Reflecting on Rahmah: Thoughts for Eid al-Adha

Written October 4, 2014.

This year’s Eid al-Adha, the Islamic feast of sacrifice[i], comes at a challenging time. Debates over Islam’s true nature rage like the battles fought in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. For many, the only images of Islam today are slender knives, black flags, and hooded faces. For me, these are daily images, too. But they aren’t the only ones.

In these recent months, I have encountered new ideas and truths in the religion of Islam which have enriched my own understanding of God, and that have provided me with new perspectives about what it means to be a believer. These “rays of Truth” in Islam have helped me reflect on my own tradition, and they point out similarities among the Abrahamic traditions. Given the tragedy of world events, it seems imperative that I now share them. I hope these brief reflections can not only shed light onto a religion that is still unknown to many, but also spark inward, personal conversations about humans’ relationship with the Divine.

God’s Greatest Attribute

Muslims begin prayer, meals, and most tasks by invoking God using the phrase, Bismillah ir-Rahman ar-Rahim, which means “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” This invocation also introduces nearly every chapter of the Qur’an, and points to God’s chief attribute in Islamic theology: rahmah, mercy.

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

In the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the revealed Word of God, God speaks constantly about His mercy for humanity. These are only a few examples:[ii]

-“Whoever does evil, or wrongs himself, then seeks the forgiveness of God, will find God Forgiving, Merciful.” (4:110)

-“Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself.” (6:12)

-“My Mercy encompasses all things.” (7:156)

-“God is of infinite grace.” (8:29)

As I grew more and more aware of the importance of God’s mercy in Islam, I began to notice its central place in Christianity. The theme of mercy is inescapable in the psalms for daily Mass, in the parables of Jesus on Sundays, and in Pope Francis’ homilies about the need for a “Church of mercy.” This belief in a merciful God is a core similarity between Christians and Muslims, and it was highlighted in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on other religions, which reads: “Together with us, [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God.”

A painting by me, featuring the word, "rahman" in the womb of Mary, Mother of Jesus.
A painting by me, featuring the word, “rahman” in the womb of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

This common conception of God became even clearer and more meaningful to me upon delving into the Arabic word, rahmah. Rahmah comes from the word “womb” (rahm), and its connection to motherhood is not lost to Arabic speakers. Rahmah is not a feeling of pity, or the disposition of a distant king who pardons prisoners. It is a visceral, gutsy parental love that creates and sustains. Scholars of comparative religion (both Christian and Muslim) have argued that rahmah should then not be translated as mercy, but as agape, the Greek word used by Christians to describe God’s unconditional and expansive love for humanity. When St. John writes in his epistle that “God is agape,” he could have as easily said, “God is rahmah.”

St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.
St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

St. Francis of Assisi, the saint whose life Catholics celebrate on this day, recognized the value in Islam’s conception of God, too, and found in it similarities with his own Christian faith. Shortly after his days-long dialogue with the leader of Egypt, Sultan Malik al-Kamil, whom he initially sought to convert to end the fighting between the Crusaders and Muslims, Francis wrote a litany, celebrating God’s many attributes. Unsurprisingly, it resembles the Islamic litany of God’s 99 names. The first attribute in the Islamic litany, and the last in Francis’, is “merciful.” This is no coincidence, as scholars of Francis’ life have noted.

Today is also an important day in Judaism. This evening, Jews are concluding their celebration of Yom Kippur, a solemn celebration of God’s mercy on humanity, despite our constant failures. On this special day, Christians, Muslims and Jews invoke our common God in their own ways. But those of each tradition can confidently call to God using this moving description I encountered in a Melkite (Greek Catholic) service in Jordan last Holy Week: “You, You whose mercy has no measure.”

Worship as gratitude; Shukr v. Kufr

A second theme in Islamic theology that has prompted much reflection is the Qur’an’s surprising and “radical contrast” between shukr and kufr. Shukr is “gratitude” or “thanksgiving,” while kufr is often defined as “denial” or “unbelief.” This may seem like a strange, illogical set of opposites at first, so let’s dig deeper.

