For the second year in a row, SPC Scholar-in-Residence Rabia Terri Harris addressed the annual Interfaith Peace Conference, hosted by Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center. "It concerns the fate of the world!" said Rabia. "Jalaluddin Rumi said, 'Aim for the sky, and you may get to the top of the roof.' Wherever we land here, I hope you find the view interesting."
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In the Name of God All-Merciful Most Compassionate
The Prospects for Forgiveness
by Rabia Terri Harris
presented at Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference
Lake Junaluska, North Carolina
November 11, 2016
As-salaamu `alaykum. I’m honored and excited to be back with you here at Lake Junaluska. We have a lot to talk about today. Last year I wrote 25 pages and ran a little over my appointed time. This year I fully intended to write only 20, but I must tell you I ended up writing 30 instead. So although I’ve edited things down a bit, be warned: we are all going to have to concentrate. I hope that you’ll find the effort worth it! There are six sections in all, so we can pace ourselves. I am very grateful for your attention.
Now the conference organizers asked me to do two things today: to give you a sense of the impact of climate change on the Muslim world, and to talk about a theology of activism — which I took to mean climate activism. This is a little tricky to do, because the changes are already well underway, and many may be irreversible. But what that situation says to me is that we must now commit to working at a much deeper level, a spiritual level. No more tidying up the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to get ready to jump.
I. The bad news
Let me dispose of the first item on the organizers’ wish list quickly. Of course climate change is going to have an impact on the Muslim world, and it is mostly pretty grim. Trying to figure out what the Muslim world might be (since there are now Muslims everywhere), I came up with a list of the top ten largest Muslim populations. A couple of hours of messing around on the Internet gave me quite a lot of information, and I am going to highlight it for you in 10 quick Powerpoint slides. I won’t spend much time on these — please don’t try to read them all! — but they will be going up on the conference website, so you can access them later if you want all the dispiriting details. Let’s show them now.
See slides 1-10
Of course thoughtful Muslims have seen all this coming, and many have attempted to get governments to act on it, and to raise public consciousness so as to build pressure.
August 18, 2015 saw the publication of the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, launched at the UN as part of the Paris climate talks. You can read it at islamicclimatedeclaration.org.
It is a noble document. The Muslim World League also came out with statements on the environment in 2003 and 1986, as have many smaller groups at humbler venues. In 2009, at a conference in Istanbul, about 200 Islamic leaders and scholars endorsed the Muslim Seven Year Action Plan on Climate Change, supposedly to run from 2010 through 2017. You can read the plan at dialogue4all.com.
But in 2010, when the International Muslim Conference on Climate Change was convened at Bogor, Indonesia, the proposed Muslim Association on Climate Change Action (MACCA), through which the plan was meant to be coordinated, fell foul of politics and was never set up. The result is that nothing concrete has yet arisen from all that labor. This is the way of the world.
So I am going to invite you into a different frame, into the life of the spirit. The image beside me may be familiar to you: this is a semazen of the Mevlevi Order, a so-called whirling dervish. “Dervish” is a word commonly used in Persian and Turkish for a practicing mystic: the word means “one who waits at the threshold” — or “beggar,” if you prefer something less lofty. Dervishes are beggars at the door of God. There are lots of different kinds of dervishes, and the great majority of them do not perform this whirling practice. But it is so beautiful that it has become iconic, and its name is very relevant to our agenda today: it is called The Turn. I am going to be talking to you a lot about turning, later.
The Mevlevi Order was inspired by one the few Muslims whose names might be familiar to you all: Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. Among many other accomplishments, Rumi wrote huge amounts of poetry, some of which has been influentially – and loosely – translated by Coleman Barks. One passage speaks to me both of the image before us and of the slides that preceded it:
Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you're perfectly free.
That is a terrifying prescription. Very easy to say. Very hard to do. Beauty in the midst of chaos? But there is a secret to this practice, and it is contained in a famous Qur’anic verse:
Wherever you turn, there is the face of God. (2 : 115)
First, though, we have to dispose of the very human propensity to want to give up. The temptation, when we are overcome by despair, is to believe that everything is over, and in religious communities this belief will take on a religious coloration. What I will be arguing this evening is that no activist of faith needs to buy in to that view of the world.
II. The end of the world?
The questions that lurk behind all the sad predictions that have reached us, and continue to reach us, are, first: is the situation we are facing the end of the world, or is it not? Second: what does it mean for us if it is the end of the world? Third: what does it mean for us if it isn’t? And finally: what are we supposed to do, in either case?
As we well know, these questions face everybody, not just Muslims. But our particular traditions and identities are precisely the resources we have available for formulating our responses. We are now in need of understanding ourselves as human in ways that most of us never needed to bother with before, for the sake of situations that are calling all of us to a greater responsibility than we have ever needed to shoulder before. All the knowledge that has been developed by anybody is now extremely valuable to everybody. But the only way that we can take hold of it is by the handle of who we already are.
Therefore, although I am going to speak to you about universals, I am going to do it in a language that may, in part, be unfamiliar to you; maybe even a little challenging. But if you will be patient with that and agree to set foot gingerly into some of the territory that people distant from yourselves have already explored, I am predicting that you will discover a great deal of unexpected resonance, as well as some new ideas that you may be able to put to immediate use. Because at this time we are all relevant to each other.
