My friends at Pacifica Institute Utah, a Turkish-American community service group, were excited about the new book on the 99 Names Project. They invited me to come to this year’s Interfaith Iftar dinner and speak about the ongoing Project and my experience as a Christian learning about Islam. A friend who is a nurse also spoke about his experience as a medical professional in Turkey and among his new Muslim friends. The food was wondrous, the company was delightful, and it was a wonderful evening.
Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the name of the Lord; praise him, O ye servants of the Lord.
Bismallah, Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim
In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
To Pacifica and friends, thank you so much for coming and joining in celebrating this wonderful holiday season. Ramadan is a time to join with family and friends and reflect on the many blessings we have received, as well as a time to remember those around us who may not be so fortunate. Kimse Yok Mu has been responsible for blessing those in need around the world with tens of thousands of meals this season, giving fresh hope and encouragement to thousands of families in the most dire of circumstances. This in addition to the many, many humanitarian efforts Hizmet/service groups continually perform wherever in the world they are called to serve – out of their love for others regardless of situation or need. Selfless service for others is the most wonderful fruit of the faithful regardless of belief, and a beautiful activity in which we all can share.
Once upon a time, the five wisest magi in the world were invited to come and experience a mysterious creature which they had never before witnessed. These five magi were blind, and the creature was an elephant. These five men and women were guided to stand around the patient elephant, and stepped forward to feel and learn. The first touched the trunk, the second touched an ear, the third a leg, the fourth the elephant’s great heaving side, and the fifth the tail.
“An elephant is a great wrinkled snake!” the first magi declared.
“It is a tremendous fan!” the second stated.
“An elephant is a marvelous tree!” said the third.
“It is a great leathery cliff” cried the fourth.
“An elephant is a twitching rope” observed the fifth.
In this story each of the wise men and women were right – the part of the elephant each experienced was exactly as they described. However, we can also see each experienced only a portion of the whole. How much greater would their understanding be if they spoke to each other, shared what they learned, and listened to each other with open hearts? The views of none would be diluted, but each would be deepened and enriched.
Although this is an ancient story shared by many people from around the world, we can all see the relevance today. Looking at our neighbors and those around us, it is obvious each of us see the world and view our relationship with the universe and our Creator in different ways. Several years ago I was confronted with this concept, as many were, in a very dramatic way. When the tragedy of 9/11 happened and 3000 lives were ended because of the heartless actions of two dozen men, many Westerners were forced to admit we had little understanding of world religions. Populist US media portrayed the faith these two dozen claimed as a twisted religion pushing for the extermination of Americans and the destruction of the West. It was hard to believe that one and a half billion people wanted my family and me to suffer, but that is what we were told.
As a Christian – as an American Christian – I realized I was terrified of Muslims. And when I recognized this it shocked me. This country is founded on principles of freedom and religious freedom is one of the most sacred of these – so it became vital to learn what these neighbors of mine truly believed. Rather than being ruled by my media-induced fear I decided to confront it, and I quickly learned how very misleading fear can be. Mohandas Gandhi said, “I may be many faiths, but before I am any of these I am first and foremost human;” and I recognized that with whatever other gulfs may separate us, being the children of Adam and Eve is one thing all of us share.
I read the Qur’an, I read the Hadith, I visited via email with Imams, Sheikhs, Mawlanas and laity from around the world. I learned that Islam is not a great monolithic organization bent on world domination, but rather is an intricate web of men and women observing their faith in a rainbow of expression. Mohamed taught that God does not feed off our prayers, but created us because – as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said – He wanted to, and religious expression is not meant to fetter our lives but to help us become better people. These strangers who were supposed to want me dead love their families, treasure their friendships, and want the best for their children. This was in stark contrast to common media portrayal.
Some fourteen hundred years ago a man dedicated his life to healing the spiritual rift between Christians and Jews, and prayed intently for guidance from his Creator. Then one night a profound miracle happened and the angel Gabriel – the same who announced the coming of Jesus to Mary – appeared to Mohamed and begun the recitation of the Qur’an. The angel’s visits to Mohamed continued for years, and the recitations restored knowledge lost to the world for generations. Mohamed’s spirituality was recognized by those around him, and in 622 he was invited to Medina to broker peace between rival religious groups. Guided by the Spirit, Mohamed created one of the earliest constitutions in the world guaranteeing rights of women and minorities in a representational government.
As an artist, it seemed appropriate to share what I was learning through art and I wanted to do so with something that also recognized our common ground. Several of the men and women I emailed mentioned the 99 Names, which sounded very interesting. I learned that when Mohamed was asked how a person could get into Heaven he told them they needed to learn the Names of God; when pressed on how many there were Mohamed responded that there were 99. This really resonated with me, so I began to study the Names and respond to them through glass sculpture and the 99 Names Project was born.
