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.

Poem: “Bethel”

About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.

The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.

I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.

But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m  learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.

In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though I was a long way off.

where the Lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.
Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.

‘In our time’: Francis moves beyond Nostra Aetate

My newest piece on dotCommonweal. Read an excerpt here and continue reading on Commonweal’s website.

Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.

Read more.

More in Heaven: Wisdom from Julian of Norwich

God wants us to know that this beloved soul was preciously knitted to him in its making, by a knot so subtle and so tight that it is united in God.

This bit of wisdom comes from Julian of Norwich, a Catholic mystic whose birthday is celebrated today, on November 8. I’d like to share a bit about her life, experiences, and writings in order to expose others to this woman, who has become one of my favorite saints and spiritual guides.

A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, "Revelations of Divine Love"
A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, “Revelations of Divine Love”

Julian actually is not a saint, at least not for Roman Catholics. That’s because so little is known about her life, aside from her writings. We don’t even know her name; she is called ‘Julian’ because she lived in a small structure attached to the St. Julian church in Norwich, England, during the latter part of her life. Born around 1342, she lived through political upheaval on behalf of the poor (and the subsequent repression at the hands of conservative, and often Church-related, forces) and plague that wiped out large portions of the population. She likely lived an ordinary life—as a married woman, beguine (itinerant religious sister), or cloistered nun—before she moved to the secluded life of an anchoress, which involved a life dedicated to prayer and the sacraments. Scholars today suggest that she may have moved there in order to write about her mystical experiences without risking backlash from church authorities.

At the age of thirty, Julian became deathly ill, and upon her deathbed received sixteen revelations or “showings,” as she called them, of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. She recovered fully and lived for many more years, during which time she wrote two texts describing and expounding upon the meanings of her revelations. She wrote the “short text” shortly after the revelations, and the “long text” at least thirty years later. The difference in length indicates that in the intervening years Julian had uncovered considerable additional meaning from the visions. Her writing indicates that she was a very learned woman, and had a strong understanding of Catholic theology and how her own visions reflected (or conflicted with) orthodox belief. Julian became known as a spiritual authority in England, and we do know that people visited her seeking advice.

Julian’s combined texts, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known book written by a woman in the English language (Middle English). But it only became well known within the last century, when it was translated to modern English. Some have called Julian a “woman of our day” because of the incredible way her writing and understanding of God can speak to the modern reader today.

Catholics celebrate her “feast day” on May 13, when her showings ended and she returned to health.

Instead of trying to summarize the massive amount of Julian’s spiritual wisdom, I’d like to share a few themes and reflections, with the hopes that readers will feel compelled to pick up Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, which is not a difficult read.

Closeness to God

As illustrated in the quote above, Julian understood God as incredibly close to her, as inseparable. All mystics, no matter their religious tradition, somehow achieve union with God in this life.

“He is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us.”

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

She understood God’s incarnation in Jesus to be a validation of humanity, an indication of his desire to be in union with us. It was not a rejection of human weakness or sin, but a desire to be a part of it—to suffer with us—and raise us out of it. Many of her showings were of Jesus’ brutalized body on the cross.

Often mystics feel the need to reject completely the mortal, physical world. But, in good Christian fashion, Julian claims that our mortal bodies are not a stumbling block for our communion with God, but actually the means through which God reaches us—through the divine-human being, Jesus!

God as Mother

Julian also speaks of Jesus as “Mother.” This might seem shocking, given that we as Christians tend to talk about two-thirds of the Godhead (the Father and the Son) in masculine terms. Julian is not alone in using feminine language to describe God, but regardless it is striking for any reader. She understands God’s mercy and active participation in our lives—particularly creating, “birthing,” and taking on human form—as a motherly quality.

It’s also important to note, as I have in other writing, that the word for mercy in Hebrew comes from the word, “womb.” It is unclear if Julian would have been aware of this linguistic connection, but it is interesting to note that in all three monotheistic religions, mercy is perceived as something inherently motherly and physical. As an imam I know once said, mercy is about “feeling for another person deep in your gut, in your bowels.”

