TIME Innovation

This Is Why Religion Is Just a Technology

Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

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This is the second of a 10-article series of conversations with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, on Sept. 17-18.

This is part of a series of conversations with transformation leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, on Sept. 17-18.

Irwin Kula is an eighth-generation rabbi known for his fearless attitude about change — a rare quality among religious leaders who tend to adhere closely to tradition.

Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) in New York and the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, has dedicated himself to opening up the wisdom of his 3,500-year-old faith to be in conversation with the world.

Kula preaches the “highest possible institutional barriers between church and state,” with the “lowest possible communication barriers.” He welcomes intermarriage and interfaith dialogue. He recognizes God not as a “Seeing Eye,” but in “experiences of love, caring, and connection.”

Many consider Kula progressive; others, disruptive. But Kula maintains that institutionalized disruption is essential to adaptation and growth.

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Rabbi Kula looks like the wise man of children’s books. He has a handsome widow’s peak, and speaks with homiletic pauses and animated hands. When asked about how his beliefs developed, he answers in stories.

At 14, Kula was thrown out of the private parochial school he attended for challenging the Torah. “I would ask a class of 25 students questions which were probably a touch ‘teenagerish’,” he recalls. “I’d ask, ‘You don’t really believe this — God splitting seas? Come on, this is not what this is actually saying’.”

This rebellious streak would come to define his practice.

The problem with most religious leadership, Kula claims, is that its mission is to convert the non-affiliated. “Religion is not about creed, dogma, or tribe,” he counters. “We need to stop judging our success by membership dues — this isn’t about how many hits. First and foremost, religion is a toolbox designed to help human beings flourish.”

Kula claims that he finds himself often at odds with the concept of “God” as commonly invoked in the American public arena. To him, this is the God of touchdowns and wars, an intervening God who “casts out” unless one “buys in.” “No religious or political system has a hold on being moral,” Kula says. “Systems are only as good as their people.”

For most of his rabbinic appointment, Kula kept these views to himself. Only after the September 11 attacks did he begin to more openly preach what he himself practiced.

“I was very unnerved, knowing the religious impulse compelled that,” Kula says. After the tragedy, he shut down his teaching for three months to reevaluate his role as a spiritual leader. When he returned to the synagogue, he had made the decision “never to teach Judaism again simply to affirm the group’s identity.”

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In 2013, Irwin Kula recounted the narrative of his spiritual conversion to a packed theatre of global business leaders at the Collaborative Innovation Summit, an event hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI. On stage, the rabbi made an ambitious appeal to his audience, whom he knew to be composed of astute tinkerers and serial entrepreneurs: He asked them to join him in his mission to innovate religion.

Kula is a fervent believer in accessing insight beyond the religious tradition. “It’s really important to speak to non-incumbents,” he maintains. “The less you speak exclusively to your own ‘users,’ the better shot you have of keeping your own practices from becoming incredibly distorted.” His CLAL runs a program called Rabbis Without Borders, dedicated to fostering open dialogue across cultural and religious barriers.

Stories of innovation often feature “two kids in a garage.” Kula’s goal has been to tell an innovation story from the cathedral. “Religion’s just a technology,” his BIF talk began. “How the hardware of humanity gets used will depend on the software.”

His talk covered how the rapid advancements of the digital infrastructure age demand that we broaden our ethical horizons: What are the new crimes? In this new order, who is included and what are their rights? As we redefine morality, the need to innovate faith becomes especially pressing.

“The most interesting businesses ask ‘impact on society’ questions, which are more complex than ‘killer app success’ questions,” Kula reflects in hindsight. “At BIF, I asked, ‘What would happen if we applied innovation theory to religion, to compress the resources it takes to create good people?’”

Kula looks forward to returning for BIF10 in September.

