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WAITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

Waiting as a spiritual practice is found in almost every religious tradition I can think of. 

For Muslims, the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, marks a month of fasting, giving alms, abstinence from all things of the flesh,and active prayer. This is in an attempt to cleanse the soul, but also it is thought that using these methods of emptying out the cares and desires of the physical world, one is preparing and waiting for the revelations of God to be experienced.  This is what happened to Muhammad.  In fact, the holiest night of the Muslim year is Laylat al-Qadr, it falls just before the close of Ramadan, and commemorates the night when the Qu’ran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. 

In Jewish tradition, waiting and the practice of patience in the face of daunting circumstances, has been a recurring theme since the Book of Exodus and those ensuing dark days in the desert.  The Jewish people wait for the angel of death to pass over their households during Passover and recreate the stories of bitter times and the promise of sweeter days in the Seder.  Again, fasting, prayer, and self-denial carve pathways to this opening up of the soul.

The Christians now find themselves in the heart of Lent.  Christians too share these same tools of purification.  Yet they wait for something unique to the other monotheistic religions.  They wait for the day of Resurrection, the Day that Jesus rose from the dead.

And, yet, even if one does not believe in the actual physical revival of the Christ from the dead, the stories that rise up from the New Testament can resonate with each of us, teaching us the power of waiting in faith.

These are stories that speak of yearning and suffering.  Yearning for a better life, a purpose, a meaning, and the reality of pain.  The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are stories of hope and fear, loyalty and betrayal, acceptance and denial, life and death.  Jesus tasted both the success of his mountain ministry (see Matthew’s feeding of the 5000) and yet was still determined to go to Jerusalem, with death threats and a certain persecution.

His followers were waiting for a triumphant crowning of a king as the culmination of a glorious ministry.  Instead, they were confused and angry by a leader ridiculed and crucified.  Jesus tried to point out that this path he was on, was not one easily understood by the ways of the world, that his lessons were those of the spirit and not of earthly successes and kingdoms.  Certainly choosing to undergo great suffering is not a natural inclination. 

Our own stories of waiting for a better day, whether for a job that has not yet materialized, a healing from an illness (our own or a loved ones, or even a death), can find much solidarity with the Bible stories of Lent.  They are filled with expectation on one day, as Jesus heals a leper and brings the dead to life, and then disillusionment, despair, and death on the next.

 One of the definitions of resurrection that I can hold up to a broader, secular audience is the Greek notion of resurrection as the “state of one who has returned to life.”

We all have seen the grief-stricken and the broken find a way back to a full and happy life after the most unmitigable tragedies, this is the promise of resurrection that casts it net wide and yet does not strain the boundaries of the intellect.  It is the faith of waiting. 

Quote for the day: “Even if one glimpses God, there are still cuts and splinters and burns along the way.”

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WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUNNI AND SHI’A?

Differences between the two main branches of the Muslim faith go back to the very beginnings of Islam.  The origins of Sunni and Shi’a  began as a political dispute over who the rightful successor should be to follow the Prophet Muhammad as the head of the Muslim state and community he founded.  Muhammad’s senior followers were called the Caliphate.  There are various definitions of what a Caliph is, but essentially it means a deputy or successor, and sometimes is synonomous with “commander”.  For instance, during medieval times, the Caliph was the supreme sovereign of the Islamic empire.  This pervasive kind of  power has waned significantly in most modern Muslim states.

The first Caliph after Muhammad was Abu Bakr, his closest friend and one of the very first converts to Islam.  While  Bakr was known as Abu Bakr “al-Siddiq”, meaning the “upright and truthful”, and many writings indicate this to be accurate, he was not a blood  relative of the Prophet.  For the Sunnis, (whose name comes from the word  sunna meaning the well worn path, the practices of the Prophet) his lineage was irrelevant.  They believed that the leaders of the community were to choose a successor, on the basis of worthiness. However, the Shi’a thought this method of choosing illegitimate, that the Sunnis were usurping power by making this decision.  The Shi’a believed that succession belonged by right to the Prophet’s family.  Muhammad had no son, but a daughter Fatima, who married his cousin Ali.  Shi’a literally means “Party of Ali”.

This tension led to a series of armed insurrections in the years following the Prophet’s death.  There was coups overthrowing those in power.  Of the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, three were murdered, and their reigns ended in civil war.  Ali’s sons, Hasan and Husayn were both martyred.  Then there followed a series of claimants to the caliphate, known as Imams (this word is more broadly defined today to include religious teachers) who all  claimed to be descendents of Ali and Fatima.

