Why American Colleges Need The Islamic Call to Prayer

Earlier this week, I published my first piece for Huffington Post Religion. I’m grateful it’s received wide circulation: 4.5 thousand ‘likes’ on Facebook and over 200 shares. Here’s the link to the piece on HuffPost’s website. It is reproduced below.

Why We Need the Islamic Call to Prayer at American Universities

The average college student spends eight to 10 hours a day on a smartphone. Eighty percent of college students report feeling frequently stressed, and one in 10 have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other mental disorders. Like the rest of the country, universities are fraught with busyness and competing distractions. Students rush around, faces buried in smart phones and heads cluttered with things to do.

Given this grim reality of college life, it’s too bad the Islamic call to prayer won’t be proclaimed from Duke University’s bell tower. The adhan can be an antidote to some of the challenges college students face.

Since Duke’s decision last week to not broadcast the call to prayer from its chapel steeple — prompted by Islamophobic rhetoric and threats against Duke’s Muslim community — the national discussion around the incident has centered around questions of pluralism and religion in the public space. But what was missed in those debates was the meaning and purpose of the adhan: encouraging deeper mindfulness among those who hear it.

The adhan, like the ringing of church bells, calls us to gratitude, appreciation and attentiveness–things that the modern American university desperately needs. This kind of practice is especially suited to universities with a religious heritage or mission — like Duke or my alma mater, Georgetown — where the balance between rigor and reflection is encouraged, but often hard to strike. Religious and non-religious students alike have much to gain from being called from the chaos of their days to remember the greater purpose and meaning of their lives.

A Catholic in a Muslim land

When I lived abroad in Amman, Jordan during and after college, the adhan was a familiar part of my daily life. Five times a day, the rolling syllables of Allahu akbar — Arabic for “God is greater” — echoed across the city. Chanted from tall minarets and amplified by loud speakers, the adhan bounced off stone buildings and reminded Muslims to pray wherever they were — at home, at work, at school or even at the mall. Sometimes, when I’d visit my local produce shop, I’d find the owner praying outside, his rug unrolled on the sidewalk and his body bowing in humble prostration.

The adhan became something that I, as a Catholic, grew to deeply appreciate and enjoy. Countless times, the words “Come to prayer, Come to well-being,” prompted me to step back from my day and remember what was most important.

I remember one of my first nights in Amman, when I climbed into the backseat of a cab, laden with my heavy backpack and the stress of adjusting to a new city. My mind was full of questions and doubts about whether Amman could ever feel like home. As we sped down the streets of Amman as sunset fell, the adhan came on the radio, and immediately a feeling of calm settled over me. The lyrical words drew me out of my anxiety and calmed my racing mind.

In the months that followed, the adhan continued to remind me to praise and thank God for the blessings of the day, and to ask for God’s help in facing the challenges that would inevitably come my way while living in Jordan. It made me more attentive to the world around me — the beauty of the pink sky at maghrib, the white flowers on the jasmine trees and the kindness of those I met.

A good habit for all

Colleges could benefit from being prompted to mindfulness. Deeper awareness and thankfulness are necessities for today’s campuses, where stress and strain run rampant.

My Muslim friends at Georgetown described to me the benefits of being called to pray, not just once on Fridays, but five times a day. Alerted by their watch, phone alarm or intuition, they’d get up from studying or hanging out with friends to pray. Being called out of their daily activities helped them cope and keep perspective when they were over-worked or concerned about grades.

That’s why the adhan can be good for everyone — even for those who aren’t Muslim, and for those who don’t believe in God. For most people, something is “greater,” whether they choose to call it God or not. The adhan can help us recall what gives our lives meaning, and can help us cultivate an attitude of gratefulness. It can help us look up from the cellphone in our hand and notice the blue sky, the purple shadows stretching across the snow or the smiles of those we pass by.

I don’t anticipate that many universities will choose to adopt the adhan on their campuses anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean that students and others can’t begin habits that yield the same results. Many campuses have bell towers, which ring on the hour or other specified times of day. At Georgetown, the bells toll in a clang excitedly at noon and six in the evening — a custom reminiscent of earlier times when monasteries rang bells seven times a day to call Christian religious to pray the psalms. For me, and for many students I knew, these bells were an invitation to focus on what’s truly important.

