Private faith, public service

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”


#1 Baybers on 02.22.07 at 3:54 pm

Thanks everyone for the reader support for this piece and the many comments, please you are too kind.

#2 Amir on 02.22.07 at 7:47 pm

Nice piece, Baybers.

#3 YTK on 02.24.07 at 4:05 am

Interesting, and true as far as the cases you mention go. Christianity renders unto Caesar.

But whither Islam and Da`wa?

What would some examples specific to Islam look like?

#4 Shadower on 02.24.07 at 1:37 pm

It is quite an interesting historical read.

But how would it link with Islam? What can we learn from it?

#5 Amal on 02.24.07 at 5:22 pm

I had no idea that Abraham Lincoln didn’t subscribe to a particular religion.

These examples are interesting, Baybers. But I do think the era and society of these people supported their religious convictions and ipso facto, it was easier for them to invoke religion in their pursuits.

#6 Baybers on 02.24.07 at 6:43 pm

The Lincoln issue first. It is quite clear that contrary to those recent voices who see him as an atheist, he had a profound reverence for God. His writings and especially his second inaugural address are evidence of that. But he was not a Christian, in fact he is quoted as saying that “Christianity is not my Profession”

It also raises the point of how are Muslims to view someone who clearly believes in God, is not a Pauline Christian and has never been exposed to Islam?

The next point that Amal makes is very interesting. Another example that I didn’t add to the list is Emma Lazarus who wrote the words of the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “the new Colossus”. She was Jewish and distressed by the American treatment of refugees and immigrants. She used her eloquence to turn the Jewish cultural project of care for the destitute into an American one. Her words although indelibly from her Jewish origins are forever remembered as American

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As for the Muslim example, there isn’t one, and thats my whole point. Muslims should see themselves as part of the west if they choose to live here (which I don’t think that they should in the first place, but thats another controversy for another day).

#7 Baybers on 02.24.07 at 6:45 pm

Lazarus was from this century (OK the last one) and she was a from a minority religion that was regarded with suspicion.

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