“If a homily is 15 minutes in church, it’s 18 minutes at BIF,” he says. “As conferences go, BIF embodies total equality between the storytellers and their audience. In many ways, it’s the best of what a spiritual community is — we’ve got to bottle that.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan is the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory. He is the founder and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence and blogs regularly at It’s Saul Connected. Follow him on Twitter at @skap5. Nicha Ratana is a senior pursuing a degree in English Nonfiction Writing at Brown University and an intern at The Business Innovation Factory. Follow her on Twitter at @nicharatana.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 28: A Spiritual Retreat

Turkish faithful pray in Ottoman-era Sultanahmet mosque, known as Blue mosque, on "Laylat Al Qadr" during the holy month of Ramadan, in Istanbul late July 23, 2014.
Turkish faithful pray in Ottoman-era Sultanahmet mosque, known as Blue mosque, on "Laylat Al Qadr" during the holy month of Ramadan, in Istanbul late July 23, 2014. Yagiz Karahan—Reuters

Without silence, we cannot hear the voice of our deepest inner soul or of our well reasoned minds.

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.

I’m writing this piece at 5am after spending the whole night in what can be called a spiritual retreat (itikaf in Arabic). Thousands of millions of Muslims worldwide spend a day or a few days in the last ten nights of Ramadan secluded away from worldliness to focus solely on their relationship with God.

Every year, I look forward to this spiritual retreat, no matter how short, because it offers an opportunity to just hit the pause button on the hectic life that I, like so many others, live. The retreat is made up of long and thoughtful prayer, chanting of God’s names and praises, recitation of the Qur’an, contemplation of prophetic sayings and biographies, and so on. It is an experience in spiritual immersion where the minutes and hours seem to matter very little other than to organize one’s devotions.

The benefit to this retreat is that it truly brings comfort to the soul. As the Qur’an says, “Surely, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility” (13:28). The Qur’an recited is so soothing for the soul. God’s names chanted in rhythmic tone with people you come to love is an awesome feeling. But, it’s also something more than that — it’s a supernatural presence that you begin to warm up to over the course of the retreat. It’s a presence that seems to be there all along, but really comes alive, or we become alive to it, when there is complete focus and attention on the spiritual. “God is with you wheresoever you may be” and “We [meaning the majestic ‘We’] are closer to you than your jugular vein,” says God in the Qur’an (57:4 and 50:16).

In this way, the mind and soul receive new openings whereby realities begin to become clearer. It is no coincidence that the Prophet Muhammad first received revelation when he was in deep, deep contemplation and after many years of regularly engaging in a spiritual retreat off in the mountains.

Beyond, the experience, engaging in a spiritual retreat also forces one to live an examined life — to truly reflect on the life lived and the life that is yet to be lived. Being away from the world and focused on matters of the soul makes you take a long hard look in the spiritual mirror. The character and habits you have acquired, the addictions and preoccupations you have developed, and so on come into full focus. The early Muslim sage and second caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab (d.644), used to say: “Take yourself to account before you are taken to account.” Meaning, from a believer’s perspective, before that inevitable day of standing before God arrives after death, the believer should examine the state of their faith and the book of their deeds. Where goodness is found, steadfastness is prescribed; where shortcomings are found, reform is needed before it’s too late.

In these times that we live in, there seems to be a social need if not obligation to spend sometime in retreat as individuals and as communities. The world in an age of technology can be so overwhelmingly consuming that sometimes it’s hard to find even a minute to think and reflect. We’re used to so much stimulation that quietude almost feels unnerving. But, without silence we cannot hear the voice of our deepest inner soul or of our well reasoned minds. We simply need to disconnect in order to reconnect.

And, as a community, retreats might help us elevate ourselves to a collectively higher spiritual and ethical plane. Too often we get stuck accepting the norm or simply defending ourselves from the “outside” world. Sometimes, and increasingly so, we need to be honest and self-critical of where we are and where we should be as a religious community.

