TIME faith

Atheist to Give First Town Board Invocation Following Supreme Court Battle

A Supreme Court decision upholding prayer before town board meetings has emboldened non-believers to give their own messages

As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments last November on whether town board meetings that open with prayer violate the First Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia asked a rhetorical question: What does an invocation sound like from a non-believer?

Dan Courtney has an answer. The former president of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York will deliver the invocation before the town board of Greece, New York Tuesday evening, the same town at the center of the recent Supreme Court case.

Courtney says he contacted the board the same day the court ruled 5-4 that prayer did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the government from establishing an official religion. And he’ll soon be one of several non-believers around the U.S. who have recently delivered secular messages before public town meetings.

While Courtney says he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, he was disappointed.

“Sectarian prayer is very divisive,” he says. “Almost by definition, you’re excluding a portion of people who don’t believe in that doctrine, and it excludes the 20% of the population that is non-religious.”

But at the same time, the Supreme Court ruling appears to have emboldened several non-believers to deliver their own messages in a public forum, including an invocation at the Osceola County, Fla., board of commissioners meeting by a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community and several invocations by a non-believer at Portage, Michigan city council meetings.

In his message, Courtney says he’ll draw on the Declaration of Independence and invoke the idea that governments derive their authority from the people, not a higher power.

“If you’re an American, this should resonate with you,” he says.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 18: What Is Faith?

Indonesian Muslims Celebrate The Fasting Month Of Ramadan
A Muslim man reads the Quran as he waits for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan on July 13, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robertus Pudyanto—Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

Faith is not only a set of beliefs, but is an experience that transcends intellectual knowledge. The Qur’an speaks of faith as something that God makes “beloved” and “beautiful” in the hearts of people (49:7). Faith is also described as a “light” that “helps you walk” (57:28).

Imam al-Ghazali, the famous 12th Century Muslim scholar and sage, says this about faith:

“Whoever supposes that faith is realized through speculative theology, abstract proofs, or academic divisions is [wrongly guided]. On the contrary, faith is a light that God, the Sublime and Exalted, casts into the hearts of His servants with bounty and grace from His presence. Sometimes faith is evidenced internally and is impossible to express…” (Yusuf, Hamza. The Creed of Imam Al-Tahawi, Zaytuna Institute 2007).

Muslim sages over the centuries have said that faith is a gift from the heavens denied to none who seek it sincerely and patiently, for God is too generous to turn away the spiritual beggar. For this gift of faith to become real, people have to strive to make room for it in their hearts through spiritual labor and purification.

Love is at the heart of this experiential faith. The Qur’an says that believers are overflowing and most passionate in their love for God (2:165). And in a famous tradition the Prophet Muhammad said, “None of you will have faith until I am more beloved to you than your own soul.” Love by its very nature is emotion that transcends explanation.

In the Islamic tradition, faith is also described as a creed – a set of beliefs to believe in. Prophet Muhammad’s teacher, the archangel Gabriel, once came to the Prophet disguised as a spiritual seeker and asked, “What is faith [imaan]?” The Prophet replied, “Faith is to believe in the One God, the angels, the divinely revealed scriptures, the messengers, the last period, and the divine decree both good and bad.” The Qur’an too offers a very similar creed to believe in (2:177, for example).

Each of these beliefs is mentioned throughout the Qur’an in some detail and sometimes with strong rationale proofs.

The Oneness of God is perhaps the major theme of the Qur’an. There isn’t a chapter of the Qur’an that doesn’t mention, in some way, the unity of God. And, there are strong theological refutations against atheism, polytheism and the Christian doctrine of Trinity. The proof for the Oneness of God is in the harmony that exists in the heavens and on earth – all pointing to a single creator and sustainer.

Belief in angels is mentioned as an aspect of belief in the unseen. Angels are made out of light; they are completely obedient to divine commands and constantly praising God; and they are given various functions such as breathing the life-giving soul into the human fetus and so on.

