Saturday, July 1, 2017

Consciousness and the Quran

Surat An Nur (24)
Ayah 39-40
Those who do not believe
Their deeds are like a mirage in a desert
The traveler in the desert who is thirsty will think it’s water
Until he comes to the mirage and realizes that it was nothing
And then he finds God
And sees his own destiny in the same instant.

Or, the person who denies the truth is as if in the darkness of a dark ocean,
Covered by high, dark waves,
Which are covered by clouds, depths of darkness, layer upon layer
and if he stretches his hand he can hardly see it.
And if he doesn’t find God’s light he will never have light.

When I was eleven years old, in the fifth grade, I had an experience that I remember as vividly today as when it happened.  I was standing in front of my class at school, reading a book out loud, and I fainted.  I left my body and hovered above my teacher and the other students as they scrambled to get water and revive me.  I had other out of body experiences as well.  I used to have flying dreams.  Except they didn’t feel like dreams, they felt real.  It was exhilarating.  I would fly out the window of my bedroom, sometimes over the Blue Ridge mountains toward my Grandma’s house, sometimes to places I didn’t know.  I could swoop and dive and change directions, but I could never get anywhere.  I never landed, I just flew.  I wanted to land, but I didn’t have that much control.  I stopped having those dreams many years ago, until I went to Medina.  I’ve shared this story with some of you before.  The day we arrived in Medina, at our hotel beside the prophet’s mosque, Osama went to pray and I lay down on the bed to rest.  The next thing I knew I was flying up a minaret, above the spiral staircase, and then out of the opening at the top, into a sky that sparkled with colors more beautiful than anything on earth, toward a brilliant light.  And there was child riding on my back, a boy child, laughing in sheer utter delight and joy in sharing the experience with me.  When I came out of it, I tried to place the child – he felt completely familiar, and yet he wasn’t anyone of my family or friends.  And then I thought of the Prophet, and it felt right.  Now, call this experience what you will – a dream, a hallucination, a vivid imagination.  All I can say is it felt real.  And it was, along with circling the Kaaba, the highlight of my Umrah.

I share these stories to let you know that these experiences, and others, are why I believe in what people write and say about Near-Death-Experiences – so-called NDEs.  These are experiences that people have had when their brain activity – that which is centered in the neo-cortex, the seat of our conscious awareness, has stopped for a period of time – they become brain dead - but they then come back to life.  Reports of these kinds of experiences have multiplied in recent years, possibly due to advancements in medical science that allow us to bring people back from cardiac arrest, drug overdose, severe bacterial infections, etc. 

Dr. Eben Alexander was a renowned academic neurosurgeon who had an NDE in 2008 when he contracted an extremely rare form of bacterial meningitis that shut down his neocortex and put him in a deep coma for a week.  His doctors had advised his family to remove life support – he should have died.  But he shocked them by coming back and regaining full mental capacity within a few weeks.  He came back, but was profoundly changed by his encounter with the hyper-reality of the spiritual realm.  He wrote a book about it, Proof of Heaven, published 2012.  A former atheist, Dr. Alexander has become an active advocate for a blending of science and spirituality.

In his writing, he now starts with this quote from Albert Einstein:
“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.” 
– Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

Dr. Alexander writes, “Together, science and spirituality will thrive in a symbiosis offering the most profound insight into fundamental Truth, yielding unimaginable power. The keystone is in global progression of individual conscious awakening.  Many in both the scientific and religious (or spiritual) realms must denounce their addiction to prejudiced, divisive, dogmatic beliefs, in order to open our awareness to this synthesis of understanding Truth. By probing deeply into our own consciousness, we transcend the limitations of the human brain, and of the physical-material realm.  The spiritual realm is real. Seamless blending of science and spirituality will occur.”

Alexander is hardly the only one researching and publishing in the area of NDEs and paranormal phenomenon.  Bernardo Kastrup a computer engineer who specializes in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing, and has worked in some of the world's foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories, published an article this spring (Scientific American Blog, March 2017) on Transcending the Brain, in which he describes cases of damage to the brain that are associated with enriched consciousness or cognitive skill.  These include cases of choking, cardiac arrest, and physical damage to the brain.  “In a recent study, CT scans of more than one hundred Vietnam war veterans showed that damage to the frontal and parietal lobes increased the likelihood of “mystical experiences.”15 In an earlier study, patients were evaluated before and after brain surgery for the removal of tumors, which caused collateral damage to surrounding tissue. Statistically significant increases in “feelings of self-transcendence” were reported after the surgery.16”
New brain mapping technologies have shown that enriched consciousness and heightened cognition happen when measurable brain activity stops.  In other words, the experiences are happening beyond the realm of the physical brain.
References
15. Cristofori, I. et al. 2016. “Neural correlates of mystical experience.” Neuropsychologia 80: 212-220.
16. Urgesi, C. et al. 2010. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self Transcendence.” Neuron 65: 309-319.
van Lommel, P. et al. 2001. “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands.” The Lancet 358 (9298): 2039-2045.

