Chicago Tribune: Religion encourages restraint, not revenge

In the Name of the Kind and Beautiful Precious Beloved

This first appeared in The Seeker, the Chicago Tribune’s religion blog

It is completely understandable – knowing how horrifically brutal the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhaffi was – that the people who captured him wanted to brutalize him back. The Libyan people have been terrorized by this man for more than four decades, and it was no surprise that his capturers terrorized him as well. Yet, many people are asking, especially after watching the disturbing videos of his capture, whether he should have been treated the way he was.

I was discussing this very thing with a dear friend and colleague – an Arab Christian – who said that, no matter what, no one should be treated the way he was, especially after his death. With all my hatred for what he did in his life, I could not help but agree with him…and think of this verse of the Qur’an:

“Never let your hatred of a people move you to commit injustice…” (5:8)

It is in situations like these in which the true test lies: when such a brutal man as Gadhaffi is captured, do we brutalize and terrorize him as well? Or, do we arrest and try him?

The same question can be asked of Osama bin Laden: our soldiers could have easily arrested him and brought him to Guanatanmo Bay, for instance. Rather, they shot him dead, and again, I completely understand the feeling and motivation for doing so.

I shed no tear over his death; I had no twinge of sadness. That man was the inspiration for the barbaric murder of thousands of innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, from before September 11. Yet, would it have been better to try bin Laden and treat him as the pathetic criminal that he was?

I am not saying that killing these two men is necessarily an injustice. But, as a person of faith, I think that one of religion’s main purposes is to temper the very natural urge for brutal revenge that comes in up in situations such as these. That is the essence of verse 5:8; that is the essence of Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek.”

It is a very difficult thing to do – restrain one’s passions – but that is the challenge that the Lord places before us. It is easy to stoop to the level of the barbarian in revenge. But that is not the type of people we should be.


Chicago Tribune: Muslims Promote Ramadan, not Whole Foods

In the Name of the Kind and Beautiful Precious Beloved Lord

This was published on the Chicago Tribune’s religion blog, The Seeker.


Initially, I was very disappointed in Whole Foods for apparently “caving” to the screams of a small number of bloggers and choosing not to “promote” Ramadan. Yet, neither Whole Foods, nor any other corporation needs to “promote” Ramadan. Ramadan is not a product in need of a nationwide marketing campaign.

In an e-mail, Whole Foods had this to say:

“There has been a little controversy surrounding the introduction of our Halal certified “Saffron Road” frozen products. While there has been some positive response from our Muslim customers there have been some negative comments from some other customers. While we want to continue with the program, it is probably best that we don’t specifically call out or “promote” Ramadan…we should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered “Celebrating or promoting” Ramadan.

It later reversed course, insisting that it will continue the Halal marketing campaign:

Kate here from Whole Foods. To set the record straight, Whole Foods Market is NOT cancelling our current halal promotion, which is centered around the timeframe of Ramadan. We invite shoppers seeking out not just halal certified products, but products that also meet our high quality standards to try Saffron Road and other regional offerings in our stores.

We never sent a communication from our headquarters requesting stores take down signs at all. We have 12 different operating regions and your reacted by sending out directions to promote Halal and not specifically Ramadan after some online negative comments and after viewing signage made by one individual at a store that didn’t point to these products.

We’re excited to be offering high quality halal products for our shoppers and we stand behind them and our promotion of them, just like we do with other seasonal and holiday products.

Nevertheless, they still will not “promote” Ramadan.

Ramadan is the most important spiritual month for Muslims the entire world over, during which the faithful attempt to improve their lives through fasting, meditation, prayer, and charity. Through abstaining from food and drink during the long, hot summer days of August, spending hours in prayer and the reading of scripture, and giving in charity to those who are less fortunate, Muslims all across our country are highlighting what Ramadan is all about.

Placing or taking down signage that says “Ramadan” in some Whole Foods store somewhere will neither enhance nor diminish the importance of the month. Ramadan – as with Passover, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Easter – lives in the hearts and lives of the Muslims, Jews, and Christians who celebrate and honor those times of the year.

Whole Foods can breathe a sigh of relief.

