Prayer in America
Subject: Reza Aslan
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded in Fall 2006, as part of Prayer in America, a look at the history of civil liberties in America and the controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT ACT. The documentary is a production of The Duncan Entertainment Group, Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Reza Aslan is the author of No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. He is also a research associate at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
Can you speak to the importance of prayer in Islam? Briefly describe some prayer practices and rituals that are specific to the faith.
Well, Islam is an orthopraxic religion like Judaism, which means that it's the rituals, the things that you do that makes one an observant Muslim. And the first of these rituals to have ever been founded, in fact, probably the first thing that united the nascent Muslim community together was the ritual of prayer. This was something that the Prophet Mohammad enacted very, very early on in his ministry.
And the almost yogic postures that are involved in the ritualized prayer, or salat, as Muslims refer to it, was a means of not just uniting this small community together as, as one, but also to differentiate it from the so called Arab pagans of pre-Islamic Arabia. So, prayer becomes not just a means of communion with God as it is in most great religions, but also as a means of bringing the worldwide community of Muslims together as one body, as one community. It's a way of knowing that, regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of your nationality, or your race, or your color, that you are going through the same motions, the same ritual that every Muslim in the world is going through at the same time of day and, in fact, that every Muslim has gone through all the way back to the prophet. So, in other words, it's not just a way of uniting the Muslim community across geographic space, it's a way of uniting it across time.
Islam is an orthopraxic religion. In other words it's a religion of ritual and practice. And the very first of the rituals that were imposed upon the Muslim community was prayer. It was a means by which this nascent community of Mohammed's followers could come together, be united, be bonded by this shared ritual, but also just as importantly, it was a means for them to differentiate themselves from the so-called pagan era community around them. And these yogic movements that are involved in ritual prayer in Islam, and the first of the rituals to be imposed, as I say, upon Muslims was a means not just of uniting Muslims across geographic lines but, really, knowing that in the movements that you are going through, in the words, the ritual words that come out of your mouth during this, during this, time of prayer, that you are doing what Muslims are doing across the planet, and in fact what Muslims have been doing for generations and generations, through time all the way back to the prophet Mohammed. So, it's a way to unite the Muslim community across boundaries, across borders, and across time.
What is the significance of the call to the prayer in the specific times of the day when one prays?
Well, the five times of prayer that unite most Sunni Muslims, of course, the Shiite pray three times a day because they read the Koran as prescribing prayer for the beginning, the end, and the middle of the day. But, Sunnis, recognize from the extra-Koranic traditions of the prophet Mohammed, that there must be five prayers a day.
The call to prayer that is, comes from the muezzin, or the prayer caller, if you will, is a means, again, not just to mark out the periods of the day, but also an opportunity for the Muslim community to come together as a united body of faith, to stop whatever it is that they're doing, and regardless of where they are, whether they're in Jakarta, or in Detroit, to recognize that this one action is a means of binding them together. It's a means of not just communing with God, but linking oneself to the prophet Mohammed.
Can you talk to the American Muslim community? Talk to what is shared, where the distinctions are, and if there are any distinctions that are uniquely American.
There's an old saying amongst religious scholars that, regardless of what religion you are, if you're American, you're more or less Protestant. And the idea behind that is that there is this sense of radical individualism, what is sometimes referred to as the Protestant ethic, that is a part of the American national identity. And, of course, you see this across the board in almost every religion that is a part of this pluralistic fabric that is the American religious experience. And so, the very identity of Americanness, necessarily affects the religious communities that, that one finds here. This is true of Catholicism, of Hinduism, of Buddhism, of Judaism, and it is especially true of Islam.
The sheer size of the United States means that Muslim communities here don't tend to be either ethnically or sectarianly divided. What you have is a great diversity that also comes together in this shared unity as Muslims and as Americans. And so, there really is a distinct difference in the way that Islam is experienced in the American cultural milieu that most Muslims find themselves here.
With regard to prayer, of course, that means that there is just as much emphasis here on the ritualized form of prayer, or salat, as it is known in Islam, as there is on the more informal modes of prayer in Islam, sometimes referred to as dua. These are just, as I say, informal communications between the believer and God that are outside of the three or five set times of prayer in which the Muslim community comes together as a body, to pray in this, to pray in this ritualized activity.
