Service and Interfaith (#MuslimServe)

Earlier this year Pres. Obama asked us to dedicate ourselves to national service. The result was In particular, Aug. 31 – Sep. 6, 2009 is meant to be be a week dedicated to interfaith service. Ultimately, the call to service will transform 9/11 into a National Day of Service and Remembrance. Over at City of Brass, Aziz has a slightly longer post on this topic.

The opening video for the interfaith call to service, in combination with Ramadan and the associated Qur’an reading, has me thinking about interfaith work as service.

In the Qur’an is the declaration that no matter where one turns, there is the face of God (2:115) and that God is closer to use than our own jugular vein (50:16). These reminders that God is always with us, near us, watching us, are ways for Muslims to remember that we are always accountable for our actions. The positive actions to which we are commanded, and which the Qur’an valorizes, are that of charity, arguably even more than ritual piety. In verse 2:177, the Qur’an says:

Piety does not lie in turning your face to East or West: Piety lies in believing in God, the Last Day and the angels, the Scriptures and the prophets, and disbursing your wealth out of love for God among your kin and the orphans, the wayfarers and mendicants, freeing the slaves, observing your devotional obligations, and in paying the zakat and fulfilling a pledge you have given, and being patient in hardship, adversity, and times of peril. These are the men who affirm the truth, and they are those who follow the straight path.

The parameters of charity must lead to a positive result. According to the Qur’an “Saying a word that is kind, and forgiving is better than charity that hurts” (2:263). The Qur’an is also full of references to various other Abrahamic traditions, giving them their respect. For example, Mary, mother of Jesus, is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and Moses is referred to more frequently than the Prophet Muhammad. Rather than reinventing the wheel on Islam and interfaith relations, it seems better to talk about what interfaith means in the US.

I’ve written before of my own multi-faith exposure as a child. That background makes it so painful for me when I see other Muslims denigrate other faith traditions. It also shows a deep ignorance of the Prophet’s interaction with Jews and Christians, some of whom he had as part of his family. It seems that the call to service, particularly through an interfaith angle, is a good way to recommit ourselves to some of the early ideals of Islam, and to move beyond religion as a divisive force.

If the Qur’an says to “cultivate tolerance, enjoin justice, and avoid the fools” (7:199), than we must do so. A more just society is one in which the least among us are cared for, the orphans and poor for example. We cannot do that by ourselves, nor should we. We must come together to solve some of the greatest problems this country faces, whether healthcare or extreme poverty. By coming together over these common issues, we acknowledge that in many ways we have failed each other, and we have failed in to fulfill God’s commandments. It is only by rebuilding ourselves as a community that we can rebuild the community and hope for success in making sure we take of those others would rather forget.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we are ignorant of one another. My contribution is, and has been, trying to erase lines of ignorance by speaking out about Islam and it’s relation to other Abrahamic traditions. For the last several years I have been teaching at the Center for Religious Inquiry, which is now Quest: A Center for Spiritual Inquiry. In addition, I do a regular one-off speaking events to try to ease the tension of working with Muslims. It’s a small step, for sure, but one I think that is necessary to start working towards something bigger. Usually I mention the Interfaith Youth Core, but this year I will definitely be taking a more active direction towards service.

If you don’t already, please take time to serve. If you do, thank you.