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MVPR peace mission to America

During September and October 2016, an MVPR peace mission team traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Washington, DC and Annapolis, Maryland and then on to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beaverton (Oregon) and Seattle. We met with churches and Christian groups and visited mosques, providing information about MVPR’s peacemaking efforts. Here is a short video produced by videographer Kienan Mamoun who accompanied our team.

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December 2, 2016 Posted by | Interfaith, Islam, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Merry Christmas to you all!

"The angels said, 'O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to God ] (The Quran / Family of Imran 3:45).

“The angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to God'” (The Quran / Family of Imran 3:45).

Dear Friends,

I wish all who love and seek to honor Jesus a very merry Christmas!

While Jesus’ birth year is estimated among most modern historians to have actually been between 7 and 2 BC, the exact month and day of Jesus’ birth are unknown. Western Catholic and Protestant Christians have chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th while Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate January 7th as Jesus’ birthday.

But did you know that the same story about Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth is also told in the Qur’an?

In fact, there are two chapters of the Qur’an which tell the story of Mary’s life and Jesus’ birth. One chapter is entitled “Mary,” and the second is entitled “The Family Imran” (or “Mary’s Family”).

Here one reads about the birth of Jesus (also known in the Qur’an as “the Christ”–“the Messiah of God”). Here there is detail about the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. One reads the same story about Jesus’ virgin birth that is allso told in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In the Qur’an one reads, “”The angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to God…’ She said, ‘O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me?’ He (the Archangel Gabriel) said, ‘Even so: God creates what He wills. When He has decreed a plan, He only says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is'” (Qur’an / The Family of Imran 45-47).

During this season and the coming year 2014, may we all seek to honor Jesus’ words and teachings by loving God immensely and by loving others as much as we love ourselves!

Sam Shropshire

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation, The Quran, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merry Christmas to you all!

All creatures of our God and King! Alleluia!

Abrahamic faith leaders emphasized kindness to others and to God's creatures.

Abrahamic faith leaders emphasized kindness to others and to all God’s creatures.

Faith books and animal welfare

In Saudi Arabia, even the camels bow in prayer!

In Saudi Arabia, even the camels sometimes bow in prayer! (Click on photos to enlarge!)

All the Abrahamic holy books, including the Torah, the Zabur (The Psalms), the major and minor prophecies, the Christian New Testament and the Qur’an—all strongly enjoin men and women to treat animals with compassion and not to abuse them.

At the time of the worldwide flood described in the Torah, the New Testament and the Qur’an, why do you think it was important for God to save the animals of the world? It’s because God loves his creatures, and because they serve an important purpose in his creation. For example, without the pollination of bees, we would not have flowers, and a lot of our fruits and vegetables would also become extinct! When examining each animal, one finds that each one has purpose.

Animals praise their Creator

Did you know that animals also praise God? They were created with a sense of God, their Creator, and, yes, they honor, praise and worship God! It may not be in a language that you or I understand, but it is an important part of their service to God.

In the Qur’an we read, “Don’t you see that it is all creatures in the heavens and on the earth celebrate (praise) God–even the birds of the air with wings outstretched? Each one has its own way (language) of prayer and praise, and God knows well all that they do” (Qur’an 24:41).

In the Old Testament Psalms of David, we read, “Praise the Lord from the earth…you great sea creatures, you wild animals and all grazing livestock, small creatures and flying birds…” (Old Testament / Psalm 148:7, 10).

St Francis, the Patron Saint of Animals.

St Francis, the Patron Saint of Animals.

Kindness taught by faith leaders

We should note that King Solomon in the Old Testament book of Proverbs expressed concern for animals. He said, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Old Testament / Proverbs 12:10).

Jesus spoke of God’s love and care for His creatures. He pointed to God as our example, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (New Testament / Matthew 6:26).

According to Prophet Muhammad, “Whoever is kind to the creatures of God, is kind to himself” (Wisdom of Prophet Muhammad in Muhammad Amin). He also said, “Whoever tills a field, and birds and beasts eat from it, it is an act of charity” (Holy Prophet in Musnad of Ahmad),

One cannot write an article about faith and animals without mentioning Saint Francis of Assisi. He was a Roman Catholic friar and the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, more commonly known as the Franciscans. He is known as the patron saint of animals, birds, the environment, and Italy, and it is customary for Catholic churches to hold ceremonies honoring animals around his feast day on October 4.

It was Saint Francis who penned the words to this great hymn sung today in so many houses of worship.

“All creatures of our God and King,

Lift up your voice and with us sing,

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou burning sun with golden beam,

Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

O praise Him! O praise Him!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Saint Francis’ devotion to God was expressed through his great love for all of God’s creation. He cared not only for the poor and sick; he preached sermons to animals, and praised all creatures as “brothers and sisters under God.”

Animal emotions

Animals express emotion. Fear is an emotion that generally produces observable behavior in animals. A field mouse will flee from the shadow of a hawk flying overhead. And we all are familiar with the term “scaredy cat”!

Jana Shropshire with the family pet Schnauzer

Jana Shropshire with the family pet Schnauzer “Kenny.”

Happiness can be discerned as one enters his home to be greeted by an excited, barking dog, with tail wagging uncontrollably! Our Schnauzer “Kenny” is one of the happiest dogs I know.

There are purring cats of all kinds, from house cats to huge lions, all purring out their feelings of contentment and happiness.

And we  have all, at one time or another, observed animals whining or crying.

The Prophet Muhammad is said to have voiced his concern for a “crying camel.” According to Anas bin Malik, one of Muhammad’s close companions, the prophet came across a camel tied to a post. The animal looked desperately malnourished. As Muhammad approached, the camel began to relay emotions to the prophet. It was, according to bin Malik, as though the animal were saying, “My master overburdens me. I’m never given sufficient food or water. When I am weak and barely able to walk, he beats me. I can hardly bear this difficult life.”

Bin Malik said the Prophet searched out the owner, and exhorted him, “Don’t you fear God because of your poor treatment of this camel?” The prophet explained that God had given the camel into the man’s care, and he had a duty to treat the camel well.

Humbly the owner accepted Muhammad’s rebuke and immediately repented, declaring loudly before all who were present, “I have done wrong. May Allah have mercy on me.” He promised the prophet that he would extend greater care to all his camels.

The Abrahamic holy books decry animal cruelty. In the Jewish Talmud one reads that a great rabbi who was insensitive to the fear of a calf being led to slaughter was punished with years of pain.

Several commandments demonstrate concern for the physical or psychological suffering of animals.  We may not plow a field using animals of different species, because this would be a hardship to the animals.  We are required to relieve an animal of its burden, even if we do not know its owner, or even if it is ownerless.

Prairie dog

Prairie dogs come out of their holes early after sunrise to lift their paws in seeming praise and worship of their Creator.

We are not permitted to kill an animal in the same day as its young, and are specifically commanded to send away a mother bird when taking her eggs, because of the psychological distress this would cause the animal. In fact, the Talmud specifically says that a person who sends away the mother bird will be rewarded with long life, precisely the same reward that is given for honoring one’s mother and father. This should give some indication of the importance of this law.

Faith group positions today

The Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) have adopted a very strong statement on environmental stewardship. “We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over Nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life.” (Quaker Advices and Queries 42)

In Islam, mistreating an animal is considered a sin. The Qur’an and guidance from the Prophet Muhammad, as recorded in hadith, give many examples and directives about how Muslims should humanely treat animals.

