In the beginning, there was critique.
That is true of all religions. Judaism began as a critique of polytheism, and especially of the unjust social structures that polytheistic religion tended to justify at that time. The One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a God of justice, a God for the widow, orphan, and immigrant, a God whose singularity and unity left no theological room for the oppression of the poor and needy. The prophets worked tirelessly to reorient, again and again, the people of Israel to the ways of justice and peace. A thousand years—and change—after the establishment of the nation of Israel, a holy man named Yeshua, anglicized as Jesus, came along to reorient Judaism yet again, pointing out that the clerics of the day were abusing their positions by collaborating in unjust Roman politics and economics, and that the laypeople were prioritizing their personal righteousness over the larger needs of their communities.
So it should come as no surprise that Islam, in its own milieu, not only critiqued its polytheistic Arab context but also Judaism and Christianity, as well. Muhammad and his followers took issue with the layers of interpretation that surrounded the Hebrew Bible, and were appalled by the Christian idea of God having a son—for that, they believed, was tantamount to saying there was more than one God. But the first Muslims also took issue with the way both Judaism and Christianity had a professional or semi-professional leadership. In some ways, the Muslim prioritizing of every believer’s equality of access to God and to Scripture anticipated the Protestant Reformation by about 900 years.
For the first Muslims, there was to be nothing and no-one standing between the individual believer and God. No priest, no body of interpretive literature, no necessary education, no caste system or gender division: just you and God. The word Islam comes from the exact same Semitic root as shalom, in Hebrew, and salaam, in Arabic, a word which encompasses peace, wholeness, and safety. In this form, as “Islam,” it means submission to God, each individual believer’s relationship to God. It represents, as some Muslim authors have put it, a progression from fear or awe of God, to obedience to God, to love for God, a love that makes one realize that God is the ultimate reality, the only real truth, our source and our end. Is it any wonder that the great and prolific mystics Rumi and Hafiz were Muslim? Both poets wrote of relationship to God as a love affair, the most erotic, overpowering, ecstatic love a person could experience, a love that was like drunkenness because of how it could carry you away, like madness because of how foolish it could make you act. Rumi and Hafiz wrote often of the believer stealing away to meet God, like illicit lovers sneaking around.
This sense of unmediated access to God extended to Islamic Scriptures, the Qur’an. Whereas, Muhammad believed, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures had accumulated additions and embellishments and layers of scholarly interpretation, the Qur’an was the word of God, spoken and faithfully recorded by the prophet. The hadith are another source of revelation, stories about Muhammad and his family that illustrate Qur’anic principles. Yet despite the intentions of Islam as an equal-access religion, of course a body of interpretive literature grew up, akin to rabbinic interpretation and Christian biblical commentaries. This is known as tafsir, literally “interpretation.” And this is where things start to get a little less egalitarian. Just as early Christianity shocked the Roman Empire with its egalitarianism but gradually adopted more and more Roman cultural traditions, including the subjugation of women and children, so Islam began to introduce distinctions between believers. There are different schools of tafsir, some more egalitarian, while others, today the more dominant ones, are more conservative toward nonbelievers and women, and more morally restrictive.
And this leads us to the two major obstacles that outsiders to Islam face when it comes to interfaith dialogue and education. One is the perception of Islam as a violent religion; the other is the belief that Islam is inherently anti-woman in a way other major religions are not. These are equal-opportunity beliefs, held by people of faith and atheists, liberals and conservatives alike. And there is cause for concern about both violence and misogyny in Islam right now, as many Muslims attest.
First of all, it’s important to know that much of what we non-Muslims in the West hear about Islam is actually about a fundamentalist tradition in Islam called Wahhabism or Salafism. The origin of this fundamentalist view of Islam is rooted in religious fervor, but it has been strongly influenced by reactions to European colonialism and racism, which is why its followers often use anti-America, anti-West language. Excellent and much-needed critiques of racism and Western colonialism have morphed into blanket condemnation of the West, as well as of Muslims perceived to be “Westernized.” Wahhabism has been criticized by some Muslim scholars as “satanic” and “divisive,” since Wahhabis like to engage in takfir, or labeling anyone who disagrees with them as apostates. Once you’ve named someone an apostate, you can justify killing them. If this sounds like the modus operandi of ISIS, that is because it is: ISIS has an extreme Wahhabi view of Islam, one which allows for bombing civilians during the celebration of Ramadan, an act which, to just about every other Muslim on earth, signifies satanic and anti-Islamic hatred.
So when Muslims call fundamentalist, violent Muslims un-Islamic, they are not saying that the militants of ISIS or Boko Haram do not consider themselves Muslim, but that their priorities do not align with the basics of Islam. I was raised to believe that true Christianity aligned with love and care for all people, nonviolence, and inclusivity; therefore I believed that racist words and actions, homophobia, and nationalist hatred of foreigners were signs that a person was not a true Christian, however strongly that person insisted on their Christian identity. The same thing is going on when a Muslim states that violent jihadis are not truly Muslim; the jihadis may insist they are the only true Muslims, sort of the way the Westboro Baptist Church, with its famous signs that “God hates fags,” insists that only they truly understand the Bible, and yet both groups miss the commandments to love and respect others that are central to our two religions.
