In today’s world, I think Islam has been more misunderstood than any other religion. I must confess that while I know and am friends with many Muslims, I didn’t always know that much about Islam.
I remember when my older son Saleem was in grade four, he came to me and said, “Mother, why does my school textbook say that Muslims call Abraham the first Muslim when he lived hundreds of years before Muhammed?” I replied, “It must be a mistake in your book.” He said, “No, it is written in our history book.” I thought something was wrong. I checked with the teacher of Islamic studies and with a smile she said, “Of course Abraham was a Muslim and so was Jesus.” I responded. “How can that be?” He smiled again and with patience and openness said, “Do you know what Islam means? It is the religion of submission to the will, the service, and the commands of God.” He went on to explain that the word Muslim is a description of a person's relationship with God. Whereas most of the names of religions refer to a prophet, a leader, or a nation, Islam describes a person's relationship to God. Anyone who recognizes the greatness of God and surrenders his or her life, in faith, to God is, in this sense, a Muslim.
I think that this was the first time that I truly considered what the words Islam and Muslim mean in a spiritual sense. I have lived all my life in a country where Muslims comprise most of the population. My native language is Arabic. My culture is part of the broader Islamic culture, so this should have been clear to me all along. Thankfully, this moment of discovery helped me stand outside myself and the culture that had shaped me and begin to view things in a new way. Not only did I see Islam differently --as an action, a relationship, a way of living in relation to God-- but I also learned something more about my own faith.
This experience heightened my understanding of my own faith as a relationship, as a living out of my life in accordance to God’s will. It made me ponder deeply. Far too often, we have presented each other’s religion in a false light --sometimes simply due to ignorance. I began to think about Christianity and Islam together, simultaneously. I began to ask not only what we might learn about one another, but more precisely what we might learn about God and our relationship with God when we engage one another in truth and humility.
What have I learned from my Muslim neighbors? I have learned to affirm the meeting between God, as God is, and human beings, as they are. That is, God is envisaged, not as God is manifest in a particular way or at a particular time, but independent of history. God as God is: The One whose very nature creates and reveals. Human as human is: the created one endowed with intelligence and will, capable of choosing that which leads one to God.
This was helpful to me. It was also a relief. For throughout my life, thus far only a single image of God had been communicated to me. This was an image that came from biblical history --active, involved, speaking, judging, chastising, and loving. Historical images tend to be preserved as truth and the actions and patterns of moral behaviors that resulted from God’s revelation in the particular circumstance of the past become the norms for succeeding generations. You may respond, “And why not?”. I, too, asked myself this question. "Why not?" Because God is living and God’s will is to be discerned afresh each moment in the changing circumstances of life.
God is related dynamically to the present. Because the present is never exactly like the past, the precise meaning of God for us can be known only in the present. Images of God may come from the past, but the reality of God is in the present.
Let us now take a moment to consider prayer. Standing under God’s gracious sky, Muslims can at any moment lift their heads directly into the Divine Presence to receive both strength and guidance for the living of their days. They have such ready access to the Divine because nothing stands between the person and Allah. As the Qur’an states:
Is he not closer than the vein of thy neck?
Thou needest not raise thy voice, for He knoweth
The secret whisper and what is yet more hidden.
He knows what is the last and in the sea.
I learned from my Muslim neighbors why prayer is one of the pillars of Islam. Christians pray, too, but for Muslims there is a regularity and a constancy of prayer. One basic reason for prayer is to keep one’s life in perspective. Humans are weak and apt to place themselves at the center of their own universe. People too readily forget that they are creatures and not the Creator. Praying five time a days is a constant reminder of the Creator and of one’s submission to the will of God.
The words, “I acknowledge no God but you alone,” repeated in the daily prayers, serve to remind the worshiper that God is great and that God alone is to be worshiped and served --not earthly rulers or kings, not whatever the world offers in status and wealth.
