How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
in a believer's ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
and drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
and calms the troubled breast;
'tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.
Dear Name, the rock on which I build,
my shield and hiding-place,
my never-failing treasury, filled
with boundless stores of grace!
Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
my Prophet, Priest and King,
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
and cold my warmest thought;
but when I see thee as thou art,
I'll praise thee as I ought.
Till then I would thy love proclaim
with every fleeting breath;
and may the music of thy Name
refresh my soul in death!
The Golden Rule, by Mother Teresa
I am sure that if we all understand The Golden Rule—that God is Love and that He has created us for greater things, to love and to be loved—we would then love one another as He has loved each one of us. True love is a giving until it hurts. It is not how much we give—but how much love we put into the giving.
Though Abraham Lincoln was neither baptized nor joined a church of any kind, he was the most spiritually minded president in American history. His faith was wrought on the anvil of anguish, both personal and national, and because of this he has much to teach us in our own age of anxiety.
Some historians interpret Lincoln as a proto-secularist, not only because he never professed Christian faith in a public way but also because he made a number of skeptical comments about Christian teaching in his early years. But it’s well to remember that even great people of faith, including Mother Teresa, experience dark nights of the soul. John Calvin once said that all true faith is tinged by doubt.
When accused of being a scoffer, Lincoln said that he had never denied the truth of the Scriptures nor shown intentional disrespect for any Christian denomination. In the midst of the Civil War, when Lincoln was told that the Methodist church had sent more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any other church, he replied: “God bless the Methodist Episcopal church! Bless all the churches! And blessed be God, who in this our trial giveth us the churches.”
So why did he never join a church himself? Two reasons. First, he was offended by the religious rivalry and braggadocio of the frontier preachers of his day. None of them made a compelling case to his lawyerly mind that only one denomination was right and all the others wrong. Further, Lincoln was reticent, “the most shut-mouthed man I know,” as his law partner William Herndon said. He did not want to cross the thin line between sincerity and self-righteousness. There was nothing smug about Lincoln’s faith.
Lincoln’s great achievement was to see the terrible times through which he lived in the context of God’s providential purposes. He referred to America as the almost-chosen nation and came to see himself as a “chosen instrument in the hands of the Almighty.” His firm belief that God is concerned for history and reveals his will in it drew on the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of the New Testament refracted through the tradition of St. Augustine, and the Calvinistic Baptists among whom he grew up. Though he read Voltaire as a young man, he had no interest in a deist God who dumbly peers down on human struggles. The God of Lincoln meets us in judgment and mercy and in the crucible of suffering that shapes the destiny of us all.
Lincoln also held in uneasy equipoise two other cardinal teachings of the Christian tradition: the inherent dignity of every person made in the image of God, and the corporate character of original sin. His abhorrence of slavery was rooted in the former; his disdain for utopian solutions to social problems grew out of the latter. Thus he was hated by secessionists and abolitionists alike. The tragedy of slavery and the Civil War would not be resolved, Lincoln thought, by appealing to human goodness, but by calling the nation to repentance and prayer. On nine separate occasions during the forty-nine months of his presidency, Lincoln called his fellow citizens to humble themselves before God in public penitence, prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. At the urging of the United States Senate, Lincoln issued a proclamation appointing April 30, 1863 as a day of national repentance, fasting and prayer. Between the smoke and blood of Antietam and Gettysburg, with the outcome of the war still in doubt, Lincoln declared:
And, insomuch as we know that, by God’s divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
After the death of his beloved son Willie in 1862, the burdens of his office became intolerable, and he sought solace in the faith of the Bible he loved and knew so well. “I have been driven to my knees many times by the realization that I had nowhere else to go,” he said.
He and his wife Mary rented a pew at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House, and here Lincoln listened to the sermons of the Princeton-trained pastor. During special prayer services he would often sit in a side chamber lest he draw attention to himself in the congregation. Here he placed himself and his nation in the hands of God, seeking justice, imploring mercy, needing grace.
