by Mohja Kahf03 August 2007
Fayetteville, Arkansas - A certain Middle Eastern religion is much maligned in this country. Full of veils and mystery, it is widely seen as sexist. Often violent, sometimes manipulated by demagogues, it yet has sweetness at the core, and many people are turning to it in their search for meaning.
I’m talking about Christianity.
This Muslim squirms whenever secular friends – tolerant toward believers in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Native American spirituality – dismiss Christians with snorts of contempt. “It’s because the Christian right wants to take over this country,” they protest.
That may be, but it doesn’t justify trashing the religion and its spectrum of believers. Christianity has inspired Americans to the politics of abolition and civil rights, as well as to heinous acts. Christian values have motivated the Ku Klux Klan to burn houses, and Jimmy Carter to build them. You can’t say that when Christianity informs politics, only bad things happen.
This may strike you as odd coming from a Muslim. But it’s true: people of faith do not signify the apocalypse for democracy. And that goes for believing Muslims as much as for other religious folk. Muslims, in a very specific way, are not strangers in your midst. We are kin. Not just kin in the lovely way that all humans are. We carry pieces of your family story.
I got a phone call one evening from a friend who is a lovable gossip in my home town. “Have you read today’s paper?” she wanted to know. A letter-writing curmudgeon had mouthed off about how U.S. Muslims ought to be expelled, as worthless, dangerous and un-American. “What are we going to do?” she said. We’d worked together on non-pork lunch options for our kids in school – we share that dietary law, as she’s Jewish.
Anyhow, I invited the letter-writer to coffee. Walter declined, but we started writing to each other, his letters bearing a Purple Heart address label; he had been wounded in World War II. Walter was the crotchety, racist American great-uncle I never had. I sent him family photos, as you do to even an ornery relative; he replied that he guessed I was Syria’s loss, America’s gain.
“Huh?” I said.
“Why, you’re a Syrian beauty queen,” the old charmer said.
One day, I found a plastic baggie of asparagus tied to my doorknob. Mystified by this American vegetable, not one I cooked in my heritage cuisine, I brought it in – then noticed, sticking to it, the little address label with the Purple Heart. “Sauté in butter,” Walter advised. He made me promise to come to the cemetery on Veteran’s Day; I did.
A year later, I get a knock at my door. It’s Walter. “La ilaha illa allah!” he says, before “hello.” “You and I worship the same God. I know that now.” He limps into my living room, and we finally sit down to coffee.
Muslims are the youngest sibling in the Semitic family of religions, and we typically get no respect from the older kids – Judaism and Christianity. That our older sisters didn’t stick our pictures in the family scrapbook doesn’t make us less related, sweetheart. And our stories are no less legit just because we have a different angle on family history. Want to know what happened to Hagar after she fades from the Bible story of Abraham and Sarah? Sit, have coffee, we’ll talk.
The Muslim spectrum contains many complex identities, from lapsed to ultra-orthodox. There’s this wisdom going around that only the liberal sort are worthy of existence. No, my dears. Conservative Muslims have a right to breathe as well. Being devout, even if it means prostration prayer at airports, is not a criminal offense.
I grew up Islamist. That’s right, not only conservative Muslim, but full-blown, caliphate-loving Islamist, among folk who take core Islamic values and put them to work in education and politics, much like evangelical Christians. One of the things about the United States that delighted my parents, and many Islamist immigrants, is that here, through patient daily jihad, they could actually teach their children Islam – as opposed to motley customs that pass for Islam in the Old Countries.
Christianity and Islam have the genetic structure of siblings. “Allah” is in the Bible. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” the New Testament has Jesus (peace be upon him) asking on the cross. “Eloi,” “Elohim” of the Hebrew Bible and “Allah” are all derived from the same root word for “God”. When I discovered that fixed-time prayer was an early Christian rite, that Christians and Jews once practiced prostration, like Muslim prostration in our five daily salat, it was like recognising my nose on someone’s face in a photograph, then learning that the picture was of my great-grandmother. Joy!
Doctrinal differences abound, and each faith has its sacraments. Exploring these distinctions should be a source of delight, not of one-upmanship. In difference lie blessing and abundance. The Gospels detail many moments in Christ’s life, but for Mary’s own feelings in labour, you’ll want a glimpse of the Koran – and of Muslim hearts where the scene lives.
Pious Christian and Jewish values are not inherently in conflict with American civic life, as secular folk tend to forget. Devout immigrant Muslims don’t belong? That ship has sailed. Myles Muhammad Standish and Harriet Halima Tubman are here. Not as strangers out of place, either. This is a letter to your beautiful heart: We are your blood.