Friday, 23 March 2007

Holy War of Words

Move over jihad, there's a new ihad in town.

It's being whispered behind ladies’ hijabs, murmured at mosques, and debated heatedly by fundamentalist Muslims the world over.

It's called ijtihad and it is an audacious word, to be sure.

Struggle for Words
To say it's a new concept is misleading, however. It shares etymological roots with the word, jihad, which loosely defined, as we have all come to learn, also means struggle. Ijtihad is a striving, as well, yet not towards God so much as inwards. In both respects though, the struggle is both a process and a journey.

Where the struggle deviates is that while jihad can be understood to be a psychological process, ijtihad is much more a philosophical one. Roughly defined then, ijtihad is the painstaking, soul-searching form of critical inquiry necessary to form a theological or legal judgment and arrive at a new interpretation of the source text(s).

If this sounds suspiciously like the work of scholars and philosophers, it's because it is. Or rather, was.

Every religion has its scholars ~ Aquinas, Maimonides, Nagarjuna and Shankara are all names that come to mind for the various other major traditions ~ but what's interesting, and I think pivotal to both the intellectual rise and fall of Islam, is how influential Islam's medieval scholars were.

Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali are the two most celebrated in historical Islam. Both were savvy to the ways of reason and law, and yes, the fine art of ijtihad. I won’t bore you with their details, but read even a smattering of their works and you’ll be amazed at how brilliant and instrumental these great thinkers were both within and to the development of the medieval world.

What bearing should such arcane exegetics as ijtihad have for modern Muslims? According to one of Islam's most vocal reformers, Irshad Manji, a self-proclaimed 'Muslim Refusenik,' a significant amount.

Faith Without Fear
As best-selling author of the book, The Trouble With Islam Today and mistress of a rebel movement called Project Ijtihad, Manji is as disturbed as most Muslims today at the religious turn of events for Islam, particularly the changing worldview post 9/11.

In fact, more so, for she dares to write and speak publicly, honestly and most-dissidently about issues of faith near and dear to the Muslim heart; bold words, incidentally, that earn her as many accolades (ie. the Oprah Chutzpah Award) as death threats.

She spoke here in town the last couple of evenings at PBS-sponsored talks to launch her new documentary, Faith Without Fear, set to air mid-April, and to plug her new paperback, which I had the distinct pleasure of reading in hardcover format a couple of years back when it was first published in Canada.

How and why Islam went from being a religion of such theological, philosophical and scientific renown, such that it was the flavour of the week for a medieval time (even fostering some 135 schools of thought), to becoming such a strict, neo-conservative religion that allows virtually no room for deviation from the literal words of the Prophet Mohammed in the Qu'ran ~ these are the questions she raises. She pulls no punches. What the hell happened? she dares ask.

Well, let’s see. There were these little matters of holy wars with Christendom and the Jews, not to mention great political and imperial strife throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, as empires came, conquered, collapsed. Add to that diasporas, and dysfunction and bickering within the Islamic family itself, and you begin to get a sense that struggle is as much a defining element of Islam as the five pillars themselves.

But instead of struggling against the grain and the tides of this new millennium, Manji suggests it is high time Islam, and more to the point, Muslims who are the living faith, reform their thinking and begin the process of personally re-claiming their religion as their own. This process of accountability and responsibility, Manji insists, starts with ijtihad.

But wait a minute. Making a personal judgment to interpret the Shari’ah (Islamic law)? Blasphemous, devout Muslims would claim. The words of the Prophet were not meant to be written on subway walls or debated in tenement halls.

Nonetheless, they do echo in the sounds of silence and uneasy acquiescence. And shifty-eyed silence speaks volumes.

That said, there comes a time in each religion when reform becomes necessary, or so says history.

Luther believed in small c catholicism and in an ecumenical approach to religion, which is not to be confused with the economical approach of Rome circa the Reformation era.

Faith to him was not bound up solely in repenting sins, performing sacraments or purchasing indulgences, all in mediated Papal fashion, but rather, was salvific in so far as he believed that God grants grace to those who receive Christ as their savior and place their faith in Him.