On March 4, 1865, just six weeks before he was assassinated, Lincoln presented his Second Inaugural, which has been called, “a prayer of confession for the whole nation”—“more like a sermon than a state paper,” according to Frederick Douglass. At that point the Civil War was practically won, but Lincoln refused to be vindictive. He knew that the evil of slavery, rooted so deeply in the South, had also been supported by business interests in the North. The purposes of the living God could not be equated with the sectional ambitions of either side but transcended them both. By refusing to idolize the North or demonize the South, Lincoln called the entire country to its true vocation as one nation under God. Quoting the psalmist, Lincoln said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9 KJV).
Two hundred years after Lincoln was born in a rough-timbered cabin in Kentucky, America still longs for “a new birth of freedom.” In times of economic collapse, international uncertainty, of war, suffering, and terrorism, the faith of Abraham Lincoln can help us as a people act with courage and hope. Lincoln’s belief in the Bible, his reliance on prayer, his humility and acknowledgement of God’s providential design in the tumult of history, and his call for national repentance and thanksgiving beckon us forward now as then.
The words chiseled in stone in the Lincoln Memorial are still a creed for us to live by:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
The West, we are told, has entered the secular age. Religious faith is irreversibly shriveling, opening space for a society governed by reason. What such statements miss is that while traditional religion may well fade, we will never see an end to something like religious belief. We’re subjective beings whose need for meaning will never be satisfied merely by what can be “proved.” Thus, even if Judaism and Christianity are reduced to vestigial influence in America, they will be replaced not by unbelief but by different creeds.
Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than the recent rise of transhumanism, a futuristic social movement that offers a worldly transcendence through faith in technology. Why consider ourselves made in the image and likeness of God when we can recreate ourselves in our own, individually designed, “post-human” image? Why worry about heaven, hell, or the karmic conditions in which we will be reincarnated when we can instead enjoy radical life extension, perhaps even attain immortality by uploading our minds into computers? Indeed, transhumanist prophets such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil and University of Oxford’s Nick Bostrom assure believers that science will soon wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain, for through technology, the former things will all pass away.
I took in this new religion at the recent Religion and Transhumanism Conference in Piedmont, California. The human heart’s thirst for meaning was epitomized by the opening speech of conference organizer Hank Pellissier, director of the Brighter Brains Institute. He seems a very sweet man—evinced by his stated zeal for “charity,” which he criticized transhumanism for lacking. (More on that in a bit.) Pellissier traveled a long and peripatetic road to transhumanism—from Catholic, to hippie, to Daoist, to Quaker, to an atheism so “militant” that he once organized an atheists’ conference that included a “Bible-throwing contest.” When he found Dawkins-style atheism “too bashing,” he embraced transhumanism—although he now is thinking of converting to Judaism (Reformed, he assured the audience) because one of the lesbians in a couple to whom he donated sperm is a rabbi.
The religious nature of transhumanism was described by the conference’s keynote speaker Ted Peters, a professor emeritus at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley who researches how “displaced religious sensibilities resurface in secular forms.” He sees transhumanism as aspiring to replace the worship of God with a perception of evolution as something of a mystical force to which “homage must be paid.” Transhumanists view evolution as ultimately increasing intelligence—a benevolent deity of sorts. Therefore, they assume a moral obligation to “increase evolution” to the end that “just as humanism freed us from the chains of superstition, transhumanism would free us from the chains of biology.” This goal will be fulfilled when we have successfully redesigned ourselves into “cosmic beings”—a technological new heaven and new earth.
To be sure, there is no liturgical worship in transhumanism, and it doesn’t see belief or behavior determining eternal destiny, as do traditional religions. Still, in his speech Peters noted that transhumanism—like traditional religion—perceives itself as a “grand vision in which all the broken things get fixed.” Later he told me, “Much of what we have gotten out of religions we now get from science and technology: human fulfillment, salvation, (the potential for) eternal life. So, ironically, discarded religious beliefs come back disguised in scientized forms.”
Or not so disguised, as in the case of the Raelian science cult. Its representative—the almost surely pseudonymous Felix Clairvoyant—presented two videos on the supposed encounter of cult leader “Rael” with space aliens. Unlike orthodox transhumanists, Raelians deny evolution; they claim that all life on earth was intelligently designed by extraterrestrial visitors. That point of doctrine aside, the Raelians and transhumanists have much in common. Both deny theism and embrace scientism as the way to attain ultimate truth. Thus, Raelians claim that our interstellar “creators” are already trans-humans. Through applied biotechnology and other scientific advances, their bodies last for one thousand years. When they can no longer be maintained, their minds are uploaded into computers, they are cloned, and then their software is downloaded back into their new brains and they are good to go for another millennium. I could almost hear the sighs of longing from the audience. O Death, where is thy sting?
