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Five Things This Christian Learned From Islam: Community

I am spending 5 weeks writing about some things I have learned from Islam. Last week we looked at humility before God, especially as experienced through the physical humility of Islamic prayer and fasting. Already, the series paid off for me, I purchased the book The Seven Sacred Pauses, as recommended in the comments, and read it while flying to the US. On an airplane is exactly the place I need to lean into the grace for each hour.

“I am steeped in the spirituality of Jesus, deeply rooted in Christianity. This is where my home is. I believe that when roots go deep enough, eventually they entangle with other roots…I want to wrap my prayer shawl around our entangled and entwined roots in the lovely gesture of a blessing so that we may continue our spiritual quest together and learn from each other’s sacred practices.” Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses

This week I want to look at community, specifically community intimacy through shared practice, community accountability, and global community. The word in Islam for community is ummah and it could be loosely compared to the fellowship of believers, like what I read about in the book of Acts where the believers meet together, worship together, and share food and possessions.

Again I am struck by how much liturgical traditions have in common with aspects of Islam, and how far outside these traditions the practice of many evangelicals (myself prime among them) falls.

community1

I remember the first time I was asked to participate in a corporate fast. It was at a college conference with a Christian group and I held so tightly to ‘do not fast to be seen by others,’ that I believed the fast would be rendered null and void, pointless because other people knew about it. I thought the conference directors were leading hundreds of students into sin.

How did a faith that commands us to encourage one another daily morph into a tradition that turns talking about and sharing our spiritual disciplines into a sin? Or, at the very least, how did I come to think that? My guess is that it has something to do with the American quest for individuality.

Yes, beware of pride, comparison, boasting, judgment. Yes, fast and pray and worship and meet with God in private. Our spirituality is deeply personal and precious, a treasure to cherish, not a treasure to hide away. But also do it with the body of believers, the ummah.

As with fasting, in prayer my attempt to ‘go into my room, close the door and pray to my Father,’ made me adept at hiding my faith and isolated in my practice rather than developing and deepening fellowship with other believers.

I have prayed the salat a few times, welcomed by friends at a pizza party, during a language lesson, during Egyptian soap opera commercials. Each time there was an intimacy with God and with these women as we touched shoulders, as I mumbled my own English words and they mumbled Arabic, as we moved in unison, as we finished and returned to our work.

Praying with a community is powerful and promotes intimacy. Lifting voices together in adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and in making requests brings an intense unity. I am working on incorporating this into my relationship with other believers, and not just over a meal. When a friend shares a struggle or a joy, I want to be community and pray for her right there, together.

There is also accountability in the community of the ummah. I was once at a dance party and when the call to prayer came, the loudest and most influential woman in the room started ordering everyone to pray. She grabbed their arms and their scarves, pulled them to their feet, and made the music stop. Not all accountability needs to be (or should be) so aggressive but simply knowing that others are fasting or praying can be a powerful motivation to participate.

There is a global community of Islam as well and this also brings a unifying power. An American college student will fast the same month as a nomadic Somali camel herder. They will pray at the same hours of the day as a Bahraini businessman and will experience the same traditions when they go on hajj as a Chinese housewife.

Community is both a high local value in Djibouti and a high religious value in Islam. I do experience community with fellow Christians but want to grow in my shared spiritual practices, accountability, and sense of inclusion in a global faith.

Muslims, do you find life in community or do you wish you could be more individual in your practice? Christians, what do you do to encourage community with other believers?

Five Things This Christian Learned from Islam: Humility

islam and christianityFor the next five weeks I plan on writing once per week about some of the things I have learned from Islam. I’m not saying the Muslims around me do these things perfectly. I’ll leave perfection to God. But I am saying there are things I’ve learned, that my Muslims friends have taught me, things that have begun to soak into me and the outworking of my faith. I’m also not saying I don’t see any of these things in Christianity or the Christians around me but it is important (to me at least) to acknowledge and honor some things Islam emphasizes and that Muslims do well.

  1. Humility
  2. Community
  3. Consistency
  4. Awe
  5. History

Humility

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward, Surah 33:35 Sahih International

Islam teaches humility before God and before humankind. Christianity also teaches humility before God and before humankind. Here, I want to discuss humility before God because honestly, I don’t see a lot of humility between humans. I see (in people of both religions and in my own heart) pride and fighting and greed and stealing (twice in one week) and I don’t want to delve into that.

So. Humility before God.

islamic salat

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you 1 Peter 5:6

I have learned this before, the Bible is rife with references to the need to be humble before God. The idea that we are but dust and desperately sinful is woven all throughout the scriptures. That Christians express utter dependence on the saving work of Jesus is ultimate humility. The refusal to perform, the acknowledgement that all one’s good deeds will not save, this is deep, internal, faith-based humility.

But I haven’t seen a lot of physical humility before God. Perhaps this is because I grew up in the evangelical world, far outside liturgical structure, far outside the kneeling benches in Catholic churches. But the longer I am in Africa and the older I get, the more I understand how interconnected everything is. Our souls and bodies and minds and relationships. When my spirit is heavy, my runs slow down. When my body is weak, my relationship with friends suffer. When I raise my hands in church, my soul rises. When I bow my head low, my soul bows down.

This is what I see, vividly and every single day, in Islam. The physicality of humility through the five-times-daily prayer and then during Ramadan, through fasting.

I hear a lot of people say fasting is too hard, they have low blood sugar. They don’t fast because it makes them feel weak and tired.

As it well should.

This is what humility feels like and it is (partly) why fasting is a valuable practice for people of faith (reminder to self). The powerful, gurgling and grumbling, reminder that we are dependent on food is a picture of our dependency on God. The weakness fasting imposes reminds us that God is not weak, he does not rely on food for nourishment.

Even more clearly, the bowing of the salat, is a picture of humility. Putting the forehead to the ground, refusing to stand erect and firm.

I read The Shack, years ago, and one scene that always bothered me is when the man first meets the God character. She is African American, carrying a tray of chocolate chip cookies. His reaction is one of surprise, but he feels welcomed and loved.

It is a nice picture.

But ‘nice’ or safe and homey are not what I see when Muslims meet God in prayer and not what I think will happen the first time I meet God, no matter how many chocolate chip cookies he might be carrying.

I think we will fall on our faces, trembling, forehead to the ground, arms outstretched in the ultimate, “I am not worthy,” pose. We might feel welcomed and loved but we will also be completely, totally, humbled before God’s power, perfection, and awesome glory.

When I see Muslims praying the salat in front of the grocery store and outside houses, beside construction sites and inside my living room, it is a moving visual of the necessity of the soul’s humility before God.

If you are a Muslim, do prayer and fasting affect your heart attitude toward God? If you are not a Muslim, what do you do in your spiritual life to grow in humility?

*image via Flickr

*image via wikimedia

When Muslims Dance

Quick link: Mommy, Why Do Muslims Do a Dance When They Pray?

Today I am writing for the Brain Child blog.

prayer at night

The blog post tells the story of when, years ago, Maggie asked why Muslims take a bath and do a dance when they pray.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the piece.

Click here to read Mommy, Why Do Muslims Do a Dance When They Pray?

image credit: Muhammad Rehan via flicker

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