Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
Karen Armstrong’s book Islam was a national best seller in 2002. It is a slim volume
that presents a history and analysis of Islam, the religion that over a billion humans
practice and believe to one degree or other. During the months following the tragic
events of 2001, Americans were looking for answers, for understanding about how
one of the world’s major religions could foster such violence. As in every religion,
there are people who lose sight of the key teachings and use only the portion of the
religion that suits their purposes, and in the case of violence by Muslim extremists,
we must separate them from the majority of followers of Islam. For in principle,
Islam is a gracious religion, one that is based on submission to Allah, one that
condemns violence. For someone seeking a disciplined spiritual path, Islam offers a
guide to living every aspect of one’s life. This morning I hope to make some
comparisons between Islam and our liberal faith. For we share some values within
our radically different religious paths.
When we try to find common ground with our Muslim brothers and sisters, we need
look no further than our own history. We might go so far as to say that without
help from a Muslim leader, the Unitarian religion might not have developed. For it
was Suleiman the Magnificent, leader of the Ottoman Turks, who protected the
Queen of Transylvania, Isabella and her young son, King John Sigusmund. Queen
Isabella issued the first statement of religious tolerance. In 1568, King John issued
the famous “Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience.” This attitude of
religious tolerance was more akin to the Islamic tolerance which surrounded them at
the time, while religious persecution was rampant in Western Europe.
The Quran states: “There is to be no compulsion in religion.” (2:257) Thus in the
court of the caliphs the Jews and Christians found not just welcome, but positions of
power and influence, and when the Christians expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492
many fled to Muslim lands. This belief that “there is to be no compulsion in religion”
is an important shared value that we lose sight of when we think of Islam in today’s
Karen Armstrong tells us about the tribal nature of the society in the seventh
century, when Mohammed wrote the Qu’ran. Consider life in the desert and the
importance of living together and caring for one another. The agricultural society
depended upon the fruits of the labors of small farmers, and the maintenance of the
trade routes from west to east and back. Ummah or Community was important and
being accepted into a community was essential to survival.
Muhammad wrote in the face of persecution. The Quran threatened the way of life
of the people living at the time. It asked for an end to war between brothers. In
the first three years of his ministry Muhammad converted a total of only thirty
persons to Islam, most of them family or friends. The leaders of Mecca condemned
and persecuted Mohammed and his followers for threatening the power structure
itself. An important piece of the history of Islam is that Muhammad left Mecca and
moved north of Medina because he lost the sponsorship of the local Meccan ruling
He preached radical egalitarianism and democracy, with every person being equal in
the eyes of Allah, no matter how much they possessed. This teaching resonates
with our first principle, that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of
every person. Another interesting consideration is that unlike Christianity, Islam was
unmistakably monotheistic. And unlike Judaism it was not confined to one people.
Is there also something here that Unitarian Universalists can appreciate?
This week I spent some time reading the Quran. Reading it in English is not a
pleasant experience. In Arabic, however, Karen Armstrong tells us that Muhammad
“[created] a new literary form and a masterpiece of Arab prose and poetry.
Many of the first believers were converted by the sheer beauty of the Quran,
which resonated with their deepest aspirations, cutting through their
intellectual preconceptions in the manner of great art, and inspiring them, at a
level more profound than the cerebral, to alter their whole way of life.” (Islam,
This does not happen to those reading the English version. I was looking for
something that I could quote in this sermon. I didn’t find anything.
In fact, there is very little in our UU literature that reflects any common ground with
Islam. The Rev. Mark Morrison-Read writes:
“You’ll find no UUs for Muslim Awareness, or Muslim Fellowship or Covenant of
UU Muslims in our congregations. Go through our hymnal and you’ll find two
selections that we have adapted from Islam. You’ll not find it mentioned in our
Purposes and Principles along with “Jewish and Christian teachings.” You are
unlikely to ever hear the Quran quoted in a UU sermon or used as a reading.
You are much more likely to hear one of the Sufi Mystic, Rumi’s poems.
Admittedly, my evidence is anecdotal. However, it seems to me that while we
consider ourselves to be an open-minded and tolerant faith we have yet to
figure out how to connect with Islam.”
The Quran has no narrative line. It is doctrinal, praising God and declaring God’s
law. This makes it difficult for Unitarian Universalists to connect with Islam. Our
faith is a non-doctrinal faith and our practice is a matter of individual conscience.