Now among Muslims there is a widespread sense that those of us who are alive today are living in the End Times. Yes, Christians, we do have End Times, and they are not too far distant from the End Times many Christians expect. People anticipate all kinds of trials and tribulations preceded by cryptic signs. Some of these traditional omens are particularly poignant for contemporary Muslims, for instance…
When you see naked barefoot ones becoming the leaders of men, that is one of its signs. When the shepherds of lambs compete in constructing tall buildings, that is one of its signs. (Bukhari)
Or how about this one:
The Hour shall not occur until the Euphrates discloses a mountain of gold, over which people will fight. Ninety-nine out of every hundred shall die, and every one of them will say: '’Perchance I shall be the one to succeed!” (Sahih Muslim)
And there are many more like that: if you are curious, the Internet is full of them.
After all these numerous signs are fulfilled, people expect the appearance of the Antichrist, an enormous battle, the return of the true Christ (oh yes, we are expecting him too, accompanied by somebody you do not know in your eschatology, a divinely-inspired political leader called The Guided One, or Mahdi), and at long last the establishment of a world of perfect justice. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter the whole thing comes to an end when all good deserts humanity and, with its ultimate departure, the Final Trumpet is sounded, the universe closes, the dead are resurrected, and the Day of Judgment dawns.
Now it might strike you as odd, in this narration, that the triumphant climax of the just world, which sounds as if it should be the last chapter of the story of salvation, is actually only a prelude to a completely different ending, when everything dissolves and the whole of reality shifts from one mode to another. There are two ways that we could look at this disconcerting break with our narrative expectations, and I think they are both interesting.
We might first ask ourselves about the moral effect of these two radically different, juxtaposed endings. What state is produced in us by the contemplation of the possibility that the final apex of human political desire – “a world as filled with justice as today it is filled with injustice,” as the saying goes – is intrinsically fragile and bound to vanish altogether before Divine Justice itself will become manifest?
I mean to come back to this moral effect later, insha’Allah. But first, a historical-critical question. Is it possible that there are two endings in this popular narrative because it incorporates, in fact, two different sources? And the answer to that one is, undoubtedly yes.
Nearly all the crucial material we have about the end of the world, the Resurrection, and the Day of Judgment is Qur’anic. That is, it belongs to the core of Islamic faith, the Revelation that passed from God to the Messenger of God, and from the Messenger to the people: the divine voice itself, that believers are free to interpret (I would argue that we are obliged to interpret it), but whose authenticity cannot be doubted. Even among unaffiliated scholars, who may not be able to bring themselves to accept that God is the speaker of the words that have been assembled into this brief, radically nonlinear book of 114 chapters, there is a general consensus supporting its historical integrity as a single document dating from the earliest days of the Muslim community. (A few revisionist counterproposals have been floated, but they have fallen apart.) So the Qur’an as the ultimate trustworthy source of instruction is irreduceably central to whatever Islam is to its adherents, in whatever version, in whatever time and whatever place. However Muslims read it, the Qur’an is our religion. And so we must believe that the universe is mortal and has an end date; that all who have been lost to time will eventually be found again; and that each and every one of us is accountable for our actions: that death is neither a defeat nor an escape, but the prologue to a reckoning. None of these positions is separable from an Islamic world view.
But all the material about the End Times – all the suggestive signs, the cast of characters, the expectation of mighty trials followed by exalted victory – all of it is non-Qur’anic. In the entire Qur’anic text there is but one verse that some interpreters read as suggesting the return of Jesus, but the wording is so obscure that, in my opinion, if you didn’t already know the indication you wanted to find there, you would almost certainly not find it.
So where did all this stuff come from? It comes from the hadith literature, the second canonical source to which Muslims turn. A hadith is a report – literally it means “news” – of something the Prophet Muhammad (s) did or said at some point in his life, as passed down through a chain or chains of narrators by oral transmission, and eventually incorporated into massive books. There are thousands and thousands of such hadiths – and just as the Qur’an, as a single text, is remarkably historically solid, so the hadiths, as a collection of texts, are remarkably historically fluid. Almost from the beginning of their accumulation, the widespread forgery of hadiths has been recognized by the scholars of Islam, and over the centuries, those scholars have subjected these reports, one by one, to painstaking scrutiny, with the object of establishing the degree of probable authenticity that could be assigned to each of them. That work and those scholarly arguments go on to this day.
So if we are looking at hadith material, the first question is always about authenticity, and there is plenty of material in circulation that the scholars of Islam long ago established was dubious. Why that should be falls outside the scope of our conversation today, but it’s important to note that the Prophet is the prime source of spiritual authority, after God, for observant Muslims (and for Sunni and Salafi Muslims he is the only such source: Shi`is and Sufis have more options). So if you want to make a point about how other people should think or behave (and all religious people seem to be really good at that), it gains considerable strength if you can tie your point to the Prophet…one way or another. One must, therefore, maintain a certain degree of suspicion when it comes to hadiths. If arguments for various moral obligations are not convincing without their attendant Prophetic precedents, it is certainly worth asking whether or not those precedents actually exist. Unfortunately, few of us bother to ask this question. The word “hadith,” all by itself, exerts a remarkable spellbinding force, kind of like the word “gospel”—as in “gospel truth.” We rarely ask about the politics of our gospels or hadiths. Whose interests does their transmission serve?
But there are other questions to ask about hadith material, too. Suppose we accept that a report has a high probability of accurately transmitting something that the Prophet said or did. The next question to ask ourselves is, what might he have wanted us to do with that? We have a pretty reliable report, for instance, of how Muhammad (s) wore his beard. Does that mean that male Muslims are obliged to wear their beards in the identical style? Some puritans among us believe that they are so obliged – but in order to hold that belief, they need first to believe that every detail of the Prophet’s existence necessarily requires our imitation. And that’s a pretty arbitrary position. While the Qur’an tells us that Muhammad (s) is an example for us, and reliable reports tell us that he wished his sunna, his way, to be followed, nowhere is that sunna defined in such an exhaustive and exhausting fashion, nor we can find any indication that he ever explicitly gave such an instruction. That sort of excruciatingly detailed imitation, therefore, is the result of a particular kind of understanding of what it means to follow a spiritual guide. Obviously, very different understandings are possible.
Similarly, does a reliable report that the Prophet said something oblige us to believe that the thing is literally true? Many devout Muslims hold that position, but we have no evidence that the Prophet himself held it, and in fact, a good deal of evidence to the contrary: he several times cautioned his followers against such a belief. We know that Muhammad (s) was famous for truthfulness and loathed lying, but we also know, as contemporary Muslim scholar Jonathan Brown puts it in his wonderful book, Misquoting Muhammad, that “truth has many registers.” What is the truth of a parable? Brown puts quite a useful case before us. When the report reaches us – and it is a highly verified report – that the Prophet told one of his Companions that each time the sun sets, it prostrates itself before the throne of God, modern people are incapable of taking it literally, as early Muslims did. We know beyond doubt that when the sun sets here, it is rising somewhere else, and that the sun isn’t moving, the planet is. So was the Prophet simply wrong? Or was he conveying – perhaps even unbeknownst to himself – a different kind of truth? Clearly, in this case, that has to be the position of faith.
All of these considerations are very relevant when it comes to the matter of the End Times. As it happens, an overwhelming number of hadiths used to construct our apocalyptic narrative are either already established as dubious by previous generations or easily accessible to challenges mounted by contemporary Muslim scholars. And for the few that are universally accepted as authentic, there are no internal criteria by which we can determine whether they should be read as literal or as parabolic. In other words, no Muslim needs to believe a single word in the whole story about the End Times as signifying anything whatsoever about the concrete future, let alone the present. And yet we do. We prefer to. So what gives?
Well, if we look at ourselves honestly – Muslims, Christians, and even Jews who await the Messiah – we will have to admit that investing ourselves in an End Times story gratifies a number of deep human longings. The ultimate expectation of a world of justice soothes our disappointment in the failure of our current political projects. It can also be used to try to dial down the intensity of other people’s political projects: since there can be no hope of real success before the end of history, why waste your energy trying to get what you want out of the world today? And if we happen to believe that we are at the end of history, or rapidly approaching it, that makes us very important people, actors on a huge metaphysical stage. And who doesn’t want to turn out to have a starring role, especially if the current state of affairs makes one feel, most of the time, like the most insignificant and expendable of extras? If the world is approaching Armageddon, then my sense of powerlessness isn’t pointless and humiliating. It is epic. Before long, my enemies are going to be dramatically vanquished. God Himself is on the verge of vindicating me.
Or not. For a Muslim critic, the odd thing about this apocalypse narrative is how it privileges the human longing to know where we are in the Big Story over the Qur’anic insistence that we cannot know where we are, that only God knows the moment of the Final Day and that it will come upon people without warning or notice. That idea is the opposite of gratifying. And since the Muslim popular imagination cannot simply dispense with the Qur’an, it nests the one vision inside the other. The result is that the familiar apocalyptic satisfactions end up tempered by the truly tragic notion that the Totally Just World of my vindication will surely wither and degenerate into beastliness before God finally gets around to closing the show. This is sobering, if we absorb it. But most of the End Times fans among us don’t like to think about that part. We really don’t. It makes everything we are wishing for so much less heroic.
Which brings us back around to the current moment. When Muslims think about climate change, there are a number of frames into which we can try to fit it. The first strategy is simply to deny it — either that it isn’t happening, or isn’t serious, or that somehow God will not permit it to affect us. (This one we hold in common with lots of other people on the planet.) A second strategy is compartmentalization: science and climate change are over here, and faith is over there, and the two are just not talking to each other. But this approach, which derives from the Western God-or-Caesar, sacred-versus-secular model, does not feel very supportable for most Muslims, since our fundamental religious intuition is to affirm the unity of things. A third approach is to situate climate change in the traditional apocalyptic narrative. If we choose that, though, there is nothing to be done but sit back, watch all the disasters happen, suffer as necessary, and wait for the good part. This attitude offers a lot of consolation to a lot of people, but it removes the possibility of taking any action to change things for the better, since only explicit divine intervention can possibly do the trick…and we already know what that is going to look like. When we define our times by the apocalyptic script, it becomes sheer stupidity for us to try to do an end run around what has already been foretold.
Or we could ditch the Apocalypse story, and go back to the Qur’an. Might climate change be the Final Judgment revealed to us through the divine message? If we consult the text, the answer to that one is clearly No. The Last Day is much, much bigger than climate change.
So when the stars are put out
And when the sky is riven asunder,
And when the mountains are blown away,
And when the messengers are brought unto their time appointed –
For what day is the time appointed?
For the Day of Decision.
(77:8-13, Pickthall translation)
Years ago, when the Three Mile Island nuclear scare was taking place and everyone was terrified that the thing was going to blow us all to Kingdom Come, my teacher’s teacher, Muzaffer Ozak Efendi, a great Sufi master, was visiting the U.S. from Turkey. Somebody asked him if this was the end of the world. “No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “The Last Day means the last day of the whole universe. The sun and the moon will vanish. Space itself will be rolled up like a scroll. This is just a worldly problem.” Then he told us not to worry, and sure enough everything did come out all right. That time. I wish I had his serenity – or his source of spiritual inside information – to get me through the sorts of scares that are facing us today. But at least I have maintained his sense of perspective. Whatever the size of the challenge before us now, today is no more likely to be the Day of Judgment than any other day. And also, as it happens, no less.