The events at Duke should not only be a spark for discussions about diversity and tolerance. They should also compel us to attend to the things that are akbar — the deeper needs of our soul.

Nine Months in Nine Minutes: Presenting My Fulbright Research

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present my research from my year in Jordan. While living in Amman, I conducted research on Christian television channels which broadcasted there, and their impact on Muslim-Christian relations in the country.

I only had 9 short minutes to discuss 9 months of research, so this presentation is only an initial taste. I’m currently working on an article for publication that will go into further details of my work.

I presented my research along with other current Georgetown students, at an event about social justice research. My talk begins at minute 39. You can also watch the Q&A, during which I talk about a range of issues like ISIS and identity in Jordan.

39:00: My presentation
54:45: Why did you want to do this research?
57:20: What is the history of these Christian channels? What about Sunni-Shia channels?
1:10:12: Factors of identity in Jordan
1:14:10: Did these channels spur dialogue?

dotCommonweal: “Mercy-ing: A Starting Point for Dialogue”

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

My newest blog post on dotCommonweal. Start reading here and then continue by clicking “Read more.”

Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice”—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.

While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.

Read more.

A new narrative

The malicious and intentional spreading of an offensive, anti-Muslim video. The murder of an American ambassador. Protests around the world. Hate crimes against mosques in the U.S.

All of these events seem to further solidify the already-entrenched narrative about Muslim-Christian relations—that Muslims and Christians are in a “clash of civilizations,” fundamentally at odds, and hell-bent on the destruction of the other. The images we see on CNN, and the headlines we read in the morning paper, point to an inherent battle between the world’s two largest religious groups.

But another, more subtle, yet more powerful, narrative exists. One I’ve tried to share often on my blog. I was reminded of it again tonight, first at a banquet celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr (which was last month) and second at Catholic Mass.

The banquet, hosted by the university’s president and attended by diverse leaders on campus, began with the maghrib, or sunset, prayer. As the Muslims lined up in their rows, and rabbis, Jesuits, and other non-Muslims bowed their heads in reverence, I looked over to find one of Georgetown’s Franciscan priests in the prayer line with the other Muslims, bending and placing his head on the floor. I was so moved by the message that this Franciscan’s participation sent—that his belief in God, and his vocation as a priest, doesn’t preclude him from worshipping with those who are different. It actually calls for it.

At the end of the prayer, the university imam spoke to the congregation about the meaning of the Arabic word for prayer, salah, which literally means, “reaching out and connecting.” He discussed the importance of reaching out not only to God, but also to those around us.

This “reaching out” continued through dinner, as we met new people and shared stories. I was lucky enough to sit next to Georgetown’s first Jewish chaplain, a rabbi who retired a few years back. He told me of his time working in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; how he was a Freedom Rider and met Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and that he studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously said of the March on Washington: “I felt like my feet were praying.” I was not only amazed at the compassionate action of this man, but also by the fact that our conversation quickly transitioned into a discussion about how we miss cheap falafel in the Middle East.

He also spoke to me about his concern for the declining numbers of Jesuits. He began rattling off statistics about how many Jesuits were in the Maryland province when he began at Georgetown in the sixties, compared to today. As he finished his shpeal, I realized that I wasn’t talking to a Jesuit concerned about this decline, but a rabbi. He cares about Catholic clergy just as much as those in his own tradition.

After mingling with Muslim friends I hadn’t seen since before I went abroad, I went to Mass, where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stressed that we are all parts of Christ’s one body. In the homily, the priest discussed the intersection of diversity, complementarity, and dependence—that in our diversity we complement one another, and more importantly help one another when we are in need.

I couldn’t help but think of the following passage from the Qur’an, which Georgetown’s president had read shortly before at the banquet:

“If God had willed, He would have made you one religious community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race one another in good deeds.” Just as in Paul’s letter, the Qur’an speaks of God’s desire for diversity, complementary, and dependence.

And I thought of the sweetest thing that a Muslim friend said to me as we left the dinner—how he and others had missed me, and how a hole had been left, when I was abroad. I was struck by the kindness of his words, but also the greater truth that they held.

A truth that must become the new narrative about interreligious relations: that without one of us, there is a gaping hole. When one part of the body is missing—whether it be the rabbi, the Catholic girl, or the Muslim boy—we cannot move or act. We cannot “pray with our feet” and race together in the game of doing good works on our common planet.

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.