If the 1.6 billion Muslims went on a spiritual retreat together, I think we’d discover that there are many reforms we need to undertake and that our problems are not just some Western conspiracy theory. There is too much bloodshed, too much unhealthy patriarchy, and too little prioritizing of social justice in our community today. Small and silly issues are debated many times over while big and much more serious issues — by any measure including what the Qur’an prioritizes as issues of concern for believers — are woefully neglected.

I pray and hope, against all hope, that the collective experience of a spiritual retreat this Ramadan will move us toward greater introspection and better days ahead. But, for any sort of social reform to happen, it will require a few good women and men to take the serious issues more seriously and to leave off childish games of deflection and blame.

“Let there arise out of you a group of people who invite to all that is good, enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong,” commands the Qur’an (3:104). It is high time we, as Muslims, heed this command by supporting good wherever it is happening and by initiating the good wherever we find it to be lacking. It takes courage, wisdom, and much more. But, it all begins with introspection that comes out of a much needed spiritual retreat.

TIME Sudan

Sudanese Christian Who Refused to Renounce Faith Meets Pope

APTOPIX Italy Mideast Sudan
Mariam Ibrahim, from Sudan, disembarks with her children Maya, in her arms, and Martin, accompanied by Italian deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli, after landing from Khartoum, at Ciampino's military airport, on the outskirts of Rome, Thursday, July 24. Riccardo De Luca—AP

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and her family landed in Italy en route to a new life in the U.S.

Updated: 9:14 a.m.

A Sudanese woman who faced the death sentence for refusing to renounce Christianity met with Pope Francis on Thursday, hours after she safely landed in Italy en route to the United States, the Vatican said.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim met with the Pope in a “very serene and affectionate” environment, Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi said in a statement. He said Francis met with Ibrahim and her family to show “his closeness and prayers” for everyone who suffers as a result of their faith.

Ibrahim, 27, was imprisoned for apostasy in February under Sudan’s strict Islamic law, after converting from Islam to marry her Christian husband, a U.S. citizen. Born to a Muslim father but raised Orthodox Christian, she refused to convert back under threat of death.

Ibrahim was ultimately spared the death sentence amid growing international outrage, but was detained when she tried to leave the country last month. She has since been sheltered in the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, and the State Department has been negotiating for her departure.

Sudan’s Sharia laws have been used sporadically since they were imposed in the 1980s, and no one has been put to death for apostasy since 1985, according to NBC News. But Ibrahim’s case drew widespread international attention, and the U.S. and human rights groups called for her release. She is now expected to head to the U.S. in the coming days with her two children and American husband.

 

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 27: Gratitude

Egyptian children have fun inside a mosque during their fasting hours in a Ramadan afternoon in Cairo June 23, 2014.
Egyptian children have fun inside a mosque during their fasting hours in a Ramadan afternoon in Cairo June 23, 2014. Cui Xinyu—Xinhua Press/Corbis

With even the smallest blessings there come moral responsibilities to use the blessing as it was intended to be used by the Giver.

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 of the descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad that appears often in lines of praise poetry is that “he prayed while others slept.” Indeed, it was a regular practice of the Prophet to pray well into the night during its quietest hours. Upon one such occasion, the Prophet’s beloved wife, Lady Ayesha, awoke to find that the Prophet was praying with such intensity that his feet had become swollen from standing long hours and his beard was wet with tears. Lady Ayesha turned to the Prophet and asked why he prayed with such devotion when he was already so beloved to God. The Prophet paused and then replied, “Shall I not, then, be a grateful servant?”

Gratitude appears often as a theme in the Qur’an and as a description of those who truly believe in God. “Remember Me and I shall remember you; be grateful to Me and never ungrateful,” says God in the Qur’an (2:152). Interestingly, the word for ingratitude in this passage and other similar ones is takfarun — which literally means rejection or hiding or covering. Ingratitude, then, is to reject or hide or cover the blessings of God from one’s own soul and consciousness. It is the same word that is used for rejecting or disbelieving in faith altogether — the understanding being that a denial of God is a denial of the source of all blessings. Gratitude is, therefore, seen as an essential quality in the heart and consciousness of a believer.