As an aside, by all accounts, Abu Bakr was a thoughtful and strong leader. It was Abu Bakr who ordered the scattered portions of the Quran to be collected shortly after Muhammad’s death, thereby allowing for an authorized version to be completed within 25 years of the Prophet’s death.  (The immediate occasion of this command was the death in battle of a large number of men who knew much or all of it by heart and the concern that parts of it could be lost forever).  Many of the surahs (chapters) of the Quran are said to have been written down on palm leaves, white stones, the breastbones of humans, animal leather, bits of papyrus (essentially any material until paper was known around the 8th century), but much of the Quran was communicated through oral transmission.  

In addition, Abu Bakr’s daughter Aisha was and is (aside from Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife) the most beloved by Muslims, a gifted leader of the faith in her own right and an example of virtuous living. These early founders continue to be beacons for both Sunni and Shi’a as they practice Islam in their own ways.

The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni.  The majority of the world’s Muslims, including the Shi’a, practice a moderate and life affirming faith.  Tomorrow I will look at the different sects within these two “denominations” and provide an overview of some of the extremist offshoots as well.

Book of the Day, Muhammad, A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong, “Those who kept the faith were not simply “believers”.  Their faith must be expressed in practical actions: they must pray, share their wealth, and in matters that concerned the community, “consult among themselves” to preserve the unity of the ummah.  If attacked, they could defend themselves, but instead of lashing out in an uncontrolled way, they must always be prepared to forgive an injury…”Hence, whoever pardons his foe and makes peace, his reward rests with God”, the Quran insists tirelessly.”

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Putting the Joy Back in Jihad

What’s so joyful about a jihad? It’s one of those experiences that afterwards we call a blessing in disguise.

The concept of jihad or holy war is embedded in the Quran, but it has, from its earliest beginnings, been fraught with multiple meanings.  Muslims often speak of jihad as both a struggle to submit to God’s will (considered the greatest of  jihads) and a battle against unbelievers (the lesser of the jihads).  Our focus today will be on the greater, the individual’s journey toward purity of the soul.

However, it is important to note that the jihad that points to a battle against unbelievers has more to do with Muslims being commanded to do something that they believe to be contrary to the law of God (which includes the sin of polytheism), or to those that dishonor or defeat the community of the faithful, at which point jihad becomes a duty.

It has never been historically true that Muslims are somehow obligated to wage war against those who do not surrender to Allah.  In fact, during what many call the Golden Age of Islam (from about the 9th to 12th centuries), “Muslims were ruling peacefully over large populations of non-Muslims without expending the slightest bit of effort to convert them or to challenge their beliefs.” (From Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell). 

In addition, there is no Islamic jurist (classical or modern) that offers approval or legitimacy to what we now call terrorism.  The armed struggles of jihads of the past were elaborately regulated by Shari’a law (which simply means holy law, covering everything from fasting and pilgrimage to constitutional and criminal law). For instance, no women, children, or the aged are allowed to be killed (in principle).  You have to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities.  These jihads are considered wars in the traditional sense or political reforms or changes in economic policies, but do not in any way resemble the terrorist acts of the last several decades.  

“The greater jihad is something all devout individuals must wage… against their own desires. The mystics of Islam often spoke of jihad as a “dark night of the soul”, where the striver is faced with his/her demons and must confront them in order to stay on the path toward God.” (Karabell, pg. 126). It is a sense of purging and purifying oneself.  It may involve works such as fasting or penance, but primarily it is cleansing the heart from obstructive thoughts, such as envy, greed, revenge, and selfishness, that move us further away from our truest nature.

Christians recognize this metaphor from the work, Dark Night of the Soul (Our Book of the Day) by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish poet, mystic, and Carmelite priest.  It is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation.  There has been much scholarly discussion as to whether the Christian was influenced by the Sufi or vice versa, but there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

Interestingly, the inner turmoil of the soul is referenced by most spiritual traditions throughout the world as a necessary step toward a union with God or for a sense of wholeness.  

The Buddhists have a parallel in their practices called “the Knowledges of Suffering.”  In fact, the Buddhist writer Daniel Ingram speculates that the Dark Night is a common mystical state which is independent of any specific belief system.  He uses the term “maps” for the sequence of mental states:

“The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals.  These maps are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. ”

Jihad is a spiritually powerful word that describes a part of the necessary and well worn path toward a union with the divine; it is the process by which personal roadblocks that threaten our spiritual growth are removed.  By continually and willingly entering into jihad, the gifts of the spirit are manifold, including joy, peace, faith, and clarity.  The soul awakens.

 ” The reason for this has been clearly expounded; for ordinarily the soul never strays save through its desires or its tastes or its reflections or its understanding or its affections; for as a rule it has too much or too little of these, or they vary or go astray, and hence the soul becomes inclined to that which behooves it not.  Wherefore, when all these operations and motions are hindered, it is clear that the soul is secure against being led astray by them; for it is free.  For when the affections and operations of the soul are quenched, nothing can make war upon it.”  (Quote from the Book of the Day)

Tomorrow’s post: Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

 

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