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War and Peace, Cross and Crescent
by George Leonard, David Denny, George Dardess, and Jamal Rahman

Introduction: David M. Denny
During Ramadan (September 1-October 1, 2008), I want to introduce three members of our Desert Foundation circle of friends. George Leonard of Mississippi recently wrote me a thoughtful letter raising questions about Islam that came up in his neighborhood church’s discussion group. Rather than answering him directly, I invited two friends to join the conversation: Roman Catholic deacon George Dardess and Fr. Dave Denny and Jamal RahmanJamal Rahman (http://www.jamalrahman.com), a Muslim Sufi minister. George has worked and prayed with the Muslim community in Rochester, New York for years, and my review of his Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians appears at the end of the following exchange of letters. Jamal Rahman resides in Seattle, where he often joins Christian and Jewish confreres to speak about possibilities for peace between the Abrahamic traditions. His book The Fragrance of Faith is a wonderful introduction to the warm, wise path he walks, inherited from his Bangladeshi ancestors.

Letter from Dr. George Leonard
Dear Fr. Dave,
I so enjoyed your latest piece in Caravans, especially about your multicultural experiences with the Religions of Abraham.

Our neighborhood Church discussion group has been struggling with Islam; some say that it is a Religion of Peace, and others that it a Religion of War and Violence. We guestimate that only about 10% of Muslims are radical extremists, but what about the other 90%?

Some quote the violence in the Koran, and the fact that even Muhammad, considered by himself and his followers to be the greatest of all prophets, led armies of plunder and is said to have murdered almost thousands with his own bare hands. Yet much of the Koran decries violence, and Muhammad was on other days a very gentle and peaceful and loving man.

Why are not the Moderate Muslims more vocal?

We understand that Muhammad lived in a time and culture of violence, and that Christianity had its times of extreme violence also, as in the Crusades. And that the Old Testament was full of violence.

But that doesn't seem to explain it all. At the end of the day, Jesus was a peaceful loving Man, and true Christianity obviously a religion of Peace and Love.

How do you see it?

With the love of Christ,
George Leonard

Deacon George Dardess Responds
Dear Dr. Leonard:
Fr. Dave has passed your thoughtful letter on to me and has asked me to respond to it. I’m glad to do so, and hope very much I can be helpful.

First of all, I’m pleased that you and your Church discussion group have been “struggling with Islam.” I’m pleased because by doing so you’re showing you refuse to settle for the instant opinions that come to us on this and every other matter through the major media. You’ve instead chosen to “struggle with Islam” in the context of prayer and of honest, soul-searching reflection. This choice is grace-filled and will bear fruit, if you can keep at it!

But the temptation is to yield to what we’re told about Islam and about Muslims by the usual news outlets. For the fact is that those outlets are extremely unreliable about Islam as about so much that concerns our common interests. Sensationalism and the “bottom line” are the forces that tend to govern the media’s decisions about what goes out over the airwaves and how it is presented.

For example, it is simply not true that moderate Muslims are “not vocal.” The problem is that moderate Muslims cannot get a hearing in the major media. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that there is no central figure in Islam, like the Pope, who can presume to speak for all or at least a great number of the faithful. But even when moderate Muslims do gather to write and issue important documents emphasizing the common prophetic values all members of the Abrahamic religions share— love of God and love of neighbor— they are barely mentioned in our media. I doubt very much that the document “A Common Word Between Us and You” recently published by the Kingdom of Jordan and signed by over a hundred influential Muslim clerics took up much or any space at all in your newspapers or any time on your TV broadcasts. Yet it is a very significant statement by the “moderate Muslims” that we so often hear “are not speaking out.” If your church group has not yet seen this letter, please urge them to do so and visit the various other links offered there at www.acommonword.com Other websites you should investigate to get the flavor of “moderate Muslims” here in the US would be those for two leading Muslim magazines, Islamica and Horizons (the magazine of the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA). Visiting these sites will quickly introduce you to a hitherto obscured world of “moderate Muslims” doing their best to be good citizens in a country that is growing increasingly hostile to them.

Just one further point. You say that “true Christianity is obviously a religion of Peace and Love.” I couldn’t agree more! Yet you and I would both have to admit that over the course of the centuries this “true Christianity” has been sadly betrayed by those acting violently in her name. As a Roman Catholic, I’m ashamed to have to point out my own denomination’s preaching of Holy War to initiate the Crusades. I could give many, many other examples of similar betrayals of Christ’s teachings by his self-proclaimed followers, and not just in the dim past either! My point in mentioning these sins is not to denigrate Christianity. My point is to say that both the past and the present contain many sad instances not only of Muslims betraying the foundational teachings of their religion but of Christians doing likewise. We are all sinners. My hope for the future is that, as one people under God, Christians and Muslims can work together to fulfill our common mandate to Peace and Love.

