Posts Tagged ‘Islam

01
Nov
22

Part II: The Question I Wanted to Ask the Imam

In yesterday’s installment (which you can read here if you so desire), I talked about a Q&A session I had with a Turkish imam on a recent tour.

Imam Ramadan of Guzelyurt, Turkey

If you read that post, you will also remember that I talked about the (at least) three hurdles of translation that must be surmounted in any conversation between two people who speak different languages. 

Sometimes we clear those hurdles. Sometimes we don’t. 

In my case, I felt I didn’t.

But there was another question I really wanted to ask Imam Ramadan. However, since there were 26 of us trying to quiz him, I held my tongue and let others have a chance.

I really wish now I had been a little more selfish.

The other question I wanted to ask the Imam had to do with his understanding of the nature of God’s revelation. As you probably know, one established pillar of the Islamic faith is that the words of the Quran are a direct, spoken revelation from God to the prophet Muhammed. They were revealed incrementally to the prophet over a period of 23 years, beginning in the month of Ramadan, concluding in the year 632, the year of the prophet’s death.

According to Wikipedia: The Quran is thought by Muslims to be not simply divinely inspired, but the literal word of God. Muhammad did not write it as he did not know how to write. According to tradition, several of Muhammad’s companions served as scribes, recording the revelations. Shortly after the prophet’s death, the Quran was compiled by the companions, who had written down or memorized parts of it.

So… the question I really, really wanted to ask the imam was: Do you believe God is still revealing elements of God’s identity and God’s will to humans? Or do you believe that all divine revelation began and ended with those 23 years God spent talking to the prophet Muhammed?

As I sat and tried to formulate this question in my mind, I wanted to be sure I didn’t ask it in a way that sounded as if it were a test. As in, “You know, imam, there is a right answer here and a wrong answer, so I hope you are sharp enough to answer correctly.”

Of course, I have my own thoughts on the subject. My feet are firmly planted in the “God is CONTINUOUSLY revealing new facets of God’s reality and will for the world” school of thought. 

From where I stand, God’s revelation never stops. Sure, the attention span of flawed, limited humans doesfade away, causing our eyes and hearts to glaze over and our minds to wander. But that’s on us. Not on God. 

I am right there with the apostle Paul when he said, “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20, NRSVU).

I do believe, however, there is a way for a devout Muslim to say, “Yes, I believe in God’s unique revelation to the prophet Muhammed, but I also believe God speaks to each of us in every moment of every day.” But I would have loved to hear an Islamic religious leader voice that position. 

The trouble, of course, comes when we try to figure out WHO can communicate what they heard through God’s revelation. 

Can only SOME people do that? Or do ALL people possess that authority? 

And if we say this ability only belongs only to CERTAIN people, which people are those? And who decides?

As we know all too clearly, some of the greatest atrocities in history have followed closely behind the phrase, “God told me to ____________.”

From where I stand – here in my limited, skewed corner of the world – it comes down to what we consider to be God’s essential nature. I mean, if God’s essential nature is in fact LOVE… unconditional, justice-and-mercy-seeking, sacrificial, and all-empowering LOVE… then God would be absolutely RELENTLESS and CREATIVE in trying to connect with you and me. 

This God would never quit peeking out from around corners, popping up out of kitchen cabinets, or closet doors… not to mention the more obvious places like sunsets and mountain streams… saying, “Hey, Russell (or insert your name here)! Here I am! I love you and I want you to find me and connect with me and have a vivacious, living relationship with me!” 

The God my brain best relates to is not a God who stands off in the distance… aloof and mysterious… waiting for the right people with the right credentials to make their cowed, humble approach. 

But alas… I never did get to ask Imam Ramadan this question.

I bet if I had though, he and I would probably be a lot closer in our views than either of us might imagine.

Abundant blessings;

31
Oct
22

Part I: What I Actually Asked the Imam

Mine, our guide, on the right, in pink.

Earlier this month, Joan and I were on a tour. We were in Turkey with a group of 24 other travelers spending 14 days touring that amazing place with the Rick Steves organization. Our incredible guide was the Istanbul born-and-raised Mine (pronounced ME-nay) who, when her tour-guiding days are over, professed a desire to go to law school and advocate for women in her native land. 

By the way, I cannot recommend this tour strongly enough. It is a riveting historic, artistic, natural, and cultural encounter that will send you running to your thesaurus in search of new superlatives.

On Day 7 of the tour, we stopped in the village of Güzelyurt. In many ways Güzelyurt is an unremarkable town… small, rural, and hilly with sheep freely wandering around its streets. 

The point of stopping there, however, was to meet with a local Imam for Q&A time. An Imam – in case you are not aware – is the religious head of a mosque. He (and Imams are almost always male) is the Muslim equivalent of a Protestant pastor, or a Roman Catholic priest. 

At the risk of sounding like a paid Rick Steves shill, this stop was yet another example of the “value added” aspect of touring with that organization. Kind of like the vulcanologist we picked up by the side of the road in Sicily who told us everything he had learned in 25 years of studying Mount Aetna.  

Anyway, back to the story…

At this point, I feel the need to add a word here about the wonders and the dangers of the art of translation. Following our time with Imam Ramadan, I came to realize that in any translated conversation, there are at least THREE hurdles any thought must clear between Person #1 and Person #2. Hurdle One is the hurdle between MY brain and MY mouth. An idea bubbles up in my head which must then be formed into the words of my question.