So if neither the End Times of popular tradition nor the Last Day of scripture is going to serve us well as a compelling and useful framework for ordering our moral priorities with regard to climate change; if we can’t merely compartmentalize and are weary of denial; are we out of choices? Well, no. The treasury of Islam does indeed hold resources that can offer us guidance in this situation. And the first of these is a sense of those divine judgments that are less than the Ultimate Judgment. The Qur’an is full of stories of civilization-wide moral failures that end in disaster. We might refer to the whole lot of these as the Paradigm of the Overthrown Cities. I would propose that the Paradigm of the Overthrown Cities is exactly what we need to sober us up.
III. The punishment of the wicked?
Christians and Jews are of course familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew scriptures. The people are wicked and God destroys them in a particularly dramatic conflagration. The story is most famous in our day for its role in the justification of religious homophobia, and I suspect that a fair number of the members of this audience have wrestled with their consciences over its implications for God’s attitude towards sexual minorities. Some of you, perhaps, may have come across Walter Wink’s famous essay, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” in which he argues that the real sin of Sodom was the betrayal of hospitality: that the people of Sodom had, in fact, institutionalized the rape of strangers, and were condemned on that account. But however one understands the fatal transgression, it does tend to appear to students of the Bible that God was particularly unhappy with these two cities. In that text, their destruction is something of a one-off.
Not so in the Qur’an. Although the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is told in our text as well (posing similar issues and allowing a similar solution), our scripture also conveys accounts of many other divine judgments against whole societies, thematically grouped by scholars under the name of the Overthrown Cities. Under this head falls the biblically familiar story of Noah (although in our version it is only Noah’s people, not the whole world, that gets flooded out) and the equally familiar story of the plagues of Egypt, as well as many other incidents unrecorded in the Bible: Midian, and Sheba (long after the time of the Queen), as well as the peoples of Ad, Iram, Tubba, and Thamud (not mentioned in the Bible at all). There are also obscure references to still further cases. The Qur’an tells us, in fact, that it is the habit of God to destroy societies for persistent social sins.
We notice, in the stories that give us the most detail, that the crucial sins are different in every case: as well as the abuse of strangers (Sodom) and the exploitation of an oppressed population (Pharaoh), we find routine commercial fraud (Thamud) and theft of common resources (Midian). But the Overthrown Cities are also united by certain characteristics: cruelty, arrogance, wastefulness, cynicism, and an attitude of denial, all of which are referred to in summary as serving idols and refusing to serve God. The Qur’an informs us that in every single case, the cities were sent clear warnings that their behavior was endangering them; that they must cease and desist; that there was still time for change. To issue such urgent warnings is also the habit of God. But it is the sad testimony of Qur’anic history that in nearly every case, the warnings have been ignored, the messengers who brought them persecuted and derided, and the great opportunity squandered, so that when the moral bill finally came due, it was more than anyone could pay. God (speaking, as is often the case, in the royal plural) says in Surah 29:
Each one of them We seized for their crime: against some We sent a violent tornado, some were caught by a mighty blast; some We caused the earth to swallow up, and some We drowned. It was not God who tyrannized them, but they tyrannized themselves. (29:30)
There is nothing arbitrary about these overthrowings, the Qur’an teaches: the disasters that struck these societies were the inevitable consequences of avoidable human acts. What has been difficult for many people to understand, in the past, is how moral failures could produce physical effects. The usual imagining of divine wrath has seemed far too easy and uncomfortably anthropomorphic. The Big Guy in the Sky throwing thunderbolts at us for being bad? Aren’t we past that now? Moderns like to keep the moral realm and the natural realm firmly separated, with no crossings-over allowed.
Yet climate change is beginning to open our eyes to the fact that we have been deluding ourselves on that front for a very long time. People today are no longer in a position to relegate the connection of ethics and nature to the ethereal realm of metaphor: moral acts are acts of nature, and their effects are cumulative. Spirituality, morality, economy, and ecology cannot be forced apart. If we push the world too hard in pursuit of our desires, the world will eventually push back. If we reject wholeness, wholeness will eventually reject us. And if our way of life proves totally non-viable, we have no one but ourselves to blame. We have been warned.
The Prophet Muhammad (s) began his mission by calling the people of his city together to warn them that they were facing a threat greater than the threat that would be posed by an army about to invade. Although he had the highest reputation for truthfulness in his society, when his people heard that he meant a moral threat, they simply jeered and walked away. The Qur’anic revelations came (over 23 years), to support him in his efforts to turn them back from the brink, and later to assist the whole world in doing the same.
Because of its multiple levels of reference and multiple perspectives, the Qur’an is layered with overlapping strata of vision and persuasion, and in these 23 years’ worth of interlocking passages we find that reminders of the Overthrown Cities are often linked to evocations of the terrors of Judgment Day, even to the point of describing them both with the same words. Although the scale is vastly different, it is as if the paradigm is the same. For those who pass through it, the fall of a society feels like the end of the world, and the people responsible for such collapses will grieve their smug complacency equally in this world and the next.