Dwell on Love, Not Hell: Chicago Tribune

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful 

This was published in The Seeker.

In his new book, Love Wins, Evangelical pastor Rob Bell posits that there may be a place in heaven for “every person who ever lived,” and that there may not be a Hell at all. The response of conservative Christians has been ferocious. But upon this fact, I am banking everything.

When word of Love Wins reached the Internet, one conservative Evangelical pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell,” unilaterally attempting to evict Bell from the evangelical community.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bell’s book is “theologically disastrous.

Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.” In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

Indeed, Jon Meacham wrote in this week’s Time magazine: “From a traditionalist perspective, though, to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction.”

Lord knows that I have heard sermon after sermon about the torment of Hell that is in store for those who do not believe. And it is true that the Qur’an speaks vividly of the torment of Hell, with numerous highly descriptive verses, for those who “reject the truth.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not want to be one of those who will be punished in the torment of Hell. And I believe and fully acknowledge the severity of God’s punishment. Yet, the Qur’an has an enduring principle: “[God] has inscribed upon Himself [the rule of] mercy.” (6:12) In another verse, God says: “O My servants who have transgressed against their souls! Do not despair from the mercy of God. For God forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (39:53).

Upon this fact, I am banking everything. There was a time in my life when I gave fiery sermons about God’s eternal torment in Hell. I will never do so again. I focus all my energies upon the Beauty, Grace, Mercy, and Love of the Lord – and not His torment and punishment. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said:

Indeed, God has one hundred (portions of) mercy; one portion causes compassion between creation. Ninety-nine are reserved for the Day of Judgment.

The ultimate Judge is God Himself. It is He Who will determine the fate of every creation, no matter what people who claim to “speak in His Name” may say. Just because God has prepared a horrific torment that is eternal, it does not obligate Him to apply it. It would not surprise me one bit if He saved all of humanity on Judgment Day, and I believe that we will all be enormously surprised by the Grace of the Lord our God on that Day.

We humans love to mete out God’s punishment, torment, and condemnation upon this person or that. The good news is, the supposed Source of that torment and punishment is much more merciful and beautiful than we give Him credit for. And believe you me, that will be a very, very good thing indeed.

Religion Shapes How You Read, Misread News

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful

This was published in the Chicago Tribune’s blog, The Seeker.

Whether religion is rising or falling, a study set to be published in the Journal of Christianity and Psychology concludes that religious experiences affect the way individuals consume news about religion. I found this to be especially true when it comes to consuming news stories about Islam. No matter how much I write to the contrary, showing fact after fact about Islam and Muslims, it does not matter.

Michael Kitchens, assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, hypothesized that participants who had self-described “high comfort with their religion and low reported strain” are more likely to subconsciously gravitate toward positive news about Christianity. Those with “low comfort and high strain” were more likely to read stories biased against Christianity.

“Those that favor negative news about Christianity report high strain and low comfort with their religion. This is not surprising, except that this group is overwhelmingly biased toward this kind of news,” said Kitchens. “The general consensus is that we look at information that confirms our own belief. We want to consume news stories that affirm our beliefs and we’ll ignore the ones that don’t.”

Those who are convinced Islam is “violent” and “evil” are not moved. They will either dismiss the piece as “political correctness,” or worse, accuse me and my fellow Muslim writers of “lying” under the guise of “taqiyya,” or “dissimulation,” a wholly misunderstood concept in Islamic jurisprudence.

At times, it gets a bit exhausting having to write the same things over and over, defending Islam and Muslims from the same, centuries-old accusations and claims.

Yet, I will not stop. The truth is the truth, and as Biblical scripture says, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

This is also in the Prophetic tradition: they were steadfast in the face of relentless abuse and accusations of lying. According to the Quran, Noah preached to his people for 950 years, and he did not waver. Thus, who am I to give up because of a few commentators who accuse me of “lying”?

Moreover, writing to explain, teach, and share the Muslim experience is, in and of itself, a positive exercise. It is part of my duty to reach out to my fellow Americans (and fellow citizens of the world) and show them the truth about my faith. It is part of the way I try to be a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good Muslim.

