Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic

At the end of 2017, I published a book with Liturgical Press entitled Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. Written for a Catholic and broader Christian audience, the book shows how interreligious dialogue with Muslims can deepen Christians’ relationship with God. In this post, I share a bit about the book, which you can learn more about at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.

FJAM cover

In many ways, the book grew out of my own experiences of dialogue with Muslims, both in the United States and in the Middle East. In it I draw on church teaching, statements from popes, and the stories of Catholic saints and martyrs. Woven throughout the book are also quotations from the Qur’an, references to Islamic history and scholarship, and excerpts of Islamic mystical poetry.

The book is available for purchase online through the publisher and major booksellers, including AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Target. The e-book version is available here and here. You can also ask your local Catholic bookstore to carry it.

Finding Jesus among Muslims has received endorsements from Christian leaders from various denominations, including Bishop Mitchell Rozanski and Gov. Martin O’Malley, and from a range of Muslim scholars and religious leaders including Eboo Patel, Omid Safi, and Omar Suleiman.

Appropriate for those with little prior exposure to or knowledge of Islam, Finding Jesus among Muslims includes an extensive glossary and discussion questions for each chapter, making it suitable for individual reading as well as study groups and high school and college classroom discussions. Written primarily for a Catholic Christian audience, its educational message can be enriching for readers from any faith (or no faith) background.

At the end of the book, I provide an interfaith prayer for use in Muslim-Christian dialogue, as well as thorough guidelines for organizing events with Muslims and a list of resources for further reading and study. This book endeavors to be the first step on readers’ journey of the “dialogue of life” with Muslims and those of other faiths. For more resources related to the book, check out the Resources page on the book website.

Over the past several months, I have spoken to diverse audiences about Finding Jesus among Muslims at universities and parishes across the United States. I have also met with groups over Skype to discuss the book. If you are interested in setting up a speaking engagement, please reach out through the contact page on this website or at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.

Peeling Kiwis: “Peeling Oranges” Series

October 27, 2013

This afternoon I found myself sitting on the front porch of a woman named Maggie. No, I wasn’t with my own mother on our front porch on Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, but it was about as close as I could get here in Amman.

I had been walking to the Vatican library by a new route, enjoying the sun, the warm wind, and the cloudless blue sky, when I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw a woman waving from her window, and realized it was Maggie, an employee from the library I have met many times. She called me over and, as Arabs do best, invited me in.

Maggie and her adult nephew, Elias (Arabic for Elijah), were sitting on her porch smoking argeelah, the water pipe, passing the mouthpiece between them. Maggie reminded me that the library was closed (Christian organizations take Sundays off, although the official weekend is Friday and Saturday), so she told me I should spend the afternoon with her until Mass at 6pm. I put aside my research goals for the afternoon, and reminded myself that impromptu, unplanned experiences of hospitality are the reason why I’m here.

Elias and I began an extended conversation about everything from my research to our families—all in Arabic, which was refreshing. Because I don’t live with a host family this time around, my conversations in Arabic are usually short snippets with cab drivers or shop owners, and those habitual requests of “take me here” and “can I buy this?” do little to improve my complex speaking abilities. As I spoke with Elias and discovered myself using new words or verb conjugations with ease, I felt proud and that my colloquial Arabic lessons are paying off.

“Taghadaiti?” Maggie interjected after she exhaled white smoke from her mouth. “Have you eaten lunch?”

“Shwayeh,” I responded. “Sort of.” I had eaten some trail mix and crackers earlier in the morning, but was quite hungry. She heated up some fusulia, a dish of beans, rice and beef, and brought me into her kitchen, which glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I sat alone and ate in silence. Occasionally, Maggie would come in to refresh the argeelah by heating up coals on the stove and stuffing a lemon-flavored something into the pipe. Maggie’s family is Roman Catholic and her home is decorated like those of many other Catholic families here. A sculpture of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper sits on the dining room table, and a drawing of Mary, with the caption, “Mystical Rose” (one of her name titles), was pasted above the counter in the kitchen.

I had spent my morning at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, researching the history of Christians in Jordan. So it felt good to finish my day not immersed in a book, but immersed among the people who I’m trying to learn more about. Hearing about the experiences of Maggie and Elias informs how I read history books or academic papers, just as those materials help me better understand the lives of those I meet.