So, I think it's bound, the sort of Americanness, you know, what it means to be a part of this society in which religion and religiosity does play such a huge role in the public realm and in the public life of Americans. That kind of notion is bound to have a huge effect not just on the way Islam is understood in the United States, but also on the worldwide movement of Muslims. Because, of course, there are some 10,000,000 Muslims in this country and they do have enormous influence over the way Islam is perceived, not just in the West, but also in the traditional centers of the Arab and Muslim world.
One of the things, talking about Dr. Jonathan Sarna earlier, he talked about a tension 100 years ago between the reform predominately German Jews and then the Orthodox, predominately Eastern European Jews and this tension between those who wanted to assimilate and adapt. This kind of Protestantization you were talking about earlier, and the Orthodox that wanted to maintain traditions in language and it was very important to them. Has anything similar occurred in the Muslim community in the last 25, 30 years or even right now?
Because the Muslim community in the United States is so incredibly diverse you do see here in this country the entire range of Islamic expression, from the most reform-minded, modernistic views that have totally reconciled traditional Islamic ideals and values with Western or American ideals to the most conservative forms of Islam. Not just those that tend to reject certain modernistic interpretations but also those that are, in one way or another, sort of ethnically segregated from the rest of the United States.
In some ways that is the beauty of this country and religious experience in the United States. That it does allow for this great diversity of religious thought and religious expression in all religions. In another sense, though, I think it really indicates how so many different forms of religious expression in this country can coalesce around individual communities from the Pacific to the Atlantic. And so, in the same way that unlike most countries in the world, the United States has these three real distinct forms of Judaism: The Orthodox, the Reform, and the Conservative, you are seeing very distinct forms of American Islam here. Not just as a result of American converts to Islam, who, of course, bring with them all of their own traditions, their own cultural ideals, but also in the second and third generation of immigrants from Muslim countries who have sort of one foot in their ethnic identity as Pakistanis, or Iranians, or Arabs, and then one foot in their, in their new identities as Americans, and who have really figured out a way to, to bridge that gap, to reconcile those two different identities and create a uniquely American Islam.
This is happening, I think, more and more now, as Islam is growing increasingly dominant in this country. As of today, Muslims probably make up around seven to ten million people in the United States. That means that Islam is the largest religious minority in this country. And so that is bound to have an effect, not just on Islam itself, but also it's bound to have an effect on the American conception of religion, the religious fabric of this country. We are going to have to expand our conceptions of what religious pluralism means, as Muslims become more a part of that fabric of religion in this country.
Can you give me a couple of examples of this, as you said, the second or third generation of an Americanizing of Islam practices. What might we point to as examples of that?
Well, for instance, in this country, although there are maybe seven to ten million Muslims, only about a third of the Muslims in the United States get their primary spiritual edification from the Mosque. In fact, in most of this country the Mosque tends to be the gathering place for the older generation of Muslims, maybe one could even say the first generation of Muslim immigrants in this country.
I have noticed as I travel around that the younger generation of Muslims tend to get their spiritual edification from either student groups, or Islamic centers, or athletic clubs, or, increasingly, what we're finding is these things that I refer to as garage mosques. Groups of Muslims, particularly young Muslims who gather, male and female, together in garages, or in homes, or in schools, and really, without any kind of hierarchy, without any kind of Imam or clerical leader present, read the Koran together, discuss their own experiences of living as Muslims in the United States. And, again, this sense of individualism, which is so much a part of the American religious identity, has very easily infused itself into the American experience of Islam.
It's interesting, one of the examples you just gave was men and women gathering together. And, again, thinking about Dr. Sarna one of the things he discussed in this conflict between reform and orthodoxy was mixed seating in the synagogues. And so I wondered if you could talk to this kind of gender issues?
The biggest example of the way that American ideals is affecting Islam is definitely with regard to gender issues within the Muslim community. Like Orthodox Judaism, most Muslims tend to segregate men and women during worship services. This is a tradition that has gone back many, many, many centuries and has far more to do with sort of Arab cultural ideals about the segregation of the genders.
