Thursday, July 12, 2007

On Faith: The Sacred Cow of Liturgy

On Faith: By Pamela K. Taylor,co-founder, Muslims for Progressive Values

'On Faith' panelist Pamela K. Taylor is co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values and director of the Islamic Writers Alliance. She is a member of the national board of advisors to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and served as co-chair of the Progressive Muslim Union for two years. Taylor is a strong supporter of the woman imam movement, which seeks the full participation of Muslim women in every aspect of life, including the pulpit.

The Sacred Cow of Liturgy

The conversation about the affirmation of the Latin mass, and in particular the discussion about the problematic reintroduction of sections of which are anti-semitic, brings to mind an issue that has troubled me for a long time over some of the Islamic liturgy.

For instance, one supplication that is said during sermons (khutbahs), during the Eid festivities, and quite often after daily prayers includes the line, “help us against the people of disbelief.” The sentiment is bad enough in English, but in Arabic, the use of the preposition “’ala” -- which implies not only help us triumph over the people of disbelief, but also put us over them as well -- is particularly egregious.

That line a priori sets up a hostile relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. It instills the notion that we are naturally at conflict, and that one or the other has to come out on top.

The dua has a very obvious historical context (the battles between the Meccans and their allies and the Muslim community in Media and their allies) and in that context it is a natural prayer. I don’t find it nearly as objectionable in the historical context, as the Muslims were at war for the survival of the community against those who did not believe in Muhammad and/or his message.

However, this is not a reflection of the final state of relationships between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities during Muhammad's life time. The final state, as defined by the Qur'an, is one of fellowship (their food is permissible for you and yours for them) and of interconnectedness (you may marry them and they may marry you). ...

This conflation of religion and politics in the language of the early Muslim community presents a challenge for present day Muslims, as it is easy to assume that "help us against/over the people of disbelief," stripped of its historical context is, in fact, a theological plea.

The idea of changing this dua to something like, "help us against those who are oppressing others," which is a fair representation of the sentiment in the original context, is very appealing to me. It would capture the spirit and the intent of the original dua and do so in a way that is less likely to be misunderstood.

Not only is it an accurate reflection of the sentiment Muhammad was expressing, but "Help us against the oppressors" is also a good prayer for modern people to pray as the oppressors today may come from any religion, ethnic background, nationality, etc, and certainly we have a surfeit of oppression going on.

I can't help but think that if Prophet Muhammad were alive today he would be struggling against many of the so-called "Muslim" regimes we have, and that he would be horrified over the way the shari'ah has been expanded and used as a blunt weapon against the populace. ...

Of course, I recognize that suggesting we change a line in the liturgy would be considered heretical -- and not just mildly heretical but wildly so -- in the eyes of many Muslims. The prospect of widespread acceptance of a proposal to revise this dua is precisely nil at this point in time. Perhaps in a few hundred years, but not now. ...
I know people say that change is incremental, but God I wish it came in huge fits and leaps at a time. ...

I just discovered this "On Faith" series on the Washington Post/Newsweek site. It was fascinating to find this Muslim commentary on liturgical changes in Catholic rite (which Jews have found troubling).

Many of the issues of liturgical change that the author addresses in Islamic context find close parallels in Judaism, with the difference that Jewish denominational differences allow for greater liturgical variation within a (mostly) common framework of prayer. That recognized, I often find myself in some tension with the liturgical choices (or refusals to choose) reflected in the practice of my hometown congregation.

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