Tuesday, January 14, was the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The celebration of his birth, moves around in our calendar, as does Ramadan, because the Muslim world uses a lunar calendar.
There are approximately 2.1 billion Christians in the world and about 1.6 billion Muslims. The non-religious (atheists, agnostics – that would be many of us) come in third at about 1.1 billion. Of the major world religions, Islam is the youngest, dating to the 600s and the life of Muhammad. It is currently the fastest growing faith in the world, but just somewhere between 1 and 2% of U.S. Citizens are Muslim, the lowest percentage of any of the developed nations. Like all religions, Islam has had its times of glory and times of struggle; like all religions it has been used well by its adherents and not so well.
It began, with Muhammad, as a faith dedicated to the poor and to social justice, to reforming the rather materialistic culture of Mecca, Muhammad’s home city. Islam has always been a faith of this world. There is a mystical tradition – Sufism – but Islam has seen its role as transforming society more than transforming the individual; creating a just society has been its goal. Because of this, there is not the tradition of the separation of church and state we have in the U.S. It is important to note that much of western Europe also does not see such a bright line of separation of church and state as we do.
One of the ironies of history is that faiths that begin in peace and justice, sometimes end up in inequality and violence, focused on belief and orthodoxy rather than on concern for others. Fundamentalism, when used to judge and condemn others, is a violation of the origins of most religions. Muhammad had good relations with the Jews and Christians of his area; Jesus preached a gospel of inclusion not exclusion. Both faiths do not always live up to their origins. But, then, neither do we.
Islamophobia is a real problem. Muslims are subjects of suspicion and bias. And ignorance about Islam is deep. I want to think about this on the coming Sunday, about how we fall into stereotypes and how easily bias can enter of words and deeds. This is a part of our attempt to be open and welcoming to those who visit us. This is connected with the program we are beginning in February, Beloved Conversations, about being open, about countering oppression, about facing bias, about welcoming the other into our beloved community. (Consider being a part of Beloved Conversations – contact Peter Farriday or Corinne Grant).
We all have our biases. Some are harmless but others can wound, and they are those parts of ourselves we can repair and move forward. Our biases are a kind of a spiritual prison; they lock us in from a larger life. We can be free of them, and that is what I hope to think about with you this Sunday.
Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson