She sits in prayer, eyes closed, holding the limp infant. Although she is wealthy, her baby is starving to death. After five miscarriages, how can she endure this suffering? She leans into the One for comfort and mercy. The newborn has a metabolic disorder and cannot digest food. The mother’s expression is soft. Even though she cannot comprehend why this is happening, she trusts the mystery of the Divine. The word she uses for God is Allah.
I am her sister-in-law; I am an American Christian and she is Muslim. We are in her home, in a small village in India in about 1975.
Years later, my father-in-law, an imam with a white beard, brown skin and deep wrinkles, lay back against his pillows. “When will I see the child? When will they come back to India?” My husband shrugged, not wanting to tell his father about the divorce. My father-in-law’s eyes turned dark with tears. “We can never know. God alone knows. We must trust the One.”
The Muslims I knew were people who trusted God, not people crushed beneath God’s boot in submission. There was a sense of surrendering to the Divine, a sense of mystery and trust.
Here’s what one Muslim scholar says: “In Arabic, the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’—however, it was derived from the root word ‘salam.’ From this root word, you can also derive the words ‘peace’ and ‘safety.’ Many people feel that Islam implies some sort of enslavement to Allah, but others find it more helpful to define the word ‘Islam’ as ‘surrender’.” (For source of quote, look here.)
Living among Muslims, I had some sense of their faith. They leaned into God as a support and comfort. This was a devout family of educated people who knew the Quran and its teachings well. Several of the men were imams. Both men and women studied scripture daily.
Certainly Muslims approach the Divine in a different way than Christians do. Nowadays misunderstanding and terror engulf the West. It’s easy to label Islam as today’s devil.
God in my heart shakes its head. Wisdom pushes forward. “You’re not a child. You know better than this.”
Islam begins and ends in utter monotheism. “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet.”
If I say, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” the word “Allah” stops people cold.
If a Spanish woman offers me a cup of water and says “agua,” I accept that “agua” means water. When an Indian water vendor offers me a cup of “pani,” I accept that “pani” means water.
In Arabic, the word for “God” is “Allah.” It’s that simple. The Muslims are not naming some statue or some new divine being. They are saying the word God in their own language.
Here are ten other Muslim names for God: The Holy, The Divine, The All-Aware, The Almighty, The Majestic, The Judge, The Compassionate, The Bestower, The Creator, The Utterly Just. Muslim tradition offers 99 names like these for God.
(For more Muslim names for God, look here.)
Muslims accept the Bible as a holy text, in addition to the Quran. When Muslims say the word Allah, they are talking about the God of the Old Testament, the omnipotent, single God of Moses, Abraham and Isaac.
To comprehend Islam, it helps me when I think back to the year 630 AD, the beginning of the middles ages. In Rome, Christianity was the state religion, and there were already popes teaching the official version of Jesus’ message. Nearby in Arabia, where people had previously worshipped many gods, Islam’s message of utter monotheism was a brand new voice.
Islam says God is one, inscrutable, impossible to divide and impossible for humans to fully understand. This presents a real sticking point between Muslims and Christians. In 632 AD, the year the Prophet Mohammed died, Christians were already using the concept of the trinity to explain God and identifying Jesus as the Son of God.
I once sat chatting with a professor of Islam, a tiny man with a white beard and a small round white cap. We were drinking tea and eating pakoras in the courtyard of a Muslim home in India.
His smile was warm as he leaned towards me. “We are the same, we Muslims, Christians and Jews. We are one family. Brother and sister. But the Christians have made some small errors in their understanding.”
He lifts a finger for each point. “First, there can be no Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God can never be divided. Second, God can never be a Father! How can anyone claim that God would make a woman pregnant? This is offensive! Third, Jesus did not die on the cross and he was not resurrected. He was a prophet—a man, a good man, a divinely inspired man. But he was not divine himself! Only God is God. We must worship only God. We Muslims do not worship the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, and surely Christians should not worship Jesus instead of God Himself.” His smile is charming. I raise my eyebrows and smile in silence, thinking that Christians would find this conversation impossible.
But from the perspective of total, uncompromising monotheism, what he has said makes sense.
Muslims lean into the kind, all-knowing God whose mystery is bigger than all humanity. While they don’t see any man, including Jesus, as being equal to the indivisible God, they find comfort in the hugeness and power of a God that can understand their suffering. This huge mercy is what my sister-in-law tries to touch as she holds her dying child.
Muslims pray from the heart just as Christians do. Dua is Muslim prayer where a person calls out to God or asks for help.
While exploring my in-laws’ huge old house, I often stepped around a corner and found a servant or a woman sitting quietly, her hands lifted in prayer. In the outer courtyard where the men entertained their friends, it was the same.
Every day’s rhythm included both reflective prayer and formal prayer. What startled me the most was that, without any warning, women would just stand up, wash up, rearrange their scarves, step onto a carpeted platform in the corner of the room and do their prayers, bending and kneeling. No one paid any attention.
These are the formal, memorized prayers, similar to reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Catholic “Hail Mary, Full of Grace.” Such prayers reminded me of watching Dominican priests on Good Friday genuflect and then prostrate themselves before the altar. Just as all Christians used to pray in Latin, all Muslims recite their prayers in Arabic.
In translation, the memorized prayers that Muslims recite certainly resemble Christian and Jewish prayers:
All Glory is due to You, oh Allah! And all Praise is due to You, and Your Name is the Most Blessed, and Your Majesty is Highly Exalted and there is none worthy of Worship except You….
Our Lord, give us in this world [that which is] good and in the Hereafter [that which is] good and protect us from the punishment of the Fire.
(For translations of Muslim prayers, look here.)
But it was the trust—God’s intimate closeness—that I recognized in Muslim life.
Muslims look to their own families and towns for support in their faith. There are no bishops or popes far away who make pronouncements that every Muslim must obey.
When a baby is born, the women make sure to whisper God’s name into the baby’s ear right away, so that it is the first sound the child hears.
When someone dies, the funeral prayers are easily done because they are another version of the formal prayers done five times daily. First the family washes the body and dresses it in the right clothing so that their loved one is ready to meet God on the Day of Judgment. Even young children know how this is done because they’ve helped with it at home.
So when my own newborn died, my husband knew what to do, although he was far from other Muslims. I was too ill to leave the hospital. In Wisconsin it was deep winter, but he knew how to wash the tiny body and he knew what prayers were needed. My white-haired grandfather, a lifelong Presbyterian, went out to the cemetery where the snow had been scraped away from the brown earth and helped bury the little white coffin.
Once I was able to feel again, I leaned into God. My in-laws in India wrote to me, reaching to give me hope. Like my sister-in-law, I came to rest in the One I knew as God. Eventually light flickered in my blackness.
Everyone on Earth grieves. We all face despair at some point.
Sitting alone, I lean against God’s side just as my Muslim sister-in-law does. The Mystery holds us close. “I have called you by name. You are mine.” We belong here. We know it as surely as a baby knows the scent of her mother’s body.
And we know that we will never understand. What happens in life is as wild and terrifying as love itself—too huge, too difficult and too exquisite to grasp. The pain will never make sense, and it shouldn’t.
I look into my sister-in-law’s black eyes and I know that she and I are one. In the darkness, eventually, we see a light. She and I rest against each other, holding hands.
Hope is real. Joy appears, as shocking, wild and perfect as the pain. She and I are the Mystery. We do not understand but we trust. We lift our hands and step forward.
by Jean E Gendreau
copyright © 2016 by Jean E. Gendreau