Meanwhile, Jason Xu, a “community organizer” for “Terasem,” a transhumanist church of sorts, told the audience that by embracing rituals, people who reject God can defend themselves against the gravitational pull of “nihilism and secular pessimism.” Terasem’s “devotion to technoutopianism” thus provides transhumanists with “the fulfillment and syncretization of all faiths.” Its four “core beliefs” range from platitudinous to wishful: 1) life is purposeful, 2) death is optional, 3) God is technological, and 4) love is essential.
What does this mean in practice? In Xu’s telling, it was all pretty vague. There are no creeds to which one has to adhere, nor moral codes to follow. Instead, Terasems cohere around a devotion to technology in the understanding that it will take more than achieving post-humanity to give meaning to daily life. To fill the spaces in the soul left empty by that God who is technological, Terasems meet regularly to share art, poetry, and music, and to do yoga.
Terasem comes across as Unitarian Universalism squared. Xu assured the audience that one can be a Terasem and a Catholic, Orthodox Jew, Buddhist, faithful Muslim, or member of any other religion. This would come as a surprise to many believers. After all, if God is “technological,” where does that leave the omnipotent God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? This was not a question Terasems seem to be asking. Maybe theology, like death, is optional.
Not a problem for Mormons, it seems, at least not if we believe Lincoln Cannon, a Latter-day Saint and cofounder of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He claims that Mormonism “mandates transhumanism.” According to Cannon, Mormonism is a “materialist religion, in which everything is matter and God is material.” Indeed, he said, “even God did not start as God.” Moreover, the transhumanist idea of recreating deceased loved ones through cloning or other technologies is consistent with the Mormon interest in genealogy and the faith’s practice of baptizing the dead. Thus, rather than rejecting their faith, Mormon transhumanists can come to the movement because of their religion. Or so says Cannon. Mormon authorities, I suspect, would disagree.
New Mexico State University English professor Mike LaTorra presented the Buddhist perspective on transhumanism. He also argued that Buddhism “mandates” a transhumanist pursuit. “Life is not satisfactory because of suffering,” and transhumanism can be the path leading to something better. An extended life span and the material abundance that hyper-technology will create will allow Buddhists to pursue their practice with greater concentration. Thus, with “transhumanism at the base,” the seeker will be better able to attain “transcendence at the apex.”
Buddhism and Mormonism notwithstanding, according to a recent poll the belief of most transhumanists is atheism. Zoltan Istvan writes for the Huffington Post and authored a novel called The Transhumanist Wager. He offered the atheistic point of view, flatly stating that transhumanism unequivocally “cuts at the core of” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “If you don’t have restrictions that religion casts upon our moral system,” he said, “you [are] more free to think.” As people learn they can “live indefinitely,” religion will erode, since people will stop worrying about death. Istvan also argued that for transhumanism, the only hope is in a material world, and therefore interfering with life extension research should be a crime. In fact, substantially thwarting efforts to achieve transhumanism would be a just cause for war. Onward transhumanist soldiers!
Although the sects disputed finer points of doctrine at the conference, it is clear to me that transhumanism aspires to be what monotheism was to polytheism. It seeks to supplant theism as society’s reigning source of mores and values. If it can be said to worship anything, it is an intense and potentially eugenic pursuit of a perfected humanity. We will be free from sin by definition—none of those moral restrictions on life. And we will be delivered from death by technology. Like many faith systems, transhumanism offers consolation in suffering (we can eliminate it) and hope in the face of death (it’s “optional”).
Different strokes for different folks, as they say. But there are dangers. Terasemite principles aside, at the ten-hour conference there was little discussion of love for, or duties toward, others. The one exception was Pellissier, who ended the day with an angry story of excitedly organizing a charity drive to collect used cell phones for Africa from fellow transhumanists, only to receive zero responses from his brethren.
