Haroon Moghul: How to be a Muslim


I heard Haroon Moghul speak about his new book, How to be a Muslim, on “Fresh Air” and was moved to read it.

Little did I know how much his story would teach me about myself.

Mr. Moghul is a Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a contributor at the Center for Global Policy, and an academic and speaker on Islam. He grew up in a traditional Muslim-American family in Western Massachusetts. That traditional upbringing caused a great deal of inner turmoil in his youth as he navigated adolescence and all the usual hormonal conflicts that arise.

Being eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder did not help. His guilt about questioning his faith, questioning Allah, questioning relationships with non-Muslim girls, and having a neuro-biological disease brought him to the brink of suicide.

How he pushed through it all, and despite (or because) of it all being a successful organizer of Islamic centers for students and speaker on Islam, is important reading for understanding not only Islam, but also for understanding any faith journey.

Perhaps Mr. Moghul didn’t plan his book so, but that is what it brought to this reader.

Even as I listened to his interview with Terry Gross, I couldn’t help but think about being raised Catholic in the 1950s and ‘60s and the tremendous burden of guilt weekly sermons told me I must shoulder. The guilt was enhanced, I have since learned, by the disease of depression from which I have suffered since a small child.

It was when an elderly priest yanked me from a praying position and slapped me for not wearing a hat in church, not long before Vatican II decreed that women didn’t need to wear hats in church, that I vowed to brush Catholicism off my feet and move on.

The trouble was, I confused Christianity with Catholicism. And even as I trumpeted my unbelief, I realized that I wouldn’t be yelling at God if I didn’t fundamentally believe in God. And through it all, I still knew in my heart and soul that Jesus the Christ was my shepherd.

At one point in Mr. Moghul’s seeking for health and wholeness, a therapist told him to try spending just five minutes a day with Allah. As I was reading the book, and believing myself happily faithful now in my Episcopal/Lutheran church, I realized that my anger about American politics and racism and white supremacy was undermining my faith. I had lulled myself into thinking that the prayers I say each morning were holding me in a good place. But many days the prayers were said automatically and without intention.

So I took a cue from Mr. Moghul and started reading Morning Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer again. I started talking to Jesus about my anger and my anguish at the state of the nation. Oh, what a blessed difference it made! I’m still angry and my Twitter account shows it, but beginning the day with an organized routine of prayer has allowed light in that helps me channel the anger and keep depression from overwhelming me. I can push back against the darkness; as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Of course, Mr. Moghul’s book is not about me, and the world’s problems are not about me. Yet it is impossible to resist the darkness when everything around seems dark, whether that darkness comes from neuro-biological illnesses or the state of the world. I do think that is what Mr. Moghul writes about, and it is what he helped me see.

So I thank Mr. Moghul and I thank Him/Her, the Eternal Spirit, the Father and Mother of us all who draws us from darkness into light.


Pauli Murray: Activist, Lawyer, Priest, Prophet


Like many people who commented on the Pauli Murray Project page, I wonder how I got to this age without knowing about her.

And I only know about her because I came upon Patricia Bell-Scott’s book The Firebrand and the First Lady, at Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home.

Pauli Murray had a hard row to hoe, but the scrappy, chronically underweight woman beat the odds and achieved her dreams of becoming a lawyer and then one of the very first women priests in the Episcopal Church of America, all the while fighting tenaciously for civil rights.

She was organizing sit-ins at Washington, DC, lunch counters years before SNCC existed. She wrote letters to just about everyone of authority in the white-dominated world about indignities visited upon African-Americans beginning in the 1930s.

Her first sight of Eleanor Roosevelt, called “ER” throughout the book, was at a Depression-era work camp for homeless women where Murray was resident. At the time, she refused to acknowledge ER, but wrote to her a few years later and thus a deep friendship began.

Murray fought her way into the “club” that included Thurgood Marshall, Howard Thurman, and Bayard Rustin. Thurman in particular she considered a mentor. She and Marshall often disagreed on ways and means of fighting for civil rights, but they respected and admired each other.

So why is Pauli Murray so little known? Well, she was black, she was a woman, and she was a lesbian. Hmmm, three strikes against her and still she persevered, all the while dealing with ill health and being the mainstay of her extended family.

So I invite you, if you do not know her, to get to know Pauli Murray better now. She herself published several books. The wonderful thing about Bell-Scott’s book is that diehard Eleanor Roosevelt admirers like me get to see another side of her all the while learning something new.

You can see Pauli Murray’s bibliography, extended biography and more at www.paulimurrayproject.org.



