During high school, I began to learn a lot about Islam. I was initially interested in U.S. foreign affairs in the Middle East, and I wrote papers dealing with topics such as the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq and America’s attempts to democratize the region. All that researching got me interested in Islam as a faith, and I found myself doing many of my school projects about Islam in some variation: social justice in Islam; the difference in views between Catholicism and Islam on the abortion issue; and the struggles of interfaith marriage.
Though I was learning more about Islam, most Americans weren’t, and I could see that ignorance manifest itself in racist and “religious-ist” comments made by people I knew well and politicians and talking heads on T.V. Having known a few Muslims at my high school, I was angered that people I knew were putting my classmates in the same category as terrorists. In post 9/11 America, I felt this uninformed prejudice was unacceptable, and was upset when I saw how it perpetuated a growing Islamophobia in our country. This hostility has been present in America since 9/11, but until this summer has not received much media coverage. The anger surrounding the Park 51 center (the so-called “mosque at Ground Zero”) and the plan to burn Qur’ans on 9/11 have gained lots of publicity–and sometimes support–in the media. Over the past several years and especially this summer, my frustration and sadness has grown and been channeled into a passion to help rid our country of this misunderstanding of Islam; I hope to help combat this through journalism and by creating spaces for inter-religious dialogue.
But back to high school. I began to do more reading and studying of Islam on my own to try to understand why so many Americans feared Islam. I listened a lot to Speaking of Faith’s podcasts about Islam, and learned about the basic tenets of the faith and more specific things like the reasons for choosing to wear the hijab, or head scarf, reasons I now admire and fully support. (Below I mention Ingrid Mattson, who has a nice reflection about why she wears hijab. Check it out.) I, like every other non-Muslim American, had (and still have) misconceptions about the faith, and each time I am proven wrong I am pleasantly surprised. I wondered, maybe this religion would be right for me? The newness of it made it exciting, and I thought it might give me the depth of faith that I felt I was missing in Catholicism.
The summer before my freshman year of college, I tried prostrating as one does in Muslim prayer. Right before I went to sleep, I crouched down with my hands and my knees and my face against the soft bed, thinking and hoping that I would feel some kind of a connection to God. But I couldn’t. I just kept thinking how uncomfortable the position was, and the blood rushing to my head made my head feel heavy and full. I was disappointed that I didn’t feel anything, but I was still intrigued and wanted to learn more. (I think back on that time now and laugh because I wasn’t even prostrating correctly–I was doing child’s pose from yoga…)
The summer ended and I transitioned into my new life at Georgetown, which I loved. Just like at Brebeuf, I felt encouraged to explore religion and faith. I was lucky enough to get into a class called “Islam and the West” taught by a well-known (Catholic) scholar of Islam, John Esposito. I learned about the origins of Islam, how the religion grew up out of a corrupt, materialistic society in Arabia. God’s message, delivered through Muhammad, was a call for social justice, piety, devotion to God, and love of neighbor. Muslims felt that God’s earlier Word delivered to mankind (the Torah through Moses, and the Gospel through Jesus) had been ignored and corrupted by humans’ sins, and they needed a final reminder in order to follow the straight path. The idea of separate secular and religious realms was done away with. The secular society had been unjust and sinful. Religious society needed to fill the void and bring back peace, justice, and love. Islam’s laws were extremely progressive for the time–Muslim women could own land and had inheritance rights; at that time, Christian and Jewish women did not have those rights in their societies.
I learned about the hundreds of years in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in peace and harmony under the Islamic empire in places like Al-Andalus (Andalusia) in southern Spain. (The Park 51 project was originally named Cordoba House after a place of major inter-religious cooperation and learning in Andalusia.) I was drawn to the tradition of tolerance and social justice that Islam embodied and that I couldn’t really see in my own faith, whose history seemed darkened by the Crusades and persecution of Muslims and other religious people.
(If I am incorrect in any of my history about Islam, please correct me.)
I participated in the Muslim Students Association Fast-a-thon, a day-long event to help non-Muslims learn about the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from food, drink, and sinful thought or action from sunrise to sunset. My dorm’s chaplain, a Muslim, held a discussion about the ideas and values that Ramadan and fasting promote: self-sacrifice, community, focusing on God instead of oneself, recognizing that so many less fortunate people go without food but not by choice. Though I took the Catholic season of fasting, Lent, fairly seriously–I refrained from all sweets and junk food–many Catholics didn’t, and it made me feel that Catholicism’s practice of self-sacrifice was wimpy. Muslims were all very committed to their fasting during Ramadan–I was amazed that they looked forward to a month of not eating!
As I studied Arabic, I also learned many Islamic phrases and prayers. The way in which the prayers are recited–a kind of chanting–was beautiful; I loved the way the Arabic words sounded, deep and reverberating.
“La iilaha illullah.” There is no god but God. (Listen to and read along with the call to prayer here.)
I increasingly saw the beauty in the Islamic faith. Eventually that appreciation of Islam, along with several other factors, helped me to begin seeing the beauty in my own faith again.
Interested in learning about Islam?
-The book Who Speaks for Islam is a great introduction to the perspectives of Muslims’ around the world. This is one of many books by John Esposito, a Catholic Georgetown professor of Islam. (If you want to borrow this book from me, let me know.)
-Check out podcasts about Islam from the radio program, Speaking of Faith. For those wanting to learn about……American Muslims’ experiences and perspectives since 9/11, check out: “Hearing Muslim voices since 9/11” …what factors drive a person to extremism, check out: “Reflections from a former Islamist extremist” …Muslim women and religious freedom, try “Muslim women and other misunderstandings” …one Muslim’s mission to create inter-religious cooperation, listen to: “Religious passion, pluralism, and the young” (featuring Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core) …the experiences of a female convert who now leads the Islamic Society of North America, check out: “A new voice for Islam” (featuring convert, scholar, and leader Ingrid Mattson.) …the Muslim mystic whose poetry has been widely read in the West, listen to: “The ecstatic faith of Rumi” …the challenges and benefits of being Muslim in America, try: “Living Islam” …Muslims’ experiences during Islam’s holiest month, listen to: “Revealing Ramandan” …the internal religious debate in Islam, check out: “The Sunni-Shia divide”
Search these titles in the search engine on Speaking of Faith, or download the podcast on iTunes.
–Scholars whose books you should read: John Esposito, John Voll, Karen Armstrong, Robert Bulliet
–Scholars whose books you should avoid: Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Christopher Hitchens, Samuel Huntington
–World Religions by Huston Smith summarizes of all major world religions, including Islam, for an audience who knows little about the faith. (I have the book if you want to borrow it.)