Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ramadan, interfaith dialogue, tolerance

Fatih Harpci

Going back to approximately 14 centuries ago, one of the last nights of the Arab month of Ramadan, maybe August in the year 610 C.E., we witness a caravan traveler, merchant, husband and father named Muhammad [pbuh].

Muhammad ibn Abdullah is worried about what he sees around him. At that time, many people in the commercial and religious center of Mecca were greedy, hypocritical and hardened toward the poor, orphaned and widowed among them. They cheated strangers, fought with neighboring towns, schemed shamelessly to make a profit. When cunning failed, violence and vengeance seemed the paths to success. The society had lost its moral and spiritual moorings.

Muhammad had already rejected the traditional polytheistic religion of gods and goddesses who did not wince at the exploitation of women and the killing of unwanted baby girls. What could one senior citizen do? He went on a Ramadan retreat to a cave on Mount Hira overlooking Mecca. One night, he was shocked, frightened and energized.

As he later narrated, a divine presence enveloped him, and demanded, “Iqra!” Did it mean Proclaim or Recite? Muhammad hesitated, “I can’t,” but the angel persisted until Muhammad realized that he needed to move beyond “I can’t” to “What should I say?” Then the words came: “Iqra! Proclaim! In the Name of your Lord who created, created humans out of a clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And your Lord is most bountiful. He taught the use of the pen, taught humans that which they did not know.” (96:1-5)

Muhammad went to the mountain a concerned man. As a result of what later became known as the “Night of Power,” he returned, bewildered about what happened and what to do next. When he went back to his home, his wife, Khadija, did more than give him a hug. She believed God called him to do extraordinary work in the world. His daughters, a blind old man, who also happened to be one of Muhammad’s closest in-laws, family members, friends, a black slave, some rich and mostly poor women and men said: “Yes! Iqra! Proclaim and we will be with you.” The Iqra message is empowering. In essence the message is “Seek God. Seek Peace. Seek Life.”

The Iqra message is not new; it is the same ancient command, expectation and promise that God has built into the structure of the world to get the attention of humans and move them to action. The Iqra message has been proclaimed by every age and place, from Adam and Enoch (Idris), from the Buddha and Noah (Nuh), from Abraham (Ibrahim) and Confucius, by prophets like Jonah (Yunus) and Salih, sages such as Solomon (Süleyman) and Luqman, and through messengers such as Moses (Musa) and Jesus (İsa).

Whatever else rituals and rules, theological teachings and scriptural texts provide, it is the Message that has a bedrock promise and warning, expectation and call to responsibility. Put simply: The Creator has designated all humans to be God’s caliphs -- representatives and leaders -- and created them to care for this world, to care for one another individually and communally, to accept responsibility for what we do and do not do, and, in our different ways and cultures to honor and serve God.

Indeed, as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam, states God’s plan involves our being different from one another so that we will learn from one another and find our unity in and with our Creator. Moses put it organizationally: “Open your hands to each other and share what you have; love your neighbor as you love yourself, and there will be no poor among you.” Jesus put it spiritually, “Seek first the Kingdom, the Rule of God and all else will be provided.” Islam holds, “To each person is a goal to which God turns that person; so then strive together [all of you] towards all that is good wherever you are. God will bring you together.” (2:148)

Muhammad, as did the other prophets and messengers, heard the Divine commands to feed the hungry, comfort the bereaved, provide for the healing of the sick, give hope to the despairing. The Message before and after the Night of Power on Mount Hira in Mecca pulls people together to do these tasks. The Quran version calls on everyone to be rivals not in piling up possessions and positions but in virtue, helping and seeking justice. That kind of rivalry builds human unity through promoting peace. In the third chapter of the Quran, Surah al-Imran, verse 104, Muhammad reported he heard, “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting all to join in doing good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.”

The month of Ramadan is an opportunity to realize the Quranic exhortation to stop piling up possessions and positions, but instead to engage in virtuous actions. Muslims agree wholeheartedly with the Quran that there will be a group from within the servants of God that will invite all persons to join them in doing good, helping others, bringing justice and advocating for what is right. This Ramadan will be an “Iqra” moment. Senior citizens, youth, men and women of different races, social standings and backgrounds and religious commitments will join in the message to “Seek God. Seek Peace. Seek Life.”

Inter-religious dialogue is absolutely essential in wiping away the fogs of greed, mistrust and fear that blur our vision. I personally believe that while we cannot erase past and present animosities, we need not relive them, thinking of ourselves as victims or victors, but rather as humans who have a future together as God’s caliphs. On this Ramadan, I am certain that we will witness the tolerance of the Turkish people once again with the iftars (fast-breaking dinners), Turkish coffee nights and so on. That is far more than tolerance. It is standing in the place of the other, of regarding the other person with kindly, accepting, understanding eyes. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “Find out why another person fears, rejects something in me and work to explain or change, then look at the other to discern what I might learn from and honor in the other person. Tolerance can lead to forgiveness, and forgiveness to compassion. That trio of tolerance, forgiveness and compassion can move us from ‘I can’t’ to ‘let’s act even if we do not agree with everything’.” The final result will be stepping toward genuine peace.

Building peace takes hard work, dedication, dialogue -- coming together with willingness to be open to one another. That is a biblical vision Jews and Christians might call the Peaceable Kingdom, as good as it can get with God’s help and our efforts before the end of this world. Before any of us is a Jew, a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim, we are humans. Our common humanity should bring us together to serve in this world as we are talented and have the resources.

Source: Today's Zaman, 20 July 2012

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