Heart of a Muslim
The death of thousands of innocent people on September 11 is soul wrenching. I ask myself, as we all do, how a loving Creator could allow this horrific event to occur? The answer is wrapped in mystery. As the Quran says, “We have shown you the dust but concealed the wind.”
The perpetrators of the devastating attack, all of them Islamic extremists, claim to be martyrs. The real martyrs, of course, are the innocent people whose lives were tragically snuffed out.
How do I, as a Muslim, honor them? I honor the dead by honoring the truth.
Islam is a religion of peace. Force is permitted only in self-defense. The Quran says that if anyone takes one innocent life, it is as if “he killed all of mankind.” It advises a Muslim to “show forgiveness, enjoin kindness and stay away from the ignorant.” Repeatedly, the Quran tell us not to “sow corruption on earth” and to “stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God even as against yourself or your parents or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor.”
But if Islam espouses peace and moderation, how do we explain the growth of radicalism bent on violence?
Again, there are no easy answers. Like other religions, Islam has its share of zealots who clamor for attention. The mystic Rumi cautioned us about them, describing them as “All fireworks and no light, all husk and no kernel.”
What makes these times volatile is the vast pool of poor, illiterate Muslims around the world who lead lives of despair and defeat. Not only do they suffer at the hands of their own governments, they feel authentic anger and anguish at the policies of the United States: its blind support of Israel, its devastation of the lives of generations of Iraqi Muslims, and its practice of preaching democracy while propping up a corrupt, feudal monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Islamic radicals easily find supporters among the disaffected. In the hands of angry men with untamed egos, religious verses misinterpreted and taken out of context become weapons of destruction. Perpetrators of murder become “martyrs.” Acts of violence become “Jihad.” And suicide becomes a passageway to the sensual pleasures of heaven.
The truth of Islam is quite different. A martyr is one who witnesses the truth and gives his life for it. The greater meaning of Jihad is about battling and taming the imperious fragments of one’s ego; the lesser Jihad is about defending one’s religion when it is attacked. Suicide is expressly forbidden in Islam. The vivid imagery of paradise is metaphorical, meant to incline the heart of the believer to engage in “deeds which are pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.”
At a recent retreat, I was touched by a story of an African American peace activist. As a child of seven, he slapped a white child who called him “nigger.” At home his father congratulated him, but his mother tenderly chided him, saying, “What good did that do?” Later she said, “Son, there has to be a better way.” Her words resonated deeply in the child’s soul. Today, an adult, he dedicates his life to finding a better way.
We owe it to the brave, innocent people who have been sacrificed all over the world to find a better way.
Inner work or outer work?
In Islam, finding a better way is not about rushing out to change governments and institutions. Our actions must be rooted in higher consciousness. Otherwise, we are like the sincere, action-oriented monkey my beloved parents told me about. With great zeal, the monkey plucked fish out of ponds to save them from a watery grave.
Does this mean we should work only on ourselves? No. Work equally in the visible and invisible world, advise Islamic mystics. Participate fully in the bazaar of life—buying, selling marrying, raising children, and doing “abiding good deeds.” But complement this outer work daily with an inner practice that nurtures and nourishes the soul—prayers, silence, music, nature, play. Everything in the visible world, reveals the Quran, has its roots in the invisible world. Water those roots regularly.
Can we do this work in both realms with compassion for ourselves? The inner meaning of the most repeated verse in the Quran (Allah is Infinitely Compassionate, Merciful and Beneficent) is that God wants us to be compassionate with ourselves. Little do we know who we are, where we come from, or where weare going. Have mercy on yourself, the Quran teaches, for you are precious in God’s eyes. Compassion for yourself allows our divine identity to step forward; compassionate towards yourself you are able to hold compassion for the whole world.
One way to do our spiritual work is to cultivate the art of listening. The ultimate listening is, of course, hearing the inner voice of the soul in us. But we must listen to other voices as well. We begin by making an effort to truly listen to others: family, friends, colleagues at work, voices in the community we disagree with.
A Christian minister I know well practices compassionate listening with renewed enthusiasm these days. He listens not only to family and friends but also to voices he previously ignored, and he is excited about a startling realization: “Maybe the anguish I feel now is what others have been feeling for a long time.” My friend is not talking about Islamic extremists. He is talking of Native Americans, African Americans, and Chicanos. He admits that there’s nothing novel about this insight except that, for the first time, he feels it in his guts. As a result, he makes an important distinction when he talks about the Islamic terrorists—their actions are evil, but their beings are not.
