It has been over a year since I blogged regularly here, and I have given some thought to a return. In just a few days I will be starting a Master’s degree at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. This may be a Master’s of Theological Studies (a chiefly academic degree) or it may be a Master’s of Divinity (which would incorporate a pastoral/ministerial component); clearly, the tension between the active life and the contemplative life has not slackened in me. One thing I do know is that it will be a busy year, so we’ll see what happens with this thing.
I moved into Boston yesterday, which also happened to be the final day of Ramadan. Not much connects these two occasions, really, but given that my academic interests and most personal commitments all involve the vast question of the meaning of faith in the modern world, and given that dialogue among religions is a crucial dimension of our contemporary spiritual reality, I thought that I would indicate — “off the cuff,” as it were — some of the things that most inspire me about Islam. I should state, as a disclaimer, that I know next to nothing about Islam; I have never studied its history, nor even read the Qur’an. I have only known a few Muslims in fairly ordinary circumstances and visited a mosque or two here and there. I would love to learn more. As unprofessional as these thoughts may be, I do think we have a great deal to learn from the tradition of Islam, even if we ourselves are not Muslim.
1) I have found the prayer of Muslims to be profoundly spiritual. I have long agreed with the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar that we are in need, today, of a “theology on our knees,” that in our Christian worship we often get a little too comfortable or casual. Many Catholic communities are hesitant to kneel even during the consecration of the Eucharist, the most sacred moment in the liturgy. There may be good reasons for this, but there are good reasons to kneel, too, if we can get over our fear of appearing “subjugated.” Inner recognition of our smallness and external gestures of total abandonment before God are crucial to the mystical life and fully in keeping with the sacramental imagination of the Church, which privileges not just music and text and incense, but posture, too, as outward elements of liturgical action: folded hands and bended knees mediate profound inner realities in the Catholic language of prayer. When a person is ordained a priest or deacon, he even stretches himself flat on his stomach as a sign of his self-donation to the Lord; I wish this supremely self-effacing gesture were more common in ordinary liturgies!
Indeed, there is something quite similar in the posture of a Muslim at prayer: kneeling, bowing low, touching the forehead to the ground. At times I have used this posture in my personal prayer, often while uttering the Ignatian prayer of detachment. Repetition of key phrases (“Allah is great”; “There is no god except Allah”) also figures prominently in Islamic devotions; Islam is one of many religions to cherish something like mantras, and it’s taught me a lot. These insights — posture, repetition — have contributed to some profound prayer experiences, and they owe a great deal to my brief encounters with the genius of Islam.
2) Muslim prayer services can also be profoundly communal. I suppose this begins with the call to prayer, shouted from the top of a minaret by a muezzin. You all know the sound: plaintive, intricate, it penetrates the soul. For me, its emotional resonance is quite different from that of church bells rung out to announce the angelus, the Mass, or simply the time of day (a practice which, sadly, gets rarer and rarer nowadays), but the idea is the same: the call to prayer is an exhortation to all humankind, and it is also its gift. I know that not everyone will see things this way; granted, I am pre-disposed to be friendly to (non-coercive) public displays of faith. Whenever someone gets up in arms about a downtown creche at Christmas time, I am always confused about what it is people find imposing or offensive. I’ve traveled just a bit in Israel and Tunisia, and being woken up early by the muezzin, or hearing his faithful call in the fading evening, has always been one of the great, unexpected (for a Westerner), haunting spiritual experiences. Signs of religious presence in communities, even when they are faiths we do not share, are elements of a vibrant culture.
Anyway, I digress. I believe that Friday prayer services vary, but when I have visited mosques in Los Angeles and San Antonio, usually as a guest of the imam, I have seen how tightly everyone squeezes together — shoulders are supposed to touch, without leaving any space, as all bow down together. I have found the experience of this communal solidarity, this expression of “oneness,” to be as humbling as it is consoling. To lift my head just slightly and look out at the vast assemblage, of whom I am a part, mingling with them anonymously just as my shoes coexist with everyone else’s abandoned shoes at the door, without name tags or property claims, is powerful indeed. Finally, while it would be silly to generalize about global Islam just after visiting one or two mosques, I can attest that the spirit of community and warmth I found after the one or two services I attended was vibrant and inspiring, indeed.
3) Nowadays especially, Muslims are forced to call upon deep reserves of courage. Their religion asks that they remain faithful to frequent and often public prayer, gestures more prone to ridicule and scorn than those of most Catholics, who often — and I include myself in this number — are comfortable signing themselves with the Cross before a meal when in the privacy of their own homes but find it either too scary or too impolite to do so in public. I was reading an article the other day on the Muslim “overtaking” of France; apparently, there are so many Muslims in France nowadays that there are not enough mosques to accommodate them, and they are forced to choose between congregating in the streets outside their mosques, or going home. Naturally one can argue each side of the debate reasonably and respectfully, but French politicians are not exactly known for their reasonableness or respect when it comes to matters of religion. The article reports that the leader of the French far right, Marine Le Pen – not a marginal figure – has compared this phenomenon to the German occupation of Vichy France. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, some Muslim leaders have accepted the challenge and racheted up the militaristic language of invasion, themselves.