The Qur’an says, “If you were to attempt to enumerate the blessings of God, you would never be able to do so” (16:18). Blessings that should garner the most gratitude are often the ones most taken for granted. For example, on average we breathe 12 breaths per minute that amounts to 17,280 breaths a day. If we are prevented from breathing for even a short while the results can be catastrophic — from permanent brain injury to even death. Yet, when was the last time we thanked God or expressed gratitude for the great gift of breathing? The scholar and sage, Imam al-Ghazali (d.1111), put it beautifully when he said, “Every breath is like a priceless jewel, once gone can never be retrieved.”

During this month of Ramadan, blessings are experienced through deprivation for there is nothing that reminds us of how blessed we are until we experience loss. There is nothing that tastes sweeter and more satisfying than a glass of cold water after fasting for 16 hours during these hot summer days. But, it must also be a reminder that this blessing cannot be taken for granted outside of fasting hours for there are too many people in the world who do not have access to clean running water that is safe and refreshing to drink. According to the non-profit organization, Water.org, 780 million people lack access to clean water worldwide and 3.4 million people die each year from water related diseases.

With even the smallest blessings there come moral responsibilities to use the blessing as it was intended to be used by the Giver. In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there are two aspects of taking account of blessings: The first is to recognize blessings in one’s heart and on one’s tongue and to offer thanks to God for it; the second is to ask ourselves whether or not we are using the blessings of God in the best and most beautiful way possible, as God would want us to. This introspection begins with considering how we use our eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet. And, then how we use our time, wealth, and energy. And, so on. In the chapter of the Qur’an named “The Merciful,” the reader is asked over and over again, “Then which of your Lord’s blessings will you deny?” (Chapter 55).

The Prophet Muhammad advised, “Take advantage of five before five: Your youth before old age; your health before sickness; your wealth before poverty; your free time before preoccupation; and your life before death.” The key motivating factor that allow us to take advantage of these blessings is gratitude.

It is, indeed, easy to fall prey to ingratitude. Sometimes life just sucks. But, when you experience difficulties and hardships, don’t forget that there are still blessings to be grateful for. Focus on those blessings. And, remember that no matter your situation, things could always be worse, so have a positive attitude and let that carry you through life’s peaks and valleys. As God says in the Qur’an, “If you are grateful, surely I will give you increase” (14:7). This increase is not always through an increase in the blessing itself, but rather an increase in the contentment that God puts in the hearts of men and women.

TIME Religion

Border Crisis: Central American Churches Try to Keep Children Home

Members of a Catholic church in a small town along the Guatemala and Mexico border hold a special mass celebrating the Virgin of Shelter.
Members of a Catholic church in El Pedregal, a small town along the Guatemala and Mexico border, hold a special Mass celebrating the Virgin of Shelter for undocumented migrants passing through their town, July 4, 2014. Meridith Kohut—The New York Times/Redux

Pastors in the United States and across Central America and Mexico have a new message: do not send kids to the border.

Thousands of children continue to cross the US-Mexico border without parents, and a growing group of Hispanic Christian pastors is urging churches across Central America to keep their children from making the trip. Their goal is ambitious: zero unaccompanied minors at the border by the end of the year.

The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference/CONELA, a Hispanic Christian network that serves more than 40,000 churches in the US and 500,000 worldwide, is spearheading the campaign along with three other US-based faith organizations, Buckner International, Convoy of Hope, and Somebody Cares International. Together they hope to mobilize their member churches and partners in Central and South America to stop the children’s migration. “I believe it is wrong for parents to send children to the US border when the primary protective firewall for these children lies in a loving Christ-filled home where faith, family and education stand prevalent,” Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC/CONELA, explains. “Correspondingly, as a nation and as people of faith, we must serve, heal and minister to those that have arrived in our nation because theirs, according to Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven.”

