Wednesday, September 2, 2009

More iftars, and thoughts on Quaker worship

I have attended two iftars this weekend, and they were both wonderful, thanks be to Allah!

The first iftar I attended was held by the Palestinian American Women's Association (PAWA), This group holds an annual fundraising banquet during Ramadan. I went because I wanted to support the Palestinian people and because the main speaker was my dear friend Shakeel Syed. He is just back from his second visit to Israel/Palestine and gave a powerful speech describing the deplorable conditions that he witnessed. His prophetic call to action was irresistible: like apartheid in South Africa, or the Jim Crow world of the South before the Civil Rights Movement, the situation in Israel/Palestine is morally indefensible. Palestinians are being brutalized and treated as second-class citizens. They are being surrounded by wall, ghettoized, and deprived of their dignity. Just as people of conscience rose up to oppose the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, we must do the same to oppose the racist apartheid policies of Israel. Another speaker, a woman lawyer, showed us a powerpoint about the horrific conditions left in the wake of Israel's brutal massacre in Gaza. The ongoing seige of Gaza is a blot on the conscience of humanity.

There were also some upbeat notes. PAWA raises money to send 35 young Palestinian-American women to study at Birzeit University in Ramallah. A young nurse testified about how meaningful this experience had been to her. We also heard songs by Palestinian children, and some traditional Palestinian music. I was also impressed by the vibrant visionary art of Ibrahim Al Nashahibi, a Palestinian artist living in San Diego.

I sat at the table of a Palestinian woman named Nazreem whom I know from Whittier. A self-appointed good will ambassador, she goes about giving talks (nonpolitical) about Palestinian culture and Islam. I met her husband Dalal (a physician), her son Noor (studying to be an engineer), and her teenage daughter. I enjoyed their company very much.

The next day (Sunday) I went to an iftar that the Islamic Shura Council of So Cal presents each year. This is an interfaith event which has become like a family reunion for me since I have been going for many years and know many of the attendees. I was touched when I saw Hassam Ayloush (exec dir of CAIR) and he told me he used to read my cancer blog and was inspired an moved. "You are like family," he said, and I felt the truth of his words. We have moved beyond tolerance, beyond even appreciation, to realizing that we are all one family, created by one God.

I sat at a table with Quakers from the AFSC and a Mormon couple, the daughter of my friend Judy Gilliland. Her husband Steve has worked tirelessly to create interfaith understanding and he received an award for his efforts. Steve is a professor and he and his wife taught for a year in a Mormon college in Jerusalem. They have gone back many times and are knowledgeable about the situation there.

Besides going to iftars, I went to a healing meditation at the home of a homebound Friend. In order to support my fast during Ramadan. this group of Frends decided to move the time of the meditation to 6:30 so that we could eat together at 7:30, the time of sunset when Muslims break their fast.

We did the same thing last night at the home of my Jewish friend Ruth Sharone. We were having a mailing party for the Parliament and decided to meet at 7:30 for dinner in order to be supportive of my fast. Before eating, we said prayers in Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit. (Several of the volunteers belonged to the Vedanta Society.) Our group also included a Catholic, Thomas, who came later.

As Ramadan progresses, so does my book about Howard and Anna Brinton, two of the major Quaker educators/theologians of the 20th century. I was finally able to do some significant writing after a week of preparation. Here's a sample:


For Howard Brinton, the core of Quakerism was its unique approach to worship. One of his earliest writings on this subject was a talk about worship which he gave at Pickering College in 1914. He began by observing:

Of all our Quaker heritage, the most important part is the highest and holiest act of which mankind is capable—the worship of his God. Our theory is so simple that it
hardly deserves the name of a theory. Worship, we believe, is a personal
communion with God Himself, and the form it may take, or its place or time, or
any outward circumstance whatever are far less in importance to the sincerity
and reality of the act itself.[1]
Howard’s tone switches from the lofty to the scientific as he compares meeting for worship to a laboratory—an image he often uses in later writings.

This Quaker method, if method it can be called, might be described as the
laboratory method. The modern teacher of science does not require his class to
blindly accept the authority of a book. Experiments are done which prove the
facts. Similarly the Quaker worship is not a worship by proxy, but a worship of
actual personal experience.[2]

Equating worship with the experimental method of science was one of the characteristics of modernist Quakerism. Modernists saw Quakerism as differing from traditional Christianity because it relied not on the authority of scripture or of dogma promulgated by a priestly elite, but rather on the Inward Light present in every human being. Quakerism was therefore an experiential religion, like Buddhism; it validity was based on inward states of consciousness that each person could verify in his or her own heart.

Because of his scientific training and background, Howard was able to make this case for modern Quakerism most convincingly in his talk “Vocal Ministry and Quaker Worship.”
Howard’s arguments are as follows:

1) Quakerism is a methodology, not a “fixed doctrine.” It is therefore possible for someone to practice Quakerism and be a non-Christian.

2) Quakerism is compatible with science because it is an experiential, not a dogmatic or creedal religion.

3) The faith and practice of Quakerism are congenial to the evolutionary and holistic world view of modern science.

I go on to talk about the relationship between Quakerism and the scientific worldview of Darwin and Einstein.

[1] Brinton, “Worship: A Resume of an Address Given at Newmarket, Feb 8th.” The Canadian Friend, vol. IX/No. 9, Newmarket, Ontario, March 1914, p. 8.
[2] Ibid, p. 8.
[3] “Vocal Ministry and Quaker Worship,” a Paper read at the Conference on Ministry at Friends’ Meeting House, Coulter Street, Germantown, Third Month, 1928.

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