As the Jewish New Year and Eid celebrations approach this weekend, I wanted to write about something very close to my heart. Too often, when I discuss social and political issues, I notice that most of the tension between certain communities are fueled by undying stereotypes and misconceptions. Even some of the most well-intentioned comments I receive are tainted by the prejudices and generalizations promoted mostly by the mainstream media.
I want this to stop.
I can already hear someone saying, “There are always going to be problems. There are always going to be bigots, racists, Islamophobes, misogynists, and so on.” Yes, I know. But that doesn’t stop me from reaching out to people who are receptive to what I feel in my heart. No one can miraculously change the world in a single day, but we try. We try because that is our calling; because we’re human beings and we’re all part of each other.
As a devout Muslim, I read and hear stereotypes pretty much every day (if you count the things I read on the internet or see on the news). For those who know me, you know my story already. For those who don’t, read my personal reflection on 9/11 to get a brief glimpse.
I believe in the Qur’an. Not because I was “born Muslim,” but because there was a time in my life when I sincerely searched for God. I needed to question Islam and the existence of a Supreme Being before I fully believed. The mere label of “Muslim” and “Islam” is not important to me, but rather the meaning is. “Islam” means “Submission” in Arabic, i.e. submission to God. A “Muslim” is a submitter, or one who submits to God. To be a “submitter to God” is to acknowledge that you are not in control of everything in your life. It means that you have to surrender your wants and desires in order to experience Divine Love, or spiritual enlightenment. When one is empty, God fills that void with Divine Beauty.
Reasoning and questioning is important to me, which is why it comforted my heart when my imam once said, “There are no forbidden questions in Islam.” In Tariq Ramadan’s book, “In the Footsteps of the Prophet,” he talks about how many of the Prophet’s companions would come to him for consultation (peace be upon them all). The Prophet would say certain statements (some of which were seemingly contradictory) in order to encourage critical thought. For instance, the Prophet would say, “A strong man is not one who can fight!” The companions did not understand this, and yet they spoke among themselves to figure out what it meant. Then the Prophet would reveal, “The strongest of men are those who can control their anger!” The Prophet would make a seemingly contradictory statement such as, “Help your brother, no matter if he is just or unjust!” After discussion, the Prophet explained that help must be provided to someone who is doing something wrong; that is a form of expression and faith.
As I became more spiritual, I strove to absorb myself in the meaning of things, rather than practice Islam in its outward and ritual form. I asked myself, “Why do I pray five times a day? Is it because my parents tell me to do so, or is it because I truly recognize the spiritual significance of worship, which represents Love for God, humility, and Divine remembrance/mindfulness?” When I was donating money, as all Muslims are required to do, I asked again, “Why do you donate money? Simply because it is a commandment or because you truly know the importance of helping a fellow human being in need?” All of these kind of questions led me to new discoveries about myself, about who I wanted to be, and about where I wanted to go.
My mother always tells me, “Everyone was created by Allah.” This is how I was raised and it always frustrates me when I receive stereotypical remarks and questions from people. Questions like, “Do you hate the Jews?” or “Do you hate Christians?” No, I never heard a single remark like that spoken in my house. I remember one time, a family “friend” spoke in a very condescending manner to my parents. This “friend” spoke to us as if we “hated Jews,” and my mother decided to put her foot down and say something. She explained that Muslims believe in the Torah and the Gospel, we have Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, and even Jesus (peace be upon them all) in our scripture too. This “friend” did not know that at all.
The beautiful thing to me about Islam has always been its universal message of peace. I feel that when I read the Qur’an, when I pray, when I speak about it, and when I interact with people. When I am confronted with accusations about anti-semitism from people who don’t even know me, it bothers me a great deal. If they knew anything about Islamic theology, they would know that insulting Judaism would be considered heresy. But even that aside, any kind of bigotry or hatred towards any group of people is just inhumane.
As I mentioned, I believe in the Qur’an, which also means I believe that Abraham is the Prophet and father of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. About two years ago, I was standing in the “religious” section of my local bookstore, and another customer saw me looking at Islamic books. She was looking at the Bibles. She kindly asked me, “Now, you guys don’t believe in Jesus, do you?” It turned into a friendly conversation lasting about 45 minutes. The moment I mentioned the Abrahamic connection, I could tell it was something she didn’t know before. Before we parted, she thanked me for speaking to her and even admitted that she didn’t have many good thoughts about Islam prior to meeting me.
