The Aramaic Jesus and the Sufis

March 3, 2009 at 7:40 pm (Christianity, Islam, personal, religious experiences, religious practices)

Went to “The Aramaic Jesus and the Sufis” today. I’m tired because I was up late again last night, but I want to record my thoughts after the workshop before I forget them.

The guy leading it has written many books and is a Sufi teacher I think. He was very likeable, not in any dramatic or over-the-top way, but just quietly inspiring. He was another one of those people that just exudes contentment. The day was spent with him teaching us things, and reading things, interpersed with singing in Aramaic and Arabic and – shock horror – even dancing of sorts.

I was very pleased to hear about the diversity in early Christian traditions, and that the Aramaic tradition is still ongoing in small numbers although largely unknown to western Christians. They have other gospels and other stories about Jesus passed down orally that are unknown to us in western churches. A lot of the stories about Jesus in the Qur’an come from these traditions which Muhammad would have been exposed to while managing Khadija’s caravan business. There is much agreement between their view and the Islamic view on Jesus, and Aramaic Christians are pretty much unitarian. Although the Qur’an asserts that the Jews did not kill Jesus, it doesn’t explicitly say that he didn’t die, and the traditional Islamic position on this used to be that it meant he went willingly to the cross rather than being forced. The Qur’an also endorses the virgin birth and the second coming.

An interesting point was made that religious traditions start with diversity and then cohesion occurs and uniformity emerges later. Ideas about returning to an earlier “pure” form of a religion are common but the reality was probably that religion in the early days was a lot more messy than people like to think.

The Sufi take on “la ilaha ila allah” (there is only one God) is that it speaks of universality, of the connectedness of all people. Rather a different perspective from “our religion is right and all of yours are wrong”, or “you’d better not associate anyone or anything with God”. I wondered how it was possible to see universalism in the Qur’an. I think they interpret a lot of it in its historical context. When I see the harsh words of a punitive God, it scares me away, but this guy paraphrased them in a humourous way, as if he was completely comfortable in his understanding of God. I remembered preachers doing a similar thing with Old Testament stuff.

I actually kind of enjoyed the simple dances, they were what I would think of as Hebrew style, in a circle, going round with steps. I wasn’t crazy about having to hold hands with people though. One dance even involved embracing people! That was really extremely tough for me, to embrace strangers. But I managed.

At lunchtime I found myself realising that I still wasn’t getting anything out of the singing, and that the love for God that I used to be able to feel was not forthcoming, because I no longer think I know who God is. Or even whether God is, really. I’ve enjoyed discovering information that undermines the simplistic views I used to hold, but where does it really leave me? It leaves me wondering whether God’s hand was at work in the whole mess of history. It leaves me wondering what the truth about God is, and how it should be understood. It leaves me in limbo.

I asked myself why I am so happy to learn about alternative histories of religion anyway. It wasn’t just today: I recently relished finding evidence of a big ideological clash between Paul and the original apostles which is smoothed over in the writing of Acts; and I was pleased to read in someone’s comprehensive summary of the doctrine of the entire Bible that the notion of the trinity and of Jesus’s divinity is not Biblical at all, and neither is the idea of hell being a place of eternal torment. (Whether I believe in any of this is not the point; the point is, I am happy to see that there are a variety of plausible positions.) I am also happy to reject the idea that there is something special about the 4 gospels that made the cut and were canonised at the Council of Nicea, as compared to the other historical literature that didn’t. Islam treats the ahadith (historical sayings about the life of Muhammad) in a probabilistic way based on historical evidence for their authenticity; it’s not a simple pass/fail; and ordinary Muslims know about this. Why has Christianity treated its literature in a much less rigorous way, and come to regard the process of recollection, writing, and compilation as having miraculously been absolutely perfect to the extent that the New Testament can be viewed as the word of God?