One of the tasks of the archangel Gabriel, in particular, is to deliver divine guidance to prophets and messengers who are chosen by God to deliver a message to their people and to live an exemplary life. Messengers are those who receive revelation in the form of a scripture. Prophets are those who remind and reinforce what the Messengers before them brought. Every messenger is also a prophet; but not every prophet is a messenger. Some of the prophets mentioned are Ishmael, Isaac, Joseph, Job, and John the Baptist. Some of the messengers mentioned in the Qur’an are Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. To believe in what the messengers were given as divine revelation, in their pure and unadulterated versions, is a core aspect of Muslim faith – including the Scrolls of Abraham, the Psalms of David, the Torah given to Moses, the Gospel of Jesus and the Qur’an given to Muhammad. The Qur’an insists on the unity of the prophets and scriptures as constituting one brotherhood and one essential teaching. There are about 25 clearly mentioned prophets in the Qur’an, but the Qur’an says, “some of them we have told you about and others we have not” (40:78). The Prophet Muhammad, naturally, is singled out as the final confirmation and culmination of all previous prophets and their teachings.

“The last period” means to believe in the end of times on Earth – all good things must come to an end, as they say – and to believe in the resurrection of every human being that ever lived, and in the accountability of every human being before God, and in a hereafter of paradise for the righteous and perdition for the iniquitous. The Qur’an offers vivid images of these things to come, some of which are interpreted metaphorically. For those who doubt resurrection, as the pre-Islamic Arabs did, the Qur’an offers the similitude of how God brings dead and barren land back to life with rain.

And, finally, belief in the decree of God is essentially about believing that nothing happens in the universe – good or bad – without the permission and knowledge of God. It is a belief that presupposes an all powerful and all knowing God, and a God that is the creator and master of time and space, and, therefore, necessarily exists outside of that. God allows blessings and goodness to abound out of divine grace, and God allows harm and evil to exist out of a wisdom that is not easily known or understood from our limited lenses. Even though nothing can happen without the permission of God, human beings are held responsible for acquiring their good and wrong deeds and for the consequences thereof. Free will, therefore, is part of God’s decree.

With all of these beliefs the interpretations and nuances between the different schools of thought are many, but this is essentially a summary of the creed of Islam.

TIME Syria

Western Families Struggle With Loss of Relatives to Jihad

Abubaker Deghayes at home in Saltdean, United Kingdom, mourning the death of his son Abdullah, 18, who was killed in Syria after he volunteered with some of his brothers, to fight alongside the rebels in the civil war.
Abubaker Deghayes at home in Saltdean, United Kingdom, mourning the death of his son Abdullah, 18, who was killed in Syria after he volunteered with some of his brothers, to fight alongside the rebels in the civil war. Andy Hall

Some 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 nations are estimated to have entered Syria over the past three years, leaving behind angry and distraught families and friends

Two British men admitted last week to preparing acts of terrorism, after returning from fighting with jihadist militants in Syria. Mohammed Nahin Ahmed and Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, both 22, had been fighting with rebel groups in the country for eight months but were arrested as soon as they set foot back in the U.K.

Intelligence officers, who had been investigating both men for months and amassing significant evidence against them, were first alerted to their whereabouts not by deep embedded sources or intelligence analysts in the field, but by Sarwar’s parents, who acted to protect their son in one of the only ways they had left.

Sarwar’s family is hardly an outlier. Some 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 nations are estimated to have entered Syria over the past three years. Faced with such staggering numbers, intelligence services are increasingly relying on the fighters’ families to supply them with information, who face the agonizing decision of whether to betray a loved one. But how else can you protect your relatives when they’re fighting for groups whose sole purpose is to kill or be killed?

Some families refuse to call the police, instead traveling to the Turkish-Syrian border to beg their relatives to come home. Others contact law-enforcement authorities in the hope they can somehow extract their family member from danger. Many others simply never hear from their loved ones again.

