Text: "Come, let us go down there and confuse their speech, so they will not understand what they say to one another." Genesis 11:7
A story is told of a man on a solo flight in a hot air balloon. While undergoing a time of turbulence during the flight the balloonist hits his head and is knocked unconscious. When he comes too he finds that his balloon has landed without incident in a large field. To the north there are snow-capped mountains. To the south there is a large evergreen forest.
He gets out of the gondola and meets a man hiking through the fields. He shouts to him, "O friend, I am lost....I am lost...Where am I?" The hiker looks at him for a moment and then responds with, "You are in a large field with snow-capped mountains to the north and a large evergreen forest to the south."
The man who had been in the balloon looks at the hiker and says to him, "You must be an economist."
"You're right", says the hiker, "How did you know?"
"Because", the balloonist replies, "the information you have given me is absolutely correct - but practically speaking, it is totally useless!"
Given the events of this past week, I hope you will understand the great caution with which I approach our topic for today.
The tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and the thousands of innocent people now dead have been what have demanded that we talk, not of the announced topic for the day, but to address all that has happened. In order to do this one must have a basic understanding of the Muslim faith.
This sermon will not be an academic journey of any length. My hope that it will be kind of a "primer" for us. A way of understanding the basic tenets of this faith system and of the two main strains of it that have emerged over the centuries - Sunnite and Shiite Islam.
Sunnite Islam tends to be what one might call "mainline". By far, the greater preponderance of Muslims the world over consider themselves Sunnites. They believe that Muhammed was the founder of their faith. They also are comfortable with the fact that Islam is but one of three main religions that emerged out of the middle east - Judaism and Christianity being the other two.
Shiite Islam traces its chronology back to the OTHER son of Hagar. Benjamin was her son. The story behind the Shiite belief in Benjamin being a pivotal figure in their religion assists us in understanding how that stream of Islam has always considered itself set apart from mainline thinking. Shiites tend to be the true fundamentalists of their faith. Good comparisons would be the Hasidim in the Jewish faith or the fundamentalist Christians.
"Jihad" is a word that energizes an immediate response in the minds of westerners. It means, quite literally, "Holy War". This word also has an especially important SECOND meaning. It alludes, not only to a campaign AGAINST those who do not embrace the Islamic faith; it also means a campaign for or against an idea. More specifically, "Jihad" alludes to a means of struggle against evil. The Shiites believe Sunnite Islam to be a mistaken idea and therefore evil.
You may be surprised to learn that Islam is the fastest-growing faith in the United States today. It numbers well over a billion adherents. But it also may be the most misunderstood as well.
The founder of Islam was not a mythic figure. He was born in 670 A.D. and was orphaned six years later. He took the name of his uncle who brought him up: "Muhammed Ibn Abu Talib". This was the clan who were entrusted with the care of the "Black Stone" also known as "The Well at Zamzen". Its waters were believed to be sacred to the pilgrims who cme to the holy center of that particular Hashimite Shrine.
The story in the Old Testament (accepted, as we know, by Jews and Christians) tells of a woman named Hagar, whom Abraham took as his second wife. She was expelled from Abraham's tent because her sons, fathered by Abraham, had mocked Abraham's FIRST wife, Sarah. Sarah had the clout so Hagar must go.
Hagar's name meant, literally, "flight". The story relates that after her expulsion from the protection of Abraham she wandered in the wilderness with her son, Benjamin without water. In desperation she finally left him leave her to go and look for water to save them. The Old Testament relates that at that point the Angel Gabriel appeared. He said he was there to assist her.
The Islamic version of the same story, in which the Angel Gabriel appeared to Hagar, goes on to say that in her nervousness at seeing this angel Hagar kicked at the sand upon which her young child lay and a natural spring of fresh water appeared right there in the middle of the desert.
Another parallel belief held by those of the Islamic faith is that Adam and Eve were the common parents of all humanity.
Hear this, as well. Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed in Islamic scripture as one of the prophets of Islam and is confirmed as having been born of a virgin named Mary.
The points of confluence are legion.
To return, then, to our theme. The founder, Muhammed, grew to be an adult and became more and more troubled by the divisions among the warring tribes of his culture. Women were treated as slaves. Vengeance was the goal for the least of human wrongs. Gaming, drinking and loose living were commonplace. Girl babies were buried in the sand by their fathers in anger at not having been given sons.
And so Muhammed, ward of Abu Talid, became Muhammed, the Reformer.
