I am Jewish. I am Christian. I am Muslim.

I arrived at a really interesting insight today. It was an aha-moment that really made me feel comfortable with the complexities of my identity and faith.

Today, a student asked me “what is your faith?” Feeling hesitant to discuss religion with a student, I answered with “I am Jewish, I am Christian, and I am Muslim.” At first, we both laughed. The answer was meant to confuse the student and redirect conversation. Instead, he was interested in my response and asked me how that was possible. What was meant to be a silly response, was the most honest response I’ve given in a long time. I explained, “I am Jewish because my ancestors are Jewish. I also believe that Abraham is the father of my faith. I am Christian culturally. I was raised Catholic and it’s a culture that will always be a part of who I am. I am Muslim by belief. I believe in the Oneness of God and I accept Muhammed as His messenger.” The student was Muslim and said, “I never thought of that. In that case, I am also Jewish and Christian because Muslims come from the same Abrahamic tradition.”

This moment was extremely important for me. Situations are not always black and white. In my case, I cannot ignore that I come from a Christian upbringing—school, family, and culture. On the same token, as a Muslim, I also understand that Jewish and Christian tradition have never been a stranger to Islamic thoughts. In fact, I am floored when I learn that Muslims who have been raised in “Muslim” countries have never read the Bible or the Torah. These books are the foundation for the Islamic faith and comprehensive knowledge is absolutely necessary in order to have smart conversations about one’s Islamic faith.

What was meant to be a confusing response, ended up being the most clear thing I’ve said in a long time. It just takes a little bit of reflection to understand that our identities (no matter how “pure” we believe they are) are often very complex and beautiful.

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Adventures in Türkiye: Konya (via Perennial Reflection)

Fellow Blogger and brother, Anthony, has had an amazing journey in Turkey these past few weeks and I just wanted to share his adventures with my readers. Anthony’s pictures and words reflect a beautiful spiritual journey. Masha’Allah.

As long as I live, I am the slave of the Qur’an And the dust of the path of Muhammad If anyone quotes anything except this from my words I am far away from that person and that word. ~Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi I just left from Konya this evening, traveling through Anatolia towards Cappadocia (Kapadokya) by bus. I only stayed in Konya for a day, with the sole intent of visiting the Mevlâna museum and the sarcophagus of  Mevlâna Jalal ad-Din Muhamm … Read More

via Perennial Reflection

The Intersection of Faith and Intellectualism

Since returning to Miami and seeing many of the folks back home, I started to think about the relationship between God, religion, and intellectualism.

I have been wondering about the fact that the majority of those who claim a faith (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikhs, and so on) are mostly lay followers. By lay, I mean that many people of faith have not learned about God and their religion through books, but rather through word of mouth (i.e. families, school, friends). Oral knowledge falls under “conventional (or folk) wisdom” and is often undervalued. The reality, however, is that the majority of believers are not religious intellectuals*.  In this post, I refer to bookish scholars of any faith as “religious intellectuals” and the rest as “lay believers”.

I wonder how much we gain and lose spiritually with intellectualism. By intellectualism, I am referring to what we call “intellectual masturbation” in the academia (I think this phrase gets my point across the best). That is, an illogical and unhealthy obsession with arbitrary details and categories.

What I am noticing is that people (regardless of faith) who learn through oral tradition tend to show more wisdom and tolerance, while intellectuals tend to display arrogance and a sense of righteousness and entitlement.

This brings me to a concern about my generation and those of the future. Many of us today are doing things that previous generations could not do. Regular ol’ folks are reading information online, accessing scholarly books, and using technology to share knowledge about their individual faiths. Regular ol’ folks have access to a lot of information available through the internet and participating in the larger conversations (i.e. religious debates).

What are the benefits to quick and feasible accessibility to information in religion? Are there consequence in virtualizing the most personal part of our lives: our faith?  On the one hand, the access to and distribution of information widen our minds. On the other hand, getting lost in intellectualism can give us the false sense that the “smarter” we are, the better we are. When does theory take over practice and debilitate our connection with ourselves and God?

I have begun to believe that categories destroy most things; one of these things being human relationships. Categories forces us to focus on differences. I wonder about this a lot. How does my visibility (or invisibility) as a believing Muslim translate? How do I categorize myself as belonging to a particular faith without becoming part of the masses? Does this category (visibility) debilitate my ability to be seen as a Person? Does it define me in ways that I do not wish to be defined by others?