When Amer Deghayes, 20, traveled to Syria with an aid convoy in November 2013, his father Abubaker thought he’d be working in the Atma refugee camp in the north of the country. A few weeks later, Deghayes heard from his son. He’d joined al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Struggling with his son’s news, Deghayes was dealt another blow when sons Jafer, 16, and Abdullah, 18, followed their brother at the end of January. “I realized they’d gone on the second day when I saw their passports were missing,” he says. Deghayes traveled to the Turkish border to persuade them to come home, but they refused.

In an April firefight, Amer was shot in the stomach and Abdullah was killed. His father learned of his death on Facebook.

Deghayes, who considers Abdullah a martyr, believes the West bears some responsibility for his son’s death. “Why didn’t the West do something before these organizations popped up like mushrooms? They have the capability to stop this war like they did in Libya … Syria would move the emotions of any Muslim, or anyone who is human.”

That may be why Deghayes refuses to censure his sons Amer and Jafer, who are still fighting in Syria. “They want to help the Syrian people and join the fight against Assad,” he explains. “There are always people who get attracted to what they think is a just cause.”

The boys are nephews of Omar Deghayes, a U.K. resident who was held as an enemy combatant at Guantánamo Bay between 2002 and 2007 before being released without charge.

Some would-be martyrs go to Syria from across the Atlantic. The mother of a Canadian jihadist who calls himself Abu Muhajir spoke exclusively to TIME from Windsor, Ontario, on condition of anonymity, about her son’s departure to Syria.

The man, whose real name is known to TIME, told the New York Times in May that he was a high school science teacher, raised in a religious family in North America, who had decided to wage jihad in Syria with Islamist groups. His mother gives an alternative take of his background.

“We don’t go to mosque, a few times only,” she says. “Before Syria, my son went to Egypt to study Arabic. The Canadian intelligence services got him at the airport and questioned him. They were always after him and interviewed him many times.”

Aware that her son was becoming more secretive, Muhajir’s mother tried to stop the inevitable. “The Canadian police asked for information about my son, they told me to tell them if I saw any changes.”

Then one Sunday in November, Muhajir said he was going to Niagara Falls with a friend. Suspicious, his mother called the authorities. But the police didn’t respond, and intelligence services said they would deal with it on Monday. By the following day, however, her son and his friend had gone. “They let him go,” she says.

Like Deghayes, she speaks to her son regularly online. Audibly upset, she doesn’t know where her son is or whom he is with. “He doesn’t share these things with me because he knows I’m against it,” she says. “I am crying for my son, I am praying for him.”

When TIME contacted Muhajir, he refused to respond to news of his mother’s grief, though he claimed, “Any mother would be upset. But mine isn’t upset”.

“Whenever I ask him how he is, he just says ‘alhamdulillah [praise God],’” says his mother. “He said, ‘Mom I want to stop that oppression because it’s un-Islamic.’” Muhajir has also told his mother he’s working in a humanitarian team and not to worry, she says.

For his mother though, that is easier said than done. “I used to go to al-Jazeera [to read about Syria]. The miserable things I saw, I was always crying and it impacted my health … I am a mother and I have a mother’s heart.”

Her son’s travel companion eventually returned from Syria, dragged back by his wife. In her community, where neighbors fear police monitoring if they’re seen to be sympathetic, Muhajir’s mother is now alone in her grief.

This is not the case in Minnesota, whose Somali population has seen 15 of its young men leave for jihad. In June, Minnesota Public Radio spoke to a Somali-American man who called himself Abdirahmaan Muhumed who had left the Twin Cities for Syria. His brother Abdirahman Ahmed, who has been estranged from his sibling for 10 years, told TIME that his brother’s real name is Abdifatah Ahmed.

Though he spoke to Minnesota Public Radio, Ahmed hasn’t been in contact with his family since he left for Syria in December 2013. They don’t know where he is or whom he’s with, said his niece, who spoke exclusively to TIME on condition of anonymity. “I’ve tried to contact him, but there’s no answer,” she says. “I feel really upset, like I’ve lost my best friend. I was the closest to him and used to see him every day.”

