By Dr. R. Marston Speight
Dr. Speight was Director for the Office of Christian-Muslim Relations of the Nation Council of Churches from 1979 to 1992, serving as Co-Director until 1988 and thereafter working as the Director. Hartford CT.
The Rev. Dr. R. Marston Speight, M.A. and PhD. one of the nation’s best-known expert in Christian-Muslim relations, died January 19 at his home in Cromwell, CT. He was 86.
Dr. Speight was chosen as Hartford seminary’s distinguished alumnus for 2002 due to his lifetime of work in Muslim-Christian relations. He is a native of Texas, graduated from Baylor University and completed his formal studies at Hartford seminary with an M.A. in 1963 and a PhD. in the history of religions in 1970.
I am moved by this invitation to speak as an outsider on a subject so sacred to Muslims. My responsibility is to represent Islam as faithfully as possible, from the outside. If I fall short, please forgive me. It will not be from a lack of goodwill. It is not difficult for me to talk about this subject because Christians and Muslims have many ideals and values in common.
Is Shiaism a sect? Scholars can say yes, in the sense of a group adhering to a particular doctrine or leader, but popularly the world ‘sect’ is pejorative, signifying extremists, fanatics, separatists, private withdrawal, exclusiveness, narrowness and intolerance.
Consequently, I prefer to call Shiaism, an aspect of Islam. This designation puts emphasis on unity. The unity of Islam is a gift to humanity, in spite of ways in which Muslims may fall short of fulfilling its demands. The message of Islam is a single message, with several aspects, of which Shia’ism is one.
Strictly speaking, neither Husain nor any human has any impact on the unitary message of Islam. It is the message rather, that has an impact on them. But the impact of which we are speaking is the way the message is exemplified by Husain. The measure of his impact on the world is the way in which he lived out the message of Islam with singular power.
- Islam is a message of divine blessing.
The one true and living God whose reality is made known in creation and whose abiding presence recognized by the care, protection and provision that He grants to the creation that He has made.
Islam teaches that the proper human response to divine blessing is gratitude. A faithful, humble human reaction to divine blessing is a life of praise and thanksgiving. Husain exemplified this basic human response in a remarkable way. We see this especially in the prayers that have been recorded as coming from him. A grateful person is a beautiful person, irrepressible and exuberant in faith. Husain is a wonderful example of humble gratitude. Excerpts from some of his prayers are as follows:
“Glory be to Thee, O God, Glory be to thee, who are Producer and reproducer, Laudable, Glorious. Holy are Thy Names and tremendous Thy Bounties. So which of Thy Blessings, my God, can I enumerate by counting and mentioning?”
“Had I taken pains and had I strive for the duration of the epochs and ages, were my life to be extended through them, to deliver thanks for one of Thy Blessings, I would not have been able to so, except by Thy grace, which alone makes incumbent upon me never ending and ever renewed gratitude to Thee, and fresh and ever present praise.”
“O God. Truly Thou hears the destitute, removes the evil, succors the afflicted, heals the sick, enriches the poor, mends the broken heart, hast mercy upon the young, and helps the old. There is no support other than Thee and none powerful over Thee. And thou are the Sublime, Great. O Freer of the prisoner in irons! O Provider of the infant child! O Protection of The frightened refugee!”
- Islam is a message of divine mercy,
Of course this truth overlaps that which we have already said, for blessings come from mercy, mercy is so important in Islam that we can say it is the most characteristic trait of the religion. The important Arabic word meaning ‘mercy’ is ‘rahma’. It occurs 114 times in the Quran. Muslims say God acts in mercy because He is the Merciful One. The double title for God. ‘The Merciful, Compassionate, occurs as an innovation at the beginning of every surah except for one. With overwhelming emphasis upon divine mercy in the world and in the lives of Muslims, it is not surprise that Muslims are inspired to be merciful toward their fellow beings. “Tell those who believe to be forgiven toward those who have no hope in the day of God” (45:14). “Be forgiving and patient. Do you not wish that God should forgive you? God is the Forgiving you? God is the forgiving One, the Merciful One” (24:22). A hadith of Prophet it says. “Whoever is not merciful will not receive Marcy”. One of the great spiritual leaders of Islam exhorted his readers to have mercy on those who are sinful, seeking to turn them to God by exhortation and gentle counsel. And with regard to the needy, the believers, full of mercy, will do their best to supply their needs. If they cannot do so themselves, they will remember the need in prayer and by sympathy with their unfortunate lot will try to share in their suffering and deprivation.
