Friday, February 24, 2012

Inter(tra)-faith Justice

A pacifist friend recently invited me to an interfaith Peace Prayer, but I had to turn her down.

That's because it was going to be all prayer and no action. None of the clergy participating were willing to even mention the most obvious obstacle to peace: war.  

That event never materialized but in the decade after 9/11--fraught with growing Islamophobia and ongoing wars against Muslim countries--there has been an explosion of interfaith dialogue at the individual, community and national levels. It's generally aimed at fostering tolerance, respect, understanding, and finally, cooperation. 

But what eludes most interfaith enthusiasts is that mutual cooperation has a clearly defined goal, and it goes beyond accomplishing a Kumbaya moment. We are supposed to unite to fight oppression on earth.

Scholar Muhammad Ali Shomali of the Imam Khomeini Research Institute (IKRI) gets it. IKRI and Mennonite scholars in North America have been holding interfaith conversations for the past ten years in Canada and Iran.

"My dream is to have a joint Muslim and Christian organization that works for peace and justice," Shomali says. "We would work together, shoulder to shoulder, to establish peace and justice all over the world. It is not impossible."

God has ordered such unity on three fronts: (1) amongst all of humanity, (2) amongst People of the Book (monotheists) and (3) amongst Muslims.

Though it is a religious obligation, efforts towards intrafaith cooperation amongst Muslims (belonging to different sects) is, unfortunately, scant at most Islamic centers and organizations. We can stay committed to our own beliefs and practices while working together on our common cause: ending oppression for the sake of God. 

God: "Truly, your nation is one united nation, and I am your Lord." (Quran 23: 52), and, "And hold fast, all together by the rope which God (stretches out for you), and be not divided amongst yourselves." (3: 103) 

Prophet Muhammad (S): "Believers are brethren, their lives are equal to each other and they are as one hand against their enemy.”

We can learn unity through justice from Zainab, daughter of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times). In the aftermath of Kerbala--where she witnessed the brutal massacre of her brother Hussain and other family members of the Prophet (S)--Zainab courageously spoke out against the oppressors as well as their silent spectators. Her call for truth and justice inspired many Muslims, some of whom organized uprisings against the ruling regime. 

Zainab to Yazid: "Those who have made you the head of state and burdened the Muslims with your leadership will soon find out what awaits them. The end of all tyrants is agony." 

With oppression rampant around the world, sincere seekers of truth and justice have no choice but to unite in order to resist those who have been allowed to "divide and conquer" for far too long.

As Imam Khomeini warns: "We Muslims are busy bickering over whether to fold or unfold our arms during prayer, while the enemy is devising ways of cutting them off!"

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Occupy the Mosques

I was shocked when a mosque I attended for its activism turned passive after embarking upon a pricey expansion project. But it was only recently that the full ramifications of its decision hit me, and that too, like a ton of bricks.

It happened one day last month. I was perusing the Internet when I ran into an image of a young Iraqi boy sleeping in the fetus position on a wooden floor next to a chalk drawing he had made of his mother. "Mama," as he had written in Arabic next to her, had recently been killed in the Iraq War.

I stared somberly at the image of the boy, who looked about the same age as my youngest child. The picture may or may not be authentic, but it put a face to the very real suffering I knew was happening around the world.

Oh, God! I thought. This poor orphan is the cost of us not lifting our voices against oppression! Our mosques have turned so selfish, busy constructing expensive buildings, schools and playgrounds while becoming silent spectators to suffering, intentionally foregoing any talk that would stir up controversy or alienate donors.

In this blessed month of Rabi-ul-Awwal--in which we celebrate the birth of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (S)--it is high time we take a step back and study the role of the mosque, or "House of God on earth," vis-a-vis the mission of the Prophet (S).

God says: "We sent aforetime Our apostles with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and Balance, that men may stand forth in social justice." (Quran 57: 25)

Establishing peace and justice on earth for the pleasure of God has been the goal of all the prophets, and as followers of the Last Prophet (S), it must be ours as well. The mosque is one of the many tools to aid us in this pursuit, and by no means should it become the very reason a community stops its struggle against oppression.

It was in the mosque that Prophet Muhammad (S) exhibited our responsibility towards the distressed, according to scholar Abbas Ayleya. While leading congregational prayers one day, the Prophet (S) suddenly started reciting the verses faster than usual. When questioned by his Companions later, he replied, "Did you not hear the baby crying?"

It is by no coincidence, I suppose, that one of the lone voices exposing and decrying oppression comes from a makeshift mosque on the footpath of the Islamic Center in Washington. Muhammad Al-Asi, who was elected imam of the Islamic Center thirty years ago, was kicked out for his political views two years later and has been leading Friday prayers outdoors ever since. 

"We are meant to have justice done in this world," says Al-Asi, who is also author of the Ascendant Quran, the first exegesis of the holy book directly into English. "This is what the Prophet's (S) history is about, this is what the Quran is about."

It is vital that we have a correct understanding of Islam so that we are able to keep to the straight path. Indeed, we've been warned that many will lose their way.

Ali, husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times) said: "A time will come when nothing will remain of the Quran except its script, and nothing of Islam except its name. The mosques in those days will be flourishing with regard to architecture, but desolate with regard to guidance."

Among others, twentieth-century poet Allama Iqbal tried to get us back on the right track:

Meri zindigi ka maqsad teri deen ki sarfarazi,
Isliye main Musulmaan, isliye main namazi

My life's purpose is the establishment of a just social system
This is why I am a Muslim, this is why I pray