Themes from the Holy Quran Seen Through Native American Eyes
Race and Color
The spring 1992 issue of Islamic Horizons had on its cover a symbol of unity – hands holding a rople. Among the tan, brown and yellow hands were two red ones – symbolizing Native Americans. I decided to share with Muslims – native American and otherwise – how some of the themse in the Qur’an correspond to Native American spiritual traditions.
“Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and colors. In that are signs for those who have knowledge.” Qur’an 30:22
“Do you see not that God sends down rain from the sky to bring forth produce of various colors? And in the mountains are streaks of white and red of various shades, and intense black. And so people, animals and livestock are of various colors. Those among God’s servants who truly reverence Him have knowledge, for God is mighty and forgiving.” Quran 35:27-28.
“Grandfather (Sioux expression meaning God)...Let my hopes, dreams and ambitions be not for me But rather for my fellow man…be he red, white black or yellow.” 1
Native Americans today are a variegated group—culturally Indian, but whose ancestors include Europeans, Africans, Asians, Polynesians, and others. Because of this, there are Nativee American gtribal members and activits who range from blond/bue-eyed to Black, in addition to those who look typically Indian.”
This diversity, coupled with Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) insistence on “defining” who is an Indian, has led to considerable debate among Indians regarding who is an Indian: ful blood vs. mixed blood; reservations vs. off-reservation dwellers; traditionalist vs. moderns; tribal members vs. non-members in a BIA-recognized tribe. Recently, however, there has been a growing movement among Indians to define ourselves - as people who have Native Ameircan ancestry, who try to live by traditional values, and who are
oyal to and serve the Native American people.
The Original Instruction
Indian traditions refer to the Original Instructions -- religion given by the Creator at the dawn of time. It corresponds to the Islamic idea of Din ul-Fitr:
"Devote yourself completely to the Faith, and adhere to the maind. There is no altering of the laws o God's creation. That is the right religion, but most of mankind doesn't understand that." Qur'an 30:30
"Original Instructions " does not refer to the set of doctrines or rituals, but rather to remembering God always and trying to follow His guidance, practising responsibility and compassion for all reatures; self-sufficiency and generosity; and learning God's laws gthrough His creation. The phrase is often heard among Indians: Do everything in a sacred manner." It involves direct experiences with God and His creation, rather than abstract reasoning.
"There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely right has become distinct from wrong,; so whoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handhod which knows no breaking. And Allah is all-hearing, all-knowing. Allah is the protecting friends of those who believe; He leads them out of every kind of darkness into light. And those who disbleieve, their friends are the transgressor who bring them out of light into every kind of darkness." Qur'an 2:256-257
It should not be implied that the Original Instructions are universally followed in Indian communities. Over the centuries extraneous beliefs and practices have sometimes gotten mixed into Native American religions -- sometimes with good results, sometimes with not so good. Prior to the 1492 invasion, we were exposed to Middle Eastern paganism and sun worship, and elements from British Isles witchcraft. Since the invasion, we have seem many Indians adopt various Christian creeds. There are also a few Indian Buddhists and Muslims, and quite a number of Bahai and Mormons. In addition, there is the "New Age Indian" phenomenon -- elements of Indian culture and spirituality superimposed upon, or mixed with, materialism, group therapy, and occultism (involving powe-seeking, ritual magic, and sometimes a pantheon of gods from all over the world.) There are now Indians calling for a return to Original Instructions, and a weeding out of bad influences from our traditions.
Seeing God in Creation
“In the heavens and the earth are signs for those who believe. And in the creation of yourselves and the animals scattered througout the earth are signs for those with sure faith. Also in the alternation of night and day, and the sustenance that God sends down from the sky to revive the earth after its death, and in the ordering of the winds—there are signs for those who understand.” Qur’an 45:3-5.
“We were lawless people, but we were on pretty good terms with the Great Spirit, creator and ruler of all…We saw the Great Spirit’s work in almost everything: sun, moon, trees, wind, and mountains. Sometimes we approached Him through these things. i think we have a true belief in the Supreme Being…Indians living close to nature and nature’s ruler are not living in darkness.” Walking Buffalo 2.
“Traditionalists wknow what is right…they know the Creator even though we cannot understand this force which is so much more powerful than our experience. Because we are close to everything that God has made, we are close to God. We know that an offesne against any part of creation is an offense against the Creator and against ourselves.” 3
Man’s Relationship to Nature
“There is not an animal on earth or a winged creature that flies, but are communities like you. We have left nothing out of the Book. They shall be all gathered to their Lord.” Qur’an 6.
“Don’t you see that it is God whom all beings in the heavens and on earth praise, and the birds of the air with outspread wings? Each knows its own manner of prayer and praise, and God is aware of all that they do.“Qur’an 24:31.
