Wednesday, 1 April 2009

An introduction to modern Islamic spirituality

The Irish Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin ... there are about 40,000 Muslims in the Republic of Ireland today

Patrick Comerford

Opening music:

The context

Coming to an understanding of the spirituality of people of other faiths is not just for our benefit, or for finding ways of deepening our own spirituality. It’s also important if we are going to understand people on their own terms, and allow them to define themselves.

Seeking to understand contemporary Islamic spirituality is not just a matter of comparative studies in spirituality. It’s also important if we are going to understand Muslims on their own terms, and understand them within the contexts we are working in ministry and in mission.

One of the noticeable changes in Irish population today is the sizeable presence of Muslims. There are, perhaps, up to 40,000 Muslims in Ireland today. The context of your future ministry is within a changing Ireland in which Muslims are increasingly visible and playing a role, and a changing world which, since 9/11, needs to know how to deal with our fears about terrorism, our vulnerability, our prejudices (in the sense of pre-judging) about Muslims and Islam, and a legacy that has left many unresolved questions.

The theological considerations that you will have to weigh up include the problems and opportunities created by Christian/Muslim exchanges in your parish or community, including the attendance of Muslim children at schools; the possibility of intermarriage, the dilemmas surrounding interfaith public occasions; the increasing role of the Anglican Communion as one of the primary actors on behalf of Christians in creating the opportunities for Christian-Muslim dialogue; and the questions around whether we can learn from others, including Muslims, in ways that will deepen our own faith and our practice of it.

Let me first say a little about the Muslims in Ireland today. Despite popular perceptions, the majority of Muslims in Ireland probably are not foreigners, when we consider the number of Irish women who have become Muslims through marriage, and the number of Muslim children born in Ireland.

Historically, the first Irish contacts with the Islamic world predate the Anglo-Norman invasion, and the first constant contacts are found from the 17th century on. In the 18th and 19th centuries, baptisms in Church of Ireland parish records in Diocese of Raphoe and Roman Catholic parish records in Diocese of Ferns indicate a Muslim presence from Co Donegal to Co Wexford in that time. Indeed, in the late 18th century, one Muslim was an active member of the Volunteers – giving an added dimension to ideal of uniting Protestants, Catholics and Dissenter.

In the 19th century, there was still an air of exotic excitement surrounding Muslims in Ireland. But their presence has grown here especially since the mid-1950s, with the arrival of a new wave of Muslims as medical students.

The history of the arrival and the makeup of Muslims in every European country are different: in France, Muslims are mainly of North African descent; in Germany, they are mainly Turkish in origin, while in Britain, their origins, by-and-large, are mainly in the Indian subcontinent.

But these images hinder our acceptance of Muslims as being truly European. There are many Muslims who are truly European in every sense, including, for example those in Bosnia. We forget easily that Spain was a Muslim-ruled country for longer than it has been a Christian-ruled country, while Istanbul or Constantinople was seen as the greatest city in Christendom for much longer than it has been seen as a Muslim city.

In Ireland, Muslims come from a very mixed and diverse background, a large number are Irish-born, and increasingly they see themselves as being Irish, and part of the scenery, as part of the furniture.

How many of you know a Muslim? How many of you visited a Muslim country? How many of you have visited a mosque?

In your ministry, you will encounter Muslims as neighbours, in civic and social public occasions, and you will encounter fear and suspicion among your own parishioners.

Some of this fear and suspicion in founded in reality. Yes, there is a threat from al-Qaida. But it’s a threat to security in the Muslim world too, when we consider recent violence, killings and bombings in Pakistan, Iraq or Turkey.

In terms of violence instigated by Muslims, statistically more Muslims are killed by Muslims in Iraq and Pakistan each week than Christians are killed by Muslims in Britain or the US each week. Muslims can often fear each other more than we fear them. Many mainstream Muslims fear the rigorous approach to Islam among the Wahhabis, who are supported and nurtured in Saudi Arabia, and Sunni and Shia Muslims fear each other in Iraq and Pakistan.

Much of the fear – on their part and on our part – is irrational, and is not based on knowledge, experience or reality.

We need to understand them, what they believe, who they are and where they come from. Today, 1-in-5 people in the world is a Muslim, and the breakdown of statistics produces interesting details. The majority of Muslims are not Arabs, and only 20 per cent of Muslims live in Arab countries. There are large communities of Muslims in the Balkans and Russia. The world’s largest Muslim country is Indonesia, and there are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan. The countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, with more than 100 million Muslims each. There are 20 million Muslims in China. The Middle East countries with the largest Muslim populations are two non-Arab countries, Turkey and Iran. On the other hand, a large minority of Arabs are Christians, and there are even Arab Jews.

Yet, much of the fear of Muslims in the world today is based not on their religious beliefs, but is expressed in ways that are close to racism. We objectify them, make them “others” who are not part of “us,” and outsiders who bring nothing as gifts to us, but instead bring threats.

We need to see other-ness as a gift rather than a threat. And criticism and reaction, we offer it, needs not always to be negative, but certainly needs to be based on knowledge and experience.

What is Islam?

Islam (Arabic: الإسلام; al-'islām) is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion originating with the teachings of Muhammad (ca 570-632), a 7th century Arab religious and political leader. The word Islam means “submission” or the total surrender of oneself to God (Arabic: الله, Allāh). And so an adherent of Islam is a Muslim, or “one who submits (to God).” With 1.1 billion to 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, after Christianity.

Muslims believe that God revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad. They see him as God’s final prophet, and the regard the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the words and deeds of Muhammad) as the fundamental sources of Islam. They do not regard Muhammad as the founder of a new religion, but believe he restored the original monotheistic faith of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.

Muslims are generally expected to observe the Five Pillars of Islam or the five duties that unite Muslims. In addition, Islamic law (sharia) has developed a tradition of rulings that relate to virtually all aspects of life and society, from dietary laws and banking to warfare.

The word Islam means acceptance of and submission or surrender to God. Muslims demonstrate this submission by worshipping God, following his commands, and avoiding polytheism. Islam is often described as an action of returning to God – more than just a verbal affirmation of faith.

What do Muslims believe?

According to the Qur'an, all Muslims must believe in God, his revelations, his angels, his messengers, and in the Day of Judgment. There are other beliefs that are particular to different schools of Islam. For example, the Sunni concept of predestination is called divine decree, while the Shi'a version is called divine justice. Shi'a Muslims hold a unique understanding of Imamah or the political and spiritual leadership of the Imams.