Justification by faith. Salvation by grace. These were holy heretical notions when Luther first nailed his 95 theses to that Wittenberg church door back in 1517 and yet they would prove to be the impetus to one of the greatest turning points in Christian history.

Nearly 500 years later, Islam is at a similar stalemate and reformative crossroad. It too has strong reformers willing to stand up and be counted; warriors women like Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hersi Ali, who are trying desperately to drag their faith kicking and screaming into the new millennium, fears be damned.

Faith Without Faith
A religion stops breathing when a culture, or religio-political leaders, (ie. to borrow from Islam, certain Imams, rogue madressas, the Taliban, etc.), claim all rights to interpret, preach and bastardize the sacred to suit geo-politics and cultural constructs, at the expense of modernity, progression and a little thing called the free and responsible search for Truth.

A religion stops speaking when groups like al Quaeda purport to speak for it and the masses can do little more than let the Mosque do its talking for them.

A religion stops growing when independent inquiry is discouraged and resignation and doubt pervade. And by growth I mean relevancy, not population statistics, because the continued spread of Islam worldwide is self-evident and directly proportionate to this rising index. The question then remains: is Islam as authentic and relevant to its adherents now as it was 500 years ago?

Some, like Manji, say no. She says part of the problem is the current blame game and inshallah, shoulder-shirking attitude that has the populace crying, “culture is the problem but Islam? Islam is perfect!”

Islam is far from perfect claims Manji, and is as much of the problem as the cultures who have shape-shifted it. So much so that rather than being the so-called religion of peace it is purported to be (a notion Manji likens to a slogan rather than a reality), she believes it has manifested itself, instead, as a religion of justice.

Down with Dogma
It is hardly surprising then that Manji advocates faith versus dogma, education not indoctrination, and a fusion of faith and reason not readily found in modern Islam. Her thinking is not altogether revolutionary, and yet it is liberating insofar as she is uttering a call to religious arms that promotes a return to reverence and intellect, and an abandonment of fear.

And it not altogether shocking that she tends to be critical and unsympathetic when incidences like the Danish cartoon controversy, or the Pope’s harsh words about Islam, or any negative media depictions of Islam are made public.

Rise up and be accountable, she cries. Muslims need to stop playing victim to the self-censorship ties that bind and gag them powerless and instead, start claiming the religion as their own in modernity, using the empowering spirit of ijtihad to guide them.

To watch this formidable, articulate and brave woman with her multi-tonal, spiked locks, match and surpass wits with the Muslim brotherhood in the back of the room the other night, says as much about her tenacity as it does about the rising fear-based polemic in the Muslim community.

While Imams may well be circling the wagons in an attempt to keep infidels like her from getting through to the flock (as evidenced by the “Status of Women in Islam” brochure I was handed on my way out), the reality is there are cracks in the wall and she has found a medium as an award-winning journalist, to poke larger holes in them.

Manji’s book, banned in most Muslim countries, is readily (and freely) available for download on her website in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. And her Project Ijtihad movement is a grassroots endeavor that is quickly catching fire with young and old alike worldwide. Already she has had former jihadists and suicide bombers read her book and have a change of worldview, as a result of the question she raises. Wow - you go, girl.

I wish her Godspeed and luck ~ peace be upon her ~ because her task will not be an easy one.

Look for Manji’s special to air on PBS April 19th and an interview excerpt to be broadcast on 60 Minutes sometime soon, as well.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

God's Breath

“The whole course of things goes to teach us faith.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today I’ve been pondering the cosmological notion of tsimtsum.

No, I did not do this while eating dim sum. I suspect that would not be a digestively sound thing to do. After all, how can one ponder the fine art of God crafting the universe whilst staring at a cart of chicken feet rolling by?

Tsimtsum (pronounced zimzum) is a Kabbalist term which, according to its corresponding dot com, “portrays God as inhaling at the moment of creation, diminishing himself to make room for the universe.”

Don’t ask me why I got thinking about tsimtsum when I should instead be doing what normal stay-at-home mom types do. Get buffed at the health club. Watch the daytime talk shows and fold laundry. Scrapbook two decades of photos. Have morning coffee with the PTA moms and chatter about the upcoming school auction. Or go shopping for bed and bath décor. (translation: what I should be doing rather than blogging).