 

In another new book, The Self Does Not Die, 2016, the authors, Titus Rivas, Anna Dirven and Rudolf H. Smit, analyze over 100 cases of NDEs.  These experiences included extrasensory perceptions beyond the patients’ immediate bodily environment, telepathy where either the NDEer had a telepathic experience in relation to someone else, or alternatively, where someone had a telepathic awareness of the NDEer, out-of-body experiences, healing in NDEers that is inexplicable by current medical science, paranormal psychic abilities, such as after-death communications (ADCs), extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK) and precognitive dreams after NDEs. They conclude by pointing out that materialist explanations for such phenomena are illogical and inadequate. The Self Does Not Die offers significant empirical support to the emerging scientific view that consciousness is fundamental in the universe, and that the soul exists and does not depend on the physical brain for its conscious expression.
These empirical data refute the production model, which states that the brain produces consciousness out of physical matter. Rather, the filter model (i.e., that the brain serves as a receiver of primordial consciousness) is far more reasonable in accounting for all the available evidence. Sooner or later, the sheer frustration with the ongoing inadequacies of materialist pseudo-explanations will nudge the prevailing western paradigm towards the deeper truth, as it is objectively represented in this remarkable book.

Spirituality and Science strengthen each other.  But, as Dr. Alexander points out, they cannot be conceived of as complementing each other as long as we cling to either purely materialist, empirical, fact-based explanations, or pure religious dogma.

The filter model of the human brain as a receiver of primordial consciousness complements the schema in Shahab Ahmed’s book, “What Is Islam?”  (Princeton University Press, 2016)  Ahmed defines Islam as:

Meaning-making for the self in terms of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation to Muhammed as Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text – that is, with the entire phenomenon and matrix of Revelation, rather than just the Text of Revelation (p. 405).

In other words, for Ahmed, Islam is not just the Revelation of the Quran (Text), it is also the greater Reality from which the Quran was revealed (the Pre-Text), and the human understanding and culture that has developed from understanding both the Quran and that Greater Reality (Con-Text). 

Ahmed describes Pre-text of Revelation as follows:
The Text of the Revelation requires as its premise an Unseen Reality or Truth that lies beyond and behind the Text of the Revelation-in-the-Seen and upon which the act, the Text and the Truth of Revelation are contingent.  This is Unseen Reality is ontologically prior to and … larger than the textual product of the Revelation:  it is the source of Revelation.  The act and text of the Muhammadan Revelation together represent a single historical instance and enactment of this lager and prior dimension of the reality of Revelation – which I will here term the Pre-text of Revelation. (pp346-7)

Ahmed goes on to define Text as follows:
The Truth of the Text of Revelation is only the Revelatory Product:  as such, it is but an expression in the here-and-now of this world of the Truth of the Pre-Text of Revelation.  That the Quran/Text of the Revelation is true but does not encompass all the Truth of the Unseen Pre-Text of Revelation is accepted by all Muslims.  Indeed, the Quran does not even claim to possess all the Truth of the Unseen made available in the Seen, saying for example, ‘On Earth are signs for the sure; just as there are within your own selves:  do you not see?’”  p 347

Ahmed’s concept of Pre-Text is strikingly similar to Dr. Alexander’s description of “Primordial Consciousness.”  Ahmed proposed that it is possible to access the Pretext without reference to the Text of Revelation.  By this definition, one could argue that Dr. Alexander and other NDEers experienced the Pretext directly through their NDEs.

What I see, what I am proposing, is that Ahmed’s new and compelling understanding of the phenomenon of Revelation can be seen as being validated by research now being conducted on the phenomenon of NDEs.  Eben Alexander and the many other people who have had Near Death Experiences might be understood as having somehow directly experienced the Pre-Text, the Primordial Consciousness.  This is the Reality confirmed in Quran as being more Real than the life of this Earth.  Quran refers to our earthly existence as but a mere reflection of the Greater Truth of Allah.  Quran also tells us that when we die, this life will seem to have been but an instant. 

If we accept that NDEers are experiencing the Pre-Text, or Primordial Consciousness directly in our time, and that they are sharing with us hints about the nature of Reality beyond death that we do well to consider, we are forced to ask ourselves, does the Text of Muhammed’s Revelation – the Quran – still have relevance for us today?  Of course, for Muslims who believe that the Revelation of Prophet Muhammed, pbuh, was a miracle in itself, the answer must be yes.  But how?  The Revelation of Prophet Muhammed was a very different phenomenon than the NDEs of today.  First of all, it resulted in language – a text, the Quran – that was and still is the vehicle through which the Prophet and his followers could gain insight into the broader Truth that is Allah.  But second, Quranic Revelation is in large part very different in tone than the experiences reported by those who have had NDEs.  The later talk about love and beauty beyond imagination – almost exclusively.  The Quran is filled with language of justice and punishment for those who do not accept the Truth of Revelation and commit evil deeds without remorse.

From Quran:
Surat Al-An’am [6]
Ayah 60
And Allah causes you to be as dead at night, and knows what you do in daytime; and brings you back to life each day so that your term will be fulfilled.  In the end, you return to Allah, and you will understand all that you were doing in life.

