How can Muslims translate their private religious belief to action in a public secular nation, without ending up either in an orange jumpsuit or organizing an act of neo-paganism? Contemporary Australian Muslims know little history beyond the narrative of their own life as long suffering victims, but if they did, they might realize that this issue is the essence of da’wah in a pluralistic society.
Indeed the most transformative force in secular societies has been individual religious conviction. Three examples will highlight this.
The statesman Abraham Lincoln, the most influential American of all time became President of the United States in a period where both the Union and Confederacy appropriated religion and God in defense of their cause. Lincoln was religiously devout, although surprisingly not a Christian. This from his the best of his biographers Josiah Holland:
He was a religious man. The fact may be stated without any reservation — with only an explanation. He believed in God, and in his own personal supervision of the affairs of men. He believed himself to be under his control and guidance. He believed in the power and ultimate triumph of the right, through his belief in God. This unwavering faith in a Divine Providence began at his mother’s knee, and ran like a thread of gold through all the experiences of his life. His constant sense of human duty was one of the forms by which his faith manifested itself. His conscience took a broader grasp than the simple apprehension of right and wrong. He recognized an immediate relation between God and himself, in all the actions and passions of his life. He was not professedly a Christian — that is, he subscribed to no creed — joined no organization of Christian disciples.
Nevertheless his belief in God was the motivating factor behind his strong abolitionist instincts that motivated his public works. Upon leaving his home in Springfield Illinois for his inauguration.
I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell
And this prescient warning about God’s punishment for those who oppress others, taken from his second inaugural address:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln’s private faith fueled his eloquence and allowed him that oft invoked but seldom achieved moral clarity that alternately deserts or haunts today’s politicians. By the grace of God alone he was able to pass the 13th amendment during a war that he was losing at a time when his own constituency promised to rebel (and did) if he did free the slaves. That comes only from divine providence.
The solider Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was professor of rhetoric and oratory at Bowdoin College in Maine. He was fluent in nine languages including Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. Chamberlain was a Huguenot, a Congregationalist in an area where religious belief was displayed through action, principle and not rhetoric alone. Despite being offered a paid European study tour during the civil war, Chamberlain enlisted in the Union army, (his strong abolitionist principles were motivated by religious faith)
Chamberlain is best remembered for his defense of the little Round Top on the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, that saved the Union army’s left flank. In the context of the greater battle he is credited with not only saving the Army of the Potomac but the Union itself. As an act on individual heroism and ingenuity with profound consequences, it stands alone in modern warfare.
Chamberlain was also responsible for accepting the colors of the Army of Northern Virgina, after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. He had his men salute the confederates as they were marching past, setting a precedent for reconciliation between the two armies and peoples.
The writer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father Lyam was a prominent abolitionist Congregationalist preacher; her sister was a campaigner for women’s rights (and preschools, of all things) and her brother was also a staunch abolitionist. Her narrative of black suffering under the yoke of slavery “Uncle Tom’s cabin” was the clarion call for emancipation of blacks from southern slavery. Contemporary Muslim writer wannabees should note the colossal impact of this book on the psyche of an entire nation. The confederacy did what all culturally weak and timid societies do to literature that offends their politics, they banned the book. In the nineteenth century it became the best selling book in the English language, after the bible. The book set America on the course to inevitable civil war and the birth of a new Union.
One woman’s eloquence and faith alone steered a nation “to make war on itself, and to slaughter Americans wholesale, if only to become the type of nation that could not conceive of such a thing to be possible”