ISIS, Cotton Candy, or Rūmī?
The last fourteen years seem particularly agonizing for Christian-Muslim relations. The 9/11 attacks and reactions to them continue to generate violence, chaos, and suspicion. I have been haunted by the latest depredations of the “Islamic State” and some of the reactions these crimes provoked. Then I read “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood’s recent article in The Atlantic, which holds that ISIS may be a normative example of Islam. That is, rather than being a band of criminals, ISIS represents a plausible picture of Islam.
I was also reading The Submission, a novel by Amy Waldman that considers what might have happened had a Muslim architect won a contest to design a memorial at Ground Zero for those who died on 9/11. Some of the reactions described in Waldman’s novel recently showed up in emails to me. “Muslims believe it is ok to lie to convert people to their truth” (Waldman, 130). As my email correspondent put it, “…Muhammad’s commands regarding taqiyah, or holy deception, apply as well. What your Muslim counterparts tell you is often, by Muslim doctrine of deception, a lie.” The Submission rebuts this claim through an imagined New Yorker editorial explaining that the opponents to Waldman’s Muslim architect “claim, absurdly, that Muslims can’t be trusted because they have religious sanction to lie. This is a bald misrepresentation of the concept of Taqiya, by which Shiites who live under Sunni rule are allowed to disguise their beliefs to protect themselves” (Waldman, 139).
Feeling the weight of Wood’s widely read article and the attitudes expressed in The Submission and common in the West, I longed to be face to face with a Muslim friend who radiates wisdom and kindness.
On a rare sunny spring day I crossed from Whidbey Island to Seattle to see my friend Jamal Rahman. Jamal is known especially around Seattle as one of the three “interfaith amigos,” a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi, and a Christian pastor who often speak together and collaborate on books. Jamal was born in Bangladesh and his father was a diplomat, so he grew up and is at home in more than one culture.
Jamal confirmed Waldman’s “New Yorker” interpretation of taqiyah and described a meeting he attended in which the issue came up. After one attendee expressed his concern about the Muslim approval for lying, a Jewish man rose and presented a familiar dilemma from World War II: “Suppose you are a Christian in Nazi Germany and you are secretly harboring a Jew in your home. Soldiers come to ask if you have given shelter to Jews. Would you have the moral courage to say ‘No’?” Jamal emphasized that the man posing the question considered it morally courageous, in this instance, to lie. I agree. This is the meaning of taqiyah.
One group in The Submission claims that Qur’ānic surahs “from Mohammad’s time in Mecca gave the illusion of tolerance by praising the ‘People of the Book,’ while the chapters set in Medina showed Islam’s true harsh nature: ‘Kill them wherever you find them’” (146). My email correspondent repeated this claim that later surahs advocating violence in self-defense abrogate the earlier poetic revelations. But “Kill them wherever you find them,” (2:191) chilling as it is, refers to the Muslim community’s contemporaries who had broken a treaty, threatened the existence of the young Muslim community, and denied Muslims the right to practice their religion. It is a call to self-defense in a particular situation, a last resort when an inalienable right is threatened. Although just war theory in the West has developed in a more secular political context than the Islamic tradition, “both traditions link the right to use armed force to the exercise of legitimate governing authority for the protection and common good of the governed community” according to Rutgers religion professor James Turner Johnson.
Jamal readily admits that all scriptures include problematic texts that require deep, nuanced, enlightened interpretation. He makes a distinction between “particular” texts that describe and refer to past events, and “universal” texts that hold for all time. I am certainly aware of such texts in Jewish and Christian scripture. One text in Numbers commands what today I would call genocide, and the Gospel of John contains what sound to me like anti-Semitic statements if misunderstood as proclamations of universal, eternal truth rather than descriptions of painful, soul-wrenching tensions in the early Jewish-Christian community.
