Readings: Genesis 17: 15-27
Selections from the Quran: Sura 1:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
Praise belongs to God, Lord of all Being
the All-merciful, the All-compassionate
the Master of the Day of Doom
Thee only we serve; to Thee alone we pray for succor
Guide us in the straight path
the path of those whom Thou hast blessed,
not of those against whom Thou art wrathful
nor of those who are astray.
This church has a history in learning about other religious traditions. We espouse that part of our DNA is that we are a place that embraces Diversity of Faith, Unity in Christ. We strive to be a church that is always learning and growing, seeking to understand God more and being willing to share our faith – the pieces that make us who we are with others – not in a coercive, scary evangelism kind of way, but as an invitation for accompaniment on life’s journey.
So this series on Encountering God in the Diversity of Faiths makes sense with who we are. We got on board with learning about world religions to improve our own lack of understanding, to teach us about our neighbors, to inform us about what others believe, perhaps clarifying our own beliefs in the process.
I invite you to allow your minds to consider the number of times that religious “outsiders” or strangers were a part of the biblical story in a way that not only educated but helped the “faithful” to see God. Literally, the “other” introduced the people of God to God.
Some examples: the Egyptian slave of Sarah Hagar who gave birth to Ishmael, Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah plucking Moses from the river, Queen Esther and the Persian Kind Ahasuerus, Ruth the Moabite staying with her mother-in-law Naomi, Cyrus the Persian king who ended the exile in Babylon, Zoroastrian priests from Persia wandering at night to give gifts of honor to a baby in a stable, the Samaritan divorcee at the well, a Syrophoenician woman encouraging Jesus, widow at Zarephath with Elijah..the list goes on and on – there is no biblical evidence to suggest that any of these changed their religious perspectives, simply that they helped shine a light and show God in a new way to those who sought to follow God.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “However you define the problematic present-day stranger – the religious stranger, the cultural stranger, the transgender stranger, the homeless stranger – scripture’s wildly impractical solution is to love the stranger as self. You are to offer the stranger food and clothing, to guarantee the stranger justice, to treat the stranger like one of your own citizens, to welcome the stranger as Christ in disguise. This is God’s express will in both testaments of the Bible” (Holy Envy, 111). So with a healthy dose of humility, acknowledging that we don’t have a monopoly on God, we turn to learn from our friends in the Islamic tradition.
Islam teaches that anyone who proclaims that there is but one God and submits to God’s will is Muslim. The Islamic faith teaches that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, David, Solomon, Moses and Jesus were all Muslim, as they believed in the One True God and submitted to his will. These are considered to each be prophets of God. The writing of the Quran affirms teaching about each of these prophets, including the Virgin birth of Jesus. Muhammed is considered the last prophet, and his words are captured in the Quran, word for word in Arabic. Many Muslims have memorized the Quran.
The Quran is only in Arabic, but translations of the Quran are available. However it is believed that “the power and impact that the original verses carry, cannot be duplicated in any other language. For 1400 years, the Quran as received from Muhammad has been preserved word for word in Arabic.
In the tradition of Islam, Muhammad was the descendent from Ishmael. Muhammad was born about 600 years after the time of Jesus in Saudia Arabia. His father died before he was born and his mother died when he was sixish. He grew up as a businessman learning from his uncle. He was known to be honest and trustworthy which was rare. The Ka’bah in Mecca housed many idols of gods worshiped by the Arabian tribes, but as Muhammad grew, he became fascinated by the traditions that worshiped one God: Judaism and Christianity. He married Khadijah, a widow who was fifteen years older than him. So, at 25 and 40 the couple began having children. They had six children: two sons who died in infancy and four daughters.
When Muhammad was 40 years old, he would sit in a cave to pray, and had an experience of pressure on his chest with a command to “Recite.” Muhammad was confused. The voice said “Take and recite” and the tightness in his chest increased until he thought his chest would explode. “Then the words began springing from his lips – words he hadn’t heard before. Terrified, he went back down into the city to find his wife. ‘I’ve either seen a demon, or I’ve seen an angel, or I’m losing my mind. I don’t know which” (Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions, 104).
Over the next 22 years, he received messages from the Angel Gabriel and would recite the words to friends who would write them down. She shared these messages and taught what he had received. His message of one true God in a place filled with polytheists wasn’t a popular message. He and his followers faced persecution and even had an assassination attempt, which prompted his move to Medina. As a city, it submitted to Islamic law and worshiped only the One God.
There Muhammad evolved into a political leader as well as a religious leader. There was quite a bit of violence as groups of Arabians would fight Medina. In 629, Muhammad and 10,000 men captured Mecca, cleansed the Kabah, destroyed pagan statues, and declared an end to polytheism. Islam spread from there across Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe, and around the world. Today, the greatest number of Muslims is in Indonesia, with around 1.3 billion adherents worldwide.
There are five pillars of Islam:
Shahadah: Belief that “ There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” This may sound very similar to the Shema in Judaism.
Salah: Prayers are to be given to Allah five times each day.
Zakat: Giving of alms, charity, to the poor, should represent 2.5% of income
Sawm: Fasting sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, which commemorates
the first vision given to Muhammad and the flight from Mecca to Medina.
Hajj: Making pilgrimage to the House of Allah in Mecca, once in one’s lifetime, where a Muslim should walk around the Kabah seven times. This journey is an experience of unity with other Muslims, especially during the month of Ramadan.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad two major positions developed about the nature of authority over the Muslim community. One group, which came to be called Sunni, from the Arabic word for "tradition," accepted the succession of Muhammad's elected successors, who were known as caliphs. This group was opposed by those who believed that any head of the community had to be a direct descendant of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. They are called Shiite, from the Arabic word shia meaning "party." The vast majority of Muslims today are Sunnis; Shiites form the majority only in Iran and are sizeable minorities in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.(https://www.pbs.org/empires/islam/faithsunnishiite.html)
As with all religious traditions, there are extremists who do not and should not represent the faith to the world. The faithful folks who simply go about their business, attending to prayers, services, and humbly living in the world seldom make the news. Those in ISIS or launching terrorist attacks in the name of Islam are no better representatives of Islam than are those who kill Muslims in the name of Christianity or bomb abortion clinics.
The incidence of anti-Muslim violence is increasing. By May, there were over 500 anti-Muslim attacks in the US. In March of 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, Islamophobia and hate claimed the lives of 51 Muslims. On April 29, a mosque was ransacked and Qurans were burned by a man in Queens, New York. On May 15, in New Haven, Connecticut, a mosque was burned. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that attacks in the United States are steadily increasing, fueled by anti-Muslim rhetoric espoused by some of our top leaders and politicians. (https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/05/274006/islamophobia-hate-crimes-us-muslims/).
We are called to work against islamophobia when we see it and when we hear it. May this be a day when we learn about Islam, when we are inspired by the faith of those who honor the most high God through their prayers and their living. May we be surprised by the faith of the stranger.
I was surprised by those who showed up first and most generously when a man was shot outside my church in Chicago. I was surprised by the family who welcomed me in on way to South Africa. I was surprised by the faith of those in Morocco who welcomed a delegation of Christian leaders. I was surprised by the call to prayer in Holy Land, and ways it called me to pray. One of our members told of the meals brought to her by her Muslim neighbors when he husband died.
May we be surprised by the ways God shows up in the faith of the stranger, calling us to renewed faith, renewed love, (and) renewed understanding. Amen.