Muslims believe that God revealed his final message to humanity through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad over a period of two decades or more in the years 610 to 632. The Qur'an mentions numerous figures considered as prophets in Islam, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The Qur'an names Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb), and distinguishes them from polytheists, although Muslims believe that parts of the previously revealed scriptures, the Tawrat (Torah) and the Injil (Gospels), had become distorted – either in misinterpretation of the text, or in altering text, or both.

The fundamental theological concept of Islam is tawhīd – the belief that there is only one God. The Arabic term for God is Allāh; most scholars believe it was derived from a contraction of the definite article al- (the) and the word 'ilāh (deity, masculine form), meaning “the God” (al-ilāh), but others trace its origin to the Aramaic Alāhā. Tawhīd, the first of the Five Pillars of Islam, is expressed in the shahadah (testifying), which in which every believing Muslim declares that there is no god but the God, and that Muhammad is the God’s messenger or prophet.

For Muslims, God is beyond all comprehension. They are not expected to visualise God, but to worship and adore him as the protector. Muslims will say that God is as close to us, to you, as the vein in your neck.

Muslims consider the Qur'an to be the literal word of God. The Qur'an is divided into 114 suras, or chapters. The chronologically earlier suras, dating to Mecca, are primarily concerned with ethical and spiritual topics. The later suras from Medina are concerned mostly with social and moral issues in the Muslim community. The Qur'an is more concerned with moral guidance than legal instruction, and is considered the “sourcebook of Islamic principles and values.”

In Islam, the “normative” example of Muhammad’s life is called the Sunnah (“trodden path”). This example is preserved in traditions known as hadith (“reports”), which recount his words, his actions, and his personal characteristics. The Sunnah is seen as crucial to guiding interpretation of the Qur'an and Muslim jurists see the hadith, or the written record of Muhammad’s life, as supplementing the Qur'an and assisting in its interpretation. Muslims are encouraged to emulate Muhammad’s actions in their daily lives.

Muslims regard their belief in angels as crucial to their faith. Their duties include communicating revelations from God, glorifying God, recording every person’s actions, and taking a person’s soul at the time of death.

Muslims believe in the “Day of Resurrection,” yawm al-Qiyāmah (also known as yawm ad-dīn, “Day of Judgment” and as-sā`a, “the Last Hour”) that its time is preordained by God although unknown to humanity. The Qur'an emphasises bodily resurrection, and says the resurrection of dead will be followed by the gathering of humanity, culminating in judgment by God.

The Qur'an lists several sins that can condemn a person to hell, including disbelief, usury and dishonesty. Paradise (jannah) is seen as a place of joy and bliss, with mystical traditions in Islam placing the heavenly delights in the context of an ecstatic awareness of God.

Muslims believe in predestination, or divine pre-ordaining (al-qadā wa'l-qadar), so that God has full knowledge and control over all that happens. For Muslims, everything in the world that happens, good or evil, has been preordained and nothing can happen unless permitted by God. However, while events are pre-ordained, we have freewill in that we have the faculty to choose between right and wrong, and so are responsible for our actions.

The Five Pillars of Islam

The Five Pillars of Islam (Arabic: اركان الدين) are five practices essential to Sunni Islam. Shi'a Muslims talk about eight ritual practices which substantially overlap with the Five Pillars. These are:

1, The shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam: 'ašhadu 'al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa 'ašhadu 'anna Muħammadan rasūlu-llāh, or “I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” This declaration of faith is the foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam. (Shi'a Muslims consider the shahadah to be belief and do not regard it as a separate pillar, just a belief.) Muslims repeat the shahadah in prayer, and non-Muslims wishing to convert to Islam are required to recite the creed.

2, Salah, or ritual prayer, must be performed five times a day. However, Shi'a Muslims often run together the noon prayers with the afternoon prayers, and the evening prayers with the night prayers. Each salah is done facing towards Mecca. Salah is intended to focus the mind on God, and is seen as a personal communication with him that expresses gratitude and worship. In many Muslim countries, reminders called adhan (call to prayer) are broadcast publicly from local mosques at the appropriate times. The prayers are recited in Arabic, and consist of verses from the Qur'an.

3, Zakat, or almsgiving, is based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it. A fixed portion is spent to help the poor or needy, and also to assist the spread of Islam. The zakat is considered a religious obligation (as opposed to voluntary charity) that the well-off owe to the needy because their wealth is seen as a “trust from God’s bounty.” The Qur'an and the hadith also suggest a Muslim give even more as an act of voluntary almsgiving (sadaqah). Many Shi'a Muslims are expected to pay an additional amount in the form of a khums tax, which they regard as a separate ritual practice.

4, Sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadan, requires Muslims not to eat or drink from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, when they should contemplate their sins. The fast is to encourage a feeling of nearness to God. During Ramadan, Muslims should express their gratitude to God and their dependence on him, atone for their past sins, and think of the needy.

5, The Hajj is the pilgrimage during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah to Mecca. All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it must undertake the hajj at least once in their lifetime. Islamic teachers say that the hajj should be an expression of devotion to God instead of a means to gain social standing, although the pilgrim or hajji is honoured in his or her community on returning home.

In addition to the khums tax, Shi'a Muslims consider three additional practices essential to the religion of Islam. These are:

1, Jihad, which the Sunni do not consider a pillar.

2, Amr-Bil-Ma'rūf, the “enjoining to do good,” calls on every Muslim to live a virtuous life and to encourage others to do the same.

3, Nahi-Anil-Munkar, the “exhortation to desist from evil,” enjoins Muslims to refrain from vice and from evil actions and to encourage others to do the same.

Some questions

The concise expressions of faith in these five pillars offer an interesting challenge to Christians.

1, Can we express our faith in coherent yet concise phrases? Are we confident about making public declarations of faith?

2, Is our daily routine punctuated by rhythm of prayer? Are we embarrassed by postures of prayer that express public submission to God?

3, As a Church and as Christians, is our giving to charity, mission, or development work limited to mere duty, or do we go beyond that? Is it an essential part of Christian life and discipleship?

4, Have we lost the spiritual values of fasting and preparation associated with Lent and Advent?