With every best wish,
(Roman Catholic Deacon) George Dardess

Jamal Rahman Responds
Dear Dr. Leonard:
Many thanks for your interest in Interfaith dialogue.

In the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad is the “Seal of the Prophets.” This means that there will be no more Prophets of Revelation till the Day of Judgment.

The Holy Book repeatedly warns that no Muslim, including the Prophet Muhammad himself, should discriminate between the Prophets. In a telling verse, God tells the Prophet Muhammad: “There is nothing revealed to you that has not been revealed to other Apostles” (41:43). It is against the spirit of the Qur’an for a Muslim or non-Muslim to boast that the Prophet Muhammad is the greatest of all Prophets.

I hope you will not misunderstand me when I tell you that every Muslim will reject your remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (murdering “almost thousands” of non-Muslims with his own hands etc.) as historical untruth, propaganda and fabrication. Over the centuries, many scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, have pointed out that the Prophet's detractors from the seventh century to the present time, have systematically and deliberately spread false rumors about him, fearful and frustrated that an "upstart" from nowhere burst upon the Arabian landscape, successfully challenged the corruption of the religious Institutions of his time and attracted an extraordinary number of followers. I recommend the work of contemporary scholar Reuven Firestone, who has researched this issue.

I am not saying that Muslims are above resorting to tactics of slander and character assassination. The lower self, when motivated by fear or arrogance, whether Muslim or Christian, does not behave with honor. But there is a lopsidedness here that I, as a Muslim, urgently need to point out.

Some Christians who are upset by Islamic extremists might unabashedly criticize and castigate the Prophet Muhammad, often in vile terms. But no Muslim, no matter how angry he or she is about the behavior of Christians, will ever utter one word against Jesus who is deeply revered in Islam as a Prophet and called "Spirit of God" in the Qur’an. No Muslim will ever mention Jesus or any Prophet without uttering in the same breath, "Peace and Greetings be upon him."

The lack of awareness about the authentic life and ministry of the Prophet Muhammad in the West is tragic and, in my opinion, is both the cause and effect of bias and prejudice. I recommend reading A Prophet for our Times by Karen Armstrong. How many non-Muslims know that the Prophet Muhammad was a profound mystic who from a tender age meditated regularly in the majestic silence of the Meccan caves, sometimes for forty days and nights? The Qur’an has its roots in the womb of silence when the Prophet experienced an epiphany called "Night of Power."

How many know the historical truth that when delegations of Jews and Christians visited the Prophet in the seventh century, he always requested them to do the Shabbat and Sunday Service in the Mosque, for "it is a place simply consecrated to God.”

How many know that two of the Prophet's wives were Jews and one was a Christian.
How many know that the phrase "People of the Book" appears often in the Qur’an and that the word "Book" is always in the singular, suggesting that the Qur’an is a third installment of the same Book. In a remarkable revelation, the Qur’an says:

"We believe in God
And what has been sent down to us
What has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael
And Isaac and Jacob and their offspring
And what was given to Moses and Jesus
And all other Prophets by the Creator
And we make no distinction between them."
(Qur’an 2:136)

Are there awkward verses in the Qur’an? Absolutely! The Qur’an does have difficult and awkward verses whose meaning depends on the interpreter's state of consciousness and intention. In the imagery of the Islamic mystic Rumi, both bee and wasp drink from the same flower, but one produces nectar and the other, a sting. There are verses that, if read literally and in historical isolation, lend themselves to exploitation. For example, the Qur’an tells us, "Take not the Jews and Christians for your friends and protectors. They are friends and protectors to each other" (Qur’an 5:51). Without knowing the historical context of this verse, one could certainly read it as a condemnation of Jews and Christians, but scholars agree that this verse refers to a specific historical incident and is certainly not a universal condemnation. Another verse in the same chapter affirms the basic goodness of other believers: Those who believe, those who follow the Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Final Day and do good, all shall have their reward with their Sustainer and they will not come to fear and grief" (Qur’an 5:69).

Regarding violence and extremism there is a remarkable book recently published: Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito. This book is critical for our times. It summarizes a mammoth and unprecedented GALLUP Poll study (2001 to 2007) of a sample representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims in fifty-seven countries. It allows data to lead the discourse.

A major insight is that militant theology is created not by Islamic principles but by political radicalization. The majority of Muslims believe that the “ruthless” US government is neither serious nor sincere about fostering democracy in Muslim countries and that Western policy is rooted in disrespect for Islam and a desire for economic and political domination. The war on Islamic terrorism is viewed as a war on Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, the data amazingly says that the politically radicalized, even more than the moderate, is eager to foster governmental democracy in Muslim countries.

We live in difficult times. Many Christian and Muslim hearts are clenched because of fear, anger, distrust and suspicion. The Qur'an explains, "It's not that their eyes have become blind, but their hearts" (Qur'an: 22:46).