But, of course, as Islam spread throughout the rest of the world, and particularly in the West, those social traditions came along with it. Now, there are these remarkable individuals now, these women in the American Muslim community who are trying to challenge that idea, and who have begun having, not just mixed services in which men and women sit side by side with each other, but are really beginning to challenge the male dominated conception of leadership within the Muslim community. And so you are seeing women who are leading prayer services, which is something that really doesn't occur anywhere else in the world. You are seeing mosques in which the separation, the curtain that divides men and women during worship services is being removed and there's far greater integration between the sexes.
Now what I find very interesting about this is that, as we found in the Jewish community here in the United States, particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, there has been a great deal of resistance to this American innovation, if you will. And that resistance has come, not necessarily from men in the Muslim community, but from women in the Muslim community, many of whom, particularly immigrant women, who really find themselves, averse to not just violating what has been, a very long and very robust tradition of separating men and women in a mosque, but also complain about the fact that the mosque seems to be the only place in which they have a space just for themselves. A place where they can just be with their own gender, where they can sort of separate themselves from men. In other words, there's a great many Muslim women around the world, but also here in the United States, who really appreciate the segregation of the sexes because they feel as though the mosque is their sacred space, the only place where they can really be free from men to, kind of, you know, let loose and be comfortable in a way that they can't be otherwise. So, a lot of this opposition to the mixing of genders in mosques has come from women instead of men.
That's fascinating, I had no idea. There was one other thing, I have read of one Imam describing America as a Sharia compliant state, and I wondered if you could talk to that?
The Sharia was developed to be a comprehensive code of conduct that was meant to regulate every aspect of a Muslim's life. It was in a way a means to bridge this world to the next. And so, in many ways, it is true that America is Sharia compliant in so far as this is the country that not only allows but encourages public displays of religiosity. It is a country that does not shy away from the fervent belief that religion does play a role in the public realm, whether that means in the economic sense, or political sense, or social sense, that idea, the sort of fusion of the public and private worlds, the world of religion and the world of the society is very much a part of the tradition of Islam.
And I think that's partly why Muslims in the United States have such an easier time assimilating, into American culture, adapting their own ideals with American ideals, than Muslims in Europe do. Because, in Europe, the notion that religion should have a role in the public realm is something that's complete foreign. And so, most Muslims who come from countries in which religion and society are fused as one, in which the language, the ideals, the metaphors of faith are very easily reconciled to the language through which economic, or social, or political ideologies are discussed. Things like that are much more likely to, to occur in the United States than they are in large parts of Europe. And that, I think has a huge role to play in, in the difference between the Muslim experience in the United States and the Muslim experience in Europe.
Well, I'm glad you mentioned that because I wanted to ask you about this kind of role, this very public role of prayer in the public square. And thinking back to a couple of, I guess, kind of key moments in terms of call to prayer controversies in regard to that. The Hamtramck case where there was a big, it was a big issue in one of these small towns outside of Detroit. It was predominately Polish Catholic, and then the local mosque, as a courtesy, went to the common council and said, we're going to do the call to prayer, we're allowed to do it, but as a courtesy, we're letting you know. There was a big objection suddenly to this, to this happening. And, I wondered why does that occur? We have church bells, there are no objections, so why suddenly, given the fact that Americans are suppose to accept this is there suddenly resistance in small isolated communities to just the very basic common religious practice?
I think it's going to take a little while for Islam to be fully integrated into the pluralistic fabric of American religiosity. Now that's not unusual. This is a country that was founded, not upon secularism, as is often referred to, and not even upon Christianity, it was a country that was founded upon a concept of religious pluralism. Now, that said, religious pluralism 250 years ago meant Protestant pluralism. And, so it took quite some time for Catholics who began to immigrate to this country in large numbers in the 19th Century, to be fully integrated into that fabric of religious pluralism in the United States. But, eventually they were.