For now, the coalition is spreading the message primarily from pulpits and via a media campaign. The group launched a new website, ForHisChildren.net, on Wednesday, and is also beginning a radio ad campaign targeting some 500 radio stations, both secular and Christian, in Central and South America. Their message is direct: “How can we best protect our children? By making Christ the center of our homes, for a family filled with faith, hope and love stands as the primary deterrent against gangs, drugs and violence,” one of the Spanish ads says. “Keep your children home. Do not send them to the US border rather declare like Joshua, ‘As for me and my house, we shall serve The Lord.’”

NHCLC/CONELA leaders took this message to a gathering of 2,000 church leaders from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on July 10. The risk and likelihood of physical and psychological hardship, sexual abuse, and gang involvement, Rodriguez explained to the pastors there, outweighs the perceived benefits of letting children try to enter the United States. He asked pastors to share this message from their own pulpits: “Con Fe en Cristo y la familia junta; nuestros ninos tienen un future,” which translates as, “With faith in Christ and the family together, our children have a future.”

Beyond the humanitarian crisis at the border, the US faith leaders have political incentive to advise constituents to keep kids at home—vast numbers of migrating children continue to complicate the political challenge of passing immigration reform, which the leaders support. From October through the end of June, nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended crossing the US border, and nearly all were from Central American and Mexico. The number of children under age 12 who have been caught at the border has more than doubled this fiscal year over last year, according to data obtained by the Pew Research Center. Earlier this week, NHCLC members met with White House officials and, separately, with Senator Ted Cruz to share their recent efforts to prevent children from illegally coming to the US.

Fermín García, pastor of the 7,000-member strong church Grupo Unidad Cristiana de México (Christian Unity Group of Mexico) in Tijuana, leads the NHCLC Mexico chapter, which includes thousands of Church of God, Assemblies of God, Foursquare and Methodist churches. He is working to spread the message across Mexico pastor to pastor, and this week he met with leaders of the Foursquare denomination at their national convention in Baja California to give them copies of the media spots to share with their local churches. Biblical principles, he explains, are what ultimately change kids lives, and that’s one of the reasons it is so important for pastors to spread the keep-kids-home message. “Parents don’t want children to fall into gangs or with poverty, unfortunately it seems they are finding the same thing, only now away from their family,” Garcia says. “Changes come with hearts being changed, not with money.”

Costa Rican pastor Ricardo Castillo Medina, who serves as president of the Hispanic Federation of the Assemblies of God, was initially surprised to learn of the campaign, but he quickly joined and helped to coordinate awareness and humanitarian aid for children. His network in the most vulnerable immigration zones is large—2,300 churches in El Salvador, 1,750 in Honduras, 2,600 in Guatemala, 5,000 in Mexico. The churches in his network, he says, now have instructions to share messages to keep kids home with their communities. Families need to know, he explains via email, that the risks involved for children seeking the American dream could turn it into a nightmare. “We can avoid children suffering abuse and exposure to inhumane conditions, and besides that it is a social-political problem,” he says.

Whether the overall campaign works on the broad scale remains to be seen. The motivating forces behind the children’s migration, like violence and poverty, have far from an easy fix. “Everything is still new and you can’t yet measure the impact,” Castillo says, “but I think we’re going to raise awareness so that children are not used.”

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 26: The Simple Lifestyle

Internal happiness cannot be bought--it must be sought.

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 of the spiritual and ethical challenges of living in the age of capitalism is avoiding a lifestyle of complete consumerism and materialism. We’re constantly stimulated and tempted with advertising that tells us we have to buy the next big thing if we want to be cool and relevant. Every new product is made to seem like it will change our lives forever and that we’ll simply be better off if we buy it.

If everyone were able to afford the latest and biggest product on the market that would be one thing, but on average U.S. households go into major credit card debt trying to keep up with the whole consumerist culture. The American economy is largely driven by our willingness to buy what we cannot afford by accruing loans.

