MECO SERMON FOR ST MICHAEL’S CHURCH, OXFORD
SUNDAY, 19 NOVEMBER 2006
BISMILLAH HIR-RAHMAN NIR-RAHIM
IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE GRACIOUS, THE MERCIFUL
I greet you with the classic Islamic salutation. Assalamu-Alaykum. Peace and blessings to all of you.
It is truly an honour to be here with you today, to be part of this morning’s worship. It is a real privilege to address fellow believers in Almighty God.
Permit me to begin with a short recitation from Islam’s sacred scripture. This is the Muslim equivalent to the beautiful Lord’s Prayer that is found in the Holy Bible. This invocation comes from the opening chapter of the Holy Qur’an which reflects the quintessence of faith and beliefs, which are common to all who revere God, be they Jew, Christian, Muslim or those of other religions.
IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE MOST MERCIFUL
ALL PRAISE IS DUE TO THE CREATOR, THE LORD OF ALL THE WORLDS
THE MOST BENEFICIENT, THE MOST COMPASSIONATE
THE MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT
YOU ALONE DO WE WORSHIP AND YOU ALONE DO WE IMPLORE FOR HELP
GUIDE US IN THE RIGHT PATH
THE PATH OF THOSE ON WHOM YOU HAVE BESTOWED YOUR BLESSINGS AND THOSE WHO HAVE NOT INCURRED YOUR DISPLEASURE
AND THOSE WHO HAVE NOT GONE ASTRAY.
Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, traces its origins to the Prophet Abraham. It is an intrinsic part of the Abrahamic family of faiths worshipping the same supreme God of the Torah and the New Testament. This is spelt out clearly in the Qur’an (22:78) where Abraham’s foundational role in Islam as well as that of all the great Biblical prophets, are explicitly acknowledged. There is therefore far more that binds and connects Islam with the Judeo-Christian tradition than that what separates and distinguishes Islam from its two older sibling religions.
The term Islam has a dual meaning. It refers to peace in the first instance and in the second place to surrender to the sovereignty of God. And Muslims are those who have submitted voluntarily to this divine will. In its essence, Islam is based on unadulterated monotheism coupled with activist social justice. This twin focus of homage to God and altruism towards His entire creation forms the bedrock of Islam’s teachings and tenets. It constitutes the basis of Islam’s principles and precepts, be it prayer, charity, fasting, the pilgrimage, justice and compassion. So, this vertical commitment to worship God and the horizontal obligation to serve humanity epitomises, in a nutshell, the Islamic creed and the Muslim philosophy of life and religion.
For Muslims, this double duty to God and Man, along with all other Islamic rules are enshrined in the Holy Qur’an, which we hold to be the pristine and literal word of God. Muslims believe that this hallowed text was revealed over 23 years to the Prophet Muhammad via the agency of the archangel Gabriel. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, some 1400 years ago, the contents of the Qur’an have remained unchanged and uncorrupted to the present day.
Whether you call God by the Biblical names of Yahweh or Jehovah or by the Qur’anic name of Allah, Muslims worship the identical Supreme Being that Jews and Christian venerate. In other words, Muslims believe in the same Lord of the Heavens and the Earth, thesole Creator of you and me and of everything around us. God in Islam is known by multiple titles, names and epithets. He is the loving, the merciful, the just, the truth, the kind and so on. And each of these divine attributes is an abiding incentive for exemplary human conduct.
In common with other faiths, Islam seeks to provide the answers of why we are here on this planet and what will happen to us after death? While Islam openly admits its Jewish and Christian roots and sees itself as the culmination of God’s previous revelations to humanity, one can say that Islam differs from Judaism and Christianity in two principal areas. In relation to the former, it is distinctly global, multi-racial and non-ethnic in character, while with respect to the latter, it is wedded to pure and undiluted monotheism. But aside from these two considerations, Islam uniquely offers the same eternal promise to all the devout followers of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. In a ringing passage, which is rightly regarded by objective observers as the definitive declaration for universal spiritual deliverance, the Islamic text declares in 2:62 and 5:69:
SURELY, THOSE WHO BELIEVE, THOSE WHO ARE JEWISH, THE CHRISTIANS AND THE SABIANS, WHOSOEVER BELIEVES IN GOD AND BELIEVES IN THE LAST DAY, AND DOES GOOD, THEY SHALL HAVE THEIR REWARD WITH THEIR LORD, THEY HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR, NOR WILL THEY GRIEVE.