The same thing happened in the Jewish tradition in the 20th Century, and particularly after the Second World War when you had an influx of Jewish immigrants into the United States. For years those Jews were seen to be outside of the religious fabric of American society. But, gradually, they were assimilated and acculturated, and now you hear phrases such as the Judeo-Christian foundations upon which this country was founded. Phrases you never would have heard 50 years ago.
The same thing is gradually happening with Islam. Indeed, because Islam is now the largest religious minority in this country, sooner or later we're going to have to start talking, not so much about the Judeo-Christian foundations, but perhaps the Abrahamic foundations upon which this country was founded. But that's going to take a little while. It's going to be a gradual process so that these, the Islamic ideals, the rituals of the Muslim community, the call to prayer, the yogic positions in which Muslims put themselves when they are praying, that those things become more and more familiar so that Islam is no longer seen as a religion of the other, this foreign, exotic religion, but very much a part of the prophetic, Biblical tradition with which most Americans are familiar.
So, it is true that right now the call to prayer may sound foreign to most Americans, but, I would imagine that in the next few decades, the call to prayer is going to be as ubiquitous and as familiar as church bells ringing. It's something that's going to become a part of most Americans understanding of the incredible, rich diversity of the American religious experience.
One of the areas that we're exploring is this notion of civil religion, going back to Robert Bellah. And he talks about American sharing common religious characteristics, religious beliefs and symbols and rituals that almost make America itself a kind of object of religious worship. How do you see his ideas playing out? Is that something that you agree with?
Yes it is. This is a very, very good question. People say that America has a civic religion. I put it a little bit differently. I think America has a national religion and, if you think about it we have, for instance, our own scripture, the Constitution. It is almost a holy and revered, almost divinely inspired scripture. In fact, the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court who are, after all, the highest level of what could be considered our clerical authorities.
The majority of those justices are what's known as strict constructionalists. In other words, they believe that historical context should play no role in the interpretation of the Constitution, so they really do treat the Constitution as though it's a holy and revealed scripture. We have, of course, our founding myths. We have our saintly figures, the fathers of the American church, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson. We have our own hymns, America the Beautiful, and God Bless America. In many ways, you know, we even have our own creedal formula, a formula that our school children stand up and recite every morning, I pledge allegiance to the American flag and to the republic for which it stands, etc.
That kind of shared sense of Americanness, which is very much a part of a nationalist religious ideology that we all share, that binds Americans together, is something that is really not found anywhere else, certainly no where else in the Western world. And it is an indication of how comfortable most Americans are with the language of religion, with the role of religion in the public sphere. That it, even those who perhaps may not refer to themselves are religious or do not identify with any religious tradition have adopted these religious ideals into their nationalist identity. Americanism has become a religion into itself.
So, where does Islam fit into that? How does this Americanism merge with Islam?
I think the sort of shared idea of Americanism as a nationalist religion fits very well in the Islamic sense of this fluidity between religion and society. The notion that religion should play a role in public life, that there shouldn't necessarily be, this division between the private and public realms. That has, for centuries, been a part of Islam. I think that's why Islam has such an easy time flourishing in the American environment, because it is something that Americans are comfortable with. If an American person of, let's say, Christian persuasion, stumbles across a Muslim man praying, going through these ritualized, yogic steps, he may find it foreign, he may think of it as exotic, but he nevertheless recognizes it as prayer. He recognizes it as a genuine expression of faith. Whereas, in large parts of Europe, it's not so much that it's foreign and exotic what the Muslim is doing, it's the very idea of prayer, and certainly prayer in the public realm, that comes across as foreign and exotic.
Well, given this notion of civil religion, one of the events that we're looking at is this big prayer gathering after 9/11 in Yankee Stadium, and this very ecumenical event where thousands of people come together and there's Oprah, and there's everybody standing around in this prayerful experience. And, I guess my first question is why did that happen? Because I look at the London bombings and we didn't gather in Wembley Stadium and hold hands there. So, that seemed to me a really uniquely American event. And, given this big tragic event, given this prayerful experience, how do you perceive or reflect on what happened there?