Imam Ramadan of Guzelyurt, Turkey

The second hurdle is the TRANSLATION hurdle. How does the translator hear my question and then reshapeit from my language into Person #2’s language?

And then finally, is the RESPONSE hurdle.  How does Person #2 hear the question? How do they frame their response, and then how is that response then translated back to Person #1?

All that to say, there are a lot of pitfalls along the path from what I THOUGHT I wanted to ask the Imam, what was ACTUALLY asked, and then how he replied. 

So… with that exhausting prelude out of the way, here is what I asked Imam Ramadan. As an avowed practitioner of the Christian faith, I am regularly aware of a GAP or a TENSION. That tension is between what my faith ASKS of me and how I actually LIVE on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis. 

As one example, the words of the prophet Micah come to mind. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSVU). 

Or there are also the words of Jesus when replying to the rich young man’s question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39, NRSVU).

Again, as a practitioner of the Christian faith, I am regularly conscious of the tension between what my faith asks of me and my daily practice.

And so, as I thought about the rigid requirements of Islam – including praying five times a day while facing Mecca, or the requirement to fast for a month – I wanted to know if this gap or tension was something Imam Ramadan ever encountered. And if so, how does he – as a faith leader – deal with that tension?

This is the point, then, where the wonders and dangers of the art of translation became manifest. The way I finally asked my question was, “Imam Ramadan… do you ever experience a tension between the SPIRIT of your faith and the PRACTICE of your faith?”

I thought to myself, “Hmmm. Not exactly the way I wanted it to come out. Translation Hurdle #1 stumbled over.”

 After asking the imam my question, Mine turned to me and said, “I asked him if he is ever conflicted about what he WANTS to do and what Islam REQUIRES him to do.”

OK. Not exactly my question, but let’s see what happens. Translation Hurdle #2 not exactly cleared.

After pondering his answer, the imam spoke to Mine. Not surprisingly, his answer – translated back to me – was, “No. Not at all. The more I practice my faith, the more I want to practice my faith.”

Well, there you go. 

And there in a brief, four-minute nutshell I began to get the teeniest inkling of the infinite minefield involved in international diplomacy.

So, I will conclude this exercise by asking YOU the same question… hopefully as clearly as I can. Do you ever experience a tension between your faith (or the values you espouse), and your daily practice? 

And if you do, how do you deal with that tension?

Abundant blessings;

01
Oct
22

A Mosque Revival

When the tour guide first said it, I didn’t believe her. So naturally, I Googled it.

Inside the Haggia Sophia

Turns out she was right. (Professional tour guides usually are.)

The nation of Turkey is, in fact, 99.8% Muslim. Meaning that for every 1,000 people you pass on the street, exactly two of them are Christians… or something else non-Muslim. To put it another way, if you filled Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to its advertised seating capacity of 77,000 die-hard Turkish Chiefs fans, 154 of that gathered throng would be Turkish Christians.

Given that reality, it was inevitable that our eager band of 24 American tourists would stop in at one or two mosques during our Rick Steves’ Best of Turkey tour. 

These were not the first mosques I have visited in my life. As a card-carrying Christian, however, I have not had the opportunity to hang out in a ton of them. 

But still… as we entered our first mosque there in Istanbul, I knew a few things I could expect to see. I knew, for example, to expect to be required to take my shoes off before entering. I knew to expect a wide open, carpeted area in the center of the room with horizontal lines on the carpet so that the kneeling worshipers would be oriented toward Mecca as they prayed. I knew to expect an elevated area for the reading of the Quran and a different spot at the front of the room (equipped with a microphone) from which the weekly sermon would be delivered. I also knew to expect to see a separate, set-aside area where female believers would gather to worship. 

For all that I expected, there were nevertheless a couple of things that really caught me off-guard. I was not – for some unknown reason – expecting to experience the warm, welcoming hospitality we were greeted with. Neither was I expecting to feel the same sense of hushed reverence I associate with ornate Roman Catholic Church sanctuaries. And I sure as heck was not expecting to feel – despite the many and significant theological differences between the Muslim and Christian faiths – the strange sense of kinship with these dark-haired, brown-eyed worshipers that pulsed through me there in central Istanbul. 

For reasons I could not immediately fathom, being there in that space with those devout followers felt more familiar than alien. 

I saw flawed, fragile people. I saw those same flawed, fragile people daring to turn and face an often-baffling universe. And I saw them facing that universe with a determination not to yield the day to cynicism and despair. I saw them doing their level best to carve hand-and-footholds in the sheer rock face of mystery with the primitive, time-honored tools of prayer and thanksgiving. 

Finally, I saw surrender. The meaning of the word “Islam,” after all, is “surrender to the will of God.”

No. I don’t believe these fragile, flawed, humble, faithful, surrendered people are the people I need to worry about. Though they practice an utterly different form of faith, I came to recognize them as my spiritual brothers and sisters.

As I ponder the future of this world, I find a greater cause for concern are the people who already have it figured out. In whom there is no room for mystery or humility. The people whose entire arena of concern is themselves and maybe the three feet of space surrounding them. The people whose knee never bends because it can’t.

As we are reminded in 1 Peter, “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NRSVU).

Today I wake up and find myself grateful that I have the ability and means – for now – to travel. Because it is in traveling that I truly encounter the height, and breadth, and depth, and wonder of this magnificent, miraculous, God-imbued world. 

Abundant blessings;




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