“Listen For Islam” with Kristen Psaki

Entire Service From February 21, 2016, Discussion & Potluck

With Guest Speaker Kristen Psaki

Welcome and Announcements

Today’s Guest Speaker, Kristen Psaki graduated from Union Theological Seminary in NYC in May of 2014 where she studied psychology and religion. She is currently pursuing ordination with the Unitarian Universalists and leans most heavily on the Seventh Principle in her daily life by rooting her relationships with humans and the earth in an awareness of interdependence. She loves chocolate and coffee and you’ll often find her adventuring through mountain trails or interesting recipes with a vision for a shared meal.

Opening Music

“Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
Words: Adapted from Rumi, 13th century Sufi poet; Music: Lynn Adair Ungar

Come, come, whoever you are,
wanderer worshiper, lover of leaving.

Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again come.

Opening Words

“If it is language that makes us human, one half of language is to listen.
Silence can exist without speech,
but speech cannot live without silence.
Listen to the speech of others.
Listen even more to their silence.
To pray is to listen to the revelations of nature,
to the meaning of events.
To listen to music is to listen also to silence,
and to find the stillness deepened and enriched.”

— Jacob Trapp, Unitarian Minister

Chalice Lighting

“The sun turns a key in a lock each day
As soon as it crawls out of bed.

Light swings open a door
And the many kinds of love rush out
Onto the infinite green field.

Your soul sometimes plays a note
Against the Sky’s ear that excites
The birds and planets.

Stay close to any sounds
That make you glad you are alive.”

—Hafiz, 14th century Sufi poet

Candles in Community (In Unison)

It is a significant and cherished tradition in this congregation
that we set aside a special time at each gathering
to share with each other the joys and sorrows of our individual lives.
We treasure these embracing moments of sharing,
for we believe that it is through sharing
that our community is strengthened as our lives weave together.
We take this time to speak sincerely and lovingly to each other,
and also to listen sincerely and lovingly to each other.

—Original Author Unknown
Provided by Nanette Graham
Founder of Orcas Island (WA) UU Fellowship

Interlude: The voice of an American Muslim woman

A reading of Mohja Kahf’s “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears”

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink of the bathroom at Sears to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer, wudu, because she has to pray in the store or miss the mandatory prayer time for Muslims.

She does it with great poise, balancing herself with one plump matronly arm against the automated hot-air hand dryer, after having removed her support knee-highs and laid them aside, folded in thirds, and given me her purse and her packages to hold so she can accomplish this august ritual and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares.

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown as they notice what my grandmother is doing, an affront to American porcelain, a contamination of American Standards by something foreign and unhygienic, requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray.

They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom.

My grandmother, though she speaks no English, catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says:

I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems.

I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus over painted bowls imported from China among the best families of Aleppo.

And if you Americans knew anything about civilization and cleanliness, you’d make wider washbins, anyway.

My grandmother knows one culture—the right one, as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them, my grandmother might as well have been squatting in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor, Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which, when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.

“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests, turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”

“We wash our feet five times a day,” my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.

“My feet are cleaner than their sink. Worried about their sink, are they? I should worry about my feet!”

My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers, all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum.

Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed, is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse. For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps that match her purse, I think in case someone from one of the best families of Aleppo should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display.

I smile at the midwestern women as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them and shrug at my grandmother as if they had just apologized through me.

No one is fooled, but I hold the door open for everyone and we all emerge on the sales floor and lose ourselves in the great common ground of housewares on markdown.

Exploration: “Listen For Islam” by Kristen Psaki

I remember the first time I visited a mosque. I was really nervous. Curious, very curious, but nervous. I wanted to have an open mind and an open heart but, despite my best attempts, these heavy questions about women, oppression, power – these questions filled my pockets to the brim and weighed me down as I walked through the doors.

My experience at the mosque that day was rich and I could share with you how welcomed I felt, how I was wrapped in love and hospitality, how generously they shared their spirits and how open this community of fairly conservative American Muslims was to my group’s curiosities and questions, – but what I really want to share with you is about the moments when we prayed together.

I followed the women to a small room down a few carpeted steps. Thinking we were just going to sit quietly by a side wall while the women prayed, when they invited us to participate it was unexpected. Many thoughts began spinning through my mind, “Do I participate? Do I have to agree completely with Islam in order to take such a posture of prayer? I don’t even know what they’re saying.

But then I heard the call to prayer…and it was this beautiful music. The sound of this singing in Arabic plucked a deep heart-string within me and all of the swirling energy in my mind dropped into my heart.

Have you ever had one of those moments when a song comes on the radio, or at your home, or maybe an experience with a choir at church and something about it is just so beautiful that it can bring you to tears – and release a swell of unexpected emotion – for reasons that your mind doesn’t totally understand? Well, it was like that. This was that kind of song.