Over the centuries, Islamic scholars and ordinary Muslims have used the term kufr to describe the lack of belief in the Islamic truth claims. The term has been used to draw a line between the Muslim community and non-Muslims. But, as contemporary scholars have noted, this interpretation often does to acknowledge the full meaning of the word as its used in the Qur’an. Kufr at its most basic level means to “cover”—the word even sounds like the English translation! In the Qur’an, kufr is used not as an opposite to iman (belief) but to shukr. One of many examples is Qur’an 2: 152: “And be grateful to Me and do not deny (takfiruna) Me.”

One of the places I'm grateful for.
One of the places I’m grateful for.

Eminent Anglican scholar Kenneth Cragg describes kufr as the “willful concealment” of the blessings of God, who creates and sustains humanity and all of His creation. God has imbued the world with many signs (ayat) meant to “alert us to reverence and thanksgiving,”[iii] and when we ignore these blessings and our God-createdness—often by disregarding the dignity of God’s creatures—we become kuffar (ungrateful disbelievers).

Thus, the Qur’an speaks of gratitude as worship: “You must worship God and be among the thankful” (Q.39:66).[iv] The Catholic Mass echoes this idea when, at the beginning of the most important ritual, the priest says: “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks…”

Being grateful and worshiping God don’t just mean saying thank you and acknowledging God’s existence, but in caring for humanity and working to establish social justice. God says in the Qur’an: “Worship is…(showing) kindness to parents and to the near of kin, and orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor who is a kinsman and the neighbor who is not kinsman, and the fellow traveler and the wayfarer.” (Q. 4:36) The Qur’an, like the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, measures a person’s religiosity not only by their beliefs but by the way they respect all of God’s creation.

The center of my life

The last bit of Islamic theology I’d like to highlight is one that a new friend, Scott Alexander, a Catholic scholar of Muslim-Christian relations, brought up during a recent conversation. Islam, like Christianity, is a monotheistic religion. This monotheism, which is distinct from that of Christianity by its rejection of the Incarnation and the Trinity, is described by the Arabic word tawhid. This word is sort of an umbrella term for a larger theological discussion about the nature of God, but what I want to focus on is a bit different. Again, we look to the Arabic language.

"There is no god but God." Did you know this is the same phrase that is one the flags of many Muslim-majority countries? And the flag of ISIS?
“There is no god but God.” Did you know this is the same phrase that is one the flags of many Muslim-majority countries? And the flag of ISIS?

The Arabic root of tawhid, w-h-d, means “one,” or “single.” But when put in this construction, (with a ta- prefix and a long “e” sound between the last two root letters) the meaning is affected. This construction, which students of Arabic will recognize as a Form II masdar, means “making one” or “unifying.” It is not a passive state of “being one” but something we do to God— making God one.

"The One." One of God's 99 names in the Islamic tradition.
“The One.” One of God’s 99 names in the Islamic tradition.

Monotheism isn’t just about acknowledging God’s oneness, but about putting God at the center of our lives. It is about living out this popular Catholic hymn: “You Lord, are the center of my life/I will always praise you, I will always bless you/ I will always keep you in my sight.” Tawhid is not so much a belief but something we undertake. Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most important feast, is a celebration of the Hebrew people’s turning away from—repenting—the worship of the golden calf, and fixing their eyes again on God.

Coming closer

Today’s feast of celebration and sacrifice for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an opportunity for us to put God back at the center of our lives, to live out our monotheism in a way that honors God and humanity.

An Orthodox priest showing me the qurban (Eucharist) at an ancient church in Al-Salt, Jordan.
An Orthodox priest showing me the qurban (Eucharist) at an ancient church in Al-Salt, Jordan.