This sadly confirms my observations of transhumanism over the last ten years. Even the utopianism that should be one of its most attractive characteristics has a cruel aspect. Transhumanists tacitly—sometimes explicitly—reject the principle that each and every human being deserves respect and protection simply by virtue of being human. Such a morality impedes the benevolent god known as evolution—thus delaying the perfected human future they envision. To bring about the hoped-for future we must discard the notion of each human’s intrinsic dignity. One need not think transhumanists’ predictions will come true to worry that their values might take hold.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.
I am a huge baseball fan. I was born in New York City, but when I was four years old, my family moved to Ohio. My mother was a schoolteacher who had summers off so each summer we would return to New York and stay with my mother’s parents. It happened that my grandfather was a big fan of the New York Yankees and he would often take me to Yankee Stadium. We would sit in the bleachers for 75 cents and watch the great Yankees teams of the fifties: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Phil Rizzuto, and so on. So I became a big fan of the Yankees, as well as of baseball in general.
For a baseball fan, the highlight of the season is the World Series. On Wednesday, October 29, the seventh game of the World Series, the most important game in baseball, took place. After a regular season in which each major league team played 162 games, after a one-game playoff in each league between the two teams qualifying for the wild card, after the four Division Championships—each three games out of five, after the two League Championship series—in this case, four games out of seven, there finally occurred the World Series showdown between the Kansas City Royals, the American League pennant winners, and the San Francisco Giants, the National League Champions. And after six games, the teams were tied at three wins apiece. Everything came down the seventh game.
So Wednesday October 29 was the climactic game, to determine which team would be crowned the World Champions. As I said, I am a huge baseball fan and normally nothing would keep me from watching the seventh game of the World Series on television. But I had a conflict. I was scheduled to preach the homily here at Bethany Terrace today. And my schedule recently has been so jam-packed that as of October 29th I had written very little of my homily. And my schedule for the several days afterwards was also extremely busy. Therefore, I had a difficult choice to make: Should I watch the seventh World Series game or should I write my homily?
I chose to write my homily. Had I chosen otherwise, my homily today might have consisted simply of a report on the outcome of the World Series.
Life is a series of choices. When we wake up in the morning, we have to choose whether to get out of bed or go back to sleep. When we have breakfast, do we choose eggs or cereal? Each person we meet throughout the day presents us with a choice: How do we relate to this person? Do we treat him or her as an object, a thing to be used, or do we recognize that we are encountering a fellow child of God? And the choices continue until we choose to fall asleep at the end of the day.
Yes, life is a series of choices. Many choices are relatively, inconsequential, such as whether to eat eggs or cereal for breakfast. Other choices, such as whom I should marry and what career I should follow, are more significant. In the lectionary reading today from the book of Joshua, the Israelites are confronted by Joshua, the successor to Moses, with a momentous choice. He says, “ Revere the Lord and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt; and serve the Lord…Choose this day whom you will serve…As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
A thousand years after Joshua, the Israelites were again confronted with momentous choice. A dynamic teacher named Jesus, from the village of Nazareth in Galilee, arose. Jesus preached about the kingdom of God. He taught that God our Father in heaven, that all people were his beloved children, and that by faith everyone could realize this saving truth. He went about the land preaching this gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. He healed the sick, performed miracles, even raised the dead. Jesus also proclaimed that he was the bread of life and, indeed, that he and the Father were one.
Would the Israelites choose to accept Jesus or reject him? Many, including 11 of his 12 closest followers, the apostles, did accept him. Others, such as Judas Iscariot and the religious leaders of the Jews did not. As a result of this rejection, the Jewish nation forfeited its mission to be a spiritual light to the world.
It’s been 2000 years since Jesus walked the earth, and, like the Israelites, you and I must make a choice whether or not to serve the Lord. God is our heavenly Father and he loves each of us with an infinite love. He “finds delight with mankind.” Jesus said, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.” But God refuses to compel the allegiance of his children. He does not impose any form of required recognition, mode of worship, or abject bondage upon us. He has given us spiritual free will. Each one of us, in our own heart, must choose whether to accept or reject him. And this choice to accept God and to follow his will must be wholehearted. Partial devotion is insufficient. We are to love our gracious God with “all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” This complete and loving dedication to doing the Father’s will is our greatest gift to God. Indeed, such a consecration to God’s will is our only possible gift of value to the heavenly Father. In God, we “live, move, and have our being.”
