On Fatwas and Familiarity…

Last night, approximately thirty women gathered at my house to listen to the ‘faith journey’ of one young Muslim woman named Sara. This gathering, sponsored by the Presbyterian women’s group at my church, was the second in a series of events designed to deepen our understanding of, and respect for, other faith traditions (the first event, also a wonderful evening, had featured a Jewish woman).

I have to say, I was worried as hell about this event – and not just about whether I’d successfully remove all the dog slobber from the couch before the guests arrived (I didn’t).  I was worried about whether the other guests would be kind and respectful towards Sara, who is a friend and work colleague of one church member. I was worried about some random nutcase a la Terry Jones finding out about this event and staging a protest outside my house. But most of all I was worried about what Sara would say. Like most Americans, I know very few Muslims (OK, just one other -a former work colleague whom I never knew well enough to ask many questions).  The liberal, open-minded part of me deeply hoped that Sara would dispel all the negative conceptions of Muslims that I’d been exposed to. But what if that didn’t happen? What if the things I heard only confirmed the accusations made by Sam Harris in The End of Faith – that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death”.

Well, here’s the good news. Not only did Sara put my worries to rest, but I experienced something  totally unexpected: I found Islam remarkably familiar. Being raised Jewish, many aspects of Islam that Sara described immediately evoked parallels to Judaism. For instance, Sara explained that the Hijab (the head scarf which Sara herself chose to wear for several years) is worn as a sign not just of modesty, but of respect and humility to God.  It seemed that Sara also chose to wear the Hijab as a way of actively identifying herself as Muslim. Her description of the Hijab reminded me of the Jewish Yarmulke – worn also as a way of covering the head to show respect to God, and also a way that Jewish men can clearly identify themselves as such.

Also her explanation of Fatwa – a term that I had really only heard in conjunction with radical regimes issuing death threats  – is for the most part just a way that Islamic leaders provide Koran-based guidance for Muslims who are living in a world that has changed dramatically since the Koran was written (her example was that there are fatwas related to TV – a device obviously not present during Mohammed’s time).   This process of producing fatwas reminded me quite a bit of Jewish Halakha – the body of Jewish law that guides how observant Jews should live, and which Rabbis must regularly interpret based on the challenges of modern life (one of my favorite examples of such a challenge is the issue of ‘virtual sinning’).

Even the process and content of the prayers was familiar -the emphasis on cleanliness, the focus on the oneness of God, God’s greatness, God as our creator, and even the sounds of a memorized prayer recited in an ancient  language – this all was familiar territory.

Perhaps the most unfamiliar aspect of Sara’s story was the level of courage required to live openly as a Muslim in our society.  Although Sara claimed that she experienced very little direct aggression when wearing the Hijab, she did note that there were sometimes less than friendly looks. And even within our own gathering last night, a few questions were posed to her that would have been utterly unthinkable to ask someone from a different faith tradition. She handled all questions with a grace and patience way beyond her young age of twenty-four.

Sara’s one small act of speaking to our group, and taking the time and energy to help dispel our numerous misconceptions, may have powerful and positive ripple effects. I can only hope that around our country and the world that more of such events will take place, and that together we can help realize these words of Joan Chittister’s:

When, in prayer, we come to discover God’s universal love we suddenly realize that God does not take sides, that we have no priority on God alone.  We finally understand that the God we seek is the God of the world and so, to seek that God, we must develop hearts as big as the world ourselves.

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