Fiercely protective of her uncle, she declares, “I believe that he’s doing the right thing. I’m supporting him with whatever he decides as long as he’s O.K. He’s always been a believer. I feel like he’s trying to prove a point by fighting for what he believes in.”

Ahmed was one of the first Somali Minnesotans to go. At the end of May, Abdi Mohamud Nur left Burnsville, Minn., for Syria along with 12 other men. He graduated high school only one year before. His elder sister, Ifrah Mohamud Nur, told TIME that she has had no news of her brother’s whereabouts.

Nur believes her brother is fighting chiefly because he has been led astray. In a Facebook status posted shortly after he left, she wrote, “It’s still so unreal that my brother could leave us all behind for what? May Allah … punish these so called Muslims sending young boys to do their dirty work.”

Angry and distraught at her brother leaving home to fight on a foreign battlefield, Nur suggests challenging extremists who might ensnare young minds. “We as a community have to stand up to these [people] or else it’s gonna keep on happening,” she wrote.

TIME Religion

Mending the Rift Between Obama and Catholics

67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner
President Barack Obama, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pray during the 67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. New York Daily News—NY Daily News via Getty Images

The president's pro-family agenda, which promotes greater workplace flexibility, an increase in the minimum wage, affordable quality childcare and greater protections for pregnant workers, aligns perfectly with the Church’s rich tradition of social thought.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and President Barack Obama have had a rocky relationship over the past six years, with perhaps no issue more contentious than the Health and Human Services mandate, which has sparked the Bishops’ three “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns. But President Obama’s recent speech at the White House Summit on Working Families provides a good opportunity for the two sides to turn the corner in the President’s final two years and work together on promoting an agenda that would benefit millions of American families.

If the Bishops hope to follow Pope Francis’ lead, fighting to undo the pressures and hardships that menace American families seems like an obvious next step. Pope Francis has constantly drawn attention to the impact of economic injustice on families, calling for changes that will give them greater economic security and more time for one another.

On both the left and the right, there is a growing recognition that families are facing intense pressures that are undermining family unity. Both Francis and Obama argue that no one should have to choose between dignified work and their family.

President Obama has responded by calling for a series of measures that will reduce that burden. He has proposed greater workplace flexibility, paid family leave, an increase in the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable quality childcare and greater protections for pregnant workers. All of these proposals align with the Catholic Church’s rich tradition of social thought and would help countless families across the country.

Obama even echoed a key teaching of the Church—one that Pope Francis has emphasized repeatedly—when he explained that “work gives us a sense of place and dignity.” Work allows people to contribute to the common good and use their gifts to participate in the creation of stronger communities and a better world. It can give people a sense of meaning and purpose.

Of course, people have dignity and worth whether they work or not. But this sense of worth and dignity is vital, and work allows many to have this sense and to live in a way that is compatible with that dignity. But it should not come at the cost of their family life.

President Obama noted that for many hourly workers, taking a few days off can result in them losing their jobs. But what happens when an aging parent needs assistance or a child needs help? Our responsibilities to our loved ones seem clear, but what is someone supposed to do when helping a family member risks creating an economic crisis in the family? If we value these family ties, we will work to eliminate such tragic choices.

And that also means working to increase the minimum wage. The Church has called for both a family wage and a living wage for decades upon decades. Church teaching demands that employers pay employees enough to ensure that their families have all of their needs met. There is a tendency to think of minimum wage workers as teenage kids looking to pick up some cash on the side, but many of these workers are trying to provide for their families. Progress must be made toward a living wage for these workers upon whom we all depend for our way of life.

President Obama noted that in 31 states, “decent childcare costs more than in-state tuition.” The scarcity and high costs of quality childcare have delayed my own academic and career progress, as I have chosen to serve as primary caretaker for my 15-month old daughter (which I find very fulfilling). My experience is far from uncommon, as many parents struggle to make difficult career choices, or worse, feel compelled to send their children to receive childcare that they know is not up to par.

