Ignatius and Islam: Uncovering interfaith intersections

July 31 is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests better known as the Jesuits.

The essay below was originally published in National Catholic Reporter on July 17, 2015 on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which concludes the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

It’s a special time in the Islamic world, and in the Ignatian world, too.

For the last month, Muslims have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, almsgiving, and praying over God’s revelation. For those at Jesuit institutions — schools, parishes, and organizations inhabiting the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola — this July is a celebration of the spirituality of the Jesuit founder, whose feast day is July 31.

This confluence of celebrations prompted me to reflect on the points of convergence between Islamic and Ignatian spirituality. As a student of Islam educated in Catholic Jesuit schools, I’ve discovered some profound similarities, or, as the late Trappist abbot Christian de Cherge would call them, “the notes that are in common” between the religions.

These similarities can be explained best by pointing to three Arabic mottos, central to the Islamic tradition, and their surprising Ignatian counterparts.

MashaAllah

MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.
MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.

The phrase MashaAllah, or “what God wills,” is used to express appreciation, gratitude, reverence, and awe about the good and beautiful. As my friend Zainab put it, it’s about recognizing “a flicker of God’s divine character” in the created world. Muslims exclaim it when their friends get into college, when they spot a stunning sunset, or when their relatives post a picture of their new, healthy baby on Facebook. I like to think of this prompt acknowledgement of God’s blessings as an immediate, “in-the-moment” Examen, the daily prayer of gratitude developed by St. Ignatius.

The Daily Examen encourages us to reflect back on — or rummage through — our day, looking for the places where God made Godself known to us. Often, these ayat, or signs of God, can be found in creation. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, and the Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas, both realized this. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” Francis cites the Sufi writer, who wrote in the ninth century:

The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted.

Inspired by Ali’s poetic description, Francis writes:

Standing awestruck before a mountain, [the mystical person] cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord.

What Francis and Ali are both describing is that “a-ha!” — or rather, MashaAllah — moment, when a person recognizes and acknowledges that it is ultimately God who is the giver of creation’s good gifts.

Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not just about seeing God in what appears to be beautiful and good, but finding Allah in all things. Both Christianity and Islam teach us that every experience — good or bad — is an opportunity to become closer to the divine. St. Ignatius talks about this as “finding God in all things,” a phrase which has become an important buzzword in Ignatian communities. Another Muslim mystic, the well-known Rumi, would have agreed with Ignatius. In his poem, “The Guest House,” he advises us to “be grateful for whoever comes, [because] each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

InshaAllah

Another phrase of great significance in the Islamic tradition is InshaAllah, or “if God wills.” Muslims use it when talking about the future, to qualify their anticipated plans with the caveat that God is ultimately in control.

The frequent mention of God’s will in Muslims’ speech points to the core endeavor at the center of Islam: conforming one’s will to the will of God. The word Islam refers to the peace that comes with surrendering to God’s will, and a Muslim is a person who submits to that God-given peace.

That is a notion familiar to those acquainted with Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius taught that we must constantly ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?” and “How can I live out God’s desires for me, and for the world?” Ignatius wrote that we could come to these answers through prayerful discernment.

Junayd, another spiritual giant, said this handing over of one’s free will to God brings deep ”contentment.” But the process of discerning God’s will and living it out in practice is challenging. Matt McKibben, a 2008_008671student at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City, Mo., described this challenge as riding with God on a tandem bicycle. After steering the bike from the front seat and maintaining control over life, he asks God to metaphorically swap places, praying, “Let me pedal hard while you guide the way. Let me keep focus, and stay with you always.”

By uttering InshAllah, Muslims vocalize their inner trust, or tawakkul, in God’s plan for the future. I can imagine my Muslim friends offering this prayer by the late Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, renaming it “Patient Tawakkul”:

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Allahu Akbar

Islamic and Ignatian spirituality also put a strong emphasis on God’s “greatness.” Each Islamic call to prayer begins with the invocation, Allahu Akbar, “God is the greatest.” It is used to praise and glorify God

Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.
Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.

who is transcendent, grander than we could ever imagine. This phrase of exultation is also used in ordinary life, to express “adulation and exuberance during a sermon or cultural performance, and conversely, even to [communicate] a sense of shock or distress upon learning of the death of a loved one.” Unfortunately, most non-Muslims will only associate this phrase with terrorists. They don’t know that NFL football star Husain Abdullah  uses it to give credit to God when he picks off a pass from Tom Brady on the football field.

The motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “For the greater glory of God,” was coined by St. Ignatius to remind us that every act we perform, big or small, can and should be dedicated to God. The motto vocalizes the common goal of Christians, Muslims and all people of faith, who endeavor to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves.

St. Ignatius with the motto, For the Greater Glory of God.
For the Greater Glory of God.

Islam and Ignatian spirituality remind us that our existence is made meaningful by this: praising and glorifying God through a life of service to God and others. That’s why I was so thrilled with the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Laudato Si’ means “praise be to you” in the medieval Umbrian dialect of Italian spoken by St. Francis of Assisi, who had his own personal encounter with Islam through a meeting with the Muslim Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. The title made me smile because it could have easily have been named Alhamdulillah another ubiquitous Arabic term meaning “praise be to God,” the equivalent for our Hallelujah.

At a bare minimum, this time of celebration can be an opportunity for our communities to learn more about each other. But it holds much more potential. These days should call us to praise God, not just from the comfort of our own, respective communities, but together, as a diverse community, unified by our shared goals and our common Source.

Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur'an at interfaith solidarity event. Source: Buzzfeed
Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur’an at interfaith solidarity event.
Source: Buzzfeed

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.

Why I Say ‘Allahu Akbar’: My article on Busted Halo

I’m grateful to Busted Halo, an online magazine for spiritual seekers, for publishing the following reflection. Inshallah, God willing, I will be contributing more to Busted Halo throughout the rest of the year. Start reading my article here, and continue reading on Busted Halo’s site.

Why I Say ‘Allahu Akbar’
October 22, 2013

IMG_4318
The full moon which sparked this reflection

This evening, as I left an Amman café after sharing a croissant with an old friend, I was greeted simultaneously by the echoes of the evening call to prayer and a bright full moon in the fading light.

“Allahu akbar!” called the muezzin, “God is greater!” The moon, perfectly round like a communion wafer, was suspended above the power lines and square, cement rooftops.

At the end of a day which included more joys than I can count, and a month of challenges, including moving, missing family and friends, and settling into life in a new city, I couldn’t help but notice this more-than-coincidental convergence of aural and visual. These two very ordinary events — the call to prayer and the emergence of a full moon — have, over the past few years, become particularly symbolic for me, and their convergence made their messages all the more clear.

Continue reading.

My article on Busted Halo's cover page.
My article on Busted Halo’s cover page.

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.