The eruption of controversy around the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed serves as a Rorschach for where this relationship is blocked. Westerners tend to see the reaction to the cartoons as out of proportion to the insult. Muslims see the cartoons as a deep dishonoring of their revered founder, yet another example of the West's disdain.
Our tendency in situations like this is to point fingers at the other: it is something intrinsic in "them" that makes the relationship unworkable. However, the truth in all relationships is that we play a role in the breakdown. Our Western way of relating influences the world of Islam, which then feeds back to us in a cycle of mutual exchange. Breaking a negative cycle on either side can lead to an opening of the relationship - change in the other is often much easier if we first change ourselves.
What is missing in virtually every opinion I read, even those that offer cogent political or cultural analyses, is a heartfelt honoring of the sacred core of Islam and especially the Prophet Mohammed. The modern West simply does not authentically honor one of the most important spiritual leaders of history. The Danish cartoons spoke to the truth of how the West relates to Mohammed.
Whatever someone holds as sacred is their bridge to a better world. For a scientist, the truth is sacred and the scientific method is seen as a path to obtain that truth. For a Christian, Jesus is considered sacred and therefore a relationship with him is a path to redemption. For many environmentalists, the planet itself is seen as sacred; living more sustainability is an act of worship.
A sacred relationship is a love relationship, one in which we see the intrinsic value, truth, beauty, and transformative power in something or someone. A sacred sensibility leads towards a feeling of awe and reverence, as well as guiding us beyond less evolved patterns of expression towards something more whole.
When we cannot bless what someone else holds as sacred, we create a rift between us at the root level of our consciousness, which will inevitably undermine the relationship. Without this honoring of what another holds as holy, we cannot truly connect with their heart, since their heart is intimately engaged in that sacred relationship.
I believe that the lack of a deep honoring of the Prophet Mohammed by both the secular and Christian West has helped fuel the nuclear core of hatred, division, and reactivity we see today. If we were better able to celebrate the great blessing, illumination, and transformation that his words and life have brought to people around the world, we would come back into resonance with the hearts of Muslims. And that, in turn, would soften the political divides, culture clashes, and historical animosities, or at least create stable common ground upon which solutions could be built.
We thus need to be willing to stop pointing the finger at Islam and start seeing where we worsen the situation with our own lack of honoring and disrespect. I can certainly see this absence of honoring in myself. Although I've explored sacred works from almost every religion, I find myself mostly in the dark about the Prophet Mohammed's life and teachings. I have never sat down to read the Koran or study the history of Islam or attend a service in a mosque. I do revel in the mystic poetry of Rumi or Hafiz, but mainstream Islam is, in many respects, a mysterious land for me.
Why have we in the West been so blind to the beauties of the Muslim world?
It has to do with a tendency to see what we hold as sacred as the only thing that is truly sacred. Our devotion then turns to disdain for what others hold as sacred. The scientist's devotion to free inquiry turns to disgust for religious beliefs. The Christian's devotion to Jesus turns to disdain for Jews. And so on.
These behaviors assume an exclusivity of sacredness - that there are certain things or people that are sacred and others that are not. Rather, the truth of mystics from traditions the world over is that everything is kissed by the spirit of holiness, and everyone carries the spark of God. We are right to be deeply grateful for the particular people or things that have opened the door to sacred relationship for us. But we need to resist the tendency to then denigrate the people or things that are sacred to others. Instead, if we can truly see the world through their eyes, we can begin to expand our relationship with the sacred dimension of life, eventually seeing it in all people, cultures, religions, and even the entire planet.
That doesn't mean that a Christian will become a Muslim. We each have our own unique way of unfolding and growing. We will always have a more intimate and personal connection with our teachers, beliefs, and practices. But that doesn't exclude a deeply respectful and honoring relationship with the teachers, beliefs, and practices of others.
The Islamic tradition does honor Jesus as one of the most important spiritual teachers in history. The secular and Christianized West, by contrast, has largely denigrated the importance of Mohammed and therefore Islam. That is true even though none of us who might make that judgment have had the profound effect on history that Mohammed has had. None of us have touched as many hearts, soothed as many souls, or guided as many beings. Even if Jesus has become the primary spiritual exemplar for much of the West, we should also be able to honor a man who brought great gifts to the 1.3 billion people who follow his life and words.
If we are able to truly celebrate the sacred power in the life of the Prophet Mohammed and the religion that has flowered from him, healing the roots of our relationship with the Islamic world will begin to become possible, which in turn can allow the softening of positions required for political bridges to rebuild. Until we are able to do so, the modern West will be out of resonance with the world of Islam and thus prone to unnecessary friction.
Sacred America Series #12
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