Muslims often call this feast, Eid al-Qurban. Qurban is another Semitic word for sacrifice and is used by all three religions. It is used in Hebrew to describe the burnt sacrifices offered by Jews, and for Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians, it refers to the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The term, from its root q-r-b, connotes “closeness,” “approaching,” and “nearness.” The ritual sacrifice of animals in the case of the ancient Jewish and contemporary Muslim traditions, and the sacrifice of Jesus—the Lamb of God—in the Christian tradition, all seek to atone for the sins of the community and bring the community closer to God.

Today’s world events seem defined by separation, alienation, and difference. Though charged with language about God, they make us feel distant from Him. So it is important today that we pray this prayer from the synagogue, from the monastery, and from Mecca:

“May this confluence of our feasts bring us together—closer to one another, and closer to You, You whose mercy has no measure.”

~~~

[i] To learn more about Eid al-Adha, check out my blog reflection from 2010.
[ii] To read more about God’s primary quality in Islam, check out My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace & Love.
[iii] Cragg, Kenneth. Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam.
[iv] The famous Muslim feminist scholar, Amina Wudud, writes about gratitude here.

Fr. Frans, an icon

After the death of Fr. Frans van der Lugt, who I’ve written about before, I painted this icon of him. I hope it captures just a small portion of his spirit and work, which have been so inspirational to me in the days since his death.

I am fortunate that the website of the Middle East Jesuits published my icon, with a description in Arabic of the symbolism. You can see the original Arabic post here on their website. I have translated it below.

Many thanks to my new friend, Tony Homsy, S.J., for wanting to feature my artwork on the site. He was a friend of Fr. Frans and will be traveling back to his native Syria to continue his ministry in the war-torn country. We pray that God will protect the Jesuits presence in Syria, and particularly in Homs.

It has been forty days since Fr. Frans’ murder. The fortieth day is a significant event in the mourning ritual of Middle Eastern Christians. Many believe that after a person’s death their spirit remains on earth for forty days and then ascends to heaven. Indeed, Fr. Frans’ spirit has been felt among us in the days since his death, reigniting my passion for promoting interfaith understanding. Now, as he comes face-to-face with the Father and intercedes on our behalf, let us find the courage to “move forward” and continue the important work for which Fr. Frans gave his life.

20140507-Frans Van Der Lugt01
Father and martyr Frans van der Lugt, S.J. © 2014 Jordan Denari, All Rights Reserved

(The original post by Tony Homsy, S.J. can be found here.)

An icon of the patron of interreligious dialogue: Fr. Frans van der Lugt

From the pencil of Jordan Denari

Jordan, an American student from the Jesuit Georgetown University, surprised us with this painting which demonstrates her love of the Arabic language, her passion for interfaith dialogue, and her gratitude for Fr. Frans van der Lugt, S.J., who is considered an example of incarnate love in word and deed. Having graduated from Georgetown with a degree in Culture and Politics, she now conducts research on Arabic-language Christian media and its effect on an Islamic environment. Her blog can be found here.

Description of the elements of the painting:

The cross at the top-left of the painting is the symbol of Christianity, upon which Jesus was crucified and redeemed humanity. Fr. Frans wanted to follow his Lord by offering his life for the sake of his loved ones.

The bismillah (top-center Arabic text) is an expression that begins most chapters of the Qur’an. In English it reads “in the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” Fr. Frans saw in Islam and its teachings a call to coexistence and fraternity. On the top-right is a green crescent and star, a common symbol of Islam. 

The phrase “Still, the world is good” (the Arabic text along the left side) is a simple phrase is a motto of optimism which Fr. Frans sent into the hearts of all to help them face their difficulties.

In the center is an image of Fr. Frans as we knew him, holding a book on the teachings of Zen. He was a master of integrating East Asian spirituality with Christian spirituality, and he had deep understanding of people’s personal spiritual experiences.

“For the greater glory of God” (the Arabic text along the right side) is the motto of the Society of Jesus and of Fr. Frans, who spent almost 55 years in Syria with the Society.