I think that if you really look at the difference between the way Americans responded to the attacks of September 11th and the way that the British responded to the attacks of July 7th, 2005, you really get a good indication of the role that religion plays in society. In both cases, of course, there was an outpouring of grief and unity. The British came together as one. They united in standing up to the fear that terrorism is suppose to instill in people, and so did the Americans. But the American experience was a deeply spiritual one. It was one in which calls to God, whether they were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, what have you, had everything to do with the way that we responded to terrorism.
In the British case, we, you have the same kind of unity; the same kind of united stand against fear and against violence, but it was much more nationalistically based. It wasn't so much a call to prayer and a call for divine guidance in the face of terror, it was a call to national unity, to a sense of identity that was suppose to transgress any kind of ethnic or religious affiliation.
The United States is a country that is very good at memorializing. It is a country that is very comfortable with these outward, public displays of religiosity. And particularly in times of trouble, or tumult, or fear, or grief we are very comfortable with brining God into the situation, of calling, not just the help of God, but also the favoritism of God. It is part of our national identity in a way that Europeans, I think, would find very discomforting.
Of course there's always a fear, when you talk about pluralism, and particularly a religious pluralism in a country like the United States, that you're also going to start talking about what I refer to as cafeteria-style religion. Where, you know, Americans are so comfortable with expressions of faith and expressions of religiosity that the best way of having some kind of communion with God in America is to just pick a little bit of Buddhism here, add a little bit of Judaism, a little bit of Islam, a little bit of Christianity, and you have a distinctly Americanized concept of religion.
That's a perfectly valid expression of faith, of course. Religion is meant to be a language through which faith can be expressed. Some people, particularly some Americans, are much more comfortable in taking bits and pieces of different languages and creating, as it were, a language of their own. And so, I'm not nearly as critical of that kind of religious experience in the United States as other people are.
That said, I think it's important to understand that religion does play an important role, that language is important when you're trying to define something as ineffable as faith. And so, as the Buddha once said, if you want to draw water, you dig one six foot well, not six one-foot wells. And I think that religion is, in many ways, that six foot well. It is a means through which one can have a far more meaningful, more robust experience of the divine presence than one can have if you just simply pick and choose a little bit from here and there.
I wanted to ask you about the social gospel. One of the thematic areas we're looking at is a kind of social justice rooted in religious text, so we're going back to Walter Rauschenbusch at the turn of the 20th Century. I don't want to make this appear that this is very much just a Protestant idea. There's obviously a strong tradition in Judaism. And I wondered if you could talk to the Islamic tradition of social justice. Is there a kind of equivalent of the social gospel? Who would be its major practitioners? Maybe describe some individuals that encapsulate that ideal.
The very foundation of Islam is justice. It is the primary theme of the Koran. It was the first message that the prophet Mohammed preached. And, in fact, in many ways Mohammed is the world's first social reformer. His message was a message, not necessarily of monotheism, but a message of social egalitarianism, a message of economic equality. Something that was radically revolutionary at the time.
And so I think Muslims, particularly in the United States, are very comfortable with this tradition of social justice that has been such a part of not just the American social fabric, but particularly of the 20th Century. That's why you saw in, for instance, the Civil Rights Movement, the African American Muslim community play such a huge role in moving that movement forward. And so I think that sense of justice against oppression, against social, religious, or economic oppression, which is so much a part of the foundation of Islamic values, that sense has very easily reconciled itself with American ideals of social justice.
And so, most Muslims, I think, in the United States feel perfectly comfortable with that social language, because they are already immersed in it. The language of the Koran, particularly the language of Jihad in its original sense as a struggle against oppression, is very much a part of, I think, what most Muslims in the United States, and most Americans for that matter recognize as the obligation of people to reach out and do something about the injustices that are a part of this world.
But it's interesting you mention the African American experience. We interviewed Dr. Aminah McCloud at DePaul, and she talked a little bit about tensions between African American Muslims and more recent immigrants. Is there a tension there or is this, is there something going on, or is that just an observation rather than something that's kind of a generalization that one could make? And, if there is that tension, where and why might it be playing out?