And if I can only reach one person – even after decades of writing – I am satisfied. As God said to Abraham (in Islamic tradition): “Your job is to call out, and My job is to disseminate it.”

In Japan, Only Relief Efforts Matter: Chicago Tribune

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful

As I watched the utter devastation of the Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and the enormity of its power, I was humbled to the core. When a natural disaster can move the entire Japanese mainland by 8 feet and tilt the earth’s own axis, I know that I am truly the least significant power in the realm of the universe.

Now, there is no way on this earth that I am calling the Japanese earthquake “God’s punishment.” Who am I to condemn the (likely) tens of thousands of people dead or injured to the punishment of God? What have they done? What do I know of it? And how do I know the mind of God to be able to say such a thing? Yet, there are many who are quick to do so, some being so-called “men of God.”

When these people call out a natural disaster and pin it to some sin that someone, somewhere has committed, it is almost as if he or she rejoices in the suffering of others. Never would I want a terrible natural disaster, such as the Japan earthquake/tsunami, to befall others. If it is terrible for them, it would be equally terrible for me, and as my Prophet Muhammad told me: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”

It is this sort of lack of compassion that we must all guard against. If we have no compassion for the suffering of others, it is truly poisonous to both heart and soul. In my sermons, I constantly tell the faithful that no matter what the faith tradition of the afflicted, it is our duty to help all those in need. It is the responsibility of the faith community, and it is one that is an honor to take up.

Disasters such as these inevitably raise the question of why such things occur. What was the sin of these people to have such a disaster befall them? What was the sin of the people of the Gulf Coast to have them be afflicted by Hurricane Katrina? What was the sin of the people of Pakistan to deserve the terrible flooding they endured last year? The questions are endless, and the answers are unknown.

Rather than focus on who deserves what type of punishment, the job for us now is to do everything we can to help them get back on their feet. And for me, that includes praying for their safety, security, and shelter to the Beautiful, Merciful God I worship each day.

Chicago Tribune: We can’t turn on American family after Tucson, terrorism

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful

This was published on the Chicago Tribune’s Religion Blog, The Seeker

I truly was shocked beyond words when I learned that a member of Congress, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot outside a grocery store in her district by a gunman. And I became horrified when I found out that six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl, along with more than a dozen wounded. As a father who has lost his own child, I know all too well the terror of having to bury your own baby in the ground, and my heart and prayers go out to all of the victims’ families that they may be comforted by the Holy Comforter On High.

It has disturbed me truly beyond description that the environment in our country has become such that a member of Congress can be gunned down in her own district. Of course, it is always possible that a gunman may open fire in any public place in our country; it is part of the risk of living in an free, open society. Nevertheless, it angered me deeply that someone did this, and justice – along with common decency – demands that he be held accountable for his actions. That he was stopped because he paused to reload his weapon of mass destruction adds to the sheer devilry of his actions, and if convicted, he must pay a heavy price.

Yet, as the shock and horror of what happened slowly subsides, and the fog of melancholy slowly lifts, the calls for civility, compassion, and mercy come into sharper focus. The President, in his moving remarks in the Tuscon memorial service, said, “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” More importantly, he reminds us: “what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do.”

We must take this message to heart. As many in the punditocracy are trying to deride the idea that the crimes of one man should not be cause for blame against an entire segment of the population, let us apply this truth to all segments of our society. Indeed, it is easy to succumb to the devils of our nature and react with rage at those whom we feel are “responsible” for a tragedy such as this. Indeed, it is easy to react with hostility and hatred and demonization.
But, being upright citizens of God sometimes calls for doing things that may be difficult. Being upright citizens of God sometimes calls for what the Qur’an says: “But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend!” (41:34)

Indeed, all Americans who call themselves Conservatives are not to blame for the actions of Jared Lee Loughner. They do not deserve to be demonized or terrorized for his actions. They are our brothers and sisters, part of our American family. Along the same lines, that woman who is wearing a Muslim headscarf, shopping for groceries or taking a walk in her neighborhood, is not to blame for the actions of a criminal acting in the name of her faith. Her house of worship does not deserve to be desecrated or attacked for the actions of terrorist criminals. That woman in a headscarf is also our sister, part and parcel of the American family as well.

