It’s enlightening to ponder the setting in which Jesus speaks; it regularly can give us things to see that we may not see otherwise. For example, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says those most familiar words about love. What’s enlightening to me is that he is saying them to the Pharisees on Wednesday in Holy Week. He’s going to be crucified in two days. The Pharisees are plotting to kill him and Jesus is telling them that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that the bottom line for all the Faithful—then and now— is to put love first and everything else is to follow. It’s agape love and I like to define Agape love as unconditional positive regard. Often that can only happen by divine intervention. I’ve been thinking about this in context of all the issues of violence in the world that are connected with Islam. It’s prompted this homily.
In light of current events, I thought I’d provide some very brief information about Islam in general, the Catholic Church’s teachings about our relationship with Islam and then I’d like to comment about some responses to Islam in the wake of all that is happening today.
Here’s a very brief snapshot: As you probably know, Islam is a religion that was founded by the Prophet Mohammad around the 7th century. The word “Islam” means both “peace” and “surrender” in Arabic and the one who surrenders or “submits” is called a Muslim. Mohammed’s message was that all people must submit both to God, Allah, and to Allah’s righteous will. At the Day of Judgment those who have submitted and lived righteous lives will enjoy eternal bliss in Paradise, while those who resist will be consigned to a fiery Hell.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is an “Abrahamic” faith; in other words is it monotheistic and it traces its roots back to the Patriarch Abraham. Muslims argue that their heritage flows from Adam to Abraham and on through Ishmael, the son of Hagar the slave girl, rather than through his half-brother Isaac, through whom Jews and Christians trace their lineage. Islam also reveres Moses, the Old Testament Prophets, John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus and even the Virgin Mary. Muslims consider Mohammed to be the last and greatest of all the Prophets.
Islam teaches that Jesus was born of the Blessed Virgin, that he was crucified, died, was buried and rose again on the third day. However, they don’t consider him to be God Incarnate as we Christians affirm: Resurrection yes; Incarnation, no.
The sacred scripture of Islam is the Koran which must be read in Arabic if one is pick up the essential nuances of the faith.
There are five requirements or “Five Pillars of Faith” that every Muslim is to observe.
- There must be an affirmation and frequent recitation of the Shahadah or Creed, which is: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”
- There must be recitation of specific prayers 5 times a day directed toward Mecca. In a mosque there is a niche in a wall that indicates the direction.
- There must be generous giving of alms.
- The believers must fast during the daylight hours of the season of Ramadan.
- There must be a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime. If it is impossible to go, a faithful Muslim is then encouraged to provide gifts to help another to make this pilgrimage.
In addition to these 5 obligations, Muslims also practice circumcision, they abstain from alcoholic beverages and pork, and it is permitted for a man to have as many as 4 wives.
Islam has always had an aggressive policy about converting others. Some, for example the Taliban and Al-Qaida, proselytize with the threat of violence, although the vast majority of Muslims do not.
Islam is not monolithic. To say that one is Muslim, is akin to saying that one is Christian; there is a wide variety of Islamic parties that are as diverse as fundamentalist Baptists, liberal Episcopalians and highly scrupulous Catholics. And yet there is this common core set of beliefs.
At the second Vatican Council the Bishops wrote that: “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the [Muslims] who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God” (LG 16)
The council also tells us that the Church holds Muslims in high esteem because:
“They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; [Muslims] take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” (NA 3)
Several years later, Pope St. John Paul II added:
“I wish to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s respect for Islam, for authentic Islam: the Islam that prays, that is concerned for those in need. Recalling the errors of the past, including the most recent past, all believers ought to unite their efforts to ensure that God is never made the hostage of human ambitions. Hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of God and disfigure the true image of man.” (Address, Sept. 2001)
So how do we apply this to all that is happening today? As my old colleague Bp. Dan Martins pointed out, we need to begin with the issue of “Islamaphobia.”
Islamaphobia is splitting our country. It has created a polarity that pits those who look for a violent Muslim behind anybody who looks even vaguely Arab or South Asian, fearing that they might be jihadist terrorists who long to cut our throats and abscond with our children. This is countered by those whose only understanding of Islam is of a peace-loving “Abrahamic” faith, a faith that is conjoined with Christianity and Judaism.
For the first group, they need to ratchet down the fear mongering. It is prudent to be watchful, but it is easy to move over into the camp of the bigoted and over reactionary. This group thrives on those almost daily stories of young U.S. Muslims doing all they can to join up with Isis, Jihadists and other radical Islamists; however, it must be pointed out that there is overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of Muslims living here in the US have no sympathy whatsoever with acts of politically or religiously-motivated violence against anyone, anywhere.
That said, to the second group who tend to be dewy eyed progressives, I must say that it is naive and dishonest to deny that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL, depending on how you like to translate the Arabic) who locate their identity and mission squarely and solely in the teaching and practice of Islam. One can argue that they distort and misconstrue Islam, as many Muslims indeed do argue. But they are not generic terrorists, they are Islamic terrorists. In a society where freedom of thought and expression are valued, it must not be off limits to criticize not only violent acts, but also the avowed motivation of those who commit violent acts, in this case, Islam. It is a dilemma.
Both of these statements are true. Fear-mongering and ethnically-based prejudice are particularly reprehensible. And calling into question this or that aspect of Islam is not necessarily in and of itself either “hate speech” or bigotry. It’s a fine line. We need to pray for the gifts of wisdom and prudence.
Returning to Jesus and the Pharisees in Wednesday of Holy Week and the looming crucifixion, I would remind you that Jesus is crystal clear about one thing: that love of God and love, unconditional positive regard of neighbor, including our Muslim neighbors, is our Lord’s single greatest admonition to us and we jolly well better take it to heart. And pray for help when our suspicions and prejudice seem to be winning the day.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:34-40