God’s will

Religious people often talk about “God’s will.” It’s a tough thing to understand, and something I’ve thought about a lot. How do I know I’m following God’s will for me? What is ‘God’s will’?

Julian answers the question quite simply. The will is not a laid-out set of events that a person must follow in order to please God. Rather:

“It is his will and plan that we hang on to [the Blessed friend, Jesus], and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean is all the same to his love. He wants us never to run away from him, whether things are going well or ill.”

Following God’s will simply means clinging to Jesus, trusting him and following him wherever he takes us. Some wisdom from a Carmelite nun and friend of mine, Jean Alice, helps, I think, to expound upon what Julian means:

“I think the concept of God’s will becomes a stumbling block in people’s lives. They get the image of a person, who has a will, and ‘this is what I want you to do, and if you don’t do it you’re going to suffer and suffer and suffer.’ Whereas if you see God’s will as simply Love that follows us…we maybe make a bad choice here but that Love comes right at us with other choices.”

Following God’s will simply means following Love, following Jesus There is not one “plan” but an infinite number of opportunities to choose love, no matter what decisions we’ve made in the past. Conforming to the plan of God means choosing love in every circumstance.

For me, this conception of God’s will in very comforting, and it allows me to be more at ease with the uncertainty of the future. There’s not the worry of messing up or missing out on God’s plan, because I can conform to it everyday, in big and small ways, by discerning where Love is and how to respond to it. 

Sin as “blindness”

Julian’s insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy is especially evident in her conception of sin. I wrote a paper about this for my college course on “Medieval Women Mystics,” and I’ll attempt to summarize the ideas here.

In one of Julian's visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.
In one of Julian’s visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.

Julian illustrates a beautiful parable for her readers, in which she re-writes the Fall. Instead of the human person (Adam) deliberately trying to disobey God out of pride, Julian paints an image of a lord and his servant, who runs off joyfully to do the work of his master. He tries his best, but falls into a ditch and thrashes around in the mud, upset by his own failure and so distracted by it that he fails to see that his lord is right beside him, wanting to help him up. The servant’s failure does not induce in the lord a desire to punish him; he can clearly see how much the servant wants to do good. Rather, recognizing that it was simply distractions and missteps that led the servant to turn away, the lord is moved with compassion and brings the servant even closer to himself.

For Julian, sin is about blindness, not seeing God when he is right there:

“Man… falls into sin through naiveté and ignorance. He is weak and foolish in himself, and also his will is overpowered in the time when he is assailed and in sorrow and woe. And the cause is blindness, because he does not see God; for if he saw God continually, he would have no harmful feelings nor any kind of prompting, nor sorrowing which is conducive to sin.”  (emphasis mine)

Thus, for Julian, moving away from sin to union with God is about a shift in perception and awareness, not a shift in being.  We are always with God—or he is always with us; the problem, Julian says, is that we fail to recognize that.

“My sin,” Julian says, “will not impede the operation of his goodness.” Her insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy was radical for her time, when many of the religious voices around her claimed that the plague was a punishment for people’s sin.

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

Encouragement for the journey

Though Julian lived in a time wrought with violence, death, and sickness, she was extremely hopeful, constantly writing about experiencing joy and bliss despite suffering. She is probably best known for her line, “[God revealed to me that] all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” This is the core of Christian truth: that in the end, Love wins. Julian’s reminder can be helpful to all of us, no matter our life circumstances.

Julian also praises the constant search for God, and encourages us to keep praying, keep seeking. Our desire to pray and know God comes from God himself!: “Our Lord God is the foundation of our beseeching.”

Julian’s revelations remind us that union with God will not only occur at the end of time, when we are perfectly unified and meet him “face to face.” They also tell us that we can get a taste of that eventual full communion, right here, and right now.

“God wants us to understand and to believe that we are more truly in heaven than on earth.”