The innocent only suffer in this world, but suffer they do. The Qur’an warns us :
Beware of a trial in which not only the guilty are afflicted. (8:25)
In North Carolina you have only recently passed through Hurricane Matthew: I am sure the memory and impact are still very much alive. When Superstorm Sandy struck our coast in 2012, Stony Point Center, where I live and work, was miraculously secure. But our neighbors were not secure. You might think that a small town 30 miles upriver would be safe from an oceanic storm surge, but that was not the case. Many houses on the Hudson were inundated, and a whole trailer park only a mile from us, full of Latino working families, was completely ruined. I remember standing on the porch that night, watching the shadows of the trees lash madly in the rain, like nothing I had ever witnessed before, while the sky lit up periodically with huge flashes of red lightning, which I later learned were transformers going down. I felt, in a way that I had never felt in any storm I had lived through previously, that something was not right —that this was not the way things were supposed to be. The next morning, the calm was eerie. Trees lay shattered everywhere, and there was no Internet, no radio: we knew nothing of the state of the world around us. Then one by one, the newly dispossessed began to wander through the Center’s front door. In the end, we provided emergency housing to 115 people, many for more than a month. The honor of serving them transformed our community, as it dawned on us that we had so much more to give than we had ever realized before. Through giving to others, we found, we grew into ourselves.
It was then that I first realized that Surah Zalzalah, the Chapter of the Earthquake, which is generally read as describing Judgment Day, had other applications as well. Here is a rendering of what it says:
In the Name of God All-Merciful Most Compassionate
When Earth is shaken with her great convulsion
And Earth casts forth her burdens
And a person says, What is happening to her?
On that day she will relate her chronicles
Because your Lord will inspire her with revelation.
That day humanity will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.
Then whoever has done an atom's weight of good will see it
and whoever has done an atom's weight of evil will see it. (99:1-8, complete; my translation)
This Surah spoke to me then of what was going on for us in Stony Point at that moment, with everything upended and broken and dazed people seeing themselves more clearly than they ever had before. And it speaks to me now of what is going on with the planet in our time: the earth is casting forth her burdens and relating her chronicles, and the news is far from reassuring. Planetary cycles are long, powerful, and relentless, and in that context, human beings in their parasitical self-absorption are less than barnacles on the back of a whale, ready to be scraped off when we finally become too annoying. Our present dilemma may not be the end of the entire world, but it could very well be the end of our world, our global civilization, that the earth is now foretelling, even at the very height of our grandiosity and vaunting. We do not know whether or not there is still time.
Yet though full of dread, the prospect is also far from hopeless. Because not just the evil, but also the good — even an atom’s worth — is here guaranteed the power of being present. And if the whole earth now speaks to us with the voice of the prophets, that means that God is giving us a chance.
The Qur’an repeats to us, over and over, that up until the very last minute, on any scale of affairs, human beings will retain their option to repent. And if we look at the aggrieved planet in the remembrance of God, it is not an implacable engine that is bound now to crush us for our stupid, stubborn mistakes, but a holy mirror that teaches us awe, humility, wonder, and remorse. When such realizations occur, divine forgiveness follows — and with forgiveness comes healing. We could begin anew.
IV. Claiming the Great Turning
I am expecting that many of you here today will have already encountered Joanna Macy’s seminal teaching on The Great Turning, a term she coined for what needs to happen now if humanity is to survive the crisis before us. Macy also calls what needs doing “the work that reconnects.” In my view, no action aimed at changing the world has value apart from the work that reconnects. Together with it, all activism has value. And since the literal meaning of the word “religion” is “re-linking,” it may be that understanding “the work that reconnects” points to the future of religion.
Macy’s roots are in Buddhism and the modern philosophy known as deep ecology, both of which may seem distant and forbidding to believers in God. Buddhism does not speak the name of God, and deep ecology rejects any special spiritual status for human beings. Yet the work Macy serves is not exotic: it is at the center of who all of us are, and what all of us need to do. So if believers in God listen to Macy without defenses, we will receive a priceless gift: we will have the opportunity to look at our own commitments from a new perspective. And then, I hope, we will be able to return the favor.
My roots are in all three Abrahamic traditions, since I have both Judaism and Christianity in my heritage, plus nearly 40 years in the practice of Islam. I understand these three traditions as branches of one family, and they all have different takes on the family stories. Encountering such differences can be even more disconcerting than hearing something new from far away. We often have a lot invested in believing that the story we have been telling since forever is the way it really matters, the way things really are: the only way they really are. Perhaps God maintains all three of our traditions in existence as a corrective to this rather self-serving and innocent notion. Perhaps our stories complement each other, and humanity needs them all. When dealing with stories, it is good to remember Jonathan Brown’s reminder that there are multiple “registers of truth.”
I am going to tell you a familiar story now in an unfamiliar way. I want to take us back to Adam and Eve, because the grief they felt on parting from Paradise is nearly the twin of the grief we feel today, as the stunningly beautiful world into which we were born vanishes into the mist. But this story, for Muslims, is not only a story of disaster. It is also a story of resilience.
So in the family story the way we tell it, it was common knowledge in the heavens from the beginning of time that Adam and Eve were going to screw things up. When God announced the imminent creation of the human being, the angels were appalled. As related in Surah Baqarah, verse 30:
And when your Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a deputy in the earth, they said: wilt Thou place therein one who will cause corruption therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and glorify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which you do not know. (Pickthall translation, slightly modified)
That’s worth pausing over. According to this account, it is not a big disappointment to God that human beings sin. For reasons best known to God’s self, from the beginning God has looked at us, not as another kind of angel, but as a risk worth taking. God wanted a creature that was going to make mistakes. To take this teaching seriously can free us from an enormous obstacle that blocks our ability to correct our course today. For while remorse is cleansing, guilt is certain to shut us down.