Two days ago, I was in the waiting room of a hospital. A middle-aged Cuban women sat next to me and began talking about her husband who was critically ill. Then, she began to talk about God. She was Catholic and assumed I was too. She talked about God in a natural and unpretentious way. I had begun to forget how simple it is to believe in God (regardless of religion). I had also begun to forget that God is simple despite the fact that we always try to attach human weaknesses to God (e.g. jealously, anger, fickleness, and so on). I feel that God is greater than our minds can imagine. I am wondering if intellectualism is what prevents so many people to continually bicker about “who” God is as if it is something at which we can arrive.

Can we arrive at our own sense of God through our particular faiths without discrediting valuable knowledge of other faiths? Can we work towards a common goal for humanity through categorizations? Do knowledge and faith depend on one another? Does religious intellectualism trap us in theory and make us impractical?

Bullying a Bully

So, I intellectually bullied a friend (or ex-friend, not sure anymore) today. It wasn’t my proudest moments but part of me feel that it had to be done.

An old highschool and family friend who entered the military right after highschool, messaged me today with the following:

Six Muslims Indicted in Terror Funding Plot. Federal authorities charged three members of a South Florida family, including one arrested in Los Angeles, in a conspiracy to raise money for weapons to “murder, maim and kidnap” people overseas and bolster the Pakistani Taliban. Authorities say the ringleader of the group is Hafiz Khan, a 76-year-old imam, or religious leader, of a mosque in Miami

I asked him what he wanted me to say, and he responded with “Don’t say anything. Sit back and watch them kill each and every one of us.” By “them,” he meant Muslims.

After this message, I had had enough of him. The previous week, he had responded to an article on my facebook wall in the most aggressive of ways–directly attacking me and others who agreed that violence should never be celebrated–no matter how evil the dead person may have been.

In short, he contacted me again today. Apparently, he expected me to answer for the actions of the indicted Muslims. This is when I decided to get a little nasty:

Johnathan, read books. Seriously. I am not trying to be condescending, but you have been immersed in violence from a very young age. It is critical for you to think about the way you are lashing out against me–and on what grounds?

From the comments on my page (the day after Laden’s death), you weren’t even understanding the conversation that was going on. I think the image I’ve attached serves as a reminder of some of the absurd and irrelevant comments you were making. You were responding to things that weren’t said and were attacking an ideology that you think I represent. A complete lack of reading comprehension skills, sorry to say it.

Again, I am down to discuss things with you (or anyone) with different opinions that my own. The only thing I require is respect–not impulsive responses that misconstrue or reflect assumptions about my position–or even worse, attack me personally! So “anti-American”? How dare you! Just because you own a badge and take a million of ridiculous pictures in front of your mirror with guns does not give you a right to dictate how others should think and who others are.

He responded with “books don’t show reality. My friends are dead because of this religion and their radical goal to kill infidels in the name of their Allah”.

I responded with, “John, did you know Christians who speak Arabic call God “Allah” and “Rab” also? They are Arabic words for ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. The God in Islam is the same God in Christianity. Read Quran and Bible and then we can continue.”

He responded with, “I don’t have time to read. Besides, while you were reading my friends were getting killed in Afghanistan and Iraq”

And I said, “You are right, books do not solve immediate problems, but remaining ignorant by refusing to seek information remove hope.”

I felt like an intellectual bully on many levels. I know that my friend joined the military directly after high school. He was raised in a low social-economic neighborhood and joined the military to escape a lot of road blocks. He has been immersed in violence since a very young age. On the one hand, I felt that pointing out his insecurities (in regards to literacy) was a cruel move. On the other hand, he has the potential to read and arrive at his own opinions about the world–ideas independent from military politics and those of Fox news.

In many ways, I feel sorry for him. He is right on many levels. Books do not solve immediate problems. Many people like him have been raised to be practical. To attack problems as they come–not with their minds, but with their bodies. Many individuals like him have had to fight their way through the streets, through school, through family situations. John, like many people I know, are survivors. John, like many people I know, do not have time nor the opportunity to get an education. For these reasons, I felt like an elitist bully.

