I felt uneasy. The service didn’t expand my view of the world, it diminished it. Religions are not broad-minded. Monotheistic faiths seem to have an urgent desire to spread and convert new believers, like political parties competing for the un-decided votes in election year, desperately claiming that theirs is “the true way”.
Our constant failure to acknowledge ‘the other’ is causing problems. Recently, five Churches were bombed in Malaysia over the use of the term ‘Allah’ to describe the Christian God. Switzerland has banned the construction of minarets, some of the most gorgeous monuments on Earth. Americans have raised questions on banning Muslims in the military.
We lack the capacity and the drive to understand ‘the other’ amidst the speed of our modern lives, and all the news shows us is persecution and suffering. When that is all we know and see, it is inevitable that conflict and division even amidst everyday people will grow.
A New Desire
My desire for the New Year, the New Decade, is to make religions overlap.
This obsession with conversion and “ours is the true way” attitude must be admonished. Scorn for un-believers (funnily shared among many faiths) must be removed. Let’s talk.
Perspectives of all religions should be allowed to be discussed in Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples and the leaders of religious institutions must make this happen. People go to mass to better understand God’s word, and hence their world.
If the keepers of our faith in turn provide followers with a means to understand ‘the other’, their understanding of their world can become more complete. Bring in that Imam into Church. Bring in that Guru into a Mosque and bring that Priest into a Synagogue. Discourse between faiths can help us find peace.
I was told that desiring this was stupid and downright foolish. That is a strong possibility. Religions do not teach one how to understand other religions. But I will present the idea anyway. When we start talking about it, anything is possible, that is the glory of mankind.
Say ‘brother’ with clenched teeth and it sounds like ‘other’
We have more in common than we think. Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God (don’t refute it, that’s a fact). They have the same ancestry and some can go so far so to say the same teachings.
An example - a ‘Muslim’ in Classical Arabic is one who submits to God. Submission to the LORD is part of Christian belief. Hence if a Christian wished to describe himself to another in Arabic, he would very easily call himself a Muslim. This is all hypothetical, I can already feel people looking at my words with scorn, but that’s how much religions can overlap.
What divides us is interpretation. Cultural norms and mindsets that have nothing to do with the texts we hold dear dictate our lives and prevent us from progressing. Hatred is incited by those skilled in using and abusing. We go against the principles of humanity every day. It is not the texts or the religions that cause divisions between people – it is us.
For the sake of the reader (and for obvious reasons that I don’t need to explain) I have touched on the Old and New Testaments and The Qur’an – however the argument is universally applicable.
Words? Words? What are these words? – Part 1
Words can be turned into anything, be given any context. They are open to interpretation. ‘Islam’ means submission to God, rooting from the word ‘Salam’ meaning “peace”. So the word itself means peace through God. That is the object of the religion, so don’t mess with me and say killing and fanaticism is the way to God.
Moderate Muslims frequently attest that the Qur’an permits violence only under strict circumstances. I myself had a quick glace through ‘Surah Al Baqara’ (The Cow) and came across these lines:
2:190 And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
2:193. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah. but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.
It is violence with limits. The moment your hand is laid against an innocent, you have gone against the teaching of Mohammed and Allah. That is the truth.
The Bible isn’t much better. It states that those who curse their parents should be put to death (Exodus 21:17). That’s hardly a peaceful solution, but we have the common sense to know this isn’t to be taken literally (nevertheless, think twice before you say “bite it” to your old ones).
The big issue with the Qur’an is how it permits violence under God quite explicitly. But again, The Bible has plenty of instances of bloodshed in the name of God. It’s interesting how Exodus’s Ten Commandments, including the often-cited prohibition against murder, is followed afterwards by Joshua’s siege of Jericho where he killed every man woman and child, supposedly with God’s blessing. That can hardly be considered an example of caring and compassion.