Ayah 70
And leave to themselves those who have been beguiled by the life of this world, and made play and passing delights their religion, but remind them that every human being is held by whatever wrong they have done, and shall have no protection from Allah, none to intercede, none to accept any ransom offered.  These are those who will be held by the wrong they have done; for them there is to come a draught of burning despair, and grievous suffering awaits them be cause of their refusal to acknowledge the truth. 

How can we understand this difference in tone, if we accept the premise – which I do – that both phenomenon are real?  Maybe the dire warnings in Quran were needed for that time and those people, and our time engages a different experience of PreText – Consciousness – Allah/God.  Or maybe the people who have negative Near Death Experiences don’t share them because they don’t want to believe they were true.  Or maybe those who destroyed their connection to Allah as Creator never did come back – never became NDEers. 

I have to admit that I struggle mightily with the idea of judgment from an All Loving God.  I know I’m not alone in this.  However, I have to admit that it is comforting to be reassured by Divine Text that evil does not go unpunished.  I can understand that denying the Truth of Divine Light would preclude a soul from access to it, condemning that soul to immersion in the energy of destruction rather than creation.  And I can understand that being stuck in destructive energy would feel as the sometimes graphic language of Quran describes it.    

This is all food for thought.  I conclude by saying simply that reading about NDEs and thinking about them in terms of Ahmed’s proposed definition of Islam has given me new ways to engage with the Text of Quran – and much to think about.

Oh Allah, inspire us always to new levels of understanding your Reality, and protect us from misunderstandings.  We pray that you guide us rightly, enlighten us and forgive us when we go astray.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Mixed Signals

“And mention when We said to the angels:Prostrate to Adam! So they prostrated but Iblis. He had been among the jinn and he disobeyed the command of His Lord. Will you then take him to yourselves and his offspring to be protectors other than Me while they are an enemy to you? Miserable it is to give in place of Him ones who are unjust!” Quran18:50

And

“And certainly We have diversified in this, the Quran, every kind of example for humanity. And the human being has been more than anything argumentative. Nothing prevented humanity from believing when the guidance drew near to them or from asking forgiveness of their Lord but that approaches them customs of the ancient ones or approaches upon them the punishment face to face. We send not the ones who are sent bus as ones who give good tidings and as ones who warn. And those who are ungrateful dispute with falsehood in order to refute the Truth by it and they take My signs to themselves and what they were warned of – in mockery. And who does greater wrong than he who was reminded of the signs of his Lord, turns aside from them and forgets what his hands have put forward? Truly We have laid sheaths over their hearts so that they should not understand it and heaviness in their ears and if you call them to the guidance, yet they will not be truly guided ever.” Quran 18:54-57

Last month, my discussion of Iblis led us to the question of free will and destiny. Today, we will be undertaking a similarly thorny theological question, that of God’s command (amr) versus God’s will (irāda). The title of my khutbah is ‘Mixed Signals’.

In the ayahs I just read from the Quran, if you keep reading on, at ayat 18:60 , you come to the start of a journey. Prophet Musa, peace be upon him, is trying to find a spiritual teacher.  That’s right, this is the prophet known as the "Law-Giver" who is looking for someone to teach HIM something new. “Moses said to him; May I follow you so that you be teaching me something of what you have been taught of right judgment?” Quran 18:66. The person he finds embodies this paradox of God’s rule versus God’s will. To briefly recap, this teacher acts in ways that are against common law (destruction of property, murder) as well as common sense (going out of his way to be helpful to people who are jerks to him). Musa is not happy about any of this, and in the end he can no longer continue as a student because of, what he perceives to be, irrational behavior. Before the teacher dismisses him, he tells Musa that he was acting in accordance with God’s will, and the teacher’s actions do make sense in this context. Before we get into Iblis and God’s will, I want to point out that this topic is not a theoretical theological question. When the Taliban attempted to kill Malala Yusefzai (a girl who blogged about the importance of educating girls), their justification for this murderous act was to cite the murder of a youth who, “…should constrain them (his parents) with defiance and ingratitude so we wanted their Lord to cause for them in exchange one better than he in purity and nearer in sympathy.” 18:80-81

To backtrack with respect to Iblis: last time we examined Iblis’ excuse that he was “set up “ by God, that God knew Iblis wouldn’t bow to Adam and therefore Iblis is just a victim of destiny. God needed a fall guy. Rumi effectively quashes this by saying that humans do have free will, we do have a choice to be bad or good, we must take responsibility for our choices, and humbly ask for forgiveness when we make poor choices.

A different tactic Iblis uses to justify his behavior is that while God commanded the angels to bow (an example of amr), God’s will (irāda) is that only God Himself is worthy of prostration. Since God’s command was clearly in contradiction to His will, Iblis insists that God intended for the command to be ignored. The command to bow to Adam was a test for the angels and jinn, and Iblis was the only one who passed the test! Iblis’ reasoning  is similar to dealing with south Asian extended family. If these family members arrive at your doorstep and you offer to make them tea and they will most likely say, “No no, don’t bother. We’re not thirsty.” If you believe them and don’t make the tea, you fail the test.  They want that tea. They just don’t want to have to tell you to bring it to them. They want you to identify their deepest desire, their will, without being told. And believe me, if you don’t pass the tea test, you will be hearing it that for, what will seem like, an eternity. This kind of “following the irāda” rationale does not only play out at home, we see it as a national/political philosophy of a “pre-emptive strike”. Our politicians believe they know the deepest desire of our enemies, and so they act in a way that they feel is consistent with protecting national interests.