5, Do we see our lives as pilgrimages, that “this land is not my home, I am only travelling through?” How do you respond to ideas such as pilgrimage and retreat?

Islamic Law or Sharia

Islamic law covers all aspects of life, from matters of state, like governance and foreign relations, to issues of daily living. There are the punishments for five specific crimes: unlawful intercourse, false accusation of unlawful intercourse, consumption of alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. There are laws of inheritance, marriage, and restitution for injuries and murder, and rules for fasting, charity, and prayer.

Islamic law has four fundamental roots, which are given precedence in this order: the Qur'an, the Sunnah (actions and sayings of Muhammad), the consensus of the Muslim jurists (ijma), and analogical reasoning (qiyas).

Islamic law does not distinguish between matters of “church” and “state.” The ulema function as both jurists and theologians. But as the Muslim world came into contact with Western secular ideals, Muslim societies responded in different ways. Turkey has been a secular state since the reforms of Atatürk, while the Iranian Revolution in 1979 replaced a mainly secular regime with an Islamic state under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Many practices fall into the category of adab or Islamic etiquette, including greeting each other with as-salamu `alaykum (“peace be unto you”), saying bismillah (“in the name of God”) before meals, and using only the right hand for eating and drinking. Islamic hygienic practices mainly fall into the category of personal cleanliness and health, such as the circumcision of male offspring.

Muslims, like Jews, are restricted in their diet, and prohibited foods include pig products, blood, carrion, and alcohol. All meat must come from herbivorous animals slaughtered in the name of God by a Muslim, Jew, or Christian. Muslims may also eat game they have hunted or fished for themselves. Food that Muslims may eat is known as halal food.

Islamic scholars disagree whether the texts justify traditional Islamic practices such as veiling and seclusion (purdah).

What is Jihad?

Jihad means “to strive or struggle” in the way of God and a small number of Muslim scholars regard it as the “sixth pillar of Islam.” Jihad, in its broadest sense, is “exerting one’s utmost power, efforts, endeavours, or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation.” This may be a visible enemy, the devil, or some aspects of one’s own self. But jihad also describes striving to attain religious and moral perfection.

Jihad usually means military exertion against non-Muslim combatants in the defence or expansion of the Islamic state, the ultimate purpose of which is to universalise Islam. Jihad, the only form of warfare permissible in Islamic law, may be declared against apostates, rebels, highway robbers, violent groups, non-Islamic leaders or states that refuse to submit to the authority of Islam. Most Muslims understand jihad as only a defensive form of warfare.

For most Muslims, jihad is a collective duty: its performance by some individuals exempts the others. For most Shia Muslims, offensive jihad can only be declared by a divinely appointed leader of the Islamic community.

One of the leaders of “neo-Sufism” in modern Turkey, Said Nursi, argued that “the time of the ‘jihad of the sword’” is over, and that now is the era of the “jihad of the word,” meaning a reasoned attempt to propose Islam as a basis for a reconciliation of science and modern institutions with religious faith and morality. As early as 1911, Nursi argued that Muslims and “pious Christians” should make common cause in defending a moral and spiritual vision of human life against the momentary illusions of consumer culture.

The divisions of Islam

Islam consists of a number of religious denominations that are essentially similar in belief but with significant theological and legal differences. The primary division is between the Sunni and the Shi'a, with Sufism generally considered a mystical inflection of Islam rather than a distinct school. About 85 per cent of Muslims are Sunni and about 15 per cent are Shi'a.

Sunnis recognise four major legal traditions, or madhhabs: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali. All four accept the validity of the others and a Muslim might choose any one that he/she finds agreeable. There are also several orthodox theological or philosophical traditions within Sunnism. For example, the recent Salafi movement sees itself as restorationist and claims to derive its teachings from the original sources of Islam.

Within 18th century Sunni Islam, the Wahhabi movement took hold in what is now Saudi Arabia today. Wahhabism was founded by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and is a fundamentalist ideology that condemns practices like Sufism and the veneration of saints as un-Islamic.

The 20th century saw the formation of many new Islamic “revivalist” movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. They see Western cultural values as a threat to Islam, and promote Islam as a comprehensive solution to every public and private question of importance. They inspired later movements such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida.

Shi'a Muslims believe in the political and religious leadership of infallible Imams from the descendants of Ali ibn Abi Talib. They say that Ali, as the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was his rightful successor. The Shi'a follow a legal tradition called Ja'fari jurisprudence. Shi'a Islam has several branches, the largest of which is the Twelvers (itnā'ašariyya), while the others are the Ismaili, the Seveners, and the Zaidiyyah.

Muslim mystics and Sufism

Many Westerners have been introduced to Islamic spirituality through contact with or reading about Sufism. Sufism has been described as “the pursuit of spiritual experience by bodily discipline and mystical intuition” (H.A.R. Gibb). Professor Victor Danner, in The Islamic Tradition (1988), says: “Sufism has influenced the spiritual life of the [Islamic] religion to an extraordinary degree; there is no important domain in the civilisation of Islam that has remained unaffected by it.”

While the Muslim-Arab elite engaged in conquest, some devout Muslims began to question the piety of indulgence in a worldly life, emphasising rather poverty, humility and avoidance of sin based on renunciation of bodily desires. Devout Muslim ascetic exemplars such as Hasan al-Basri inspired a movement that evolved into Sufism.

Both Sufism and Shi'ism underwent major changes in the 9th century, so that Sufism became a full-fledged movement that had moved towards mysticism and away from its ascetic roots, while Shi'ism splintered into different groups, due to disagreements over the succession of Imams, many of them developing their own emphasis on mysticism.

Beginning in the 13th century, Sufism underwent a transformation, largely due to the efforts of al-Ghazzali to legitimise and reorganise Sufism. He developed the model of the Sufi order – a community of spiritual teachers and students. Another important development for Sufism was the editing of the Masnavi, a collection of mystical poetry by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. The Masnavi had a profound influence on the development of Sufi religious thought, and for many Sufis it is second in importance only to the Qur'an.

Sufism (Arabic: تصوف‎, taṣawwuf, Turkish: tasavvuf, Persian: صوفیگری, sufigari) is not a denomination within Islam. Instead, it is understood as the mystical-ascetic dimension of Islam. By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion, Sufis strive to obtain direct experience of God by making use of “intuitive and emotional faculties” that one must be trained to use. Most Sufi orders or brotherhoods are known as tariqas. They may be associated with Sunni Islam or Shia Islam, although the major ones, such as the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders, are associated with traditional Sunni Islam.

