No Muslim worthy of the name can condone the warped religious extremism of ISIS or, as it is sometimes called, DAESH (an acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham, "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"). We rightly condemn the barbarism of these fanatics, but we should also take warning about the flaws in our own behaviors and beliefs. If, as the wise tell us, we are all interconnected and are mirrors to one another, is not the DAESH dogma an example of how all our religious institutions can be hijacked by bigotry and dysfunction? Are there no seeds of DAESH ideology in the religious institutions that we call normal, conventional and acceptable? Can we muster courage and grace to observe the signs of fanaticism in our own beloved religions and take steps to overcome our own deficiencies? Can we cousins in the same Abrahamic family--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--learn some powerful lessons from those who go astray and who we so roundly condemn?
When we overtly or covertly claim that we are the chosen people, that the only way to salvation is through our religion, or that our holy book is more authentic than other scriptures, this is not religion speaking but our prideful ego proclaiming superiority. No matter how we clothe our exclusivist thinking with soft and polite words, at its core it is a form of arrogance and a root cause of inter-religious separation and conflict. The power of arrogant and prejudiced thought was illustrated for me at a recent presentation on racism. Statistically, an African American is killed every twenty-eight hours by state-sponsored violence. That is stunning enough, but even more stunning, the speaker explained, is the realization that the spirit of African Americans is killed innumerable times a day by the collective effects of negative and prejudicial thoughts about their supposed "inferiority." In effect, a thought of superiority whether it be about race, culture or religion has astonishing power to create barriers and conflict with fellow beings.
To understand the folly of religious exclusivity, spiritual teachers ask us to learn from nature: "many rivers flow into the Ocean; you may follow one particular river but please do not mistake the river for the Ocean."
Some religions--notably, Christianity and Islam, teach that we gain merit in heaven by converting others to our religion. We might congratulate ourselves that, unlike the fanatics, we spread the good news in non-violent ways. However, the truth is that the work of converting others can be a misuse of time and energy, and can be a foolish enterprise. I learnt a priceless life lesson from an elderly Christian missionary who had spent forty years in Africa trying to counter the efforts of Muslim preachers who were converting locals to Islam.He told me that he mourned the years he wasted in scheming to undermine one religion for the sake of another. It was like serving the Kingdom of Caesar, he said, and he wished he had spent more time serving the Kingdom of God, becoming more like Jesus and less like Caesar. Now, in his later and wiser years, he deeply appreciated the Sufi story of the zealous monkey who made it his mission to go to neighborhood ponds and pluck fish out of water to save them from a watery grave! Instead of trying to pluck souls from one belief to another, let us model our proselytizing on the recent directive from Pope Francis that the Church should cease trying to convert Jews because they have their own valid and valuable covenant with God. If we can't stop ourselves from evangelizing altogether, at least let us learn from past excesses and develop an "ethics of evangelism" that honors the divine presence in the hearts and minds of the people we wish to convert.
Like the DAESH extremists, we can be excessively attached to our scriptural stories. I learned about the absurdity of adamant attachment to religious stories at an interfaith conference some years ago when Muslim, Christian and Jewish participants were sharing stories from their traditions about Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Sarah, Hagar and Moses. A number of stories are basically the same in both the Bible and the Quran, although they may differ in the details. As we know, the devil is in the details, and the devil at this conference was having a good time fanning the flames of argument and ownership. Voices rose, egos were bruised, and observers fidgeted in embarrassment. Finally, a Native American professor burst out laughing and said, "You know, we Native Americans also have stories. The only difference between us and you is that you guys believe the stories!"
May we have the courage and grace to be flexible and laugh at our rigid attachment to our stories. As the Sufis like to say, "Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape."
Heaven and Hell
Many of us are appalled by fanatical talk about living a life based on an apocalyptic vision of end times. Is this any way to live a life on earth? But many of us in more moderate versions of religion may be motivated by dread of Hell or greed for Heaven, and we should ask ourselves: Is this a genuine way to live? In a Sufi story by Imam Ghazzali (1058-1111), Jesus encounters three groups of people. The first group is physically crippled and mentally miserable. "What is your affliction?" Jesus asks. They reply, "We have become like this through our fear of Hell." The second group is similarly crippled and says, "Intense desire for Paradise has made us like this." The third group had endured much but radiates love and joy. "We love the Spirit of Truth," they say. "We have glimpsed Reality, and this has made us oblivious of lesser goals." May we be like the people in the third group, and reflect on the prayer of the eighth-century female Islamic sage Rabia: "O my Lord, if I worship You from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship You from hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your own sake, do not withhold from me Your Eternal Beauty."
The best lesson to be drawn from religious exclusivity and fanaticism is what sages have taught for centuries: if my relationship with my religion or holy book comes in the way of my relationship with you, it is bound to come in the way of my relationship with God.