نبی اللہ ابراھیم خلیل اللہ
Above: the name of the Islamic prophet, ʾIbrāhīm (Abraham), written in Islamic calligraphy followed by Peace be upon him.
Second in a Series exploring the shared Abrahamic roots of three faith traditions
Part II: Islamic Roots
A pdf version to print and read is HERE.
“Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in Faith? For Allah did take Abraham for a friend.” — The Quran 4:125
First consider the times in which we live. Recently, a spiritual leader representing a large segment of Western Christendom celebrated mass before thousands of the faithful along the border between Mexico and the United States. In his remarks, he spoke of “The human tragedy that is forced migration,” which is “a global phenomenon today.” He described “a journey laden with grave injustices: the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted.”
On his flight back to Rome – and in response to a reporter’s question — Pope Francis then unwittingly waded into the quagmire of American politics, and the controversy over the proposed construction of a physical barrier along the entire length of the border separating two countries. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges,” he said, “is not ‘Christian.’”
Not being one to take criticism lightly, the politician who has proposed such a wall quickly responded, “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS … I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened.” Trump went on to add, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now.”
In response to Francis sharing his view of what he thinks it means to be Christian-like, I only wish Donald had done the same. I tire quickly when an unexamined or monolithic view of any religious tradition is asserted or presumed by anyone. So, as easily as one can build a wall distinguishing one side from the other, one should certainly be able to equally explain one’s real and distinct differences when it comes to what one thinks it means to be Christian; or any other such label – say, Muslim — for that matter. These are not false divisions, but real differences that should constructively challenge us, without taking personal offense as a way of deflecting one’s blind ignorance.
As easily as one can build a wall distinguishing one side from the other, one should certainly be able to equally explain one’s real and distinct differences when it comes to what one thinks it means to be ‘Christian;’ or any other such label – say, ‘Muslim’ — for that matter. These are not false divisions, but real differences that should constructively challenge us, without taking personal offense as a way of deflecting one’s blind ignorance.
A similar example would be another would-be presidential nominee with lagging poll numbers, who delivered this parting shot when dropping out of the race. “I believe Christians in this country can easily determine the next president of the United States … should they simply show up at the polls.” Informed as I have been by a lifetime exploring the Christian faith tradition, I doubt Ben Carson really means for me to vote my own particular religious convictions. He believes, for instance, the theory of evolution is a diabolical trick concocted by Satan, and I do not. Despite the faith tradition we share, we have obvious, real differences.
And finally, another politician who “won” a tie for second place in a primary race in a single state a few weeks ago began his victory speech by thanking all his supporters and donors who’d worked so hard and given so much. Then he concluded those customary remarks by placing the eventual future outcome of his entire campaign in the hands of the Almighty, and divine destiny.
“I know that God’s hand is on everything,” Senator Rubio said. “And so whatever God’s will is in this election is ultimately what will happen to us and to our country.” But then Marco just couldn’t help himself, adding, “But if it is God’s will that I serve as our 45th president …”
I thought to myself, if only he could have discerned the will of God upfront, he could save himself – and the entire political process that has been so filled with such rancorous, squabbling divisiveness — a whole lot of human collateral. But there’s the rub, when it comes to human pursuits that are integrally both religious and political (political in the broader sense of our human interactions and machinations). It’s about discerning the notion, or will, or intention of what one understands to be the nature, existence — or non-existence — of what some call “God;” while others of us might search the same limitless depths of the human imagination for a broader and all-encompassing way of appreciating any such notion.
A series of previous commentaries explored the inseparable confluence of our political and religious life. This current Series has turned to consider the shared, common roots of three great Abrahamic faith traditions; in an attempt to not only identify “false” divisions, but honestly acknowledge real differences, as well. It is a quest for common ground, arising from shared roots; along with and a shared respect for our different paths. It’s tricky.
So to do so, we’ve hearkened back to the origins of monotheism, and the earliest notions of that integral wholeness referenced above. We consider, once again, the “call” of Abraham, and the universal theme of leaving the place of the known and familiar; in order to faithfully risk the possibility of an encounter with something more than we can ask or imagine, hope or believe.
The figure of Abraham not only represents the progenitor of the outward expressions of three great monotheistic faiths, but the prototype for the internal spiritual journey, as well: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ … So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” [Gen. 12:1-4a]
“The text (above) is so matter-of-fact it almost masks the significance… He does so silently, joining the covenant with his feet, not his words. The wandering man does what he does best. He walks. Only now he walks with God. And by doing so, Abraham leaves an indelible set of footprints: He doesn’t believe in God; he believes God. He doesn’t ask for proof; he provides the proof. Abraham’s unspoken covenant with God is so majestic it forms a central plank in all three Abrahamic faiths.” – Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths
Abraham’s first steps begin a journey that eventually becomes a pilgrimage for those who follow after him. It is the reenactment of returning to a place. But it is a place that commemorates the one who willingly leaves for yet another place! In Arabic, the word for one who commits such an act – or reenactment – of surrender or submission is mʊslɪm, or muslim.
“March of Abraham,” painting by József Molnár, 19th century; in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.
In the Islamic tradition, all Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Such an act is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Abraham. Known as the Hajj, the word means “to intend a journey,” which represents both the outward act of a journey, and the inward act of intentions.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people converge, circling the Ka’aba seven times. Considered the holiest site in Islam, the Ka’aba is believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael, some 2,600 hundred years before. But even the counter-clockwise direction of the procession suggests the uniqueness of this particular, contrary quest and ritual observance.
Next, the pilgrim scurries back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah; as a reenactment of the story of Abraham’s wife, Hagar, running in search of water and provisions; all the while, worried about her son who she left behind.
Next, the observant drinks from the Zamzam Well, that miraculously sprung up from the place an angel’s wing struck the ground; before heading for the desert for a time of fasting and testing.
Muslim pilgrims circle the Ka’aba in Mecca
Personally – being a self-professed progressive of another faith tradition — I don’t believe in any of it. That is, of course, except for the willingness of those other children of the legendary Abraham to trek together, to journey en masse; and to experience something in the walking, the running, the bonds of affection, the trials and the quenching of one’s thirst. Even in the pilgrim’s homecoming to a place of fixity like a black, brick cube, there is dynamic movement that elicits the longing for yet another place to call home. And, in that longing, there is common ground with shared roots.
Even in the pilgrim’s homecoming to a place of fixity …, there is dynamic movement that elicits the longing for yet another place to call home. And, in that longing, there is common ground with shared roots.
In a world so filled with “forced migration” and walls of division, this is instead a response of faith, not belief. It is an act of trust. Put another way, it is an act of submission that draws one into another kind of journey. In this sense, all children of Abraham are muslim.
With such an undertaking, however, it is helpful to remember Abraham’s journey is an interior one; and his story is – for our purposes — an a-historical one. As was said in the first commentary in this Series, all those legends about Abraham that spanned centuries make it apparent we are talking about a character of mythic – and not necessarily historical — dimensions. If one needs yet one more example, consider this:
In the legendary tale — for his willingness to wander — Abraham is delivered into Canaan. The Quran calls his destination the land “blessed for all mankind.” Would that it were so. But geographic terms, ancient Canaan was part of what is now present-day Syria. It is now a place of civil strife, death and destruction, and refugees that are all but swallowed up in a wave of “forced migration.”
In its place, the task at hand appears to be self-evident; to seek ways to recognize our different experiences, reconcile our false divisions, and seek bridges where we might continue to journey and cross over together.
If not now, why not? If not now, when?
© 2016 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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