But I think what started this train of thought was that I got to pondering the overt absence of God during my childhood years and began wondering if there is a kind of micro tsimtsum- osmosis that transpires at birth for all of God’s creation.

As above, so below, and all that.

I’m sure Rabbi Luria would be rolling over in his grave right now if he knew the extent to which I have metaphorically messed with his most sophisticated creation concept. He intended to introduce (or so I gather) the notion that because Ein Sof (God) was an energy source that existed as all that was, Ein Sof needed to contract and allow a space/place of nothingness for creation ex nihilo, before next crafting humans with both form and purpose.

Thus, the primordial Adam (not to be confused with Adam of Adam/Eve fame) became the first man in this chaos to cosmos tale. Lurianic Kabbalists then view God as an evolving Source in process and evolution; both Creator and Creation, Infinite and Temporal, Exoteric and Esoteric, Transcendent yet Immanent.

So that’s the extreme skinny on tsimtsum. There’s much more to it than that, obviously. This is Kabbalah and a metaphysical worldview, after all, and nothing in Kabbalah is simple, (except perhaps Madonna’s time goes by so slowly for those who wait lyrics).

One of my fave and perhaps the best-known modern portrayal of tsimtsum can be found with the Good Ship Tsimtsum in Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize winning tale, Life of Pi. If you have not yet read Life of Pi, what can I say? You really ought to. As one of my best-loved profs was so fond of instructing us with assignments, “read this: it will be good for you to do so.”

I read the book for my Nature of Religion self-study class and while it reads, at first skim, like a simple grade five, epic sea adventure, the book is actually an Überintertextual, religious allegory of man’s plight against, nature, self and God. To borrow a line from the Lucky Charms commercial, it’s magically delicious (if a bit tedious in spots).

And of course, it is no mere coincidence that the name of the ship our good friend Pi the protagonist was aboard happened to be the Tsimtsum. One could say that at the point that the ship sunk, Pi was born-again. Now before you start speculating whether I have perhaps been inhaling a bit too much of something or other myself, and have forgotten to exhale, consider the possibility with me for just a moment. Tsimtsum for everyone. What if?

What if we understood God, (or whatever name you wish to address God as), God’s grace and/or God’s breath, through this same lens, whereby we are each left to our own devices (scare quote emphasis on 'vices' for some of us more primitive beings) from the point at which our soul first attaches to us, be that in-vetro or during delivery. Things that make you go hmmmm.

He contracts and then tiptoes away, allowing each spark of ensuing creation the breathing room to expand and soul-make, which in turn, in this kind of process theology, helps evolve God and expand the cosmos. Now granted, that doesn’t explain the divine sensibilities of the enlightened few, who are veritably born wired for God as saints, nuns, priests, mystics and prophets. In these cases, I think God accidentally takes a deep breath in, but inadvertently breathes out a tiny gasp in the final moment; imbuing them with more than a few sprinkles of his divine spit. Which goes to show why only a small handful of babies are born attractive.

But for many of us, like me, who had only the faintest shards of divine light illuminate the cracks of our secular childhoods; this grand, God-toking and getting high on His/Her own energy process makes sense. It contains way more logic than the mythical stork tale. And it might well explain why babies cry when they get their asses slapped at birth. It is a metaphoric reminder of the tsimtsum trauma ~ when God first said, “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.”

And it is an interesting worldview; this apparent absent, yet veiled presence of God business. I liken it to desert spirituality: creation must find its way back to the water Source while avoiding the mirages along the way. The desert analogy does not work perfectly for our friend, Pi, of course, who had no shortage of water to contend with, albeit of the salty variety. But the plight is the same, nonetheless.

As Pi states, “I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging around me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up.” Rumi’s sage words, “do not seek water, seek thirst” ring true here.

Were it not for Pi’s transcendent faith and conjuring of Richard Parker ~ that mysterium tremendum et fascinans tiger and trusty raft companion ~ how might the tale have ended?

By the same token, were it not for his reason and bouts of religious naturalism, how might he have otherwise survived?

And what of the co-dependency between Richard the tiger and Pi the boy?

