Saturday, June 6, 2009

Peace, Inshallah

President Obama’s speech in Cairo last week is generally regarded as a success. He did reach out to the Islamic world, hoping, as he said, for “a new beginning.” But very early in the speech, he started with an untrue premise. He stated that Christianity and Islam have much in common, shared values and interests. In the most abstract sense that is correct, as all religions have in common acknowledgment of a supreme God. But a very large difference between Christianity and Islam is captured in the single Arab word, “inshallah,” meaning “God willing.”

“Inshallah” peppers every conversation, almost every statement, in Arabic, and for good reason. Many Muslims take a passive attitude toward life that moves by the hand of God, not by their own hand. There is not the sense we have in the West of “doing” one’s life, building one’s career, striving for success, and so on. All those things are in God’s hands. What happens is not up to me. Inshallah.

In Christianity there is a similar theme of submission to God’s will in all things. Yet somehow that does not come at the expense of individual ego. Christians talk about God intervening in human affairs from time to time, making things turn out well or badly, but there is not a pervasive feeling that every minute of every day is controlled by the hand of God, individuals mere corks bobbing on the sea of divine events. It’s a fundamental difference in psychology that must underly any attempts at reconciliation of the cultures, and any political dialog. By suggesting otherwise, Obama started on shaky ground.

Christians do not prostrate themselves five times a day and pray in public. Our relationship with God is very private, very inner. Yet in one sense, Muslims practice inner mindfulness far more intensely than Christians, for that. Praying ostensibly five times a day would necessarily make you more mindful of God’s presence. That is the whole point of the practice. They are not praying to ask god to intervene so that their favorite sports team will win the playoffs. No. Each Muslim is reminding himself, “My life is not my life. My life is God’s life. Inshallah.
(Image: Reuters)

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