by Robert Bowler


This sermon proposes that Americans have a difficult time
understanding Islam as a religion, as well as understanding
Arab peoples, because of prejudice, an ancient prejudice
that has been revived particularly since 9/11.
This makes peace in the Middle East very difficult.
I think this prejudice has a lot to do with
protecting our lifestyle of consumption under the banner of "freedom"
even though this conception of freedom has little depth.
It also describes the religion of Islam with a degree of sympathy
showing how it is not a religion of fanatics and terrorists,
but a brother or sister religion to Judaism and Christianity.
And the sermon depicts the ancient and ongoing violent history
between Jews/Christians and Muslims as "sibling rivalry."


Introduction: Personal Thoughts
A Strange Co-dependence between Siblings
Blockages to Understanding Islam
The Universality of Islam
Allah or God
The Moslem View of Creation
Responses to the Gift of Life
Freedom of the Individual
The Five Pillars of Islam
Conclusion: A Deeper Freedom beyond Prejudice & Co-dependence


The Rev. Robert Bowler was a Unitarian minister in England
for three years, 1994-1997, before returning to the United States
and qualifying for Fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
He currently serves the Walpole Unitarian Church in Walpole, New Hampshire.
Previously he served churches in Glens Falls, New York
and Cheltenham, Gloucester and Evesham, England.
Currently, Robert also teaches Religious Studies courses
at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire.
He is a graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.
His wife Cindy is an artist completing her Masters of Fine Arts degree
and they have a teenage daughter.


Introduction: Personal Thoughts

I was walking to the Post Office, as I do most mornings,
thinking about this sermon,
and here on our busy Main Street I saw a pickup, a huge pickup truck,
with an American flag pasted to the back window.
I immediately thought,
“She is proud to be an American,
but that does not give her the right to parade her car,
as big as a village, equating her freedom
with burning tons of fossil fuels each year
and setting the American standard for contributing to global warming.”
After all, we Americans, per capita, are the global pace-setters in the race
to increase the average temperatures everywhere by 10 degrees in this century.
Then a phrase popped into my head,
“We suffer a strange co-dependence with oil-rich nations
like Saudi Arabia, the spiritual center of the religion of Islam.”

A Strange Co-dependence between Siblings

We suffer a strange co-dependence:
we depend on oil to fuel our economy while we have made
Saudi Arabia incredibly wealthy, the country which raised Osama bin Laden.

I do not pretend to fully understand the dynamics of this co-dependency.
It would probably take an army of psychotherapists to unravel all the nuances.
My hunch is that it has a lot to do with sibling rivalry.
The brothers Ishmael and Isaac
(that is, The Arabs and the Jews-and by extension Christianity)
continue to duke it out.
As you know, Abraham is the father of Judeo-Christianity
as well as, ultimately, of Islam.
Islam in fact looks back, through the Koran,
to the Christian testament and Jesus as a great prophet.
And Moslems look right back to the Jewish scriptures
back to Adam and the Patriarchs.
All these religions look to the Bible, a great library of books,
making them together the People of the Book.

But, instead of seeing ourselves as part of a family,
a family of brother and sister religions,
we tend to be strangers and even enemies to one another.
Can you imagine the woman, in her pick up as big as a village,
driving down the streets of Riyadh with her American Flag?
Or if it were a Saudi flag or a Palestinian one,
would it really be that much different?
It may be for her, but nationalism is the same no matter where it sprouts.
When this nationalism becomes wrapped up in materialism,
when a religious culture sees itself as the chosen people,
the favorite of Yahweh or Allah among all the nations,
when we see ourselves as the rightful dwellers
in the Promised Land of power and plenty,
I begin to get a little scared.
I know this sibling rivalry has been going on for centuries, even millennia,
but today, when we stand on the brink of potential environmental destruction
and we continue an ancient clash of civilizations
in the Middle East and now around the globe,
my terrorist alert goes to red.
And by terrorists I do not just mean individuals,
but also nations, such as ours,
with narrow economic and cultural agendas.

Blockages to Understanding Islam

Because of this ancient sibling rivalry and the strange co-dependence
that arises when you add the oil pumped from beneath the Arab sands,
Islam, for Westerners, is difficult to understand.
When today’s rhetoric, “Islam is the enemy,”
is also added, even when this remains unstated or explicitly denied,
the sibling rivalry becomes explosive.
Real understanding, resulting in a lasting peace, becomes very difficult.

The Universality of Islam

In the Gospel of Luke,
the author universalizes and spiritualizes the Promised Land.
He is a Syrian Greek, a Gentile,
unlike Matthew who is a Jewish follower of Jesus.
While Matthew seeks to show the continuity of Judaism and Christianity
and thereby reaches out to the Jews, Luke universalizes Judaism,
argues that Christianity supersedes Judaism,
and reaches out to all the nations to build a universal temple,
the Church, and a universal people, the Body of Christ.

Something similar happened with Islam.
It, too, strives to be a universal religion, accessible to all people.
Mohammed, or the Angel Gabriel who revealed to him the Koran,
is probably the only prophet in the history of the world
that consciously set about founding a religion.
Saying this, however, is to make the same mistake
early Western scholars made about Islam.
They called it Mohammedanism, but this is a grave insult.
Moslems believe Mohammed did not create this religion, rather God did.
Therefore it is called Islam, which means “peace” and “surrender,”
or more fully “the peace which comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.”
And this religion is designed for all humanity;
Islam is specifically designed not to be an ethnic religion
even though it arose from the lands of Arab peoples.
This characteristic it shares with Christianity,
and, in general, Islam’s basic theology
is virtually identical to Judaism and Christianity in it broad outlines.