The phrase “Let’s move forward” (the Arabic text along the bottom of the image) is a saying used by Fr. Frans as a sign of resurrection and hope. After his horrific death, those who loved him took this simple phrase, which he used to end his speeches and writings, as they make their way through the darkness of death and hunger. 

The image on the bottom right is the symbol of the Society of Jesus. The letters “IHS” represent “Jesus Christ, Savior of humanity.” The image on the bottom left is the symbol of Zen Buddhism. 

The image at the bottom represents Fr. Frans’ two important ministries: offering personal spiritual guidance and leading an interfaith pilgrimage.

Fr. Frans, patron of interfaith dialogue, pray for us!

Sharia: A Fabricated Threat

In recent weeks, “sharia” has become the favorite buzzword of many a politician, blogger, and pundit.  We heard the word at Peter King’s second round of Muslim radicalization hearings, in remarks made by presidential hopefuls at the recent GOP debate, and in T.V. appearances by blogger/activists who claim to fight “radical Islam.”

We also heard it on the floors of state legislatures during the last several months as more than 20 states proposed bans against the usage of “sharia, foreign, or Islamic law” in U.S. courts.  A few bans passed, like the one in Oklahoma, where 70% of voters assented to a constitutional amendment banning the consideration of sharia or international law in U.S. courts.

Why this continuous discussion of and fervent concern for “creeping sharia?”  Is it really a threat?

Despite the claims of the aforementioned groups—that Muslim radicals are attempting to supersede the Constitution by implementing sharia law—Muslim-Americans have not been pushing for anything of the sort.  If they had been, I’m sure we would have heard about it—the media would be all over it.  As of now, we have only heard about sharia from non-Muslim newsmakers, those who tell us that it poses a threat but have no solid evidence to back up their claims (except an intentionally-botched understanding of Islam.)

I like to believe that people act with good intentions, and I really hate to claim that those who perpetuate this fear of “creeping sharia” are doing so to get political points, a new book contract, or the chance to be an “expert” on CNN.  But I can’t find any other reason why so many people—with very prominent voices in our society—are devoting their lives to making Muslim-Americans’ lives so unnecessarily hard.

Scapegoating Islam and Muslims has become politically and financially rewarding, and people like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, Rep. Allen West, and Brigitte Gabriel have realized that.  Playing on Americans’ ignorance of Islam, they and others have created and exploited a climate of fear to get reelected, make money, or experience fame, whether or not they are willing to admit that to their audience, or even to themselves.

The easiest way these Islamophobes (I use this term to talk about people who manufacture and then capitalize on fear of Islam) to do their work is by taking a previously unknown but seemingly menacing word like sharia, and attach their own sinister meanings and interpretations.  They simplify their message about sharia, and purposefully ignore the nuance and complexity that surrounds sharia, or any other religious concept for that matter.

This is why it’s all the more important for me and others to help disseminate the actual meaning of sharia.  I hope to do that here with the help of a few good articles on the subject.  The three pieces from which I will quote extensively are the best articles I’ve read on the topic because they present the complexities and real meaning of sharia clearly and, most importantly, without getting defensive or huffy.  If I was Muslim and my religious practice was being questioned and misconstrued everyday, I would get pretty annoyed and angry, and I’m pretty sure that frustration would show up in my writing.  So I’m amazed by the poise with which these Muslims (two of the following experts quoted are Muslim) respond to ignorance and hate in both word and speech.  I’m sure it’s a hard thing to do.

What is sharia?

Literally, sharia means “a path to the watering hole” in Arabic.  And that’s what sharia is—a guide to living a good, Islamic life.  But as Georgetown professor and Islam expert, John Esposito puts it, “many Muslims and non-Muslims have come to confuse and use the terms ‘Shariah’ and ‘Islamic law’ interchangeably.”  Sharia is not a law book, he says, but a guide for Muslims informed by the Qur’an and the sayings and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad.  “Early jurists used revelation as well as reason to create a body of laws to govern their societies. But, over time, these man-made laws came to be viewed as sacred and unchangeable.”

As Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the chair of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions, describes, “sharia is not one monolithic body” and not all parts are agreed upon by every Muslim:

