Thursday, March 10, 2005

Something Completely Different: Conversations with my Muslim

Note, because I am overly sensitive: the title is a riff on Conversations with my Mother, an interpretive dance piece. I do not and have never owned a Muslim, but I did have the great honor of spending about 2 hours discussing religion with a young Muslim med student today who increased my knowledge of his faith probably tenfold in the space of half an afternoon, and I thought that, with all the disinformation and demonization of that faith at this moment, and being a member of a type of faith that's had the same sort of things said about it for a thousand years, that portions of that discussion should go here. If it's not your thing, go read about how the MK has returned, or skip down to the media at the very bottom.


MM: Do you know what the word Islam means?

PQIF: "Submission to the will of Allah"?

MM: You're good. Now, if a true Muslim is fanatic about anything, it is his monotheism. The word "Allah" has connotations of gender neutrality, of singleness, and of inability to be divided.

PQIF: I've heard it said that people's image of God tends to fall into one of two categories: either transcendent, where God is somewhere else and watching everything from a far vantage point, the Old Man with a Beard, or the Greek gods on Olympus -- or immanent, where God is considered to literally "be" everywhere at once. I know y'all don't make representative figures in your religious art, so I haven't ever gotten a handle on how Islam conceptualizes God.

MM: Allah's knowledge reaches everywhere; nothing can be hidden from the Creator...

PQIF: But is he inside Creation, or outside of it?

MM: It's a mystery. I'll tell you a parable in a minute about those kinds of questions, but it's a matter of faith; I spend more time worrying about where I am in relation to God than where God is in time and space.

PQIF: That makes a lot of sense.


MM: The Koran talks about Moses, and Abraham, and Jesus as well, as Muslims -- as people submitted to the will of Allah before the Koran was written, as Allah's messengers. We have stories about the Christian patriarchs, and I think it's sad that Christians have cut themselves off from that knowledge because of the difference over the divinity of Christ. It makes perfect sense that Allah can make a woman pregnant if he wants to without creating another God, at least to us; he's the Creator, he can do that, no problem. But being a messenger of Allah doesn't make you a god; it's a spiritual responsibility.

PQIF: Like the Buddha -- people who don't know anything about Buddhism often think that Buddha is a God, and he isn't. The Buddha is a title, a job that an individual does, and Siddhartha was only one of seven Buddhas.

MM: Explain that to me.

PQIF: The Buddha is a state of enlightenment granted to certain people, who use it to go and teach. According to their mystic traditions, the Buddha most people think of, the historical one, was really the fourth one, it's just that the others came before recorded history. And some people believe Jesus was the fifth one.

MM: Really?

PQIF: Yes, because the teachings of Jesus are very in tune with Buddhist thought. Some of his parables actually mirror things in the Lotus Sutra. But being the Buddha doesn't mean you are actually divine, because there's not really a central divinity in Buddhism. But no one actually worships the happy fat man, it's a complete misconception. The Buddha isn't holy, just in possession of higher knowledge that it's his job to share.

MM: Again, like the messengers of Allah. And not following the precepts of the Koran doesn't necessarily mean you are not a Muslim in the sense of submission to the will of Allah, because what Muslims are judged on is their intent.

PQIF: Elaborate.

MM: Because you owe everything to the Creator, what you do is not truly good unless it is done solely to honor the Creator. Regimes forcing non-Islamic women into certain forms of dress aren't really doing so to honor God, because Islam isn't supposed to be forced, it is a choice. They're placing their own desire to convert people over God's glory. You can do good things for the wrong reasons and Allah will not reward you for it.

PQIF: Oh! There's a Christian parable about that -- Jesus hanging out with his disciples, watching people make offerings and donations at the Temple, and some people are making a big old show of their prayers and making sure everyone hears their money hitting the bottom of the collection box, and Jesus warns the disciples that those people are getting their reward out of creating that display, and that there won't be a reward in heaven for them because of it.

MM: That's exactly it. You can follow every commandment, every precept, and if what's important to you is other people's opinions instead of God's glory, you might as well not be doing it. There's another parable about that, where three men are being judged: one's a scholar, one's a warrior, one's a rich man. When the rich man is asked what Allah gave him, he says riches. When asked how he used it, he says he did many charitable acts for the glory of Allah, and Allah points out that why he REALLY did it was so people would think him generous. The scholar points out that he wrote many books on Islam and that helped bring people to Allah. Allah points out that while he was doing it he was concerned with people believing him to be a great mind and great holy man. Same thing with the warrior: all of them had been claiming to do things for God so that people would think more highly of them. Submission requires humility, and greed and pride replace that humility. It's a balance between knowing that you are awesomely created by God to do the best you can, and remembering that without God you would be less than nothing.