I say all of this to try to put the violence of ISIS and other jihadi groups into perspective. Their violence stems from fundamentalist interpretations of religion, just like violence in other religions. Whereas Islam originated as a way for the worshiper to have an unmediated relationship with God, interpretive traditions have raised barriers between worshipers and God. Similarly, many Muslims argue that some Muslim groups’ extremely regressive attitudes toward women stem from those layers of interpretation, and these false interpretations are being challenged by Quranic scholars and feminist activists in just the way feminist biblical scholars challenge misogynist interpretations of the Bible.
I have a confession to make: the first time I met a hijabi woman—a woman who wears a veil to cover her hair and neck—I was full of judgment. I was at an interfaith feminist event in New York City, and the group was very diverse. We broke into small groups for discussion, and my group included a Catholic, a couple Jews, a neo-pagan, a Vodoun priestess, and a Black Muslim woman. The Muslimah, as I said, wore the hijab, which is a simple covering of the hair and neck. She talked about her conversion to Islam from Christianity as the first time she had felt truly free. And I am ashamed to admit it, but I looked at her and thought: You cannot be free. Not while you are wearing that veil on your head.
The Qur’an states that there must be “no compulsion in religion.” This is quoted by feminists both who do and who do not wear the hijab, to underscore that their choice is not compelled by either Muslim clerics or Western culture; whether they choose to wear the hijab or not, it is their choice. And they also refer to this verse to shows that Islamic governments who compel women to dress a certain way are actually being un-Islamic.
While it’s taken me time—and a good bit of reading and listening to what Islamic feminists say—to come around to this point of view, I no longer look at a woman in a hijab as fundamentally unfree. In fact, I have learned that for many Muslimahs who choose to wear the hijab, it is a feminist act. It is a way of rejecting the male gaze, of retaining control of their bodies, of saying, in effect, “I am not here for your objectification. I belong to God and to myself.” These women are fiercely critical of attempts to make hijab-wearing compulsory, but no less fierce in defending their covering as a feminist act. And they point out that, if you really want to hear what a Muslimah makes of her religion, you need, first and foremost, to listen to her. I saw a drawing once of a woman in a hijab and a denim jacket with a women’s power sign on it. The caption said, “Your liberation looks different from mine. I promise not to be a jerk about it.” The article that the drawing was illustrating was about the need to recognize that not all feminism is Western feminism, that feminism is going to look very different in different cultures, and that instead of assuming that our Western values are normative for everyone, we in the West need, first and foremost, to listen to non-Western women’s experience.
For today’s readings, I chose the iconic verse from Micah that tells us that the essence of religion is doing justice, loving mercy, and having a humble relationship with God. To complement it, I chose a passage from the Qur’an that specifically addresses relationships between neighbors of a different faith. It actually speaks of the power of God to put affection and friendship between people and groups who have been enemies in the past. The passage we heard read this morning is from a longer section that forbids making friends with those who persecute Muslims for their faith. In this Surah – which is like a book or chapter, in our Bible – Muhammad and his followers are being driven out from Mecca on account of their religious beliefs; like many of the more problematic parts of the Qur’an, its context is one of oppression from larger, more powerful groups.
Here’s the thing about fundamentalism: it is anti-context. Both fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist atheists will tell you that the 60th Sura is about rejection of the unbelievers, when the Sura itself says that it is a response to religious oppression. Indeed, part of it sounds a lot like early Christian writings to encourage believers to stand fast in the faith despite the persecutions they were facing. The advice is the same: keep the faith, remember that God is with you, and do not make close friendships with those who could draw you away from the faith or persecute you.
And as for those who have never persecuted you, the Qur’an says, you should treat them with justice and equity. The very qualities that Muslims ascribe to God as God’s most important traits—compassion and mercy—are those that are most important for Muslims to mimic. As God says over and over in Leviticus: “You are to be holy because I the Lord am holy.” As in every religious tradition I can think of, God’s people are to be mirrors of the divine. In other surahs, the Qur’an calls its way “the paths of peace,” and states that, “God does not love aggressors.” Like any Scripture, including our own, there are beautiful, uplifting passages, and there are problematic passages that cry out for contextualization and interpretation. I try to remember, every time another hate-filled person kills someone and claims a Muslim rationale for it, I try to remember how much I hate it when someone blames their own hatred on Christian “principles.” I hate it when the media portrays all Christians as homophobes and misogynists. I hate when pundits claim that the violence of the Crusades and the Inquisition is inherent in Christianity. And so, following the Golden Rule, expressed in Islam as “No one truly believes until they wish for their sister or brother what they wish for themselves,” I am going to continue to educate myself about Islam and speak up against Islamophobia, and I invite you to do the same.
This preaching series has focused on the riches of other religious traditions than our own, and what we can learn from our neighbors of different religions. There is so much beauty in Islam. I think what Islam can remind us of is that we are all of us responsible, ultimately, for our relationships with God, without mediation by priests or scholars. We do not need special degrees or hidden knowledge to approach God, to pray to God, to find joy in God’s creation. And Islam reminds us, too, of the power of loving God—that religion is more like a passionate love affair than a body of knowledge or a list of rules. I pray for each of us the curiosity and dedication to learn more about our Muslim sisters and brothers, to challenge the fear and hatred of Muslims that we encounter so much in our society, and to fall further in love with God, who created us in such great and beautiful diversity. In the words of today’s reading from the Qur’an, may God put affection between us all. Amen.
[Note: Not all Muslims who assert the egalitarianism in Islam are comfortable with calling themselves “feminists,” in part because of how rude and exclusionary Western feminists can be toward egalitarian Muslims. I use the term mainly for ease of speaking.]