The list of Names is not identical when we look at different traditions, but there are some things that all the Name traditions share. These are not to be understood as names like Roger, Jill, or John – when speaking of the Most Beautiful Names of God it is recognized that these are eternal aspects of Divinity, and that the aspects of God are truly infinite. So the Names are really an index of the characteristics of the Divine to be respected, revered, and emulated by the faithful. They give focus to prayer and personal growth, give guidance in difficult situations, and provide subject for meditation. Each person responds to different Names in varying degrees, opening themselves to spiritual guidance according to each unique circumstance and situation. And the Names are open to all.
Just as Jesus shared the Beatitudes and Buddha the Eight-Fold Path, the Islamic tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God (or Asmah al-Husna) gives a framework for self-improvement and hope. And they also serve as an ideal spine on which to hang the study of another faith; these are Divine principles, shared by every belief system, and can be used by anyone within the framework of their own faith. Almost every chapter of the Qur’an begins with an invocation to God as the Compassionate and the Merciful – reminding us that not only does God define and perfectly emulate these qualities, but that each of us must also show these traits if we ourselves want to receive them. While some Names describe traits required of the faithful other Names remind us that only God has the right to certain things, like pride, and we must respect this.
As I shared my intentions with the spiritual leaders and laity with whom I was emailing, I was receiving some very positive feedback. Then in rapid succession several Muslims from around the world gave me identical advice. “This is a wonderful aspiration,” I was told, ” but if you’re going to do it you should do it right. Study each Name, ponder it, pray about it, compare what you learn about our faith with your own, and ask God how He wants you to express His Name. Take it seriously, take your time, and do it right.” Sometimes I don’t do that – I’ve spent a hundred hours building something I thought would be really cool, but in the end the “coolness” has little to do with the Name and it has to be scrapped. But when I listen the designs and pieces of glass flow together to create something which is balanced and feels right. When my friend the imam at BYU can look at a new sculpture and tell me the Name it represents, it is truly wonderful.
Twenty five sculptures have now been completed, and the images of them have been collected in the first book documenting the project. In addition to photographs of the sculptures, this book shares my observations about each Name and the overall process. The sculptures share three considerations which represent traits of Islam I have grown to admire and respect- architecture, bookbinding, and geometry. The architectural features in the sculptures are to recognize that Muslim faithful believe they have the responsibility to begin building heaven here and now through strong families and nurturing environments; from the earliest times mosques were built as spiritual centers for communities, and the ones constructed in Medina were for the use of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoastrians alike.
I learned bookbinding from a rare and medieval books curator; the processes of bookbinding are used because of the tremendous value Islam and Muslims hold for books and education. All books are sacred, one imam shared with me, for two reasons – they are symbols of the Divine gift of knowledge, and on some level all books are symbols of the Holy Revelation, the Qur’an. Historically Islam is the most literate religious culture, and the honorable imam Fethullah Gulen reminds us that people are not saved in ignorance – we were created with brains, and we honor our Creator when we use them.
The third consideration for the sculptures is geometry. The order and math of geometry are symbols of Truth with a capital “T”, and all truth is recognized as coming from the same ultimate Source – regardless of the language of transmission or whether or not we understand how it fits together. The sciences of today, from math and medicine to sociology and psychology, were treasured and transmitted to us from ancient times through the largest libraries of the world, of which many of the greatest and most important just happened to be Muslim.
There is another aspect of this project which is interesting to me. The process has really deepened my understanding and appreciation for my Muslim neighbors, but something else has also occurred. The process of learning about another faith through exploring fair parallels and listening to those who honestly, earnestly strive to live its ideals has neither diluted my own faith or converted me to Islam – but rather it has deepened my own beliefs and has made me a better Christian. One of my favorite passages of the Qur’an comes to mind:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other )).
This journey of the 99 Names Project has helped me come to a valuable realization. God in His infinite wisdom has made us all, and we are different because He has made us to be different. We grow closer together through the process of learning to respect and treasure our differences.
A year or so ago Ozkur Yildiz from the national Pacifica organization came and spoke with us here. He said that in his home town in Turkey and after years of disuse, the churches in the central square could finally be cleaned and used. Everyone came and helped clean each of the three churches – a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, and a Christian chapel. The members of every faith helped with the sacred buildings of the others, and everyone in the community participated in the holy celebrations and holidays of each religion. He said that a miracle occurred – as the doors of each church were opened to the others, every heart was opened to its neighbor.
When we live our faith and support our neighbors in living theirs, as Allen Bachman has observed, all of us will rise together. This also shows what happens when the people feeling the elephant approach each other, listen, and respect each other’s experience.
The intent for the 99 Names Project and the book is my personal response to the story of the elephant. Each of us have felt a part of the elephant, and now it’s time to share.
I would like to end with one more observation. Islam means “submission to God,” and Muslim means “one who submits to God,” or one whose heart belongs to God. This group tonight is made of people from many parts of the world and a multitude of religious traditions, but there are two commonalities. All of us are, as Gandhi said, first and foremost human. This group is also made of those who, calling Him Allah, Eloi, or God, have given their hearts to our Creator. Regardless of our differences, all of us may call ourselves Ones Who Submit. We can no longer separate ourselves as US versus THEM; all of us are just US.
May the most wonderful blessings of Ramadan be upon us all.
(Link to pdf text)