Recently, when asked to speak to a Unitarian-Universalist community about peace from a Muslim perspective, I spoke, in spite of Prophet Muhammad’s injunction that, “Every Muslim is his own priest,” neither as priest nor scholar — but as a lover of peace.
In Durham’s UU Fellowship’s sanctuary, before speaking to adults and taking questions, I began by sharing a picture book (“Muhammad,” written and illustrated by Demi) with a cluster of children and to them I explained why, in Islamic tradition, the Prophet was not depicted. It was fun: The reading quickly became a Muslim version of “Where’s Waldo” as bright, attentive youngsters scoured the pages trying to find where the Prophet might be appearing on the printed page.
I remember Durham from years ago. My brother Victor, who long ago introduced me to what it meant to be a reader, studied, lived and worked there, as did my daughter’s grandfather, Chief Boston, who then coached UNH football. Also in the 1960s, painter John Hatch, photographer Lotte Jacobi, and art historian James Fasanelli exposed me to a theology of beauty and truth in art. I became a photojournalist, went off to cover the world — and returned to Durham a Muslim.
Viennese journalist Muhammad Asad, traveled a different path. Né Leopold Weiss, an Austrian Jew and convert to Islam, he became a great scholar whose extraordinary legacy is most fully embodied in his translation “The Message of the Qur’an,” dedicated to those “who think.” I can’t overstate Muhammad Asad’s importance in my understanding of Islam and I believe his love of God, his understanding of the power of the intellect and his recognition of reason and the intellect as the senses that connect humanity speaks to all, regardless of faith (or non-faith) traditions and intellectual disciplines.
The first word of the Quran revealed to Muhammad was Iqra — Read!
It’s hard reading the Quran — even guided by Muhammad Asad. The Sufi poet Rumi called the Quran “a veiled and shy bride.” It’s not chronological.
It’s elliptical. It weaves between time zones. It speaks to “small M muslims” — people who lead lives of faith, beauty and good works — and to “capital M Muslims”— adherents to the faith of Islam.
And while it’s the literal word of God, it’s not meant to be read literally.
That’s the rub. The problem’s not the text; the problem’s the reader, we readers — who read, see, hear what we want to read, see, hear — despite the fact that God cautions us about how we should read the Quran as it contains both “messages that are clear in and by themselves … as well as others that are allegorical. … Yet read we must” — it’s the invitation into God’s abode, “Theirs shall be an abode of peace with their Sustainer.” I’ve learned that the starting point of peace is within oneself. It’s there our journey begins — the struggles with temptations, inner desires, fears, tensions — where we learn to embrace the good and be one with our beloved, where we connect with fitra.
Fitra — the closest word we have is what some call “soul” — is the innate ability to perceive the existence of the Supreme Power that is born in all of us. Fitra, defined by Asad as “natural disposition,” means that all of humankind, each of us, has the intuitive ability to discern between right and wrong, true and false, and, thus, to discern the good.
The struggle to connect with fitra — to remain connected — is jihad.
Jihad, one of the most important and beautiful principles in Islam, has been wrongly appropriated by Muslimist terrorists to justify their attacks on the innocent — and on Islam, and wrongly appropriated by islamophobes to try to blacken a religion.
At its center, jihad is the intention to be at peace with oneself — to resist the bad and promote the good. Jihad as holy war, considered a “lesser jihad,” is only acceptable if defensive in nature. Jihad is the path to justice, to dignity, to peace.
God addresses humans by appealing to reason and challenging us with provocative questions, and for me one of the greatest challenges is how do we survive in a diverse pluralistic world, honor each other, protect the earth, and live in peace.
We survive by reading — reading the signs of the presence of beauty in the cycles of nature and the warmth of loved ones.
Yet many misread the signs. Today some Muslims, out of distorted, fanatical interpretations of God’s word, act against all humankind — against God.
Today we witness the wretched of the earth, from every corner, act out of rage at being disenfranchised, humiliated and dispossessed.
Together we witness acts of war, criminality and torture, against nations and peoples — despoiling and poisoning the earth, despoiling gifts of beauty.
Today, from the Crimea, Syria, Iran, Palestine-Israel through North Korea and South Sudan we witness the horror that occurs when power elites prevail over peace.
Yet, let’s temper outrage with humility. As in all scripture texts are used sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. Sometimes scripture is used for freedom, sometimes for human rights, other times deliberately misread to justify exploitation and oppression.
Know that between the conventional view that Muslims believe in a bifurcated world — in Abodes of Islam versus Abodes of War there’s actually a third abode, one verifiable by human reason through the power of intellect — Dar as-Salaam, “the Abode of Peace” into which all are invited.
While leaving UU Durham’s sanctuary, I read a framed statement of “Principles of the Fellowship,” which reflected their collective understanding of how humans should be living their lives.
I smiled and said, “This looks like it came from the Quran!” to which a friend responded, “We try to live by deeds, not by creeds.” That’s a pretty good definition of a “small M muslim.”
We’re pretty much alike, you and I, and for that I am grateful.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.