Human beings are created in the image of God and are distinguished from other creatures by their superior intelligence, their free will, and the gift of speech. Speech is communication with God and is essentially prayer and invocation. This is why the Arabic language is a religious language, thoroughly saturated with the name of God.
Prayer is the first of the five pillars of Islam and it is by far the most visible throughout the Muslim world because of its regularity and unabashed public practice. Less visible, but equally important, is the disposition of the heart that goes with prayer, the affirmation of faith.
Perhaps the doctrine of Islam to examine first is the affirmation of the shihadeh: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is His prophet.” This first line declares that God alone is and that all things are dependent upon Him. Many of the phrases we use in the Arabic language express this principle, “Verily we are God’s and unto Him we return” and “In the name of God, the infinitely Good, the ever Merciful.” There is nothing more central in Islam than the affirmation of God’s oneness, what Muslims refer to as the doctrine of tawhid.
Fasting is another pillar of Islam --specifically, the observance of fasting during the month of Ramadan. Men and women, young and old, fast during this month from daybreak to sunset without food or drink. I have tried to fast to learn how my students, fellow teachers and friends experience this month. To tell the truth, I found it too difficult. So much self-discipline is required that the person who can endure it will have less difficulty controlling his or her appetite at other times. Fasting also induces compassion. Only those who have been hungry can know what hunger means. Compassion, self-control, faithfulness, and peace are all qualities strengthened during Ramadan.
Another pillar of Islam that has much to teach us is pilgrimage. The basic purpose of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca is to increase the pilgrim's devotion to God and to God’s revealed will, but the practice has many other beneficial effects as well. It is a reminder of the equality between people. All distinction of rank disappears; prince and pauper stand before God in their undivided humanity.
Pilgrimage also provides a useful service in international affairs. It brings together people from various countries, demonstrating that they have in common a loyalty that transcends the loyalties of warring nations. Pilgrims learn firsthand about their brothers and sisters in other lands, thereby returning home with a deeper, more accurate understanding of one another. Islam, according to my Muslim friends, not only stresses racial equality, but makes it evident.
In addition, there is much to learn from the economic regulations that are also a pillar of Islam. The obligation to pay zakat, an annual and voluntary tax for the well-being of the whole community --especially the poor-- enables Muslims to make their wider understanding of community a reality. Of course, among Palestinians, of whom almost 60 percent live below the poverty line living on less than two dollars a day, the offering of zakat is a difficult obligation to fulfill.
Islam insists that all human life --from the habits of daily life to matters of ethics, law and governments-- should be related to God. For Muslims, anything that touches any part of their lives, touches religion. Traditionally, an Islamic government cannot be secular, if by that we mean anti-religious. However, that does not mean an Islamic government cannot be democratic.
Many people think that when one becomes more aware, more appreciative, and more understanding of the contribution of another religious tradition, one is watering down his or her own religion. This is not so in my experience. Whether we succeed or fail in understanding our Muslims neighbors, we do so as Christians. Our Christian convictions are of the utmost importance in our work of relating to people. My work and life in a pluralistic society has challenged me to understand the fullness of Christ. But my understanding of God would be much more limited if I had lived in isolation, from my Muslim neighbors.
Mutual and constructive dialogue between Muslims and Christians is already taking place. When Christians try to read some of the basic prayers repeated daily by Muslims, they find that the Gospel and Islam are concerned with similar matters --such as the reality, the oneness, and the sovereignty of God; God’s call to submission and obedience; and God’s justice and mercy. Here we find all the elements needed for a fruitful dialogue. Discovering common ideals will free us from the bonds of earthly and material powers. Muslims and Christians have a real mission together. Therefore, I believe dialogue is a fundamental part of Christian service and witness.
It is in dialogue that we may respond to the command to “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” This love sets us free to be open to the fates of others, to risk, to trust, and to be vulnerable. This love evokes in us an attitude of true humility toward all people since we know that we, together with all our brothers and sisters, have fallen short of the community that God intends.