In the Qur’an, people are not intrinsically depraved. We are just easily deceived. Our desires are drawn by glittery, shiny things; when we we hear lies, we tend to believe them; and in this way, we lose track of our own best interests. As is said sometimes in other conversations, humanity is a young species. The Qur’anic word for “deception” comes from the same root as the word for “inexperience.”
God says of the circumstances of the Fall from Paradise:
We had taken a covenant of Adam, but he forgot: and We found on his part no firm resolve. - (20:115)
Adam forgot. So the first step of repentance, in this version of the story, is to remember. Human beings were designed to be God’s deputy in the earth. But what does that mean? Adam and Eve acted heedlessly on an easy presumption of what they thought their specialness ought to allow them. The result was that they found themselves in a terrible mess: their primal unity with the natural world was shattered. What now? This question resonates today: it is perhaps the question.
As soon as the two had tasted of the tree, they became conscious of their nakedness; and they began to cover themselves with pieced-together leaves from the garden. (7:22)
It is fascinating that in Islamic tradition, Satan is said not merely to have revealed our primal parents’ nakedness by persuading them to disobedience, but to have stolen their original clothes. These pieced-together leaves, then, represent an attempt to reinvent something — perhaps a sense of dignity and security — that had been taken for granted before. Isn’t that what reactionary religion does, trying to cling to a dream of the good old days? Eventually, though, one has to face it: what’s gone is gone.
The two of them said: "Our Lord! We have tyrannized our own souls: If you do not forgive us nor bestow upon us Your Mercy, all shall be lost for us.” (7:23)
The second step of repentance is remorse. We need to feel the full impact of our error, and own it: I did this to myself, and I accept the responsibility for it. According to Sufi teaching, remorse separates Adam and Eve from Satan. With regard to climate change, this is probably where most of us are today.
But the third step is prayer. To pray in repentance is more than saying “I’m sorry.” It means willingly to give up being the main character in what we mistakenly thought was our story. This is the pivot, the key. As more and more of us find our way to this center, the Great Turning is bound to develop its force.
Because the story of the planet is really not all about us, however we might happen to tell it. The story of the planet is about God. And whenever we suffer as a result of our sins, what the experience teaches is that it is imperative for us to find our way out of self-absorbed fantasy. For that, we need what is greater than we are to show us the way: we need help. And the one thing that all the prophets of all the traditions have been telling us for millennia is that help is promised, unconditionally, to those who seek it from the source.
To pick up the thread from elsewhere in the Qur’an (different pieces of the story are related in half a dozen places):
Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord turned toward him; for He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. (2:37)
We need not stop now to speculate on the content of these “words.” The main thing for our purposes is that Adam was not abandoned. When Adam repented, God gave him a gift. God turned: that is to say, God presented a new aspect of mercy. For the Qur’an hints that what we might call the Original Turning was a complex transaction, and not a one-sided affair.
Through this mutual repentance, out of brokenness, a new kind wholeness arises. Life is now darker, heavier, and more complicated than it was before, but it contains new spiritual potentials. So the fourth step of repentance is to reconcile with change because God remains present in change. In even the hardest change, God is there. `Ali (q), one of the greatest figures in early Islam, is recorded to have said, “I know God the Glorified by the nullification of resolutions, the unraveling of arrangements, and the invalidation of intentions.” (Living and Dying with Grace: Counsels of Hadrat `Ali, trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambala 1996, p 87). Not my will, but Thine, is what is actually done.
But back to the Qur’an.
His Lord chose him: He turned to him, and gave him guidance, saying: “Descend, together, from here. Some of you will be enemies to others. Nonetheless, there shall most certainly come unto you guidance from Me: and whoever follows My guidance will not be lost or come to grief. But as for him who shall turn away from remembering Me - his shall be a narrow life, and on the Day of Resurrection We shall raise him up blind." (20:122-124)
Do you notice that there is no curse in this version of the story? Why would God curse, when Adam and Eve were merely behaving as expected? Instead there are consequences: departure, and the opening up of conflict, and for the first time an explicit understanding of what future forgetfulness must bring. Adam and Eve are far more conscious now.
But there is more here, too: the mysterious words…and the being chosen, which is the mark of a high estate. It is very important that in Islamic tradition, Adam is sent forth as the very first prophet, the very first Messenger of God. Innocence may be gone forever, but the covenant with Adam moves to Version 2.0 — and this time it is a covenant of remembering, choice, and work. For the fifth step of repentance is always work: though a repentant but forgetful species may well make many other mistakes, we must try very hard never to make the same mistake again. And insofar as it is possible, we must repair whatever damage we have done.
So the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve lays out the healing trajectory of repentance: remembering, remorse, turning toward mercy, accepting change, and work. By following this trajectory, a heedless person becomes a responsible one — which is one way of understanding what it means to be a deputy of God.
The Great Turning of our times, I believe, does not require that believers reject the deputyship to which God has assigned us in our traditions. It depends on a great many more of us accepting the job for our own. This time, we must be carefully conscious about it. Just like Adam and Eve, human beings in our collectivities have acted heedlessly on an easy presumption of what we thought that human deputyship ought to allow us. Once again, we are finding ourselves in a terrible mess. But a precedent has been established for our guidance. There is every reason for people of faith to claim our faith that God’s promise to the repentant still stands. The Great Turning means repentance.