For many years there has been a tension in the United States between so-called American Muslims, primarily African American Muslims and Muslim Americans, in other words, Muslims who have immigrated to this country and have become Americans. I think that that tension is born from the immigrant communities' experience of the United States and, of course, the African American experience of the United States. Which, while sharing certain aspects, has been quite different.
But, I have to say that since September 11th, I have noticed that the separation between these two communities has begun to give away. There's been a real sense that Muslims in America need to come together, need to unite to reframe the perceptions of Islam in this country. And that those former divisions between African Americans and Muslim immigrants or, for that matter, between Shiite and Sunni in this country, or between the numerous ethnic communities that make up, American Muslims in the United States, that those tensions, those divisions have begun to give way to a real need to come together in unity as one to really repel this perception of Islam as a religion of violence, as a religion of terrorism. So I think a lot of those divisions, which certainly did play a huge role in dividing Muslims in the United States have begun to give way.
I think that I probably told you the documentary's inspired by one book in particular. I wanted to read you a couple of thesis the author has. So if I can read you a quote and have your respond to it. Here's a quote: "Prayer affords an opportunity to recognize how Americans, despite their diversity, are unified in their spirituality with one another and with a higher being. Americans today must understand prayer as a unique and unifying force."
Prayer is unquestionably a unique and unifying force, particularly in Islam, because it is, as the first ritual to be imposed on the Muslim community, a means through which Muslims can unite as one, as one community across boundaries, across time, but also, more importantly, as a way for them to come together to distinguish themselves from the communities around them and yet, also, to reconcile themselves with other religious communities. Because, of course, regardless of your religion, whether you are Buddhist, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish, or Christian, prayer, this communion with a transcendent other, is what binds people of faith together regardless of the way they pray, regardless of the different creedal formulas that divide religions, regardless of the conflicts that divide religions.
What we all have in common is this innate need to commune with God to, whatever you call God, the sense of connecting with the universe in this intensely spiritual, intensely personal, and yet, simultaneously, communal way.
One other quote -"Prayer has been one of the most critical and indisputable influences on the course of American history and on the lives of individual Americans." I think essentially Jim is arguing that the whole social, economic, political, cultural direction of the United States would be totally different if it wasn't for prayer. Can we say that?
Because religion is so deeply and permanently intertwined with the history of America, it is true, I think, that prayer, the very act of communing with the divine, which is so much a part of this sense of chosenness, which I think most Americans equate their national identity with. Prayer does play a part of the history of this country. It is so deeply intertwined, as I say, with what it means to be American. One can look at the entire history of the United States, the tumult and chaos of the Revolution, the Civil War, the many wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the way in which Americans have bonded together, the very conception of American national identity, all of that is intertwined with this sense of a need to always be in communion with God to make sure that God's divine favor is upon us that we ourselves as a nation are moving along in this divine providence towards a future that is suppose to be divinely guided, in a way.
It's interesting to me that a lot of these sorts of very nationalistic and religious expressions manifest themselves around war. You mentioned the Civil War, for example. So, is this a trend? Do we see this kind of nationalistic civil religion peaking around these kinds of war events for American history?
It's not coincidence that Americans' experience of religion, and particularly those moments in which you have a surge of religious expression in this country, coincides with periods of conflict and war, as we're seeing today with the war on terror and the war in Iraq, and this resurgence of religious expression in this country. The thing that prayer and war have in common is that they are both real concrete ways to, not just unite a community together as one, but also to differentiate that community with the other. The way one prays is different than the way other communities pray. The way one defines oneself as opposed to another, particularly in times of conflict, particularly in times of war, is a means, not just to reaffirm who we are as Americans, but a means of differentiating us from the other, from the enemy in some cases. We're seeing that now in the sense that many Americans are really trying to differentiate themselves from Islam or Muslims as a unique, and different experience of religiosity. And so some of those old terms of propaganda that you saw during the Crusades, for instance, this idea of Islam as a religion of war, or as a religion spread by the sword from the American perspective, or Christianity as a crusader religion from the Muslim perspective. I think it's no coincidence that those old means of communicating or expressing the other are starting to come up again. Because, in times of conflict, it only makes sense that we need these physical expressions, particularly expressions of faith and prayer, to differentiate us from the other, from people who are not a part of our experience.
