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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Offensive Liturgy


A Blog By Pamela K. Taylor


The conversation about the reintroduction of the Latin mass certain sections of which are anti-Semitic, brings to mind an issue I’ve been having over some of the Islamic liturgy.

For instance, the prayer (dua) that is said during sermons (Khutbahs), during the Eid prayers, 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).(see Qur'an 5:5). Obviously, the hostility between the Meccans and the Medinans was resolved and the two communities moved beyond hostility into respectful, friendly, harmonious relationships.

Further, the dua does not reflect the kind of theological conflict that seems to be implied by the use of "people of disbelief." The battles between the Meccans (in particular the Quraish) and the initial Muslim community were not about religious issues. In particular, the Muslims weren't fighting to convert the Meccans, but rather to be able to live in peace and to have their own freedom of religion. Yes, the people they were fighting were all “kafirin” but, again, it wasn’t a battle over theology, but basic human rights.

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 it is precisely nil at this point in time. Perhaps in a few hundred years, but not now. There would be instant rejection by most mosque going Muslims of the idea that we might change the wording of something that is well documented as a dua that the Prophet used to say. Indeed, that he said regularly.

I mean, people are still saying Du'as thanking God for taming this animal to be useful when they get in their cars, rather than being willing to say, thank you God for the blessing of an automobile, keep me safe as I drive. And that one seems like a no-brainer. Just shows how stuck on a very literal implementation our community is.

The dua about taming animals is largely harmless, and if people want to recite it verbatim as the Prophet did, then that is their prerogative. But this line about helping us against/over the people of disbelief is not harmless. The fact that it is recited in every Khutbah and after many, many prayers, and during our most festive celebrations is very troublesome for me. It seeps into the subconscious, and informs our perceptions and relations with others. However, with the chances of getting it changed being approximately nil at this juncture in time. There seems to be little to do, other than work on an individual level, slowly, slowly trying to change people's mindsets.

I know people say that change is incremental, but God I wish it came in huge fits and leaps at a time.



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