Islam without billboards


Since last Friday Sydneysiders driving on some of the city's busiest roadways have been confronted by billboards carrying some very simple — perhaps too simple — teachings about Islam.

In huge letters there are four different messages: 'Jesus: a prophet of Islam', 'Islam: Got questions? Get answers', 'Holy Qu'ran: the final testament' and 'Muhammad: mercy to mankind'. The billboards were funded by an Islamic group called MyPeace, and they also carry a phone number and website where people can access more information and a free copy of the Qu'ran.

These very public ads have stirred controversy. Sydney auxiliary Catholic Bishop, Julian Porteous has called for their removal, arguing that 'In Australia with its Christian heritage a billboard carrying the statement "Jesus: a prophet of Islam" is provocative and offensive to Christians.'

MyPeace members have explained they are trying to address misunderstandings in the broader community about Islam, and communicate in a contemporary medium the basic age-old beliefs of this great world faith.

The interviewee featured here on Eureka Street TV is also trying to communicate some of the basics of Islam, but his message is much more subtle and nuanced, and he has a very different approach.

Andrew Harvey is not a Muslim, but he is a scholar and devotee of the mystical strand of Islam, the Sufi tradition. In particular he's spent much of his life studying the life and writings of the 13th century giant of Sufism, Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, and he's one of a leading Western exponents of this great medieval Muslim mystic.

Rumi was born in the border region of modern day Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but when he was still young his family moved to Konya in present-day Turkey. This is where he lived for most of life, and where he died in the year 1273 at the age of 66. His tomb in Konya is now a place of pilgrimage.

Among his many achievements, Rumi founded the Mevlevi Sufi order, commonly known as the whirling dervishes, which, at its height of popularity in the Ottoman era, had around 100,000 members. He was a prodigious writer and poet, his most famous work being a massive spiritual epic called the Mathnawi.

Harvey, summarising the significance of Rumi, wrote of the spread of 'the glory of his work and sacred vision throughout the whole vast extent of the Islamic world … No other poet in history — not even Shakespeare or Dante — has had so exalted and comprehensive an impact on the civilisation he adorned, and no other poet has aroused such ecstatic and intimate adoration.'

Harvey's upbringing in India awakened him to the splendours of Islam, and to seeing the divine in all the world's major religious traditions. He was born into a Christian Protestant family, but from an early age he became fascinated with the trappings of Hindu and Muslim culture, particularly the treasures of Islamic Mughal art and architecture that surrounded him.

As a young adult he studied and taught English and French literature at Oxford University. In 1977 he returned to India, and over the next 30 years he studied and practised with spiritual masters from a number of religious traditions: Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim and Christian. This included time spent with Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths at his ashram in the south of India.

Harvey now lives in Chicago, and for the last five years his focus has been on travelling the globe teaching and promoting his concept of Sacred Activism, social action that flows from mystical experience and insight.

He is a prolific author, having written over 30 books including Hidden Journey: A Spiritual Awakening; The Essential Mystics; The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi; Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ; Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom; A Journey in Ladakh: Encounters with Buddhism; and most recently The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.


Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: MyPeace, Islam billboards, Jesus a prophet of Islam, Muhammad: mercy to mankind, Sufi, Jala-ud-Din Rumi



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Existing comments

Neoconservative miltarism is a strong argument for saying that Homer is more exalted than Rumi.

geoff fox | 03 June 2011  

What a difference in inter-religious tolerance between Porteus's exclusivity and the wholehearted welcome of Muslim students by vice-chancellor Peter Bray at Bethlehem University. Harvey is exquisite.

Dr Vacy Vlazna | 03 June 2011  

Thanks, Peter Kirkwood, for this valuable contribution to an informed discussion of the many different ways genuine people seek God. I am puzzled as to why a Catholic Bishop should be concerned by a billboard carrying the statement 'Jesus: a prophet of Islam' as "provocative and offensive to Christians". As a Catholic, I always try to be very respectful of the genuinely held religious beliefs of others - an attitude that would, I think, be expected by Christ?

Peter Johnstone | 03 June 2011  

Wow! Thank you Peter for getting this out. It's so good I'd like to play it in our church (PiIlgrim Uniting, Launceston) this Sunday - World Environment Day. I see this interview as a part of the great mystical awakening taking place within and outside of religion. Thank you again.

Tony Duncan | 03 June 2011  

I think Bishop Porteus' comment shows his ignorance rather than anything else. "Jesus: a prophet of Islam" is a simple statement of fact.

ErikH | 03 June 2011  

Thanks, Peter. What a lot there is that we (I!) don't know about. As someone who's devoted a lot of his life to Shakespeare I found Harvey's claim for the impact of Rumi on his civilisation quite thrilling.

Joe Castley | 03 June 2011  

I too love the poetry of Rumi - and Hafiz et al. But if what Prof Harvey says is true, why are Sufis outlawed and persecuted throughout much of the Muslim world?

Janice Kent-Mackenzie | 03 June 2011  

I wonder why God cannot be Allah whilst Jesus is another prophet! Who is right? The Malaysian Muslim or the Australian Muslims?

AZURE | 03 June 2011  

Glorious! thank you...

Christine Hogan | 03 June 2011  

Andrew, You speak of peace and justice, yet neglect to mention that Shah Jehan murdered the Taj Mahal's craftsmen builders once they'd completed their masterpiece.

Moreover, you praise Mohammed, yet neglect to mention the significant words of one of his wives, Aishaa;

"The Prophet married me when I was six years old and the marriage was consummated when I was nine. The Prophet of God came to our home in company with men and women who were among his followers. My mother came [to me] while I was in a swing between the branches of a tree and made me come down. She smoothed my hair, wiped my face with a little water then came forward and led me to the door. She stopped me while I calmed myself a little. Then she took me in. The Prophet of God was sitting on a bed in our home, and she sat me in his lap. Everyone jumped up and went out, and the Prophet consummated his marriage with me at our house."

Gordon Rowland | 12 August 2011  


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