While working at a think tank, editing, researching and care-taking has left me in a constant state of exhaustion. It has only been feasible because of the workplace flexibility I have in my chosen professions and because my boss is actually willing to implement the pro-family policies he promotes as a prominent Catholic political activist. But many do not have this type of workplace flexibility. We need companies to realize that these policies are not only about them doing the right thing for their workers, but actually result in higher productivity and lower turnover, as President Obama pointed out.

The leaders and members of the Church are the perfect partners in this push for economic justice and stronger families. From supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to minimum wage increases to a paid family leave program, Catholics should take up the battle to provide American families with the flexibility, support and economic security they need to thrive in the 21st Century.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He is a senior fellow at Democrats For Life of America.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 17: Finding God

Kashmiri Muslim Women Pray During The Second Friday Of Ramadan In Srinagar
Kashmiri Muslim women pray during the second Friday prayer of Holy month of Ramadan at Jamia Masjid in downtown on July 11, 2014 in Srinagar, India. Hindustan Times—Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult time connecting with God and doubting if I was really fit to be a chaplain, I had an experience that reawakened the spiritual senses within me. I was asked to visit an old Muslim woman in the hospital who was recovering from a stroke. I sat near the woman’s bedside offering prayers for the sick and comforting words. I looked into her big gray eyes – eyes that I knew had seen too much misery and suffering in the world having come to the United States as a refugee from Bosnia. She listened carefully and graciously to my words – words I had grown accustomed to repeating when I would visit the sick.

Then, suddenly, in the midst of ramblings, the old woman interrupted with a simple confession: “I was really, really sad.” I gathered myself and slowly asked, “Was it the thought of dying?” She shook her head indicating that wasn’t it. “Were you afraid of leaving your family?” I asked seeing the loving family gathered around her. That wasn’t it either. Taking her hand as tears began to flow from her blessed eyes, she said gasping between words: “I was sad that I would never again be able to prostrate before Allah.” By the time she struggled to let those words out, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the room. And I felt in that moment that something had changed within me.

Prostration (sujud in Arabic) is a special moment within the Muslim ritual prayer that involves every major limb of the body partaking in an act of worship. Sujud is placing one’s palms and knees, nose and forehead on the ground while repeating words of divine glorification. Sujud is a symbolic act of surrendering one’s ego completely to God. The Qur’an tells believers to prostrate themselves before God, just as every living creature in the heavens and on Earth prostrate themselves before their creator (22:18). And the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers that God is closest to the servants when they are in the position of sujud. When physical prostration is not possible, then symbolic prostration with gestures or even with one’s eyelids or less suffices. So, this old woman that I went to counsel instead counseled me, renewed my faith and told me – without ever knowing it – just exactly what I needed to do to reconnect with God: lovingly and adoringly fall into sujud not just in ritual prayer, but as a metaphor for the way to live life itself.

Time and again, I have found that people who have experienced the most painful tragedies in life have some very special wisdom and connection with God to offer. The question of theodicy is asked and debated so often by my students who are trying to grapple with suffering in the world or students immersed in philosophy. But rarely have I been asked this question among the poor and suffering. There’s often a certainty of and trust in God that I have found in these people – a certainty and trust that I have longed for myself.

The Prophet tells us that when we’re brought before God in the coming life, God will complain to us, “O son or daughter of Adam, I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat. I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink. I was sick and you did not visit me.” The human being will reply, “You’re the Lord of the worlds, how can we give you to eat or drink or visit you?” And God will reply, “So-and-so was hungry, had you fed him you would have surely found Me with him. So-and-so was thirsty, had you given him to drink you would have surely found Me with him. So-and-so was sick, had you visited him you would have surely found Me with him.”

The Qur’an describes the righteous as such: “they give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone, we expect neither reward nor thanks from you” (76:9).