V. Naming God
The great thing about believing in God is that it makes being forgiven a constant possibility in human affairs. Once we choose God, there is always a presence in which we can safely admit to our grief and our shame, and yet still be embraced by mercy. Once we choose God, we are never abandoned to the horror of our own worst deeds. And by “being forgiven” I don’t just mean feeling better about ourselves. I mean reestablishing lost harmony under new conditions, which is exactly what people are talking about when they talk about resilience. To be forgiven means to be able to carry on with a sober heart and open eyes, in gratitude, and with hope of support from sources beyond our knowledge, as we move into whatever unexpected territory has been opened before us by our previous acts.
To be forgiven means that when we have brought suffering upon ourselves by our own foolishness, no matter how painful that suffering may be, it turns out not to be the end of the world.
I would like to suggest to you that believing in God is an enormous advantage in dealing with change at the scale at which we are facing it today, a scale which leaves most of us feeling utterly helpless. I will even go so far as to suggest that calling upon God under the name of “God” may be necessary to the solution of our problems. I realize that this is a highly unfashionable thing to say. Even before an audience that is largely made up of believers, it is the sort of statement that can make people nervous. We have all seen too much ugliness and stupidity foisted upon people in the name of religion. But we are not talking about religion now: we are talking about God. That’s a whole different ball game, even though it is sometimes played in the same arena.
So please be assured that I certainly do not mean to exclude or frighten anybody when I say that the name of God is irreplaceable, or to pretend that just mouthing a word can somehow substitute for many other urgent tasks that desperately need our attention. But calling on God does something that nothing else can do. It lifts up the heart over the mind, the unknowable over the known. It is surely one of the craziest acts that a rational person can perform — and one of the most liberating, since it gives voice to our deepest yearnings for relationship, for belonging, and for beauty. Once we invoke God, anything can still happen, but now the meanings of things are not closed: they open into a tremendous freedom that stretches far beyond us, yet never leaves us behind. Without God, when we face difficulties, it is very hard to sing. With God, one can sing in the midst of the fire. Or dance in blood.
For that is faith: a passionate insistence on the reality of beauty even when everything beautiful seems very far away. Our faith is what the huge sin manifest in climate change has challenged in us, as we see so much beauty broken and withdrawn from us through our negligence and greed. Our faith is what the name of God can repair.
If we’re not going to give up, if we are going to continue, then we have to put some faith in the immense not-I that has produced us and all our doings, warts and all. For if you do away with faith, then you do away with hope, and when we are hopeless we tend to be loveless as well, falling into apathy or nihilistic self-indulgence at the edge of the abyss. How many people around us have this terrible problem now? It cuts off the possibility of acting for the good just as surely as does a fatalistic clinging to the apocalypse script. Such things are poisons of the soul.
Now there are divine names besides “God” that we may call on to rebuild our faith. It is perfectly possible to keep faith with God through one of God’s impersonal names. The Qur’an says:
Call upon “God” or call upon “The All-Merciful”: by whatever name you call, to Him belong the most beautiful names. (17:110; my translation)
In other words, not everybody has to see God the way I do, or call upon God the way I do, or even call God “God.” Our traditional Islamic list of 99 divine names includes some names full of majesty and beauty that are wholly impersonal: Peace, and Justice, and Truth, and Light. And there are many excellent servants in the world who love the Ultimate Mystery under one or another of these impersonal names, but cannot bring themselves to say the word “God” at all. They remain our respected colleagues in the work.
But unless one has the temerity to speak to the Ultimate Mystery as a Thou (to use Martin Buber’s word), there can be no healing conversation with it, there can be no intimacy, and there can certainly be no forgiveness. For our great sin is against Thou-ness. We have damaged the world profoundly because we have depersonalized it, and every creature in it: we have treated beings like things. But to say “God” is to affirm that being is just as intrinsic to reality as the impersonal principles that rationality affirms, even though we cannot imagine how. And if the Ultimate Mystery is personal as well as impersonal, then human beings are persons not by accident but for some cosmic reason: our being persons unites us in a special way with all that is, in spite of all our flaws.
And at the same time, to say “God” is to accept that we are not in charge here. We are not the boss, we are not in control, and whatever the scale of the damage we are allowed to do, the world is not ours to destroy.
And at the same time, to say “God” is passionately to insist that even our brokenness and all we have broken are embraced by the great wholeness, and to be saved from utter destruction, the most important thing we have to do is hug it back.
VI. The Invisible Government of the Planet
It used to be believed that the role of deputy of God, for which humanity was created, could only be fulfilled by a very special kind of person. From the time of Adam to the time of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them), which Muslims understand to be the era during which God sent revelation through prophets and messengers to all the communities of the world — some 124,000 of them, according to one hadith — only those chosen individuals really understood and embodied what the deputyship, the khilafa, was all about. Ordinary people came under the protection of their community’s messengers, and according to the sincerity of popular adherence to the message as it was transmitted, the work of deputyship (or stewardship, if you prefer) was maintained in each community of faith.
Muhammad (s) taught that he was the last carrier of this fearsome responsibility. After him, no further human being bearing direct commands from God would ever be sent. Succeeding generations of Muslims were likely expecting that the world would therefore end very quickly, and yet it seemed to continue to roll on, despite so many tragedies and disappointments after the passing of the Beloved of Allah (as Muhammad was called by those who followed him).
This expectation is the probable origin of a good many of Islam’s apocalyptic traditions. It felt so necessary to be looking for a sign, and then to find one in current affairs: there is consolation in believing that a loss will not have to be endured for too much longer. It is very hard to imagine going on living in the absence of a great soul that you have loved. Today people continue to feel that same emptiness, though most of us now have no notion of what we mourn.