It seems to me, it's easy to differentiate yourself against a godless communist. Now today you've got a different issue because you're up against, in many ways, what people would see as a radical religious expression. So, is now then, the American response to emphasize this kind of pluralistic diversity or the religious experience, do we see that or am I making a false connection?
I think immediately after September 11th, there was a real attempt in this country to differentiate the American, and distinctly Christian experience of religion, with the Arab, or distinctly Islamic experience of religion. There was a real us versus them mentality, a clash of monotheisms as I refer to it, not just a class of civilizations.
Now that we are five, six years removed from the events of that tragic day, there is still a division between us and them, but I find that it's no longer a division between Christian and Muslims. It's a division between a pluralistic, rationalistic, reform-minded expression of faith, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, and a non-rationalistic, non-pluralistic, bigoted and even violent expression of faith, whether that expression be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Because, of course, radicalism, extremism, even terrorism is not in any way unique to any one religion, it's something that one finds across the board.
And so, in many ways now, the real division of faith that I find, not just in the United States but throughout the world, is not between one religion or another, but it's between different expressions of religiosity, different expressions of faith, whether those expressions are pluralistic, and reform-minded, and peaceful or whether they are violent, bigoted, and, and misogynistic in some sense.
How would you define prayer?
Prayer to me is nothing more than communion with the divine presence. It can take many different forms, whether it is ritualized prayer, as we see in many religions like Judaism and Islam, whether it is more informal expressions of prayer, which is just merely communication with God, pleading with God, or requesting God's assistance. But, in many ways, as mere communion with God, prayer or prayerfulness is a part of the experience of living in a world in which the material and non-material realms are such a part of our everyday experiences.
If there is more to this world than that which we can experience empirically, if there really is something that is transcendent, in other words, something that is beyond our material experience, then there must be a way for us to experience that transcendence, there must be a way for us to commune with that transcendence. And prayer is that bridge. It is the means through which this world and the next can be connected. It is the means through which we as human beings who are caught in this material world can have an ineffable experience of the other. Prayer is the language through which we can experience that other.
Is there a tradition within Islam for a kind of intercessory prayer for healing or general well being?
There is particularly in Shiite Islam a long tradition of memorized prayers, very much as you see in the Catholic tradition. Intercessory prayers, formulized prayers that one gives whether one is sick or when one is pregnant, or regardless of what the situation is. But, there isn't, I think, that same sense of intercession that one sees particularly in the Catholic tradition in the Islamic world.
I don't really put a lot of credence into the scientific experiments regarding the power of prayer. I think that they're misguided. It's not a sense of whether you can scientifically prove whether prayer works or not, I think the question itself is in many ways ridiculous. Science and religion, far from not being reconcilable, are reconciled in the sense that they are two different modes of knowing. And, as such, they represent different experiences of humanity. It's not that they can't be united in one way or another, I just think that we must be very careful in trying to come up with scientific reasons for religion, or scientific reasons why religion works or why prayer works.
I think the question itself is wrong. We have to be very careful not to demythologize religion. Myth plays a very important role in what religion means. When we try to create scientific explanations for religious phenomenon, we are really mixing two different ways of knowing, two different ways of being that really don't have business being mixed in that way.
It's interesting to me that the majority of these studies are coming out of the United States. There's a skepticism about this in the scientific community around the world. All the way back to Darwin you've got that tension between these two things. So, is there something distinct about America that allows this to happen? Where does this desire, I've got to prove God's existence, come from?
There is this desire, I think, particularly amongst Americans of faith, to prove in a scientific way the, not just the worth and value of prayer or of religion, but the truth of prayer and religion. This, I think, has a lot to do with the experience of Americans in the early 20th Century, late 19th Century, and the real scientific revolution that began to sweep across this country. Science, at that time and since that time, has really tried to hold the monopoly on truth, truth as being something that must be empirically verified for it to actually be true.