Getting back to Iblis, there is a manifest conflict between God’s will (irāda) and His command (amr).  However, what is up for debate is what line of action should one take in the face of this kind of paradox.  How do you obey a command that contradicts the will of God? This was a big concern to Sufis very early on. Al-Makki, in Qut al-qulub, goes through a long series of arguments, and in the end asserted that God orders one thing and wills the coming into existence of its opposite. Hasan Al-Basri answers that God does not punish because of the unfolding of His will, but He punishes individuals for going against His commands.

The bottom line for these scholars is that no one, and no jinn such as Iblis, has the right to try and figure out the difference between His will and His command. The challenge in such a paradox is to accept both in humble submission, even when the circumstances seem completely beyond human reason. Believers are enjoined to conform to God’s command while, at the same time, recognizing the mysteriousness of His will. Furthermore, by accepting both, the believer must take on the responsibility for which these consequences entail. The best you can do in such potential lose-lose situations, is hope that God in His mercy will look upon you with compassion.

For some Sufis, the paradox between amr and irāda Iblis encounters when he is ordered to bow down before Adam is a major element in his tragedy.  They see Iblis’ inflexible monotheism as a sign of his strength of character, nobility, and victimhood.

In the 13th century, the spiritual writer Ibn Ghanim Al-Maqdisi explored further the irāda-amr conflict in Taflis Iblis (The Bankruptcy of Iblis). Al-Maqdisi tells the reader that human life is like a circle whose circumference is God’s command, amr, and at the center is God’s will, irāda. A crisis arises when you have a situation where amr says “Do!” and irāda says “Do not!”.  Choosing only one (irada at the expense of amr or vice versa), which is what most of us tend to do when confronted with this kind of paradox, leads to destruction. The very few in number right-guided people understand how to navigate both. How do you navigate both? Let’s look first at what happens when you choose one and ignore the other.

People who cling to amr (command) and ignore God’s irāda ascribe the creation of actions to their own selves. God created the individual self, but God has no part in its evil deeds. The self (nafs) alone are the source of evil actions. The theological problem with this argument is that it makes man the creator of evil actions. If you believe that God does not create, decree, or will sin and evil, and if you believe that you- all by yourself- will it, then it logically follows that you have brought something into existence apart from God’s will. In fact, your will is stronger than God’s will and judgment  (because look at how successfully sinful we are!) while God’s will is weak and easily overcome. This is a huge theological no-no! All that Omnipotent stuff whisked out the door with your sinful little will.

What about those who only focus on irāda and toss out God’s amr? In this case, all actions, even creaturely ones, are assigned to the creative will of God. They claim to be compelled to act, powerless in the wake of God’s will. External commands, prohibitions, Holy Books, prophets, law, common sense, and so on are all considered valueless because these force one to make a choice. People who focus on irāda are not fond of the ‘personal choice’ concept. They tend to quote Quran ayah that focus on God saves whomever He wills and condemns who He wills and if He wanted, He could have made all humans believers. The theological problem with this argument is that God does not condemn or save all men randomly. God has permitted people to participate in the journey of their own salvation or condemnation through His amr, His external command. God’s commands are made more explicit via revelations to the prophets, Quran, sunna, etc and through it all man has the power to accept or reject freely.

Al-Maqdisi uses a metaphor to describe the relationship between man’s freedom and God’s creative will. Two men are carrying a heavy load, one man is able to carry it alone while the other is too weak to manage it by himself. Both men pick up the burden and help each other carry it, although the first is the one who has the power and expertise. The weak individual participates as a kind of partner because he is transporting the load. In the same way, God is the ultimate source of power for anything to emerge, He uses His amr  as a way of presenting man with orders and prohibitions that he can accept or reject using the willpower God grants him. This is how Al-Maqdisi sees man participating in the process of his own salvation.

PAUSE

Iblis could not navigate the paradox of God’s will versus his command. In fact, when the whole thing blew up in his face, Iblis subsequently flip-flopped between the two extremes. First, he claimed irada with the “You have led me astray. I was just doing Your will.” excuse, thereby excluding choice and personal freedom. Then, when he got punished he pushed the amr label with “I will lead them astray.”, an example of radical freedom because he ascribes his acts to himself alone. Iblis didn’t pay attention to the angels who were trying to navigate the straight path of irada and amr, he was the first to despair at the mercy of God, the first to deceive others, and the first to sin. Al-Maqdisi believes that if Iblis had been able to discern the true nature of Adam, he would not have rejected the amr of God. However, Al-Maqdisi does not equate Iblis’ behavior with Adam’s- when Adam saw he had done wrong, he ascribed guilt to himself and asked for forgiveness. This is the correct action for a servant in the presence of a divinity. Iblis never asked for forgiveness, he blamed God for being the cause of his sin, and he never accepts the blame himself.

