Two letters from Unitarian Universalist ministers in today’s San Francisco Chronicle speak out against anti-Muslim acts, including the tiny-but-nasty Florida church which plans to burn copies of the Qu’ran on Saturday. Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway, ministers of the UU Church of Berkeley, call on non-Muslim congregations to include readings from the Qu’ran in their worship services this week. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, senior minister here in Palo Alto and writing for the Palo Alto Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, calls for tolerance and invites people to participate in an Interfaith Witness for Peace in Palo Alto on Sept. 19.
Once again, my purpose was to come up with a story that would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service, to show that many great religious leaders and prophets have legends of miraculous births. The legends about Muhammad’s birth (peace be upon him) interest me because they appear to be less important than the miracles told of Jesus’s birth (whcih make it into two of the four Gospels) or of Buddha’s birth (which make it into the Jataka tales) or of Confucius’s birth (which make it into the cultic traditions of Confucianism). Thus, when referring to miracles in this story, I have tried to use statements like “some people say,” etc.
At Christmas we like to remember the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But did you know that there are other miraculous birth stories of other great religious leaders? Today I’m going to tell you about the birth of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and I’ll tell you some of the legends that some people tell about his birth. See if you think these legends are at all like the legends that are told about Jesus’s birth.
The Miracles at the Birth of Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Once upon a time, many many years ago, far away in the land of Arabia, there lived a man named ‘Abdel Muttalib. As this story begins, ‘Abdel Muttalib was about 70 years old, and was the foremost leader of the city of Mecca. His son ‘Abdallah was then 24 years old, a young man renowned for the beautiful light shining in his face. ‘Abdel Muttalib took his son ‘Abdallah to some distant relatives, and gave him in marriage to Amina, the daughter of Wahb. Amina was said to be pure in her thoughts and deeds. (1)
The wedding took place at the home of the bride, as was the custom. After they were married, ‘Abdallah stayed with Amina for several days. Soon Amina was pregnant, but ‘Abdallah had to set forth on a journey with a caravan of merchants traveling to the distant city of Ghazza. As the caravan returned to Mecca, while in the city of Medina, ‘Abdallah became ill. He stayed there with cousins on his father’s side. Continue reading
The International Herald Tribune for June 1 carries a fascinating opinion piece by Aijaz Zaka Syed, titled “The West’s Contempt for Religion.” Link (And no, I’m not creating a link to something printed tomorrow, it’s already tomorrow in Parish where the Herald-Trib is published.)
Syed contends that the West has developed a general contempt for religion due to the excesses of Western Christianity:
The church’s excessive control over its flock during the oppressive centuries leading up to the European Renaissance (remember the Spanish Inquisition? Or how the church persecuted Galileo Galilei for his scientific beliefs?) and its unreasonable opposition to all scientific inquiry and quest for knowledge generated a popular backlash. As a result, much of Western society banished the church forever from its life and day-to-day existence. More important, this hopeless conflict left a deep distrust and contempt for all religions in the Western mind that remains far from shaken.
Because of that contempt, Syed says that religion in the West has become something that is restricted to the individual, or at most to within the four walls of a church.
I’d like to think that I can understand religion as a matter of personal experience and conviction (in fact, that’s part of my religious system), yet it can still be something I take very seriously, and not treat with contempt. Yet Syed has a good point — Westerners do have a tendency to either condemn religion, or slide into fundamentalism. It would be nice to find a middle ground of respect.
In the mean time, Syed ends by saying:
Whatever Washington’s explanation [for the Koran desecration incident], this is certainly no way to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds. If this is what President George W. Bush had in mind when he promised ‘human liberty and democracy’ to the people in Muslim lands, the Islamic world would be better off without America’s gifts. Thanks but no thanks.
Nor will Americans win any global friends by taking the condescending attitude that all religions are bosh, and worthy only of contempt. Sorry, my anti-religious friends, but an American superiority complex can take many forms.