How can we open hearts? How can we restore love and harmony to a relationship that has been hurt and damaged? Force will not help. It will only cause more clenching. Reason will help a little, but it is not enough.

Only that which comes from the heart can open another heart.

A problem cannot be solved at the level of the problem. We have to rise above it. We have to become more authentic, more evolved. We have to open our heart. From that spaciousness will emerge loving and creative solutions.

We need to take to heart Mahatma Gandhi's plea that if a religious extremist commits violence, please do not criticize that person's religion. Rather, point out to this person verses and insights of beauty and wisdom from this person's own Tradition. Help this person to become a better Muslim, Christian, Jew or Hindu. This, Gandhi explained, is the way to peace in a pluralistic society.

Spiritual teachers from all traditions have pointed out that if someone says, "My religion is better than yours," this is not religion speaking, but one's untamed ego.
It is wise to meditate on Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn's profound insight:

"If it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

The Qur'an says "Repel evil with something better so that your enemy becomes your bosom friend" (Qur’an: 41:34). In another passage, the Holy Book says that God created diversity so that "we might get to know one another." (Qur'an: 49:13) Of course we have to protect ourselves but we also have to open our heart and get to know the other, whether the person is a Christian or Muslim extremist, on a personal level, as children of God, and without any agenda. God is forcing us to go beyond our conditioned biases, excuses and patterns. Our Creator is telling us that if we have the time and energy to engage the other in conflict and hatred, we indeed have the time and energy to engage in dialogue, compassionate listening, higher awareness and right action. "God, the Lord of Grace unbounded," (Qur’an 2:105) will help us in our sincere endeavors.

In Friendship,
Jamal Rahman

Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians
by George Dardess, Paraclete Press, 2005
Reviewed by David M. Denny

Meeting Islam by George Dardess For Christians who wish to know more about Islam, especially as it takes root in America, Meeting Islam, by George Dardess, provides an excellent beginning. Dardess, an ordained Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Rochester, describes his odyssey into the world of Islam in his own city. Deeply disturbed by America’s military responses after 9/11, Dardess decided to learn Arabic. He describes the unease that afflicted him when he arrived at the local Islamic Center for his first class. “Did I think I was going to be jumped on by fanatics and cut to pieces? I realized to my shame how vulnerable I actually was to years of anti-Muslim propaganda” (p. 4).

Dardess not only has nothing to fear, he falls in love with the Arabic language, develops a profound respect for the Qur’an, and enjoys deep communion with his Muslim friends. But his reflections are not pseudo-irenic claims that our differences are superficial. In each chapter, he recounts his exposure to Muslim teaching and practice and then reflects on it through New Testament teachings and the new perspective he has gained. He tackles some profound differences, including the meaning of jihad and the Muslim conviction that Jesus was a great prophet, but not divine.

The warmth of Dardess’s writing grows from both his own humble thirst to learn and from his personal relationships with Muslims. He describes how his friend Yasmin stood before a gathering in Rochester to oppose the Patriot Act. He is moved by her courage in declaring that the Act threatens her family and it contradicts the Bill of Rights and the U.N. Charter of Rights. Through her, Dardess learns that jihad does not mean launching a violent manifestation of God’s wrath, but rather “to strive towards a righteous aim,” “to be a non-violent witness to human dignity” (pp. 142, 144). It is “a struggle for peaceful co-existence and mutual understanding in a pluralistic world” (p. 147). He compares jihad with agonia, the Greek word used for Christ’s “struggle” in the garden before his arrest, and to Paul’s admonition to “fight the good fight of the faith” (p. 153).

Jesus is called “’Isa” in the Qur’an. “What I didn’t reckon on,” Dardess admits, “was the way the Qur’an would induce me to grow fond of ‘Isa and to admire him, just as Muslims do” (p. 157). Dardess suggests that Christians may become possessive of Jesus, and this possessiveness may prevent us from rediscovering him. While studying the Qur’anic references to ‘Isa with his Arabic tutor, Dardess fully expected to be disturbed by the texts.

I used to say to myself, while we were working through such passages, Surely something in me will revolt at these statements, since I don’t in fact believe them and since they directly contradict what I do believe. Yet all I could find in my heart was peace. It was as if the heavy weight of doctrinal confrontation between Islam and Christianity had been transformed, made somehow light or had been shifted somewhere else, perhaps upon Someone else. (p. 159)

Left alone in the mosque, Dardess addresses Jesus in prayer: “… here I am talking with you, in some ways more comfortably than I’m able to do inside one of your own churches” (p. 160).

Dardess comes across as a very good pastor: he both comforts and challenges. His exploration into Islam with his Muslim friends convinces him that “being a Christian involves a kind of adventurousness, a certain kind of risk-taking. Loyalty to who we are: This is essential. So is openness to the possibility if not the probability that we’re more than what we are, or think we are” (p. 169).

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