Where Islamic teachings give the believer strict rules to live by; Unitarian
Universalism insists that we be free to make ethical choices. The Quran and the
necessity for Muslims to surrender to its authority is unimaginable for most of us.
The obligations of the five pillars of Islam would be difficult for us to accept even
though we share parts of the underlying value system.
The Five Pillars of Islam are the practices required of all Muslims, they are what
identify a person as being a Muslim. The first is Shahada, publicly stating that there
is one god, Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger. Muslims are Unitarian with a
small “u”. Our heritage is rich with the understanding of God as one. We are
unable to define what that “one” is, and in this difficulty we are in good company
with Islam. Setting aside the teachings of the Quran, which are presented as the
teachings of Allah, the Muslim faith allows no human characteristic to be applied to
Allah. No descriptions can be made to anthropomorphize Allah.
The second pillar is Salat or worship. This is the practice of praying towards Mecca
five times each day. Those living in a community with a Mosque would consider the
Mosque as a more fitting location for this religious practice. The prayers are
prescribed and involve words from the Quran, and various bowing and kneeling
postures. The final words involve turning both to one’s left and right and saying a
blessing of peace: “Peace be upon you all and the mercy and blessings of God.” The
“peace,” or taslim, is considered to be directed to one’s fellow Muslims and beyond
them to all who are in need of God’s guidance and blessing. This generous act of
praying for peace and for others concludes the salat.
Giving alms to the poor or Zakat is the third pillar. This is required by everyone who
can afford it. These contributions are to be distributed to those in need. They are
not offered as charity, but as one’s obligation, part of one’s religious practice.
Muhammad’s teaching provided an egalitarian approach to wealth, those who have
should provide for those who have not. Our second principle, that we affirm and
promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations reflects the teachings of
this Pillar of Islam. “Justice and compassion are central themes in the Quran, and
being a doctrinal faith it requires that those who can– give annually two and one
half percent of their assets.” MMR
The fourth pillar is fasting, which takes place during the month of Ramadan, the
Muslim’s holiest time of the year. The dates differ from year to year due to the use
of a different calendar. Sawm involved all but children, the sick and the aged. From
dawn to dusk, there is no eating or drinking. Early morning and late evenings a
small meal may be taken. This is a time for introspection and renewal of faith.
Hajj is the final Pillar, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is the hope of each Muslim
around the world. This journey may be made only once in a lifetime, or if you
happen to live closer, it can be taken more often. Many of us make a pilgrimage to
General Assembly. We go to the place where many are assembled as witness to our
history and our shared values and hopes. While our “Mecca” is a moveable feast,
our pilgrimages serve some of the same purposes. They give us a sense of
belonging to something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our religious
communities. We come back with an awareness that around the world there are
groups of people who share with us the principles and purposes of Unitarian
The Five Pillars of Islam require that one’s life is constructed around religious
practice. Life is very different when intentional religious practice is at the center of
one’s life rather than on the periphery. This would not be the choice for most of us.
However, many UUs do have a regular spiritual practice, including meditation and
prayer. They recommend this practice as an important tool for growth and peace of
mind. Our third principle promotes encouragement to spiritual growth in our
Would we benefit by finding ways to expand our living tradition to include an
increased awareness of one of the sources of our faith, “the direct experience of
that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a
renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
Karen Armstrong supports this possibility towards the end of her book.
“Many Western people are …becoming uncomfortable about the absence of
spirituality in their lives. They do not necessarily want to return to pre-modern
religious lifestyles or to conventionally institutional faith. But there is a
growing appreciation that, at its best, religion has helped human beings to
cultivate decent values. Islam kept the notions of social justice, equality,
tolerance and practical compassion in the forefront of the Muslim conscience
for centuries. Muslims did not always live up to these ideals and frequently
found difficulty in incarnating them in their social and political institutions. But
the struggle to achieve this was for centuries the mainspring of Islamic
spirituality.” (Islam, p. 186)
Today we acknowledge the fourth anniversary of events that shocked the world.
We remember the victims and their families and friends. Muslim extremists continue
to carry out violent acts against innocent people around the world. Each time I
hear of these acts my heart breaks for the vast majority of followers of Muhammad
who live in peace, whose faith exhorts them to live in peace.
It serves us well to avoid a distorted image of Islam, that is, to view it as inherently
the enemy of democracy and decent values. This would violate our free and
responsible search for truth and meaning. Developing an appreciation for the
common ground we share with Muslims will help us understand ourselves better and
more deeply, and bring world community that much closer.