I think most people of faith accepted that definition of truth and then tried to apply it to religious truth. So, if truth is something that has to be verified historically, then the Bible must be verified historically, then the miracles of Jesus must be verified historically. The problem with this idea, this notion of demythologizing the Bible in order to make it scientifically true, is that it fails to understand what truth means. Science, of course, is a means of getting at the truth, but it doesn't have a monopoly on truth. Science has a monopoly on fact, and fact is a far different thing than truth.
One of the areas that we're looking at, we use the words redemption, repentance, very kind of Christianized terms, maybe forgiveness is a better idea. But we're looking at, to go back to Alcoholics Anonymous and the importance of the serenity prayer. We go forward into prisons in this notion of repentance within the prison system. In talking to Dr. Aminah McCloud, she talked about this being a very, this notion of sin and suffering for your sins as being very kind of Christianized, notion. So, I wondered are there Islamic teachings on repentance? There's a lot of these Christians prison groups going on, what is the place for Islamic teachings within the prison system and how does one resist a very kind of Christianized programming within the prison system?
Islam is not a salvific religion in the sense that Christianity is, this notion that a soul must be saved and that a sinner must repent in order to be able to enter the Kingdom of God. Like Judaism, Islam is a religion of ritual and practice. It's not that faith doesn't play an important role in Islam or Judaism, of course it does. But it is the things that one does, the things that you perform that makes one an observant Jew or an observant Muslim. And so, particularly in the prison systems where Islam does flourish, it flourishes, I think, for a different reason. Yes, there is a real changing of the soul to become a better person, to become a more constructive citizen in society. But its not repentance in the same sense as being washed by the blood of Jesus and purified so that one can enter heaven. It is a sense of reorganizing one's life so that you are much more prayerful, godly, holy.
So, in the fasts that you partake in, in the ritualized prayers that you take part in, in the giving of alms, in the community that you are uniting yourself with through these ritualized acts, you are essentially bringing structure and solidity to a life that often, you know, is, has spun out of control. After all why else are you in prison? Why else are you incarcerated? So, Islam does play a very large role in the American prison system but that role, I think, is a little bit different than Christianity does.
We interviewed Dr. Carol Zaleski, talking about AA again, and I was trying to explore with her what is distinctly unique about the American prayer experience. She talked about the born again religious experience. In her description of AA, she talks about a generic spirituality, which she says takes the old language of sin and salvation, and moves it into this therapeutic language of recovery. What do you think about that idea? Is the distinct American contribution this kind of therapeutic notion of prayer and religiosity?
I don't know if there's any better example of Americanized religion then AA. This idea of stripping, particularly prayer, of its specific symbols and metaphors that bind it to either Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or what have you, and instead turns it into somewhat of a nebulous, symbol less, means through which you not only commune with an other, but, really, you, you reform yourself from the inside. You see this not just in AA, not just in the social gospel of Americanism, but you're seeing it now particularly in this new movement of American religiosity, and particularly American Protestant religiosity that is being termed the prosperity gospel.
This idea that, through prayer, through prayerfulness, you cannot just commune with God, you cannot just change your heart and your soul, but you can become prosperous, you can become rich and wealthy. And a part of that sense of the Protestant ethic, the capitalism which is so much a part of not just the American social experience, but also the American religious experience. That is something uniquely American.
The prosperity gospel is I think part of that idea that through prayer, through prayerfulness, you cannot just change your life, but you can change your economic standing.
What do you think most Americans pray for?
I think most Americans pray for stuff. But that's not unusual. I think most people pray for stuff. It really becomes a means through which some kind of supernatural, process one could fix one's position on earth. That, I think, in some ways misses the whole point of prayer as communion with the divine. If prayer is suppose to be a means of bridging this world and the next, it has to be, it has to involve more than just praying for things.
What is distinctly American about prayer? If I were to sit here and say, well British pray, Germans pray, Saudi Arabians pray, how would you distinguish the American prayer experience as distinct?
I think what's distinctly unique about the American experience of prayer is the nationalistic quality of it. Prayer in the United States is not just a religious expression. It has become an expression of national unity. The very Pledge of Allegiance is, if you read the words, if you really listen to what is being said, a prayer of nationalism. It is a prayer that binds.