In the Jewish Torah, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals. The Talmud specifically states that Moses was chosen for his mission because of his skill in caring for animals.  “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said ‘Since you (Moses) are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'” We also note that Rebekah was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his camels as well, and thereby proved herself a worthy wife.

Animal abuse lingers

Lions communicate with one another to keep social order. The dominant males are most apt to let a member of the pride know when he or she is out of order.

Lions communicate with one another to keep social order. The dominant males are most apt to let a member of the pride know when he or she is out of order.

Unfortunately, around the world, some people do not always follow the rules! There are those humans who mistakenly believe that since human needs take priority, animal rights are not an urgent issue.

That has been the case throughout the ages. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote in 97 AD about the hideous acts committed against animals and humans in Roman arenas in his Antiquities of the Jews: “Herod also got together a great quantity of wild beasts, and of lions in very great abundance, and of such other beasts as were either of uncommon strength or of such a sort as were rarely seen. These were trained either to fight one with another, or men who were condemned to death were to fight with them. And truly foreigners were greatly surprised and delighted at the vast expenses of the shows, and at the great danger of the spectacles, but to the Jews it was a palpable breaking up of those customs for which they had so great a veneration.”

Judaism and Islam have both recognized the link between the way a person treats animals and the way a person treats human beings. A person who is cruel to a defenseless animal will undoubtedly be cruel to defenseless people. St. Francis concurred, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” Modern psychology confirms this understanding, with many studies finding a relationship between childhood animal cruelty and adult criminal violence.

Some people find excuses to inflict deliberate harm on certain animals, such as dogs and roosters. These actions fly in the face of Jewish, Christian and Islamic teachings, and the best way to combat such ignorance is through education and by good example. Individuals, houses of worship and governments have an important role to play in educating the public about the proper care of our animal friends.

Poaching of endangered species and illegal markets for ivory, tiger oil, etc., breed corruption and lead to the extinction of certain animals like tigers, rhinos. and others.

Numerous organizations have been formed through the years to ensure animals’ rights and protection. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are but a few. Such organizations are now found in every US state and in many foreign nations.

God’s heavenly pets!

God has awesome love and appreciation for his created animals. He even has animals around his throne in heaven! They are the “living creatures” we read about in the New Testament book of Revelation. The Greek word translated “living creatures” is zoon. It is the word from which the English word “zoo” is derived.

It is said that these heavenly animals were created for the express purpose of shouting out praises to God, saying, “Holy! Holy! Holy! The Lord God! The Almighty!”

Even though these creatures are highly intelligent and expressive, they’re still animals. That’s what the Bible calls them!

In writing this article I ran across this Muslim children’s song. Enjoy this music which celebrates God’s animals.

Postscript… And then came “Abra”!

Sam's tiny

Sam’s tiny “miracle kitten” named “Abra”!

After I posted the above article, I walked out my front door in Jeddah, and started singing loudly,  “All creatures of our God and King! Lift up your voice and with us sing!” As soon as those words came out of my mouth, an emaciated tiny, little kitten bounded across that busy street and fell down at my feet. It just lay their meowing! I leaned over, picked it up, and began looking for the mother. No other cats were in sight.

I took the kitten home. I mistakenly gave it solid food, and it got very sick. A veterinarian friend told me the kitten was only two weeks old,  too young for solid food. I was told to give it only a powdered animal milk, which I mixed with water and dished out  4 times a day. The kitten came alive–running, jumping! I promtly named the kitten “Abra” (Arabic, meaning “dedicated to God.”

But then in typical human fashion I began grumbling to God, “Why did you give me this needy 3-week-old kitten to take care of when You know I have to leave for the US in a few days! What am I going to do with this kitten?”

I kept looking for someone in Saudi Arabia to take my kitten. No one was willing to do so because Saudis don’t let animals in their homes. So I kept praying. Just a few hours before I had to leave for the airport I still had no one who would care for this kitten. Three hours before I had to leave for the airport, I ran to a meeting nearby where I am editing a photo album about Mecca. Khalid, the owner of the company, asked me if I had everything in order for my trip. I told him about the kitten to which he replied, “That isn’t anything I can do. Animals are not permitted in my home.”

I responded in despair with these exact words: “Khalid, please pray that I can find someone who loves cats.” We continued with our business meeting. About 30 minutes later a gentleman, a copywrite eidtor by the name of Hafeez, walked into the meeting. We continued with our discussion about the book, and that Hafeez’ phone rang. It wasn’t a normal ringing sound. His phone was going, “Meow! Meow! Meow!” We all laughed, and then this man said, totally unaware of what I had said to my friend just a few minutes earlier, “I love cats so much!”

Khalid and I stared at each other in amazement. Here was the man God had picked to love and care for this tiny kitten! Hafeez gladly went home with me to take charge “Abra.” This three-week-old kitten is, indeed, a miracle kitten.

I received a message just today from Hafeez who assures me the kitten is doing well and is in good hands. He says, “Welcome back to Saudi Arabia, Uncle Sam! ‘Abra’ is the star of our house. My mother and my sisters fell in love with her, and they are feeding her gourmet food!”

Truly, if God cares so much in providing for this poor, homeless kitten; how much more must He care for us!

October 28, 2013 Posted by | Animal Rights, Interfaith | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Boston bombings — an expat’s Middle East perspective

8-year-old Martin Richard killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, holding this sign has come to symbolize the tragedy worldwide. Martin’s dad ran in the marathon. Martin's mom and sister were also seriously injured.

8-year-old Martin Richard killed in the Boston Marathon bombing,  has come to symbolize the tragedy worldwide.  Martin’s mom and sister were also critically injured. His dad ran in the marathon.

A city terrorized

We’ve all been emotionally moved by the recent terrorist attack in Boston.  Indeed, the whole world is sickened by the shocking Boston Marathon bombings which have resulted in the deaths of three people, the maiming and wounding of nearly 200 other men, women and children, the terrorizing of the entire city of Boston and the shooting death of a law enforcement officer.

Most of us have been glued to our TV sets and scouring the internet in search of news and the latest discoveries related to the attack.

There were the typical harsh pronouncements and misstatements that accompany such an event. Some journalists and politicians were quick to comment, making sensational, false statements and assertions.

At first, two Saudi students studying in Boston were arrested. Almost immediately, a FOX News commentator tweeted, “Muslims are evil! Kill them all!” He later deleted the comment when it was found the Saudi students were not involved.

Two brothers accused

The search for suspects eventually zoomed in on two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, 19.

An aunt said the Tsarnaev family is originally from the southern Russia region of Chechnya, but like other Chechens was forced to leave in 1944 during World War II and relocated to Kyrgyzstan. Chechnya, is a mostly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus, and was the scene of two bloody wars after the breakup of the Soviet Union, as separatists fought Russia for independence before prime minister Vladimir Putin crushed the rebellion in 1999.

Terrorism linked to Chechen fighters included a 2002 attack on a Moscow theater that killed 129 hostages, and the 2004 siege of a primary school in Beslan, near Chechnya, that killed more than 300, about half of them children.

The Tsarnaev family had set about building American lives after seeking political asylum in the US, but the two brothers are said to have been adrift after their parents returned to Russia.

