The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister

"Peace and Islam"

A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull

First Parish Unitarian Universalist
Cohasset, MA
March 21, 2010

Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year, was the occasion for my roommate, Layla, to give me the gift of this shawl. [Hold it up.] I treasure it. The setting was the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, where I spent my junior year of college. It was mid-point in time between the U.S. troops landing in Beirut and the Six Day War. It was also a time of relative calm in Lebanon, though beneath the surface stirred an uneasy balance of power between Lebanese Christians and Lebanese Muslims, with Christians holding the edge though Muslims outnumbered them. In the Middle East religion, peace, and violence are intimately linked.

I hold this shawl as a personal icon of peace and Islam. Layla was Muslim. Her home city was Baghdad. Not long after the United States attacked Iraq just seven years ago yesterday, I tried to locate my friend. I contacted the university’s alumni office. There was no record of her whereabouts. I continue to wonder about her well-being and whether she’s even alive.

My year in Lebanon was the year I added Universalist to my then Presbyterian identity. I had yet to discover the Unitarian Universalism that would be my chosen faith, as those of us who were not raised “UU” commonly refer to it.

What happened that year that was so transformative for me? I met Layla. I met Tanya. I met Mahmoud. I studied with students and professors and visited families whose religious filters were radically different from my own—from Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christian to Druse and Muslim. To this stunningly beautiful campus on the Mediterranean we came to learn. We came from the United States, Britain, France, Greece, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, the Sudan, Iran, and Iraq, to name just a few of the nations represented. Christmas Dinner was spent on the terrace of a Muslim family in Cairo. My Christian American friend and I were treated like royalty.

Did I believe then that Muslims were all about peace and love? No more than I understand now that Christians or Jews or even Unitarian Universalists are all about peace and love. I just know that “us and them” isn’t sustainable.

Peace and Islam is a topic I approach beyond gingerly. I’m an expert in neither. I struggle for peace from the inside out and the outside in. I’m in my infancy in discerning the richness of the religion that is Islam. This morning I’m modeling chutzpah, a non-Arabic word as you might know. I’m out on a slim limb as I seek to honor the winning bid made last spring at our service auction for a sermon topic of choice. The winning bidder graciously offered three or four topics, from which I was foolhardy enough to choose the highly complex topic of Islam. I was foolhardy minus one to hone in on the marginally narrower topic, “Peace and Islam.” It could only consume the better part of a lifetime.

Nonetheless why not “Peace and Islam” on dual anniversaries? The first anniversary I’ve already noted. Yesterday marked the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, tied so erroneously to the 9/11/01 attack of 19 members of Al-Qaeda, a fundamentalist arm of the Sunni branch of Islam “calling for a global jihad,” (struggle or effort) to vanquish perceived enemies of what they understood Islam to be. Like extremist arms of Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, extremist arms of Islam hold high-intensity self-righteousness unleashing the most horrific of acts. Their aftermath clouds for many of us the role of peace in this faith that is one of the great religions of the world stemming from the story of Abraham.

The second anniversary is a 1400th! Yes, 1400 years ago, in 610 CE during the month of Ramadan, which existed before the formalization of Islam, Muhammad ibn Abdallah retreated to a cave atop Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca. There he prayed and fasted, distraught over the runaway greed in his own tribe. Legend tells us that in the middle of the night at almost the mid-point of Ramadan Muhammad awoke, seized by the sense of a powerful presence that spoke the first words of what would be the Qur’an, “the recitation.” More revelations followed. What he received were prescriptions in the form of glorious and powerful poetry, but imparted in such a way that he had the good sense to tell no one except his trusted wife and cousin.

Two years passed, and he could contain himself no longer. He began to preach these revelations. Converts were slow in coming and were initially among those downwind of the growing economic disparities in Arab society. Just as Jesus preached a gospel of love as a return to the soul of Judaism, so Muhammad preached a message of social equity as a return to the soul of his culture. Both threatened power brokers of religion and government.

It would take 21 years for Muhammad to receive all 114 chapters, or surahs, of the Qur’an.

Islam means “surrender,” and it was expressed in ritual prayer, originally three times a day and later increased to five times a day. To prostrate oneself was a physical antidote to the arrogance and greed that had become so pervasive in and around Mecca.

An adherent of Islam was called a Muslim,

“….a man or a woman who had made this submission of their entire being to Allah and his demand that human beings behave to one another with justice, equity and compassion.”

Muslims were expected to live according to the precepts of the Qur’an. This meant giving a portion of their income to the poor. And it meant obligatory fasting during Ramadan—the month when Muhammad had received the first revelations of the Qur’an—as a reminder of the hunger known to the poor.