The Moral Universe – Slavery and Faith


Eternal Spirit,




Source of all that is and is to be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Heavenly God, in whom is Heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the Universe!

Your way of justice be followed by all the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love.

From The New Zealand (Anglican) Prayer Book

The New Zealand Prayer Book was rewritten in the early 1990s in order to be inclusive and use language that would be relevant to the native Maori population. In the service material in the prayer book, English is on one page and the Maori language on the other. This version of The Lord’s Prayer speaks to me in a way that few other formal prayers do. I say it every day and, as I was mulling over my next posting, the sentence “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!” shouted in my ear.

I knew I wanted to address the deep Christian faith of so many parts of the African-American community and how wondrous it is to me that people whose forebears suffered so much in this country, and who themselves must certainly know the pain of discrimination or worse, could be such faithful people. How could an enslaved people have set down the beginnings of some of the most beautiful church music ever written, as well as several types of popular music that have proven to be enduring? Since Emancipation, the black church has been known for its vibrancy and its very real authenticity in its relation to God.

And I thought, perhaps it is the idea of a commonwealth (ie a place where the common good is practiced) that has sustained their hope. We know it sustained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was his dream, peace and freedom, and he gave his life trying to bring it to earth.

And I wondered, how did slaves become Christians? Who, on a plantation where life was as grim as it could be, would dare to tell people of the unconditional, eternal love of Jesus Christ? And how could slaves have believed it?

I pulled out The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois to see whether he wrote on this subject. And he did, in the chapter “Of Faith and the Fathers.”

AfricaWriting in the first years of the 20th century, DuBois reminds us that “the social history of the Negro did not start in America.” Africans who were brought here in chains had been part of complex societies that were ruled by the chief and the priest.

“His religion was nature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice.” Though the new rule of life in plantations saw ties of kinship disappear, a depth of learning from the old stories stayed within slaves and, DuBois says, someone would rise up as a priest or medicine-man within the slave community. Perhaps because families were torn apart, with a mother sent in one direction, father in another, and perhaps children in a third, it became even more important to depend upon the faith of the fathers to get one through the day.

“Thus, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first Afro-American institution, the Negro church,” wrote DuBois.

It wasn’t a Christian church at first, but the rites and rituals were familiar and certainly paved the way for those who yearned for the transcendent to be absorbed into Christianity. If plantation owners gave any kind of Christian education to their slaves, it was as a way of keeping them passive and easier to control. As DuBois says, “The long system of repression and degradation of the Negro tended to emphasize the elements in his character which made him a valuable chattel: courtesy became humility, moral strength degenerated into submission, and the exquisite native appreciation of the beautiful became an infinite capacity for dumb suffering.”

With the rising abolition movement and then Emancipation, DuBois says, it must have seemed to the freedman as if the day of the Lord had come. However, when Jim Crow came instead, many, many freedmen continued to look to the Lord for deliverance and created a liberation theology. The faith of the fathers did not die, but brought an oppressed people into the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Falling Upward

Franciscan Richard Rohr, who has written many books about the deepest forms of spiritual practice, says in Falling Upward that, in effect, the truest, most mature faith comes out of having known suffering. Moving through pain brings us to a level of development where we are more readily able to commune with the divine inside and outside of us. A lot of traditional Negro Spirituals reflect this philosophy, and those spirituals influenced the poetry of the great black poets such as Langston Hughes.

There is a scene in the movie Amistad that, aside from the horrific scenes of the kidnapping of the Africans, has stuck with me over many years. Yumba has been given a Bible and sits in the courtroom day after day looking at the pictures. Cinque, the leader of the revolt, scoffs at him. But Yumba explains what he has learned from the pictures. When Cinque sees the picture of Jesus with His crown of thorns, he says, “Well, he must have committed some crime!” Yumba answers him, “Why? What did we do?” Then he looks back at a picture of the Ascension and talks about dying. All the fear has drained from his face and he smiles. By looking at the pictures over and over again, he has learned the very essence of Jesus’ message: Death has no victory over you. Live a righteous life and be not afraid.

This is not to romanticize suffering for suffering’s sake. Much personal suffering comes from not being able to move past a coping mechanism that was useful at one time but is no longer needed. Suffering that comes from outside one, though, that is inflicted by other human beings in an institutional way, is grotesque and obscene. Which makes it all the more miraculous that Emancipation was not followed by a bloodbath of revenge on the part of the freed slaves, but by yearning for education and land in order to sustain themselves. Faith must have played a very large part in encouraging freed men and women to persist in the fight for civil rights that still to this day have not been fully granted.