Wrapping my hair in a scarf and slipping off my shoes, I stepped onto the prayer rug, squeezing in shoulder-to-shoulder among the other women. The only Catholic student on Georgetown University’s Muslim retreat, I followed my friends’ ritual movements as the prayer leader chanted the verses in Arabic. While the students placed their hands flat against their stomachs in prayer, I found myself wanting to fold my hands. This simple gesture brought me a feeling of comfort, a connection to God. That moment, however unlikely it may seem, was the start of my journey back to the Catholic faith.
Growing up, I went to Catholic grade school and attended Mass with my family every Sunday. One of my most vivid memories from childhood is of sitting in church, drawing pictures of a skinny-limbed Jesus while nibbling on Cheerios. Despite my upbringing, however, I became bored with Catholicism as I entered my teenage years and questioned why I needed to believe in Christ if I believed that the adherents of other faiths would also achieve salvation.
When, as a freshman at a Jesuit high school, I took a required course on world religions, I became enthralled by Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, but especially by Islam. Outside the classroom, the poetry of the Muslim mystic Rumi provided me with a new, vast image of God, and I became fascinated by Muslims’ dedication to prayer, fasting and modesty. I took my own religion for granted and had lost my emotional connection to it, and I wondered if Islam could give me the depth of faith I sought.
Continuing an exploration of Islam during my first semester at Georgetown, I formed a small faith-sharing group with two friends, a Muslim and a Protestant. We wanted an informal place to learn about our religions from one another, so we met weekly over chai tea, bringing along our holy books.
Our conversations, especially those about the nature of God and our relationship with God, led me to an understanding of the similarities between Islam and Catholicism. Our smiles grew wide when the words of biblical and Koranic stories about Abraham matched up almost perfectly.
Two Views of Jesus
I also came to understand some crucial differences. In the past I had often questioned the significance of Jesus. But in learning about Islamic theology I was reminded that the Incarnation—God becoming one of us—is an important difference in the way I understood my relationship with God. While Muslims worship the God of Abraham and revere Jesus as a holy prophet, Islam does not acknowledge Jesus’ divinity. The Koran, which considers the Trinity to be in conflict with monotheism, says: “God is indeed just One God. Far be it from His glory that He should have a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth. God is sufficient for a guardian” (4:171). This view of God seemed more distant than the one I had grown up with, one in which Jesus guides us on life’s path. I was compelled to investigate further Christianity’s unique perspective on God.
In studying Catholicism I realized that believing in Jesus is about more than assenting to specific doctrines. It means understanding something quite fundamental about our relationship with God. By entering into human history through the person of Jesus, God chose not to watch from afar but instead to participate in the human experience. The term incarnation does not refer simply to a single historical event. Instead, it points to the way God continues to interact with us every day: through human relationships. Jesus’ existence tells us more about God than his words or actions ever could—that God wants to walk among us.
I began to understand that, in Islam, a Muslim’s life is spent on “the straight path,” a path toward God, whereas in Christianity, one’s life is spent on the path with God incarnate. Neither understanding of God is more right than the other. If I learned anything from Rumi, it is that God exists beyond all human categories or understanding. I felt I could have a deeper relationship with God through Jesus by understanding God as a friend who walks with me.
Yet it was only through engagement with Islam that I was able to recognize the value in my own tradition’s conception of God. Because Catholicism was so close and familiar, I had lacked a critical distance from which to examine it.
Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. I think immersion into other religious traditions could have helped me in the same way, raising questions and presenting alternative viewpoints that allowed me to reflect back on Catholicism with new perspective and a curiosity to learn more.
According to the church, interreligious dialogue goes beyond talking to other believers. It requires lived engagement: sharing meals, attending religious services and working together to promote justice—which is why I chose to attend the Muslim retreat and to pray alongside my Muslim friends. I have also served on the Muslim Students Association board and lived in the university’s Muslim living-learning community, which is housing reserved for Muslim undergraduates and those interested in Islam. When Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, at the end of August, I joined them for the banquet.
Inspired by my friends’ love for Islam, I come away from every meal or thoughtful conversation with a renewed energy to embrace Catholicism. Through my faith journey, I have concluded that engaging in interreligious dialogue is a crucial activity, not only for learning about others but, more important, for enriching one’s own faith.
In his encyclical “Redemptor Hominis,” Pope John Paul II wrote that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality….” Rather “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”
It has been the Islamic commitment to prayer that has most challenged me in the way the pope describes. My Muslim roommate would wake before sunrise to perform her first prayer of the five prescribed throughout the day. Scheduled prayer allows Muslims constantly to keep their mind on God and provides a moment for quiet reflection in a world that often moves too fast.
That dedication to prayer made me want to cultivate a deeper Catholic prayer life, and I enrolled in an Ignatian “Prayer in Daily Life” retreat at Georgetown and began frequenting the on-campus chapel almost daily. This has led me to a deeper connection to God and an ability to notice his workings more often throughout my day. It is a process and a habit I would not have started without some interreligious inspiration. I have to thank Islam for helping me make the choice to reclaim my own faith—for making me a better Catholic.