Ohio mosque

In “Five Things To Do When an Anti-Muslim Hate Rally Comes to Town,” I elaborate on several ways to counter to Islamophobic  activities:

  1. Gather together… and pray together.
  2. If you do demonstrate, make Jesus (and Muhammad) proud.
  3. Learn about Islam…and Islamophobia.
  4. Publicize what you’re doing, even if it’s something small.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4, even when a hate rally isn’t coming to town.

One important gesture, I write, is joint prayer: “Christians could observe Muslim’s prayer rituals, or better yet, recite a written prayer together with them. This sample prayer, which incorporates teachings from both Islamic and Christian traditions, could be used to affirm the common values maintained by all:

Almighty and Merciful God,
Who created humanity in all its wonderful diversity:
Help us to be peacemakers
And inspire us to repel evil with good.
Help us to love our neighbors,
To welcome the stranger,
And to turn enemies into friends.
Guide as one community
As we strive on the path of justice, peace, and understanding.”

In another piece, titled “No One is a Stranger: the Jordanian Model of Muslim-Christian Relations” and published by Commonweal online, I share my reactions to a Jordanian family’s remarks to Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was no acknowledgment of peaceful co-existence in the past, of the centuries of tolerance during which Christian communities thrived under Muslim rulers. There was no mention of the tolerance that today is typical of Jordan. There was simply implicit condemnation of Islam and the unchallenged characterization of the country as a “hostile environment… this overwhelmingly non-Christian community [in which] the church youth group gives our children safe harbor where they can grow in their faith and feel supported and cared about.”

Elaborating on the history and contemporary situation of Muslim-Christian coexistence in Jordan, I also reference my Fulbright research on Arabic-language Christian satellite television channels to help explain what might have led to Sweden’s one-sided portrayal.

A sign welcoming Pope Francis to Jordan in May 2014

In addition, I point to a decades-old poem by the Jordanian writer, Arar, whose words are quoted in the piece’s title. It’s message, about the shared Christian and Islamic heritage of Jordan, is echoed in a more recent poem which I encountered online and translated into English:

Because I Was Born in Jordan

I open the Qur’an
with a cross upon my chest,
reading Surat al-Tawba at the break of day
and Surat Maryam as the sun sets.
I look to my right
and I see Christ there.
I look to my left
and I greet the face of the beloved Prophet.

You all, don’t ask me:
“What is this strange prayer?
What is this foreign religion?”
Because this prayer isn’t strange,
and this path isn’t foreign.
It is who we are,
our identity,
our unity,
our oneness.

Because when Mama bore me in Jordan,
she baptized me with the water of Zamzam
and gave me the Qur’an as well as the cross.

The Muslims and Christians that came together across the U.S. last weekend, and the individuals that live side-by-side in Jordan, would make Jesus and Muhammad proud.  They challenge the suspicion and distrust that too often characterize our time, and approach one another with love and patience. Their witness is crucial for today’s world, and an example we all must follow.

Ignatius and Islam: Uncovering interfaith intersections

July 31 is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests better known as the Jesuits.

The essay below was originally published in National Catholic Reporter on July 17, 2015 on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which concludes the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

It’s a special time in the Islamic world, and in the Ignatian world, too.

For the last month, Muslims have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, almsgiving, and praying over God’s revelation. For those at Jesuit institutions — schools, parishes, and organizations inhabiting the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola — this July is a celebration of the spirituality of the Jesuit founder, whose feast day is July 31.

This confluence of celebrations prompted me to reflect on the points of convergence between Islamic and Ignatian spirituality. As a student of Islam educated in Catholic Jesuit schools, I’ve discovered some profound similarities, or, as the late Trappist abbot Christian de Cherge would call them, “the notes that are in common” between the religions.

These similarities can be explained best by pointing to three Arabic mottos, central to the Islamic tradition, and their surprising Ignatian counterparts.

MashaAllah

MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.

MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.

The phrase MashaAllah, or “what God wills,” is used to express appreciation, gratitude, reverence, and awe about the good and beautiful. As my friend Zainab put it, it’s about recognizing “a flicker of God’s divine character” in the created world. Muslims exclaim it when their friends get into college, when they spot a stunning sunset, or when their relatives post a picture of their new, healthy baby on Facebook. I like to think of this prompt acknowledgement of God’s blessings as an immediate, “in-the-moment” Examen, the daily prayer of gratitude developed by St. Ignatius.