Allah or God

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is an historical religion:
it sees God at work in history.
And Allah, which is simply the Arabic name for God,
is the single, invisible God for everyone
and the religion’s central focus.
Thus, it perfects and supersedes Judaism
because Yahweh only chose the Jews.
And it perfects and supersedes Christianity
because it adheres to the absolute unity of God
and does not deify Mohammed as Christians deify Jesus.
Islam sees Jesus as a prophet in a long line of prophets,
but Jesus is not God’s son
nor is humanity God’s children in any sense,
for casting God as a parent is to anthropomorphize God.
In its rejection of idolatry,
Islam takes monotheism to its logical conclusion.

God is an awesome, fear-inspiring power,
to which we can only surrender.
In verse 7:143 of the Koran, Moses requests to see God.
When God showed himself instead to a nearby mountain,
the mountain came crashing down and Moses fell down senseless.
God is infinite and omnipotent and Muslims fear God’s absolute power.
Muslims face this fear by living a righteous life in the sight of God.
However, Allah is not wrathful and vengeful, domineering and ruthless.
On the contrary, according to Huston Smith,
God is referred to as compassionate and merciful 192 times in the Koran
and only 72 times is he wrathful and vengeful.
God is “the holy, the peaceful, the faithful,
the guardian over his servants, the shelterer of the orphan,
the guide of the erring, the deliverer from every affliction,
the friend of the bereaved, the consoler of the afflicted.”

The Moslem View of Creation

Another important theological concept is Islam’s view of the creation.
The earth is a perfect and deliberate act of divine will
and is therefore real and to be taken seriously.
As a result, reason and science are of great importance,
and Islamic civilization and its great universities attest to this fact.
The philosophy of Aristotle, for example, lost to Europe in the Middle Ages,
was preserved by Muslim philosophers
until returned around the 12th century.
While Moslems revere reason as did the Greeks,
it is their faith that gives them a great confidence
in the material aspects of life.
They share this faith with their brother religions, Judaism and Christianity.
Life is a great gift of Allah, and the Moslem strives
to keep in balance the spiritual and the material, faith and reason.

Responses to the Gift of Life

Therefore, Moslems respond in two ways to the gift of life.
First is gratitude.
To the Arab, the world “infidel” means one who lacks thankfulness.
Every moment is an opportunity to acknowledge God’s blessings,
and, in gratitude, share their wealth with the needy.
The second obligation is to give oneself
whole-heartedly to Allah in friendship and love.
As Huston Smith said,
“To be a slave to Allah is to be freed from other forms of slavery,”
including slavery to greed, anxiety or personal status.
The prophet Abraham, when asked by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac,
responded with fear but also faithfulness.
Likewise, Islam demands complete commitment,
a commitment in which nothing is held back.

Freedom of the Individual

Yet, there is no loss of individuality or freedom
in this ultimate commitment of surrender.
We are each created unique
with individual responsibility special to each of us,
and this is right and good.
As a Moslem philosopher wrote,
“This inexplicable final center of experience
is the fundamental fact of the universe.
All life is individual; there is no such thing as universal life.
God Himself is an individual; He is the most unique individual.”
And despite the fact that God’s omnipotence would lead one to believe,
like Calvin, in predestination,
Islamic individualism results in belief in human freedom.
The great mystery that is Allah somehow
grants humans enough freedom and responsibility
to make real moral and spiritual decisions.
Only we are responsible for sin, never God.
And, in the end, we will be judged for our deeds,
 just as we are in the religions of Judaism and Christianity.

The Five Pillars of Islam

And what is the straight path in life that leads to a heaven hereafter?
It is the five pillars of Islam:
Faith, Prayer, Charity, Fasting and Pilgrimage.
Moslems declare their faith by pronouncing the Shahada:
“There is no God but God, the source of all creation,
and Mohammed is His messenger.”
They pray five times per day, at appointed hours.
They give 2 ½ percent of all they have each year to the poor,
for personal wealth is held in trust for all.
Also, each year, during Ramadan,
they must fast from first light until sundown
as a means of self-purification.
And, once in their lifetime, they must make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
These are the outer signs of a person who has surrendered to Allah.

Conclusion: A Deeper Freedom beyond Prejudice & Co-dependence

But in order for us Westerners,
Americans dependent on Arab oil for our material wealth,
ever to understand what makes Moslem’s tick
we need to step outside stereotypes.
Islam is not a religion of fanatics,
though Moslems do take the Koran more literally
than most Christians and Jews take the Bible.
Terrorists, whom we hear so much about in the media,
are only a small percentage of the one billion Moslems worldwide.
And though Al Qaeda may be engaged in a holy war
against all things western that spell materialism and selfish greed,
the attitude of Osama bin Laden and his followers is not characteristic
of Islamic religious surrender, as we have seen.
It is our prejudice and our hunger for oil, that, in the final analysis,
perpetuates the strange co-dependence of this deadly sibling rivalry.
I can only pray that, in God’s good time,
the peace of Allah prevails in our hearts
as we learn to surrender to the real truth
about the religion of Islam and the Arab people.
Maybe then American flags will be a symbol for a deeper freedom
than that expressed in driving pickup trucks the size of villages.
May it be so. 

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"Islam: Submission to God"

    This sermon was first presented by the author, Robert Bowler,
the Walpole Unitarian Church in Walpole, New Hampshire on October 5, 2003.

    It was seleted as Rural Sermon-of-the-Month
by the subscribers to RURAL-L for November 2003.

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