Finally, Al-Maqdisi asserts that Iblis’ failure to obey God’s command is worse that his pride because it implies that Iblis understands perfectly God’s will. In fact, he doesn’t. God’s will goes beyond the understanding of mere creatures. When God wants to reveal His will, He does it, no more. Iblis’ refusal to bow springs from his aberrant faith in his own foreknowledge, and jealousy sparked by pride.

While the power of Iblis may be localized in man’s bloodstream, God’s power cannot be encompassed by the heavens or the earth- yet the paradox of God is that He can be right there with a human’s soul. If a person thinks on God for a moment, God will shower her with blessings, if she moves toward God the distance of a cubit, God will move a fathom; and if she comes to God walking, God will come to her running. 

“Because He is the absolute being in His sovereignty, neither is His doctrine changed in His presence, nor is His judgment contested against Him. His speech is truth; His promise, sincerity, whether He has promised redemption or threatened obliteration. To Him belongs the volition to menace, and to Him belongs the will to promise and to threaten. To Him belongs the power to punish without reason, and to be angry at the best of achievements. He, in everything, is just. To Him belong created beings and the command; in His hand is advantage and harm. He is not questioned about what He does, but they (the creatures) are questioned.”                   -‘Izz Ad-Din ‘Abd As-Salam Ibn Ahmad Ibn Ghanim Al-Maqdisi, Taflis Iblis (Cairo, 1860)

I’d like to end with a du’a from Quran 28:88, “There is no god but He! Everything is passing to destruction but His face. To Him is the judgment and to Him is your return.” Amen


Friday, March 24, 2017

Choice and the Chessboard

The title of my khutbah today is, “Choice and the Chessboard”. It is part 11 of the Iblis series.

In the last khutbah, we discussed Iblis’ spiritual blindness. Rumi calls him the “one eyed” because Iblis was unable to see the connection between God and human beings. If this were a court case, the Sufi scholar Al-Muhasibi, sums up the prosecution’s argument:

“Do you not consider Iblis? When he had learned Almighty God’s command and had testified to His divinity, he then stubbornly resisted His command after knowledge, proof, and testimony. And so Almighty God cursed him until the Day of Reckoning. He became the evil one among created beings. All hope of repentance for him was cut, forever.” –Al Muhasibi, Kitab ar-ri’aya

But to be fair, we have to consider Iblis’ defense of himself. Iblis says in the Qur’an,
“Because You (God) have led me astray, I will definitely waylay them along Your Straight Path.” Quran 7:16

Iblis claims that he is simply an instrument of God, used by God to test humans. Iblis says he is a powerless tool, subservient to God, and God controls everything, God is the source of movement, change, permanence, and no creature can resist temptation or has the strength to obey without the help of God. God orders his creature to do whatever He wills, in the same way He created them when He willed. Al-Ghazali tells a story of God creating two servants, one handsome and highly favored named Jibril, and the other ugly and hated named Iblis. Jibril is assigned the transmission of revelation, while Iblis is responsible for the seduction of mankind into evil. It’s like the king having assigned one servant the job of pouring wine into the cup, while the other servant is responsible for shoveling out the stables. The king gives the one he likes the cushier, cup-bearing job. Al-Ghazali’s moral is we are mistaken if we attribute acts to ourselves. God attributes the acts to individuals, be the action good or evil. As humans are of limited understanding, we cannot comprehend the power of God as manifested in His will (irada) and his command (amr).

This debate, the tension between God’s omnipotence and man’s free will, was a hot topic throughout the Islamic world for many centuries. A human being’s ability to act freely seemed pretty negligible next to God’s omnipotent will as shown through destiny. God will “…lead astray whomever He wills and he guides whomever He wills.” Quran 16:93. In the course of this debate, I will delve into some Islamic philosophical history.

The Mu’tazilites (circa 8th century) believed in human responsibility as an important aspect of God’s justice- they reasoned that justice requires people to be punished or rewarded for deeds performed as a result of a free moral choice. The Mu’tazilites also insisted that God is not Himself involved in the evil which He punishes people for doing. Evil is the side effect of man’s ability to choose.

 A more extreme sect of the Mu’tazilites were called the Qadarites. They went even further and demanded man’s absolute moral responsibility for his actions. They had an idea of radical freedom of will, kind of like Muslim Libertarians.  However, the Qadarite ideology never really caught on, perhaps because this kind of absolute accountability has a few traps. For example, if man through his own power determines his salvation, then this, in effect, makes man an associate of God in determining events. The event of one’s destiny, in this particular example. Putting man on the shelf with God is and was too shirk-like for the average Muslim.

By the middle of the ninth century, the Muslim intelligentsia preferred emphasizing God’s omnipotence over man’s free will. It is important to remember that there were at least two degrees of the predestination doctrine
1.   God determines the circumstances which a human is subjected to but not a person’s reactions to the given set of circumstances.
2. God determines both circumstances and the person’s reaction to the circumstances.

Most Muslim thinkers had no problem with the first doctrine, but the second one, God determines everything, was up for a lot more debate. Religious thinkers wanted to give some freedom to humans.