As above, so below.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,

teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,

and the leviathan,
which you formed to frolic there.
These all look to you

to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,

they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,

they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,

they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104: 24-30

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Holy Terrifying!

This is a pic of the new Grand Canyon Skywalk, unveiled today. Intrepid visitors can step out onto this glass bridge at about 4,000 ft. above the canyon floor and say a holy prayer that the engineering and construction materials are solid.

Me? I don't care what wonder of the world they call it, I much prefer the view from here, thank you very much.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Since time immemorial, both the piously faithful and lapsed unfaithful have been searching for God.

From the lofty heights of pyramids and stargazing, to sacred scriptures, to shrines and worship sites, to the depths of the inner soul in meditation and the recesses of neurology, these searches have led us far and wide, but perhaps no more closer than primeval man to the Divine.

It is little surprise then that the latest pilgrimage phenomenon should be an online quest. Google "God" with either a small or big G, and 402 million links later, you may well find what you're looking for.

Or maybe not.

World religions and scholars alike are beginning to cybertap into the prayers of adherents and curious cats alike, and are awakening to the portal potential of the Internet as a wide-reaching, albeit messy place of holiness. Looking to read the Gospel of Philip? Just click here. How about having an online conversation with God? Alas, the Web hears your prayer. Need an e-confessional? Done. No time and money to get to Mecca? Try going on the hajj, YouTube-style.

While cyberseeking God may look like 21st century religiosity, the wired pious do not necessarily view it that way. David Lamp likens his online church worship at The Online Church of Cyberspace "to a moment on the road to Damascus." And rightly so. A modern-day pilgrim seeking spiritual experiences on the information highway is bound to find a type of communitas and connection not much different than that of Hindu devotees converging enroute to Varanasi.

Discovering kindred spirits in the so-called disconnect and liminality of cyberspace can be a great source of comfort, particularly for some who may be physically unable to worship by traditional means publicly - be their constraints illness or distance. Still others who gravitate to technology would have their religion no other way. Connecting with God by click of a mouse is ideal for those who are intensively private in their devotions or those who desire a more remote and solitaire form of religious contemplation. And then there are others who would rather commune with God while wearing their housecoat and pjs. One could argue that some religions more than deliver on the robe and pj-wearing end, but that's another blog for another time.

The ways and means matter little. What matters is that some people are discovering that online religion can be as multi-sensory, illuminating and fulfilling a religiosity (sacramental religiosity aside) as attending a temple, church or mosque. Indeed, if we apply Ninian Smart's dimensional theory to this notion of online religion, we might arguably find that measures up in virtually all regards, pardon the pun.

So perhaps that is what is meant by God of the gaps: Looking for God in all the blog places.

On a personal note, I attend church near weekly now and while I enjoy my time in the sanctuary amongst hundreds of similar souls in either philosophical or meditative reflection, I still prefer to look for divinity beyond the gap in the door; that is to say, in nature, communing with space, time and the wonders of science.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
An eternity in an hour.
William Blake

The blog confessional is now open. Today's topic: cyberspace or outerspace. Today's question: Where do you find proof of God?

Or are you still at the faded signpost, trying to map the way?

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Confessions of a Holy Mind

Holy Schmidt, I did it!

Forgive me Bill, for I have sinned. It has been a lifetime since my last confession and a daily transgression in my mind of infidelity.

And now it's finally happened. I lifted the skirt of my burquah, dusted the dirt off the hem and now here I am, in bed with a new blog server. I had the good sense to keep my veil on, though. And like all good blog whores, I had the good sense to adsense.

On that note, welcome to my new blog boudoir. It's much the same schmidt, only holier.

Because while I still offer my cosmic, kismet and inane thought and tales as sacred tithe to the universe, and while I shall still list holy books, words, and links and confessions, I intend to do only that. Keep it holy, that is.

On earth as it is in heaven and all that.

What would be adequate penance for my sins? Drinking 10 bloody marys? Or having to skip boisterously down the street singing Mary Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow? Or maybe nothing because at the end of the day, it just doesn't matter.

I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said just that: What if the hokey pokey is all that it's about?

What if, indeed.

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~