From this and other pertinent Qur’anic extracts, it is plain that Islam does not limit God’s grace to any chosen people or just the select few. On the contrary, in Islam, the Lord’s infinite mercy and compassion, the Creator’s equitable judgement and impartial justice extends to all of the creation and is not restricted to Muslims alone. This inclusive view is reaffirmed in 3:114-115:
THE JEWS & CHRISTIANS (PEOPLE OF THE BOOK) BELIEVE IN GOD AND THE LAST DAY. THEY ENJOIN RIGHT CONDUCT AND FORBID INDECENCY. AND THEY COMPETE WITH ONE ANOTHER IN MERITORIOUS DEEDS. THESE ARE THE RIGHTEOUS. SO WHATEVER GOOD THEY DO, THEY SHALL NOT GO UNREWARDED. AND GOD KNOWS WHO ARE THE RIGHTEOUS.
This theme endorsing the universal salvation for all humanity irrespective of any particular religious affiliation is frequently reiterated in clear and crystal terms. For instance, the scripture states that: ‘ANYONE WHO HAS DONE AN ATOM’S WORTH OF GOODNESS WILL SEE IT AND ANYONE WHO HAS DONE AN ATOM’S WORTH OF EVIL WILL ALSO SEE IT’ (99:7-8).
While there are stubborn diehards from all faiths who insist upon their own religious superiority and their spiritual exclusivity, the Qur’an debunks such subjective interpretations. Islam continually emphasises that individual worth is not measured by race, colour, gender, ethnicity, class or any other similar feature, but is the product of closeness to God, and by living a life of faith, integrity and morality. This transcendent truth is articulated in 49:13. God says:
O HUMANITY, WE CREATED YOU FROM A MALE AND FEMALE, AND MADE YOU INTO PEOPLES AND TRIBES SO THAT YOU KNOW EACH OTHER. VERILY THE MOST HONOURABLE AMONG YOU IN THE SIGHT OF GOD ARE THOSE WHO ARE MOST RIGHTEOUS. SURELY, GOD IS ALL-KNOWING, ALL-AWARE.
Contrary to what critics of Islam claim and what some radical Muslims preach, Islam is a markedly peaceful, progressive and pluralistic faith. From the start, it championed modern concepts like freedom of conscious, religious liberty, fundamental human rights, democratic governance, social justice, gender equity, environmentalism and interfaith dialogue. Such contemporary concerns can all be found in the Qur’an since the scripture speaks to people of all ages, backgrounds and places. Indeed, it provides timeless guidanceand timely solutions for everyday problems if Muslims would only heed the original ordinances of their faith, instead of the silly utterances of Muslim extremists.
For example, Islam’s sacred scripture does not sanction any indiscriminate violence, terrorism or civilian killings. In fact, it affirms that if you save the life of just one single person, it is as if you have saved all of humanity (5:32). The notion that Islam mandates a holy war or offensive hostilities against non-Muslims is totally alien to the Qur’anic precept of Jihad or inner quest, which is maliciously mistranslated as holy war, when it in fact refers to the private struggle for righteousness. Jihad in Qur’anic terminology is a specific devotional mechanism for individual spirituality and personal advancement, rather than a theological vindication for collective aggression. Nowhere in the Qur’an is Jihad synonymous with either pre-emptive warfare or illegitimate transgression.
The popular Western myth that Islam relies on forced conversions is without theological merit or historical evidence. We find the very opposite to be true in the Muslim scripture, which asserts: there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). Furthermore, the Qur’an insists that each person is entitled to his/her own free will and self-selected beliefs. In the immortal words of the Islamic scripture, it proclaims:To you is your religion, and to me is my religion (109:6)
In contrast to the cynical propaganda pedaled by non-Muslim opponents of Islam as well as the mindless bigotry fostered by many retrogressive Muslim clergy, it should always be remembered that true Islamic teachings encapsulate a faith that is egalitarian, enlightened and erudite. It is a religion that is firmly based on reason and logic, not on unthinking ritual, blind belief or mythology.
It was not very long ago that a deep-seated European patriarchy determined family relations in this country by enforcing rigid sexual discrimination and masculine predominance. Sadly, this kind of outmoded male chauvinism still prevails in many Muslim lands today and precludes any equitable relationship between the sexes. But this cultural sexism is against the principles of Islam, which dictate an equal and mutual inter-dependency between the genders. In the Qur’an’s inspirational language, ‘MEN ARE A RAIMENT FOR WOMEN AS WOMEN ARE A RAIMENT FOR MEN’ (2:187). There is a multitude of similar statements that confirms women’s co-equal rights and their parity with men.
