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Beyond Us and Them

Very often, what we dislike in others is something that we need to acknowledge, heal, integrate, and empower in ourselves.

Girl at Richmond protests

When members of the extremist anti-gay and anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church protested at the Virginia Holocaust Museum and other Jewish landmarks in Richmond, Va., hundreds of people took to the streets in rallies against hatred.

Photo by Jessica Lucia.

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

As a relatively recent U.S. citizen, I sometimes despair at the polarization of Democrats and Republicans and the angry vitriol that erupts from this divide. As a Muslim, I tire of the mean-spirited campaigns of fear mongering and hate that religious extremists direct at those with different beliefs. This incessant appeal to the basest elements of our nature—our fear of the Other, our easy refuge in Us vs. Them divides—is disturbing.

Guidance in the Quran

This issue, I realize, is not so much about the Other as it is about me. The issue is a deeply spiritual one, and I look for guidance in the Quran. A verse repeated several times in the Holy Book tells me that God will not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in their hearts. This verse reaffirms the age-old insight, found in all traditions, that a problem cannot be solved at the same level where it was created. We humans can be reconciled only by rising above the issues that divide us, by becoming aware that our disparate personalities and philosophies are actually parts of the same whole. Our sages tell us that such awareness leads to peacemaking—the art of restoring love and compassion to a relationship that has been torn apart through fear and hatred.

Lest we think we are already endowed with awareness, the Quran reminds us, “Of knowledge we have given you but a little” (17:85) and bids us pray, “O God, advance me in knowledge” (20:114). It is telling that the second-most used word in the Quran, after “Allah,” is the word “Ilm,” which means knowledge. To grow in knowledge means, in the words of the Prophet Muhammad, that we move from “knowledge of the tongue to knowledge of the heart.” In this work of expanding awareness, we come face-to-face with our own biases, prejudices, and limitations rather than focusing on those of other people.

Without such awareness we are like the frog who lives in the well, a character in a delightful Sufi teaching story. An ocean frog visited his cousin, who had spent his entire life in the enclosure of a well. The ocean frog tried to give his cousin a sense of the vastness of the ocean, but without success.

“Are you trying to tell me,” the well frog asked, “that this ocean of yours is half the size of this well?”

“More,” said the ocean frog.

“Three-fourths of this well?”

“Even more!” the ocean frog replied.

The well frog refused to believe that the ocean could be larger than the extent of his world, the well. Finally, he was persuaded to visit the ocean, where, upon seeing the enormity of the ocean, he was so overwhelmed that his brain exploded.

In addition to the obvious lesson about the effect of personal and societal conditioning on our worldview, this story also teaches that it may be easier on our psyches to expand our perceptions little by little rather than being overwhelmed by radical, mind-blowing events—9/11, for example. Sufi teachers warn us that without constant work to be aware of the rigidities and narrowness of our own beliefs, we can easily fall prey to an excess of patriotic zeal and religious fervor that does more harm than good. These teachers tell the story of a very patriotic and religious monkey who traveled to distant village ponds to pluck the fish out of water in order to save them from a watery grave!

Get to Know the Other

The Quran lets us in on God’s little secret: “We have created some of you as a trial for others: Will you have patience” (25:20). Meditating on this verse, I have begun to understand that the Glenn Becks, Christian rapturists, Israeli settlers, and Taliban and Al Qaeda members of this world are an invitation for me to grow and expand. In a hadith that anticipates our 21st century understanding of human psychology, the Prophet said, “The faithful are mirrors to each other.” Very often, what we dislike in others is something that we need to acknowledge, heal, integrate, and empower in ourselves.

The Quran says in a number of exquisite verses (e.g., 49:13) that God deliberately created differences and diversity on earth “so that you may know each other.” These are truly prophetic verses. The best way to narrow the gap between oneself and people of other faiths and cultures is to make every effort to get to know them as fellow human beings on a heart-to-heart level without any agenda. Then, no matter what our theological or political differences might be, these no longer loom as a threat. A gateway to collaboration opens up.

Behavior and Being

But what are we to do if someone is adamantly adversarial, even violent, despite our sincerest efforts? The 16th century teacher Kabir offers sage advice: “Do what is right. Protect yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be abused. But please, do not leave the other person’s being out of your heart.” This insight is critical. Every tradition urges us to differentiate between behavior and being. We all may err and even commit evil deeds from time to time, but the essence of every human being is divinely sacred. Even when we are locked in mortal combat with each other, we must remember that we are fighting the antagonism, not the antagonist. Just this awareness, as we speak and act, has the power to shift heaven and earth.

The Quran tells us that in difficult times, when conditions and circumstances in people’s lives cause chronic anger, fear, or hopelessness, “Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts”(22:46). We know, from our own reactions, that the human heart responds to force by clenching itself shut. We also know that our closed hearts can’t always hear the sweet voice of reason. Only that which comes from the heart can open another heart. When we, coming from a place of spiritual awareness, make a distinction between another’s behavior and being, we are exercising the power of our heart, and this can open doors. As the Quran says, by God’s Grace, an enemy might become a friend.


Jamal RahmanSheikh Jamal Rahman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jamal is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at Interfaith Community Church in Seattle. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Fragrance of Faith: The Enlightened Heart of Islam and Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources.

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