But as the years came and went, the early Muslims had to make some theological decisions. What should be the source of guidance for daily living, in the absence of the Prophet? The Sunnis decided that guidance was limited to the holy text of the Qur’an — sola scriptura — supplemented by reports of Prophetic example, the hadiths, which rapidly became another text themselves. The Shi`a decided on the Qur’an, the hadiths, and the most blessed descendants of the Prophet, or Imams, who kept teaching publicly over a further two centuries. The group that came to be called Sufis held to the Qur’an, the hadiths, and a larger group of exemplars, including the Shi`a imams, who were living transmitters of the Prophetic wisdom in every generation. This group of exemplars was referred to as the Friends of God. Some of them, the Sufis believed, were known. Many of them were unknown. All of them quietly transmuted the world around them, touched hearts, changed lives. The postponement of Judgment Day depended on God’s fondness for God’s friends.
This notion spread widely out of Sufi circles, permeating whole Muslim civilizations, both Sunni and Shi`a. It generated a sense of hidden sacredness just beyond the appearances of things…for who knew who were really the Friends of God? They might not teach explicitly, like the scholars. They might just…move you. They could be anybody: a traveler, a woman in the street. And they carried out the khilafa, were the real stewards of the world.
The Friends of God were carefully distinguished from prophets and messengers, but they were still understood as a special kind of people — even though a whole tremendous system of spiritual training grew up around their existence, through which ordinary people could aspire to be among them, if God so willed.
Under sustained theological and physical assault, this vision of the sacred collapsed for most of the Muslim world during the 20th century. No durable spirituality has yet replaced it. Its loss leaves us just where we are today.
Which leads me back to Surah Zalzalah, and the divine revelation that God promised would be granted one day, not to some special human being, but to the earth. Let me reprise it for you:
When Earth is shaken with her great convulsion
And Earth casts forth her burdens
And a person says, What is happening to her?
On that day she will relate her chronicles
Because your Lord will inspire her with revelation.
That day humanity will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.
Then whoever has done an atom's weight of good will see it
and whoever has done an atom's weight of evil will see it.
The word used for revelation in this surah is exactly the same word that the Qur’an uses for God’s revelation to the prophets. What if God today really is speaking to us through the earth herself? What if Earth is now the message-bearer of God, sent equipped with miracles and convincing proofs, that humanity is obligated to heed? In Islam, the coming of a divine message-bearer is a criterion, making clear the right from the wrong. Cast out in the scattered groups of our nations and traditions, human beings are even now confronting both the good and the evil we have done. And community by community, we are now called to be grateful for the good, and celebrate it, and repentant for the evil, and offer it up for transformation.
When a divine message-bearer is present, Islamic tradition tells us, those who love God suddenly become visible, because they are those who love the message-bearer as well. It seems entirely possible that in our day, God’s friends are Earth’s friends. In fact, I believe this to be true, and perhaps you do, too. That belief, in itself, might put the deputyship, the khilafa, in our hands. We might not have to be special people, in our time. We might just have to be willing to serve, and to love the planet.
We are going to suffer for the acts and neglects of our previous generations. Just being right-minded is not going to save us from that. We will suffer nation by nation, and place by place, and the good will be sorted from the evil by their compassion.
There is an old Sufi story of a man who had a vision of Hell, and then another vision of Paradise. When he saw Hell, he saw a great banqueting table surrounded by hungry people equipped with very long spoons. They could reach the food, but the spoon handles were too long for them to maneuver it into their mouths, and they were frantic with frustration. When he saw Paradise, he saw the very same table — but this time the people with the long spoons were feeding each other, and everyone was at peace.
When the glaciers melt and the water rises, the immigration issues that we face today will seem trivial. We had better start practicing right away if we aim to learn the proper use of long spoons. This is more than just a matter of intelligent damage control. It is our best way back into the mercy of God.
My friend, the poet and dervish Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, may God have mercy upon his loving soul, spoke to this moment. He wrote: (“The Heart Tells Us,” Underwater Galaxies, p. 18, 2007) — this is the whole poem —
The heart tells us to close our eyes and take the
ladder rung by rung the golden ladder that leads
upward out of the Fire
We will never be rid of evil, but we don’t have to let it prevail. For the work of the friends of God — and that would be us, dear friends — in the service of the planet, is to keep the balance tipped in the direction of love. Life will go on so long as we can manage to maintain that slight asymmetry. We must keep on turning in the direction of love.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said: God the Exalted said:
“O child of Adam, if you call upon Me and place your hope in Me, I will forgive you without any reservation. O child of Adam, if you have sins piling up to the clouds and then ask for My forgiveness, I will forgive you without any reservation. O child of Adam, if you come to Me with enough sins to fill the earth and you meet Me while not treating anything as My equal, I will come to you with enough forgiveness to fill the earth.”
(Source: the hadith collection Sunan At-Tirmidhi, #3540. Grade: Sound transmission.)
It doesn’t have to be all of us, or everything. It just has to be enough. The work that needs doing is never beyond our reach, if we commit to taking care of living beings as living beings, rather than merely manipulating things. Do not be deceived. The sound and fury of thing-centered politics and economics that have exhausted us all these past months, and decades, and centuries — despite their ubiquitousness and even their necessity, are only on the surface. They are the effect of a deeper cause, because as the Prophet said, people get the leaders they deserve. We must aspire to deserve better — and the whole earth will be witness to the sincerity of our aspiration. This is the one fact — above all others, I believe — that people of faith once again need to grasp. It is the invisible communion of repentant hearts that is the true government of the planet.
Allahu a`lam: God knows best. And peace be upon us all.
1 Safar 1428/ November 2, 2016
Community of Living Traditions
Stony Point, NY