When it comes to enlightenment and erudition, it is a truism that Islam has from the beginning co-existed easily with science and learning as the Qur’an is confident that burgeoning human knowledge only serves to attest to God’s eternal reality and His divine wisdom. However, the fossilisation of the Muslim intellect over the last few hundred years as a result of both internal inertia andexternal dominance is a key factor in the lack of present-day Islamic ingenuity and creativity. Modern Muslims need to revive their brilliant intellectual heritage and together with other God-conscious inventors, be in the forefront of technological discovery and development that will benefit all of humanity.
While there is so much in common between Christianity and Islam, there are certain points of departure, though not sufficient in themselves to inhibit any meaningful and constructive interaction between our two great faiths. If we set aside the Trinity and the doctrine of Original Sin, Islam shares a huge affinity with Christianity. It recognises Jesus, as a beloved and major Prophet since the Qur’an confirms that “… Christ said: O Children of Israel, worship God alone, who is my Lord and your Lord…” (5:76). It is thus an indisputable pillar of faith that Muslims accept and respect Jesus as among the noblest of God’s messengers and prophets. When the primal monotheistic purity that was advocated by Christ himself is taken into account, Islam shares similar ideas and ideals with Christianity as far as the Creator, the purpose of life, human morality, divine salvation and the Hereafter are concerned. Given this undeniable spiritual commonality and religious convergence between Islam and Christianity, it is not surprising when the Qur’an announces in chapter 5:82: CERTAINLY YOU WILL FIND THAT THE PEOPLE CLOSEST AND NEAREST IN FRIENDSHIP TO THE MUSLIMS ARE THOSE WHO SAY, ‘WE ARE CHRISTIAN’.
So, for Muslims, it is an expression of faith and a requirement of our religion to make common cause with Christians in extolling the glory and grandeur of God. We both do align ourselves to inviting people to eternal divine salvation. Today, in the British context, Muslims and Christians should celebrate what links them, rejoice in what binds them and capitalise on what connects them. When we do that, and come together in worship, and work co-operatively for the betterment of all humanity, we not only elevate our shared values and common antecedents, but we also send in these troubled times, a powerful message of love and compassion, of peace and harmony to the whole world.
Instead of imbibing the falsehoods disseminated by rabid neo-conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic about an inevitable clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, we Muslims and Christians, the people of the two faiths worshipping the same one Godshould reject this fictitious division because we are too deeply connected together and are part of one another by virtue of our religions, history and destiny. Christians and Muslims ought therefore to re-double their combined efforts in embracing a new alliance of civilisation. Rather than participating in a wicked coalition of war-mongers, we must create a wondrous coalition of peace-makers where Christians and Muslims jointly strive for universal social justice and enduring world peace. This bold strategy finds resonance in the famous Qur’anic challenge to all those who believe in God: 3:104:
LET THERE ARISE FROM YOU A BAND OF PEOPLE WHO ENJOINS VIRTUE AND EQUITY AND WHO PREVENTS VICE AND INJUSTICE. SURELY, IT IS THEY WHO SHALL PROPER AND BE SUCCESSFUL
Here, we have it my friends: this is the heavenly recipe to make our world a better place for everyone. So, when we take the lead in this vital campaign for truth, fairness and justice, Muslims and Christians together will exemplify not only the sublime lessons that are found in both the Holy Bible and the Holy Qur’an, but we will also strengthen the foundations of mutual tolerance and pluralism that is at the heart and core of true spirituality and righteous piety.
Just as this address commenced with a prayer, let us conclude with invocations from the Holy Bible and the Holy Qur’an, extracts of which are inspiring for devotees of God, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
In Psalm 4 of the Holy Bible, we read of the believer’s plaintive cry for help: ANSWER ME WHEN I CALL TO YOU, O MY RIGHTEOUS GOD. GIVE ME RELIEF FROM MY DISTRESS; BE MERCIFUL TO ME AND HEAR MY PRAYER
A response to this heart-rending plea can be found in the Qur’an when God says: 2:186:
AND WHEN MY SERVANTS ASK YOU ABOUT ME, SAY: ‘I AM NEAR AND I ANSWER THE PRAYER OF THE SUPPLICANT WHEN THEY PRAY TO ME’. AND THEY SHOULD RESPOND TO MY CALL AND BELIEVE IN ME, SO THAT THEY MAY BE GUIDED TO THE RIGHT PATH.
May God’s grace and mercy be upon all of you. Let He bless you and your family. May the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth guide us and protect us and bring us closer together, to bring peace to our distressed world and to work collaboratively for the benefit of all humankind. Thank you and God bless.