The Daily Examen encourages us to reflect back on — or rummage through — our day, looking for the places where God made Godself known to us. Often, these ayat, or signs of God, can be found in creation. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, and the Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas, both realized this. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” Francis cites the Sufi writer, who wrote in the ninth century:

The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted.

Inspired by Ali’s poetic description, Francis writes:

Standing awestruck before a mountain, [the mystical person] cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord.

What Francis and Ali are both describing is that “a-ha!” — or rather, MashaAllah — moment, when a person recognizes and acknowledges that it is ultimately God who is the giver of creation’s good gifts.

Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.

Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not just about seeing God in what appears to be beautiful and good, but finding Allah in all things. Both Christianity and Islam teach us that every experience — good or bad — is an opportunity to become closer to the divine. St. Ignatius talks about this as “finding God in all things,” a phrase which has become an important buzzword in Ignatian communities. Another Muslim mystic, the well-known Rumi, would have agreed with Ignatius. In his poem, “The Guest House,” he advises us to “be grateful for whoever comes, [because] each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

InshaAllah

Another phrase of great significance in the Islamic tradition is InshaAllah, or “if God wills.” Muslims use it when talking about the future, to qualify their anticipated plans with the caveat that God is ultimately in control.

The frequent mention of God’s will in Muslims’ speech points to the core endeavor at the center of Islam: conforming one’s will to the will of God. The word Islam refers to the peace that comes with surrendering to God’s will, and a Muslim is a person who submits to that God-given peace.

That is a notion familiar to those acquainted with Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius taught that we must constantly ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?” and “How can I live out God’s desires for me, and for the world?” Ignatius wrote that we could come to these answers through prayerful discernment.

Junayd, another spiritual giant, said this handing over of one’s free will to God brings deep ”contentment.” But the process of discerning God’s will and living it out in practice is challenging. Matt McKibben, a 2008_008671student at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City, Mo., described this challenge as riding with God on a tandem bicycle. After steering the bike from the front seat and maintaining control over life, he asks God to metaphorically swap places, praying, “Let me pedal hard while you guide the way. Let me keep focus, and stay with you always.”

By uttering InshAllah, Muslims vocalize their inner trust, or tawakkul, in God’s plan for the future. I can imagine my Muslim friends offering this prayer by the late Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, renaming it “Patient Tawakkul”:

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Allahu Akbar

Islamic and Ignatian spirituality also put a strong emphasis on God’s “greatness.” Each Islamic call to prayer begins with the invocation, Allahu Akbar, “God is the greatest.” It is used to praise and glorify God

Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.

Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.

who is transcendent, grander than we could ever imagine. This phrase of exultation is also used in ordinary life, to express “adulation and exuberance during a sermon or cultural performance, and conversely, even to [communicate] a sense of shock or distress upon learning of the death of a loved one.” Unfortunately, most non-Muslims will only associate this phrase with terrorists. They don’t know that NFL football star Husain Abdullah  uses it to give credit to God when he picks off a pass from Tom Brady on the football field.

The motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “For the greater glory of God,” was coined by St. Ignatius to remind us that every act we perform, big or small, can and should be dedicated to God. The motto vocalizes the common goal of Christians, Muslims and all people of faith, who endeavor to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves.

St. Ignatius with the motto, For the Greater Glory of God.

For the Greater Glory of God.

Islam and Ignatian spirituality remind us that our existence is made meaningful by this: praising and glorifying God through a life of service to God and others. That’s why I was so thrilled with the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Laudato Si’ means “praise be to you” in the medieval Umbrian dialect of Italian spoken by St. Francis of Assisi, who had his own personal encounter with Islam through a meeting with the Muslim Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. The title made me smile because it could have easily have been named Alhamdulillah another ubiquitous Arabic term meaning “praise be to God,” the equivalent for our Hallelujah.

At a bare minimum, this time of celebration can be an opportunity for our communities to learn more about each other. But it holds much more potential. These days should call us to praise God, not just from the comfort of our own, respective communities, but together, as a diverse community, unified by our shared goals and our common Source.

Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur'an at interfaith solidarity event. Source: Buzzfeed

Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur’an at interfaith solidarity event.
Source: Buzzfeed

Participating in the Passion: Reflections on Frans and Easter

April 7th, 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who was murdered during Syria’s civil war after living there for over fifty years. I’ve already written much about Frans in the year since his death, but on this occasion, I’d like to reflect on his life in light of the great Easter mysteries that Christians continue to celebrate this week.

