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.

Make Jesus and Muhammad Proud

This week, I published two new articles, one focused on the Middle East, and another about domestic events. Both, however, deal with Islamophobia and the necessary interfaith response to it.

Sojourners was kind enough to ask me to write a piece in response to the anti-Muslim rallies which were planned throughout the country last weekend. Fortunately, many of these protests didn’t materialize, and often the ones that did were met with loving responses from Muslims and other Americans. Still there is always more that can be done.

A Muslim woman embraced a lone protester outside an Ohio mosque on Saturday. After visiting the mosque at the encouragement of the worshippers, the protester said, "I had no idea Muslims could be nice to me, even after I stood out there with those signs. Sorry."
“I had no idea Muslims could be nice to me, even after I stood out there with those signs. Sorry.” -Lone protestor outside Ohio mosque

In “Five Things To Do When an Anti-Muslim Hate Rally Comes to Town,” I elaborate on several ways to counter to Islamophobic  activities:

  1. Gather together… and pray together.
  2. If you do demonstrate, make Jesus (and Muhammad) proud.
  3. Learn about Islam…and Islamophobia.
  4. Publicize what you’re doing, even if it’s something small.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4, even when a hate rally isn’t coming to town.

One important gesture, I write, is joint prayer: “Christians could observe Muslim’s prayer rituals, or better yet, recite a written prayer together with them. This sample prayer, which incorporates teachings from both Islamic and Christian traditions, could be used to affirm the common values maintained by all:

Almighty and Merciful God,
Who created humanity in all its wonderful diversity:
Help us to be peacemakers
And inspire us to repel evil with good.
Help us to love our neighbors,
To welcome the stranger,
And to turn enemies into friends.
Guide as one community
As we strive on the path of justice, peace, and understanding.”

In another piece, titled “No One is a Stranger: the Jordanian Model of Muslim-Christian Relations” and published by Commonweal online, I share my reactions to a Jordanian family’s remarks to Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was no acknowledgment of peaceful co-existence in the past, of the centuries of tolerance during which Christian communities thrived under Muslim rulers. There was no mention of the tolerance that today is typical of Jordan. There was simply implicit condemnation of Islam and the unchallenged characterization of the country as a “hostile environment… this overwhelmingly non-Christian community [in which] the church youth group gives our children safe harbor where they can grow in their faith and feel supported and cared about.”

Elaborating on the history and contemporary situation of Muslim-Christian coexistence in Jordan, I also reference my Fulbright research on Arabic-language Christian satellite television channels to help explain what might have led to Sweden’s one-sided portrayal.

A sign welcoming Pope Francis to Jordan in May 2014

In addition, I point to a decades-old poem by the Jordanian writer, Arar, whose words are quoted in the piece’s title. It’s message, about the shared Christian and Islamic heritage of Jordan, is echoed in a more recent poem which I encountered online and translated into English:

Because I Was Born in Jordan

I open the Qur’an
with a cross upon my chest,
reading Surat al-Tawba at the break of day
and Surat Maryam as the sun sets.
I look to my right
and I see Christ there.
I look to my left
and I greet the face of the beloved Prophet.

You all, don’t ask me:
“What is this strange prayer?
What is this foreign religion?”
Because this prayer isn’t strange,
and this path isn’t foreign.
It is who we are,
our identity,
our unity,
our oneness.

Because when Mama bore me in Jordan,
she baptized me with the water of Zamzam
and gave me the Qur’an as well as the cross.

The Muslims and Christians that came together across the U.S. last weekend, and the individuals that live side-by-side in Jordan, would make Jesus and Muhammad proud.  They challenge the suspicion and distrust that too often characterize our time, and approach one another with love and patience. Their witness is crucial for today’s world, and an example we all must follow.

The $200,000 Conversation

This afternoon, while wandering the garden of my favorite, secluded hangout on an otherwise crowded hillside in Amman, I discovered the ruins of a Christian church and Islamic shrine. The site, which is still strewn with stone columns and pebbled with pale mosaic tiles, was home to an ancient church, built in the 500s and dedicated to St. George. Though the church was abandoned two hundred years later, the place remained a shrine to the saint until the 20th century. St. George—who is also revered in Islam as al-Khidr, meaning “the green one”—is a towering mythical figure in the Middle Eastern spirituality, and countless churches and holy sites in the region purport to be the location of his miracles and appearances.

An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.
An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.

As I was reading the brief plaque explaining the history of the site, which was excavated by Americans in the 1990s, I began a conversation in Arabic with a young pharmacist named Osama. I anticipated the conversation would consist only of small talk, but we quickly launched into a conversation about…surprise, surprise: Muslim-Christian relations. But this conversation was different than my usual ones, which usually involve talking about interpersonal relations between the two groups here. We began discussing  big theological questions between Christianity and Islam. He pulled out his smart phone to show me that he has both the Qur’an app and the Arabic Bible app, and asked why the Bible is composed into separate books with separate authors. I expect this a common questions Muslims ask, since their text, the Qur’an, has a single voice and author: God’s. I explained the ‘what’ of the New Testament—that people after Jesus wrote about him—and then attempted to move to the ‘why.’ I began to feel giddy as I brought up my favorite Islam-Christianity comparison explanation, where I compare the functions of Mary and Muhammad, Jesus and the Qur’an, and the Bible and the Hadith. (For many of you students and scholars of Islam out there, you might disagree with those comparisons. They may be simplistic but they’re good starting points for dialogue I think.) I’m not sure Osama really followed what I was saying, but I was proud of myself for trying to explain it—in Arabic.

What made this half-hour encounter so thrilling was that it was 98% in Arabic. Osama doesn’t speak much English from what I could tell, so it challenged me to stick to colloquial Arabic. It made me grateful for and proud of my Arabic program and professors at Georgetown. Those nights during my freshman year when I slaved away for hours on my beginner Arabic homework paid off in this one conversation (not to mention the countless more basic ones I’ve already had here.)

Osama and I then moved on to other topics including Islamic beliefs about al-Khidr, what determines prophethood in Islam, and the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He used very technical, theological terms like ‘aqida (“belief”), fiqh (“jurisprudence”), and wahy (“revelation”), and I could follow what he said and interject my thoughts because of my very strong education in Islam at Georgetown. Without my classes with Dan Madigan, Jonathan Brown, John Esposito, and without the many lessons and sermons from Imam Yahya Hendi, and without the many conversations with Muslim friends, I could never have dreamed to have such a meaningful, deep, and heady conversation with Osama.

As we swapped contact information, I was flying as high as the pigeons overhead. I was bowled over with gratitude at the education I received at Georgetown, realizing that so much of what I learned in classrooms there was put to use in this single conversation half the world away. I felt that my four years of study—and the thousands of dollars paid by my parents—were more than worth it. So many people feel like their undergraduate educations are barely useful, hardly relevant, in the real world. But for me, alhamdulilah (thank God), that is not the case. Every day my Hoya education informs my experiences, but today I was especially conscious of my education’s remarkable impact.

As Osama and I parted, I not only felt grateful to Georgetown, but also to St. George, who, on the crumbling ruins of once-holy ground, is still making miracles.

Ruins of the church.
Ruins of the church.

Poem: “Bethel”

About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.

The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.

I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.

But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m  learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.

In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though I was a long way off.

where the Lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.
Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.

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.