The brothers were from Dagestan, which borders Chechnya in southern Russia, and initial reports suggest they were adrift after their parents returned to Russia.

The brothers, Tamerlan (left), 26, and Dzhokhar, 19, were from Dagestan, which borders Chechnya in southern Russia.

After graduating Cambridge Ridge and Latin School, Dzhokhar enrolled as a nursing student at UMass Dartmouth, becoming an American citizen just last year on 9/11.  All who knew him expressed absolute shock, saying he was your typical friendly, loveable American teenager.

Their road to terror?

Tamerlan had once embraced life in the US, even hoping to qualify as an Olympic boxer for his adopted country, but he became ostensibly unhappy in America. “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them,” he was quoted as saying in a photo caption that appeared in a Boston University student magazine in 2010.

It was during this period that Tamerlan is said to have self-identified as a Muslim. He is quoted as having said he did not drink or smoke: “God said no alcohol.”

A video believed posted on YouTube by Tamerlan, including links to radical Islamist material, told a darker story still, as did the fact that the FBI had interviewed Tamerlan, at the request of a Russian government, over suspected Islamist extremist views, but found nothing alarming.

According to acquaintances at a Boston mosque,  Tamerlan was a loner with flashes of anger. People at a Boston mosque on Prospect Street, found him difficult.

Nichole Mossalam, who works for the Islamic Society of Boston, said Tamerlan, on at least one occasion, became outraged during a sermon. “He made a verbal outburst,” said Mossalam, after the person giving the Friday sermon compared Martin Luther King with the Prophet Mohammad.

Another scholar, Juan Cole, offers an intriguing theory of a broken family dynamic, focused around tensions between the two sons and their father. The parents of the two young men, who later returned to Russia, are in disbelief, saying their two sons were simply not capable of such carnage. (Loving, disbelieving parents are often wrong.) The father claims his sons have been framed by the FBI.

Other American relatives living in Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts have also expressed dismay, saying the two brothers never exhibited any signs of anti-America sentiment.

More recently, Tamerlan  married. He and his wife Katherine have a young daughter. Katherine Tsarnaev says she has no knowledge of her husband’s terrorist activities. She is sure to be a key witness in the investigation and Dzhokhar’s eventual trial.

Tamerlan dead, Dzhokhar arrested

It’s difficult to understand how people become alienated from family—from other human beings. But that alienation, fueled by feelings of hatred, is a powerful incentive for evil, and in this case, Islamic radicalization.

Whatever finally emerges as the underlying cause which persuaded the two young men to launch their murderous attacks – a sense of alienation, jihadi motivation or just pure evil forged in the midst of the their fraternal relationship or a combination of all three; by last Friday night, Tamerlan would be dead and Dzhokhar surrounded by police in the town of Watertown.

Residents took to the streets with American flags to celebrate the news that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured. Dzhokhar is now in fair condition in a Boston hospital — said to be sedated.

US Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham grabbed headlines with demands that Dzhokhar, an American citizen, be treated as a high-value suspect and tried as an “enemy combatant.” They wanted no public trial, but a speedy military tribunal. However, the White House insisted that will not be the case. White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We will prosecute this terrorist through our civilian system of justice. Under US law, United States citizens cannot be tried in military commissions.”

Certainly, more will be revealed during the weeks and months ahead as national and international investigations continue.

Dzhokar’s Twitter account

The media have been picking through statements made by the two young men on their social media accounts. CNN, the BBC, FOX News have examined Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter account, reading what they can into this 19-year-old’s motives.

I, too, was drawn to Dzhokhar’s Twitter messages. I was surprised that no one had picked up on this almost self-fulfilling prophecy. Tweeting as “Jahar,”  Dzhokhar sent out the following message on Monday, March 18:

This message was tweeted by Dzhokar on March 18, 2013.

This message was tweeted by Dzhokar on March 18, 2013.

Yes, Dzhokhar, people do come into our lives, some to help and love us, and others to hurt and leave us, but we don’t have to let hurts and disappointments determine our attitudes and future actions.

In some respects, we can all identify with life’s turmoil, hurts and desertions. Many of us have felt forlorn at one time or another.  We can all point to many of life’s disappointments and tragedies, ones we’ve personally encountered. We may deem it all horribly unfair. We have become victims, alienated, identifying with the wrongful suffering of our own family or group–even irate with ethnic conflicts that occurred generations or even hundreds of years ago.

Today CNN reported that Dzhokhar began to speak from his hospital bed to police investigators. Dzhokhar is reported to have said there were no international groups involved and that his older brother organized the deadly terrorist attack “to defend Islam.”

(Ed. Note:  Well, Dzhokhar, you haven’t defended Islam. You have defamed Islam through your murderous activities. ~ SS)

Thus far, Dzhokhar’s statements suggest that the Tsarnaev brothers were largely self-taught jihadists, having learned how to make a bomb online and by absorbing extremist ideology through the internet. But according to the Associated Press, a local Boston-area convert to Islam — a mysterious figure known only as “Misha.” Misha is said to have played a key role in Tamerlan’s radicalization, suggesting that while online tools may have allowed the brothers to carry out the operation, their radicalization may have occurred within their community in Boston.

Americans not the only victims of terrorism

While we are, indeed, concerned for the well-being of the hundreds of people affected by the Boston bombings, let us also remember that such events happen almost daily in many other nations around the world. We must not become immune to the bombings and mayhem experienced by other people due to terrorism and war. Nigerians, Malians, Somalians, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Indians — the list goes on.

Wars and conflicts around the world breed violence and violence revenge—and even as we retaliate with navies, armies, missles and drones, innocent men, women and children are caught in the cross-fire.

According to Daniel Benjamin, counter-terrorism specialist, there were more than 10,000 terrorist attacks in some 70 nations, resulting in more than 12,500 deaths. Benjamin says, “The largest number of reported attacks occurred in South Asia and the Near East. More than 75 per cent of the world’s attacks and deaths occurred in these regions.”

Benjamin says, the victims of terrorist attacks remain overwhelmingly Muslim.

Following the Boston attacks, photos showing Afghans holding a sign reading “To Boston from Kabul, with love” started spreading on social networks.

Following the Boston attacks, photos showing Afghans holding a sign reading “To Boston from Kabul, with love” started spreading on social networks.

Overcoming evil with good

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urges action on behalf of all victims of terror. He says, “Terrorism can affect anyone, anywhere. It targets all ethnic groups, religions, nationalities and civilizations. It attacks humanity itself.”

The US Department of Justice provides sound online help and counseling for victims of terrorism.

Within our Abrahamic faiths, let us learn to be champions of peace, both collectively and within our individual faith communities.  As people of faith, let us make a difference in the way we respond to hurt, desertion and violence. We have a higher calling, not to respond hastily with screaming words, insults and false accusations.

We must realize that every person maimed or emotionally damaged by such conflicts is a potential recruit for terrorism. We have a higher calling; we are to be men and women of peace — encouragers of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Truly, no society on earth can exist without justice; however, we are to be known for compassionate justice, and whenever and wherever possible, reconciliation.

Muslims, Christians and Jews—we all have our noisy radicals that make the sensational headlines of nightly news and daily newspapers because of their hatred and killing. But the truth is, such terrorists and preachers of hate are few and far between. They do not represent the overwhelming majority of members within our faith groups. They are noisy, militant, mostly politically-motivated, ungodly minorities who have somehow become detached from the realities of the goodness and mercy of God.

