I gave a presentation at Cedarhurst Unitarian Church last Sunday. This was my fourth presentation at a Unitarian Church this year. Many people have asked me to post the text of the talk. I've provided it below. Remember, these are just my talking points. Each talk becomes a separate and unique exchange of ideas based on the interests and questions of the audience.
I think the that topics that I speak on are important and timely. I thoroughly enjoy the open-minded sharing of perspectives during the talks.
The Basic Beliefs and Practices of Islam and the Notion of the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys
Good Morning. My name’s Mohamed and I want to thank you for inviting me to join you here today. I’m speaking on two topics this morning. The first is Islam, its basic beliefs and practices from an American Muslim’s perspective. Our second topic is the notion of good guys vs. bad guys, an exploration of who’s good and who’s bad. I’ll discuss these topics for about 20 minutes after which we’ll have an audience-driven Q&A session.
It’s difficult to synopsize any world religion in 10 minutes, but I’m going to try. I’ll start by discussing the five pillars or basic practices of Islam. After that, we’ll read from an English translation of the Quran, the scriptural basis for Islam.
The five pillars are:
1. Profession of Faith: There is no God but Allah and his prophet is Mohammed.
2. Prayer: Practicing the 5 daily prayers.
3. Fasting during Ramadan from sunup to sundown (not just food but any kind of bodily appetite).
4. The paying of alms.
5. Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
In doing a top-level summary of those pillars, we see that Islam is not that different from most other theological frameworks in that it places emphasis on prayer, fasting, alms and pilgrimage.
Now what about the Quran, a book that some churches in the U.S. believe ought to be burned? We’ve heard so much about this book in the last few years, but does anyone know much of its content? I’ve brought along my family copy of the Quran and I’ve tabbed some passages for reading.
Read passages on: Jesus, Garden of Eden, Moses, Noah, Lot
To recap what we’ve learned so far, we see that Muslims have 5 pillars of faith that range from prayer to fasting to alms to pilgrimage. Their sacred text is the Quran, a book of vignettes, lessons, prescriptions and warnings.
We’ve taken a sampling of readings from this Quran. Let’s use this sampling to begin discussion of our second topic, the notion of good guys vs. bad guys. We’ll start by trying to collectively answer, “Is the God of the Quran a good guy or a bad guy?” Let’s take inventory of what we’ve heard about him.
1. He killed a generation of babies because the Egyptians didn’t grant the Israelites freedom.
2. He massacred two entire cities because of their sexual orientation.
3. He killed every living creature on our planet because he was unhappy with the actions of a few humans.
Killing babies, genocide driven by homophobia, mass annihilation of all life – maybe he is a bad guy?
That’s a possible example of a bad God. Are there examples of a bad people?
- Read Matthew – ask audience, where from?
-Read Luther – ask audience, who wrote?
We have a bad God, two groups of bad people. Do we know any bad individuals? Here’s a description. (Read from 1984); ask audience, who is this?
(note how closely the content of a work of fiction from 1948 mirrors what we’re experiencing today).
So What Do We Make of It All?
Human thinking tends to operate in dichotomies, black and white, yin and yang, good and bad so I think we trap ourselves into finding a bad guy because we need to fulfill this dichotomy.
In all this discussion of bad guys, there’s a side of the coin that’s missing. We didn’t discuss the good guys; who are the good guys? I’ve looked through scripture and literature and listened to theologians and commentators from many parts of the world. My conclusion is this: when you ask the question, “Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” the good guys are always the people you ask. If Adolf Hitler was sitting here with us this morning and we asked him who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, I can virtually guarantee that he wouldn’t designate himself the bad guy. The point: Invariably, the good guys is us, the bad guys is the others.
I want to read something from one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, something that’ll move us towards a concluding thought about our discussion.
(Read the short piece by Kurt Vonnegut where he discusses a conversation he’d had with his father before his father passed away)
Vonnegut said that he didn’t believe in villains. In a universe void of absolutes, I tend to agree. Is this moral relativism, a philosophy that can leave people believing that there are no good guys and no bad guys, a type of intellectual cop-out? No, I don’t think it is. I think this perspective espouses the tenants of a philosopher who himself was branded and punished as a bad guy. That poor fellow also asked us to not brand bad guys when he told us “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
We’ve covered a lot of material here in a very short amount of time. If anyone asks me, “Mohamed, out of all you shared with everyone this morning, what’s the one thing you’d want them to remember most?” It’d have to be that one sentence: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”