Indeed, in serving, it is we who stand so much more to gain than to offer. Serving people, especially those who are most in need and vulnerable, is not only a responsibility and a noble deed – it is a way of finding and being with God.

TIME Religion

Bizarre Religious Group Flies Swastika Over New York City

In an attempt to "rehabilitate" the Nazi symbol

A religious group that claims to have invented human cloning and believes scientists from another planet created life on Earth thousands of years ago has tried to “rehabilitate” the swastika with a stunt that has caused outrage in New York City communities.

The International Raelian Movement says it flew large swastika banners over New York, Miami and other cities on Saturday to close out a week-long, worldwide event dedicated to “reeducat[ing] about the truth” of the symbol’s peaceful association before it was used by the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.

“I was dumbfounded by it,” Loren Azimov told Brooklyn neighborhood blog, Sheepshead Bites. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and everyone [in Brighton Beach] knows someone whose family was affected by the Holocaust. The timing could not be worse with everything going on in Israel and Palestine.”

Councilman Mark Treyger, who represents some of the neighborhoods over which the plane flew, told the blog that he asked the police department to investigate the incident and has contacted the mayor’s office.

“It is absolutely disgusting and an egregious act of hate and intolerance,” said Treyger, who is the grandson of survivors of the Holocaust. “Whatever this hate group is, it’s an unacceptable act.”

Joe Lhota, the Republican mayoral candidate for New York City in 2013, tweeted about the incident:

The International Raelian Movement has called it an act of religious freedom.

[Sheepshead Bites]

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 16: Faith and Good Works

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

In Christian theology there is a debate and divide between Catholics and Protestants on whether faith and good works are needed to achieve salvation or if faith alone can get us there.

Interestingly, in the Islamic tradition there is also a very rich conversation about the relationship between faith and good works and salvation. One of the most common phrases in the Qur’an (more than 43 times) to describe the righteous and even the way to salvation is “have faith and do good works.” The two seem quite inseparable. Good works are a natural manifestation of belief, and good works are what support and sustain faith – beyond, of course, the good graces of God.

This natural relationship and supposition between faith and good works is indicated in many of the Prophet Muhammad’s most famous sayings. There is the golden rule, for example, in which the Prophet said: “None of you believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” Another time the Prophet said that one does not truly believe if they go to sleep with a full stomach while their neighbor goes to sleep hungry. Similarly the Prophet said that a person “will not enter paradise” if their neighbors are not safe from their wrongdoings.

How about good works without faith? In the Islamic tradition, our good works have to be attached to the highest intention – which is to serve God. This is because any other motivation is temporary and fleeting and conditional, while God is permanent and unconditional. Doing good works for the sake of God is the protection needed from doing good just to satisfy one’s ego.

From a faith-based perspective, it is in reality God who gives us the motivation and the capacity to do good works – and, therefore, thanks and glory should be properly directed to the source of all good. In the words of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari (d.1309), in his Book of Wisdoms, “Let no good works make you joyous because it comes from you, but rather, be joyous over it because it comes from God to you.”

Like Catholics, Muslims would readily admit that our good works – no matter how many or how great or how sincere – are not by themselves enough for salvation. Salvation is something that is granted by the good graces and mercy [rahmah] of God. Traditions abound in Islamic sources about people who lived less than righteous lives but who were ultimately granted salvation because God accepted one of their seemingly simple but sincere good works, such as giving a thirsty dog something to drink or removing a harmful branch from the road.

But, the dynamic duo of faith and good deeds are what put us on the path to receiving this rahmah that God, ultimately, grants to whomsoever God wishes. It is a rahmah that is given out of wisdom and knowledge by the One who truly knows what is hidden deep down in the hearts of people.

Ramadan is an intense period to devote and train the soul in constantly inclining toward doing good works. The Prophet was described as the most generous among people, and in Ramadan his generosity was described like a wind that kept on giving. Ramadan is also known as the month of salvation because good deeds are accepted even more favorably from God than during any other month. All of this should inspire us to complete the remaining days of Ramadan with as much devotion to doing good works as we can. May God accept it abundantly from us!

