One World 4: Islam as Older Brother

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Like most of Americans, I lived most of my life with almost no knowledge of Islam. Growing up, the only information I received about Islam was taught by Evangelicals who warned us to fear this religion, but whom likely had never read the Quran, nor known a Muslim. Islam, like all religions, has a strict fundamentalist arm of their faith which gets all the negative press. As a result, most Americans have a deep fear of Islam which is partly understandable, and partly out of ignorance.

Islam, like Judaism, is a monotheistic religion tracing it’s history back to Abraham. If you’re not familiar with the story, Abraham’s wife Sarai (later changed to Sarah) was barren and in desperation gave her maid servant, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife in order to bring forth children. Thus the first born to Abram was Ishmael through Hagar.

In ancient Middle Eastern culture, the older brother is the blessed child and receives the larger share of the family wealth and inheritance, but beyond that, it’s the older child that is typically given the “blessing” of the father. This blessing is the favor of God passed on from one generation to the next. It’s a really big deal.

An important note here is that in the Hebrew scripture of Genesis, which is upheld in Islam (though varies quite a bit in the Quran), the lineage of the patriarchs completely subverts the tradition of blessing the oldest son. In each generation of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, it’s the youngest son that each receives the blessing of God from their fathers to the chagrin of the older brothers. It’s subtle, but its a subversive message to those who put too much weight in their tradition and structure. God is saying, I will bless whom I chose, not whom you chose.

Later when Sarah (formerly Sarai) becomes pregnant as promised by God to Abraham, she gives birth to Abrahams second son, Isaac. It’s a tale of two lineages, one which is of the tradition and the flesh through Hagar, and one which is of the promise through Sarah. (Galatians 4:21-41) Prior to Sarah being with child, her jealousy of Hagar created huge tensions in the family and Sarai (here name at the time) ends up sending Hagar away to die in the desert. Out in the desert, the angel of God speaks to Hagar and tells her to return and submit (Islam means “complete submission”) to the family. The angel also prophesies:

“Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael
(means God will hear),
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
(Genesis 16:11-12)

Hagar receives this proclamation and Ishmael is raised as the first born of Abram-the older brother. Later, God establishes a covenant with Abram, changes his name to Abraham, and promises a child through Sarai, now called Sarah. This child becomes Isaac who fathers Jacob who is renamed Israel. If we miss the tale of these two lineages, we miss a vital lens through which to view Islam. The story continues and proves that God is blessing and prospering both tribes. In fact they grow and interact and eventually (war) with each other not only all through scripture, but continue to do so to this day. The contention to this day is which tribe is the rightful heir to the promised land.

Once we see this aspect, we can begin to appreciate the rise of Islam with Mohammad who establishes the Quran as the holy book which will restore Islam back to the original faith of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. I find this to be very interesting, and this is why last week I taught Judaism as Archetype. It’s important that we see the true faith of Abram (Prior to Judaism) and acknowledge that something existed there and Islam teaches that Mohammad was the conduit for God’s revelation of the Quran. True Islam tries to follow the lifestyle and teachings of Mohammad, revealed in the Quran (known as the Sunnah). In the same way that Abraham existed prior to Judaism, so Mohammad existed prior to Islam. Isalm is and has always been about “complete submission,” but the question is; “to what?”

Most explorations of religion focus on the differences in the never ending game of “My God can beat up your god.” Each religion has apologists who defend their faith, but in actuality, they are defending the religion, the tradition, the framework of belief, or the doctrine. My approach is different. Knowing how futile those discussions are, I would rather we try and see what is bubbling up through it all. Modern Islam is in love with its Mosques, Imams, and power plays in precisely the same way modern Judaism is with its temples and priests, and Christianity is with its’ Churches and pastors.

Was Mohammad trying to wake people up after centuries of tradition? If he were here today would he try and do the same for modern day Muslims? Would he help restore people back to “complete submission” to God or to the religious practice which came later?

I’ve read through the Quran only about three or four times. Like reading the Old Testament, the Quran has a flow not unlike the Pslams, because it’s meant to be sung or chanted. It has a similar rhythm as proverbs where the themes phase in and out in only a few verses and return upon themselves. There are portions where the praise elevates the soul as well as the fear of offending Allah pits us against ourselves and the world.

Again, it’s pointless to approach other faith systems with a “My God can beat up your god.” disposition. I’ve heard evangelicals say that in Islam, Allah isn’t a friend of the sinner whereas in the Hebrew scripture, Yahweh is compassionate to the sinner. Of course, that ultimately depends on which passage we are reading. Yahweh is happy to bring destruction on sinners just like Allah, so this appears to be more about not being familiar with the text and how to interpret it. To argue that these systems of faith are trying to describe two different Gods is to fall prey to the trap of one’s own fundamentalism.

Remember, Abram’s faith is the basis of every system (archetype). It is for the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian. This faith existed before any of these religions did. Mohammad was trying to create a structure that would bring people back to this same faith. Along the way each tradition, ratified itself and created factions, distinctions, and ultimately hostility by focusing on the container and not the contents.

For me, the most devout Muslim is not the fundamentalist, but those seeking the freedom to practice their faith as the original faith that pre-existed all religions, including Islam’s five pillars. Yes, on a surface level, following the five pillars is following the teachings of Mohammad. However, if the true goal of Mohammad was to get back to the true faith, then those who would return may have to bravely break away from those who see such pursuits as falling away. This is precisely what Abram would have experienced when he turned away from his kindred and his land to follow the voice of God. This passage from the Quran seems to point in this direction.

Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians–whichever party from among these truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds–shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve.” (2. Al-Baqarah 63)

I’ve come to trust sacred text more than those who teach it from their respective positions of power, profit, and politics. This series will reveal how each religion has value, but each falls short and has the potential of corrupting the true faith by forcing compliance with threat, fear, intimidation and harm. Each religion, uses their texts to oppress humanity and bring about the ends of the religion and when this happens, that which the founder experienced and hoped to share, is lost in tradition and religious power plays. The true believer is him or her who completely submits to God, who surrenders all outcomes, who trusts in their Maker above all else. This is true for all religions and I think this is what Islam was and is still trying to say, though now its obscured by the religion itself.

“Surely, the true religion with Allah is Islam (complete submission)…” (3. Al-e-Imran 20.)

If you read this and are offended or defensive, then you are probably too over-identified with your “competing” religion and your are missing the faith that comes through complete submission. If you are a Muslim and read this to conclude that the true religion is ONLY practicing the 5 pillars and not submission on the level of the heart, then you too may be over-identified with your religious practice and may be missing the essence of your own prophet’s teaching. It’s a mistake every person of faith makes within every religion.

The question for all of us is this: Do we submit to the tradition and religious practices or do we submit to the voice of God which may call us deeper into them as well as call us out of them? Which is more vital to life and spiritual progress: the obedience to the flesh and tradition or the obedience to the promise and the call of God? Will the Jew return to the faith of Abram? Will the Muslim follow Mohammad’s call to return to the faith of Abram which started it all? Both monotheistic religions have become the older brother, enrobed in external displays which can mask over an insincere heart. But God sees us. Each of us. Its up to each person to follow in Abrams footsteps away from our kindred, away from familiarity, away from tradition, and into the land that God will show us. This is very hard to do from within religious frameworks.

When we are able to follow the voice, the message, or the call, the faith we share among us is exactly the same. It’s a faith that subverts every claim upon our lives and our being, because only God can determine who we really are. It’s a path of liberation. It’s a path of submission to the main thing. It’s a path of authenticity. It’s the faith of Abram, it’s the call of Mohammad, and as we will see later, it’s the message of the Gospel.