I don't know how it is for most believers who change their religion, but for me modern Christianity and modern Islam often play complementary roles, teaching me the same lessons from two different directions.
For instance, quite a few years ago, shortly after I had left Evangelical Christianity and joined Sunni Islam, the two Shiite Muslims I sat beside on my first Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca taught me what I still think was one of the most important lessons I ever learned about what Jesus said in the Bible.
It was a long conversation, all the way from Frankfurt to Medina, and as I sat there listening to them talk about their Hidden Imam, I suddenly realized they sounded just like Pentecostal Christians talking about the Holy Spirit. And I realized that just as the way that Spirit's interactions with diverse Christian believers has divided Christianity, so too has individual Muslim believer's diverse "ecstatic" experiences divided Islam.
And that also meant that the one unforgiveable sin Jesus condemned in the Holy Bible, generally translated as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, was the same sin that God condemned in the Holy Quran -- that of assigning partners to Allah -- the only difference being that the two religions were looking at the two different sides of the same awful coin. Because in both cases believers assume they know more than they really do about things beyond their understanding, and make God smaller than God really is.
Our different beliefs about and experiences with the Holy Spirit divide Islam and Christianity from each other too, for much the same reason. Christianity -- at least for the last 1,600 years -- has taught that the Spirit is part of the triune God, despite the fact that for their first 400 years a slowly shrinking majority of Jesus' earliest followers in the Middle-East -- slowly decimated and then finally eradicated by the more politically connected Greco-Roman Church -- actually believed Jesus was the incarnation of God's first act of creation, the "First-born through whom all else was made" referenced by the opening verses of the Gospel According to John.
Meanwhile most modern day Muslims believe Al-Ruh and Sakina are merely different names for the angel Gabriel or even just the feeling of peace and tranquility one feels in the Spirit's presence, even though God's angels and that Spirit are referred to as separate entities throughout the Quran. In fact, there's no verse that actually names the Spirit "Gabriel" at all, and far from giving us that Spirit's true name, the Quran specifically told Muhammad what to say if his followers asked him too much about it in Al-Israh 17:85.
His recommended answer? Something that was pretty close to "It's none of your business."
Honestly? Our arguments over exactly who that Spirit is -- and the way we use those uncertain beliefs to exclude one another and ignore the lessons we could both teach and learn -- has given us a world of problems. Whereas, acknowledging that God's Wisdom speaks to all those who listen could do us all a world of good instead.
Because despite most believer's obvious enthusiasm for consigning the followers of other faiths to hell eternal, according to the words and acts of both Jesus and Muhammad exclusionist believing is just plain wrong.
How did we get to where we are today from where we were when our faiths first began? Thinking they own access to God Most High -- and using it to augment their own importance -- is something religious hierarchs have been doing for what seems like forever. So when Jesus -- and other Jewish holy men like Khoni the Circle Drawer, whom I think is very cool -- appeared on the scene working obvious miracles, the fact they were outside the temple's control drove the heirarchs to accuse them of using Satan's power against Satan and only pretending to work for God.
In reply (recorded in Matthew 12) Jesus told them that what they accused him of was simply impossible. Satan could never do anything good, and God's Spirit could never do anything evil. So good paths belong to God and lead to God, even if they're not the same as yours. He then condemned their accusations as "unforgivable" blasphemy and laid out the very important Christian principle that you should only judge a person by their actions.
And then, by invoking the "Queen of the South" and the "Men of Nineveh" to stand against those sorts of abuses, I think he even predicted the coming advent of Islam.
Yes, I know that's not what modern day Christianity says Jesus meant, but what they do say he meant --that the unforgivable sin he condemned is actually denying that Jesus is God -- absolutely contradicts what Jesus DID say: He was quite clear God didn't care what anyone said about the Son at all. Check it out for yourself.
Because those sorts of strained interpretations, ignorant of the reality of what either Jesus or Muhammad actually said and actually did is also what's become wrong with modern day Islam, and why we Muslims have become so divided. Our suspicious concern that other people's paths toward God must be subject to our own assessment assumes something that is solely Allah's prerogative, and draws us dangerously close to Islam's only unforgivable sin. Because those same principles Jesus laid out, that Satan can only do evil, that God and God's agents can only do good, that good and righteous paths spring from good and righteous sources, and that a person should be judged solely by what they do are central tenets of Islam as well, with one other very important observation added to the list as well.
In Islam you can't sin by accident. You can only sin on purpose.