“There are literally hundreds and thousands of books written in the last 1,400 years, in multiple languages in places as diverse as Timbuktu in Africa to Bukhara in Central Asia, with millions of opinions, judicial reviews, etc. on various issues. Together, they form the body of sharia.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who heads the Cordoba Initiative and the Park 51 building project in Manhattan, has this to say:

“At the core of Shariah law are God’s commandments, revealed in the Old Testament and revised in the New Testament and the Quran. The principles behind American secular law are similar to Shariah law – that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain a certain amount of modesty.”

Sharia: Living the faith

When Muslims carry out their daily life as believers, they are carrying out sharia.  Imam Mujahid’s description of lived sharia is probably the best one I’ve heard:

“You might have seen a government-required sign at a McDonald’s restroom telling employees to wash their hands. Muslims do this as a part of living their faith, which is called sharia in Arabic.

“When Muslims begin anything they say, ‘in the name of God’ –that is sharia. When they greet each other, they smile and say, ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ (peace be with you) –that is sharia.

“Muslims often avoid taking out mortgages due to the sharia prohibition on Riba (usury/interest). This has led to the establishment of the worldwide Islamic financial industry and Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes. The latter select companies that don’t deal in weapons, pornography, gambling, tobacco, or alcohol, etc. These investments are similar to 30 other ‘faith-based’ investment options, like the Catholic Values Index. These are examples of the practice of sharia in the realm of business.” 

Sharia: The bad parts we hear about

When discussing sharia, critics of Islam often bring up the violent and “sharia-enforced” punishments we hear about in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.  They tend to reduce sharia to its penal code, which as I’ve explained is only a small part of the greater guide for living.

Imam Mujahid addresses sharia’s penal code and many Americans’ concerns about it:

“It is true that Islamic criminal law has been at times implemented harshly, and even wrongly, by some Muslims. Such an application of Islamic criminal law is void of God’s mercy, which is considered His primary attribute in Islam.

“There are parts of sharia—[the sometimes-violent penal code]–that Muslim Americans don’t implement in their daily lives.

“Since Muslims ran a civilization for over a thousand years, they naturally developed a body of laws to deal with governing society. These laws deal with issues ranging from fighting neighborhood crime to international laws of war and peace.

“Muslim Americans don’t practice these laws since they deal with the realm of government and state. sharia emphasizes that the rule of law in a society must be implemented by the state. It considers vigilantism a major crime and a sin. Therefore, sharia prohibits Muslims from practicing this part of Islam on an individual basis.”

Imam Abdul Rauf has this to add:

“Where there is a conflict [between secular law and the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad], it is not with Shariah law itself but more often with the way the penal code is sometimes applied. Some aspects of this penal code and its laws pertaining to women flow out of the cultural context.

“The religious imperative is about justice and fairness. If you strive for justice and fairness in the penal code, then you are in keeping with moral imperative of the Shariah.”

A few final words from Imam Mujahid:

“When some American pundits call sharia, ‘a growing threat to the United States,’ Muslim Americans wonder what in the world are they talking about. Sharia is overwhelmingly concerned with personal religious observance, not with constitutions and laws. All observant Muslims practice sharia. Defining sharia as a threat, therefore, is the same thing as saying that all observant Muslims are a threat.

“To understand sharia is to understand Islam. Criminalizing sharia will criminalize the practice of Islam in America.”

Islamophobic politicians and pundits often claim they have “no problem” with peaceful, practicing Muslims; they simply have a problem with sharia.  But, as I’ve discussed here, Muslims can’t be Muslim without sharia—without greeting one another with a friendly “Assalaamu alaikum,” without performing ablutions, and without giving charity.

Preventing our Muslim friends and neighbors from doing these things just seems senseless.

__________

Main articles cited:

The complete article featuring John Esposito, which also defines other buzz words like “jihad” and “taqiyya”

Imam Mujahid’s op-ed

Imam Abdul Rauf’s op-ed