The word Sufi is said to originate from Arabic صوف‎ (sūf), the Arabic word for wool, referring to the simple cloaks the early Muslim ascetics wore. Others say the root word of Sufi is the Arabic صفا (safā), meaning purity, referring to the Sufi emphasis on purity of heart and soul.

Others suggest the origin is from Ašhab as-Sufā (“Companions of the Porch”) or Ahl as-Sufā (“People of the Porch”) – a group of devout Muslims who spent much of their time on the veranda of Mohammad’s mosque, devoted to prayer. However, the 10th century Persian historian Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī linked the word sūfīya with the Greek word Sophia (wisdom, especially divine wisdom).

A practitioner of Sufism is generally known as a Sufi (Arabic: صُوفِيّ‎), although some senior members of the tradition reserve this term for those who have attained the goals of the Sufi tradition. Another common name is the word Dervish (derived from Persian: درویش , darwīš).

Almost all traditional Sufi schools or orders trace their chains of transmission back to Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Naqshbandi order is a notable exception, and traces its origins to the first Caliph, Abdullah (Abu Bakr).

Sheikh Ahmad Zarruq, a 15th century Sufi master, wrote in his major work The Principles of Sufism that Sufism is “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.” Sheikh Ahmad ibn Ajiba, a famous Moroccan Sufi, defined Sufism as “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”

Sufis believe that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is alive. The chief aim of all Sufis is to let go of all notions of duality, including any concept of an individual self, and to realise the Divine unity.

Sufis teachers make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor, and it is held by Sufis that meaning can only be reached through a process of seeking the truth, and knowledge of oneself. Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience.

Junayd al-Baghdadi was among the first theorists of Sufism. He concerned himself with fanā and baqā, the state of annihilating the self in the presence of the divine, accompanied by clarity concerning worldly phenomena derived from the altitude of that perspective. Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm bin Hian, Hasan al-Basri and Sayid ibn al-Mussib are regarded as the first mystics among the Taabi'een in Islam. Rabia al-Basri was a female Sufi and known for her love and passion for God.

A significant part of oriental literature comes from the Sufis, who created books of poetry containing the teachings of the Sufis. Some of the more notable examples of this poetry are Attar’s Conference of the Birds and Rumi’s Mathnawi.

Rumi, or Mevlana Celaleddin-i-Rumi (Jalal-e-Din Rūmī, 1207-1273) was a universal mystic and a devout Muslim. His way of Sufism teaches unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. The Mevlevi order was formalised and propagated by his son Sultan Walad and the scribe of the Mathnawi, Husamaddin Chalabi.

From 1200-1500, the Classical Period or the Golden Age of Sufism, there was an increase in Sufi activity throughout the Islamic world. This period is considered as. Lodges and hospices soon became not only places to house Sufi students, but also places for practicing Sufis and other mystics to stay and retreat.

Mujaddid Alf Sani, a 17th century reformer of the Naqshbandi order, is also a seminal personality in the propagation of Sufism, as he began a movement that aimed to purify Islam by returning to the Quran and the Sunna as the basic sources for Islam, while maintaining the integrity of the spiritual dimension of Islam.

Sufi practices

Dhikr is recollecting or remembering the name of God, which is commanded in the Qur'an for all Muslims. This has been one of the most fundamental features of Sufism from the beginning. To engage in dhikr is to have awareness of God. The practice of dhikr within Sufism is a devotional act including the repetition of the divine names, supplications and aphorisms from the hadith literature, and sections of the Qur'an. Some Sufi orders have developed ritualised dhikr ceremonies that may include recitation, singing, instrumental music, dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance.

Sufism has produced a large body of poetry alongside numerous traditions of devotional dance, such as Sufi whirling, and music, such as Qawwali, a form of devotional Sufi music found throughout Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey and known for its secular strains.

Music and dance are among the spiritual practices associated with the “whirling dervishes”

Sama or Sema' (Arabic “listening”) refers to Sufi practices that can involve the sort of music and dance associated with the “whirling dervishes.” The practice of Sufi whirling or spinning (Arabic: رقص سماع) is a twirling meditation that originated among the Turkish Sufis, and it is still practiced by the dervishes of the Mevlevi order. It is a symbolic ritual through which dervishes (semazens) aim to reach the “perfect” (kemal). They try to desert their nafs, egos or personal bad desires by listening to their master and to Sufi music, thinking about God and whirling.

In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the semazen’s camel-hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego. His wide, white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, the semazen holds his arms crosswise, to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is pointed towards the sky, ready to receive God’s blessings; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned towards the earth. The semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. Rumi says: “All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”

Recently, there was a performance by Whirling Dervishes in the Vatican, providing an occasion to discuss the diverse nature of Islam.

Sufism emphasises non-quantifiable matters, such as states of the heart. The authors of many Sufi treatises used allegorical language to describe these states, in some cases comparing them with intoxication, which is forbidden in Islam. Some groups even considered themselves above the Sharia and spoke of Sufism as a method of by-passing the rules of Islam in order to attain salvation directly.

Sufi mystical poetry

Rumi (1207-1273) was a Sufi mystic who founded the Mevlevi order, known as the Whirling Dervishes. His masterpiece, the six-volume Mathnawi, dates from 1248 on, and was first written in Persian, and includes parables, ecstatic love odes, jokes and practical advice on meditation. In recent years, he has received new popularity in the west.

One of his best-loved poems is The Mouse and the Frog, from which I quote:

A mouse and a frog met every morning
on the riverbank.
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk.

Each morning, the second they see each other,
they open easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding-back.
To watch and listen to those two
is to understand how, as it’s written,
sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.

Or another poem from Rumi:

A soul not clothed with Love
brings shame on its existence.
Be drunk on Love,
for Love is all that exists.
They ask, ‘What is Love?’
Say, ‘Renouncing your will.’
He who has not renounced will
has no will at all.
The lover is a mighty king,
standing above the two worlds.
A king does not look
at what is beneath him.
Only Love and lovers
have eternal life.
Set your hearts on this alone;
the rest is merely borrowed.

(Divani-I Shamsi-I Tabrizi 455: A1:54, translation John Daldock).

