Robert Azzi, an American Arab Muslim journalist offered this on the feast of Pentecost, in the midst of Ramadan
Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, considered the last day of the season of resurrection and the day Christians believe the Church was born.
One of the first things I learned about the Feast of Pentecost was that one was encouraged to wear red. Red matters a lot to me today – I have to admit it’s not my favorite color – but as I’ve been spending a lot of time mourning the loss of life in Gaza – of so many lives lost and damaged – with no end in sight – it’s a reflection I need to offer.
Too much sorrow, too much red.
So, I welcome being able to celebrate beginnings, not endings.
The beginning of the Christian Church, I learned ( and forgive me if I go astray at any point along this journey) – when I read Acts, Chapter 2 – was when the assembled Apostles and followers – I think there were about 120 gathered together who were anxious and confused about how to proceed with moving forward to spread the Word of God – were imbued by what Christians describe as the Holy Spirit flowing through them, putting courage and strength into their hearts.
In that moment they went from darkness and fear to beauty and empowerment.
Those who witnessed the event, we are told, were “amazed and perplexed.”
At that moment, I believe, they were embraced by the Beloved.
We all need to be vigilant, attentive to signs and wonders – attentive to being embraced by the Beloved.
Today, I must admit I was “amazed and perplexed” not just to read about the rushing of violent winds but that “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
By inviting me to preach – in Islam we call a sermon a khutbah – you gave me opportunity to learn that “at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered” because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
And the word I heard “Arabs” – speaking in their own languages.
Listen to that – “Arabs” – speaking in their own languages.
Now, I understand that we are speaking of the Jews of Jerusalem who were speaking each in his own language BUT – BUT… I am not a biblical scholar but I cannot recall ever reading, in either the Hebrew Bible or New Testament a reference to my language – to the language of my faith – Arabic.
Speaking in Arabic about God’s deeds and Power.
About the Power of the Word.
And that’s what happened to Prophet Muhammad about 600 years later.
Muslims believe that God began to reveal the Qur’an, through the Angel Gabriel, to the prophet Muhammad, an illiterate Arab trader, during the Arabic month of Ramadan.
The first verse commanded Muhammad to read:
IQRA —— READ
READ in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created –
created man out of a germ-cell!
Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One
who has taught [man] the use of the pen –
taught man what he did not know!
God’s first command was for man to learn what man did not know – And one of the things we do not know is each other and that is one of the reasons we are gathered here today – to celebrate our beginnings:
Your Feast — My Fast.
“O men! Behold,” the Qur’an tell us “We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”
… to celebrate our beginnings and to know each other
– not to dual over competing scriptural verses and narratives but to know each other …
to know that for the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, renewing their covenant with God and with all of humanity.
And to know each other.
Thomas Merton wrote, we must affirm certain truths:
“I will be a better Catholic,” he said, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”
My sacred scripture, the Qur’an, is rich in metaphor and allegory. While it’s true that the Quran is the literal word of God it’s not all meant to be read literally. As in other faiths, internal struggles over interpretation and understanding are taking place; and as do other peoples of faith, Muslims try to understand and live within God’s words and challenges…
And to live within God’s words we must know each other.
My sacred scripture also includes Torah, Psalms and Gospels – and today I am grateful for the opportunity to help celebrate your holiday of Pentecost.
God’s guidance reveals that Muslims must live in mutual acceptance with the followers of all religions: “To you your religion to me mine,” and while we may differ on the divinity of Jesus, whom we believe the second most important prophet after the prophet Muhammad – and on how we define the Oneness of God we must, as Merton tells us, “say “yes” where one really can.”
Say “YES” where one really can.
Francis of Assisi, to the consternation of many in his church, said yes when he could. Francis, as J. Hoeberichts wrote in Francis and Islam, upon meeting with an Ottoman Sultan, recognized that it was the Qur’an, which is to Muslims as Jesus is to Christians, “which was the source of all good things which Francis discovered in the behavior of the Muslims. Francis left his stay with the Sultan impressed by their prayer, their faith, their respectful use of the word God. And since Francis understood that all these good things in the Qur’an did not come from the Muslims, but from God from whom all good comes, Francis wished to also respect the Qur’an.”
In the 13th Century, Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, a falconer, Arabic scholar, and devotee of Arabic poetry – also known to historians as King of Germany, King of Burgundy, King of Sicily and King of Jerusalem (a lot of real estate there) – was in the Holy City to negotiate with Ottoman Sultan Malik over the possible restitution of Jerusalem – which the Muslim’s had captured – back to Frederick’s Crusaders.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Frederick was given a tour of the City, including visits to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, by the head Qadi – religious authority – Shams-al-Din, who later wrote that, as not to wake the emperor that night, he instructed the muezzin not to call the Morning Prayer.
When the emperor awoke he asked Shams-al-Din why he had not heard the call and was told what the muezzin had been instructed.
“You should not have acted thus,” the Holy Roman Emperor replied, “For if I spend the night in Jerusalem it was above all to hear the muezzin’s call to prayer in Arabic in the night.”
Frederick was saying YES.
In closing, as I wear my red scarf to honor Pentecost, let us all consider the words of Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl, who, in response to local opposition to the building of a Mormon temple in Stockholm by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), articulated “Three Rules of Religious Understanding.”
First, “When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.”
Second, “Don’t compare your best to their worst.”
Third, “Leave room for ‘holy envy.”
Last week I was telling a friend, an Episcopal Minster who knows Islam well, about a young man who was bounced from SouthWest Airlines after passengers complained that he’d been speaking Arabic on his cell phone and that he had ended his conversation with “Insha’allah” – “God Willing”
She replied: “I wish we had something like that in our tradition – the constant use of a small prayer, a reminder of the presence and grace of God.”
She was channeling Stendahl: “Leave room for Holy Envy.”
Today, we pray “yes” because we really can.
Robert Azzi, an American-Arab-Muslim columnist and photojournalist, writes on issues of Islam, Identity, Conflict and The Other. He previously contributed “The Shadows that Follow Us” for EpiscopalCafe. He’s active in interfaith work, often with Episcopal colleagues in New England. His commentary – and information on his program “Ask a Muslim Anything” – is archived attheotherazzi.wordpress.com