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.

Read more from Patheos:

TIME global health

Photos: How Muslim Families Around the World Break the Ramadan Fast

From Istanbul to Sydney to Beijing, here's what Muslim families are eating to break the fast

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 24: The Social Qur’an

Faith is incomplete without a radical commitment to social justice.

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 the late 19th to early 20th century there emerged an influential intellectual Christian movement that preached, what became known as, the “Social Gospel.” In summary, the movement sought to apply Christian ethics, taken from the Gospel, to social problems such as poverty and war. It was and remains a progressive movement essentially rooted in the Gospel’s radical social justice message.

Interestingly, around the same period, there also emerged movements within Islam that sought to do something very similar – apply Islamic ethics, taken from the Qur’an, to the myriad of social problems Muslim societies were facing. This movement attempted to advocate and argue for human freedom from tyrannical governments, economic fairness, and so on. Unfortunately, when some of these movements went from standing up against unjust political authority to wanting to become the political authority itself, the movements were quickly and brutally suppressed and fractured – sometimes leading to the formation of radical political organizations that responded to the suppression with calls to militancy.

Today, this much maligned and far too easily discredited movement is known in the West as “Islamism” and their followers are called “Islamists.” It has become a bad word from the halls of government to the world of academia. If you want to malign or discredit a Muslim public intellectual or activist, all you have to do is call them an Islamist. Sadly, many radical proponents of the Christian Social Gospel message have met a similar end.

In the Muslim World the movement is received with much more nuance. There are, of course, the violent extremists who have the loudest bullhorn on the block because of their tactics – “what bleeds leads” as they say in journalism. Every major study has shown that these violent groups are largely rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. But, some of the most effective grassroots movements in the Muslim World today are informed and inspired, at least to some degree, by the social justice message of the Qur’an as articulated by the likes of Hassan al-Banna (d.1949) in Egypt and Abul Ala Mawdudi (d.1979) in Pakistan. The attraction is not so much in the wholesale revolutionary message, necessarily, but simply in the positive concern for addressing social injustices with something that sounds and feels authentic to the Muslim imagination – as opposed to something that sounds and feels like a Western colonialist import or plot.

While there was something certainly brewing in the waters in the late 19th – early 20th century in terms of socio-political movements rooted in the Qur’anic social justice message, these movements were largely revivalist movements that were inspired by much earlier periods in Muslim history including many Sufi Orders that were committed to serving the most marginalized in society and affecting grassroots change. Indeed, it would be hard not to read the Prophet Muhammad’s biography and the story of his mission as a radical movement for social justice. The intellectuals behind the Social Gospel would see the life and mission of Jesus in a similar way.

So, in brief, what is the Social Qur’an – if we can borrow terminology from the Social Gospel movement? It is a message that calls on believers to stand up for justice and bear witness to the truth “even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives” (4:135) and warns believers to never allow “hatred of others to lead you away from justice” (5:8). It is a teaching that commands believers throughout the Qur’an to “be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong” (3:104). It is an urging to follow a higher ethical plane that “Is to free the slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those believe and urge one another to steadfastness [in doing good] and compassion” (90:13—17). It is prescribing as a pillar of Islam the institutionalization of almsgiving for the poor and needy (9:60) and an ethic of charity that affirms and restores the dignity of socially neglected people (2:261—274). It is encouraging the “fair and kind” treatment of women (4:19—21). And, it is pushing people to defend the oppressed even if it means putting their own lives at risk (4:74—76). This is just a brief glimpse into the social justice message of the Qur’an.

The Social Qur’an is also a message that prohibits usurious loans that enslave people and entire communities to a lifetime of debt (2:275—281). It strongly condemns people “who give short measure” in their business dealings (83:1—6); exploit the orphans (4:10); “act like tyrants” (26:130); set out to “spread corruption” in the world (2:203), to give just a few examples. Social crimes such as sex slavery (24:33), female infanticide (81:8—9), and so on are spoken against in the strongest language.

So, this is a brief summary of what the Social Qur’an looks like. It is a message and teaching for the socially conscientious people to root their social justice work in a God-centric and spiritually focused way. And, it is a lesson to those who strive to be mindful of God that faith is incomplete without a radical commitment to social justice.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 23: Togetherness

Boarding House Cares For The Elderly During Ramadam Period
Elderly men talk to each other as they take a break at a boarding school that cares for the elderly during Ramadan in Central Java, Indonesia on July 15, 2014. Ulet Ifansasti—Getty Images

Unity does not mean uniformity

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 Muslim societies just about everywhere there is a lot of call and cry for unity these days in every sector of society – from the street vendors in the marketplace to the religious preachers on the pulpit. This phenomenon is quite understandable as many Muslims are experiencing crises after crises of political instability, wars, and other forms of strife. Even Muslims who are living in relatively stable and safe contexts experience these crises second hand through news outlets, social media, and reports from family and friends. The proposed solution out of this messy cycle always seems to be unity – only if Muslims would work together and not against each other we would solve all our problems, so goes the argument.

But, too often the problem with these calls for unity is that they – consciously or subconsciously – come with the expectation of uniformity. When religious folks are asked how unity can be gained in their estimation, the most likely answer will be, “by following the Qur’an and Sunnah [prophetic traditions].” Well, that sounds great until you address the million-dollar question – whose understanding and interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah?