Let us commit to overcoming their evil with good. Let’s find ways to give generously to help victims of terrorism around the world.

Since the Boston bombings, in just one week, more than 200 people around the world have died from terror attacks, and thousands have died from wars and political conflicts. In a Damascus, Syria, neighborhood, in just one day, more than 500 men, women and children were executed or killed in battle with Bashar al-Assad‘s forces. Most of the women and children were shot in the head at close range.

Martin’s dad responds to Dzhokhar’s capture

At the end of this Boston terror spree, young Martin’s dad responded to Dzhokhar’s arrest, “It worked, and tonight, our community is once again safe from these two men. None of this will bring our beloved Martin back or reverse the injuries these men inflicted on our family and nearly two hundred others. We continue to pray for healing and for comfort on the long road that lies ahead for every victim and their loved ones. Tonight our family applauds the entire law enforcement community for a job well done, and trust that our justice system will now do its job.”

Throughout the US, Muslims, Christians and Jews are also expressing solidarity with the people of Boston. Here’s a TV news story about a vigil held by the Council on Islamic American Relations in Arizona:

Sources: CNN, FOX News, NPR News, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker Magazine, BBC, Huffington Post, CBS News, Wikipedia.com, The Telegraph, The Examiner, Slate, AP

April 22, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grandmother Eve — buried in Saudi Arabia?

Sam stands at the old entrance to Ummuna Hawwa (Eve's Cemetery).

Sam stands at the old entrance to Maqbara Ummuna Hawwa (Mother Eve’s Cemetery) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Eve’s tomb in Jeddah

It is believed by some Muslims that Eve, the Mother of Humanity, was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. While there is no absolute archaeological evidence old enough to authenticate the story of Eve’s burial here, the legend persists.

Some say that the city’s name, when pronounced as “Jaddah” — an Arabic word that means grandmother — is a reference to Eve. No one really knows how the story originated, and some in this Red Sea port city dismiss it as merely a myth. However, there is empirical evidence (references) dating back at least 1,200 years.

“It’s a legend, but it is one mentioned by many scholars,” says Sami Nawar, Jeddah’s general director for the city’s Culture and Tourism Department. Nawar, an expert on the history of Old Jeddah, likes to lace a bit of the legend into his presentations on the city to visiting foreign dignitaries and journalists.

The creation story

All Abrahamic holy books (the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an) say that Adam and Eve were the first members of the human race–created by God to dwell on earth.

In the first book of the Bible one reads, “And God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:25-28).

Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that Adam and Eve lived in Paradise (the Garden of Eden or heaven) before their fall from grace. After Eve ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree and gave some of the fruit to Adam, who also ate it, then the story goes that “their eyes were opened” so they immediately understood the difference between good and evil. God then banished them from Paradise.

In the Qur’an we read, “And We said, ‘O Adam, dwell you and your wife in Paradise and eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers.’ But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that [condition] in which they had been. And We said ‘Go down, [all of you], as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time’” (Al-Baqarah 35 and 36).

Early origins of the legend

Eve's tomb as drawn by 1984.

Tomb of Eve, drawing found in Pélerinage á la Mecque et á Medine by Saleh Soubhi, Cairo, 1894.

It appears that the earliest documented mention of Eve’s tomb being in Jeddah is by the Arab historian and astronomer Abū Muḥammad Al Hamdani (c. 893-945) who states it had been related that Adam was in Mina Valley, to the east of Jeddah, when he felt a yearning to visit Eve–that Eve had come from Jeddah, and that he found her to the East of Mina Valley on Mt. Arafat.

The renowned British explorer, geographer and ethnologist Sir Richard Francis Burton  (1821 – 1890) makes mention of Eve’s Jeddah burial site in his English translation of the classic work One Thousand and One Nights (in English most commonly known as The Arabian Nights).  

Conservative Islamic influence

Many non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, fail to appreciate just how diverse and varied Islam can be. Just as with Christianity or Judaism, there are things you can say that apply to all or most adherents of Islam, but there are many more things which only apply to a particular group of Muslims. This is especially true when it comes to Muslim fundamentalism; because Wahhabi Islam, the primary religious movement behind fundamentalist Islam, includes beliefs and doctrines not found elsewhere.

It would be a mistake and unethical to be critical of all Muslims on the basis of doctrines particular to Wahhabi Muslims. Modern Islamic fundamentalism and movements cannot be explained or understood without looking at the history and influence of Wahhabi Islamic teaching. This means that it’s important from an academic perspective to understand what Wahhabi Islam teaches and why those teachings differ from other branches of Islam.

Eve's tomb c. 1908.

A photograph of Eve’s tomb c. 1908. The tomb attracted historians and tourists from around the world.

The First Saudi State was founded in 1744. This period was marked by conquest of neighboring areas and by religious zeal. At its height, the First Saudi State included most of the territory of modern-day Saudi Arabia, and raids by Al Saud’s allies and followers reached into Yemen, Oman, Syria, and Iraq. Islamic Scholars, particularly Muhammad ibn Abdul Al Wahhab (1703 to 1792) and his descendants, are believed to have played a significant role in Saudi rule during this period. The Saudis and their allies referred to themselves during this period as the Muwahhidun (“the unitarians”) or Ahl al-Tawhid (“the monotheists”).

The fundamentalist teachings taught by Al Wahhab positioned him in history as the first modern Islamic fundamentalist. I’m told that Al Wahhab made the central point of his reformation movement the principle that just about every idea added to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era (about 950 AD) was false and should be eliminated. Al Wahhab and his followers taught that Muslims must adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs set forth by the Prophet Muhammad.

The reason for this extremist stance and the focus of Al Wahhab’s reform efforts, was a number of popular practices which he believed represented a regression to pre-Islamic idol worship. These included praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, venerating trees, certain caves and stone monuments and establishing certain forms of ritual worship.

Eve tomb today

Still named Mother Eve’s Cemetery, nothing remains of Eve’s tomb. Today only unmarked graves exist.

The destruction of Eve’s tomb

The February 27, 1928, issue of Time magazine, describes how Eve’s tomb was destroyed: “To His Majesty Ibn Saud, warlike Sultan of Nejd and King of the Hejaz, came tidings last week of his flourishing son the Amir Faisal, 19-year-old Viceroy of the Hejaz. The tidings were conveyed 500 miles by motor caravan from the Red Sea town of Jidda in the Hejaz, to the Sultan’s inland capital, Riyadh, in Nejd.”

It was announced in the 19-year-old’s “tidings,” “There was it made known that the enlightened son & Viceroy had finally caused to be obliterated that notorious imposture, ‘The Tomb of Mother Eve,’ at Jidda (Jeddah).”

By 1975 even the ground of Eve’s legendary burial site was sealed in concrete to prevent pilgrims from paying homage or praying there.

Today, the cemetery is a row of unmarked tombs, and there’s nothing to indicate Eve’s tomb has been there. Wahhabi beliefs forbid the marking of tombs and graves.

William Dever, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and a prominent U.S. archaeologist, was asked about  Eve’s tomb by the Associated Press a few years ago. He said there just is not any archaeological evidence going back far enough to back up the legend of Eve’s burial site.