I remember driving home that day with a smile on my face. It was more than a good feeling. There was something at the heart; something deep and spiritual. I truly believe it is this connection we all have since we’re from the same Source. If we really believe that we are brothers and sisters of one another, then we need to start acting like that. No more of these stereotypes, accusations, and prejudices.
Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a famous Sufi, once wrote: “Separate from yourself that which separates you from others.”
I wish we all could do this. I do my best. I know when it comes to political issues like Israel and Palestine, many Muslims, Jews, and Christians are divided. I have some friends who disagree with me when I criticize Israel, but they won’t go as far as calling me an “anti-semite.” Other people though, i.e. people who don’t know me personally, will make those accusations. Their comments are fueled, of course, by the stereotype that “Muslims hate Jews.” These stereotypes divide us. The lack of dialogue and communication divides us too.
Look at how often we emphasize on our differences and how little we spend time with each other. As some of you know, I am working on an inter-faith short film about Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and the first thing I noticed was how similar we are. Yet so many people don’t make an effort to realize this. When I look at what’s going on between Israelis and Palestinians, I cannot help but reflect on the history of that beautiful place we call “The Holy Land.”
Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted for centuries in the Middle-East. For hundreds of years, Palestine was under Muslim-rule and the Jewish and Christian minorities flourished. When the Crusaders invaded in 1099, they slaughtered not only the Muslims, but the Jews and Arab Christians as well. The Jews were expelled from the city under “Christian” rule.
Almost 100 years later, a Kurdish Muslim leader named Salah Al-Din recaptured the city of Jerusalem. In doing so, he did not kill a single Christian civilian after taking control of the city. The Churches and Synagogues were not destroyed, and the Jews were invited back into the city.
Salah Al-Din had a Jewish physician in his court named Maimonides (or Musa ibn Maymun – his original Arabic name). Maimonides was the leader of the Jewish community in Cairo, and he also taught fellow Jews that if there wasn’t a Synagogue to pray in, then they were permitted to pray in Mosques. This is the kind of relationship Muslims and Jews had with one another.
Prior to Muslim-ruled Spain, the Jews were being persecuted by the Catholic Visigoths. When the Muslims came, the Jews were allowed to practice their religion peacefully and they even held high positions in government. Abdel Rahman III had a personal physician who was Jewish; his name was Hasdai ibn Shaprut. The fact that Hasdai ibn Shaprut cured Abdel Rahman III when he was sick represents the coexistence that flourished among Muslims and Jews. Samuel ibn Naghrela was another Jewish man in Muslim-ruled Spain (Al-Andalus). He even became a general who led Muslim armies! Hostility towards the Jews started up during the Catholic reconquest of Spain.
In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand ordered the Spanish Inquisition, which killed thousands of people, mostly Jews. After years, they decided to kill and expel the Muslim as well. The Jews fled Spain and found refuge in Muslim lands, namely the Ottoman Empire.
I know there is a lot tension today and a lot of heated debates about Israel and Palestine. I know you may not agree with me on everything, but I want us to find some way to break through the barriers and establish the kind of coexistence and friendship that our people have enjoyed for centuries. I want us to celebrate our history together. I want us to talk about spirituality and faith, and what it means to be Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.
The next generation cannot be raised to fear someone who is practicing a different religion, and no child should have to feel alienated or discriminated against because of their religious affiliation. That is not the kind of future we should seek. The words expressed here by 12th-13th century Sufi, Ibn ‘Arabi, is what we should seek:
O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’bah,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an.
I follow the religion of Love:
whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
I believe that peace and Love is all Abraham ever wanted for us. I believe that is what God wants for us. And I know anything is possible when we believe with all of our hearts. Happy Rosh Hashanah and Eid Mubarak in advance. For my friends on the blogosphere, consider the documentary on Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) below as a gift and celebration of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence.
Salaam, Shalom, Shlama, Peace.