by Jamal Rahman
This article was originally published in A Matter of Spirit, No. 75 Summer 2007.
From childhood I have delighted in reflecting on Quranic verses, including one that particularly spoke to me in the years that our family traveled from place to place on my father’s diplomatic assignments. “Allah has spread out the earth as a carpet for you,” says the Quran, “so you may walk therein on spacious paths” (55:26).
Growing up in countries of the Middle East, Europe and North Africa, I soon realized that in fact we do not walk on spacious paths. I was acutely aware of the anguish, anger and violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the sectarian hostilities between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and the fierce hostility between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.
From my parents I heard tragic stories of communal killings in India between Hindus and Muslims during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. In that massacre, over a million people died. In my lifetime, Pakistan broke up into two nationstates of Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971. Muslims killed Muslims along ethnic lines. Again, over a million people died.
The world, I realized, is fragmented by narrow political boundaries within existing class divisions, ethnic and racial prejudices, religious conflicts and political rivalries. Too often, these differences erupt in violence and, at times, into horrific massacres. Today, as a new U.S. citizen, I am struck by the polarization between red and blue states, between progressives and neoconservatives in religion and politics. As I write, the barrage of news about violence in Iraq and Afghanistan is mind-boggling.
A Blinded Heart
The Quran says that when there is chronic fear, anger and hatred, “It is not that his eyes have become blind, but his heart has become blind.” (Qur’an 22:46) In an environment of fear and anger, the heart clenches and becomes blinded. A central spiritual truth embodied in every tradition says that only that which comes from the heart can touch and open another heart. The Buddha said, “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.”
The 15th century Indian mystic Kabir offers sage advice: “Do what is right but never leave the person’s being out of your heart.” Protect yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be abused. Do what is right. If you are angry, know that you are fighting the antagonism, not the antagonist. We are asked to discern between behavior and being. This discernment, Kabir insists, has the power to shift heaven and earth.
We are asked to do our inner work on an abiding basis: integrating the scattered fragments of our ego so that we can create inner spaciousness. From this wellspring of spaciousness will arise ways of thinking, being and doing that are integrated, whole and compassionate.
This inner work is essential. Listen to the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In conferences and retreats I attend, I marvel at the growing consciousness of political activists. I was especially moved by the story of an African American Activist. As a young child, 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?” She continued, “Son, there has to be a better way.” Her words splashed in the child’s soul. He has dedicated his life to finding a better way. He combines political action with the continuous sacred work of becoming a genuine, compassionate and inclusive human being.
Bee and Wasp
Throughout the course of human history, religion has been exploited to incite passions and justify violence. In the name of religion, humans perpetrate the most terrible brutalities on each other.
It is necessary to acknowledge that every religion has verses of awkwardness that, if read in isolation and out of context, can be exploited to rationalize demonization and domination of the other.
The basic truth is that notwithstanding awkward and difficult verses, all religions of the world have at their core the teachings of love, compassion, justice and interconnection with the other. They speak an inclusive and universal message. Here are three quotes from the Abrahamic faiths:
“It has been told thee, humankind, what is good, and what the Eternal asks of you: only to do justly, to love mercifully and to walk with integrity in the Presence of your Lord” (Micah 6:8).
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Mathew 19:19).
“Repel evil with something better so that he with whom you have enmity, becomes your bosom friend” (Quran 41:34).
Which verses of the holy books we select and how we interpret them depends on our intention. The 13th century sage Rumi says: “A bee and a wasp drink from the same flower. One produces nectar, the other, a sting.” The sad truth about defense of one’s religion is that we shall debate others over the truth of our Tradition, fight for it, even kill for it. We shall do everything but live our Faith.
In the work of creating harmony and understanding among religions, there are two helpful models: the model of dialogue and the model of Gandhian insights. Both models have three parts to them.
In the first model there is dialogue of the head and dialogue of the heart. In the former we seek commonalities among religions while not glossing over differences. The differences we view not as errors but as points of distinction. In dialogue of the heart we experience the practices and worship services of other traditions and allow them to deepen and enrich our own spiritual practices. The dialogue of the head and heart organically lead to dialogue of the hands: joining together, regardless of theological differences, we work on joint projects to help the poor and protect the environment.
In Gandhi’s model there are three imperatives. First, it is the sacred duty of every individual to have an appreciative understanding of other religions. Second, we must recognize that every religion has truths and untruths, especially our own! Third, if an extremist commits violence, let us not criticize that person’s religion. Rather, we should point out insights and verses of beauty from this person’s own tradition and help him or her become a better Muslim, Christian, Jew or Hindu.
Getting to Know One Another
It is most heartening to know that the urgency and desperation of our times have motivated people at the grass roots level to realize, as the saying goes, that we are the ones we have been waiting for. People are taking the lead and not waiting for governments, authorities or experts to lead them.
I recently returned from a trip to Israel accompanied by a rabbi and a Christian pastor. There we were heartened to see, in the midst of gloom and despair, a large number of peace projects between Israelis and Palestinians who have boldly taken the lead in the face of daunting difficulties. We believe that it is these simple projects of peace, rather than international policies, that will really make a difference. Little by little, these acorns of peace will take root and flourish into oak trees of justice and mutual well-being.
In my own ministry, I work closely with Rabbi Ted Falcon and Pastor Don Mackenzie. Through our friendship and collaborative work, which includes joint workshops and retreat, writing a book together, and a weekly interfaith talk radio show, my life has become enriched and ennobled. As I open myself to learning from the wisdom and beauty of Judaism and Christianity, I find that my Islamic roots are growing deeper and I gain a deeper insight into the verses of the Quran. My interfaith work is making me a better Muslim. I can truly say that interfaith dialogue is not about conversion, it is about completion of our understanding of the broader picture.
In the Quran, God says He could have made all of us into one single community but chose instead to make us into nations and tribes with different languages, colors, prophets and Books so that we “might get to know one another.” When we sincerely strive to get to know one another on a heart level without any agenda on our part, we are fulfilling God’s sacred purpose for creating diversity on earth.
A wise elder once said that peacemaking is the art of perceiving that things that appear to be apart are one. It is the art of restoring love and compassion to a relationship that has been torn apart because of fear and hatred.
Public peacemaking is what we do. Private peacemaking is the work we do on ourselves. The two are inseparable.
Published with the author’s permission.
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