“There are lots of traditional tombs of saints of various kinds in the Middle East,” he added. “But they are never excavated or investigated scientifically.”

Asked if he had heard of any other final resting place for Eve in the Middle East, Dever said, “No. There are tombs of Abraham all over the place, but I don’t honestly know in Israel or the West Bank or Jordan of any Eve tomb in these places.”

A few pilgrims still come

Thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims still come to see what's left of Mother Eve's Cemetery.

Thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims still come to see what’s left of Mother Eve’s Cemetery.

Pilgrims from around the world continue to visit the graveyard named Ammuna Hawwa (Arabic for “Our Mother Eve”).

As I was standing at the entrance of the cemetery yesterday, two tourist buses pulled up. Tour guides made brief speeches about Eve’s burial place, and the buses pulled away.

Dr. Sami Angawi, an architect and historian in Saudi Arabia who has been a long-standing critic of the lack of preservation of historic artifacts and monuments, says, “Tombs are not preserved in Saudi Arabia, and visiting graves is not encouraged as Wahhabists believe that they could lead to Bedaa – a frowned upon invention that undermines the orthodoxy of Islam.” Dr. Angawi says, during the past 80 years historic artifacts and sites have been dug up and thrown out, not only in Jeddah, but also in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“Eve’s tomb,” he says, “is now just a flat hole among a graveyard of unmarked tombs.”

“All we have left is the legend,” he says with disappointment.  “But that legend will live on and be passed on to future generations.”

In the following short CNN video, Dr. Angawi says all eyes remain on the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina that are constantly under assault:

Sources:  The Bible, The Qur’an, Arab News, Time Magazine, Wikipedia.com, Sir Richard Burton’s English translation of One Thousand One Nights, the Associated Press, The National (UAE), USA Today, CNN International News

March 13, 2013 Posted by | Jeddah History, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The truth about Muslim anti-West protests

This week’s Newsweek magazine cover featured raging Muslims, but how many were really angry?

What’s really behind the outrage?

Newsweek‘s recent cover-story featured the bold words “Muslim Rage” and depicted most of the world’s Muslims as angry with the US and the West. Here’s a different perspective of what is happening around the world — much of the information was given to me by the French arm of the activist think tank AVAAZ.

According to AVAAZ, there are a number of very important items we have missed in the midst of all the sensational, tabloid-like reporting.

Seven things you may have missed in the so-called “Muslim rage”

Like everyone else, many Muslims find the cheap, unprofessional Islamophobic video “Innocence of Muslims” trashy and offensive. Protests have spread quickly, tapping into understandable and lasting grievances about neo-colonialist US and western foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as religious sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But the news coverage often obscures some important points:

1.  Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.

2.  The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

3.  Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film. An investigation by both the US and Libyan governments is underway.

Think-tank AVAAZ estimates that less than 0.007 of Muslims protested against the hateful anti-Muslim film during the past several weeks, but both Christians and Muslims are known for their few “crazies” who prefer violence over dialogue and peaceful protest.

4.  Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survery of news reports on September 20 suggested that protesters had killed a number of people. The deaths cited by media were largely protesters killed by police.

5.  Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.

6.  The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.

7.  After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologizing and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.

Add to that the number of really big sensational news stories that were buried last week to make room for the front page, “angry Muslim clash” coverage. Maybe you didn’t even hear that in Russia tens of thousands of protesters marched through Moscow to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and Spaniards turned out for anti-austerity protests; and more than a million of Spain’s Catalans marched for independence.

Muslim rage or radical Salafist strategy?

Meet Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, the radical Salafist TV host who incited violence against US embassies because of the American anti-Muslim hate film.

The Amercan anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims” was picked up and heralded with subtitles by far-right Salafists – radical Islamists. The film was a cheaply made, YouTube failure until a radical Egyptian Salafist TV host, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah began promoting it to viewers on September 8.

Most insulted Muslims ignored the film or protested peacefully, but the Salafists, with their signature black flags, were leading instigators of the more aggressive protests that breached embassies. Leaders of the Egyptian Salafist party attended the Cairo protest that broke into the US embassy.

Like the far-right in the US or Europe, the Salafist strategy is to drag public opinion rightwards by seizing on opportunities to fan radical anger and demonise ideological opponents. This approach resembles that of anti-Muslim US Charismatic Christian pastor Terry Jones (who first promoted the film in the west) and other western extremists. In both societies, however, the moderates far (far!) outnumber the extremists.

A leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the more powerful and popular political opponent of Egypt’s Salafists) wrote to the New York Times saying: “We do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.”

Objective, good reporting out there

Most print media and radio/TV journalism is about readership/viewership/listenership polls (ratings). The ones with the best ratings can charge higher prices for advertising. And, far too often, its about sensation and greed at the expense of truth. Whenever a lie is told or an exaggeration is promoted as “truth” the result is misunderstanding, alienation and, far too often, these lead to conflicts and even war.

A lonely band of journalists and scholars, however, have approached the protests with an intent to truly understand the forces behind them. Among them, Hisham Matar, who powerfully describes the sadness in Benghazi after US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, and Barnaby Phillips, who explores how Islamic conservatives manipulated the film to their advantage. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior cautions against treating the Muslim world as a homogenous unit. And Professor Stanley Fish tackles a tough question: why many Muslims are so sensitive to unflattering depictions of Islam.

And then there was our own blog that reported that all was well in both Mecca and Medina–the two most holy cities of Islam. The insulting Islamophobic film was barely mentioned in the news media in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Muslims basically ignored the inflamatory film. Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal urged Saudi youth to “confront the anti-Islam smear campaign by leading an exemplary life, following the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.” The Saudi government early on condemned the violence and attacks on US embassies.

Finally, in Dearbon, Michigan, Muslim leaders joined by Christian pastors and leaders of other faiths, held a press conference. While condemning the anti-Muslim film, they clearly stated that freedom of assembly does not mean the freedom to be violent, to attack embassies or to kill innocent people. Here’s a recording from that press conference:

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia organizes to stop plastic debris

Sam joined a Jeddah city councilman and professors from King Abdulaziz University in organizing an environmental committee for meeting the challenges of plastic debris overwhelming the Arabian peninsula.

Environmental awareness committee formed

Hundreds of camels die on the Arabian peninsula every year from ingesting plastic bags.

I am a proud founding member of a Jeddah municipal committee to study many of the environmental problems adversely affecting the Arabian peninsula. We will suggest solutions, improving life here for people and animals alike.

Saudi Arabia is a good country. Our committee has strong support from the Jeddah City Council and is made up of area professors and engineers with a common mission of correcting many of the harms now contributing to Saudi environmental degradation.

Having provided leadership in the United States for clean air, banning phosphate fertilizers, banning plastic retail carry-out bags, banning the hormone-disrupting chemical BpA (bisphenol-A) from baby bottles, etc., I am able to advise my Saudi colleagues on environmental matters.

Our committee will begin by researching several known challenges in our Jeddah community–one being plastic debris. Plastic bags and bottles cover the banks of the Red Sea, are scattered about through the deserts, line city streets, and fill public landfills.

Hundreds of camels and thousands of sheep and goats die annually from ingesting plastic bags. They are also killing marine life in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.

Our faiths have a lot to say about the environment

If the Abrahamic faiths of Muslims, Jews and Christians believe God created the world, then it follows logically that we must honor God by caring for his creation. As believers in the God of Abraham we must respond to the damaging influences of over-consumption and pollution that are ruining planet Earth.

