My most meaningful encounter with a Muslim was unlikely and totally unexpected—as meaningful encounters often are. It occurred a decade ago, on board an Amtrak train bound from New York City to Chicago.
As an adventure, we'd taken the train to my wife Ellie's hometown in Upstate New York. It required a northbound connection at Schenectady. On our trip home, the westbound train was predictably off schedule. We boarded it sometime after 10:00 p.m. We fumbled around as we found our seats, stowed our luggage in the semi-somnolent and twilight car, and settled into coach seats. We did our best to fall asleep and stay asleep while the train lurched through the night and stopped now and again at various stations. There's no atmosphere to compare to the rustlings, murmurs, and aromas (especially in the fecund heat of summer) of a full coach car at night as passengers fuss and sleep, board and disembark.
So it took a while to comprehend what the stewards were telling us all to do around 4:00 a.m. With loud voices and excited gestures they directed us to wake up, gather our valuables, and get off the train as rapidly as we could. A bomb scare had been phoned in. For a half hour or longer, disheveled and anxious/annoyed, we stood along the tracks, somewhere in a rural area where New York and Pennsylvania come together.
In time, yellow buses evacuated us to a school auditorium in the nearest town. We didn't return to the train until late morning. (Our little group of four nearly missed the bus back to the train because we left the school for breakfast at a village diner.) Amtrak had acquired KFC box lunches for everyone and distributed them once we got started up again. After consuming the greasy food and in the wake of an exhausting seven hours, nearly everyone on the train fell into a stupor.
I was restless and made my way to the almost deserted club car. The only other person in it was an early midlife African American man wearing a pork pie straw hat, with a big gauze bandage over one eye. It looked like he'd been in a fight. I took a table seat and shuffled and dealt a deck of cards. He watched me play a couple hands of solitaire, then asked if he could join me in a game of cards.
After some tentative mutual verbal feeling out, he revealed that he'd injured his eye when we were being evacuated and more astonishingly that he was an imam of a New Jersey mosque—not a Black Muslim but a convert to orthodox Islam. As miles of scenery slid past the windows, he told me how he'd progressed from selling hot dogs from a pushcart on an Asbury Park boardwalk, to discovering Islam, to conversion, to becoming an imam.
He was the real deal. What made the greatest impression on me was his pronouncement that he wasn't worried when the train was evacuated, indeed he said he was never worried about his welfare, because all he had to do was find a fellow Muslim in the community and he would be granted immediate support and/or sanctuary. For an hour or so I looked into a soul inspired by Islam as never before and never after, either. Though I'd studied Islam at North America's outstanding Islamic Institute at McGill University in Montreal, where I took my theology degree, I'd not realized the faith of Islam until that strange train interlude. It was rather surreal and almost seemed staged for my special benefit.
The Third Revelation of the Abrahamic Religions
Islam is the second most popular faith in the world. It has more than a billion adherents. I'd hazard to say that of all the great world religions, we are least familiar with Islam, though it belongs to the grouping of Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the first two being the traditional ground of Western Civilization.
Compared to Judaism and Christianity, Islam makes unique demands on its believers. Those demands run contrary to certain currents that identify the Western worldview. The demands can be understood in the context of how Islam came to be in seventh century Arabia— the contentious cities of Mecca and Medinah in particular, and a prevailing Bedouin warrior culture. Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. His hometown of Mecca at first ridiculed and reviled him. The revelations were collected and organized in chapters (or surahs) and became the Quran.
In practical ways, the religion revealed through the Prophet Muhammad settled many contemporary—early seventh century—Arab distresses:
- It came as the revelation of an overarching God to a proud group of people who had a collective sense that they'd been left out of religious currents, especially in comparison to neighboring Jews and Christians who had their respective Prophets, Holy Books, and Supreme Beings. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and the Quran is the perfect revelation that corrects the deficiencies of the holy books that preceded it.
- Islam lifted up Allah as the supreme God. Before Islam Mecca had a shrine and celebration for a god for each day of the year—a bazaar approach to religion that was teeming if not chaotic.
- Islam brought peace to what had been a violent and bloody cycle of attack and vendetta among the many, contentious tribes of the region. The indigenous warrior energy was channeled through a religion that spread quickly among Arabs and soon conquered a great area, for example, only six years after the Prophet's death the Arabs had won control of Jerusalem.
The rapid success of Islam has a parallel in the success of early Christianity, at least in the undeniable reality that each religious movement had a particular appeal to the people that it engaged and a compelling spiritual energy. Perhaps we have a better historical sense of Islam's particular appeal, because it is so closely identified with a homogenous people and culture, the Arabs who were relatively isolated from other influences. (In contrast the early Christians were influenced, at least, by Jewish culture and the confluence of Greek thought and Roman power. Christianity took shape in one of the significant crossroads of the Roman Empire.)
When I look at early Islam and its Arab context, the genius that assured its initial and continuing growth resides in the organizing principle of Surrender. The word Islam connotes "surrender to Allah, the one God," as well "the peace that comes when one surrenders." It is both admonishment and promise. The primary teachings of Islam, known as the Five Pillars, reflect, teach, and demand surrender.
In this book highlighting an essential spiritual truth from each of the world's great religion, most of the individual spiritual truths will be readily acceptable. However, Islam's essential truth of Surrender, because of the general values we hold in American culture —self, freedom, will, self-actualization, in particular—Surrender is the one truth most foreign to of us. Most of us need a primer of Islam, so that Surrender will be understood in its own context. Basic Islam is spelled out in its Five Pillars.