Actually, unlike the three-year ministry of Jesus, Muhammed's efforts took many years. As he observed the follies of his people he became convinced that there would come a last judgement. He liked the idea of One God rather than the hundreds worshiped indiscriminately throughout the land. Self-evidently, in any land, in any time in history, when one advocated the worship of one god instead of many gods, it became outright heresy.
So this young man became marked. And in being so he realized that he had to flee from his city. And so, according to the story, he "flew" from the city of Mecca to the safety of a city named Medina. And it was there that his following began to grow.
In Medina, Mumammed began to unify the people and persuade them that it was sheer folly to continue believing in many gods. Slowly at first, then in greater numbers, he gained some followers. He consolidated the tribes and gave them a sense of pride. And so the new faith spread as far west as Spain and as far east as Mongolia. (As a matter of fact the largest number of Muslims in a country today are not in Arabia or Pakistan as one might imagine, but in Indonesia!)
Islam's five points of religious duty are very simple. The appealed to the masses. Here they are:
1. One must recite the creed, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is the Prophet of Allah."
2. One must pray five times a day, kneeling toward the east.
3. One must give alms to those in need.
4. One must fast during the sacred month of Ramadan.
5. At least once in one's life, one must make a pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca.
Two things were troubling to people as this new faith grew. These points bring us into the modern era.
One was that some doubted whether the holy scripture called The Koran was indeed Mohammed's sayings. The other was whether he was actually descended from Allah.
Remember back in 1979? A number of citizens from the United States were taken hostage in what had been up until that time the "friendly" country of Iran. But one clergyman changed all that. It was the Ayotollah Koumeini's contention that the United States was an "evil empire" in collusion with the Shah of Iran. With the Shah's forced departure came Koumeini's power. And this power resulted in a new way for Muslims to think of the United States.
That continues to be true today.
Obviously it is not all about religion. It is also about simple economics. Our unwillingness to become more balanced in our work to bring peace between Palestine and Israel - that is, the perception that we support only Israel and care not for some of the injustices perpetrated upon Palestine by Israel - is seen by Muslims as a continuing policy of colonialization that threatens all small nations.
And oil is behind it, too. Be not mistaken. The events of the past week are a direct result of the tension for who owns and who sells the world's prime energy source; about the means by which small nations can claim their safety and fair treatment with the "big guys" of the world - and almost secondarily, about ways in which "the one true faith of Islam" can continue to hold sway of its peoples.
Osama bin Laden is obsessed with but one thing. That is the purity of Islam. He uses terrorism as a political tool to convince his hearers that such use of power is the only way the "purify" Islam.
In one article this past week in the Globe it was stated in so many words that "...bin Laden's loathing for capitalism and the United States has been escalated by the impure U.S. forces occupying his former native land of Arabia." Impure infidel U.S. troops, mostly Christian. And impure WOMEN in those same armed forces. These are only some of the firebrands that have moved bin Laden to spend his constantly-increasing inherited fortune of 300 million dollars to be a hero and philanthropist to the very countries that protect and support him and his policies.
It's a "Holy War" - a "Jihad".
So, then, in the midst of this dilemma in which so many Muslims have mis-interpreted the teachings of Muhammed, what are we to say? A poem by W.H. Auden comes to mind.
Epithet On a Tyrant
Perfection, of a kind, was what
he was after
And the poetry he invented was
easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the
back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in
armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable
senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried, the children
died in the streets.
How well such a description fits a Hitler, a Stalin or, more recently a Nicolai Caeucescu in Romania or a Saddam Hussein in Iraq! The demagogue holds power by means of deception. With guile and half-truths, scapegoating and charisma, the tyrant promises all will be well once we have gotten rid of those who cause the current problems.
We Unitarian Universalists, bound by fealty to our Seven Principles of Faith, are perhaps more confused than any religious group in America today given the events of the past week. We base much of our faith upon the principle of "the supreme worth of every human personality" and yet, and yet....
Let us pray that whatever it is that gives us life will guide us in the dangerous days ahead, realizing that millions of our sisters and brothers - who ARE American citizens and who ARE valued members of society wherever they live, will continue to be safe in their homes and on the streets.
We have been told we are already in a war - and have been without knowing it for many years. If that becomes true then let us hope that our leaders will choose the wiser path of helping to lift the millions who see us as the rich evil empire out of oppression and poverty in the same way our country has done for so many decades before this time.
Look to the good our country has done and let it be a beacon for us to guide our footsteps into the ways of peace. . . and justice.
I wish we had more time for study and discussion but at least this is a beginning. If you as a congregation would wish it, I would be glad to teach a series on World Religions sometime after the holidays. So then, let us be vigilant and remain open to ways in which we can end the threat of terrorism with the cooperation of many nations the world over.