(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
The Quran instructs Muslim faithful to greet others with the phrase, “assalaamu alaykum” which means, “peace be upon you.” One is to do this whenever coming across any person – anywhere. And the one who is so greeted is to immediately reply “wa alaykum us salaam” – “and may peace also be upon you.”
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught that greeting one another in such a way is a sign of respect. It’s also an expression of Allah’s love and desire that. peace be a principle virtue.
I want to add here that the Quran instructs that when mentioning the Prophet’s name, one should also wish peace be upon him. When writing about him, Muslims often employ a shortcut using the letters “pbuh”. For my purposes, please assume I wish peace be upon the Prophet every time I say his name this morning. In doing so, both I, and you, pay him and Islam our respect.
Muhammad said that greeting one another with “peace be upon you” is a way to immediately put an encounter on good terms whereby no anger exists between two parties. All meetings, even between enemies, is begun on an equal footing of friendship and forgiveness. Even further, Allah forgives those who do his or her part to spread such peace.
When asked by a follower which of all Muslim teachings are the two most important to follow, Muhammad replied that the highest commands are first, to feed the hungry…………and, second, to say salaam to those you know, and those you don’t know. In doing these things, he said, a Muslim will prove that he or she truly loves both Allah and other people.
I find it remarkable how similar Muhammad’s teaching on salaam is to Jewish and Christian values. In truth, similar core beliefs among most world religions is not surprising. While most sacred texts, including the Quran and the Bible, include verses which by themselves oppose other religious beliefs, the core teachings of most religious Prophets are the same. Whatever one might call “God”, she or he is a force of love. He or she calls people to be charitable to one another. And, importantly, the God force at work in the universe is one of peace and not of violence.
It’s for this reason that Unitarian Universalism is so crucial in today’s world. Whether or not people belong to the denomination, its respect for and celebration of all religions is a model to follow. “One Truth, Many Paths” is more than just our UU slogan. It’s a statement that celebrates religious diversity while acknowledging all faiths have valuable insights.
My message series which I began on Easter is focused on this concept. And I use the painting hanging above our chalice table as my inspiration. On it, all of history’s great prophets are dancing together to the same universal tune. It’s a fanciful idea but one that, as I said, is essential to the well-being of humanity. Instead of religious wars and hatreds, people must seek after the heart of what is universally true and good. Whether one worships Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Braman or a science based Unifying Theory, each one is a force for love and peace.
And Muhammad, as a Prophet, taught and modeled those ideals. In ranking the most influential persons in history, Muhammad is in the top three. The revelations he received became the Quran and the foundation of Islam – now the fastest growing faith in the world and one that will soon become the largest. While Muslims see Muhammad as the human messenger of God, he was more than that. He was a spiritual, political and moral genius – a man who almost single-handedly changed the course of human events. He was also a remarkably gentle man who chose the ways of peace whenever possible.
Because that was the way Muhammad lived, the Islam he helped to found is a religion of peace. Indeed, the word “Islam” comes from two root Arabic words – from the world sa-laam and from the word “slim” which means to submit. Islam therefore means peaceful submission to Allah and peace with all humanity no matter one’s race, nationality, gender, economic status or religion.
Muhammad was born in Mecca, Arabia in 570 CE. His parents were poor and, at a young age, he was sold as a slave. While he was later reunited with his mother, poverty and his experience as a child slave had strong influences on his life. Arabian society at the time was highly stratified with a few wealthy elites having all the power. To climb from poverty and slavery to be a man of great influence was virtually unheard of.
In his youth, Muhammad was known as a person of integrity and gentleness. He was often called “al-amin” or, honest and truthful one. That honesty attracted the interest of a wealthy widow who asked him to be her husband. This woman, Khadijah, was both older than Muhammad and the owner of a successful business. Due to marriage, Muhammad became a a rich and powerful man.
But his newfound privilege deeply troubled him. He had seen firsthand the indignities of poverty. He saw how money buys a better life for the rich but does so at the expense of the poor. He began to question the fairness of his culture, the role of spirituality in fighting injustice and what the gods might say about those matters. And so he began to take long retreats into the dessert to mediate.
It was during one of his meditations that he had the pivotal moment of his life. Experiencing what he called a terrifying moment when life seemed to be squeezed from him, he saw a blinding light and heard a voice say to him, “Read!” He replied, “I cannot read”. Muhammad was illiterate. He heard the same command over and over until he finally replied, “Read what?”
In shock, he returned to his wife Khadijah who counseled him to accept his spiritual experience as authentic. She urged him to seek further revelation from the God he had heard. Today, many Muslims credit the wisdom of Khadijah, Muhammad’s wife, for initiating the religion.