Black Elk (Oglala Sioux) in the introdution to his autobiography, stated:
“My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life…It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds, and the winged of the air and all green things; for those are children of one mother (earth) and their father is one Spirit (God.) 4
Various Indian sayings reflect this relationship to God’s creatures. The Sioux phrase, “Mitakuye Oyasin” (all my relations) refers to other creatures of earth as brothers and equals before God. Then ther e is the philosophy of “Respect” among all Indians—that God’s creatures are to be respected—as brothers not as servants, as equals, not as inferiors, as respected fellow travelers along the path of God; and as teachers not as soul-less thigns ruled by a hypothetical “instinct.” Indans often refer to other creatures as people—crow people, deer people, plant people, rock people, fish people, etc.
Three Eagles, Band Chief of the United Southwestern Allegheny Nations has said:
“To Native Americans, spiritual refinement and practice is normal. Before Amerindian culture was so disrupted by the devastations of unpracticed values, diseases and invasion it was commonplace to develop the gifts of communicating with all life. It is still practiced some today by those who have kept or recovered their knowledge. With it goes a tremendous responsibility to keep in balance.” 5
The Two Paths
The Quran refers to the straight path (1:6) and to the right-hand and left-hand paths:
“...and showm (man) the two highways? And what will explain to you the steep path? It is freeing the bondman, or giving food in a time of difficult to an orphan who is a relative, or to the poor man in the dust. Then he will be one of those who believe, and encourage steadfastness and compassion. Such are the companions of the right-hand path. But those who reject our revelations, they are the companions of the left-hand path; they will be covered over with fire.”
The scholar Joseph Epes Brown, in the Sacred Pipe—Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, notes:
“The red raod” is ...the good or straight way…similarto the Christian “straight and narrow way”; it is the vertical of the cross or the Siratal mustaqim of the Islamic traditions. On the other hand, there is the blue or black road of the Sioux…whihc is the path of error and destruction. He who travels on this path as Black Elk has said, “one who is distracted, who is ruled by his senses, and who lives for himself rather than for his people…“7
Charity and Zakat
In most Indian traditions, acumulation of wealth is not a legitimate goal, and greed and acqisitiveness are considered unworthy behavior. There is the Plains Indian tradition of the “giveaway” where someone on a special occasion would give away food and personal possessions to those assembled.
“...in give-aways, were symbolized one of the values basic to most Native American communities in aboriginal times: sharing and community responsibility toward its individual and kin members. Give-aways were one method of distribution wealth among members of the community. The were also a way of acknowledging that the tribe was composed of related members, like a family, all of whom were dependent on each other.” 8
“And among us (jinn) are those who are righteous, and those who are less than righteous, and we follow differing paths. And we know that we cannot frustrate God’s plan on earth, nor can we flee from Him. And when we heard teh guidance, we believed in it. Whoever believes in his Lord shall not fear hardship nor oppression. Among us are those who submit to God (Muslims) and some who have deviated from what is just. And those who submit (to God) hae chosen the right path.” Quran 72:11-14.
For an Indian, a spirit is an intelligence without a material body. There is no hierarchical classification system implied. Some serve God, and some don’t—and are to be avoided. Sprits are considered to be routinely present at spiritual functions, and have been known to make theier presence known (by lights and sounds.)
The theme of gratitude is Allah recurs throughout the Qur’an, and Muslims are reminded in prayer.
“Allah hears those who are grateful to Him…O Lord, we give you thanks.”
Gratitude to God for life, sustenance, and for all creation, is an essential part of Native American philosophy. In every sweat lodge i have attended (is like a prayer meeting held in a sauna) the leader starts the prayers—with prayers and songs of thanksgiving and gratitude, not of petition (although during the proceeding petitions are offered—very often for God’s guidance and the strength to follow it.)
Jihad and the Role of the Warrior
“Those who believe and leave their homes (for the cause of God) and strive in the cause of God, with their property and their persons, have a greater rank with God; they are the ones who are triumphant.” QUr’an 9:20.
The concept of warrior in Natie American culture is not synonymous with solder. A soldier is one who fights wars of conquest, and who kills as a matter of policy dictated by others. A warrior is one who protects God’s creatutes and His people, and who defends what is right. An Inuit(Alaskan native) woman wrote the following:
“Our suffering is small. Several moons ago, my younger brother asked with sorrow and sadness in his heart, why our family must suffer so uch, sacrifice so uch.
And I thought on this. Knowing that no answer at that time could ease his heavy heat…Our family has made commitment to serve the People. We struggle and resist—we are warriors. And sometimes the prices we must offer are not as we would have thought them to fall.