That's right. According to Muhammad's Islam, even if your particular beliefs are demonstrably and absolutely wrong, if you believe they're right then you're not guilty of sin or worthy of condemnation. You just have more to learn. In fact, the word Kafir that Takfiri Muslims throw around so freely today wasn't one the earliest Muslims were ever comfortable using, because it requires that you bury what you KNOW is true on purpose.
It's true. If all you want is conflict and arguments, then all you'll find is conflict and arguments, no question. I think that's why there is so much religious conflict and argument out there, because so many of us aren't looking for anything else. But it's equally true that according to Muhammad's Islam no matter WHAT you believe, if you seek God you will find God.
And God, if God chooses, will always be able to lead you Home.
So what would Muhammad do with that fractured sort of Islamist believing, with Muslims acting as if everyone has to agree with us and follow our lead? I think he'd tell us we're crazy. Rather than being focused on Islamic purity, Muhammad even commended Judaism and Christianity as perfectly acceptable paths to Gods' peace, and he didn't even condemn Jews and Christians for the obvious places where they had deviated. Instead, he humbly welcomed their arguments, followed Jewish law for Jews whether they did right or wrong, followed Christian precedent for Christians in the same fashion, and unfailingly promoted religious freedom over religious dogma while trying to keep everyone from killing each other. And yes, I'll admit that a couple of generations later they were all back at it again, but that's because they weren't following Muhammad's example anymore.
Don't think he had an open-minded and open-hearted approach to doctrinal infidelity?
He even allowed Christians to pray to the Christ is in his Mosque, while he was still there!
One of the biggest arguments raging in Islam these days is whether or not Ahmadi Muslims should be allowed to call themselves Muslim, when both Ahmadis and Muslims should know it doesn't really matter. Our Quran promises God's Peace to anyone who believes in God, fears the Last Day and does good things for the rest of God's creation. Yes I think some Ahmadi beliefs are wrong, and more than a little loopy: If Jesus really HAD come back in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, I don't think only Pakistanis would have noticed. But the Ahmadis don't believe they're wrong, and so just like the followers of Bahaullah who left Shiite Islam over a hundred years ago, they don't deserve our condemnation, only our open hearts and hands like Muhammad showed to the Christians and Jews and Pagans -- those who weren't guilty of treachery, intrigue and attempted genocide -- of Arabia.
Because whether their beliefs are core Muslim doctrine or not, there's no question whether Ahmadi beliefs -- and Bahai, and Mormon, and Christian, and Jewish and Hindu, Tao and pretty much every other religion out there today for that matter -- encourages them to do all that and more.
On the other hand, our attempts to prove otherwise often leads us to promote what's wrong with other religions, stuff that either isn't true, or wasn't there when they began, or isn't being applied with proper understanding, something which -- even if it isn't a sin, which I think it is -- is certainly unproductive.
We're ALL a little loopy.
With God's help, it's all good regardless.
If we believe in God and that we are Created, instead of something that's just happened to come to pass, then I think we all also believe that our lives are a Journey with a purpose that's not quite clear, one where we meet other fellow-travellers along the way.
And if it happens, it means God Intends for us to meet each-other, and to know each-other, and to learn from each-other.
Perhaps the reason why we have so many different religions with which we share that same journey is to give us each better perspectives on the path before us: someone following a different path from ours can look at us and tell us when it looks like we're straying too far and we can do the same for them. Helping each-other follow our own unique paths to peace because of our differences, instead of despite them.
I know I tell my children that they should embrace their mistakes as evidence of their God-given humanity and opportunities to learn rather than things to be upset or embarrassed about. Only God's perfect: The rest of us aren't supposed to be. There's an old Sufi teaching tale, one that's apparently also found among the Aboriginal faiths of North America, that posits humanity in a giant circle, surrounding that place between all of us that is closest to our Creator, closest to the place we all want to be. Some of us are facing away, but others among us are facing inwards, striving inwards, and with God's help moving inwards as well.
The neat thing about that visualization is this: The fastest way to get to the middle is to embrace the person the furthest from you in that circle, the one who seems to be facing and striving to move in the opposite direction from yours because your apparent conflict is only an illusion.
And someone who's truly closest to God will seem miraculously able to give good advice about a person's own personal and individual journey to anyone, without making them feel like someone was trying to change them.
Kind of like I've learned Jesus and Muhammad did.
So for 2013, how about we believers strive to embrace the "Other," rather than fearing the "Other" so much?
God knows it couldn't work much worse than what we've all been doing with all our different heart-felt faiths so far.
And Happy New Year!