Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Finding God in Islam

To be honest, it has been difficult for me to discern God in Islam until recently. It is not that I am unfamiliar with the religion. I took a graduate seminar in Islam when I was in seminary. I studied Islam under a Muslim scholar while on sabbatical in Israel. I have read the entire Quran several times in my lifetime, which is more than most Christians can say of the Bible.

I have had long theological discussions with Muslims. Among those discussions were a series of live radio shows that I did with an imam of a Pittsburgh mosque in the wake of 9/11. He invited me to his mosque. My wife and I met his family, and he gifted me with a beautiful copy of the Quran. I gave him a New Testament in return.

Yet I have had a hard time finding the God of Jesus in the religion of Islam, even though Islam claims Jesus as one of its prophets. They believe Jesus performed miracles. They even believe in the Virgin Birth. Mary has a surah (a chapter) of the Quran named after her. They also believe Jesus will return to earth one day to defeat “the false messiah” known as the Antichrist.

In spite of Islam’s reverence for Jesus, the Quran has felt more like the Old Testament than the New Testament. Muhammad seems more like Joshua than Jesus. Muhammad, after all, was a warrior. He led an Islamic army that conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula during this lifetime. I viewed his sword in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. I find it hard to reconcile the life of Muhammad with the teachings of Jesus.

Recently I read a novel of historical fiction that changed my perception of Islam. It is entitled The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak. It is mostly about love for God, although the author connects it to human love was well. It is the story of the friendship between the thirteenth century Persian scholar Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams. Shams changed the Islamic leader’s life and turned him into a mystic and a poet.

I found the Spirit of Jesus Christ in these two Islamic mystics: Rumi and Shams. After finishing the novel I was inspired to purchase a book of the sayings and poems of Rumi. I had read Rumi earlier in my life, but at that time I did not see what I now see. Here were medieval Islamic spiritual teachers who knew the God I know in Jesus, which means they knew the eternal Christ.

Most Sunni and Shiite Muslims – certainly the fundamentalist varieties - believe that Sufis are heretics, but that is alright with me. Fundamentalist Christians would consider me a heretic for finding God in faiths other than Christianity. For conservative Christians the only God is the Christian God, and Muhammad is a false prophet who proclaimed a false deity. For conservative Muslims the only God is the Islamic God, and Christians are blasphemers for believing in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

For me, the only God is God, as the Shahada of Islam says. God is One, as the Shema of Judaism says. “I and the Father are One” and we share that Oneness, as Jesus said. I see this One God as bigger than any religion – Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. I see God in Jesus, and I see God in the words of Rumi. This is the God of love, forgiveness and grace. This is the God revealed in the mystical branches of all spiritual traditions.

On both of my visits to Istanbul I visited the Hagia Sophia, which was built in the sixth century as a Christian church and converted to a mosque in the 15th century. At the time I visited this sacred site, it was a museum. Last year it was converted back into an active mosque. It is an example of one religion taking over the sacred space of another religion, which is a common practice in the history of religions.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is another famous example of a space that has been used for worship by Jews, Romans (temple of Jupiter), Christians and Muslims. I see this coopting of sacred space as an unconscious recognition that it is the same God worshipped in all three Abrahamic faiths, as well as ancient Roman religions.

It is the same God known in the Baha’i faith and Sikhism. It is the same God accessed in Buddhism, even though early Buddhism was nontheistic. It is the same God found in Hinduism, even though that religion has many gods. I see this Divine One in the sacred texts of many traditions, and now I see the One God in the Sufi expression of Islam as well. 


Ann Cady said...

Marshall, well said. After 9/11 I attended mosque in Toronto with my sister-in-law and a friend of hers. There was a renowned Imam speaking that day. What I took away most from his message is that just like Christianity is influenced by the culture in which it is practiced so is Islam. So the extremists/terrorists do not speak for the true practice of Islam. I find the 5 pillars of Islam an incredible model of how to live--profession of faith, prayer, alms giving, fasting (not big on this one), and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Other than the last they are all spiritual tools found in most major faith traditions. I have only read the Quran once but respect it as holy writ. I love Rumi. As an interfaith minister, I look for the One God of love in all faith traditions. We could all learn from exploring the books of other religions.

happi said...

Marshall, I love reading your thoughts on Religion and Spirituality. I believe all humans are born with both a Material Side and a Spiritual Aspect. The Material side is well known, impossible to avoid. If we neglect it, it will certainly inform us of our needs. The Spiritual Side, I believe, is quiet. If it is not nourished, it will not complain. It will just wither and, if neglected long enough, die. Although I am Agnostic, I try to nourish my Spiritual needs. I think that words are far too feeble to fully express what happens in our Spiritual lives. I also think that if God exists, He She, or It is beyond the understanding of our feeble minds. That is why I love Psalm 47 (I think it is,) “Be still. And know that I am God”. That “Stillness” can become a blessed space. John

Unknown said...

Love your response. Thanks for sharing