I suppose the reason I relish all this is that it quite nicely justifies my abandonment of evangelical western Christianity. If I’m honest, which I haven’t really been with myself for a long time, I’ve continually wondered whether I made the wrong choice. Whether I should have just been stronger, and kept praying, and been obedient, and I would have found the way. Whether I’m at risk of going to hell now.

I don’t think I really got much from the singing and dancing until the very last one. I don’t know why but something in me just connected with it and I didn’t want it to end. I think my icy heart softened a little bit, and I caught a glimpse of the beauty of surrender and of fellowship. I felt that in singing the words, I was acknowledging that actually, I’m not afraid of any of it. Aramaic, Arabic, any of it. And I’m prepared to believe that God might be in there somewhere.

Because the thing is, although it’s become hard for me to believe that there is any one pristine, clear-cut path to God, I can’t rid myself of the idea of God. I don’t want to. Even if it’s not true, I’d rather believe in something good and never know I was wrong. As long as it is good. That’s what I am being so careful of.

I feel that after this workshop, my preference in religion is tending towards the simple, because the simplest of messages – love your neighbour as yourself – is the hardest, and anything else can easily become a red herring, a distraction from that hard task. He mentioned a verse from the Qur’an telling people to keep the message simple and not let it get turned into culture and politics (or something to that effect). But I am somewhat torn between on the one hand, this simple approach with its off-the-cuff morality, and on the other, my appreciation of the practical benefits of rules. I suppose I think that rules might have protected me from the nonsense I put myself through in the past, and as I’ve said before, I just think they are incredibly sensible. Having said that, they are not bullet-proof, and applying them in an extreme way across society can make them look far from sensible… so the jury’s still out.

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14 Comments

  1. Candice said,

    I have some of the same feelings about not wanting to let go of God even though my feelings are pretty confused about the subject. The only thing I strongly feel is true about God is that He exists, and that the most important thing is to follow the sense of right and wrong/ good and evil that He has given us all. And everything is judged according to individual circumstances. So I’m not sure yet if Islam itself is the ultimate truth, but at least for the moment, I feel comfortable with my truth that I must follow what I know is good and stay away from what I know is bad.

  2. FutureGirl said,

    I am right there with you. If you are of an intellectual nature, statements such as “do it because God says” really don’t connect to your source and does not satisfy the hunger. You want it to – but it doesn’t because your mnind / spirit makeup is different. Also, if you are somewhat multicultural in your life and nature, you will see one-sided views as inherently biased and they will not connect with you properly either. If you are interested in different perspectives of the religion and the sources and histories – I would recommend Karen Armstrong’s books. She is AMAZING, and reading her works (which can be found in the History and Biography sections of bookstores) is a must for any intellectual who is seeking understanding. Her biography of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is awe inspiring, and her works on the Great Transformation just as powerful.

  3. Sarah said,

    Candice – that sounds like the kind of simple religion that appeals to me. It sounds quite similar to the Sufi position too, not that I’m an expert.

    FutureGirl – absolutely, there just isn’t a good fit with most standard approaches. It’s a lonely but very interesting path I’m on. I have “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong and intend to read it after I finish the one I’m reading at the moment. I’m glad to hear you found her books amazing. And by the way I enjoyed your post on loving your neighbour – I linked to it a few posts ago! – but I’ve had difficulty commenting on your blog because the word verification thing seems not to load properly for me. Anyway I hope you had a good holiday!

  4. Lisa said,

    I find that there is a lot to like in Sufism as far as the connectedness of people and the nice walk from Christianity to Sufism is a little easier. Sarah, I know you struggle with this in between period. I’m also struggling. I sometimes find that I’m worried about not doing something Islamic even though I’m away from it. Still can’t bring myself to do the pork thing. Similarly, I feel I’m defying Christianity by doing Islamic things. There is just no rest for our weariness.

    I wish there was a religion for the in-between variety. I like that with the Sufi faith, many Christians can slowly enter in to Islam seeing only the beauty of Rumi, and none of the cultural problems. Then again I also know elements of Sufism can be haraam or at least makrouh. It feels like you can’t win!