Al-Ash’ari and his school, were defenders of God’s absolute power and limitless freedom. He rejected all the Qadarite arguments, and even went so far was to reject causality because Al-Ash’ari didn’t like the idea that creation possesses an on-going order of its own. It should be noted that, from the historical perspective, Al-Ash’ari and his school were the 'winners' and the Mu’tazilite doctrines became unfashionable.

So how did Al-Ash’ari deal with the question of God’s involvement in humans’ sinful action? His argument sounds nearly like something we would call relativistic “post-modernism” or a nightcast of Fox News. Al-Ash’ari asserts that there is no intrinsic good or evil to actions. Something is good because God commands it, it is evil because God forbids it. For example, lying is evil because God says it is. If God someday declared that lying was good and ordered believers to lie, then humans would be expected to follow the order. By this train of thought, believing men and women learn what is good and evil by paying attention to God’s command, not by using reason to evaluate the intrinsic moral worth of a given action. This line of reasoning really troubled the Sufis. They used the Iblis story as a way to examine the effect of God’s omnipotence on spiritual life and the conflict this could bring about.

If we accept that God has complete control over the actions of man, then we soon need to accept that God’s actions cannot be understood by human laws of logic, consistency, or clarity. God’s involvement in actions which are unexpected, illogical, or baffling are known in the Islamic tradition as God’s makr, His wiliness.

“When Iblis was overwhelmed by the way he was, Gabriel and Michael, may peace be upon them!- shed tears of grief for a long time. God Most High asked them, “What is wrong with you that you shed all these tears?” They cried out in unison, “’O Lord, we are not safe from Your wiliness!”- Al-Qushayri, Ar-Risalat al-qushayriya.

God alone decides whether an action will lead the way to Him, or whether the same action will be an obstacle that bars the way to Him. Al-Hujwiri cites the example of Jesus. For some, Jesus was a guide to ma’rifa (gnosis), for others, he was a veil (in Kashf al-mahjub). But following this train of thought, Abd Allah Ansari had some pretty pointed questions for God. It is God who chose Adam to be one of the elect, and transformed Iblis into the rebellious sinner. Out of respect, like Adam, we ascribe sinful faults to ourselves, “…but, in truth, You instigated the crime.”- (from Munajat). The logical end to this question is ....was Iblis set up? Can Iblis be exonerated? Should we stop considering Iblis as the sly deceiver and instead look at him as the tragic victim in a carefully crafted shell game? The broader question is perhaps even more troubling- there may be little to no free will involved in the actions of human beings. Perhaps people are no more than pieces moving around a chessboard where the game has already been determined.

Rumi is the most outspoken critic of this fatalistic view of human destiny. He uses the Iblis story to confront these philosophical arguments head on.  From the Mathnawi:

“Learn from father Adam, O clear-browed fellow;
     Aforetime ‘O Lord,’ he said, and ‘we have sinned!’
He neither made excuse nor did he paint any lie,
     The flag of neither trickery nor pretense did he raise.
Contrary to this, Iblis raised his voice in debate:
     'I used to be red-cheeked with honor;
You have made me jaundiced.
     The color is Yours, You are my dyer;
You are the source of my crime, my misery, my scar!’
     Take care! Recite the verse: ‘O Lord, because You have led me astray!’
So you do not become a necessitarian, and weave cheap lies.
     For how long will you leap into the tree of compulsion,
And lay aside your free will,
     Embroiled in battle and controversy with God
Like that Iblis and his offspring?”

Rumi points out that people feel quite free when it becomes a question of choosing to follow their passions, particularly passions which have benefits in the near term and not so much the future, particularly, the afterlife.  21st century economists call this “hyperbolic discounting”.  As a result, people take pleasure in potentially harmful things because they enhance their lives at the moment more than what they judge to be their eventual costs or risks.

Rumi shows us the observable reality of human’s vacillating between two options. The conflict between our impulses, pulling us one way then the other, is indicative of choice. Our choices may not be infinite, they may be constrained by factors of time, place, ability, and information, but more to the point, one can choose to do wrong or not. We cannot blame others, Destiny, the government, or our own past actions, but we must be accountable to ourselves and accept the outcome. To plead “I was just following orders” or “everyone else is doing it”- the hallmarks of the banality of evil, implies there is no responsibility. And if there is no responsibility, then religious and moral imperatives do not exist. 

Even under a totalitarian regime, we can choose to do wrong or right. I’d like to illustrate this with two examples. During WW2, many governments that were invaded by the Nazis willingly cooperated with the invaders. They thought that by cooperating with the Third Reich they would be treated better. In Denmark, the people refused to go along with the Final Solution for their Jewish citizens. Of the 7800 Jews in Denmark, 7220 of them we able to escape to Sweden with the help of their non-Jewish friends. 99% were saved. In Albania even when the Nazis invaded, the Muslim Albanians protected Jews with their Besa, ancient hospitality rules which translate as "keeping a promise". Although there were only 200 Jews in Albania, by the end of the war there were over 2000 as news of Muslim protection spread.

Rumi wrote, “If in God’s opinion, both good and evil were of equal value in the test, then Iblis would possess the same countenance as the moon-faced Gabriel” (Kulliyat-i-Shams-I Tabrizi).