You see, from the very early period of Islamic history, Muslims figured out the hard way that people by their nature tend to disagree and these disagreements can even lead to violence between the most well-intentioned people. So, as Islamic thought and civilization matured there was a calming embrace of pluralism among Muslims so that just in Sunni Islam, for example, there came to be the formation of and tolerance for at least four schools of practice and at least two schools of theology and several schools of spiritual attainment. These schools learned to live side-by-side with tension, yes, but also mutual respect. An entire scholarly discourse was created on the ethics of disagreement to help keep the peace. The more successful Muslim empires figured out institutionalized systems to allow different schools to coexist in society.

But, with the collapse of Islam’s last empire after World War I much of the Muslim World descended into a state of chaos and internal tensions began exploding out of control. The longing since then of many Muslims has been a return to a romanticized past when Muslims were largely united under one or more empires. The popular memory of this period was that Muslims were the leaders of the world when they were united in this way, and now they are a humiliated and easily trampled upon people. This sentiment for reunification and bringing back the glory days is what has, partly, given rise to rather silly but dangerous groups that insist on a single understanding of Islam.

Muslims need to seriously reevaluate and reconsider the whole notion of what unity means and entails for our age. If it means uniformity then we will continue down a long and difficult road. But, if we can re-envision a unity for our times that does not insist on absolute uniformity and conformity then there may be reason for hope.

Ramadan is a marvelous season for us to imagine what this different type of unity might look like. In this month Muslims of different persuasions find a way, more often than in any other month, to break bread together, pray together, laugh and cry together. The act of sitting together over a meal or praying shoulder-to-shoulder or exchanging stories in an intimate setting is what breaks the cycle of mistrust and misunderstandings.

As the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University, I have witnessed this firsthand. Our breaking of the fast table every evening looks like a gathering of the United Nations. South and Central Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Americans enjoy each other’s company with some meeting each other for the very first time. Sunnis and Shias and Sufis pray together before sharing a meal. The insistence is not on uniformity, it is on friendship.

As such, I would like to suggest that we as a community move from a desire for unity to a desire for togetherness – a state of being close to one another as opposed to a state of being necessarily joined together as a whole under a single school of thought or organization. The togetherness model requires a strong civil society that is bottom up rather than an enforced uniformity that is top down.

As the Qur’an beautifully says, “O humankind, We created you from a male and a female, and We made you races and tribes for you to get to know each other…” (49:13). Getting to “know each other” is what is at the heart of the togetherness ethos. Muslim commentators and sages have explained that this means, at its deepest and most desired level, an intimate friendship and love between people who are different. When our sense of relationship is based on friendship and closeness in the togetherness paradigm, then fear mongering and hatred and discord – all of which we have come to hate – can and will be overcome.

So, here’s hoping and praying that just as this month of Ramadan has brought so many together, that we can find a way to embrace togetherness as our ethos for moving forward.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 22: A Prayer for Palestine

Israel launches ground operation in Gaza
Palestinians inspect damage of an apartment building after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Friday, July 18, 2014. Momen Faiz—NurPhoto/Corbis

May God forgive us for our evils here on earth

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.

Throughout the last several days, my heart and mind have been overwhelmed thinking about the innocent lives lost and in harms way as Israel intensifies its military campaign in the Gaza Strip. I’m not a politician or a historian – I am just a simple human being who is aching, like millions of others, from all of the reports of death and mayhem that are emerging out of Palestine.

The tragic stories really hit home when journalists broke the story of four first-cousin children who were playing soccer near the beach when an Israeli missile dropped, killing the four children instantaneously. The photographs of the dead children and their frantic parents just broke my heart. I thought of all the children in my own life beginning with my nephew, and how terrible it must feel to lose them, especially in such a way. As of Friday, July 18, forty-five children have lost their lives in just this latest military campaign. I say not “Palestinian children” for children do not belong to anyone people; they are our collective hope for the future and God-given responsibility to protect. Forty-five precious and beautiful souls gone forever – may they rest in peace.

Israel will point the finger at Hamas arguing that they hide out in civilian areas and that the Israeli army has no other option but to accept mass casualties as part of “collateral damage.” Anyone who has seen a map of Gaza will wonder how innocent civilians and militants would live in clearly demarcated spaces in such a tiny land. Palestinians will argue that the Israeli army is targeting innocents and their operation amounts to nothing other than collective punishment.

What’s lost in the crossfire of words is the reality of suffering on the ground – the sheer pain of lives lost, limbs cut, hope fading, and anger building. It is a suffering that goes beyond the most recent military campaign, and is the day-to-day life under occupation.

In praying for Palestine and reflecting on their plight, I do not wish to undermine the suffering of Israelis who have also lost and also suffered and also experienced much pain over the last 64 years including the abduction and murder of three Israeli youth a few weeks ago.

My intention is just to consider and internalize for a moment – beginning with myself – the tragedy taking place before us. I would like to think that we can take a step back, take a deep breath, rediscover the well of tears that have run dry out of apathy, and lift our hands in prayer for those whose lives were cut too short by war.

“May innocent children, women, and men who are victims of our collective evil rest in peace as they return to the One who is all-loving, most kind. May they experience an eternal life of bliss where they will never again have to hear another explosion or experience another painful wound. May their loved ones who are left behind find the inner peace and fortitude to live on. May God forgive us for our evils here on earth and for our lack of compassion, courage, and wisdom in these times. May God grant us strength and patience and show us the enlightened way of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence. Amen.”

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