With a full heart I took a position behind one of the women and perched on my knees. Guided by the sound of this beautiful music I focused on my breath and when I bowed and rested my forehead gently on the earth, I surrendered into capital “L” Love. I felt gratitude for feeling loved and for the capacity to love others.

* * * * *

I think I assumed one needed to be Muslim in order to participate, but the reason why these Muslim women so fluidly invited us to join them in prayer is because in those few minutes, five times a day, they are celebrating and reaching for what is Loving, Just, and Beautiful. Of course they wanted to share it with us.

There’s a great teaching story that describes a man looking through a kind of window into a
room. He sees people flailing their hands and contorting their bodies making all sorts of odd gestures. And he decided with much certainty that he was looking into a madhouse – until a door opened and he walked into the room, and he heard the music. He realized that it wasn’t a madhouse, they were dancing.

When we don’t hear the music of another tradition, we’re more likely to see each other as mad people.

And, as we lean into our curiosities about Islam I think it is really important to bring our tough questions, but I also think opening our hearts and listening for the music of Islam stirs up the fertile soil necessary for interfaith dialogue and multi-faith communities, soil that is ripe for growth and relationship.

* * * * *

Professor and Muslim jurist Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl grew up partly in Egypt. When reflecting on his childhood and youth he describes a mounting anger and frustration as being the fuel that drove him toward Muslim fundamentalism.

The crushing levels of corruption and tyranny left him feeling very angry at Egypt’s government and the international ruling class. And when he first joined the Muslim fundamentalist community he felt a sense of belonging, of purpose, and of power.
But then something changed. Partly sparked by a verse in the Qur’an that celebrates the diversity of humankind, El Fadl began, what he called, “a journey toward skepticism with my fundamentalist friends.” Although he had read this verse many times before, he read it differently this time:

“In humankind,” reads the Qur’an, “God has created you for male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other.” And not to know each other as acquaintances, explains El Fadl pointing to the root of the Arabic word, but to connect, to really know something about the other.

El Fadl began to realize that trying to destroy someone or a group of people was antithetical to Islam. That Islam teaches us to see our differences as intentional, with a purpose, so that we may know each other. He took the great risk of leaving the fundamentalist community and currently is a leading voice for liberal Muslims world wide and lives in the United States.

El Fadl is a scholar of Islamic law as well as a theologian. He has committed much of his adult life to adding detailed thought and experience – rooted in the Qur’an and its supporting texts – to the liberal Muslim body of work. He feels that for every moderate or liberal iteration of a tradition there are thinkers and practitioners who spend the time to ground the liberalism in text and history. That connecting back to tradition helps us move forward toward liberal values in Islam.

Although there are important differences, El Fadl’s experience speaking out as a liberal Muslim might resonate with this community or your personal experience as a liberal religious voice in the midst of a conservative Christian landscape.

* * * * *

When El Fadl talks about his journey toward this diversity-and-human-rights-loving Islam, a journey, he describes, of “wrestling Islam from extremists” – he always talks about beauty.

Experiencing, knowing, and creating beauty, offers El Fadl, is central to Islam and the Muslim experience. “Beauty” he confesses, “is to fall in love with God, to fall in love with the Word of God, with the Qur’an, to read it and to feel that it peels away layers of obfuscation that I have spent numerous times building around myself.”

“Beauty,” he continues “is to look around me and fully understand and feel, therein is God, in all that I see – ”

For some of us, El Fadl’s use of the word “God” might leave us on the sidelines. But, I invite you to stay in it with me a little longer. Because I think you do know the feeling that accompanies an experience of beauty that he’s describing.

In this teaching, Beauty – is to see something, to feel something that peels away the layers of obfuscation, the layers of fog. For me, I immediately think of these mountains. These towering rocks teeming with life and keepers of history.

Sometimes after a long day in the midst of a long drive – and thoroughly fogged up by my mounting to do list – I’ll make it to a stoplight at the top of a ridge and get struck by an expansive view of the mountains. It’s one of those views where you can’t tell where the mountains begin or where they end, they just go on and on in their ancientness and wisdom across the sky. It’s an experience of beauty that pierces through my fog for a few blissful moments.

Sometimes I also have this feeling when I first smell lilacs in spring. Or even my first sip of coffee by a window in the stillness of a quiet morning.

In these moments – and sometimes they really are just moments – there’s an experience of beauty that stirs the spirit. A sacred kind of beauty where something within us awakens in the midst of the experience. The beautiful song within our own hearts, within our deepest centers of Wholeness, recognizes the beautiful song playing outside of us, like the ballad belted by the mountains, and we sing together.