Two other examples are provided by Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyyah (ca 717-801), who is one of the best-known saints in Islam and a prominent figure in Sufi mysticism. Her poetry and writings have been compared with those of the later great Spanish mystics, including Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Consider these words from her:

“Love of God hath so absorbed me that neither love nor hate nor any other thing remains in my heart.”

A lifelong celibate, her devotion and love for God was so great that she is credited with being one of the first great Sufis to give ecstatic voice to the theme of Divine Love. Her poems about the love of God are among the first love poems in Sufi literature.

I love thee with two loves, love of my happiness,
And perfect love, to love thee as is my due.
My selfish love is that I do naught
But think on thee, excluding all beside;
But that purest love, which is thy due,
Is that the veils which hide thee fall, and I gaze on thee,
No praise to me in either this or that,
Nay, thine the praise for both that love and this.


The 99 names of God

In Indonesia, a growing number of young students and affluent housewives are being attracted to Sufi prayer services, especially Thursday night gatherings when followers sing the 99 names of God.

The Sufi practice of meditating on the 99 names of God found in the Qur'an has become popular throughout the Islamic world. These 99 names, which do not include the name Allah, are usually listed as:

1, Ar-Rahman, the All-Compassionate
2, Ar-Rahim, the All-Merciful
3, Al-Malik, the Absolute Ruler
4, Al-Quddus, the Pure One
5, As-Salam, the Source of Peace
6, Al-Mu'min, the Inspirer of Faith
7, Al-Muhaymin, the Guardian
8, Al-'Aziz, the Victorious
9, Al-Jabbar, the Compeller
10, Al-Mutakabbir, the Greatest
11, Al-Khaliq, the Creator
12, Al-Bari', the Maker of Order
13, Al-Musawwir, the Shaper of Beauty
14, Al-Ghaffar, the Forgiving
15, Al-Qahhar, the Subduer
16, Al-Wahhab, the Giver of All
17, Ar-Razzaq, the Sustainer
18, Al-Fattah, the Opener
19, Al-'Alim, the Knower of All
20, Al-Qabid, the Constrictor
21, Al-Basit, the Reliever
22, Al-Khafid, the Abaser
23, Ar-Rafi', the Exalter
24, Al-Mu'izz, the Bestower of Honours
25, Al-Mudhill, the Humiliator
26, As-Sami, the Hearer of All
27, Al-Basir, the Seer of All
28, Al-Hakam, the Judge
29, Al-'Adl, the Just
30, Al-Latif, the Subtle One
31, Al-Khabir, the All-Aware
32, Al-Halim, the Forbearing
33, Al-'Azim, the Magnificent
34, Al-Ghafur, the Forgiver and Hider of Faults
35, Ash-Shakur, the Rewarder of Thankfulness
36, Al-'Ali, the Highest
37, Al-Kabir, the Greatest
38, Al-Hafiz, the Preserver
39, Al-Muqit, the Nourisher
40, Al-Hasib, the Accounter
41, Al-Jalil, the Mighty
42, Al-Karim, the Generous
43, Ar-Raqib, the Watchful One
44, Al-Mujib, the Responder to Prayer
45, Al-Wasi', the All-Comprehending
46, Al-Hakim, the Perfectly Wise
47, Al-Wadud, the Loving One
48, Al-Majíd, the Majestic One
49, Al-Ba'ith, the Resurrector
50, Ash-Shahid, the Witness
51, Al-Haqq, the Truth
52, Al-Wakil, the Trustee
53, Al-Qawi, the Possessor of All Strength
54, Al-Matin, the Forceful One
55, Al-Wáli, the Governor
56, Al-Hamid, the Praised One
57, Al-Muhsi, the Appraiser
58, Al-Mubdi, the Originator
59, Al-Mu'id, the Restorer
60, Al-Muhyi, the Giver of Life
61, Al-Mumit, the Taker of Life
62, Al-Hayy, the Ever-Living One
63, Al-Qayyum, the Self-Existing One
64, Al-Wajid, the Finder
65, Al-Májid, the Glorious
66, Al-Wahid, the Only One
67, Al-Ahad, the One
68, As-Samad, the Satisfier of All Needs
69, Al-Qadir, the All-Powerful
70, Al-Muqtadir, the Creator of All Power
71, Al-Muqaddim, the Expediter
72, Al-Mu'akhkhir, the Delayer
73, Al-Awwal, the First
74, Al-Akhir, the Last
75, Az-Zahir, the Manifest One
76, Al-Batin, the Hidden One
77, Al-Walí, the Protecting Friend
78, Al-Muta'ali, the Supreme One
79, Al-Barr, the Doer of Good
80, At-Tawwib, the Guide to Repentance
81, Al-Muntaqim, the Avenger
82, Al-Afu, the Forgiver
83, Ar-Ra'uf, the Clement
84, Malik al-Mulk, the Owner of All
85, Dhul-Jalali Wal-Ikram, the Lord of Majesty and Bounty
86, Al-Muqsit, the Equitable One
87, Al-Jami, the Gatherer
88, Al-Ghani, the Rich One
89, Al-Mughni, the Enricher
90, Al-Mani', the Preventer of Harm
91, Ad-Darr, the Creator of the Harmful
92, An-Nafi, the Creator of Good
93, An-Nur, the Light
94, Al-Hadi, the Guide
95, Al-Badi, the Originator
96, Al-Baqi, the Everlasting One
97, Al-Warith, the Inheritor of All
98, Ar-Rashid, the Righteous Teacher
99, As-Sabur, the Patient One

The word Allah simply means the God. Do you think any of the 99 Names would be out of place in a Christian litany?

Which names do you think have Biblical resonances?

Compare 73 and 74, the First and the Last, with the Alpha and the Omega.

How about the way, the truth and the light?

How adequate are our resources for naming and calling on God? How limited are those resources?

Do you find the forms of addressing God in the collects in the Book of Common Prayer limiting?

The Christian composer John Tavener was commissioned by Prince Charles to write The Beautiful Names, a musical setting for the 99 Names of God drawn from the Qur'an and performed in Westminster Abbey. This eclectic work draws inspiration from several religions other than Islam and Christianity, but has provoked unease among Christians who regard it as inappropriate for performance in a Christian church.