On the same token, should I stay silent and let him bully me around? Should I stay silent while he spews hate with which he has been indoctrinated? Should I be afraid to shake his narrow-minded worldview by challenging him to seek information?

He sent another message that said, “You know I care for you. It is my mission to protect others. I just want to open your eyes to what is going on with that religion…” and I responded with, “You did it again, John. You vilified an entire religion that you haven’t taken the time to read,” and he responded with, “How about we don’t take about this anymore?”

I think that my going back to the reading cornered him. It wasn’t like him to drop a subject. In many ways, I think I exposed him to his own “shortcomings”. I did this knowingly–which may have be unethical. I, however, feel even more irresponsible staying silent while a friend loses himself neglectfully to the rhetoric of violence.

A Catholic Priest: My Friend & Brother

Just found this note in my room at my parent’s house. I wrote this letter to a friend, Santi, who was at the seminary at that time….and on his way to becoming a Catholic priest. I have recently gotten in touch with him again, and I revealed to him that I was a Muslim now. I will admit that I was completely afraid he would judge me (I’ve always been scared of priests and nuns judging me). To my surprise, I was reminded that sometimes a strong faith in a Creator, God/Allah is what makes people fundamentally the same.

I had written this letter to him during highschool (around 2003, I think) when my faith was completely crashing. He responded to my e-mail and gave me beautiful words of advice. Until this day, I thank him for it. I have retyped the letter below (his responses are in bold–as he replied within the text).

Cristi,

Thank you for your email. Thank you for the trust. Thank you for the friendship. Let me start by saying ‘peace be with you.’ Not only do I share my own peace, but I share God’s peace and his mercy. I want you to know that I am here for you, although far physically. I am praying for you and I know that God has a beautiful purpose for you. I hope it is alright if I reply to your message by commenting in it as it unfolds.

“Hey Santiago,

Well, this may sound like a strange question but believe it or not, you are one of the only real Catholics I know…(I am glad we got to know each other through our work at the library. Yet, I think the issue at hand is in the midst of diversity, it is good to have friends who share our values, dreams and goals in life). So I guess it does not hurt asking you for some advice. Well, I will tell you my story and hope for your religious perspective (I believe the religious perspective must always embrace and reflect all other aspects of life). If you can’t help, don’t worry about it, but I’m basically a little bit confused about my faith, I am Catholic too, as you know (I think I remember you went to St. ******…lol. You know, it is quite alright to be confused. Actually, it is good that you are. Being confused shows that you are thinking, that you are meditating and pondering. It shows you are alive). Well, since I began college, there are people of many faiths that I am friends with such as Buddhists, Christians, Agnostics, even atheists (It is good to have many friends, who have many different views and perspectives. In a way, looking into the diversity of life helps us to understand the beauty of our own beliefs and values). I have learned many things from these faiths and have come to respect them. For example, I have come to really respect Buddhists’ spiritually disciplined lifestyle and peaceful meditations (Our Catholic faith also has a very long and powerful tradition of prayer life, meditation and discipline. It’s called asceticism. Just think of the monks and nuns, of priests and religious men and women. Now think that it is not only limited or restricted to them. We are all called to be holy, to love, to meditate and to ponder on the Word of God). While observing people of other faiths, I realize that there are things about Catholicism that I don’t agree with (Think about why is it that you do not agree with them. Then, reflect about what you believe…and why is it that you believe it. Do not only see the beliefs and traditions of the Church only from the point that the Bible and Pope tells us. Search and research about the reason behind these beliefs. Be assured, that any question you have about any topic you can share it with me). I feel that my faith in God is very shaky now (Shaky is a good beginning. At least there is movement. Otherwise, it would be dead. Do not be ashamed to recognize your own confusion. Confusion makes people beautiful and honest. Be honest with yourself and with others). I know I believe in God, but I am not so sure I believe everything in my faith. I have not gone to Church in a long time and I would feel like a hypocrite if I started going now. I also don’t pray that often anymore…I only turn to God when I feel completely hopeless, not because I am a devoted Catholic (Do not think of yourself as a hypocrite. Think of yourself as the Prodigal Daughter. Remember the parable? Coming back home is the greatest feeling and sensation there is. Returning is not only about physical journey, but a spiritual awakening as well. Let God move you and guide you. Do not be afraid to ask God for help, for He is always listening and loving you. He loves you very much and wishes nothing but to overflow you with blessings and graces. God is merciful and forgiving: know that He is always waiting for you and carrying you through it all…always!!!). I think I was happier when I had faith and believed strongly rather than now, but I am afraid I will never go back (Do not give up on God…you are an amazing person and God wants to grow and experience Him always more strongly and more fully. He can do it all. Don’t be afraid). I hope I didn’t confuse you with my story (There is nothing confusing. It is beautiful to read your story. It is honest and humbling). Well, basically I just try to handle all of lives’ tasks on my own without help from others and without prayer, and it isn’t working out too well for me (Realizing that we cannot do anything without God is called humility, for it allows us to see our lives in the perspective of God’s love and purpose for us). I do not know myself anymore nor what my faith is (Sure you know yourself kiddo…Do not beat yourself too badly. Let God speak to you. Do not rush anything. Pray for wisdom, patience and understanding. I shall pray for them too).