Believers are well equipped to respond to the many environmental crises—including the larger problem of climate change/global warming.

According to one Muslim source, many scientists and philosophers “agree man is considered as the major factor in disturbing the natural balance of the universe. Man interferes intentionally or unintentionally in the earth’s ecosystems by impairing its perfect order and precise sequence.”

The holy books speak about caring for creation

Plastic bags can be deadly for marine life which often mistakes plastic bags for food.

We read in the Qur’an, “There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life may dazzle thee, and he calls God to witness about what is in his heart: yet is he the most contentious of enemies? When he turns his back, his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth, destroying crops and cattle. But God loves not mischief” (Al-Baqarah: verses 204 and 205).

In the Torah we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15). The Torah also commands us, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live…. You shall not defile the land in which you live…” (Numbers 35:33-34).

We believers cannot by our own efforts, “save the earth.” Only God, who is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all creation, can do that. But we are expected to join God in maintaining his work. We seek to right many of the wrongs we’ve committed. In our homes, in our schools, at our places of work, in our times of recreation, and in our places of worship, we can begin to model creation care.

There are many hymns about creation and God’s love for nature, but these words penned by Edith Downing seem quite appropriate:

Sam’s efforts to ban plastic debris are known worldwide. Here’s an article from the The Sontagg, Dusseldorf, Germany. (Click image to enlarge).

O God, your heart is broken
by our abuse of earth.
We overuse resources
denying nature’s worth.
Forgive our selfish lifestyles
that feed on culture’s greed.
Urge us to take fresh courage
to tend our world in need.

Convert our hearts to caring
for creatures great and small.
Help us save birds for singing
their lovely mating call.
The evidence is mounting–
our planet is in pain–
more land and sea is shrinking
throughout the Earth’s domain.

We can now change direction,
with courage take a stand
to work against pollution
that harms both sea and land.
You count on us as stewards
to never hesitate
to act to save creation
before it is too late!

The Genesis Covenant

People of faith have a shared vision that all faith communities around the world can work together to halt climate change. The global climate crisis must bring out the best in all our faith traditions. The Genesis Covenant presents a shared action to make a public commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all our places of worship and facilities by 50% within ten years. The covenant states:

Sam holds a couple of loose plastic bags he found on the ground in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Leaders of the Jeddah community are campaigning to rid the city of plastic debris that lines the streets.

“We are a growing community of faithful people from many religious traditions who have decided to work together to save the Earth.

We have put aside our religious differences to focus on what we share in common: an understanding that global climate change is threatening our world and a commitment to do something about it.

If you share those two beliefs with us then you are already a part of The Genesis Covenant. We are not an organization. We are a community of volunteers from all walks of life. We are people with strong personal religious convictions. We honor that in one another. We do not debate our differences. We celebrate what we share in common. We express our faith through action. We work together not just because we agree, but because we care. We are many traditions united for a single purpose.

Welcome to our community! Welcome to The Genesis Covenant. We are honored to have you with us.”

Demonstrate your personal concern

Here’s a simple way you can make a difference. When you do your grocery shopping refuse plastic carry-out bags. Show that you care about the environment by using reusable shopping bags. One reusable bag, when used consistently for a year, will replace hundreds of plastic bags.

The impact of plastic bags is long-lasting.  Because of the chemical composition, a plastic bag takes between 500 to 1000 years to decompose. In the US alone more than 100 billion of these plastic bags are distributed by retailers annually. And they are accumulating by the 100s of billions in our landfills, forests and waterways.

Not only are these ubiquitous bags an eye-sore in our communities, the consequences of these bags for marine life and animals are often tragic.

Many cities, states and nations are banning plastic carry-out bags. While bans on these bags are sweeping the United States, many other nations including China, France, Ireland, England, Kenya have either banned the bags outright or put restrictions on their use.

Oceans of plastic

Plastics have so polluted the earth’s oceans that there is now a swirling “soup” of plastic in the North Pacific gyre, at times the size of Africa. But the evidence of the plastic pollution of our waterways and oceans is evident throughout the planet. And it’s accumulating day by day.

The United Nations is encouraging the world’s nations to halt the distribution of plastic carry-out bags. “Some of the litter, like thin film single-use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere,” says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environmental Program executive director.

Here’s an excellent film produced by ABC’s Nightline describing the ravages of plastic debris. Take a few minutes to watch this documentary:

September 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

I invite NASA to visit Saudi Arabia!

Mars landscape

Martian landscape looking eerily like that of the Arabian Desert.

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 00000

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 2012.

I just can’t help wondering about the universe

You ask, “What in the world? Sam, why are you desk-bound in Saudi Arabia mesmerizing about NASA and the universe? …and God?”

So, I confess. I’m a space buff—have been since 1970. That’s when I took a course in astronomy at Shelton College.

During the past month I’ve been closely following NASA’s Curiosity landing. What an incredible accomplishment—an SUV-sized rover that travelled three-and-a-half months to the red planet, descended like a fire ball through the atmosphere during what NASA called “seven minutes of terror” and then parachuted to the martian surface landing at nearly pinpoint accuracy in the Gale Crater.

NASA studies Mexican desert

Curiosity carries the biggest, most advanced suite of scientific instruments ever sent to Mars. The rover will analyze organic samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. According to NASA scientists, the record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil.” The rover is looking for the chemical building blocks of life (e.g. forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in aeons past.

Now studying the planet Mars, one might think, means travelling there or exploring only by means of satellites, landings and robots, but that’s not the case. NASA has a Mars research program going on in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, where the vast, scorching plain is said to be very much like ancient Mars.

The NASA scientists working in this largely arid and extremely hostile climate are looking for organisms able to survive on a minimum of nutrients, high salinity, soaring temperatures and high ultraviolet radiation.

My invitation to NASA

After hearing that, I say, “NASA, come to Saudi Arabia! I have something to show you here!”

Take a look at the following photo and the photo (inset) that was beamed back from Curiosity to the NASA Mission Control Center in Pasadena, California. It arrived just a couple of days ago. You’ll recognize the incredible similarities between the Arabian desert and Mars’ Gale Crater—pink reddish sand and dust with black volcanic formations and scattered stones. The Saudi mountains and desert landscapes look weirdly similar to the Martian plains and mountains.

Sam in full Saudi costume standing in the Arabian Desert near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The photo inset shows a Curiosity photo of the martian desert taken from the Gale Crater.  The similarities are striking. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Here in Saudi Arabia the desert temperatures and climatic conditions are even more radical than those of the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico. Temperatures sometimes sore to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, yet there still exists various forms of life in this grueling climate, including the infamous, giant camel spiders!

Some spiritual dimensions

Sam is proud of America’s accomplishments in space. This is his friend Astronaut Charlie Duke during Charlie’s 1972 Apollo 16 moon walk. Charlie was the 11th man to walk on the moon. Sam spent time with Charlie and his wife Dottie at their home in New Braunsville, Texas.

All the holy books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims have a lot to say about the universe. The prophet David wrote in the Psalms, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3 and 4). And in the Qur’an we read, “Consider (think about) the sky that is full of great constellations” (85:1).