PQIF: Yet another New Testament thing: there's a story in the Bible somewhere about a man whose house (which represents his soul) was possessed of a demon. Once the demon was cast out, instead of thanking God, the man immediately began to clean the house where the demon had messed it up. Once he was done, the house was so beautiful that seven other demons -- the 7 Deadly Sins of which Pride is foremost, according to some folks -- decided they'd like to move right in. If the guy had remembered to be humble and thank God for helping him expel the first demon, the other seven wouldn't have been able to get in. But while he was sweeping the dirt out the door Pride sneaked right in behind him and things were seven times worse than before.

MM: That's one-- I love that. Pride sneaked in behind him. That's really how it works, isn't it?

PQIF: The diseases of the human condition -- pride and greed and jealousy, anger, hate -- are pretty universal, and I can't think of a tradition that doesn't include warnings against them, most of them in stories like that one. They destroy; it's something every belief system tries to cope with.

MM: To a person truly submitting to the will of Allah, there is no self-interest. I mean, you take care of yourself, asceticism isn't really glorified by Islam, but if you are truly in submission you will gladly use your free will to give all the glory to your Creator, without whom you could do nothing.


MM: There is a story about Moses talking to Allah, when Allah inquires of him who Moses believes to be the most knowledgeable of his followers -- and understand, I'm condensing this a lot -- and Moses says it's himself, but Allah says he has another messenger who is more knowledgeable than Moses. Moses asks Allah who this guy is so Moses can go and study with him, and Allah demurs at first, but eventually tells him where this wise man can be found.

The messenger refuses to accept Moses as a student, saying that he's too impatient to hang out with him. Moses continues to beg and eventually the messenger relents and allows Moses to travel with them. Along the way they take a boat, and once they get off the boat, the messenger sinks it, much to the consternation of the hired fishermen it belongs to.

Moses freaks out at the teacher, asking him what he thinks he's doing. The teacher says this just proves that Moses is too impatient to hang out with him. Later he kills a little boy, and Moses responds the same. When they reach the city they were travelling to, the people there are rude and refuse to offer them hospitality, but on their way out the teacher fixes a portion of broken-down wall.

When Moses points out that he could have asked for payment from the uncharitable city, the teacher loses it. Moses has questioned him three times and he won't have it.

When Moses asks Allah why this is the wisest of all Allah's messengers, Allah tells him that the boat's sinking prevented it from being seized by soldiers nearby; sunk the fishermen could repair it, but if it had been stolen by the army, they would have starved. The child died because he had shamed his parents, but they could only afford one child; his death left room for a more holy person to be born, and because he was so young, he would go to Paradise anyway instead of growing up to be an evil man. And the wall that was falling down would have revealed a fortune hidden in it that belonged to some orphans, which the greedy and inhospitable city-dwellers would have stolen; repaired, it would come to light when the children were old enough to claim it. Moses couldn't claim to be knowledgeable because he could only see what surrounded him.

PQIF: He didn't have perspective. I like that. It reminds me of a Buddhist parable I know.

MM: I'd like to hear it.

PQIF: Two monks were travelling in the rainy season and came to a river they needed to cross. At the side of the river stood a girl in an expensive kimono -- and this dates from when even a cheap kimono could be priced equivalent to enough food to feed a family for a year, so the implication is that the young woman is a whore.

MM: OK, go on.

PQIF: She couldn't cross the river because of her priceless kimono. So the first monk picked her up and carried her across the river, depositing her on the other side. And the second monk is all, "Whaaaaa?" but doesn't say anything until they stop for the night.

As they reach the city the second monk can't hold his tongue any longer and he lets loose on the first monk. "I can't believe you did that! You know we're not supposed to have anything to do with women at all! What?"

The first monk just kind of looks at him and is all, "Um, dude, I left that woman on the other side of the river. Are you still carrying her?"

MM: (grins) That's great. That's great, I'll have to remember that.

PQIF: To me it says something about fundamentalism, about sticking your nose in other people's salvation. So does the first one. Of course, I'm kind of a collector of parables.

MM: Really?

PQIF: From a purely academic standpoint, they're excellent ways to determine the core values of a society, because parables usually illustrate ethics.

MM: That's true. That's very true.

PQIF: It also shows what they value: Christian parables deal with money and wealth a lot, not necessarily because people were greedy, but because in the time of Jesus people were used to a monetary system. But Eastern parables don't deal with that stuff as much because for a long time money wasn't measured in monetary units, but in amounts of rice, so parables about greed usually have to do with a crop, or a storehouse of rice, instead of finding a pearl of great price or something similar. Since literacy hasn't really been widespread throughout history, values tend to get passed down that way, and they're easier to parse out from stories like that.