I hope you don’t judge me by this, but it has gotten to the point where I am seeing myself ‘falling apart’. I do not know to whom to turn without feeling that they will judge me (I don’t judge you and never would. You are cute and fluffy Cristy. God loves you. Very much so and you deserve the best. My prayer for you is that you may experience God’s mercy and light. His truth. Know that you are not alone in this journey. We are all flawed and need God’s mercy and forgiveness. I make mistakes everyday and I also humbly ask you to pray for me, too).

I wrote this letter at a point in my life where everything I had ever known had been shaken. I was raised in Catholic school and the Catholic faith was the center of my universe. I remember very clearly when I wrote this desperate letter to Santi. I had written it after reading on a site a post by an atheist who argued that God didn’t exist. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone flirt with such a notion, that I cried for a long time afterward. You can say I was naive, but my whole world was really falling apart. I was in dire need of spiritual guidance, and Santi came to my aid.

My spiritual journey took a long while. After this letter, I considered myself agnostic–a belief in God, but no particular religion. It took me 6 years to arrive “home”— in my case, Islam. I am not sure this is a decision that pleases my Catholic friends and family, but it is the state in which I am sure I belong. Islam is the state in which I can feel God’s mercy, forgiveness, blessings. I didn’t become a Muslim out of desperation nor out of a need to find a spiritual path. In fact, I was quite satisfied as an agnostic–but knowledge of God was absent. I chose Islam first and foremost because of conviction in its pure and healthy lifestyle, and because I believe the Quran is the unaltered message to mankind from the Creator. More so, I feel that  Islam does not conflict with human curiosity; with our natural inclination to ask questions.

When I read messages like the letter above, I can begin to see how my prayers to God were eventually answered. I had asked for guidance, faith, mercy and it is now that I can really see how I have always been receiving them.

When I got in contact with Santi after many years (3?), I feared that he would be disappointed with the fact that I am a Muslim. But when I looked back at his letter, I did exactly what he encouraged me to do:  to never give up on God. And I was relieved to find that he kept his words: “I will never judge you”.

I did not leave Catholicism because I thought it was “wrong” or because it contradicts principles in Islam. My family is Christian, I was raised Christian and Christian values have shaped me into who I am today. In no way do I look down on Christianity. I received schooling under Catholic nuns, received spiritual advice, friendship and support from Catholic priests, and grew up under a very spiritually healthy environment. As you can see in the letter, the fundamentals are the same: a merciful and forgiving God; a goal towards jannah (heaven); asceticism–a simple lifestyle aimed at pleasing God; giving to the needy/poor; devotion through good actions and prayer. As odd as it may sound, Islam reinforced the beliefs and values with which I was raised: monotheism and a devotion to God.  I became a Muslim because I felt it has sealed what I have believed all along and eliminated the things in which I never believed. And this has given me a sense of peace.

Insh’Allah (God willingly), more people will begin to look past the difference between religions  and focus on the commonalities…Read the letter again. Santi’s God and my God are the same. It isn’t by coincidence that he began with letter with “peace be with you”–the same greetings with which Muslims greet one another, salaamu alaykum. We can leave arguments about the differences for another time, but we have come to realize that we are both human beings with a Creator and we need His mercy. We both seek His mercy through different means, but with the same goal in mind, jannah (or Heaven/Paradise).

