Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004
The Journeyman Ė The Making of a Muslim Quaker -- page 2
Sound healing practices have become an important personal hobby of mine. The listening as well as the execution works equally well for the soul. I have become a student of David Hykesís work with The Harmonic Choir <www.furious.com/perfect/davidhykes.html> producing incredible sustained overtones as a self healing tool useful to oneís spiritual healing path.
Sufism goes well beyond the sound work Iíve mentioned. Its basic doctrine is one of love, with its own trinitarian emphasis of Lover, Loved and Love. For me, its poetic works and emphasis on mysticism, supported by the influence of the universality of Quakerism, brought the realization that I had climbed out of my Christian box. It simply had too many holes in it.
But, one very large question always remained and that was my relationship to the gospel teachings. Who could take issue with them? It seemed clear that over the centuries the teachings of Jesus had often been ignored or abused in the name of Christianity, but the teachings always remained available to be put to use or rediscovered for the hopes of future generations. In the words of Muhammad, "The heart is between the two fingers of the Merciful."
Another current that drew me was monasticism. Life in the Middle East puts one directly in touch with monasticism. When living there one canít avoid the awareness of being surrounded by ascetic practices that are directed towards a purification of the soul and one can easily get caught up in an almost spontaneous desire to satisfy oneís religious consciousness through direct contact with God.
Iím not suggesting that I was drawn to monastic practice. On the contrary, such practice seemed to be institutionalized and called for being experienced but not joined. The monastery of Mar Saba near the Dead Sea was my favorite one to introduce to visitors, but this was really no more meaningful than a visit to my favorite castle in Syria, the Krak des Chevalier, or visiting Petra in Jordan, my very favorite archeological site.
In my experience, those who fall in love with the Middle East discover very quickly that God is to be found everywhere, and in particular, one can find God immediately available within the relentless passion of its active Muslim community. The Quaker understanding that "there is that of God in everyone" is somehow more easily discerned when it is not burdened with the manifestation of evangelical Christian agendas, particularly those constantly on display overseas where we promote democracy prematurely for some cultural settings.
Upon returning to the West in 1965 I must have brought with me a nomadic urgency, because I have since made a multitude of moves involving six states. I went to Haiti on behalf of The World Council of Churches and subsequently returned to New York to become an Associate Director of CWS. Then, in the early seventies I was privileged to serve Pendle Hill as its Administrative Director in a backup role to its Educational Director. A special privilege that came with that was having Howard Brinton on campus, retired but wonderfully active. After he passed on his vibrations were alive and well in our daily Meetings for Worship.
Influences such as children and grandchildren are partly to blame for my wandering, but the primary influence has been pragmatic in connection with my work in syndication and land development activity. Any proclivity for service work needs to be funded beyond the straightening of childrenís teeth or eventual college tuition demands. Ending up today in Asheville (semi-retired) can be traced to a modest investment in forest acreage made with a partner in 1968. The land is still there waiting to experience its inevitable future. To some extent Iíve lived in a closet on this because so many Quakers are critical of any environmental activity relating to the demands of our population growth.
These movements have resulted in a wider Quaker experience within several Monthly and Yearly Meetings. Every move has demonstrated extraordinary differences in each, mostly wonderful but some a little rougher than one would expect, based on what Iíve always perceived as an ingrown institutional stereotypical and almost untouchable ego. As Quakers by osmosis we seem to represent ourselves as being so special and who knows, maybe we are. I have no reason to complain. I donít allow this to get in the way of my own spiritual quest.
These same geographic movements have given me an opportunity to witness the adaptation of Arabic culture to the West, with particular emphasis on our own immigrant Muslim community. One has to cultivate such contact and in so doing I have had the advantage of limited Arabic language skills. Conversely it also helps to keep them alive. Iíve come to realize and enjoy a personal need to cultivate those ties. Itís an extraordinary culture. I label it as one of the heart. You will not find Arabs on welfare. And once contact is in place they are quick to join in that mutual need to continue to identify with genuine warmth and kindness.
Another realization soon entered into this formula for wanting to foster this cultural relationship. I was taken back to the differences between the Muslim and Christian Arabs that I experienced earlier. And now, here it was again, surfacing within our own secular society. Without any depth of intellectual research I soon decided that it had to be a difference born out of the influence of the West as opposed to that of the East. In other words, many Arab Christians had been converted to western cultural standards despite the fact that the Middle East was the cradle of Christianity.
I had long ago come to the realization that Christian fundamentalists are as big a problem to our culture as the Islamic fundamentalists are to theirs. They both have been painted with the brushes of terrorism. Geographic lines have been diluted. The differences appear to be only degrees of sophistication when such a word is aptly applied to terrorist activities. We Westerners are perceived Ė correctly Ė by the East as a malignant society and this feeds the roots of terrorism. They also Ė correctly Ė consider us arrogant and that has fostered claims of an indirect or devious imperialism. The latter does not occur in a vacuum and the current end result of a terrorist response is very difficult to avoid.
Iíve come to recognize two important needs for America and the West. First of all, it is obvious that we will have to learn to get along with Islam. Then, what is not so obvious is that we will have to depend upon Muslims to get rid of their own extremist elements, just as Christianity has to deal with its own. War and temporary occupation simply does not work. One need look no further than the abortive occupation of Palestine over the past 56 years, and the recent introduction of walls to create Palestinian ghettos may prove to be the last straw.
9/11 resulted in an extension of my Islamic journey, and paradoxically, a renewal of my Christian roots. Although I had enjoyed social contact with the local Imam (Muslim teacher) in Asheville I had never visited the mosque during its Friday prayers. 9/11 was the springboard that prompted my first visit to the mosque itself, intended to show my support in case we experienced any local reaction as was being reported in isolated incidents across the country. Since that first visit I have now developed a regular Friday habit.
I already had some sense that Islam has perhaps a better understanding of the teachings of Jesus than Christians do. Islam literally means Ďsubmissioní and is based upon the concept of peace. It makes no division between secular and sacred, and I resonate to this. For instance, I am not one of those who would ask for the removal of our being Ďone nation under Godí in our Pledge of Allegiance, although I have not been available to the Pledge itself for many years.
The tragic acts by Islamís lunatic fringe on 9/11 are aberrations from Muslim fundamental Koranic understandings. My first mosque visit in 2001 was prompted by the immediate ignorant and paranoiac profiling treatment of those in our midst who appeared to be Arabic. Those of us in my generation were immediately reminded of the injustices caused by the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. I knew I had to reach out to be supportive, not only to my Arabic friends but to the powerful diversity of the Muslim congregation that I found, standing shoulder to shoulder and kneeling as one body to face the East in a posture that brought their hearts together as one in contact with God.
At the mosque I found a mixture of Arabic nationalities, Africans from many different countries, Indonesians and a few American blacks who had converted in recent years from their Christian upbringing. My initial visits to the Mosque were not without incident. The first found me completely alone except for the evidence of a pair of sandals. My shoes joined them while I went looking for the owner who never did appear. A true romantic might have equated that experience with the sandals of Jesus. The second visit required my being rescued by the Imam. Thirty pairs of eyes were upon me, the newcomer with a perhaps bewildered westernized pale face who was provided with the only chair in the rear of the room plus a visual instruction book on the moves required to make congregational contact with Allah.
My third visit found me standing in the back row and after the call to prayer I was soon experiencing the act of prostration which resulted in my glasses flying out of my shirt pocket! Horrors! What to do? I was no longer pale. I could feel the blood rushing to my head. Retrieval seemed imperative but difficult. Only later did I learn that such was not a problem. My errant glasses were not in the way, and if they had been then one would just pick them up.
Before a subsequent visit I asked the Imam for permission to tape the Call to Prayer. No problem. So, the following Friday, by this time fully confident of all the moves, when I prostrated myself the tape recorder went flying out of my pocket! Anyone familiar with Arabic culture soon realizes that intrigue plays a large role in establishing new relationships. I was still too new to be fully accepted and when my recorder took center stage I instantly knew that my cover had been blown. One or more would think that due to the paranoia of 9/11 the CIA had planted me in the Mosque to record the weekly thirty minute messages of the Imam.
Again, however, I was rescued by the Imam, Yusef. He and I had been visiting church groups in the area to explain Islam and with this incident he now introduced me to the congregation of the mosque, about 40 strong, not as Brett but as Abu Yacoub (my Arabic name) and since then I have become known and accepted. The introduction of course included my prior life and activities in the Middle East.
I must now digress and go back to 1999 to provide some background that relates to the eventual influence that took hold some time after 9/11. Quakerism for me has always involved the technique of centering down. Long ago I often wondered about those who were unable to take advantage of that approach in making ones self available to God in a Meeting for Worship.
In Ď99 I came down with a mysterious brain disorder which was originally diagnosed as Parkinsons Disease, changed later to a variant of Parkinsons, and then changed again to a variant of Multiple Sclerosis Ė and now, perhaps finally, the diagnosis as a variant of both. The tremors caused by this disorder are such that Iíve been unable to center down, the nature of the tremor being that it becomes active at rest. Any attempt at centering down results in an internal quaking that introduced me to the posture of those in meeting for worship I used to be curious about i.e. those whose active brains didnít allow them to center down. I soon learned that my only recourse in meeting was to piggyback upon the words of others. Contact with God had become congregational again. And, in regard to the Mosque practice, here it was again, congregational.
There are twenty-two moves to be made in the act of making contact with God in Muslim prayer. One stands in a body, then in sync hands are held up, then brought down and crossed with the right hand over the left and so on thru a body of moves and when oneís forehead and nose touches the floor, with oneís toes pointing inward, that is perhaps the initial moment of contact with God or, as Quakers say, Ďthe meeting has gathered.í Iíve not made reference to the multiple vocal responses in Arabic that are called for. To me they are not unlike a mantra (I wonder what the plural might be for such?).
And so my long term interest in Sufism began to be experienced, not in the direction of a sophisticated intellectual pursuit but rather towards basic tribal or family oriented weekly worship based upon Koranic teachings which include the Hadithic supplements written after the death of Muhammad. Such became the traditions of Islam as understood by the early Arab scholars and they have remained in place for a long time, but today modern Muslim scholars are inclined towards the essential Quaker belief that Iíve heard more than one Imam express in pointing out that "God can breathe His spirit into man." That and other similar understandings prompted me to explore Islam well beyond my earlier interest in Sufism. My early individual studies turned into an extensive Islamic library that includes both eastern and western writers.