What are the results of choosing to follow God’s will, serving him and our brothers and sisters? They are peace in our souls while on earth and the bliss of eternal life after death. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which we heard earlier, assures us that we will rise to be with the Lord forever.
God so loved the world as to provide for the eternal spiritual progression of every one of us, his beloved children. Let us choose with our whole hearts to follow our loving God!
Jesus spent the whole night in communion. The way I would like to define communion here is that Jesus spent the night listening to the Father calling him the Beloved. That is the voice Jesus heard when he came up out the Jordan River (Luke 3:22) and he hears that same voice on the mountain: “You are my beloved Son, on you my favor rests. I declare you to be my Beloved, the one in whom I pour out all my love. You are my favorite one.” (See Luke 9:35.) It is with this knowledge of being the Beloved that Jesus could walk freely into a world in which he was not treated as the Beloved. People applauded him, laughed at him, praised him, and rejected him. They called out “Hosanna!” and they called out “Crucify!” But in the midst of all these voices, Jesus knew one thing—I am the Beloved; I am God’s favorite one.
Why is it so important that we are with God and God alone on the mountaintop? It is important because it’s the place in which we can listen to the voice of the One who calls us the beloved. Jesus says to you and to me that we are loved as he is loved. That same voice is there for us. To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of our being and permeate our whole life. Who am I? I am the beloved. If we are not claiming that voice as the deepest truth of our being, then we cannot walk freely in this world.
This listening is not easy. Jesus spent the night in prayer. God’s voice is not a voice we always hear with physical ears. God’s word is not always an insight that suddenly comes to us in our minds or that satisfies our hearts.
That is where the disipline of prayer comes in. We are called to pray not because we feel like praying or because it gives us great insights but simply because we want to be obedient, to listen to the voice that calls us the beloved. The word listen in Latin is audire. If we listen with full attention, it’s called ob-audire, and that’s where the word obedience comes from. Jesus is the obedient one—totally open to the love of God. But if we are closed, we are surdus. That is the Latin word for deaf. The more “deaf” we get, the more absurdus we become, and an absurd life is precisely a life in which we no longer listen and are constantly distracted by all sorts of voices, losing touch with the truth that we are the beloved.
Real freedom to live in this world comes from hearing clearly the truth about who we are, which is that we are the beloved. That’s what prayer is about. And that’s why prayer is so crucial and not just a nice thing to do once in a while. It is the essential attitude that creates in us the freedom to love other people—not because they are going to love us back but because we are so loved, and out of the abundance of that love we want to give.
This is where ministry starts because our freedom is anchored in claiming our belovedness. Being the beloved allows us to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they too are beloved, chosen, and blessed. It is an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more we know how deeply we are loved, the more we will see how deeply our sisters and our brothers in the human family are loved.
But we have to pray. We have to listen to the voice that calls us the beloved.
This is a terrific initiative. The world has long waited for the Islamic community worldwide to react in such a clear way to the “Islamic State.” The letter is meticulously composed, and contains twenty-four sections in twenty-eight pages in Arabic (the English translation has seventeen pages). These sections attempt to refute the awful deeds and claims of ISIS—deeds including killing unarmed innocents, slaying prisoners of war, mutilating dead bodies, taking women as concubines, forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam; and claims including the “Prophet Muhammad was sent with the sword as a mercy to all worlds” and the Yazidis “are Devil’s worshippers.”
The letter demonstrates the stark divergence in the Muslim world on how to interpret the Qur’ānic verses that call for jihad, especially in its armed form, and that expound the meaning of the Islamic caliphate (Ar. khilāfa). The signees and addressees of this letter represent two distinct groups of interpretation. Both interpretations exist. Both groups are “Muslim.” This is most likely the reason why the letter refers to the leader of ISIS as “doctor,” and its members as “fighters and followers,” with no reference or mention at all of “terrorism” or “terrorists” in the entire document. The reader may get the impression that the letter is addressed to a “prodigal son” among the Muslims. The signing this letter (which took place in the U.S.) reflects a desire of some Muslims to live in peace with non-Muslims.
