Too Much Ado About Nothing
Too much has been made of a prayer offered at the beginning of our General Assembly by a Muslim Imam. The context of the prayer was within a prayer vigil for victims of terror and violence. A common question among Christians is “where are the moderate Muslims when it comes to denouncing violence?” This was an opportunity to allow one such Muslim to stand and be counted. He did and the GA is receiving criticism for it.
One online publication in particular has spotlighted this prayer with comments from a former PCUSA minister. I submitted both the prayer video and the “critic’s” comments to an Islamic scholar in Houston whom I trust implicitly for an explanation.
At the General Assembly, the Imam began in Arabic with a phrase that is commonly used whenever quoting from the Quran – “I seek refuge with Allah from Satan the accursed.” This is not a prayer for protection from “evil” Presbyterians, as the “critic” alleges. The remainder of the prayer in Arabic was: “Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all Amen.
Then the Imam prayed the following in English: “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, let us praise the Lord. The creator of the universe, the most merciful, the most compassionate and the Lord of the universe who has created us and made us into nations and tribes, from male and females that we may know each other, not that we might despise each other, or may despise each other. Incline towards peace and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows everything and the servants of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, gracious are those who walk in the earth in humility and when bigots and hateful and Islamaphobes address them, they say peace. Peace be upon them and peace be upon Allah.”
Later in the assembly the Stated Clerk offered this apology/explanation:
“During the interfaith prayer service on Saturday in response to the killings in Charleston and Orlando, a prayer was offered that went beyond what had been scripted. It was an offense of the head, not of the heart; it came from one seeking to be authentically gracious, as part of the healing service. Some commissioners found it offensive. When in relationship with people of other faiths, sometimes we can inadvertently be offensive when meaning to be sensitive and ecumenical. It was never the intention of the one offering the prayer to offend any of us. Nevertheless, we offer an apology to all those who were offended.” In my mind, that ended the matter, until the “critic” picked it up several days later.
I agree with what one of our pastors wrote today, “I do not subscribe to the interpretation that the prayer: was anti-Jewish or anti-Christian; was an attempt to convert the assembly; or denied the authority of scripture or of biblical salvation” This statement lines up with the explanation of the Islamic Scholar I consulted who wrote the following:
“One point of clarification here is that, in Muslim tradition, Jews and Christians are the direct two religions before Islam. The Quran refers to both religions as good and worthy of following. Also, it is worth mentioning that the Imam was speaking his own words construed from various verses In Quran. He was trying to show the message of peace as shared by all those sent from God and what we all should have.
The word Allah in Arabic literally means “the One who is worshiped” I.e God in English or Dios in Spanish. The word prophet in Islamic tradition is (Nabi or Nabee’). It is not what the English term connotes. Rather, in Arabic, It refers to the person who is sent by God with a message to guide humanity. Within that understanding all those mentioned were sent by God to guide us all. The difference is that Muslims revere Jesus as a special creation of God unlike any human while our Christian counterparts believe in him as lord and or the son of God. Even with that main difference, Islam orders us to respect other faiths. We believe that everyone is entitled to choose their faith and belief system.”
My observations are that the prayer refers to God as Allah, which is a common word for God in the Middle East, used even among Jews. We regularly refer to God by different names – Father, Rock, Redeemer, etc. That doesn’t change God’s character when we use a different name for God. If I were invited to pray at a Muslim assembly and used the name of Jesus, it would not be with the intent of converting them or offending them but simply an expression of how I normally pray.
I would not expect a Muslim to acknowledge Jesus as Lord any more than I would expect a Jew or Buddhist to do so. From our perspective putting Jesus on the same level as Muhammad is not sufficient. From the perspective of a Muslim, putting Jesus on the same level as Muhammad is an honor. I doubt that the Imam thought of it as offensive.
The bottom line is that this prayer was intended to affirm Presbyterians in faith and stand with us for peace and justice and against violence. It is a shame that some would choose to twist the intent to be something nefarious and devious.