According to scholar Karen Armstrong,

“Social justice was…the crucial virtue of Islam. Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in which there was a fair distribution of wealth.”

Theological speculation was deemed self-indulgent. “….Far more crucial,” explains Armstrong, “was the effort (jihad) to live in the way God had intended for human beings.” The well-being of the community, the ummah, was evidence of their faithfulness.

Fair-play, compassion, and community are at the core of Islam. This is borne out in the understanding that the Arabs issue not from Abraham’s legitimate son, Isaac, but from Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s mistress, Hagar, whom Abraham’s wife Sarah had cast out in a fit of envy when she was pregnant and Sarah wasn’t. God served as mediator. Sarah became pregnant after all and gave birth to Isaac. As for Hagar and Ishmael, God had promised that a great people would descend from Ishmael. To Abraham, God made a covenant with him that he would “be the father of a multitude of nations.” Then God promised Abraham that Sarah would conceive and bear him a son and that Sarah would “be a mother of nations.”

According to the narrative of Genesis, God made promises to Abraham about both his sons:

“’As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac…’” (Genesis 17:20-21a)

Hagar and Ishmael are said to have settled in Mecca. Muhammad learned from neighboring Jews about these promises made by God to Hagar and to Abraham and Sarah. Muhammad was overjoyed. God had not rejected his people after all. The Jews and the Arabs shared the same father, Abraham; but the Jews descended from Isaac; the Arabs, from Ishmael. In the sight of Muhammad, the historic scale had been tipped toward justice.

When I heard as a child the story of Sarah casting out Hagar, I was horrified and angry. How could Sarah behave so badly? How could God let this happen? In Islam, this is not the whole story. The saga of Ishmael and his legendary descendants and the saga of Isaac and his legendary descendants continue to our day. We can understand the deep rivalry between Jews and Muslims as a family divided. When peace comes, a great family will be whole.

The history of the Jews and the history of the Arabs—and God knows the history of Christians claiming the Judaic tradition—have been fraught with violence. Each has self-righteously claimed to be the offended party. Holy wars have been fought in all religions. None are without accountability. Each seeks validation for violence. Each holds precepts for peace.

In our time, many non-Muslims tend to perceive violence as the heart of Islam. Perhaps some of us in this Meeting House share this sentiment. Hear the words of the Qur’an:

In the 7th surah, we read:
“…And My Mercy encompasses all things.” (7:156)

In the 25th surah, we read:
“The servants of the Compassionate are they who walk upon the earth humbly, and when the foolish address them, they answer: ‘Peace!’” (25:63)

And in the 60th surah, we read:
“It is possible that God will ordain love between you and your enemies. God is Almighty. And God is Forgiving, Merciful. God does not forbid you from showing kindness and dealing justly with those who have not fought against you, nor driven you from your homes. Truly, God loves the just.” (60:8)

While there may not be a message of peace at all costs, there is a clear prohibition against pre-emptive violence.

In his introduction to a compilation of The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace & Love, scholar Rez Shah-Kazemi notes the likely objections within and without the Islamic world to highlighting only one strain of teachings, namely, the compassionate, the peaceful, and the loving, when the Qur’an contains promise and threat, peace and violence, hope and fear. Because so much emphasis has been given in our time—and he wrote in 2007—to the Koranic themes of threat, violence, and fear, he registers hope that his work

“… will help to draw attention to the absolute centrality of the principles of compassion and mercy, peace and love in the Koranic worldview.”

Peace does not equal pacifism, nor does peacemaking equal pacifism. Pacifism is an absolute, and I respect such a stance. Peacemaking is what I try to practice. As long as I know that I am capable of violently defending myself or another creature, I am not a pacifist. If, however, I feed the fear that another person or another people or another religion is undermining however I consider “me and mine,” and if I act on this fear, I am no more innocent than a hijacker, a crusader, or any of the women and men of history made and history being made who reject surrender to the promise and possibility of love and peace.

Embedded in a poem by the late W.H. Auden are the words:

“You shall love your crooked neighbor
      With your crooked heart.”

As humans endowed with conflicting capacities, may we seek to acknowledge our own shortcomings and reach out in love and peace to our neighbor, who shares them.

Salaam Aleikum, Peace be unto you. Amen.



Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, The Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2000.

W.H. Auden, “As I walked out one evening,” in The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden, Random House, New York, 1945, 197-199.

My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace & Love, Gathered & introduced by Reza Shah-Kazemi, with a foreword by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2007.

Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, a Mentor Book by arrangement with Harper & Brothers, New York, 1958.

"1958 Lebanon crisis,”

“The Six Day War,”

"Peacemaking: Congregational Study Action Issue Resource Guide 2006-2010,"


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