The writing of this letter in itself, however, is not enough. The statement is ambiguous in crucial areas, which not only weaken its argument, but also question whether it is truly a rigorous and valid refutation of ISIS’s deeds and claims. In what follows, I will focus only on two of them: the concept of jihad and the restoration of the Muslim caliphate. While this letter claims to present the correct version of the Muslim teaching, its imprecise description of important areas makes it subject to different, and sometimes opposite, understandings, leaving the reader, especially the non-Muslim, puzzled regarding correct Islamic teaching.
First, concerning the concept of jihad, the letter reads: “The word ‘jihad’ is an Islamic term that cannot be applied to armed conflict against any other Muslim.” Okay, but what about non-Muslims? Can jihad be applied against them? The letter, though recommending jihad as a form of self-piety or a way to strive against one’s ego, does not specify against whom armed jihad should be applied. This leaves the door open for interpretation.
Moreover, it states that “All Muslims see the great virtue in jihad,” and does not explain what “the jihad against the enemy” really means. In fact, the letter applauds and praises the “intentions” of the members of ISIS, noting, “it is clear that you [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi] and your fighters are fearless and are ready to sacrifice in your intent for jihad.” The approval sends mixed signals. At the end, the reader doesn’t know what to think. Is armed jihad forbidden only against Muslims? The letter seems to convey so. If this is a true Islamic teaching, then it is seriously damaging to free societies, especially if we consider the non-Muslim groups marauded and slaughtered by ISIS under the banner of jihad.
Second, regarding the restoration (or reestablishment) of the Islamic caliphate, the letter affirms that “There is [an] agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the [Muslim] Ummah . . . [which] has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE.” This is a serious point. In their attempt to refute ISIS’s claims regarding the caliphate, the Muslim scholars seem to affirm the ideology of the caliphate with some restrictions. They continue: “a new caliphate requires consensus from Muslims and not just from those in some small corner of the world.” This is puzzling. Does it mean that the restoration of the Muslim caliphate is an obligation upon the Muslim community worldwide these days? Is it only a matter of “consensus”? The letter does not specify. What one may understand of such statements is that ISIS’s caliphate is rejected by some other “Muslims” mainly because there is no “consensus” about it, but the Muslim caliphate and its restoration is a real Muslim commitment, and only needs an agreement among the Muslims in order to reestablish it.
What the signers forget is that, historically speaking, it is difficult even to argue that there was a “consensus” among the Muslims in previous caliphates. On the same day of Muhammad’s death, Muslims disagreed about the caliph, and that is for the most part the reason why we have the Shia–Sunni division among Muslims today. Thus, the Muslim scholars, in their attempt to refute ISIS’s claims, create even more serious questions about Muslim teaching and ideology regarding the restoration of the caliphate.
The ambiguity in this letter reflects the sensitive and critical situation of the Muslim scholars who signed it, and stems probably from at least three reasons: 1) It is obvious that original Muslim texts include statements and stories that could support ISIS’s claims and deeds if interpreted literally, so Muslim scholars try to be both sensitive in choosing their words and selective in their quotations from sacred texts, which results in ambiguity in some cases; 2) Scholars realize that outright denunciation of ISIS’s interpretation is quite difficult, as such interpretations run throughout Muslim history, in addition to the fact that Abu Bakr himself holds a PhD in Islamic Studies; and 3) In the Muslim perception and mindset, the concept of one unified umma (community) obliges Muslims to defend and support their Muslim fellows all the way.
The initiative of these highly acclaimed and respected Muslim scholars is praiseworthy. It speaks loudly that there are many Muslims who want to coexist in peace and mutual respect with non-Muslims. Nevertheless, the world needs more from the Islamic community. Unfortunately, the letter is unclear about crucial beliefs, such as jihad and caliphate, and it does not refute central claims advanced by ISIS. In fact, it raises serious questions about correct Islamic teaching in general. I believe that the leaders of ISIS would most likely find various gaps in this letter, and it would not be too difficult for them to counter its arguments. In all this, non-Muslims worldwide need clearer denunciation of the so-called “Islamic” ideologies that hurt international society by amplifying hatred and discrimination against the non-Muslims. With all due respect to the Muslim scholars who signed this valuable letter, thank you, but it is not enough.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History, holding a PhD from Fuller Graduate Schools, California.
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