And so the illiterate Muhammad received revelations from Allah for the rest of his life. The fact that he could neither read or write is key. It proves, Muslims say, that the revelations were truly from God since there was no way Muhammad could have borrowed them from other religions or written them down. He was simply God’s messenger – a great role model and figure of history – but just a man. Muslims do not worship him. They worship his message and his teachings. It is because of this that they allow no images or statues of him or Allah. Any depictions of Muhammad always have a white smudge over the face. All art and decorations within mosques are confined to calligraphy of Quranic verses thus emphasizing that it is the message that one worships and not a man-made image.
Of greatest importance for us, however, is Muhammad’s life example and ethics. Born into poverty but rising to be a leader of millions, countless accounts of his life – from Muslim and non-Muslim sources – indicate he was a humble, peaceful and caring man. He lived in a modest home, owned virtually no luxuries and was committed to serving the poor by giving to charity almost all his wealth.
Countless times, Muhammad, as the messenger for God, advocated for the rights of all people – not just Muslims. Soon after he began using his revelations to attract followers and initiate a spiritual movement, he insisted that conversion to Islam be by simple confession in front of two witnesses. There must be no compulsion in becoming a Muslim. People accept their spiritual beliefs freely and with peace of heart – no matter what one chooses to believe. After gaining power throughout Arabia, he announced that the pagans of his time, even though they had tried to eliminate him and Islam, could follow their religion without fear of retribution.
When he fled Mecca with his followers and moved to Medina, a city about 200 miles away, he prepared what has come to be called the Medina constitution – the first of its kind in history. Muhammad established a secular rule of law that granted equal rights to religious and ethnic minorities. Jews, Christians and pagans were both acknowledged and granted equality. All citizens of Medina were a part of the one community, or “ummah”.
This Muslim “ummah” concept of one human family died with him when Muslims began to compete with other religions. But for Muhammad, the establishment of a diverse and tolerant community was a way to build peace. When people of different faiths respect and honor each other, bitter competition subsides. You choose your way. I choose mine – but we remain kindred souls.
Muhammad practiced his ways of peace. When Medina was surrounded by an army raised by the pagan elites who opposed him and his new religion, Muhammad decided not to fight back. He wisely had a deep trench dug around the city which prevented an attack and thus prevented war.
Many years later at a climactic moment when Muhammad had assembled a large army to surround Mecca and demand Muslim rights to visit and worship at the Kaaba shrine, he chose to negotiate and not attack. After a time of negotiation and realizing the popularity of Islam, the elites relented and allowed Muslims to enter Mecca, dedicate the Kaaba shrine to Allah and take control of the city. Living out his peaceful ways, Muhammad forgave those who had once tortured and oppressed Muslims. They could continue to live within Mecca and enjoy the rights of being a citizen. It was a Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. moment of intentional non-violence.
While many critics of Islam point to verses in the Quran that seem to advocate violence against enemies and non-believers, and there a few obscure ones – just as there are in the Bible when God commanded the ancient Jews to kill every non-believing man, woman, and child- the full intent of Muhammad and his Quranic revelations was one of peace. One verse in the Quran commands that when an enemy asks for peace, one is to immediately agree. Another verse indicates that war is only for self-defense. To begin a conflict is wrong. Another verse literally says that Allah hates violence. Perhaps more emphatic than even the Bible, the Quran says, “…if any one kills a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed the whole humanity…”
In this light, the idea of jihad, or holy war, has been wrongly interpreted by some fundamentalist Muslims and by misinformed westerners. Muhammad taught that the idea of jihad is a figurative battle within the heart of each person. It does not mean a literal holy war but, instead, a holy “struggle” of conscience. Will I follow the path of peace and charity, or not? That is the idea of jihad which almost all of today’s one and a half billion Muslims follow. The Quran says, “Go out in the name of Allah and…following the way of the Messenger of Allah… spread goodness and do good, for Allah loves those who do good.”
What we find about the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is that he was like all great prophets. He was a peaceful revolutionary who helped change the negative ways of his people and culture. Muhammad, like all Prophets, taught that God did not create people to attack and kill one another. Nor did God build a world of hate. The spiritual vision for the world, by all Prophets, is of an Eden like place filled with abundance, peace and love. Those of us who yearn for the same, do humanity a disservice if we falsely characterize the intentions of any religion or Prophet – especially of Islam and Muhammad. It is our spiritual duty not only to understand Islam, but spread the truth about it. Muhammad is one of history’s greatest prophets precisely because he was a man of peace. We should honor him for that, and, most of all, follow his example by being people of salaam…
And I wish you all much peace and joy…
We’ll engage in our talk back time today in conversation with Sabura Rashad, who has been attending here the last few months and is now interested in becoming a member. Please welcome Sabura Rashad to our little stage here….