As a fourth year medical student on a rotation in medical oncology, part of my morning duties were to check on patients prior to rounding with the team, to have a sense of how they had fared overnight and how they were feeling that morning. It was during this pre-rounding that I met a Muslim woman receiving treatment for leukemia. I remember nothing specific about her condition except that there was this sense that there was little more the doctors could do.
The woman herself seemed weak, always in bed, yet peaceful, as evidenced through her reliable and gentle smile. Our interactions were warm, our words exchanged soft though few, and somehow, through our brief interactions, she perceived my own weariness.
“Have you read this?” she asked me one morning, her right arm extended halfway in my direction, her fingers clasped around a small book.
I think my first thought was, I thought it was spelled ‘Koran”.
“No, I haven’t read it,” I told her.
“Take it,” she said and extended her arm further.
“Oh no, I couldn’t take your book,” I declined quickly. Why was she offering it to me? Where would I put it during rounds? Why would I take it if I had no intention of reading it?
But her eyes were insistent, and kind. It seemed so important to her.
So I took it, thanking her, and I put it on my bookshelf, wondering when I would ever have the time or desire to read it.
That copy of the Quran moved with me a few times as I moved east for residency and moved again when we purchased our home, but after awhile it must have ended up in one of the giveaway boxes, as purging remains a necessarily frequent exercise given our limited square footage. It pains me that I never read it. I would like to say that I did, to honor my patient’s memory. And yet, otherwise, I didn’t see the need. I was happy with my religion. Why should I learn hers?
There was a time, years later, that I began to feel isolated as a person of faith. I wanted more people around me to know what I believed and why. When I spoke to women of other faiths, I learned that they had similar concerns. They also wished to be seen and understood. It was around this time that I hosted an interfaith tea party for mothers of different faiths from my kids’ school. While I was a little worried about sharing my own beliefs, I shouldn’t have worried. The other mothers were so eager to share their own experiences and ask questions of each other that all I had to do was refill tea cups!
Meeting these women, including Muslims from different cultural backgrounds, and reading Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance by Linda Wertheimer, and then reading Carl Medearis’s Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, all snowballed into this need to learn more about Islam. I specifically wanted to know what Muslims are taught about Jesus. But besides that, I wanted to know about this religion because it concerns so many -- the millions who practice it...and the many who fear its teaching.
As I began reading the book, I noted the way the author acknowledges that her “engagement with other worldviews had been more about pageantry than pluralism…[and that she] might identify as someone who celebrated diversity, but in reality, [her] worldview was pretty cramped.” (34) How true is this for so many of us? How insular are our circles?
In order to uphold her value of examining the beliefs of others, as well as to debunk the myths that lead to Islamophobia, the author immerses herself in a year long study of the Quran. I appreciate her efforts to provide multiple Muslim perspectives, probing the Sheikh on sensitive issues as well as conducting interviews with Pakastani and Egyptian Muslims who hold different interpretations of the Quran.
Aren’t Muslims right to seek justice, for example? Isn’t that a “cornerstone virtue of Islam”? The Sheikh replies yes, but… “There [would be] justice, ultimately, he said, but it would not necessarily arrive in this life. Allah would provide it in the Hereafter.” He recommended compromise and peace first as a smarter strategy to buy “space and time to do something, to build something” that might later give their people strength. (243) Above all, the Sheikh stresses the Muslim to seek God first and let the minutia of this life, the slanders, the slights, the injustices, fall away. He recommends leading by example, to let a quiet life speak for itself. “True freedom,” he says, “means freedom from desire. True freedom means freedom of thinking.” (255) Have faith, he says. They can not take that from you.
Americans, on the other hand, he views as “slaves of desire, and that’s not good for people. These things are more likely to bring death to America than any Al-Qaeda, any destruction of towers.” (255) A bold statement! And yet, the philosophy and the actions seem linked in a disturbing way. Along her journey the author learns that very few extremists studied at traditional madrasas or Islamic boarding schools. Rather, they were Western-educated. “It was ‘Western-educated types,’ not madrasa graduates, [the Sheikh] said, who harbored the biggest grudges against the West. ‘They want what the West has,’ he said. ‘They want power.’” (266)
Given the severity of potential outcomes from misinterpretation, it was difficult to hear though that the Quran could only be fully understood in classical Arabic. Only after years of study, said the Sheikh, could one purport to interpret the passages justly. The author cycles back to this idea several times as she finds many Muslims doing their own research, ending up with what her Sheikh would call cursory results.