Our family has made commitment to Honor and Protect Mother Earth aAnd all her Children—All Life. And when I look at how she suffers, in comparison, our suffering is small.” 9
Pilgrimage/ Sacred Sites
Jack Weatherford, a Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College noted:
“For religions such as Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism and Christianity, the sacred site is usually a temple, church, monastery or shrine. For the native peoples who practice traditional worship, the site is more often a scared brook, a quiet forest, a rocky promontory, a special lake or some other natural spot that has not been transformed into a man-made edifice.” 10
“Righteousness is not turning your faces towards East or West. Rather Righteonusess is to believe in God, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Scripturees, and the Prophets, to give your wealth out of love for Him to kin and orphans, and to the needy and the treveler, and to those who ask it. and to free slaves. To be steadfast in prayer, pay the charity for the poor, to keep promises when you make them, to be patient in trials and difficulty and during times of war. Such are those who are sincere; the ones who are god-fearing. Quran 2:177.
From the Iroquois Creed as quoted by Chief Three Eagles (United Southwestern Allegheny Nation):
“He believed in…an all powerful Great Spirit, in the immortality of the soul, in a life everlasting, and in the fraternity of life. With an Iroquois a thankful heart was prayer…he believed that it was natural to be honorable and truthful, and cowardly to lie. His promise was absolutely binding…He believed in reverence for his parents, and in old age supported them, even as he expected his children to support him…He believed ina forgiving spirit, preferringatonement to revenge—in converting enemies to friends…He had no cast system, believed in a forgiving spirit, preferring atonement to revenge—in converting enemies to friends…He had no caste system, believing in democracy, equality and brotherhood…He believed in the sacredness of property; theft among early Indians was unknown…He believed in the equalityof women…” 11
“Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for those who possess understanding. those who commemorate the praise of God standing, sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect upon the creationin the heavens and the earth…“Quran 3:190-191.
“Do not send away those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, seeking His Face (Presence). You are in no way accountable for them, and they are in no way accountable for you. If you turn them away, you will be among the unrighteous.” Quran 6:52.
It is common among Native Americans to have a time of quiet prayer, “seeking the face of God” (i.e. the presence of God) morning and evening, to try to be consciouus of His presence constantly and to try to obey His laws and guidance.
“An Indian Prayer”
O Great Spirit,
Whose voice I hear in the winds,
Whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me! I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty,
And make my eyes ever behold
The red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect
The things you have made,
And my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
In every leaf and rock.
I seek strength,
Not to be greater than my brother,
But to fight my greatest enemy—myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
With clean hands and straight eyes,
So when life fades, as the fading sunset,
My spirit may come to you
1) From poem (author not given) “In a Sacred Manner I Walk” News From Indian Country, mid July 1990, Vol IV, No 10 page 17.
2) Walking Buffalo (a Stoney Indian) quotation in Touch the Earth—a Self-Portrait of Indian Existence, compiled by T.C. McLuhan, p. 23. (New York: Promontory Press 1971.)
3) Flanders, Tom, “The Way of Real People: Spirituality” (Supplement to The Eagle, Vol 9 No. 6 Nov-Dec 1991, pg. A4.
4) Black Elk Speaks—Beign the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G. Neihardt, page 1. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press 1961.)
5) Chief Three Eagles (Robert Shrewsbury) “What is Amerindianism?” p.5, (manuscript) He is Chief of the United Southwestern Allegheny Nation, affiliated with the United Eastern Lenape Nation.
6) Ewen, Alexander, “An Interview with Floyd Westerman” Native Nations, Vol. 1, No. 3, March/April 1991, p. 8.
7) Brown, Joseph Epes, ed., The Sacred Pipe—Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, p. note. (Baltimore, MD, Penguin Books 1971. copyright 1953 by University of Oklahoma Press.)
8) Beck, Peggy and A.L. Walters, eds., The Sacred—Ways of Knowledge; Sources of Life, p. 163. (Navajo Community College, Tsaile, Arizona Navajo Nation 1977.)
9) Butler, Nilak, “Our Suffering is Small.” Appeared in teh newsletter Moccasin LIne of the Northwest Indian Women’s Circle, Tacoma, WA, Winter 1986-87.
10) Weatherford, Jack, “Indians Need Sacred Sites” in Akwesasne Notes, Midwinter 1992, Vol 23, No. 3, pg. 19.
11) Chief Three Eagles, “What is Amerinidanism” p3-4 (see note 5.)
12) An Indian Prayer (author not given) from bookmark received from Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. (This prayer has also been cited in connection with “Iron Eyes” Cody—further sources not found.)
Originally published in the TAM print edition in a special edition on Native American Muslims December 1993