The 15th-century Sufi mystic Kabir offers similar advice: “Do what is right but never leave the person out of your heart.” Protect yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be abused. Do what is right. But if you’re angry, know that you are fighting the antagonism, not the antagonist. This knowledge alone, Kabir insists, has the power to shift heaven and earth.
If this is so, can we extend this hearing to Osama bin Laden? After all, he is using grievances that we are reluctant to hear to recruit thousands of Muslims.We don’t have to agree with Osama bin Laden or condone his actions. But if we care to listen, we might hear the cry of authentic pain and despair that many Muslims feel because of US policies.
Another aspect of compassionate listening was one of Gandhi’s central messages: “It is a sacred duty of every individual to have an appreciative understanding of other religions.” We are asked to remain rooted in our own tradition but to ennoble and enrich something in us by being open to the beauty of other traditions. A Christian bishop calls this “grounded openness;” a Rabbi calls this process “developing our inner faith;” a Muslim scholar says that interfaith appreciation is about completion, not conversion.
If there’s one lesson driven home by the September 11 events, it is that we are all truly interconnected. This is not a new lesson. What is new is that we are experiencing this interwovenness in our hearts. Victim and victimizer, liberal and fundamentalist, rich and poor, empowered and disempowered, distant and near—all are unimaginably connected. The gentle Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh expressed this eloquently in a poem:
I am the twelve year old girl
refugee on a small boat
who throws herself into the ocean
after having been raped by a sea pirate
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true name
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.
Integral to this insight of interconnection is the realization that we need to double and redouble our efforts to empower women. Extremists of every stripe are mostly men. (Note that the practice of veiling women’s faces has its roots not in the Quran but in male dominated cultures.) Desperately and urgently we need to balance male ego-driven fanaticism with the gentler, kinder, spirit-filled voices and energies of women. The sharp edges of male extremism require smoothing and healing.
Once a group of self-absorbed men boasted to Rabia, a beloved female saint: “The crown of prophethood has been placed on men’s heads. The belt of nobility has been fastened around men’s waists. No woman has ever been a prophet.” Rabia politely but firmly replied, “But egoism and self worship and ‘I am your Lord, the most high’ have never sprung from a woman’s breast. All these things have been the specialty of men.”
In the 7th-century age of jahilya (savagery), Prophet Muhammad revolutionized the rights of women. For the first time women were given the rights of inheritance, property ownership, and divorce. Sexual relations were permitted only within the locus of marriage. Today, 14 centuries later, Muslim men must recognize that women in Islamic societies are still treated like second-class citizens. Sporadic progress has been made here and there, but in the spirit of the Quran and the Prophet’s example, we have to work especially hard to give women their rightful voice and place in society. This is the best antidote to extremism of every kind.
The Quran asks, “Do you love your Creator? Then, love your fellow beings first.” The people who died September 11 came from all major faiths of the world. Certainly they would want us to double and redouble our efforts to engage in what spiritual leaders call “a dialogue of the head, heart, and hands” between religions. This is to be conducted at all levels—governmental, institutional, and particularly at the community and personal level. Dialogue of the head between religions is about focusing on commonalities and considering the differences as facts that distinguish them. The next step of dialogue is about personal bonding and experiencing practices of other religions. Dialogue of hands, which usually grows out of the above two, is about participating in collaborative projects, often sharing the struggle for peace, justice, and earth care.
September 11 is not just about Islamic extremists who must be found and destroyed. It is far more important than that. It is a tragedy that has become a turning point—an amazing opportunity for awareness, compassion, community, and the end of politics-as-usual. On that grim day we were catapulted, against our will, across a new threshold of consciousness. Now we must make a bold leap forward, adopting new ways of thinking and being, or risk falling back into old, lethal patterns.
I am confident we shall make the leap, led by courageous, creative, and compassionate individuals and communities in America. This is still a place where there is, relatively speaking, freedom of expression and freedom of worship. People here carry a lighter cultural baggage than elsewhere. There is naiveté and apathy here, but also freshness of spirit.
Enormous was the tragedy of September 11, but enormous are the opportunities. Enormous is my faith, believing in the Infinite Compassion, Mercy and
Beneficence of God.