Westerners really don’t care about Islam because most are Christian or Jewish and there is not much about Islam that resonates with us. Arabic culture is strange, so foreign. But we can’t ignore it. The extreme element within Islam is a force to be reckoned with in our world. In America, we only used to hear about radical Islamic terrorism, now we’re feeling it. Westerners have many misconceptions about Islam. Our lack of understanding of Arabic culture, our disregard for the religion, and our treatment of Arab nations has cause a lot of chickens to come home to roost.
In the 1970s, a worldwide Islamic revival emerged. I seem to remember hearing something about it back then. But it had nothing to do with me, so I didn’t care about it. Some elements of the revival morphed into terrorists. After the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, I began to pay more attention. In 1983 I had an encounter with a Lebanese neighbor who had just learned his brother had been killed in a missile attack. An emotional evening to say the least. By the 1990s I decided it might be useful to learn something about Islam, outside of what I had learned about it from reading books on the Knights Templar and the Crusades, most of them biased against the Muslim side.
One book I studied was Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. Armstrong is a former nun, author, scholar, and journalist, a leading commentator in the field of comparative religions. In Muhammad, she not only presents a detailed biography of the Prophet but also gives readers an overview of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. She deals with the history of the three religions more comprehensively in another book, A History of God, which I read around the same period. In my opinion, A History of God is a must-read for anyone interested in religion. After I finished it, I felt I had a clearer understanding of how ‘God’ is a man-made concept. I’m not sure that’s what Armstrong intended but that’s what I got.
Many Christians label Muhammad a ‘false prophet,’ mainly because he did not accept the divinity of Jesus. I recall that Armstrong mentioning something about how Muhammad was jealous that God had spoken to the Jews and Christians but not to Muslims. I don’t know if that is true, but assuming it is, one wonders if it wasn’t a prime motivation behind the ‘revelations’ he received from Allah, alone and without witnesses.
Armstrong says that Muhammad’s life is an example of “the perfect surrender (in Arabic, the word for “surrender” is islam) that every human being should make to the divine.” He maintained that in order to have a perfect relationship with God, one should surrender to Him completely.
This message does resonate with me. Even in Buddhism total surrender is essential. You must surrender your ego, your ‘self,’ and simultaneously make a surrender to your Buddha-nature.
Another thing that has stayed with me is Armstrong’s comment that “His life was jihad: as we shall see, this word does not mean “holy war,” it means “struggle.” We could say that in this, all life is jihad.
Muhammad taught that “God is One,” meaning the three religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity originate from the same period. Begging to differ, Islamophobic folks claim that it’s not the same god at all. Billy Graham’s website says, “Allah is not only a different name for god; the deity it designates is far more impersonal than the God of the Bible.” The latter part of that statement may be accurate but the notion that Allah is a different name for God stems from rank ignorance.
As Wikipedia notes, Allah “is the Arabic word for God in Abrahamic religions.” It may be the same God, but there are some big differences that people in the Middle East have taken rather personally over the centuries.
I have no use for any of the monotheistic religions. That does not mean I am necessarily against them or hate the people who follow those paths. But to me, the sameness of Christianity and Islam is more apparent than the dissimilarities between them.
When it comes to love and compassion, however, all religions seem to be in accord. Here are two examples:
In the Book of Mark, New Testament, we read:
What commandment is the first of all? Jesus answered, The first is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
In the Quran (“the recitation)” we find these words (4:37):
[Worship] Allah… and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful.
Love your neighbor, show kindness to others. It’s a universal message.
This translation by Amaravati Sangha is from in the Buddhist Metta Sutta.
Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings: radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded…
The Islamic and Buddhist passages do not use the word “love,” but the thought of love is there. Kindness is a quality of love. All the religions agree that kindness should permeate our lives. Hard to disagree with that, but to my mind, it shouldn’t be because a religious text tells us that’s what we should do, but rather on account of it being the best way to live. Showing kindness to others is just the right thing to do.
One thing I’ve never been able to reason out is why the three religious cultures in the Middle East just cannot transcend the hatred they feel for one another. While not all Muslims hate Jews and vice versa, there is obviously an underlying tension that frequently erupts in horrible violence. Even within Muslims and Jews who live outside the Middle East, one can detect feelings of bitterness and distrust.
For the West, I feel it is indeed a case of chickens coming home to roost. Historically, we haven’t made much of an effort to understand Middle Eastern culture, except on the Jewish side and that’s only because we feel an affinity with Judaism since they worship the ‘same God.’ Arab nations were abused by America’s foreign policy after World War II. It’s not surprising they resent us. And on the other side, it is truly regrettable that Israel’s leaders have an apartheid mentality and often treat Palestinians in the same brutal manner that Nazi’s treated the Jews in Germany.
There will always be those who don’t get it. Just look at the Islamophobic Buddhists in Burma who have been waging a holy war against the Rohingya Muslims.
Kindness. Why can’t we all show more kindness?
I think most of us feel that you can have little regard for someone’s belief and have love for that person. That’s one reason why it’s useful to have an objective understanding of different beliefs. Enlightened by some knowledge, it is less easy to, say, to reject Islam on the basis of semantics. To be a party to injecting misery into the world just because someone uses another name for the same god is just… I don’t know what word to use… Whatever it is, this conflict has rocked our world and not in a good way and I can’t help but feel that these folks in the Middle East should just get over themselves.
Finally, another Islamic concept we do not understand very well is jihad. To us in the West, jihad is a fear-word. But as I said, in one sense all life is jihad. As people of the earth we have universally inherited the great jihad: the total revolution of heart and mind. However, before we can set in train the transformation of our humanity, we must first couple with the stock of surrender, the conversion of lower self into a higher self.
And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the submissive.
Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah [2:45]