For all this, it must take a great deal of courage for an individual Muslim to “go public” with her faith. This is especially difficult given that certain styles of dress are encouraged for the Muslim faithful. I have studied the situation in France, particularly, at some length. This is a country that sternly forbids the wearing of “external religious signs” which it deems “ostentatious” in public. Invoking concepts of fraternity, equality, and national pride – to say nothing of laicite (secularism) – apologists for this law will additionally proclaim that they are rescuing young women from the coercion of their backwards-thinking fathers who would force them to wear the veil. In fact, most long-standing immigrant communities in France are so used to being bullied and discriminated against – often institutionally, as in the case of some egregious ethnic “quotas” in employment and residential applications which use reverse affirmative action to keep the numbers of North Africans down – that it is precisely middle-aged men who forbid their daughters from attracting attention to themselves. Furthermore, young Muslim women seem to conform to growing global trends of religious traditionalism, expressing a desire to wear the veil and frustration that their boyfriends pressure them not to display any outward religious appurtenance, lest they appear too “virginal.” This is just one example of the stigmatization that European Muslims can face; the United States, of course, has its own issues, most recently and most bizarrely in the form of frequent questions posed to Republican presidential hopefuls about whether they would institute a “patriotism test” for Muslim applicants to federal judicial seats, so fearful are people of a global Muslim conspiracy to institute Sharia law in the US.
I’m all the more impressed when people have the faith to convert to Islam despite the vast cultural gulf that often yawns between their cultural backgrounds and the culture of much of the Arab world. Not that it is easy to convert from any ideology or religion to any other. Complications, doubts, and resistance always arise. For me to come to a deep sense that theism was false, for instance, and to rearrange my life accordingly, would be incredibly difficult, a matter not simply of overcoming pride but of facing the disappointment of many and the exultant “I told you so” of others. For a scientist to convert to Christianity before some of her positivist colleagues could mean the end of her career. But to convert to Islam, and perhaps to a handful of other religions (like Sikhism), must surely be the most difficult of decisions in the United States, particularly at this point in American history. I met a solidly working-class couple in Los Angeles, Hispanic and raised Catholic, who had made the decision to convert to Islam before marrying, weathering the bewilderment and scorn of much of their family. While I didn’t get to talk with them at length about their reasons, they seemed genuinely to have followed their consciences in seeking a faith that proclaimed the greatness of the One God. The detail that most struck me was that these two had, as is required by Islam, begun learning Arabic, so as to be able to study their Scriptures. Their dedication to this extraordinary task was quite moving to me. Again, call me a conservative, but I like the idea of a “sacred language” (like Arabic or Biblical Hebrew), and, more broadly, I am moved by a faith which leads people to embrace a tradition that flows deeper than the present moment, with all its fads and easy reference points.
4) This reverence for sacred history might, in fact, constitute a fourth lesson we can learn from Muslims. English-speaking Catholic dioceses are currently revamping the fifty-year-old translation of the Mass so that its prayers are in closer alignment to the original Latin texts; by and large, reaction to the proposed changes has (understandably) been nothing less than panic-stricken. Some Catholic bishops, particularly in England, are trying to get their dioceses to return to the penitential practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays. They, too, have been met with general indifference and occasional indignation. External markers of faith are not the most important elements of a spiritual life, nor are they without their own dangers, but when I met the Muslim-Hispanic couple in L.A., I found myself wishing more Catholics were inspired to learn the words to basic and beautiful Latin hymns, like the Salve Regina and O salutaris hostia, and when I see my Muslim friends’ commitments to the intensive Ramadan fast, it puts my annual Lenten abstinence from chocolate to shame!
I am probably treading on dangerous ground, here; as with every religion, there are parts of Islam’s “sacred history” that are not to be admired, and I know that there are Muslim scholars and practitioners who base their religion’s survival on the development of an authentic progressivism. I hope that this development will come, and not at the expense of a true connection to the past; anecdotally, I can say that the Hispanic couple I have been talking about was preparing for marriage at the Islamic Center of Southern California, one of the most progressive major mosques in the world, whose founders met with me and some other Catholic visitors and were quite emphatic in their proclamation of the necessity of promoting women’s rights and inter-religious dialogue.
Which leads me to…
5) The Muslims that I have met have been people not only of great prayer, but of great peace. I am not naive, and neither are these peaceable Muslims; obviously, there are great problems with militaristic Islam throughout the world. But I think it needs to be stated, in the wake of controversy over the “Ground Zero mosque” and in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, that however dominant a false interpretation of religion may become, it remains a false interpretation, and should not be held against those who practice peace in the name of their God. Beyond my own, personal experience of friends whose steadfast Muslim faith coexists with a warmth and kindness that is truly saintly, other encouraging signs are always emerging. Take the example of certain recent developments in Jordan, which was in my religious newsfeed twice this week. Under great-hearted ecumenists like Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed and Prince Hassan bin Talal, Jordan has, in the spirit of dialogue, allowed a new Catholic university to open and named a mosque after Jesus Christ. (Muslims have always revered Jesus as a prophet and his mother, Mary, as a saint, which is itself an interesting point in Christian-Muslim relations.)
Islam is a “way” to God through profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage. Their language of devotion is formidable; their history of artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific culture is awe-inspiring. I think that Catholics such as myself can learn a lot from their practice of the faith, and perhaps we, too, have things to offer them in return. At this end of Ramadan, I offer any Muslim readers an “Ein mubarak,” and wishes of peace.