As I review the Five Pillars of Islam, check within yourself how readily you'd give yourself to the demands those Five Pillars require. Then, imagine what effect those demands would make upon you relative to both the structure and the outlook of your life. Therein lays Islam's inner potency and outward power.
The Five Pillars of Islam
The First Pillar is Islam's simple creed: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet." Once these realizations are made, a Muslim willingly surrenders (or submits) to God's will, not out of fear or obeisance, rather to resolve a major conflict of the human condition. Muslim believe that a human soul is breathed into life by God and finds the bliss of perfect peace only when that soul has returned to God and God's way. God's perfect plan for humankind was finally and forever achieved in the Prophet Muhammad. To accept the one God is to also accept God's practical plan that has four parts—the remaining Pillars of Islam. Remember, these are unyielding expectations/demands and not suggestions or even general guidelines.
The Second Pillar is prayer. Muslims are instructed in the Quran "to be constant." (xxix:45). The most constant Islam practice is an endless series of daily prayer. Upon rising, at noon, in mid-afternoon, after sunset, and before retiring, a devout Muslim washes and spreads a prayer rug facing Mecca and follows a prescribed ritual that unites body and mind through movement and words that has a compelling kinesthetic and linguistic aesthetic.
The Third Pillar is charity. Muhammad established something like a graduated charity tax that places greatest demand on the haves. At the upper level he set two and half percent of a Muslim's holdings (not just yearly income) as the standard. So a devout, relatively well-to-do Muslim is expected to give away at least one fortieth of his/her collective wealth each year.
The Fourth Pillar is the observance of the holy Month of Ramadan. (It is observed during the yearly anniversary of Muhammad's first revelation and later the triumphant return to Mecca from Medinah. From sunrise to sunset a Muslim abstains from all nourishment—food and drink. After sunset nourishment may be taken in moderation. The spiritual fruits of fasting are readily apparent. It is a discipline that causes one to think; it involves self-discipline that is transferable; it emphasizes human dependence on God, as well as human frailty and vulnerability; it heightens compassion for the common human lot of suffering.
The Fifth Pillar is pilgrimage, once in a Muslim's lifetime, to Mecca. The pilgrimage not only place Muslims at the numinous physical center of their faith, it also is a leveling experience. Muslims on pilgrimage remove all distinctions of rank and status, and wear a simple garment made of two pieces of white cloth.
Reflecting on these Five Pillars of Islam, you can begin to grasp to what extent, for what reasons, and to what effect Islam emphasizes surrender. From an outsider's perspective we can appreciate how spiritual surrender to the Will and Way of the one God has a sensible psychological function: it resolves in theory and practice one of the distressing themes of modernity and post-modernity—alienation, that insidious, corrosive, existential separation and loneliness of the self.
The Lesson of Discipline
When I consider how we might reasonably apply insights of Islam's spiritual notion of surrender to an eclectic spirituality, the value of discipline comes immediately to mind. The Five Pillars of Islam each make a life shaping demand and render a human life (and by extension society) infused with faith. The schedule of prayer five times daily, the annual month long observance of Ramadan, and the charitable donation of one-fortieth of one's worth each year are exceptionally demanding.
How might you and I discipline our lives, trusting in the process even more than the result? Here are a few possibilities.
- Setting aside a half hour a day to keep a spiritual journal.
- Dedicating a half day a week to do service for others or for a good cause, such as working in an animal shelter, maintaining a community park, delivering meals on wheels, or teaching English as a second language.
- Designating a stretch percentage of your income for charity and philanthropic concern. (Muhammad's two and a half percent might be a good figure to shoot for.)
The Lesson of Yielding
Deeper than discipline is a willful giving the self up (relinquishing ego concerns) for an other. That other may be another person or persons, a set of ideals or cause, or to your vision of an Ultimate Reality. This is something we know most easily and intimately through our personal relationships, especially our primary, and hopefully, our most intimate relationships.
However, we don't readily yield ourselves to even our committed partner. The reluctance to yield to another person along with what is lost in the process is common. You may have experienced it and were perplexed by your self-defeating contrariness. My favorite expression of this more than ironic strategy is expressed in an Erica Jong poem, "Cornucopia." Listen for insights of self-recognition and latent awareness.
there was the holding back:
Don't show your love too much
or he will run away.
Give the words like little gifts
& never say
“I love you”
too soon, too soon.
Anytime was always
much too soon.
But I heaped you with love
& you kept on coming back.
& I talked & talked & talked
& you kept on talking back.
& I heaped you with love
& you kept on heaping yours.
What did you think we were holding
by holding back?
Why did we think it safe
to hoard our love?
The cornucopia returns
The fruits fall out
we eat them & they grow.
What intrigues me most about Islam is its admonition to surrender to what is good and to be then enveloped in the bliss of peace. I have had moments when my customarily strong ego has gladly, freely yielded. And I've had resulting moments of utter fulfillment. Perhaps you know what I mean through parallel experiences. On a visceral level you and I may well realize Islam's overarching spiritual equation that surrender = peace. At the very least there are occasions when not being stiff and unyielding leads to connection and results in fulfillment.
But in all honesty, deep, continuing spiritual surrender is the most difficult spiritual truth for me to embrace. It challenges will and ego, which I also value and fiercely maintain. In my spiritual life I use Islam's notion of surrender, not as an absolute, but as a corrective to find proportion and to keep a balance so my ego concerns won't be sucked into a psychic whirlpool of hubris, if not narcissism.