Several years ago two dozen men changed, in the blink of an eye, how an entire country viewed one quarter of the world’s population. Of course, I’m speaking of the tragic events of 9/11 wherein 3,000 American civilians were killed in moments.
In my shock at the devastation, I joined in with the rest of our country as we were led by a panic-stricken media to hate everything Muslim. We were reminded incessantly on the news of all the terrible things Muslims did and represented, and that they saw every westerner as an embodiment of all that was evil. Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses were targeted for destruction, people who looked Muslim or had “Muslim-sounding” names were bullied, and terrible things were done to Muslims in America under the guise of justice or retribution.
Luckily, this did not sit well with me. My own faith was one of the many Christian churches that rose during a spiritual revival in the early days of this nation’s history – at that time many of these new Christian communities were mistrusted and harassed by their neighbors because of misunderstandings and apparent strangeness. I also remembered that the media is not picky with its targets – even a young John F. Kennedy had to defend his Catholic faith as he began his run for Presidential office. Rather than be swept by the tide of fear I wanted to learn, and I decided to approach this faith with the same respect I hope others would use to examine my own.
I read the Qur’an, I read the Hadith, and I spoke with my neighbors who were Muslim. I emailed Imams, sheikhs, scholars, and laity from many paths of Islam, and from all around the world, asking questions about what they truly believed. The picture which emerged was astounding.
Islam as it is practiced today is a beautiful rainbow of faith, built on many of the same principles of my own beliefs. Muslims love their children and want to do good in the world – in the Qur’an it says, “And if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (Qur’an 5:32) And there were many other things I learned which flew right in the face of popular media portrayal.
Wanting to share what I discovered, I came to the tradition of Asma al-Husna, or the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. These are not names like “Roger” or “Mary”, but they are traits of divinity which help us appreciate God and the best portions of ourselves – names like Forgiving, Healer, and Knower. And I began the 99 Names Project to share my growing understanding and appreciation, wherein I am building glass sculptures responding to each of these Most Beautiful Names of God from my Christian perspective.
One of the first groups I contacted as I began my education is an organization of Turkish-American volunteers based in South Salt Lake called Pacifica Utah. They were very kind and immediately welcomed me, inviting me to all sorts of functions. After a while it dawned on me that this was the weirdest of clubs – they seemed to exist solely to find excuses to be nice to their neighbors. They hosted visits from peacemakers of all walks of life and every faith; the attendees were a mix of every label imaginable, and all were equally welcome. And they were all eager to answer my questions.
Pacifica is one of many organizations that have spontaneously developed as a direct result of good-hearted people listening to – and reading – the teachings of Fethullah Gulen. This unassuming guide simply teaches the deepest truths of the Qur’an, which include such ideas as: All people are equal and deserving of respect; Our differences make us unique but should never hide the fact we are all of the same family; The promise of Democracy is wonderful because it allows everyone a voice in an egalitarian environment; and Science and Religion have no reason for conflict because all truth comes from the same ultimate Source.
The people who hear Gulen’s words take on themselves the beautiful burden of the humble faithful – they wish to go about making the world a better place and serving their fellow beings without any regard to the nationality, religion, or ethnicity of those they serve. They call themselves the Gulen movement, or Hizmet which is Turkish for service. In a world of hidden agendas and ulterior motives, it can be disconcerting at first to work with people whose only desire is to do something truly worthwhile for another.
Where there is a disaster they are there with blankets and food, where there is mistreatment they show up with medicine, where there is need they build a hospital, where there is ignorance they build a school. Fethullah Gulen does not govern anyone or direct any efforts, he simply continues to share the truth of what he knows, and those who are able do good wherever they are. There is a beautiful truth in this, common among all faiths but so often lost to our jaded sight – when God answers prayers, many times it is by the hands of the good-hearted and faithful.
Named as one of the most influential Muslims in the world today by Time Magazine, Fethullah Gulen teaches Islam as Muhammed intended; from the Hadith: The doors of goodness are many…enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms – all of these are charity proscribed for you. Even a smile for your brother is charity. (Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98)
The members of the Gulen or Hizmet movement share their belief and faith without pretense or pretension, and show that love truly is a verb. Please join me now as we watch the film.
Introduction speech given before the Utah screening of the award-winning documentary "Love is a Verb" at the Salt Lake City Library as part of Interfaith Season sponsored by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable on 23 February 2015, Monday. Pacifica Institute-Utah sponsored the screening.