Two stories tell about the quality of mercy in Husain.
Shimr, who was much later the killer of Husain, was during the rule of Ali convicted of a crime and imprisoned in Kufa. Through the window of the prison, Shimr saw Husain passing by he cried. Oh son of the Messenger of God! Intercede on my behalf to your father Ali and get me free from this prison! Husain interceded to his father, and Ali, although he hesitated: granted pardon and release Shimr.
And then a few days before Karbala, as the storms clouds were quickly gathering, the small pathetic band of Husain met a contingent of the Umayyad army under Hurr in the desert. The soldiers were in no state to fight, for their water was gone and they were nearly dead from thirst. They cried to Husain for mercy, for water. Husain gave them their precious water and saved them from death.
- Islam is a message of total submission to God.
This is not a popular concept in the USA. People without faith think that it is oppressive to be submitted. But Husain found submission to be the way of true freedom. Freedom of the spirit is basic human life, regardless of what the circumstances may be. One who does not know might say that submission for Husain was yielding to a crushing destiny, a cruel fate that drove him to Karbala. But he had learned that the true way of liberation was to discipline his desires, to purify his aspirations and to obey the divine commands. In that way, he was able to cooperate joyfully with the divine decrees. Husain said, “God does as He wishes. I leave it to God to choose what is best; God is not hostile to him who proposes the just causes.”
And again, “You must be clear about the fact that the Imam is only one who follows the Book of God, makes justice and honesty his conduct and behavior, judges with truth and devotes himself to the service of God.”
- Islam is a message of involvement with humanity; it is a political faith.
People of faith do not withdraw from society, except to prepare for act of service and witness. In Husain’s case, his involvement had both positive and negative aspects.
On the negative side, he took a stand against Yazid as a corrupter of faith and practice. The religious authorities were silent regarding Yazid’s excessiveness. Husain addressed those authorities in these words:
“You enjoy prestige and standing in society: the nation of Islam respects and venerates you. You are held in awe and have high standing in society because you are expected to rise up against the oppressors in defense of the truth and to compel the oppressor to enforce the rights of the oppressed. Men have placed their hopes in you for the establishment of justice and the prevention of transgression by the oppressors. But you have failed to perform the duties of your station. God’s covenant are being violated before your very eyes and Islam is being dishonored. You keep silent and are not distressed even in your hearts, for if you were distressed, you would be bound to raise you voices in protest. The blind, the mute and the poverty-stricken cultivators of the land are being destroyed and nobody shows any concern: no one is concerned for the wretched, barefooted people.”
Of course, Yazid could not let such a prominent protester alone. So conflict was inevitable. The amazing thing about Husain’s challenge to Yazid’s authority was that he made it with so few resources. He had no army, no weapons, no wealth, no power, no following. All he had was the moral force of faithful involvement with humanity in the name of God. And that was quite enough.
Then as to his positive involvement with humanity, Husain desired to go to Kufa and be of help there, spiritually and morally. He united a little band with a common purpose and set out. Through that limited involvement, on such a small scale, he never got to Kufa and the band was slain or taken captive. He reached the whole world.
In conclusion, there is no question about the great impact of Husain upon the land of Islam. Rulers have come and gone. Some have been as bad as Yazid, but thanks to Husain and those who have been inspired by him, the ideals and standards of Islam are always held up by the faithful, and renewals have come of justice, purity, peace, mercy and righteousness.
The example of Husain presents a new challenge to Muslims in the USA, living as they do in a multi-religious society, full of secularism. Many people suffer here from social ills and cry out for justice. The nation groans under the burden of broken homes, drug addiction, crime, bad education, shady business practices, poverty, homelessness, unequal justice and racism. With the heirs of Husain who live here now withdraw into a private existence avoiding involvement with humanity, simply case Islam is not the religion of the majority? I hope not, for Husain is a challenge to all right-thinking people of faith in God, whatever might be the name of their religion. Husain’s example should have an impact on America by drawing Muslim into a united struggle with Christians, Jews and others, against all that holds us back from a fully human life. The channels for directing the struggle are already present in the democratic processes, voting, political involvement, advocacy, and social service. There are the ways open to us in the USA to overcome oppression, to bring justice and order to the people.
We should pass over our age-long differences and catch a glimpse of a new vision: a united effort to build a life together, a life of mutual respect, moral integrity and economic justice. These are the thoughts that the example of Husain the Martyr suggests to me. Thank you.