In the one I told and the one you told one thing is clear: if you're focusing your energy on worrying about what your neighbor is doing with regards to his faith, you're distracted from your own spiritual path, which should require all your energy. Moses was wise and still couldn't believe that there was someone who could see farther than he could, past apparent sins into greater good. And the second monk missed out on his own time to meditate by worrying about the other monk's dedication to vows. Both are actions of pride, like we discussed.

MM: I'm really going to have to remember that one about the monks and the whore. I want you to send me the original if you don't mind.

PQIF: No problem.

MM: Here's another along those lines. Abraham -- same Abraham -- never ate alone his entire life. If he had to, he'd find an animal to share his food with rather than eat alone, because of the principle of hospitality.

So he met a traveller and invited him to eat dinner, and before eating the traveller blessed his food in the name of a foreign God. Abraham ran the guy off, said "You can't do that if you want to eat with me."

Allah talked to Abraham and chewed him out, told him that Allah had been patient with that particular man for 50 years, and Abraham couldn't even be patient with him for the space of a meal.

PQIF: It's such a shame that people don't know things like that about Islam -- or anything, really, just because the people practicing a perverted version of it are the ones they hear about. If they heard stories like that one as examples of Islamic thought, they'd retain more positivity.


MM: There are four states one can be in at any time, and actually you can be in at least 2 at once: in a tribulation, in a blessing, in accordance with the will of God, or not in accordance.

The proper response to a tribulation is patience, trusting Allah that there is a reason for the tribulation that you can't see with your limited vision. The improper response is despair; you can't truly despair if you trust your Creator.

The proper response to a blessing is gratitude, of course, and the wrong one is ingratitude, which includes taking all the credit for yourself.

The proper response to being in accordance is also gratitude, but slightly different -- the Arabic word has a meaning I can't really translate...

PQIF: I know that the words of the Prophet are in Arabic, and that the Koran can't be truly translated because the meaning changes, so I understand a little. Go on.

MM: You should be grateful to God for putting you where you are, in accordance. There's an overtone of joy there, because the improper response is to do it grudgingly -- you should always be joyful when you're doing what God wants. And of course the proper response to acting out of accordance is repentance and change, where the wrong response is to rationalize your intentions to make the sin OK. If you're acting with God, then there should be more good in the world, and less evil, and generally when you sin you're aware that it's not for any greater good but only for your own selfishness. Again, like pride, or greed.

PQIF: Actually that reminds me of the Pagan Law of Three, or sometimes of Seven: what you do, for good or ill, will come back on you, multiplied. It's not punishment, because karma isn't a punishment. But if you're the dad who hits the kid, and the kid goes and kicks the dog because he can't hit you back, when the dog bites you it's the evil you originally set loose that's coming back on you and you have no one to blame but yourself. Conversely, if you try hard to put more good into the world, there'll be more out there to come back on you. It's a "part of the problem or part of the solution" thing.

MM: We don't believe in karma exactly, but there is that idea; you can choose to make more evil or you can choose to make more good. Doesn't mean you'll get all blessings and no tribulations...

PQIF: Of course not...

MM: ...but acting in accordance usually means that there will be someone willing to help you through a tribulation if you need it, because you have spread hospitality and good will.

PQIF: Exactly.


There was a lot more than that in 2 hours, but those are the bits I remember best, in some cases kind of stitched together.

There may be more Conversations with my Muslim -- we decided that we needed to meet again and talk these things, and I hope he will come at some point and speak to the group about Islam as it's something none of us know more than the bare bones about. This is such a blessing for so many reasons, but one in particular.

There are a lot of Muslims where I live because my neighborhood is probably half immigrant if not more. Predominantly Hispanic, but there are a large contingent of African Muslims here, including the family who lives upstairs from me.

Fat Mo's, voted the best burger in Nashville on multiple occasions in the Nashville Scene yearly reader's poll, is our new Waffle House. You cannot stick to your diet at Mo's if indeed you are on one; you WILL eat a burger that weighs a pound and drips with grease, and like it, because it tastes like heaven. Or you'll do what DSH, who rarely eats red meat, does and eat a chicken sandwich the size of your head, with spicy fries, of course, because the spicy fries are enough to rhapsodize about. The guys who run it are Iranian Muslims; "Mo" is short for "Mohammed". Their meat is halal, and you see a lot of Muslims eating there, for that reason and the fact that, as I've mentioned, the food is really, really, really fucking good. Dammit. Now I want one, and I've eaten there twice this week already.

CDHSarah and I were eating there a few weeks back and there was a family eating there also; father, little girl of about 10, baby maybe 16 months. The little girl was wearing a red chador (the scarf that covers the hair but no other part of the face.) I noticed how she was fiddling with it, and also that it was older and a little too big for her, so probably her mother's. She wasn't quite old enough for one from what I understand about the custom, so to her it was obviously a very big deal and not something she was wearing every day yet. She kept checking herself out in every reflective surface.