Sohaib N. Sultan is a chaplain and the first full-time Muslim Life coordinator at Princeton University.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 15: Help the Oppressor

A Kashmiri Muslim man prays inside the shrine of a Sufi saint during the holy month of Ramadan in Srinagar
A Kashmiri Muslim man prays inside the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, a Sufi saint, during the holy month of Ramadan in Srinagar, Kashmir on July 9, 2014. Danish Ismail—Reuters

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

One day, while sitting with his companions, the Prophet Muhammad surprised his community by preaching, “Help your brother, whether he is oppressed or the oppressor.” A silent confusion overtook the community as people pondered the Prophet’s words. Then, a man asked what was on everyone’s mind: “O Prophet, we know how to help the oppressed, but how should we help the oppressor?” The Prophet smiled, anticipating the question, and replied, “By stopping the oppressor from oppressing.”

The Qur’an often describes sins and wrongdoings as “oppressing one’s own soul” (7:23). It begs the question, therefore, what the difference is between the oppressor who commits wrongdoing and the oppressed that is wronged if both are, ultimately, being oppressed. I think, the answer may lie in that oppression attempts to strip the oppressed of their rights and dignity; whereas oppressing strips the oppressor of their very own humanity.

Perhaps, if this is true, then the secret to stopping the oppressor from oppressing is to remind them of their true humanity – a humanity that is often veiled through the thick veils of anger, fear, hatred and jealousy. The Qur’an speaks of the natural disposition God instilled in humanity (fitrah) as being good and upright (30:30). But this natural disposition can become easily clouded when it is willfully ignored. Someone needs to tell the oppressor the truth so that it may return an oppressor to his or her natural disposition.

The Prophet Muhammad said, “the greatest sacred struggle (jihad) is to speak the truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.” And when Moses and Aaron are instructed to go challenge Pharaoh’s oppression, God says to them, “Speak to him gently so that he may take heed, or show respect” (Qur’an 20:44).

Oppression comes in many forms. There is obviously the oppression of the tyrant over a people. But, tyrants also exist in homes, school grounds, workplaces and so on. The oppressor, feeling a loss of his or her humanity, is never happy and is, to the contrary, quite miserable despite outward displays. The oppressor is also always living in fear – fear of losing a grip on his or her real and imagined power or a fear that the oppression will come back to bite them. The state of the oppressor is truly worth pitying.

It is worth noting that the Prophet referred even to the oppressor as “your brother.” When we encounter the tyrant, our first instinct is to wash our hands of him or her and to deny that we have anything to do with them. While this instinct is understandable, the reality is that even the worst of human beings are related to us in humanity, if not faith. And, therefore, opposing the tyrant is an act of sincere love, the same sincerity that one would naturally show to their brother. Opposing oppression must never be rooted in hatred, for that would, inevitably, cause the cycles of oppression to continue.

With all the oppression in the world today, it can be hard to figure out where to begin. Perhaps, the answer is to begin with that which we have the most influence over and which ignites a particular spark within us. The Prophet said that when we see wrong happening, we should oppose it with our hands; and, if we are unable, then with our tongues; and, if we are unable, then at least with our hearts.

My heart bleeds right now for what is happening in Palestine, Syria, Burma, Central Africa and so many other places in the world – just as it bleeds for those who are unjustly stuck in the prison industrial complex and gang violence everyday here in America. So I pray, “O, God, give relief to those who are burdened, and grant us the courage to oppose the oppressors and their oppression with love.” Amen.

TIME Religion

4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform

Empty prison cell
Empty prison cell Darrin Klimek—Getty Images


This article originally appeared on Patheos.

There are few social issues over which all within the greater Christian Church can agree, or at least historically have been able to find common ground. From gay marriage to gun control, it seems that religious ideology have gone part and parcel along with the respective political parties that tend to represent our social views.

Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a “zero tolerance” ethos. If raw numbers are any indication, the right has been “winning” this debate for the past several decades, with prison populations in the United States increasing tenfold in the past forty or so years.

Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it’s in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel.

As I discuss in my upcoming book, “postChristian: What’s Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?” The departure from more rigid institutional identities and values, whether because of inspired reflection or economic necessity, actually give us an opportunity to think in fresh ways about what Jesus calls us to do and be in the world. And not surprising, when we listen to that still small voice, we find some holy, common ground.

In the spirit of seeking such common ground, here are four ideas around which Christians – and non-Christians – from both the left and right are coming together.

Reform makes good financial sense.

Studies have shown that drug treatment and monitored work programs consistently cost less than incarceration, while also proving to be more effective at helping those with substance abuse issues remain sober and stay out of prison in the future. This “bang for your buck” sensibility resonates with many fiscal conservatives concerned with prudence when it comes to tax dollars.

Reform reduces government’s role in our lives.

One historical core value of the right is that of limited government. Since the time of Jefferson, stemming the reach of Uncle Sam has been a drumbeat around which most on the right can rally. In the last thirty years, the public dollars funneled into housing prisoners has exploded past $1 trillion annually, while the use of illicit drugs by adults in the United States continues to increase. Suffice it to say that this is one government program that has failed to live up to its promises, and an increasing number of conservatives and libertarians are joining the chorus for reform as a result.

Second Chances are Biblical.

Though some on the right have long embraced the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude, others are finding a basis in scripture for inclining toward mercy, particularly when it comes to nonviolent crimes. Consider the stories of the Prodigal son, Jonah, David or even Adam and Eve who, though they were promised a death sentence for the transgressions they committed, actually benefitted from a reduced sentence.

Thinking on “paying our debt to society” is shifting.

Traditionally, it’s been suggested the way lawbreakers pay their debt is to sit in jail, and perhaps pick up some trash or hammer out a few license plates for pennies a day. But rather than developing skills as contributing citizens, most prisoners, after being imprisoned for a few years, simply become habituated to their new environment. In short: they become good convicts. Without proper job training and work placement programs, many prisoners turn to public services, from public shelters to SSI, food stamps, etc., to make ends meet. So we exchange one kind of public support for another, while adding nothing to the tax base. And since a federal law in the nineties was passed barring drug offenders from receiving food stamps or cash assistance, many former inmates turn back to criminal activities such as theft or prostitution, thus starting the cycle of recidivism in motion.

Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.

Meanwhile we’re tied with only one other country for having the most prisoners per capita of any nation in the world: nearly as many per capita as Iran and Russia combined. Is this the legacy we want to leave in the annals of history, and the system of democracy we are preserving for our children?

Here’s hoping the momentum of this new coalition continues to grow.

Christian Piatt is the author and creator of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS.

More from Patheos:

TIME Religion

More Muslims Approve of Obama Than Any Other Religious Group

President Barack Obama in Texas
U.S. President Barack Obama the legendary Paramount Theater in Austin on July 10, 2014. Bob Daemmrich—Corbis

Mormons are the least approving group

More than 70 percent of Muslim-Americans approve of President Barack Obama’s job performance, a higher percentage than that of any other religious group, according to data released by Gallup Friday. On the other end of the spectrum, only 18 percent of Mormons said they approve of the President’s performance.

Overall, the data suggests a sharp religious division. Non-Christians are much more likely to approve of Obama’s performance than their Christian counterparts — minorities of Protestants, Catholics and Mormons approve of the President while majorities of Jewish, Muslim, non-religious, and other non-Christian people do so.

The data also show that most Americans continue to identify as Christians, with approximately 50 percent saying they are Protestant and 25 percent saying they are Catholic.

Obama’s approval rating across all groups stands at 43 percent.

The data, complied from 88,000 interviews, was collected during interviews for Gallup’s daily tracking poll during the first six months of 2014.

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