Why American Colleges Need The Islamic Call to Prayer

Earlier this week, I published my first piece for Huffington Post Religion. I’m grateful it’s received wide circulation: 4.5 thousand ‘likes’ on Facebook and over 200 shares. Here’s the link to the piece on HuffPost’s website. It is reproduced below.

Why We Need the Islamic Call to Prayer at American Universities

The average college student spends eight to 10 hours a day on a smartphone. Eighty percent of college students report feeling frequently stressed, and one in 10 have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other mental disorders. Like the rest of the country, universities are fraught with busyness and competing distractions. Students rush around, faces buried in smart phones and heads cluttered with things to do.

Given this grim reality of college life, it’s too bad the Islamic call to prayer won’t be proclaimed from Duke University’s bell tower. The adhan can be an antidote to some of the challenges college students face.

Since Duke’s decision last week to not broadcast the call to prayer from its chapel steeple — prompted by Islamophobic rhetoric and threats against Duke’s Muslim community — the national discussion around the incident has centered around questions of pluralism and religion in the public space. But what was missed in those debates was the meaning and purpose of the adhan: encouraging deeper mindfulness among those who hear it.

The adhan, like the ringing of church bells, calls us to gratitude, appreciation and attentiveness–things that the modern American university desperately needs. This kind of practice is especially suited to universities with a religious heritage or mission — like Duke or my alma mater, Georgetown — where the balance between rigor and reflection is encouraged, but often hard to strike. Religious and non-religious students alike have much to gain from being called from the chaos of their days to remember the greater purpose and meaning of their lives.

A Catholic in a Muslim land

When I lived abroad in Amman, Jordan during and after college, the adhan was a familiar part of my daily life. Five times a day, the rolling syllables of Allahu akbar — Arabic for “God is greater” — echoed across the city. Chanted from tall minarets and amplified by loud speakers, the adhan bounced off stone buildings and reminded Muslims to pray wherever they were — at home, at work, at school or even at the mall. Sometimes, when I’d visit my local produce shop, I’d find the owner praying outside, his rug unrolled on the sidewalk and his body bowing in humble prostration.

The adhan became something that I, as a Catholic, grew to deeply appreciate and enjoy. Countless times, the words “Come to prayer, Come to well-being,” prompted me to step back from my day and remember what was most important.

I remember one of my first nights in Amman, when I climbed into the backseat of a cab, laden with my heavy backpack and the stress of adjusting to a new city. My mind was full of questions and doubts about whether Amman could ever feel like home. As we sped down the streets of Amman as sunset fell, the adhan came on the radio, and immediately a feeling of calm settled over me. The lyrical words drew me out of my anxiety and calmed my racing mind.

In the months that followed, the adhan continued to remind me to praise and thank God for the blessings of the day, and to ask for God’s help in facing the challenges that would inevitably come my way while living in Jordan. It made me more attentive to the world around me — the beauty of the pink sky at maghrib, the white flowers on the jasmine trees and the kindness of those I met.

A good habit for all

Colleges could benefit from being prompted to mindfulness. Deeper awareness and thankfulness are necessities for today’s campuses, where stress and strain run rampant.

My Muslim friends at Georgetown described to me the benefits of being called to pray, not just once on Fridays, but five times a day. Alerted by their watch, phone alarm or intuition, they’d get up from studying or hanging out with friends to pray. Being called out of their daily activities helped them cope and keep perspective when they were over-worked or concerned about grades.

That’s why the adhan can be good for everyone — even for those who aren’t Muslim, and for those who don’t believe in God. For most people, something is “greater,” whether they choose to call it God or not. The adhan can help us recall what gives our lives meaning, and can help us cultivate an attitude of gratefulness. It can help us look up from the cellphone in our hand and notice the blue sky, the purple shadows stretching across the snow or the smiles of those we pass by.

I don’t anticipate that many universities will choose to adopt the adhan on their campuses anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean that students and others can’t begin habits that yield the same results. Many campuses have bell towers, which ring on the hour or other specified times of day. At Georgetown, the bells toll in a clang excitedly at noon and six in the evening — a custom reminiscent of earlier times when monasteries rang bells seven times a day to call Christian religious to pray the psalms. For me, and for many students I knew, these bells were an invitation to focus on what’s truly important.

The events at Duke should not only be a spark for discussions about diversity and tolerance. They should also compel us to attend to the things that are akbar — the deeper needs of our soul.

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.