Like everyone in the world, I am thinking about what it means to be Muslim. I am reminded about a post I saw on Facebook. There was a photo of the Ku Klux Klan and the notation saying that we shouldn’t judge all Muslims by the actions of terrorists in the same way that people shouldn’t judge all Christians by the actions of the Klan. For many of us, though, the Koran and the beliefs of Muslims are a mystery, and we carry many ideas and some misconceptions.
Stop me if I already told you this story, but I saw the most absurd of these misconceptions in the juvie prison where I taught. There was one cottage tech (guard) who was an angel. He had converted to Islam while he was in the military, and the structure of the practices changed his life. He was a great influence and role model for the boys, and he encouraged many of them to get themselves straight by adopting the practices of Islam.
One of my favorite boys, Johnny from Greensboro, was the son of a crack addict, a gang member, and a drug dealer. While in my class, though, he started reading and he wrote some amazing, moving poems, which he recited at an assembly program and brought his social worker to tears. Hassan worked with Johnny and encouraged him to consider Islam, and Johnny was thinking seriously about doing so.
We had to walk our students to the bathroom as a group and let them enter one at a time. There was always a group of techs lounging around outside the bathroom in case they were needed to break up a fight. One day I had my class lined up on the wall taking their potty break, and one of the techs, a sweet woman who called all the boys “Baby” called to Johnny. “I hear you thinking about becoming a Muslim.”
“Yeah,” said Johnny.
“Well, that means you going to Hell.”
I jumped in, “What are you talking about?!”
“If you Muslim,” she explained, “You worship some guy called Allah. You don’t worship God.”
I couldn’t hide the exasperation in my voice. “Don’t you realize that Allah is just another name for God?”
“No,” she responded. “God is called “God,” not Allah.”
“God is an English word. If you don’t speak English, you call God by another name. Like if you’re Spanish you say “Dios.”
“Then you going to Hell too,” she huffed.
“I was irate. “Are you saying that God speaks only English?”
“You read the King James Version? It’s in English, so yeah.” She was done with me.
We got back to the classroom and I told Johnny, “Don’t listen to that woman. She’s a moron.”
I am reading a book right now by a Muslim writer who grew up in Wisconsin. It’s called American Dervish, and it deals with his struggles to retain his Muslim faith and also to blend into American culture. His family is from Pakistan: his father a surgeon and his mother educated. They are modern and sophisticated, but their background teaches them to dislike and fear all Christians. The boy wants to attend an Ice Cream Social at a neighborhood Lutheran Church, but his parents refuse to allow him to attend. “It’s inside a church! You cannot go inside a church!”
Year after year, the boy begs to join all his friends at the social, but his parents will not cave. Even though the event costs nothing, his mother says, “We will not give our money to Christians! And I saw a priest walking there. He will try to convert you!” He cannot attend.
The book details as well the boy’s growing understanding of the Muslim faith and his appreciation for the teachings of the Koran. Allah is benevolent and loving. Be still and know that God is with you. Listen in the silence for the voice of God.
It sounds a lot like Quakerism.
So if the basis of our religions is the same, why do we distrust and even go to war with people who worship God with another name? Extremists are extremists, no matter what their religion, and they pervert the teachings of religious texts. We are not directed by God, no matter what you call him, to kill each other. As we celebrate Christmas and Chanukah, let us remember to look for God in others. Namaste.