Christopher Howse, a Roman Catholic columnist with the Daily Telegraph, wrote: “The word Allah refers to the same God that Jews and Christians worship. There is no doubt of that. He is the God of Abraham and Isaac; the one living God. He is the God that Jesus worshipped and whom he invoked, in Aramaic, as he died on the cross, calling on him by the name Eloi.” However, these views also drew a storm of protest.

Christian-Muslim dialogue

In 2006, an Open Letter was signed by 100 leading Islamic authorities and scholars in response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address. This was been followed in 2007 with a new message from 138 Muslim leaders addressed to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others, calling for co-operation on the basis of the fundamental principles of love of God and neighbour, the “two great commandments” recalled by Jesus in Mark 12: 29-31.

They said commandments to love of God and neighbour – found in both the Qur’an and the Bible – are the “common word” that offers to the encounter between Islam and Christianity “the most solid theological foundation possible.”

The official website of the second letter can be found here.

Some reading

Coleman Barks has translated three volumes of translation of Rumi’s poetry: Like This, Open Secret and We are three.

John Baldock, The Essence of Rumi (London: Arcturus, 2006).
John Baldock, The Essence of Sufism (Royston: Eagle/Arcturus, 2004).
John Bowker, Voices of Islam (Oxford: One World, 1995).
Colin Chapman, Cross & Crescent: responding to the challenge of Islam (Leicester: IVP, 1995).
Patrick Comerford, Reflections of the Bible in the Qur’an: a Comparison of Scriptural traditions in Christianity and Islam (Dublin: National Bible Society of Ireland, 2008).
J.S. Cutsinger, Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East (Bloomington IN: World Wisdom, 2002).
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: a journey in the shadow of Byzantium (London: Flamingo/Harper Collins, 1998).
Hugh Goddard, Christians & Muslims: From double standards to mutual understanding (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1995).
B.E. Hinze and I.A. Omar (eds), Heirs of Abraham: the future of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Relations (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2005).
Michael Ipgrave (ed), The Road Ahead: a Christian-Muslim Dialogue (London: Church House, 2002).
Michael Ipgrave (ed), Scriptures in Dialogue: Christians and Muslims studying the Bible and the Qur'an together (London: Church House, 2004).
Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Michael Nazir-Ali, Islam: A Christian Perspective (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1983).
Michael Nazir-Ali, Mission and Dialogue (London: SPCK, 1995).
Leslie Newbigin, Lamin Sanneh and Jenny Taylor, Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in ‘Secular’ Britain (London: SPCK, 1998).
Malise Ruthven, Islam in the West (London: Penguin, 2000).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a seminar with Year III students on the course, “Spirituality for Today,” on 1 April 2009. He is the author of Reflections of the Bible in the Qur’an: a Comparison of Scriptural traditions in Christianity and Islam, available from the National Bible Society of Ireland, 41 Dawson Street, Dublin 2 (ISBN 0954867238).

The Book of Revelation (2): Revelation 1: 1-8, the Prologue

A 16th century Russian Orthodox icon of the Apocalypse, the Bookof Revelation

Patrick Comerford

Revelation 1: 1-8, the Prologue

1 Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἣν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεός, δεῖξαι τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐν τάχει, καὶ ἐσήμανεν ἀποστείλας διὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου αὐτοῦ τῷ δούλῳ αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννῃ, 2 ὃς ἐμαρτύρησεν τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὅσα εἶδεν.

3 μακάριος ὁ ἀναγινώσκων
καὶ οἱ ἀκούοντες τοὺς λόγους τῆς προφητείας
καὶ τηροῦντες τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ γεγραμμένα,
ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς ἐγγύς.

4 Ἰωάννης ταῖς ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαις ταῖς ἐν τῇ Ἀσίᾳ:

χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἑπτὰ πνευμάτων ἃ ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου αὐτοῦ, 5 καὶ ἀπὸ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς. Τῷ ἀγαπῶντι ἡμᾶς καὶ λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ αἵματι αὐτοῦ 6 καὶ ἐποίησεν ἡμᾶς βασιλείαν, ἱερεῖς τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας [τῶν αἰώνων]: ἀμήν.

7 Ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται μετὰ τῶν νεφελῶν,
καὶ ὄψεται αὐτὸν πᾶς ὀφθαλμὸς
καὶ οἵτινες αὐτὸν ἐξεκέντησαν,
καὶ κόψονται ἐπ' αὐτὸν πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς.
ναί, ἀμήν.

8 Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ’Ω, λέγει κύριος ὁ θεός, ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, ὁ παντοκράτωρ.

1, The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy,
and blessed are those who hear
and who keep what is written in it;
for the time is near.

4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

7 Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.

8 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Introduction:

We saw in our introduction to the Book of Revelation (The Book of Revelation (1): an Introduction) how Dean Stephen Smalley divides this book into the following four main sections, the Prologue, two principal acts, and the Epilogue:

● Prologue: The Oracle is Disclosed (1: 1-8);

● Act 1: Creation, and Salvation through Judgment (1: 9 to 11: 19);

● Act 2: Salvation through Judgement, and New Creation (12: 1 to 22: 17);

● Epilogue: The Oracle is Complete (22: 18-21).

The first section of the Book of Revelation (1: 1-8), the Prologue, introduces this theological and literary composition with its strong, over-arching and dramatic structure.

The Prologue itself is easily divided into two smaller parts: the superscription (verses 1 to 3) and the address or salutation and doxology (verses 4 to 8).

The Oracle is Disclosed (1: 1-8)

Superscription: The Revelation to John (1: 1-3):

These three opening verses set out the origin of John’s Revelation, its content and the effect on those who proclaim and receive its teachings.

Verse 1:

The word apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις) is used without a definite article – this is a revelation rather than the revelation, as the NRSV and other translations render it. This is a revelation that is part of God’s ongoing self-revelation or disclosure rather than the definitive revelation that is never repeated.

It is the revelation of Jesus Christ, mediated to John from the Son, as the Father gave it to him, declaring to his followers what the Father has made known to him.

The exalted title Jesus Christ is used here, and twice more in the Prologue – in verses 2 and 5. But in other places John also uses “Jesus” alone nine times, “Lord Jesus” twice and “(the) Lord” once.

Jesus himself is the subject of the disclosure or revelation which is to be made known. The disclosure or revelation is to be made known to “his servants,” the Christian prophets, of whom John is one. The word for “to make known” here has the same root as the word for a sign in the Fourth Gospel, which is a miracle that discloses the significance of Jesus. In other words, we are about to be told something that has deep significance and that involves deep truths.

