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.

Examples of empathetic journalism

This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.”  This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written.  During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.

“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”

I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism.  For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy.  As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories.  Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too.  Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.

Nick Kristof

This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:

“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”

He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it.  You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.

I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade.  Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often.  By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.

Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here.  If you want to hear more, listen to the program!  He talks about…

…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.

…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.

…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.

You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.

Al-Jazeera English

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.”  Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict.  Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission.  AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.

One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched.  One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin.  Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions.  Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.

Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic

She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset.  Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation.  It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said.  I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.

If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it.  You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.

City Stories

This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis.  Along with another co-

Teaching camera basics

counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders.  As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.

I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer.  You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link.  Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”

Storyboarding

I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices.  (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)

Final quotes for thought

“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that.  And as a reporter, I understand it.  I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little.  Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves.  If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction

“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian.  She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.

Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.