Jamal finds a “universal” surah that counters “Kill them wherever you find them” in a teaching drawn from the Jewish Testament’s story of Cain and Abel: “…if anyone slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew the whole people …” (5:32). As Jamal put it, whoever kills someone unjustly, it is as if he has killed all humankind.
Consoled by my conversation with Jamal, I returned home and found the “Open Letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, Alias ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’” signed by Muslim scholars from around the world, and “The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to the Atlantic’s ISIS Story,” Dagli Caner’s response to Wood’s article.
Whereas Wood’s Atlantic article quotes an Islamic expert who claims that ISIS fighters “are faithfully reproducing [early Islam’s] norms of war,” the “Open Letter” calls ISIS fighters’ brutal acts “unquestionably forbidden,” “heinous war crimes,” “abominable crimes” that provide “ample ammunition for all those who want to call Islam barbaric.”
Wood’s article makes the case that ISIS takes Muslim texts very seriously, but Caner and the “Open Letter” insist on the opposite. Instead of immersing themselves in the long, extensive disciplines of Muslim wisdom, ISIS propagandists’ “prophetic methodology,” Caner claims, “is nothing more than cherry-picking what they like and ignoring what they do not.”
I share Caner’s concern that citizens and leaders who consider themselves “informed” by reading articles like Wood’s may conclude, like my email correspondent, that ISIS is not distorting Muslim teaching. They may begin to fear that if more Muslims “wake up tomorrow and start taking their texts ‘seriously,’” we’re in big trouble, and that to think otherwise is to be seduced by a “cotton candy” version of Islam as a peace-loving community. This places people like my friend Jamal in an untenable position: “… they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us” (Caner).
I am praying for a continuing “intrareligious” conversion. By that, I mean that I pray for a more contemplative, mystical approach to our religious lives. As pioneer contemplative theologian Raimon Panikkar put it,
Intrareligious dialogue … does not begin with doctrine, theology and diplomacy. It is intra, which means that if I do not discover in myself the terrain where the Hindu, the Muslim, the Jew and the atheist may have a place—in my heart, in my intelligence, in my life—I will never be able to enter into a genuine dialogue…. As long as I do not open my heart and do not see that the other is not an other but a part of myself who enlarges and completes me, I will not arrive at dialogue. If I embrace you, then I understand you.
I remember a passage from Jamal’s The Fragrance of Faith, in which he describes his Muslim upbringing:
As a teenager, I delighted in the insight of the thirteenth-century Islamic saint, Jalālu’din Rūmī, that the Qur’ān is like a shy bride and rather than approach her directly, it is advisable to first bond with her friends, those who possess the inner heart. (p. 3)
Here is my hope: that instead of claiming that we know about Islam because of what ISIS says and does, we allow ourselves to discover in ourselves that terrain where we may bond with a Muslim friend, listen, learn, and yes, acknowledge significant differences. The “inner heart” of Islam as I understand it, and as I see it practiced in Muslim friends, is mercy and compassion, the two words used at the beginning of every surah of the Qur’ān. If you have no Muslim friends, then take a few minutes to listen to the voices and read the words of American Muslims recently posted here by Emily Kassie.
A walk on a sunny spring day with my friend Jamal reminded me that groups such as ISIS can distract us from the beauty of Islam as it is lived by millions. It reminded me that despite violent tribalist passages in all Abrahamic scriptures, the most widely quoted verse from the Qur’ān is, “O humankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you might come to know each other” (49:13).
This is a startling revelation. Monotheists have historically been monoculturalists hoping for a day when a supreme monofaith, on which we the chosen have a monopoly, will conquer the world. But what if God loves diversity? What if Truth is not a monotone but a symphony, not a war but a dance? I hope and trust that Jamal and I are in the same orchestra or dance hall, where no one has a monopoly.
I say this not because I want to water down my Christianity, but because my faith leads me to love God more than the beautiful, revealed, infallible teachings I have inherited, which do not exhaust the inexhaustible Whole.
Photo, above, of Fr. Dave Denny and Imam Jamal Rahman.