We did to-go that night because CDHSarah had places to be later. On the way home, she mentioned that seeing the little girl in the chador had bothered her on some level. We talked about it. She -- and CDHSarah reads a lot and is not an ignorant person, but her knowledge of Islam is incredibly limited -- was under the impression that the chador was the first step to the burka, a notion of which I disavowed her. I pointed out to her that the dad and the baby had both had their hair covered as well, which she hadn't noticed due to her vantage point, and gave her my conjectures on the little girl doing the equivalent of playing dress-up in her mom's clothes. I also explained that the burka proponents are kind of the Islamic equivalent of the Assemblies of God people who think makeup, pierced ears, and pants are the Debbil, and that covering the hair is all that's really required, along with modesty in dress for men and women, threw in a comparison to the kippah (yarmulke) for Jews, and by then we were home and the conversation couldn't continue. She wasn't arguing against it, because she didn't know, but the little girl already in a chador before she had boobies just conjured up bad associations for her, things she'd heard on the news.

If people like CDHSarah, who is always studying religion, have been getting the wrong idea from the demonization of Islam in the "War for Terror and Against Oil -- No Wait, Strike That, Reverse it, Damn Teleprompter", what must people who have no interest in studying any religion other than their own be thinking right now about people like the courteous and respectful young man that sat and talked with me equitably for two hours, complimenting my dreads, listening to me and being listened to, with never a raised voice or shout of "Infidel!"? They probably think he's of the same mindset as the dirty cowards who blew up the WTC, whose imam apparently missed a few Vacation Koran School sessions about Moses and Abraham. And they are tragically, dangerously wrong, and that just makes me sad.

End hippy-dippy, "Tolerance R0xx0r$" post. Now, the media.

What I'm Reading

The Altar of my Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria by Marta Morena Vega. The author is the president of the Board of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, and the story is her story about coming from America to Cuba to study, and eventually be initiated into, Santeria and Espiritismo as an adult, in the late seventies and early eighties. It's awesome if you're interested in those things, which I am, very much.

A Whistling Woman, the last Frederica Potter book by A.S. Byatt. Constant Readers will know I've been rereading this series, which got put on hold during the Flu Epidemic and Great Kitty Cat Hunt, as it requires a lot of concentration and I wasn't having it.

Olivia Joules & The Overactive Imagination, for about the umpty billionth time, because that book always makes me smile.

I've also been kind of halfheartedly rereading my Wooster & Jeeves novels by P.G. Wodehouse, but I haven't been feeling them and plus have read them fifty gabillion times. I need to get new books. Stat.

What I'm Watching

Nothing, because the VCR is in one of its periodic snits and without it the DVD player won't work. Pawnshop, here I come.

What I'm Hearing

Nothing right now either because I am really tired, and forgot to turn the WinAmp back on after I got off the phone with my boss. But some of the highlights of the day have been:
The Story of Reuben Clamso & His Strange Daughter by Arlo Guthrie
Little Babies by Sleater-Kinney (the second most hynotic chorus in non-mainstream music in my opinion)
Orthodox Girls, a spoken word piece by Matthue that cracks my shit right up.

In my head, all day, ever since watching Bowling For Columbine two nights ago, Take The Skinheads Bowling. All. Day. Long.
I like that song, Michael, don't get me wrong, but damn. Did you have to make it the menu song too to ensure that it wouldn't leave my brain? Or did your awesome PAs handle that choice?


Unless you're going to talk shit, you may leave a comment. You can leave one if you're going to talk shit, too, but be aware I have very little patience at the moment as the moon is almost new, so I may hit you with the metaphorical kendo stick if I decide you're acting ig'nant.

(This does not apply to GoG, as I pretty much permit him to talk shit, cause I kinda like him, and he had good things to say when my kitty came home. Plus, he can't be called what my mom refers to as an "igmo", by any definition. Love ya, GoG!)


At 2:59 AM, Blogger Memphis Word Nerd said...

This is PERFECT! I've already forwarded it along to several people and I plan to send some more your way. Is there somewhere that you could publish this? It's beautifully written and a much-needed message.

At 1:28 AM, Blogger Memphis Word Nerd said...

I'd love to know know what you think when you've finished the santaria book. I've always been fascinated by the topic. One of my favorite authors (Zora Neale Hurston) was a major researcher in that field. My favorite grad school professor did some research in that area and published a few articles; I loved picking her brain on the topic.

If the book is good, I may have to track down a copy.

At 12:00 AM, Blogger parcequilfaut said...

Huzzah for forwarding (usual this is MY stuff disclaimer, but I trust you, darlin'. Hopefully they'll come by and stay a while.)

I was rereading that book so I can tell you, it's worth a read. had it pretty cheap when I picked it up. I can also get you the contact info for the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute if you want to email me.

Thanks MWN! Let me know what the other folks say.


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