Those who are to receive this message are to be told of what must (δεῖ) take place swiftly, although this indicates more that they will be accomplished as the completion of God’s plans, rather than having a hasty conclusion in our own temporal history.

John names himself as the writer, unlike the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine letters, where the writer is not named. But John identifies himself only as a servant or slave (δουλος) of the Lord, and gives us no other clues to his identity. Yet traditionally he is accepted as John the Disciple or John the Divine (John the Theologian), who also lived in Ephesus.

John receives this revelation from a messenger or angel (αγγελος). Angels play an important role in this book, where they are mentioned 67 times: they share in the worship of heaven around the throne of God, mediate revelation, interpret visions, are agents of God in implementing judgement, are the heavenly counterparts of the seven churches of Asia as the spirituality of the earthly congregations, and they act and speak on God’s behalf.

Verse 2:

John now moves to introducing and describing the content of that revelation, to which he bears witness – for which he is a martyr for Christ’s sake. The evidence of this witness will be presented before the Court of God, in the court of heaven, presided over by God, who is true and just.

John says he bore witness to “the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” These two phrases occur again three times in the Book of Revelation (1: 9; 6: 9; 20: 4). In those three later cases, these phrases refer to the totality of Christian revelation. Here, however, it refers to “all that he (John) saw” (ὅσα εἶδεν), or, literally, “everything that he perceived”, or “whatsoever he saw.” And so this is what we are being introduced to.

Verse 3:

The superscription concludes with a poetic stanza of four lines, although this poetic style and presentation is lost in most translations and printings.

This blessing is a promise of blessings for those who read this book aloud. This presumes a liturgical, community reading of the Book, as opposed to a private meditation on it. And so it is surprising to learn that there are no provisions for the readings from this book in the original table of readings in the Book of Common Prayer, nor is this book read liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

This is the first of seven blessings in the Book of Revelation – the other six can be found in 14: 13; 16: 15; 19: 9; 20: 6; 22: 7; and 22: 14. The first blessing here in 1: 3 forms an emphatic closure with the first blessing in the final chapter (22: 7): “happy is the one who adheres to the words of the prophecy of this book.”

In the original Greek, there is a closer link between those who listen or hear and those who keep what is written in it, those who adhere to its teachings. To listen is to follow, to believe is to live a life of discipleship. Hearing the Good News calls for an active response, blessings need to be acted on, faith must be expressed in how we live our lives, the Gospel demands response, participation and active out-working.

The time that is near is not chronological time but a καιρος (kairos) moment, the time when things are brought to crisis, the decisive epoch that has been waited for, the opportune or seasonable time, the critically and divinely ordained moment within history as a whole. The hour of fulfilment has arrived, the reign of God has broken in, and we are called to respond in repentance and with faith. The present, the past and the future stand under the judgment of God.

The Address, or the Salutation and Doxology (1: 4-8):

The Address (verses 4 to 8), or Salutation and Doxology, includes John’s greeting to the Seven Churches of Asia making up the Johannine community in Asia Minor (present day Western Turkey).

There is a careful symmetry of the benediction in verses 4 to 6.

Verse 4:

The first verse of the address is a familiar form found also in the New Testament epistles (see I Corinthians 1: 1-13; Ephesians 1: 1-2; or compare with II John 1-3). It includes the name of the author, the identity of the recipients, and a benediction followed by a doxology. In this, we could understand and read the whole of the Book of Revelation as an epistle in its literary form – but it is much more than that, for it is also apocalypse and visionary prophecy.

For the first time, John reveals his identity and addresses directly the seven member churches in Asian Minor that are part of the Johannine circle. Although he names these churches precisely later in verse 11, we should not miss the symbolism of the number seven. Seven is a sacred number in the Old Testament, in rabbinic literature, there are seven signs in the Fourth Gospel, there are seven scenes in Revelation and seven visions, each vision consisting of seven item and each vision corresponding to the seven days of Creation.

There are many numbers in Revelation, and each number is symbolic. There are seven letters to seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions of the dragons and kingdoms, seven visions of the worshipers of the Lamb, seven visions of the bowels of wrath, and seven visions of the fall of Babylon. Seven times seven is symbolic of the total, absolute, perfect completion of everything – the ultimate revelation. So, the Book of Revelation is the total revelation of everything concerning Christians living in the world since Jesus Christ. Because seven is symbolic of perfection, six must mean that there is something lacking, something that is not quite there, something inadequate ... Sometimes Revelation will say three and a half, meaning a short time.

At the same time, nevertheless, we should not forget that the seven churches are living communities, with their own problems and potentials. While John’s vision speaks to every age and generation, the Book of Revelation also contains specific messages for his generation and his own followers.

John wishes them grace and peace in a formula that is reminiscent of the greetings in the Pauline epistles, and that is found also in II John. It is a greeting that combines Hellenistic (grace) and Hebrew (peace) salutations, and so this greeting also serves to symbolise the unity that should exist between the two groups of believers in the Johannine community. More theologically, we could also say that grace is God’s love in action and peace should be the result of that love in action.

Grace and peace found their true source in the Triune God, the one “who is and who was and who is to come,” the one who says “I am who I am.” The eternal God breaks through all the barriers of time and space, past, present and future.

Secondly, this grace and peace come from the seven spirits who are in front of God’s throne. Who are these seven spirits? Some commentators have suggested that they are the seven archangels that are named in Jewish tradition as Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Saraqa’el, Gabriel and Remiel. Others have identified them as the “seven spirits of God,” the leaders of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, the seven torches of fire burning before the throne of God, the seven eyes of the Lamb, the seven sent out on a mission to the whole world, or even the seven planets traditionally identified in Greek cosmology.

However, Smalley points out that seven is the number of perfection, and that this is more likely a reference to the Spirit of God manifested in his completeness. The traditional gifts of the Spirit were originally six: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11: 2-3), and these found their completion or perfection with the seventh gift: godliness.

Smalley’s interpretation allows us to see this a Trinitarian blessing, from God as Father, Son (in verse 5) and Holy Spirit, but in an unusual order that that we find again in this book, for example in the vision in chapters 4 and 5, where God is seated on the throne (4: 2-3), before which are the seven spirits (4: 5), and to which the Lamb comes to take the scroll from the hand of God (5: 6-7).