Similarly, in Christianity, the Bible is a complex text, and without guidance from a pastor or community of believers, we too might misinterpret its meaning. On the other hand, I love that the Bible can be translated into every language without losing its potency. I love that it remains a living text that can speak to its reader directly. I love that it's a physical demonstration that God’s love is meant for all.
As the Sheikh explained the origins and practices of his religion, he necessarily had to acknowledge differences of belief with regard to Judaism and Christianity. I didn’t find his views to be antagonistic, and yet, his perspective was so different from mine, it made me want to reach through the pages and suggest alternative or deeper explanations for what I felt were misperceptions. Basically, I couldn’t agree with his interpretation of Muhammad’s life, and he couldn’t agree with my interpretation of Jesus’s identity.
It was hard to read the Sheikh’s statement that “Christians...went to extremes by confusing their prophet Jesus with the divine.” (33) For sure, Paul and the apostles went to extremes to spread the Gospel, but this seems to skip over the beginning of the story -- when the disciples struggled to believe, when it was God himself who went to extremes to rescue sinners through Jesus.
Similarly, while my religion agrees with the Sheikh that to worship any God but God is a sin (shirk in Islam), the mystery of the Trinity requires avid study, and while difficult to define, is not impossible.
While the Sheikh claimed, “Christians are not so concerned about what Jesus did…[whereas] our spirituality comes through [acting] as the Prophet Muhammad did. We want the closeness of God through this history.” (53) On the contrary, Christian do study what Jesus did so that they can better understand and grow closer to God.
On the other hand, in so many examples, I felt like the Sheikh and my goals (mainly to know God and honor him) were completely aligned.
I wanted to celebrate Islam’s perspective on submission to God, the prostration in prayer...and share the beauty in Jesus’s message to submit to each other as we submit to God, to be humble in all areas of life. I love the idea of designated times of day to pray, to create “a separate peace” sacred to God. (110) Of course, Christian monks and nuns have prayed according to the clock for centuries as well; the concept is present in Christianity...yet not as well seen or likely as well practiced.
I loved learning how Islam is rooted in the prophets and other Bible stories. And yet, it was shocking to read about differences that shifted the interpretation. For example, Islam says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is descended from King David, and not Joseph. I loved learning that Muslims believe that Jesus ascended into heaven, and yet, I am confused as to why they don’t believe he was crucified first. I loved learning about how important women were in early Islam...just as they were important in early Christianity.
I also appreciated the author’s observation of the “porous quality between a spiritual experience and ordinary life [that] is a feature -- and a strength -- of Muslim life.” (213) This reminded me of what Christianity has to say about the importance of bodies, in addition to that of souls, which I considered while reading Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary and also recall now as I remember a pastor admonishing us to be “spiritual in natural things and natural in spiritual things.”
At the end of her journey, the author circles back to a secondary purpose for this book -- to consider faith for herself. Near the beginning of the book when she is discussing her non-religious upbringing, she quotes her father:
“‘I would love to believe,’ my father would say, spreading his arms wide, as though waiting for some deity to arrive in his embrace. None ever did.” (37)
By the end, the author does not convert either but admits that the “year with my own sheikh and the Quran provided [her] with many moments of grace…[where she] found comfort in how small [she] felt reading the text, as when [she] considered the images of the “Lord of the heavens and the earth and everything in between…” (291)
On the other hand, the author is disappointed that the Sheikh has made no conversion of his own, no move toward her worldview. The author takes him to an art museum and wishes for him to acknowledge the beauty in the paintings which she believes pay tribute to her secularist worldview. She is discouraged when he does not. And while reading this, I felt similarly frustrated. Here was a woman mesmerized by the beauty of art, which I view as a potential portal to appreciating the beauty of God. I feel the Sheikh missed an opportunity to reach her.
The author did, however, receive renewed faith in her own beliefs. As she writes, “Our lessons were rites paying tribute to my belief that to be fully human is to try to understand others.” (300) And yet, she concedes that “understanding difference” is not solely a secularist’s value, but rather “also a Quranic one. Only through diversity, says the Quran, can you truly learn the shape and heft of your own humanity.”
I would add that “understanding difference” is also a Christian value, and after reading this text, I appreciated the chance to reexamine my own beliefs as I learned about the faith of others.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.