But the Bible isn’t explicit. Sure, the Old Testament is as aggressive as the Qur’an, but Christians enjoy the comparatively softer New Testament. Maybe that’s why God needed a deputy on Earth - Jesus seems to have been a far more skilled orator. Surely it cannot be misused? Again, that’s a matter of interpretation. For example, consider these extracts:
TheTherefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Ephesians 6:13
It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” First Epistle of Peter 2:15
Do you find these words harmless?
And so did George W. Bush when these extracts were used by Donald Rumsfeld in his Classified Security Briefings to the President.
The first phrase was accompanied by a U.S tank roaring across the Iraqi desert, the second with a photo of Saddam Hussein. Additional harmless phrases Rumsfeld took from the Bible include:
<!--"Commit to the LORD whatever you do and your plans will succeed” Proverbs 16:3 – used with a picture of a soldier with a machine gun in front of a poster saying ‘Baghdad Hilla’ in the background
<!--“Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith” Isaiah 26:2 – used with a background of tanks rolling into an Iraqi city
<!-“The eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His loving kindness, to deliver their soul from death Psalm 33-16-9 – used with an Iraqi boy kissing the cheek of an American soldier. Perhaps the only one to do so, I can only speculate.
So the Bible can be continuously associated with war imagery, when love and compassion is what its followers would say it encompasses. I guess it’s not foolproof – neither is the Qur’an, The Talmud, The Gita or any other religious text.
Words? Words? What are these words? – Part 2.
Let’s take a look at a social issue people have with Islam. The Muslim World is notorious for its horrendous treatment of women. The Qur’an must certainly be filled with hostile phrase right? An-Nisa (Women) 4:14:
“Treat them with kindness, and if you loathe them, you may loathe that in which Allah has placed abundant good.”
I’ve looked at 3 different translations and cannot find any other interpretation. Arab countries must publish a limited edition version.
Other phrases stand out. Through the Qur’an women possessed voting rights and were permitted to be part of government from the outset. It took until the 20th century for female suffrage in the West to be acknowledged properly.
The Qur’an effortlessly states the rights women have, of which there are many. ‘At-Talaq’ (Divorce) was perhaps the most interesting read, as the chapter includes thorough guidelines for divorce and ensures protection for both parties. In fact, At-Talaq gives the impression of a pre-nup sent from God. Not bad, considering Henry VIII had to break and form a new Church to get his way.
Despite all this, women in the Muslim world do not enjoy the equality that Allah has explicitly provided for them. Why should countries based on a faith stating that women were made for man (see Corinthians 1) then provide greater equality and opportunity than those that say that both man and woman were made from Him?
Bringing about the New Desire
This isn’t a tutorial on world religions – this is just highlighting how differently words can be interpreted, and sometimes not interpreted at all. I do not pretend to have an abundant understanding of religions; these are just passing observations.
Don’t believe the fanatics. It took me just a few days to pull some of their ideas apart – and there’s plenty more to choose from.
Don’t believe your religion is perfect. It can be abused anyone who tries.
How do we solve the puzzle?
Firstly, I believe that it is not “the word” which religious institutions need to spread anymore; it is the understanding of it. Religion is our humanity. Maybe by understanding ours and those of others, our understanding of humanity will increase.
And when those who are inhuman seek to use religion to justify their actions we can reproach them, because we understand the truth. What better way is there to serve our own faith? There are so many opportunities with no one taking them.
We’ve had the Age of the Cold War – that crumbled and ended during the 80’s. Then began the Age of Terrorism, with September 11 emphatically making the noughties the decade of the War On Terror. My wish for the new decade is to let the twenty-teens bring that to a close, and usher in the Age, or at least the Decade, of Understanding.
Surat Al-Kāfirūn (The Disbelievers) - سورة الكافرون
Say, "O disbelievers,
I do not worship what you worship.
Nor are you worshippers of what I worship.
Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship.
Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship.
For you is your religion, and for me is my religion."
[These are some of the last words in the Qur’an, more poignant for today than anything written in any other religious text. Critics say these words were not spoken in tolerance by Mohammed, his hatred and contempt for idol-worshippers being rife. Whatever Mohammed may have thought, it takes just one Imam to give these words a new context for a modern world. That is true interpretation]