Like Hafiz says in our chalice lighting, “Your soul sometimes plays a note/Against the Sky’s ear that excites/The birds and planets.”

I invite you to take a minute to remember a moment of beauty that you’ve experienced. You might let your eyes close as the memory takes shape. Maybe it was recently or maybe a moment popped into your attention from years ago.

What were you feeling in the midst of that moment? Was it peaceful? Did you feel a sense of connection?

El Fadl says: “To experience these emotions – and I call them emotions – not at the level of philosophical thought, but to feel them, to vibrate with them, to sit in a room alone feeling utterly in the midst of companionship – that to me is beauty.” And for Khaled Abou El Fadl experiencing this Beauty is experiencing God.

* * * * *

The word for beauty in Arabic is Jamal. The tradition within Islam that El Fadl and others point to that highlights the centrality of Beauty is one that is supported by the Hadith, or the collection of sayings of the prophet Muhammad, “God is beautiful and loves beauty” reads one Hadith.

A visible manifestation of this teaching can be seen in the richness and splendor found in Islamic Art & Architecture, or in the allure of Sufi poetry’s inspiration.

And, the tradition of Beauty in Islam is also a reference to goodness. “God describes Godself in the text of the Qur’an consistently as the beautiful” offers El Fadl. He adds that the text of the Qur’an itself gives us clues as to the many dimensions of this divine Beauty. When God identifies God’s beauty it’s in the context of descriptions of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.

Opening ourselves up to this expanding sense of sacred beauty described in the Qur’an uncovers a new collection of everyday moments where we meet the Divine.

I work in a hospital, and even in the midst of sickness and of loss there are these beautiful moments of compassion and mercy. A grown child gently brushing the thin white hair of her mom who has dementia. Or a stranger helping a stranger in the parking lot get from his wheelchair to the back of a taxi.

Whether it’s a moment we witness or one we are a part of, whether it’s the glimpse of infinity revealed by the mountains or the tender touch of a new friend or a loyal pet – each moment of beauty offers an instance of connection to the great mystery at the center of the Universe.

Reverence for beauty is part of the song of Islam. And although it’s the Qur’an for El Fadl and it might be poetry for you, by way of those sensations that accompany an experience of beauty, we can find a meeting place.

* * * * *

There are over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today. That means almost a quarter of the entire human population is Muslim. Recent news suggests that if we add up all the participants of groups around the world that commit acts of extreme violence in the name of Islam, it’s a little over 100,000 people, which is about .00006% of the entire Muslim population.

I offer this very imperfect image in numbers because the stories of billions of Muslim people, as mothers and fathers, activists, and professors feel unseen by most non-Muslims in the midst of this global moment.

Like the story of Rami Nashashibi. A Muslim and Palestinian-American who created an organization that uses graffiti and hip-hop as healing arts for Muslim American youth on the South Side of Chicago. Nashashibi named the organization the Inner-City Action Network, or IMAN for short, which means “faith” in Arabic.

Or the story of Ingrid Mattson, the first woman and convert to head the Islamic Society of North America, one of the largest associations for Muslims in the U.S. and Canada.

Or Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer, who will be the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympics in hijab, or the head scarf.

Or Eboo Patel, a Muslim and Indian-American who believes that “religion is a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division” and who founded the Interfaith Youth Core to bring youth together around dialogue paired with acts of service.

And then there are many millions of Muslims whose names we haven’t said who love their children, take care of their dying parents, and try to support their communities.
Perhaps you find yourself coming to the defense of the Muslim family you’ve imagined banned from the US in 2017 under a President Trump. In your mind you know Islamaphobia is woefully unjust and dangerous. As Unitarian Universalists we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We fight for justice and believe in equity.

But our living tradition also draws on diverse sources. From science to poetry and personal experience to wisdom from the world’s religions – including Islam. What if we engaged Islam and stood up alongside Muslim-Americans facing discrimination not just from the place of justice and equity, but also as seekers who are open to learning and growing by the light of the wisdom teachings within Islam.

Because if we allow ourselves, if we open ourselves up to hearing some of the music coming from Islam, we might just end up dancing our way to a future of healing and multi-faith community living.

May it be so.

Breakout Group Discussion Questions

1. Can you think of a moment recently when you experienced or were struck by beauty? What was that moment?
2. Do we consider ourselves part of the liberal religious voice? If yes, what is it like to be a liberal religious voice in a more conservative religious community?
3. What are some ways we might continue to open our hearts to Islam and to the American Muslim experience?

Extinguishing the Chalice (In Unison)

We extinguish the chalice here that it might glow gently in our hearts.
May it light your path as we leave this place.
May it guide your way until we are together again.

—Martha L. Munson, UU Minister

CRUUC Chalice