Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feeling the Spirit... Teaching Islam

This year, for the first time, I've incorporated a unit on American Islam into my course on American religious history. In preparing to do this over the course of the last few years, I have really enjoyed studying Islam, and learning more about the history of Islam in America. I have been surprised to learn how rich and diverse the American Muslim community is, how old and well established it is, and how much American Muslims have contributed not just to American civic life, but also to Islamic thought throughout the world. I also have great respect for the courage it must have taken for many American Muslims to reach out to their neighbors in the wake of 9/11, in spite of the fear and hostility that arose in its wake. I'm very proud to live in the first U.S. congressional district ever to elect a Muslim to Congress. Keith Ellison has served our district with distinction.

There's an Islamic community center not far from where I live in South Minneapolis, that for a while was working with some local Christian churches to sponsor a series of potluck dinners. It was an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to meet and get to know each other. Göran and I attended two or three of these potlucks.

I remember asking a number of Muslims if they believed in the Holy Spirit. Some of them did not understand what I meant by that, so I had to explain the person, role and mission of the Holy Spirit. It was explained to me that, no, Muslims had no teachings about this. Over time, however, I have learned that devout Muslims do talk about the inner peace and the joy that comes from surrendering one's life to Allah.

Last night in class, we discussed Muslim teaching about God. Muslims are very careful to emphasize that no human constructs can even begin to approach God. We must be careful never to mistake our ideas about God for the reality of God -- lest our ideas, our "images," of God become idols. However, Muslims love to talk about God's attributes of mercy and love, and about all the ways in which God reaches out to us in order to draw us into the path of justice and compassion. We spoke of how, for Muslims, the first obligation human beings have toward God is simply to express gratitude for the goodness of creation, for all the gifts that God has given us. I am grateful. As I spoke of these things with my students, I did feel the peace and the joy that I usually associate with the presence of the Holy Spirit.


Anonymous said...

Judaism and Islam do have what is called "Holy Spirit" in Christianity---but the understanding of what it is/its nature is different in Judeo-Islam from Christianity.

In Judaism is is called "Ruach" in Islam "Ruh"---it is generally understood as "God's breath" (but has many other aspect too). It is what was breathed into (Prophet) Adam (pbuh) by God to animate him.

In Judaism it is the Higher state of spirituality (the less higher being Nefesh (soul) and the highest state of Spirituality is Neshama---In Islam, "spirit" can be understood as the inherent goodness of human beings---the compass that points to good---Islam (and Judasim) does not have the doctrine of "original sin".

Neither Judaism nor Islam understands the "Spirit" as God, Semi-God or a partner to God.

The "Ruh"/Spirit is strengthened when we do good and weakened when we do bad.

J G-W said...

Dear Anonymous -

Thanks for this information... This is very interesting and helpful. Clearly, Islamic beliefs about "Ruh" are very similar in some ways to Christian beliefs about the Spirit -- especially the part about it being strengthened in us when we do good and weakened when we do bad. Obviously the individuals I spoke with about this didn't understand my question because I was not using language to talk about it that they understood.

In my faith, the notion that the Holy Spirit is a person is very important. We do also, however, have a concept called "the Light of Christ," which is closer to the Islamic concept of "Ruh" as "inherent goodness" in human beings and as a "compass that points to good."