Intolerance: The Root of Violence

Today, I received an e-mail from a name that I didn’t recognize. When I opened it, it read “We met once at one of the MSA meetings last year. I hope you remember me. I just wanted to get your thoughts on this.” At that point, I knew exactly who the individual was. How could forget the man who made it his mission to attend all the MSA meetings with his Bible to remind us how Muslims would burn in hell if we didn’t accept Jesus as God into their lives!

I simply reminded him that violent individuals don’t represent Islam anymore than Terry Jones represents Christianity. Moreover, I asked him if he realized the ignorance in asking me to answer for the actions of individuals whom I’ve never met; asking me to explain why complete strangers are committing acts of violence. I asked him how he would feel if I asked him, an African American man, to defend the crimes committed by Blacks in the U.S.—because clearly, Blacks are one monolithic group (!?).

Within three e-mail, this individual:

condemned me to Hell; insulted my religion; insulted my ability to think; had me answer for crimes of complete strangers; and accused me of following my faith ignorantly and blindly. I asked him to think about how his own attitude reflects the same kind of ignorance and intolerance that he criticizes Muslims of having.

I still cannot believe that I had to deal with this from a complete stranger! I sent him a final e-mail inviting him to attend the local Interfaith Peace Conference this upcoming weekend (they teach individuals how to interact and speak with people of other faiths in order to produce more peace-oriented discussions).

I know people like him, and the best way to deal with them is to stay away from them. I have met Christians, Muslims, even atheists with this same attitude. They all sound like boring records—-except one preaches this and the other preaches that. They all try and convince the others to convert to their religion…or else.

They all sound the same. Two words: keep away.

 

Convert Orientalists

From the cover of Edward Said's "Orientalism". Vintage 1978.

What really annoys me lately are “Convert Orientalists”. Yes, you heard right. While Edward Said’s book on Orientalism is mainly about colonialism and Western aggression toward the so-called “Orientals”, I think his discourse about Western view on the “Other” is useful to think about how we sometimes reduce complex cultures to a set of signs—language (words, expressions) and material culture (food, clothing, music, artifacts). When I label someone as an “Orientalist”, I do not mean those who appreciate and learn from other cultures; I am referring to those who (usually unknowingly) exoticize a group of people.

We sometimes see non-Muslim girls playfully done a hijab to imitate the “exotic harem” they see in movies. We may also have seen Western women dress as belly dancer or genies for Halloween—and let’s not forget the ridiculous amount of eye makeup as part of their costume! This mimicry is not surprising at all with the media constantly exoticizing the “Orient”. What is surprising is how many new converts develop a hype over Arab and South Asian culture. One of my white European convert friends was telling me how badly she wanted harem pants. What? Harem pants? Like in Aladdin? What is wrong with regular ol’ jeans?! A second friend constantly updates her facebook status with “romantic” phrases in Arabic—sometimes even obsessing over a single word because “it’s too beautiful for even her unworthy eyes to read”. Fine, so you like the sound of Arabic. I get that. Some languages just sound more poetic or harmonious than others. Fine. A third white American convert took a facebook quiz telling her what “kind” of Arab she was. How can you reduce a race of people to a quiz? Imagine if the quiz said “What kind of Black are you?” or “What kind of Jew are you?” Clearly, the real differences between groups of people are not ones that can be captured in multiple choice questionnaires!

What’s my beef with this? It’s just weird!

Again, it’s a good thing to appreciate other cultures. When individuals, however, begin to forget their own identity by adopt things that slowly replace their unique history and heritage, then they need a reality check. I have been guilty of making this kind of mistake—we all have. But it’s important to constantly be aware of how dumb it looks to pretend to be someone you are not.

Islam is a culture of its own; it’s a unique lifestyle that has developed from Muslims’ belief that Allah has revealed to them what is haraam and halal (forbidden and acceptable). Muslims follow a specific dress code, a restricted diet, follow Islamic propriety when dealing with the opposite sex, and recite the Qur’an in Arabic. Because of these unique qualities of the ummah (community), I understand why some would call Islam a distinct culture. Under the culture of Islam, however, we cannot forget to express ourselves through our individual material culture—music, foods, language, clothing. Islam is not the “Orient”, and the “Orient” is not Islam. Islam is for mankind and what makes it rich is that it offers the space for people to remain true to themselves.