Peeling Kiwis: “Peeling Oranges” Series

October 27, 2013

This afternoon I found myself sitting on the front porch of a woman named Maggie. No, I wasn’t with my own mother on our front porch on Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, but it was about as close as I could get here in Amman.

I had been walking to the Vatican library by a new route, enjoying the sun, the warm wind, and the cloudless blue sky, when I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw a woman waving from her window, and realized it was Maggie, an employee from the library I have met many times. She called me over and, as Arabs do best, invited me in.

Maggie and her adult nephew, Elias (Arabic for Elijah), were sitting on her porch smoking argeelah, the water pipe, passing the mouthpiece between them. Maggie reminded me that the library was closed (Christian organizations take Sundays off, although the official weekend is Friday and Saturday), so she told me I should spend the afternoon with her until Mass at 6pm. I put aside my research goals for the afternoon, and reminded myself that impromptu, unplanned experiences of hospitality are the reason why I’m here.

Elias and I began an extended conversation about everything from my research to our families—all in Arabic, which was refreshing. Because I don’t live with a host family this time around, my conversations in Arabic are usually short snippets with cab drivers or shop owners, and those habitual requests of “take me here” and “can I buy this?” do little to improve my complex speaking abilities. As I spoke with Elias and discovered myself using new words or verb conjugations with ease, I felt proud and that my colloquial Arabic lessons are paying off.

“Taghadaiti?” Maggie interjected after she exhaled white smoke from her mouth. “Have you eaten lunch?”

“Shwayeh,” I responded. “Sort of.” I had eaten some trail mix and crackers earlier in the morning, but was quite hungry. She heated up some fusulia, a dish of beans, rice and beef, and brought me into her kitchen, which glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I sat alone and ate in silence. Occasionally, Maggie would come in to refresh the argeelah by heating up coals on the stove and stuffing a lemon-flavored something into the pipe. Maggie’s family is Roman Catholic and her home is decorated like those of many other Catholic families here. A sculpture of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper sits on the dining room table, and a drawing of Mary, with the caption, “Mystical Rose” (one of her name titles), was pasted above the counter in the kitchen.

I had spent my morning at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, researching the history of Christians in Jordan. So it felt good to finish my day not immersed in a book, but immersed among the people who I’m trying to learn more about. Hearing about the experiences of Maggie and Elias informs how I read history books or academic papers, just as those materials help me better understand the lives of those I meet.

After spooning the last of the rice into my mouth, I rejoined the couple on the porch, and was presented with a plate of fruit: two plums, a nectarine, an apple, and a kiwi. I chose the kiwi pressed a dull knife into its fuzzy skin to peel it. As the juice seeped onto my fingers, I was reminded of a time in the cold winter of 2012 when I peeled oranges with my host brother and I discovered a paradoxical truth: that ordinary moments can often be the best vehicles for revealing God’s presence. Sitting with Maggie and Elias, watching people walk by as wind moved through the olive trees, was one of those simple moments that speaks simultaneously of God’s closeness and unexplainable grandeur.

As I pulled the knife toward me, I was taken aback by the bright green fruit that emerged from behind the skin. The kiwi was especially green, almost neon, and juice sparkled on its flesh. The contrast between the rough brownness of the kiwi’s skin and the bright, moist greenness inside revealed a new message, too: that the dullness and hardship of our days give way to a newness of life, a surprising Joy, that cannot be expected or planned. The most beautiful and most joyous experiences often emerge out of the most scratchy, sand-papery parts of life. The green fruit is so much sweeter because it’s hidden beneath abrasive rinds. This is a truth I’ve known but one that I’ve experienced most palpably during my time living in Jordan.

With the cold winds blowing in, there will be fewer afternoons on Amman porches and fewer fruits to peel. I’ll have to look harder to find reminders of these important lessons. So on the grayest of days, when I’m wandering unfamiliar streets under a melancholy drizzle, I’ll watch for mothers waving from their windows. And I’ll try to catch raindrops on my tongue, and pretend they taste more like juice than dust.