MUSLIM STORY'S MESSAGE CAN FEED THE CHRISTIAN SOUL
By Richard Griffin, Eagle Tribune, 2/22/04
How can a story familiar to hundreds of millions of people all over
the world have never been heard by me? That is the question I ask
myself after finally hearing it told two Sundays ago.
Not only is this narrative known far and wide but the event it
describes is celebrated each year by communities of believers in
dozens of nations, including the United States.
The story bears the title "The Ascension of the Prophet" in English.
In the Arabic language it is referred to as "Al-Miraj," a name that
can also refer to the holy day that is observed on the 27th day of
the seventh month of the Islamic year.
I heard the story told by Ali Asani, a scholar of Islam who teaches
at Harvard University. Asani, speaking to a group of Christians
seeking deeper understanding of Islam, shared with us an ancient
narrative that centers on the Prophet Muhammad and his face-to-face
encounter with God.
In beginning his talk, Asani stressed the core belief of Islam,
namely that God is one. Each believer bears witness to that basic
fact about God.
"There is no god but God" expresses the faith of every Muslim. These
words contain both a negation and an affirmation, the denial of
existence to false gods, and the full acknowledgement of the one true
What all Muslims must do is submit to Allah. This submission involves
turning away from being centered on oneself and instead becoming
centered on God.
The holy book of Islam, the Quran, frequently mentions seeing God,
though it also teaches that human beings cannot physically do so. The
Prophet Muhammad, however, receives the privilege of a personal
meeting with God.
When Muhammad ascends toward God, he leaves from the Dome of the Rock
in Jerusalem under the guidance of the angel Gabriel. This guide will
not be allowed to go all the way up, however. Only the prophet
himself does so.
Muslim tradition has sweetly interpreted God's motive for having
Muhammad make the ascent. The reason is: God could not bear being
separated from his beloved so he had Gabriel call him forth.
Returning to an earlier theme, the storyteller emphasized that
submitting one's ego is a prerequisite for seeing God. You must "die
before you die" said Asani as he explained the self-transformation
that Muslims understand to be the goal of life...
Though not as learned in the Muslim tradition as I would like to be,
I find it easy to relate to this charming narrative. It smacks of
authentic religious feeling and speaks beautifully of love both
divine and human.
The story also validates the mystical tradition as it has unfolded
over the centuries. It dramatizes an intimacy between God and God's
creatures featuring an interplay back and forth. Though God remains
above human grasp, human beings can enter into a love relationship
James Herrick, author of a recent book on spirituality, asserts
that "mystical experience is the common core of all religious
traditions." If so, this story can feed the soul of people who are
not themselves Muslim but who relate to some of the spiritual wisdom
in the Muslim tradition.
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