    Sarah, I pray for your journey. I really do. May the Almighty touch you and help you everyday

  5. FutureGirl said,

    Hey Sarah, thanks for the linking! What an amazing compliment!
    Glad to hear you’ve encountered Karen Armstrong already…she carried me through a lot of confused times. I look forward to seeing what affect she has on the thought process, big smiles and good vibes! FG xx

  6. Sarah said,

    Lisa – “I wish there was a religion for the in-between variety” – let’s start one! LOL

    I know what you mean. I have trouble with pork too, and I’ve never been oficially Muslim! So I’m practically following a rule I don’t understand, from a religion I’ve never joined – what’s up with that!! I think at least in my case, a lot of these type of worries is just superstition. Like because there is no certainty about religion, it’s tempting to just err on the side of caution, or something. Kind of embarrassing to admit but there we are.

    I pray for your journey too. Thank God for this world wide web so I can come to know people like you and feel less totally on my own.

  7. Kay said,

    Really enjoyed this read 🙂

  8. Sarah said,

    Thanks Kay. Your blog looks great – I look forward to reading through it when I have time.

  9. mysteryofiniquity said,

    Sarah,

    I’m glad you left a comment on my blog because otherwise, I wouldn’t have found yours! I loved this post and it summed up nicely what I’ve been going through as well, especially this part:
    “Because the thing is, although it’s become hard for me to believe that there is any one pristine, clear-cut path to God, I can’t rid myself of the idea of God. I don’t want to. Even if it’s not true, I’d rather believe in something good and never know I was wrong. As long as it is good. That’s what I am being so careful of.”

    Well that’s it in a nutshell. I can’t rid myself of the idea of God either. However the rules oriented religions leave me somewhat cold. I have been investigating the Quakers with a friend and they worship in silence and practice loving neighbors literally. It resonated much like the Sufi dancing did with you.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  10. Sarah said,

    mysteryofiniquity, thanks for visiting my blog! It’s such a pleasure to meet others on the same journey.

    I went to a Quaker meeting once but no-one said anything and I wasn’t sure what to think. I think I need a bit more in the way of practical guidelines. I have a love-hate relationship with rules. I often find some value in them and want to follow them, but don’t want to be made to feel that I have to. I don’t believe God’s requirements of us can be reduced to a simplistic set of black and while rules. So I think a lot of the rules might be sensible but the underlying theology is not. I like what you said in your post about scriptures being humans’ attempts to make sense of the divine as they understood things to be. I guess the rules are just one expression of that.

  11. mysteryofiniquity said,

    I think you are right about that. Rules, to me, are just one person’s (or a group of persons’) attempt to make hard and fast what they’ve experienced as true for them. Or they honestly think God requires it of everyone for some reason. Naw. What would an Almighty care about how I pray or in what direction? Why would it matter if I sit or stand or kneel? Again, confining the un-confinable. (Is that a word?) 🙂

  12. Sarah said,

    I don’t think God would care about these things. But I see them as having some value for people – it’s perhaps easier to take on a given worship style and make it your own expression, than to start with a blank canvas. At least for some of us. 🙂

    The rules for moral behaviour, again, I find useful to THINK about and take what wisdom out of them I can glean, but when treated as black-and-white rules, pass or fail, do this or go to hell, they make no sense.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  13. Stacy aka Fahiima said,

    I feel the same way as you and Lisa. I’ve never “officially” joined Islam,but don’t eat pork and wear hijab sometimes. What makes it more confusing for me though is that I do love the Bible and even have a degree in Biblical languages. Btw though, I don’t think that Acts 10 supported actually leaving the Kosher laws. I think that vision was just symbolic and Christianity didn’t completely leave its Biblical Jewish roots until several centuries later.

  14. Sarah said,

    Hi Stacy aka Fahiima, and welcome 🙂
    I think it’s a shame religions are so divided from each other despite many similarities and common origins. There is certainly much to appreciate in both Christianity and Islam. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly label myself as one or another!

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