I like gazing up into the Saudi night skies. The stars, planets and moon seem brighter than back home, and the sun appears twice as big as it sets over the Red Sea in the evening sky. By faith I stand in awe of God who is at this very moment millions of light years away among the galaxies, and at this same moment He is also here and is concerned about the plight of the men, women and children of earth.

We are taught in the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels that we humans were created to fellowship with this God (Allah)—to glorify God—to enjoy God forever. Unfathomable! The wonder of it all!

The words of and old Swedish hymn come to mind, one we often sang when I was a child at my local Georgia church. It’s the famous, hymn many will recognize–“How Great Thou Art.” Here’s the first verse and chorus that seem appropriate:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Yes, Eternal God of the heavens, how great thou art! (Incidentally, we often hear Muslims proclaim in their mosques or in daily life the words “Allah akbar,” meaning “God is great!” Also, remember the prayer we were taught as children–a grace we said before the family meal, “God is great. God is good. And we thank him for our food.” The Arabic equivalent of “God is great” is “Allah akbar”!)

Cosmology argues the existence of a divine, grand Creator

Plato and other ancient philosophers developed the cosmological argument for the existence of a divine Creator.

When we gaze into the night sky, beholding the cosmos of space, how can we not consider God’s existence and his greatness?

The “cosmological argument” for God’s existence derives its title from observing what we can see of the world around us. It begins with what is most obvious to us–the fact that things exist. It is then argued that the cause of those things’ existence had to be a “God-type” being–a Creator.

Beginning with Plato, these types of arguments have been put forth by renowned theologians and philosophers. And almost in reverse order of what one might expect, science seeminly caught up with theologians in the 20th century when it was confirmed that the universe had to have had a beginning.

In 1912, the American astronomer, Vesto Slipher, made a discovery noticing that the galaxies were moving away from earth at huge velocities.  These observations provided the first evidence supporting the expanding-universe theory.

Then the “Big Bang” was theorized by leading scientists. The theory was originally postulated in the late 1920s by Georges-Henri Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and astronomer. The theory advanced the concept that our universe was expanding, having originated from one highly super concentrated mass. While the Big Bang theory does not provide any explanation for such an initial condition, it describes and explains the general evolution of the universe from that point forward.

But how did it all start? Do our Abrahamic faiths hold any answers?

The cosmological argument advances that since there was that scientifically accepted beginning, there then had to be a cause.  In the movie Star Wars the cause was called “the Force.” Muslim, Christian and Jewish philosophers of faith agree that the Force is none other than the Eternal One–God (Allah).

There are remarkable statements in the Torah, the New Testament and and the Qur’an that appear to confirm the Big Bang! The first words of Genesis read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, (chapter 11, verse 3), we read these amazing words, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” When reading the Qur’an I came across this amazing verse, “Don’t the unbelievers see that the universe was once joined together, then God burst it apart. God made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” (21:30).

One of the primary objectives of NASA’s Mars probes has long been the search for water on the “Red Planet.” Water, NASA says, contains the building blocks of life.

Update: Curiosity measures wind and radiation

NASA announced November 18, 2012, that, aside from scooping and analyzing Martian soil, Mars rover Curiosity’s measurements of wind and radiation patterns on Mars are helping researchers better understand the environment near the surface of Mars.

Researchers with the Mars Science Laboratory mission have identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked changes in air pressure, and linked radiation changes to atmospheric changes.  The goal of the mission is to discover whether the environment in Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed earlier this year, could ever have been habitable for microbes.

All praise to God, the Lord of the worlds

Take some time to enjoy this classic National Geographic presentation Journey to the Edge of the Universe. And while watching, think about the words of that great hymn, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made!”


September 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ramadan ended with greetings of “Eid mubarak!”

New moon sighted–Ramadan ends

It’s official now! The new moon was sighted two days ago, ending the 30 days of Ramadan. Now we are in the middle of three-days of the public holiday called Eid-al-Fitr (Arabic: ‎عيد الفطر ‘Īdu l-Fiṭr). The holiday is most often simply called Eid. Foreigners and Arabs alike greet one another with the common greeting, “Eid mubarak!” (English: literally “Happy Feast!”).

In most Muslim countries celebrants dress in their best clothes and adorn their homes with lights and other decorations. Old wrongs are forgiven and money is given to the poor. Special foods are prepared and friends or relatives are invited to share the feast.

Eid is a joyous occasion. Its underlying purpose is to praise God and give thanks to him. More than 2.2 billion Muslims are celebrating Eid around the world!

Ramadan/Eid holiday season marked by generosity and giving

Eman Kaskas oversaw the distribution of food to needy Ethiopian families of Jeddah. Eman also conducted a fundraising dinner for the Dar al Aytam children’s outreach in Lebanon.

During my first Ramadan celebration, I often joined my Muslim brothers and sisters in fasting and prayer at our local neighborhood Al Takwa Mosque.  I also went along to help distribute food and other gifts to the poorer immigrant populations of Jeddah.

Eman Kaskas and the students of the British International School had collected more than two tons of canned meats and vegetables, soups, dates, spices, bags of rice and pastas for distribution. This very generous collection was distributed to Ethiopian immigrant families.

In a sense, Eid is a Christmas-like festivity. There are big family meals. Friends and family members gather to exchange gifts. On the eve of Eid shopping malls and stores are open late. Shoppers wait in long lines, in a hurry to purchase last-minute gifts, candies and cakes. (The traffic jams reminded me of trying to get to the Annapolis Mall on Christmas Eve!)

Numerous fundraisers were conducted throughout Jeddah and other Saudi cities during the past month to benefit various causes for children, the disabled, the poor and the elderly.

Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas invited guests to a dinner at the Sands Hotel which raised thousands of dollars for the Dar al Aytam children’s home in Beirut, Lebanon. Close to a hundred guests gathered that evening to lend their support to this orphanage that was established nearly a hundred years ago to care for Lebanese orphans of World War I.

Since that time Dar al Aytam has expanded its programs to provide services to the mentally disabled as well as homeless children. Services are now available in more than 30 locations (Greater Beirut, The Bekaa Valley, Mount Lebanon, and in various other northern and southern locations).

Muslim Americans fearful during Eid

Some American Christians expressed solidarity with Muslims during this special holiday. The Rev. Peter De Franco and the congregation of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Clifton, New Jersey, used Eid as a time to show support for Muslim believers in their town.

In the US, where Muslims are a tiny minority population, celebrating Eid seems strange and different, especially to those who have wrongly targeted all Muslims as being “anti-American.”

This past Thursday, a Palestinian American was visiting his father’s grave at a Muslim cemetery in Evergreen Park, a suburb southwest of Chicago, when he noticed obcene graffiti written on the tombstones.

During the past month, seven Islamic centers, from California to Rhode Island, have been attacked.In one of the attacks, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground.

Many US Muslims are appealing to the media and their elected officials for help.

Unfortunately, on some occasions, a few individuals like US Representative Joe Walsh, instead of offering hope to their Muslim constituents, are instead fanning the flames of hate.

Speaking on August 8 at a packed town hall event in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove, Walsh told his supporters, “I’m not sure of a lot of things, but one thing I am sure of is that there are people in this country, there is a radical strain of Islam in this country. It’s not just over there–trying to kill Americans every week.”  He continued, “And it is a threat that is much more at home now then it was right after 9/11. It’s here, it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin.”

