A couple of times a week, I try and gather my children to have dinner together at the dining table. This is not always easy, there are a number of after school activities to contend with, be it soccer practice, Arabic classes or karate. Every now and then I succeed and we gather as a family and this is often where the magic happens. The magic emerges from our conversations, jokes, stories about what happen that day, or brain teasers. During one such conversation, my daughter asked, “why are we Muslim?” This got me thinking for a moment about how best to answer her question, I began with a simple answer, namely tradition. We were Muslims because I had grown up as a Muslim and Islam was our tradition, it was part of our family history and we were carrying on that tradition.
The thing is, my daughter is at an age where simple answers will not do. “Is that it?” she asked, “why do we follow tradition? haven’t you wanted to try other religions?” My son concurred; another answer was needed. Moving beyond a simple approach, I thought I’d try providing a deeper and more reflective response. “I respect other religions”, I replied, “and I believe God is loving toward all people”. I also went on to explain why I was a Muslim and shared my reasons for thinking that Muhammad (S) was a prophet. Telling them that there are five things to think about, things that suggest Islam to be true:
- Muhammad (S) experienced divine revelation. Muhammad’s (S) initial response, to his first experience of revelation, was one of fear. Muslim tradition depicts him as being fearful and in doubt, he is portrayed as being in a position of weakness and seeking comfort in his wife Khadija. She assures him that God is to be trusted, that God would not disgrace him. Khadija encouraged him to trust in God and to embrace the message he had been given. He took Khadija’s advice to heart and came to accept his station of Prophethood, and himself as someone who was divinely commissioned.
- Muhammad (S) was able to bring people together, people who, up until then, weren’t particularly fond of each other. According to one ancient chronicler, a Jewish delegation had attempted to bring together the Arabs, before the advent of Islam, but struggled to do so, the chronicler writes:
“They [the Jews] set out into the desert and came to Arabia, among the children of Ishmael; they sought their help and explained that they were kinsmen according to the Bible. Although they (the Arabs) were willing to accept this close kinship, they (the Jews) nevertheless could not convince the mass of the people because their cults were different.“
Muhammad (S) was able to initiate a change of heart, whereby the Arabs were able to be together.
- The Qur’an, which Muhammad (S) relayed to his community, had an enriching and transformative effect on the Arabic language. The Qur’an helped transform Arabic from a largely oral tradition into a literary tradition. As one academic put it,
“…the Qur’an served as the major motivation to record and evaluate pre-Islamic poetry in written form, thereby facilitating the all-important switch from an oral to a written culture—from a culture of intuition and improvisation to one of study and contemplation.“
This is rather extraordinary, as Muhammad struggled to read and write.
- he Qur’anic narrative, especially the chapter on Joseph, sura Yusuf, reveals a moral exemplar. This chapter or sura is clearly signposted within the Qur’an as being among the best and most beautiful of narratives. When we reflect on the life of Joseph it is easy to see why this is so. The Qur’anic Joseph struggles with and resists temptation, he stays true to his principles, he inspires others to moral action, he is also forgiving and deeply humble. He comes across as a moral exemplar, he can also be seen as someone who acts in ways that are deeply loving.
- The Qur’an draws on imagery from the Torah and the Gospel to describe the early Muslim community.
“You will see them bow and prostrate themselves (in prayer), seeking Grace from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure. On their faces are their marks, (being) the traces of their prostration. This is their similitude in the Torah; and their similitude in the Gospel is: like a seed which sends forth its blade, then makes it strong; it then becomes thick, and it stands on its own stem, (filling) the sowers with wonder and delight.” (Qur’an 48: 29)
The believers are those who bow before God, and their evolution is akin to a seed that germinates and flourishes. As we look back on the history of Islam, the Biblical images are apt. Much like the Jewish community, Muslims are a community or ummah that has persisted through time experiencing some extraordinary highs and heartbreaking lows, and like the Christian community, from humble beginnings, Muslims now are a very large and global ummah. Also, much like our Jewish and Christian brethren the Muslim ummah is incredibly diverse.
When we take these five observations together, namely: Muhammad’s self-understanding, his ability to bring people together, the transformational effect of the Qur’an on the Arabic language, the Qur’anic focus on morality and love, and the Qur’anic vision of the Muslim community across time – these five observations, for me at least, point toward the truth of Islam. This is the answer I gave to my children, rather long winded, but a truthful account of my view.
My daughter and son thought over my answer for a moment. My son then said this was all unfair. Why I asked. He said “well, it seems only Muhammad (S) has an encounter with God, what about us? are we able to have an encounter with God as well?” This had me thinking, and after taking a deep breath, I said “yes, we can have encounter God, but not to the same degree as our Prophet”.
I spoke about Sufism and my experience of meditation. My experience of God feels like an encounter with an all-encompassing wave of gentleness and love. So, it was not so unfair after all, we can each have an encounter, my children were satisfied with this response, and they appreciated the chance to be heard – although, I sense there will be more questions to come.
I’ve been with the Sufi group in Auckland for close to ten years now, however, I am still very much a beginner. The meditative practices have opened up experiences, to me, that are at once extraordinary and deeply humbling. Having experienced teachers and a group to meditate with is essential. If you let it, the gentleness and love of God will permeate every fiber of your being, it can transform you. It can also be hard at times, since life does not stop, I experience highs and lows, get angry and frustrated, and at times I have strayed recklessly from the way of our Prophet. Yet, when I return to the practices, I once again encounter the love and gentleness of God, I don’t sense any anger, resentment or judgment, but a deep sense of being welcome. It’s as though by welcoming God into your heart, you are welcomed into the heart of God.