Last night my church held a Seder (a special meal during Pesach—Passover). Over 280 people showed up to have a rabbi lead us through the Haggadah (a booklet containing the prayers and actions comprising the Seder) and explain the symbolism in the celebration. The attendees were Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
The conversation at our table was very interesting. We agreed that we would all share a typical prayer that we offer up before a meal began. The rabbi mentioned how hand washing was an important part of the initial ceremonies and the Muslims were able to tie this to the ritual ablution Muslims perform before their daily prayers. All of us were able to relate to the Passover theme of God rescuing people from oppressions of all sorts as well as His faithfulness in the presence of our repeated disobedience.
An interesting thing happened when the conversation came to the relationship between God’s grace and God’s justice in the world. The Jews and the Muslims were on the same page with this issue, but they listened very carefully when the Christians spoke about how they see God’s grace is larger than His justice. One of the Muslims jumped in and said that a hadith qudsi (a saying of Muhammad where the words were believed to have come from Allah but voiced by Muhammad) said that God’s mercy prevails over his wrath. The rabbi said that this is exactly how Judaism saw it. It didn’t need to be spoken how close we were on this issue but how we voiced it in very different terms that often get confused.
We had covered some sticky points that are often exploited in the media, and there are many more difficult questions of faith to be touched upon, but we had developed the beginnings of important relationships. I didn’t have a word for what had happened, but then I remembered one of the parts of the Seder in which the Jews chant “Da-yenu” which means “and that would have been enough.” One of the phrases in the chant is, “and He fed us with manna in the wilderness’ everyone then responding “Da-yenu.” I remembered that the word “manna” means “what is it?” It is a question that is the recognition of a miracle while also recognizing that there are things we still don’t know about it. I like it. This Seder was manna. *
*The word “manna” also appears within the Qur’an at least three times. One time in a phrase that means “food from heaven.”
Too often I hear questions posed that imbed what might be unhelpful assumptions:
What does the Qur’an say about sin, free will, the nature of believers and unbelievers, etc.?
What is the basic psychology of the Muslim mind?
According to the Qur’an, should Muslims kill Christians?
What was the character of Muhammad?
What laws actually make up Shari’ah?
As a philosopher, I immediately begin to consider whether questions such as these assume as fact what may not be fact. For example…
Is there a single discernible position within the Qur’an about sin, free will, the nature of believers and unbelievers, etc.?
Is there a single discernible Muslim mind such that accurate generalizations about it can be reliably described?
Is there a single unarguable decontextualized position within the Qur’an about whether Muslims can justifiably kill Christians?
Was Muhammad a flat, consistent character or was he, what in literature would be called a round character, namely, a multidimensional character with growing trends and contradictions in various situations and in differing times?
Is there a monolithic, agreed upon authoritative voice among Muslims about what laws constitute Shari’ah, or are there multiple voices that have similarities and differences.
Can you trust your Muslim neighbor during this month of Ramadan (and beyond), when they show kindness to you? How should you respond if they invite you to an iftar (the breaking of the fast at the end of each day) this month?
The argument goes that we cannot trust in the good faith of any Muslim among us, since Islam permits them to dissimulate their real intentions at their leisure. This belief is held particularly by those nonMuslims convinced that Islam has the intention eventually to conquer the world. But is the fear factor triggered by such understandings justified?
One of my students asked me why would any Muslim in his right mind join ISIL. I said to her that I can give you right away at least five reasons but if you are willing to wait till tomorrow I will come up with a longer list. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was the first name that was given to the organization since its territory was in Iraq and Syria. Their vision is far bigger than Iraq and Levant. They want to expand into Asia, Africa and Europe. The next morning I gave my students 25 reasons why Muslims are eager to join ISIL; here are 10 of them.
Success and a staying presence. Muslims see the black flag raised on expanding landmarks and they appear to be winners. Unlike foreign armies who would sooner or later leave, these people are there to stay.
Up-to-date attractive social media. Unlike the boring monologues of Ayman Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qa’eda, they use clever propaganda videos that have an appeal to the youth.
Purpose for living. So many young men and women whether in Muslim countries or in the West have no demanding or consuming purpose for living. ISIL offers young Muslims what they see as a large enough purpose for living and for dying.
America’s support for Israel. A Muslim American young man was arrested on his way to Turkey to join ISIL in Syria. His reason for wanting to join ISIL was: “Why should the taxes of American Muslims go to support Israel killing Muslims in Gaza.”
Western Societies are immoral. In spite of the abundance of church buildings in Europe and in the United States, Muslims see moral standards deteriorating rapidly as they see Americans and Europeans accepting as normal same sex marriages and people living together without being married.
Shock and Awe through decapitation. With their “shock and awe” strategy of decapitating some of their captives or burning them alive, they are aiming to intimidate not only individuals and armies but even nations. ISIL fighters are volunteers who are not afraid of death.
Influence of bridge builders. There are several famous bridge builders such as Anwar al-Awalaki who are well equipped to use the internet and can motivate and recruit disillusioned young men and women in the West to join ISIL and other radical groups.
The Shiites got inflated with power and they abused it. The Sunni majority in Iraq perceive the Shiites as syncretistic or even heretical. They would rather be ruled by the Sunni ISIL rather than by the abusing Shiites.
ISIL’s strong financial status is attractive. ISIL has a strong financial base. They have captured banks, sell oil, get taxes and get easy money in exchange for hostages. Muslims see ISIL as an organization which will keep going for a very long time and cannot be disarmed, dismantled and destroyed.
Hope for a restoration of the Caliphate. Many Muslims yearn for a day when the Caliphate will be restored and Muslims around the world will be united under one leader like Catholics are united under the Pope. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph of the Islamic State and called himself Caliph Ibrahim.