“The Qur’an is a masterpiece of language,” my tour guide says, her face radiant. “It’s a miracle.”
“I experienced some of that beauty,” I say shyly. “I memorized al-Fatihah.”
“You memorized al-Fatihah?”
I don’t blame her incredulity. I had cold called a mosque in downtown Oshawa, and my tour guide was the founder’s wife. She didn’t expect me to commiserate over the many forms an Arabic verb can take or to know al-Fatihah, the first and shortest surah (chapter) of the Qur’an. And it is beautiful. Even as a brand-new Arabic student I could taste the poetry in each line.
The call to prayer, distorted through mosque loudspeakers, punctuated my childhood in multiple East African nations. Islam was largely unknown to me, but I heard stories: persecution, pride, forced conversion by the sword or persuaded conversion by tax and business opportunities. And of course, those stories grew a subtle but deep feeling of hostility to the thought of Islam thriving.
My Christian school curriculum didn’t mention that what Europe calls the “Dark Ages” was a bright time for Islam. Muslims held much of the world’s wealth and power. Their cities were centres of culture, learning and arts, and their knowledge helped spark the European renaissance. We’ve adopted universities and algebra, soap and flying machines, yes, even windmills. And thank goodness for Arabic numbers replacing our Roman numerals! But Western civilizations are reluctant to recognize their debt to Muslim cultures, and Christians are slow to acknowledge the common roots of our monotheistic faiths.
The path between justice and mercy
My journey to a better understanding of Islam started in an unlikely place: an Arab Fair in Texas. At night entire fields were lit up with the burning coals of hookahs, and I caught one word in the music: habibi. Beloved. The next week, as I scrawled habibi across the whiteboard on the first day of Arabic I class, I fell in love with the supple ease of the Arabic alphabet.
Years later, my tour of the Oshawa mosque was derailed by a theological discussion which lasted for three hours, through lunch time. We ignored our rumbling stomachs and discussed the division of body and soul in Islam and Christianity; the seven worlds a soul passes through in Islam and how Christ came as the true tabernacle – God-among-man – restoring both our bodies and souls in a new heaven and earth.
I returned to the mosque a week later and the founder’s wife was joined by a Qur’anic scholar. “Ask all your big questions,” the founder’s wife told me. I asked when nukta were added to the Qur’an and where the Mother of all Books is. When I shyly asked questions about that first line of al-Fatihah which calls on the entirely merciful God, and the path between God’s justice and mercy that Muslims live in, the Qur’anic scholar beamed. “Now I know the kind of person you are” she said, “because you have asked this question!”
I felt drawn to the women as if they were sisters. It wasn’t what I expected, but it wasn’t surprising. Who else in Oshawa would engage me in deep spiritual conversations 10 minutes after we greet each other? We all struggle to integrate our faith into daily life in a Canadian context. We all believe that the revelation of God holds authority for our lives: I believe that revelation is made full in the man Jesus Christ; they believe the fullness of revelation is in the Qur’an.
‘Why don’t you respect our prophet?’
I returned a third time to the mosque. Three hours deep into a conversation, the Qur’anic scholar reached a breaking point. She leapt from her seat to pace the floor and half shouted, half cried, “How can you say you believe in the words of Jesus when you do not believe what he says about the Prophet Muhammed? I respect your prophets. Why do you not respect our prophet?”
I had never heard of Mohammed being mentioned in the Bible. But I apologized, as a Christian, for the disrespect and hatred the church has shown Muslims, despite Jesus calling us to love.
The Qur’anic scholar was still trembling and crying when she hugged me tightly: “No, no! You have no need to say sorry.”
I did have need to say sorry. More than I realized.
On the red and gold carpet of the women’s section in the mosque, I received generosity and respect. “Salaam aleikum,” they had greeted me. “Wa aleikum salaam,” I replied. I accepted the peace and goodness they wish for me and returned the wish for their communities.
But Christians often wish that Muslims will be “corrupted” by secular culture and lose their faith. I could see myself reaching for that thought as the founder’s wife described the surge of recent converts in Oshawa. Wouldn’t it be better if they weren’t growing as a religion? Wouldn’t it be better if they were just a little less devoted?
I own these thoughts to my absolute shame. If, like me, you see the world as spiritual as well as physical, you will understand that what you wish for the soul of your friend is everything.
“We live always between hope and fear,” the scholar said as we talked about God’s forgiveness and his justice. I don’t wish for them to be less devoted; I long for them to have the very thing they want: the full revelation of God and eternity in his presence. We are all seeking the kind of understanding that dresses in faithful living.
An inside-out journey
Looking back, I feel lucky. I might have started this journey from the outside-in, learning about Muslims from a classroom slideshow. Instead I unintentionally started from the inside-out, struggling to restructure my brain to suit Arabic grammar, whisper-chanting Al-Fatihah on hikes and in a rattling airplane over Arizona. In Texas and in Ontario I asked questions of women whose faith shone in the brightness of their faces. Islamic theology was unraveled alongside biryani recipes, stories of children and first-person accounts of Mecca.
This summer, at 5 a.m in the Amsterdam airport, I prayed alongside a Muslim Kenyan woman who adopted me the moment I greeted her in Arabic – I stood with a rosary, she knelt towards Mecca, both of us praying out loud.
I looked into the faces of my neighbours, and found my sisters.
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