To conclude, if we fail to accept responsibility, if we fail to choose to do good, then we become robots following orders and seeking only our own comfort.  In this robot world, good and evil have no significance, we will no longer be human, and we will have no place of significance in the afterlife.


“O those who have believed! Be the ones who are staunch as witnesses in equity for God and let not that you detest a folk move you that you deal not justly. Be just. That is nearer to God consciousness. And be Godfearing of God. Truly God is Aware of what you do. And God has promised those who have believed and the ones who have acted in accord with morality that for them is forgiveness and a sublime compensation. And those who were ungrateful and denied Our signs, those will be the companions of Hellfire!” 5:8-10 

Ameen

Friday, March 3, 2017

BE HERE NOW: The Case for a Gender Equal Mosque



Surah Al Fatihah

At Tahiyyaatu lilaahi was Salawaatu wat tayibaatu
As Salaamu ‘alaika ayyuhan nabiyyu wa rahmatul laahi wa barakaatuh
As Salaamu ‘alainaa wa ‘alaa ‘ebaadillaahis saaliheen

Let me say this up front.  I have been planning for weeks to use the opportunity of giving this khutbah to present a case for building a gender equal mosque.  I started reading about the reform movement in Judaism, to use the Jews experience as an example of where I see the Muslim community moving in America.  In fact, there are many parallels between the Jewish reform movement and reformists’ vision of Islam.  This is from the website “ReformJudaism.org:”

Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”

“We believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, and that we are God’s partners in improving the world. Tikkun olam — repairing the world — is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as we strive to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people.”

“Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion.  Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis, invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues.  Reform Jews are also committed to the full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large.”

The story of how Reform Judaism evolved from its 19th century origins in Europe is worth our attention, but I decided not to focus on that today, because several things happened while I was in Maryland last week that seemed more relevant to this theme, and more important to share. 

Surah 2:  Al-Baqarah
Wa qala-ladhina la ya ‘lamuna
And those who are devoid of knowledge say:
lawla yukallimunal-lahu ‘aw ta ‘tinaa Ayah. 
‘Why does God not speak to us, or show us a miraculous sign?’ 
Kadhalika qalal-ladhina min-qablihim-mithla qawlihim. 
Even thus, like unto what they say, spoke those who lived before their time: 
Tashabahat qulubuhum. 
Their hearts were all alike.
Qad bayyannal-‘Ayati liqawminy-yuqinun.  [118]
Indeed, We have made all the signs manifest unto people who recognize an inner truth.  [118]

God is omnipresent – with us, around us, sustaining us all the time.  And when we are open to listening, we can see and hear God’s signs.  Last week in Maryland, there were several times when I felt there were lessons I was meant to learn.

The first thing that happened was that I was invited to give a presentation on Islam to a group of congregants at my niece Jenny’s church - Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church in Frederick Maryland.  It was a Monday night, and she did not advertise the event until less than a week before.  She expected that about eight people would show up – members of a loyal bible study group.  In fact, there were more than 40 people in the room.  The first thing I did was pass around my grandmother’s wedding photo.  She was born, lived her entire life, and died in Frederick, which is where I was also born.  Then I told them about my journey to Islam, and opened the floor for questions.  This was the first time I have ever talked about being a Muslim to non-Muslims outside of the family in my native community.  It was a defining experience for me – confronting the ambiguities I have always felt about the way the course of my life has taken me away from my roots.  It went very well, Alhamdulillah.  I left feeling more balanced, and I believe they all left feeling affirmed in their hope that Islam is not the threat it is portrayed to be.  There is tremendous empowerment in sharing a true story – for both the teller and the audience. 

After that experience, and based on my mother’s story of attending a very cathartic interfaith meeting at the Western Maryland Islamic Center in Hagerstown, I decided that I would like to go to their Friday prayer service.  Their website said that Jumaa was at 12:15, so I went.  There were only a few cars and no one in sight at the entrance.  But I decided that since I was there anyway, I might as well pray Friday prayer and leave.  I put my boots on the rack at the entrance and went into the prayer hall.  There were a few men in the front of the large prayer space.  There was a space at the back of the hall separated by moveable screens.  But there was a substantial space in the middle of the screens that was open to the mihrab.  I decided I would not be compromising my integrity, and also not making anyone uncomfortable if I sat and prayed at the opening.  I did my prayer, and then sat meditating.  A few more men came in, and a few more, and then a woman came directly into the women’s space from a separate door on the opposite side of the mosque.  Whoops.  I realized I had come in the “wrong” door.  I asked the woman if there would be a Jumaa prayer and she said it was at 1:30.  I decided to stay.  By the time of Jumaa, both the men’s and the women’s prayer spaces were full.  The khutbah was given by a guest Imam who spoke about the need to reach out to the broader community, and the need for Muslims to be more tolerant and open to difference.  Well this is ironic, I thought – because unless I stay here until everyone else leaves - I am going to have to test their ability to be tolerant because I now have to leave through the men’s side and retrieve my boots from the men’s shoe rack.  What to do?  After the prayer, men immediately began to leave and congregate, filling the entry hall where my boots were waiting for me.  And the women filed out through the side entrance.  I finally summoned up my courage, apologies ready, walked out through the men’s entrance and went to get my boots.  No one said anything.  In fact, they were all so wrapped up in their conversations, they did not seem to even notice me.  Alhamdulillah.  What I was reminded of is that truly, the only thing we have to fear is distancing ourselves from God. 