Interestingly, some of America’s founding fathers and the Prophet Muhammad seemed to be on the same page in their strong warnings against taking on unnecessary debt. For example, Benjamin Franklin famously said, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.” Similarly, the Prophet warned, “When a man gets into debt, he speaks and tells lies, and he makes a promise and breaks it.” In one of the famous prayers of the Prophet he would ask God for protection against debt and against facing the tyranny of other men in the same breath. Along the same concern, Andrew Jackson warned, “When you get in debt you become a slave.” The Qur’an too cautions against taking on usurious loans, in particular, with the longest passage in the scripture dedicated to its prohibition (2:282).

Making decisions on what to buy and how much to buy is not an easy. The key, as with many things, is moderation. The Qur’an describes the righteous servants of God as “those who are neither wasteful nor miserly when they spend, but keep to a just balance” (25:67). The Qur’an condemns those who over indulge in worldliness and, yet, says that monasticism is not something God prescribes (57:27). The problem, though, is that too often the “balance” tilts more toward materialism than simplicity. And, therefore, one of the spiritual and ethical responsibilities of our time is to rediscover an appreciation for living the simple life.

One of the uniting characteristics of spiritual teachers across faith traditions has been their adherence to and preaching of the simple lifestyle. It is no coincidence. To live a simple life is to live a free life. And, to live a free life is to live a life that is more concerned about the spiritual than the material. As the Qur’an puts it, “Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope” (18:46).

In the Islamic spiritual tradition, the sages teach that what breaks our addiction to materialism is a healthy dose of remembering death. This is not meant to be a morbid contemplation, but more so a reality check on how short the life of this world is and how it pales in comparison to the everlasting life that the soul journeys on after death. Therefore, working day and night to accumulate all these goods only to enjoy just for a little while if at all makes little sense. Joy and satisfaction, instead, come from an internal happiness that no amount of materialism can satisfy. And, this internal happiness cannot be bought, it must be sought.

All of Islam’s five pillars of practice direct believers toward considering a simple life. The testimony of faith that there is no god but God is a denial of the world as a god. The five daily prayers are meant to take a time out from worldliness. Almsgiving is a practice in freely giving from your possessions and in learning the art of non-attachment. Fasting is all about self-discipline and freedom from the material. And, pilgrimage is an act of, literally, stripping oneself of worldliness and embracing the life of simplicity.

In these last remaining days of Ramadan, let us reconsider how we earn and spend our wealth and how much we invest in the material as opposed to the spiritual. The key is, indeed and truly, finding the right balance.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 25: Restraining the Tongue

Speech is powerful--here are five ways to be disciplined about what you say.

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.

A wise Arab proverb says, “Every war begins with words.”

This proverb holds true not just between nations, but even between family members and friends. How many a war have we engaged in which the tongue was our sharpest and most brutal weapon?

In the teachings of Islamic spirituality there is much that is written about the importance of restraining the tongue. The tongue is called “the mirror of the heart.” In other words, what appears on our tongue is a chief indicator of what is in our hearts. And, this becomes even truer in those unguarded moments when anger, frustration, or stress gets the best of us and our tongues lose any sense of discipline.

This is, perhaps, why the Prophet Muhammad said that one of the ways of knowing if there is hypocrisy in our hearts is to examine what we say with our tongues when we become angry. If it is foul and vile words, then that is a measure of how much purification of the heart remains.

The masters of Islamic spirituality teach that the heart and the tongue have a two-way relationship. Even though the tongue is the mirror whereas the heart is the reality, if we work on polishing the mirror the reality also becomes polished with time and effort.

So, what does it mean to work on the tongue? It means struggling within ourselves to restrain the tongue from all that is corrupt and ugly, like one would pull back a wild horse, and to train the tongue in the speech of goodness and beauty.