Usually, people in this country come together in the wake of tragedy, and it is part of the beauty that is these United States. The challenge is whether we can stay together as a people as the memories of this tragic incident fade in the coming months and years. Never did I feel more at home as an American as I did after the horror of September 11. Now, however, there are those in my country, even members of my Congress, who intimate that I am not an American because I am Muslim.

These forces of division must not be allowed to win, because, as the President said, “for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” I will never forget the scores of fellow Americans who formed human shields around mosques in the wake of 9/11, just as Egyptian Muslims did the same for their Christian brethren last week. Let us continue to form human shields against all those who seek to divide our people along artificial lines of demarcation, whatever they may be. Our people will be all the better for it.

Chicago Tribune: Ramadan gives Muslims freedom

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful

This post was published on the Seeker blog today.

On Wednesday August 11, Muslims the world over began the annual fast of the month of Ramadan, during which the Muslim faithful abstain from food, drink, and other sensual pleasures from dawn until dusk. What is particularly significant about this year’s fast – and the fasts for the next decade or so – is that it is occurring in the dog days of summer, when the days are long and hot. It is definitely a challenge, and I ask God for the strength and fortitude to see this month through.
On the surface, it seems that the fast of Ramadan – especially during these hot months – is anti-thetical to concept of freedom. I am wilfully denying myself food and drink, even water, all day for no reason other than Islam said so. Many people may see this as a restriction of my personal freedom, even if it be self-inflicted. Yet, for me, the fast of Ramadan is actually quite liberating. It teaches me that when I fast, I am truly free.
A few years back, whenever Ramadan would start, I would be in a complete stupor from caffeine withdrawal. I remember being at the hospital at 10 AM and not being able to function because of profound sleepiness due to my not being able to drink coffee. I actually had to take a nap…at 10 AM! Reflecting upon that experience, I realized that I was not truly free. I was dependent upon caffeine to help me function. Subsequently, I would stop my caffeine intake several days before Ramadan would start so that I would not be in withdrawal during the month of fasting. Ramadan helped me become caffeine-free, and I was all the better for it.
The fast of Ramadan is also a golden opportunity for Muslims to quit smoking. That is because, in addition to food and drink, Muslims are not allowed to smoke during the day in Ramadan. There is no better time than Ramadan to teach Muslims that indeed, they can go all day without a cigarette and be alright. The sky will not fall if they give up the cigarette. If they can go without cigarettes all day, then surely they can continue their abstinence at night. Yet, almost without fail, as soon as the sun sets, I see smokers immediately light up a cigarette, sometimes even before they have a drink of water. This is not freedom.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as a lung specialist. Every day in my practice, I see the devastation wrought upon countless people by their tobacco addiction. Thus, if I get the chance, I try to always give a Friday sermon about smoking cessation during Ramadan. If Muslims can only take advantage of the opportunity, the month of Ramadan can help them gain the freedom from nicotine addiction and terrible health effects that come with such an addiction. The same is true for someone who is consumed by hatred, or anger, or spite, or lust. The fasting believer must refrain from not just food and drink, but also bad behavior and character while fasting. The Prophet Muhammad once said, “Whoever did not give up lying and practising falsehood, God is in no need of his giving up food and water.”
That is the true purpose of the fast of Ramadan: to free the believer from the shackles of earthly life and lift him or her toward their Lord in piety and devotion. The fast of Ramadan teaches the believer that the only thing to which they should be bound, the only thing to which they should be “addicted,” the only thing upon which they should be dependent is God and He alone. And when one is bound to the Beloved, there is no greater freedom in this world.
Of course, if someone is sick, or is a pregnant or nursing mother, or must take medications to stay healthy, the fast of Ramadan does not apply. I routinely advise Muslim patients who have chronic conditions that must be treated that they should not fast. Yet, even these people can participate in the freedom that Ramadan brings: by feeding a poor person as a “ransom” for their not being able to fast. Thus, they can provide someone in need the freedom from want.
I won’t lie: fasting in August is hard…really hard. Yet, it is wonderful experience. And it teaches me that when I follow God’s commands – when I submit to His will – I am the most free I will ever be.