After spooning the last of the rice into my mouth, I rejoined the couple on the porch, and was presented with a plate of fruit: two plums, a nectarine, an apple, and a kiwi. I chose the kiwi pressed a dull knife into its fuzzy skin to peel it. As the juice seeped onto my fingers, I was reminded of a time in the cold winter of 2012 when I peeled oranges with my host brother and I discovered a paradoxical truth: that ordinary moments can often be the best vehicles for revealing God’s presence. Sitting with Maggie and Elias, watching people walk by as wind moved through the olive trees, was one of those simple moments that speaks simultaneously of God’s closeness and unexplainable grandeur.

As I pulled the knife toward me, I was taken aback by the bright green fruit that emerged from behind the skin. The kiwi was especially green, almost neon, and juice sparkled on its flesh. The contrast between the rough brownness of the kiwi’s skin and the bright, moist greenness inside revealed a new message, too: that the dullness and hardship of our days give way to a newness of life, a surprising Joy, that cannot be expected or planned. The most beautiful and most joyous experiences often emerge out of the most scratchy, sand-papery parts of life. The green fruit is so much sweeter because it’s hidden beneath abrasive rinds. This is a truth I’ve known but one that I’ve experienced most palpably during my time living in Jordan.

With the cold winds blowing in, there will be fewer afternoons on Amman porches and fewer fruits to peel. I’ll have to look harder to find reminders of these important lessons. So on the grayest of days, when I’m wandering unfamiliar streets under a melancholy drizzle, I’ll watch for mothers waving from their windows. And I’ll try to catch raindrops on my tongue, and pretend they taste more like juice than dust.

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.

Taxi Rides at Maghrib

After my first day at the university a few weeks ago, I jumped into a cab with a friend at dusk, stressed and tired from the long day.  My mind was reeling with the new situation and setting, preoccupied with the computer problems I was having.

But as I settled into the back seat, the cabby changed the radio station, and long, throaty vowels began to emanate from the speakers and fill the cab.  It wasn’t music, but a recitation of the Qur’an.

I quickly noticed that it was maghrib, sunset—one of the five times Muslims pray every day.  In the same way that the verses vibrated inside the car, the call to prayer, or azan, was echoing throughout the limestone hills of Amman.

As we drove into the increasing darkness, I felt a sense of calm settle in.  The seat seemed to cradle me as the recitation told me to rest and reflect.  Through the Arabic verses that I rarely understood, and through the peace I felt as I listened, God remind me of his presence in my life, and his increased closeness as I navigate my life in Amman.

I am in a new and different place here, and sometimes that newness and difference can wedge a feeling of nervousness in my stomach.  But during that taxi ride, God reminded me that as my life becomes new and different, God will also present himself to me in new and different ways.  God won’t—can’t—reach me in the same way he does at home or at Georgetown, because Amman isn’t Indianapolis or D.C.

The key is that I must be able to recognize these new and different manifestations, even if they exist outside my usual experience, or even outside the practices of my own religious tradition.  This ability to recognize requires courage and a deep trust in the limitless and mystery of God.

Amman at maghrib

Maghrib has become my favorite time of day here, not simply because of the pink light that rests over the hills, but also because of the azan that calls me to remembrance. It calls me to complete an Ignatian “daily examen” of sorts, to recognize the new ways God reveals himself to me in the laughs of my Arabic professor and the big blue eyes of my 2-year-old host sister.

My experience of maghrib reminds me of the end of a poem by the 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic, Rumi:

Sunlight looks slightly different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities, from a light,
and when we praise, we pour them back in.

Around One Table

A few weeks ago, I co-organized and participated in Georgetown’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.  Brought together by the Office of Campus Ministry and the student Interfaith Council, students representing different religious groups on campus gathered to share prayers, songs, and reflections of gratitude from their particular traditions.  Diverse members of the Georgetown community were also present, including the university’s five full-time chaplains (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant).  After the service, we all mingled while eating fall desserts and drinking hot cider.

Click this photo to see more images from the service.