The sages and scholars of Islamic spirituality warn that the tongue should be guarded from the following 8 types of speech: lying; breaking promises or oaths; speaking ill of others or slandering; wrangling, arguing and disputing with others without any clear benefit or when you fear it will get out of hand; self-justification or self-praise in a way that leads to arrogance; cursing or using foul language; invoking evil on creatures even if they are your worst enemies; jesting, ridiculing, and scoffing at people in a way that hurts people’s feelings or gives them a bad reputation – this is even worse when this type of speech is directed toward an entire community of people.

Each one of these has their specific descriptions and treatments, but in summary there are five steps that we can take to become more aware of our speech and to polish our tongues, according to the spiritual teachers:

1) Knowledge: Just be aware of the 8 types of speech that you should avoid. Knowledge leads to introspection and introspection leads to reform. When you notice any of these ailments on your tongue, take yourself to task and work to change you condition.

2) Silence: The Prophet Muhammad said that “anyone who believes in God and the Last Day should either speak well or remain silent.” Silence is golden, so goes the saying. Thinking before you speak is the key. One of the great sages of Islam and Caliph after the Prophet Muhammad would place a small stone underneath his tongue and move it to speak only after considering whether what he had to say was truly beneficial. This might be too difficult of a practice for many of us, but it goes to show how seriously silence was taken among the spiritual elite.

3) Fasting: Increase your days of fasting, for fasting by its nature teaches restraint.

4) Change your surrounding: Keeping good company and keeping yourself busy with good things so that your tongue finds very little opportunity to engage in baseless conversations.

5) Remembering the Divine: Cloaking your tongue with the beautiful names of God and the praise of those names will make your tongue to incline toward that which is beautiful and wholesome. Eventually, ugly speech will be completely antithetical and unnatural to a tongue that is used to beauty.

The remaining days of Ramadan are perfect days to intensify our practice of cultivating a disciplined tongue. These are not only the days of peak restraint but also of increasingly remembering God, seeking forgiveness and longing for salvation.

TIME Religion

Pro-Life Nurse Sues Family Planning Clinic for Hiring Discrimination

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Birth control pills Raymond Forbes—age fotostock RM/Getty Images

She said she would not prescribe birth control

PatheosLogo_Blue

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

We have a new frontrunner in the race for dumbest Christian Right lawsuit.

Sara Hellwege, a pro-life nurse, applied for a job at Tampa Family Health Centers (in Florida) this past April. TFHC is a Title X clinic, meaning they’re all about things like family planning, contraception, and birth control.

So when Hellwege mentioned her affiliation with the “American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists” in her resume, the interviewer (Chad Lindsey) asked her if that would be a problem since, you know, conservative Christians + birth control = crazytown.

Hellwege said she couldn’t prescribe birth control since, in her unscientific mind, it caused abortions. Lindsey, knowing that all of the job openings involved prescribing birth control, told her there were no other positions available and that there was no reason to proceed with the interview process.

So she’s suing him.

I repeat: She’s suing him because he’s not hiring her for a job she refuses to do.

It makes as much sense as a vegetarian suing Taco Bell for not hiring him even though he told the manager he couldn’t be near meat.

The misnamed Alliance Defending Freedom reiterated the whole misunderstanding about how birth control works while completely ignoring the job description:

Willingness to commit an abortion cannot be a litmus test for employment,” added ADF Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden. “All we are asking is for the health center to obey the law and not make a nurse’s employment contingent upon giving up her respect for life.”

I know we’re talking about birth control, and most forms of birth control are not abortifacients, but let’s roll with it for a second. If the job involves helping women obtain abortions, and you don’t want to help women obtain abortions for whatever reason, go find another job. Hellwege can’t do the very thing they need her to do.

No one owes her a job when she refuses to do it.

Maybe I should apply for an attorney position at ADF. My own sincere beliefs prevent me from defending Christians who have martyr complexes, but screw it. ADF owes me a paycheck.

Gregory M. Lipper of Americans United for Separation of Church and State put it simply: “Even after Hobby Lobby, this lawsuit retires the trophy for chutzpah.”

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. His latest book is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.

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