Surah 24:  The Light
            Wa ‘adal-lahul-ladhina ‘amanu minkum wa amilus-salihati…
God has promised those of you who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds…
Layubaddilannahum-mim-ba’di khawfihim ‘amna.
God will cause their erstwhile state of fear to be replaced by a sense of security
Ya budunani la yushrikuna bi shay’a. 
Seeing that they worship me alone, not ascribing powers to aught beside Me.  [55 excerpts]

Pause

The last thing that happened in Maryland was at a family dinner the night before I left.  My nephew, the farmer, brought his wife, nine-year-old twin boys, and pizza to my Mom’s house, and we were joined by my brother (his father) and my sister-in-law.  While talking after dinner, with the kids in the next room, we found ourselves on the slippery slope of talking about the Trump administration.  Two things are important to know – first, that I love this nephew very much.  He is passionate about farming.  He has been successfully navigating the very difficult and complicated business of running a growing farming enterprise since graduating from agricultural college.  He married his high school sweetheart, and is raising two wonderful, challenging twin boys.  He has inherited the family gene for determination, which can also manifest as  stubbornness – which we were both displaying that night.  I suspected he may have voted for Trump, but when he started defending him using all the rhetoric of the Alt-Right media, I lost control of my normal “Aunt Judy” persona, and ended up sounding angry and aggressive before I could stop myself from going there.  My sister-in-law, much to my chagrin, went into the other room to distract the kids in case they might get scared by my tone.  The next morning Jeremiah sent me a looong text message about how he had felt defensive, and he was tired of having to defend himself as a white man against perceived accusations of racism while his white sons “will not have any chance of getting scholarships as white men.”  That was, above all else, why he supported Trump.  I have work to do to re-establish the closeness I have always felt with Jeremiah. 

I need to constantly remind myself that the most important thing in any journey is not the road I am taking, but how I conduct myself along the way, and that I cannot let my deeply felt convictions and loyalty to my own integrity blind me to the needs and sensitivities of others.  Everything will happen in its time for those who love God.

There is a lesson in that for me, as I stand for equal access for everyone to expression and leadership in our mosques.  Empowered women must not lead to the impression of disempowering men.  In fact, I think the fear of disempowering men is one of the major hurdles we face in our effort to get to a place of balance.  It is not in the interest of men or women for men to feel disempowered.  (And this isn’t only true in the Muslim community of course – look at all the women who voted for Donald Trump.)  The fact is, we need to respect and value our differences to be balanced within ourselves and with each other.  The powerful feminine and the powerful masculine are both essential for balance to be achieved – for healthy individual personalities and for healthy relationships. 

The ultimate punishment that we can experience is the feeling of separation from God – the sense of loneliness and despair that come from a life without any kind of faith.  We separate ourselves from God when we separate ourselves from each other.

Surah 3:  The House of Imran
Fastajaba lahum Rabbuhum
And thus does their Sustainer answer their prayer:
‘anni laa udi’u amalu ‘amilim-minkum min-dhakarin aw untha b dukum mim-ba’d….
‘I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours [in My way], be it man or woman:  each of you is an issue of the other….’ [195]

Finally, I want to share another realization I came to – this time as I was compiling an annotated bibliography on Islam and Muslims.  Several of Jenny’s congregants had asked for sources after my presentation last Monday.  I spent a lot of time on it, because I wanted to give them a variety, and also give them a sense of the diversity and struggles of the Muslim community in America today.  As I went through my sources – many of them read by many of you – Mohammed Asad, Jonathan Brown, Khalid Abou El Fadl, Reza Aslan, Fazlur Rehman, Laila Ahmed, Aminah Wadud, Ingrid Mattson, Ziauddin Sardar, Meraj Mohiuddin, etc., I realized something.  We are already in the middle of Islamic Reform.  It is being articulated all around us.  We may not have an iconic leader yet as Reform Muslims – someone like Charles Darwin was for evolutionary theory, or Adam Smith was for capitalist theory, or Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise for Reform Judaism in America.  But the raw material is all there for us.  We’ve read it.  We feel it.  We know it.  All we need to do is dispel our fears, follow our hearts, and never forget our sense of compassion.

Surah 13:  Thunder
            Qul innal-laha yudillu many-yashaa’u wa yahdil ilayhi man anab.
Say: ‘Behold, God lets go astray whoever wills to go astray, just as God guides all who turn to God [27]
            Alladhina amanu wa tatma’innu qulubuhum-bidhikril-lah.
            Ala bidhikril-lahi tatma innul-qulub.
Those who believe, and whose hearts find their rest in the remembrance of God – for truly, in the remembrance of God do hearts find their rest: [28]

Alladhina amanu wa amilus-salihati tuba lahum wa husna ma’ab. They who attain to faith and do righteous deeds are destined for happiness in this world, and the most beauteous of all goals in the life to come!’ [29]