Many Americans respond during Eid with love and support

Sam with Dr. Safi Kaskas in Jeddah. Safi is the president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists in the US. Safi has spent years building bridges of faith and understanding between the world’s Christians, Muslims and Jews.

While it’s true that all three Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) have their radical, violent elements; they are simply a noisy minority. They grab headlines by torching buildings or through inflamatory hate speech and through bombing and killing.

Some US churches and Christian organizations, including Sojourners, an evangelical Christian outreach, have expressed solidarity with America’s persecuted Muslims and are organizing support for both the Joplin mosque and the Muslim community in Ever Green.

The overwhelming majority of those who believe in the God of Abraham, are peace-loving, desiring freedom and democracy for all faiths.

Recent polls indicate that greater than 80% of Muslim, Christian and Jewish teenagers and young adults want peace–not war. They have dreams of good jobs, families, homes. They want the best for others and seek to build bridges between their faiths and to support those who are persecuted or wrongly treated.

My work alongside Dr. Safi Kaskas here in the Middle East is in the field of religious reconciliation.  Our work is vitally important to ongoing peace efforts, in the US, here in the Middle East and around the world.

May we all do our part to improve understanding–to reach out to men, women and children; families and individuals who may express their faith differently. And may we vigilantly confront Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Christian hysteria with good information, loving kindness and hope for a much brighter, more prosperous future for all God’s children.

While we continue to celebrate here in Jeddah during this festive, Christmas-like spirit of Eid, I was thinking this morning of Henry W. Longfellow’s Christmas carol–“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow described the bells “ringing, chanting” throughout the world–a message of peace. But, alas, he sighed:

  • And in despair I bowed my head
  • “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
  • “For hate is strong and mocks the song
  • Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Here in Saudi Arabia I don’t hear church bells, but I do hear a very faithful, heartfelt call to prayer from many mosques five times a day. It’s a call to prayerfully thank God for his mercy and grace and a call to personal and world peace. Saudi Arabia is surrounded by wars and conflicts (Yemen, Somalia and Sudan to the south and east; the Sinai, Lebanon and Syria to the north; Iraq to the northeast; and now a “pending” war between Israel and Iran. There are conflicts in other parts of Africa, and in Asia and South America. It would be easy to give up–to curl up comfortably in our own corner of the world; deaf to those who cry for freedom, uncaring and unconcerned. But that is not what God has called us to do.

Longfellow ended his poem with a message of hope. As he thought of dismal world conditions of his time, he proclaimed:

  • Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
  • “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
  • The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
  • With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thank all my Quaker friends for holding us in the light over here. Your Muslim brothers and sisters here in Jeddah send you their love and greetings, and they join you in prayer for reconciliation and world peace.

Muslims celebrating Eid around the world:

August 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy Ramadan! Ramadan Kareem!

Sam “breaking the fast” on the second evening of Ramadan with Dr. Wael Saykali and Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas.

Celebrating my first Ramadan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

In all three major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) religious holidays play an important role in celebrating our faith in the God of Abraham. Here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I’ll be participating in my first Ramadan observance with my Muslim friends. There is an air of excitement as this holiday begins.

Ramadan (Arabic: رمضان‎ Ramaḍān; variations Persian: Ramazan‎; Urdu: Ramzān; Turkish: Ramazan) has arrived. It is being celebrated July 20th through August 18th. It is the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, which lasts 29 or 30 days according to the visual sightings of the crescent moon.

Muslims around the world refrain from eating and drinking during the daylight hours. The thawab (spiritual rewards) of fasting are believed to be many, but during this special month, they are said to be multiplied. Muslims fast during this lunar month for the sake of demonstrating submission to God. They also offer more prayers and Qur’an recitations.

Families and friends enjoy Iftar meals and banquets 

Each evening at sunset, families and friends will gather for the fast-breaking meal (or “break-fast) known as Iftar. The meal starts with the eating of three dates — just as Muhammad used to do. Then it’s time for the Maghrib prayer, which is the fourth of the five daily Muslim prayers, after which the main meal is served.

Over time, Iftar has grown into large family dinners and even banquet festivals. This is a time of fellowship with families, friends and surrounding communities, but may also occupy larger spaces at mosques or banquet halls, where a hundred or more may gather at a time.

High school students from Jeddah’s British International School unload more than one ton of food they collected to be distributed to poor immigrant families in their city.

Generosity and sacrificial giving

Charity is very important in Islam, and even more so during Ramadan. The zakat is obligatory as one of the pillars of Islam; a fixed percentage required to be given by those with savings. The sadaqa is voluntary charity and is given above and beyond what is required from the obligation of zakat. Muslims believe that all good deeds are more handsomely rewarded during Ramadan than in any other month of the year. Consequently, many will choose this time to give a larger portion, if not all, of the zakat for which they are obligated to give. In addition, many will also use this time to give a larger portion of sadaqa in order to maximize the reward they believe will await them on the Day of Judgment.

In many Muslim countries, it is not uncommon to see people giving more food to the poor and the homeless, and even to see large public areas for the poor to come and break their fast. It is said that if a person helps a fasting person to break their fast, then they receive a reward for that fast, without diminishing the reward that the fasting person got for their fast.

Even in non-Muslim countries, no matter how small the Muslim population, a consistent increase in charitable donations to both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims occurs during these days. In the US, for example, many Muslim communities throughout the country, participate in contributing food, clothes and non-perishable food items to local food banks and homeless shelters.

Jeddah British International School students collected over a ton of food

Eman Kaskas with high schoolers from the British International School with some of the food that will be distributed to needy families during the 30-day Ramadan holiday.

The British International School of Jeddah offers the International Bachaluriate (IB) program—a high school college preparatory degree that is recognized around the world. An important part of the IB program is Creativity Action Service (CAS) similar to community service programs provided by many American high schools.  Students are required to do 150 hours of community service.

A major Ramadan “food drive” under the leadership of Eman Kaskas is a part of CAS’s program.  “I am always so touched by the community effort and the involvement of all the students including kindergarteners,” Eman says. “We have carried this out for the last 12 years. It keeps getting better year after year.”

This year students from Jeddah’s British International School collected more than ton of food that will be distributed during Ramadan to Jeddah’s poorer immigrant population.

Eman Kaskas, explains, “It’s my hope that these students will fully understand the message they are sending with their gifts.” She says, “It’s like a mustard seed that we are planting today, and I’m very grateful to know that we’re planting it in good soil.” She wants these students to remember when they have families of their own, that they have a responsibility to raise civicly-minded children who will make an important contribution to society.

Special days during Ramadan: Laylat al-Qadr and Eid ul-Fitr

Sometimes referred to as “the night of decree or measures,” Laylat al-Qadr is considered the most holy night of the Islamic year. Muslims believe that it is the night in which the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel.

The Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr (Arabic: عيد الفطر‎, festivity of breaking the fast), sometimes spelled in English as Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the next lunar month called Shawwal in Arabic. This first day of the following month is declared after another crescent new moon has been sighted. This first day of Shawwal is called Eid ul-Fitr. Eid Ul-Fitr, may also be a reference towards the festive nature of having endured the month of fasting successfully and returning to the more natural disposition of being able to eat and drink.

The following is a children’s Ramadan video that explains the spiritual significance of this Muslim holiday. Muslim children celebrate Ramadan in much the same way Jewish and Christian children celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.
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July 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment