I have a lot of great friends from a variety of religions, best evidenced by the outpouring of support, affection and prayers when my wife had major cancer surgery last month. I was truly touched when I received word of prayer services in churches, mosques and synagogues literally from around the world. Words cannot express the depth of our gratitude for all your earnest kindness. My wife was particularly moved to learn that across her birth country of Pakistan and the Middle East, food was donated and hungry people were fed in her name. God bless you all.
But my agnostic friends also deserve a shout-out. Because even though they weren't sure whether their prayers could do any good, they were in there with me throughout all the same, doing everything they could think of to help out too, as far as I'm concerned doing just as good of a job honoring God's commands that we look after each-other as everyone else did, even though they're not even sure whether God exists or not!
However, it's the prayers I want to talk about.
Because although my Muslim and Jewish friends didn't feel it necessary to clarify exactly which God they were praying to because everyone of us knows we pray to the same one. Many of my Christian friends -- respectfully, kindly and to my mind tragically -- felt they needed to assure me they were praying to the God of Abraham rather than to Jesus, because they thought I'd be offended otherwise.
And as far as I am concerned, that's mostly because Muslims for the last thousand years have consistently failed to live up to either the commands of the Quran or the example of Muhammad regarding interfaith relations, and thereby have warped the development of both major world religions, leading up to the growing and unnecessary conflict we see developing between Islam and Christianity today.
Frankly, it's gotten so bad between us all that I even have to clarify my admission that I have great Jewish and Christian friends. Because extremist Muslims and extremist non-Muslims alike will tell me I can't because the Quran says Muslims shouldn't be friends with Jews or Christians.
The verse they're talking about is 5:51, which many translate as if it says, "O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians for friends (awliyaa). They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk."
But they do so in woeful ignorance of the real meaning of the word awliyaa, because it doesn't mean "friend" at all. It's actually something much closer to "protector," "helper" or "guardian." It is from a family of words that mean "leader" or even "crown."
In ancient times, a person's awliyaa was an important role more akin to a modern day power of attorney. In that context, the command isn't against having friends among Jews or Christians, it's against putting our destiny into their hands: something that remains good advice to Muslims today.
But the way that command is willfully mis-translated by conflict seeking Muslims and non-Muslims alike speaks not just to how far we've all stepped off the path to peace God's prophets promote, but also how easy it would be for us to step back on if we're willing to listen.
In simplest terms, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Does God care so much which team we play for, or does he care more about how we play the game?
Muslim/Christian religious chauvinism's not new, and it's not one-sided. In his "Narnia Chronicles," C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite Christian writers, wrote about a "false-God-follower" who, when he met the character Lewis thought represented the true God, was told: "I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash [the false God] ... if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him."
The thing is, in that series, the Calormen --who worshipped Tash-- obviously played to the worst anti-Arab stereotypes, demonstrating that Lewis wasn't immune to prejudice, but he made an important point about faith, which he clarified:
"I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ."
And regardless of his prejudices, Lewis is certainly far kinder than many current Christian theologians, who seem quite prepared to consign even the best Muslims to eternal damnation. More importantly though, he's also completely in line with the teachings and behavior of Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, David and the Christ, among others, alike.
Because Muhammad liked Christians! And he liked and respected Jews and Judaism, too. (If you're interested, Google "Mukhayriq" and the Constitution of Medina.) His uncle Waraqah, the first person who declared his prophethood, likely remained a Christian til the day he died! What he didn't like was Christians and Jews who said one thing and did another, but he disliked Muslims who did that even more.
But more important from an Islamic perspective than his personal feelings were the way he treated Christians, and the promises he made them. The biggest theological difference between Islam and Christianity has to be belief in the Trinity, and that's the main doctrinal point the Quran takes issue with: few Christians today recall that belief in the Trinity wasn't even part of Christianity until the fourth century A.D., or realize that today's Muslims are likely much closer to the beliefs the earliest Christians held dear than today's Christians are.
But belief in the Trinity was taking hold among Christians at the time of Muhammad, and he had to deal with many Christians who not only believed that God could be Three as well as One, but also the belief that Jesus was God as well. Did he condemn them or abuse them for it? Absolutely not!
In fact, when the Christians of Najran came to Medina to debate theology, they quite respectfully asked permission to leave the city to worship the Christ. And even more respectfully, Muhammad told them they didn't have to leave the city at all, and invited them to use his own mosque for their worship! Because Muhammad knew that even though their belief was wrong, it was sincere, and like C.S. Lewis, among many others, he too knew that all good prayers and good deeds go to the same good place and the same good purpose, regardless of how much we know about it. And when they left Medina -- still Christians -- he promised them Muslim protection for their freedom of religion forever.
I often pose "dogmatic" believers a simple question: If I raised my children on a desert island, with no other influence but mine, to believe God wanted nothing more than for them to paint their bellies blue, and if they died with blue-tinged abdomens, would God punish my children or me? You'd be surprised how many figure out some way to justify God punishing us all.
Muhammad, on the other hand, didn't care so much about doctrinal purity. In fact, there's a Christian monastery that's been at the foot of Mount Sinai for the last 1,500 years, which cherishes a document that was dictated by Muhammad and transcribed by Ali (whom Shiite Muslims also revere) that promises Muslim protection for Christians and for Christianity, a promise they made binding on all Muslims everywhere till the end of time.
"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (the end of the world)."
Muslims in Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia in particular should take note.
Now, I think the reason why believers find themselves in conflict with other believers so often is a simple one: The one belief everyone shares, but that divides us from one another regardless, is that we're right about what we believe and we think it matters.
But how much do we know about exactly what Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael believed about God, beyond believing God was One and, as such, above believer's polytheistic playing-one-God-against-another manipulations? Did Moses think God's covenant was only with the children of Israel, or did David think Jerusalem's Temple was for Jews and Jews alone? Did Jesus need to indoctrinate either Samaritans or Roman Centurions before he served them? The answer to all those questions is a resounding "NO!" if you take the time to find out the answers for yourself.
And I think it's incredibly important that we all do so and soon. Not only does the belief that God cares WHAT we believe more than what we do about it divide us unnecessarily, it is also the belief that sits at the heart of the religious radicalism that's currently plaguing us all.
Thinking God cares more about your team jersey, about whether you play for the Saints or the Cardinals, the Servants or the Crusaders, than whether you play by the rules He's set out is
- what allowed the 9/11 bombers to destroy the World Trade Centre and think they could still make it to Heaven ,
- what allows Jewish settlers to abuse non-Jewish Palestinians and think they've serving God's purpose for Israel and
- what allows Christian theologians to exhort Americans to vengeful conquest and still think they're somehow serving the Christ.
But I'm Muslim, and so I ask all my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, and especially those who think they can or should abuse, mistreat or even kill non-Muslims: Does Allah really care so much what we believe, so much that He doesn't care what we do? Al-Baqarah 177 says otherwise:
It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in the Lord and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and giveth his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and who sets slaves free; and who observeth proper worship and payeth the poor what they are due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God fearing.
Because honestly? I think thinking YOU can make God do something; like let YOU into Heaven no matter what YOU do because of what YOU believe, makes YOU bigger than God -- at least in your own mind -- and that's the biggest sin in Islam!
So what's my bottom-line? Heaven can be as big as God wants it to be, even big enough for everyone if He chooses to make it so, and I think it's my agnostic friends who so far have the best of it.
Because by not trying to put God into a box of their own making by way of their own believing they show God the most respect of all of us, regardless of their uncertainties, which quite frankly are mostly the fault of us "true-believers" because of the awful things we've done purportedly on God's behalf anyways.
We Muslims and Christians and other believers, on the other hand, are well on our way to making earth a living Hell for all of us by pretending otherwise. We should put that sort of self-serving, short-sighted believing behind us, before it's too late for all of us.