The other organizers and I encouraged attendees to take what they’d seen and heard and talk about it with family and friends over the Thanksgiving break. Prayer services like this are sources of learning and should be challenging, eye-opening, and spiritually renewing.  But they don’t have their full impact unless they reach beyond those who attended the event.  The Arabic-inspired hymn sung by the Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the simple prayer presented by the Buddhist Meditation Sangha should not only affect the hearts and minds of those in attendance, but others in the community as well.  Otherwise, we may just be preaching to the choir.

With this blog post I hope to share a little bit of the service with my wider community, particularly by sharing the remarks I made to open the event. (A video of my speech can also be seen here.)

Good evening everyone. On behalf of the student Interfaith Council and the Office of Campus Ministry, I’d like to welcome you to our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving prayer service.  I’m Jordan Denari, the current president of the Interfaith Council.

If you’ve attended this service in past years, you’ll notice that this year we are seated differently.  This choice to sit around a single table was deliberate, and we hope it points to the symbolic way in which we, as an interfaith community, come together in prayer and gratitude, to invoke God’s name in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Pali.

As people of faith, we often express our gratefulness for our blessings throughout the year, at Mass or Shabbat or other religious services, among those who share the same theological beliefs.  Our American holiday of Thanksgiving, then, provides us a particularly special time to gather in this interfaith setting around one table and as one community.

Before we hear from representatives from the student religious groups on campus, I’d like to walk us through a short reflection, in the spirit of St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises. 

Settle yourselves, maybe by closing your eyes, and remember that you are in God’s presence. (Pause)

Recall all the things you’re grateful for, and focus on a few things in particular—perhaps a family member, a caring friend or mentor, or an opportunity you’ve been given here at Georgetown. (Pause)

Allow these things to fill you up, and push out all the worry, frustration, and sadness you may be feeling. (Pause)

Gratitude helps us to achieve better perspective about what’s important in our lives.  And I encourage all of you to give yourselves these short moments of reflection during your busy days at Georgetown.  You may open your eyes. (Pause) 

This year, I’m particularly grateful for the interfaith community at Georgetown—for all the people seated around this table. 

We truly are an interfaith community. Our Catholic students attend Muslim prayers, and our Muslim students participate in Hindu services.  We work together to reach shared goals of alleviating poverty and improving educational opportunities.  And most of us have skipped studying for an important midterm to have a late-night discussion about religion and God with a roommate.

For me, this inter-religious engagement has not only helped me to learn about others.  It has also strengthened my own convictions and given me a better view into who God is. 

I think back to an informal interfaith event I participated in a few weeks ago. 

My Catholic faith-sharing group and I sat in the musallah, the Islamic prayer room, having been invited there for a Muslim Students Association reflection about forgetfulness.  The discussion centered around prayer and making time for God in our busy days.  As the Muslims described their struggles, the Catholics nodded eagerly, saying, “I know what you mean—I’ve had a hard time with that too!”   And when the Catholics expressed their difficulty of actually thinking about God during formalized prayer, the Muslims smiled and said, “We get that!” 

As we laughed and talked, I began to realize what others in the room were surely thinking: that we aren’t alone on campus in our struggle to find God and live as people of faith. 

Though we, as Buddhists and Mormons, agnostics and un-affiliated believers, may go about the practice of our faith in different ways, we all are searching. And that is one commonality that we will always share.  Knowing this, we can look to one another for support, even across religious lines. 

Just last week, one of my friends, Wardah, called me before we went to dinner at Leo’s.  She asked if she could come up to my room quickly to pray, and I said of course.  Wardah is Muslim, and we used to be roommates in the Muslim-Interest Living Community on campus.  As she situated herself toward Mecca, I sat on my bed with St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen, and we completed our short prayers. (If she hadn’t come over to pray, I probably would have skipped mine for the day.) 

Neither of us gave much thought to the significance of this little “interfaith prayer session”.  It wasn’t a big deal; we simply got up and went to dinner.  Our accommodation for one another’s beliefs isn’t questioned or even consciously considered, because it is something that stems from our friendship. 

And inviting Wardah to pray in my room was really the least I could do for her.  Thanks to the support of her and the Muslim community on campus, I was able to reclaim my own Catholic faith during my freshman.  It’s because of them that I’m a better Catholic.

It is this supportive, curious, and passionate interfaith community that I am so grateful for tonight. 

As we remember the gifts we’ve been given, and pray for those who lack essential necessities like food, protection, and love, let us also be grateful for our friends who are seated around this table.