We are able to borrow traditions from other religions without compromising our own. This insight defined my interfaith journey as a Muslim at a Catholic college. My pilgrimage was set into motion by an invitation from the college’s chaplain to attend a Sunday worship service at the beginning of my freshman year. That single act of outreach and goodwill sparked a period of intensive spiritual growth and development during my undergraduate career. This interreligious journey continues today and has allowed me to grow as a Muslim to a degree that would have been difficult if I were limited to my own religious practice.
My immersion in Catholic life in college took many forms. I regularly attended Catholic worship services, learned about Catholic traditions in the classroom and participated in many events sponsored by the office of campus ministry, even serving on its pastoral council. Some of the most powerful, humbling moments I experienced at prayer took place in a side room of the on-campus chapel where I performed the traditional five daily Muslim prayers. The gentle presence of music or choir rehearsal in the background served as a tangible reminder of God’s everlasting and intimate presence near us and within us, closer to each of us than we are to ourselves, as both religions remind us. The Muslim prayer beads that hang from my waist, which I hold onto and pray with at various parts of the day, is an idea I adopted from those worn by the priests as they walk about the campus of the college in their prominent white habits. I am a more prayerful, conscious and reflective Muslim by following their example.
At times, however, the religious diversity I embraced and represented made some people nervous, even hostile. At this same college where positive interfaith interactions abounded, I also encountered a few individuals who consistently would not return my sign of peace, in the literal sense during Mass, and symbolically—to whom I represented “the other.” In this, I realized that each of us can find scriptural or theological reinforcements to promote unity or division. An examination of our world today provides numerous examples of both.
I experienced this tension on the day of my departure from college. I had decided to attend the morning prayer services at the priory chapel, feeling that it would be a fitting conclusion to my undergraduate life. After the service concluded and most people had filed out, one of the priests whom I am blessed to have come to know well approached me and told me that he offered Mass for me that morning, knowing it was the day of my departure and that I might be anxious. I was very grateful for his solicitude. I then went to a corner of the chapel, out of the way, and performed my own Islamic prayers. As I finished, I noticed another priest had lingered and, watching very intently, told me that what I was doing is “very strange” and “extreme” before storming off and slamming the door to the sacristy behind him.
In my final moments on campus, I directly experienced two very different but representative manifestations of religious practice in relation to religious diversity. One individual offered me the gifts and beauty of his tradition while respecting my own religious standing; the other reacted to my presence with discomfort and fear. I imagine that both priests felt they were acting in accordance with the teachings of their faith. The intentions behind such actions are well beyond my right to judge, but what I can speak to are the effects of these actions on their recipient. One left me hopeful, the other distressed.
This is the choice we face as a society today, with interfaith harmony as one possibility and religious intolerance as another. We can engage and appreciate our brothers and sisters of other faiths, or we can pull away in fear. We can either work to transform our world through religious understanding or slide further down the path of discord and division.
My interfaith experience is not extensive, nor are my years on this earth many. But all that I have come to know through my interfaith way of life compels me to a truth that I believe transcends my age and experience. I believe that it is God’s intention to will the diversity of his children in religious belief, tradition and practice. Chapter 5, verse 48 of the holy Quran—one of my favorite Quranic verses, taught to me by a professor of Catholic theology—speaks to this providential plan:
To each among you, We have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you: so strive as one race in all virtues. The goal of all of you is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.
A similar theme was introduced to me by the priest who offered Mass for me on the day of my departure. He pointed me to Jn 10:16, which reads, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this flock; them, too, I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.”
I see this message reflected in a recent photo of Pope Francis with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Here is a representation of unity amid religious diversity. I feel an urgent need for this diversity when I hear about Christians and other religious minorities traumatized by oppression and violence committed in the name of religion. Their healing requires not merely tolerance and resolution, a negative peace, but appreciation and reconciliation, a positive peace. In the verses of holy Scripture, I find my personal call to pursue interfaith dialogue, to always and everywhere respect every person, because they are unique and belong to our one human family, regardless of how different they seem from myself. For diversity is indeed included in God’s test for us.
I trust Islam’s message to be universal, speaking to those who “think, reflect and do good.” These terms are used in the Quran to speak to all of humanity rather than just those who profess and practice the Islamic faith. It is my hope to introduce to people of all religions and belief systems the promise of personal and collective growth that awaits us through appreciative interfaith relations beyond mere tolerance. Such a shift in our perspective would replace the distress and trauma we all too often hear of—and, for some of us, experience—as a result of negative encounters among people of different faiths. Whether or not we choose to act upon this particular message of embracing religious diversity is our own free choice, but the fate is shared by us all.