Verse 5:

The blessing of grace and peace is completed with the invocation of Jesus Christ, who is described in a threefold way as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Some commentators suggest that this threefold description – witness, firstborn and ruler – refers to Christ’s work in the past, present and future, or that they correspond to a three-fold message in this book, which is at once a divine testimony, a revelation of the Risen Lord, and a foretaste of what is to happen.

As “the faithful witness” – a description used only here and in 3: 14 – Christ himself is the archetype for the martyrs, a role he exercises both in history and beyond it. In the Fourth Gospel, Christ testifies or bears witness to, is a martyr for the truth that he has received from the Father (for examples, see John 3: 32, 5: 31, 8: 18, 18: 37).

As “the firstborn of the dead,” he is not only the firstborn who plays a crucial role in the salvation and liberation at Passover and the Exodus, but he is fulfilment of the Messianic hope for “the firstborn, the highest of earthly kings” (Psalm 89: 27), who is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Christ “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” The concept of being released from our sins through the blood (αἷμα, haima) of Christ is a particularly Johannine image, found also in the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Letters. We often think of being saved by the blood of Christ in terms of his passion and death. But the word αἷμα refers first and foremost not to blood shed in death but to blood as the source and seat of life.

The Blood Transfusion Service has a slogan: “Give the gift of life, give blood.” I remember my first failed effort to donate blood at the age of 20 in Wexford, failed because I immediately queasy when I saw other people’s blood dripping out of their out-stretched arms. Now, at 57, I’m glad my stomach is a little stronger as I go for regular blood tests and injections because of my Vitamin B12 deficiency. It is not comforting to hear stories about a near-neighbour with the same condition who needed life-saving transfusions. But that’s what blood means here: it is the source and the guarantee of the continuity of life. Although medicine has advanced, we still see blood as the source of life: a wedding ring is placed on the “leech finger,” which was believed to contain a vein that led directly to the heart, or we talk about “pure blood” and “blood relations,” in terms that recall those times when blood was though to be the substance through which heredity, the life-line, was transmitted from generation to generation.

Blood was thought to contain “the life of the flesh (Leviticus 17: 11). This is why it was reprehensible for Cain to pour his brother’s blood into the earth (Exodus 4: 10-12). That is why it was forbidden to eat the blood of a slaughtered animal (Leviticus 17: 10-16), and why Gentile converts to Christianity were to abstain from blood (see Acts 15: 20; 21: 25).

If we are saved by the blood of Christ then, as we say in the Litany, we are saved “by the mystery” of Christ’s full life, his “holy incarnation, … birth, childhood and obedience, … baptism, fasting and temptation, … ministry in word and work, … mighty acts of power, … preaching of the kingdom … agony and trial … cross and passion … precious death and burial … mighty resurrection … glorious ascension … and … sending of the Holy Spirit.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 176.)

So the blood of Christ that frees us is his full life, from birth, through life, passion, death and resurrection, to the promise of his coming again.

A second use of the word αἷμα – not just at the time Revelation was being written, but even to this day in poetic Greek – is found in its colloquial and literary use to refer to those things that resemble blood, such as dark grape juice and dark wine. This image is drawn on further again in Revelation 14: 20. Is there therefore a second reference here to meeting the saving Christ in the Eucharist and as the Eucharistic community? This is possible when we bear in mind that John is writing to the Church, to the Eucharistic communities, of Asia Minor.

Verse 6:

This three-fold description of Jesus is followed by a three-fold doxology that continues through into verse 6: he is worthy of glory and dominion for ever and ever, for he “loves us,” he “freed us from our sins,” and (in verse 6), he “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”

The love of Christ for us is linked intimately with his passion and death, but this one moment in history continues and his love is continuous.

Christ has made us, or he has appointed us, “a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is described as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19: 5-6; see Isaiah 61: 6).

The doxology closes with the invocation of glory and might. Glory (δόξα, doxa), which belongs to God in the Bible, is used 18 times in the Fourth Gospel, 17 times in the Book of Revelation, but not once in the Johannine letters. For a community who are oppressed by the present mighty rulers, that fact that power or might (κράτος, kratos) belongs ultimately with God is a powerful and assuring message.

Verse 7:

And it is in that glory and might that we can expect Christ to come again. Our present ever-day concerns will pass with the coming reality.

Notice how Christ comes with the clouds, rather than on them or, as Mark and Luke put it, in the clouds. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the presence of God is associated with clouds.

John here draws on the apocalyptic visions found in Zechariah (chapter 12) and Daniel (chapter 7), which are also alluded to in the Gospels (Matthew 24: 30, John 19: 37). The word used for “pierced” here by the author might be more directly translated as “stabbed.”

And when he comes, all the people of the earth will lament, not for themselves, but on his account … because of his suffering on their behalf. But will they repent? John does not say.

Finally there is an emphatic and solemn double affirmation, in Greek and in Hebrew, that this is to be: ναί, ἀμήν, Yes! Amen!

The use of both languages is significant here, for one of the problems the Johannine community was facing was the division between the Jews and the Greeks, Judaising Christians and the Hellenistic Christians.

Verse 8:

Christ the Pantokrator, enthroned and with the Bible open at the Alpha and Omega of Revelation ... an icon from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Oregon

This prologue concludes with God speaking directly: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There are only two occasions in this book in which God speaks directly – here and in 21: 3-8. Here again we have a Johannine “I AM” saying: Ἐγώ εἰμι. Here God declares that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (see Isaiah 44: 6).

He is the ruler of all, the παντοκράτωρ (Pantocrator). And with this is there is a reminder that God is the universal and sovereign ruler and the power controlling the entire drama of salvation. God is the living and eternal source and goal of human history. God is in control of this world and all human activity within it. God is the eternal origin and goal of history. He is and was and is to come.

Conclusion:

In the prologue, we have moved between heaven and earth and back again. We have been introduced to the drama that is about to unfold and to be played out in the Book of Revelation. Past, present and future, the temporal and the eternal, have been drawn together. The Day of the Lord is at hand … indeed, it has already begun to dawn for us. Like John’s Disciples in the seven churches in Asia Minor, we can have confidence to face the future..

Next: Revelation 1: 9-20 (John’s vision of the Son of Man, and the Commission to Write).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on 1 April 2009.