Frans lived Easter. It wasn’t something he simply remembered and celebrated; he embodied it.

Frans van der Lugt

Frans van der Lugt

“I want share in their suffering with them,” he said in a YouTube video as bombs echoed behind him through Homs’ ravaged Old City, “in their sadness, their fear, their suffering, and their death. I want to be in the hearts of the people, until I move with them from loss and hardship to a new horizon.”

Frans understood what many of us fail to realize: that Easter isn’t simply about what Jesus did, but what Christ calls us to do.

Substitution or participation?

Many Christians understand the events of Easter as “substitutionary” or “vicarious” atonement. They see Jesus’ Passion and death as something God accomplished long ago to save us from our own personal sins. But this view, which I grew up with, misses the point. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus summons his friends to walk the path to Calvary with him, to follow his example and participate in the world’s suffering.

During the Last Supper, Jesus does not tell his disciples that they will get off the hook. He does not promise them cushy lives won by his brutal death. He does not pass “get out of jail free” cards around the table, but rather hands them the bread that is his body, and the wine that is his blood. To truly save humanity from the sin and suffering that plague creation, he tells us, we must become his Body and mirror his self-sacrificing love.

This call to participation is most powerfully demonstrated when Jesus washes the feet of his apostles in John’s Gospel. After rubbing the dirt and sand off their feet—a task usually reserved for slaves—Jesus says,

Sieger Köder's depiction of Jesus washing Peter's feet.

Sieger Köder’s depiction of Jesus washing Peter’s feet.

“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13: 12-15)

This view of Christ’s Passion, which is referred to as “participatory atonement” by theologians, recognizes that Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary is incomplete if we are not participants in it ourselves. This interpretation, which was developed by the early Church Fathers, says that our at-one-ment with God is accomplished if we, along with Jesus, radically give of ourselves to others by accepting the suffering of the most vulnerable, the most hated, and the most marginalized.

Frans’ motto: “Let’s move forward”

Frans must have understood Jesus’ Passion as something in which he was called to take part. Otherwise, he would have left Syria when he had the chance. But he refused to leave the besieged and blockaded city of Homs. Instead, he shared food with the starving, even though he was near starving himself. He visited those who were suffering and lent them a kind ear. He engaged with rival warring factions, and called everyone “brother,” even his masked murderer.

A powerful painting by artist Farid Jirjis depicting Frans' murder and Jesus' crucifixion.

A powerful painting recently posted on the Facebook page of the Jesuit Residence in Homs. It depicts Frans’ murder and Jesus’ crucifixion.

It seems appropriate, then, that we mark Frans’ death during our celebration of Easter, when we recall how death is somehow transformed into new life. In the wake of his murder, the Muslim and Christian communities he cared for have grown stronger and more connected. Cross-continental friendships that were forged over social media to memorialize his legacy are already producing bountiful fruit. I’m fortunate to have been a part of this international community, which emerged spontaneously last year and which continues spread Frans’ message of peace and musharika.

Musharika, a word Frans used often to describe the relationships he saw in Syria, is hard to translate into English. “Sharing” and “partnership” get close; “communion” gets closer. Musharika is about “participation in the life of another,” about stooping down and washing another’s feet.

As we enter into our Easter season, we thank God for the life and example of Frans, and stand up on our newly washed feet, ready to “move forward.”

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For more about the life of Frans, check out the following links:

-My essay, “Why I Cried in Arabic Class,” which was republished at Millennial Journal.
-“Forty Days Later and Fr. Frans,” an article by Jesuit Paddy Gilger, which features my artwork.
-Reflections on Frans’s life by Fr. Louis Taoutel (Video in English)
-A compilation of interviews with Frans during the siege of Homs (Video in Arabic)
-A documentary on Frans’ important projects: the Ard Center and his interreligious hike (Video in Arabic)
-A slideshow of images of Frans with the people of Homs (Video in French)

The Paschal Paradox

In a world full of suffering and violence, we are given this truth at Easter:

Al-Masihu qama min bain al-amwat,
Wa wati al-mouta bil-mout,
Wa wahab al-hayata lil-lethina fil qubour.

Christ has risen from the dead.
In dying, he trampled death,
And gifted life to those who were in the tomb.

We still do feel the sting of death, and we still experience the pain of suffering. But we know how much God loves us, that he is here with us, right in the midst of it.

For that reason we always, always, always have hope.