The Muslim observance of Ramadan chanced to fall during the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup (June 28-July 28 in 2014). As a sport scientist I knew that fasting or even skipping meals was not a recommended nutritional practice for sports participants, so fasting from sun up to sun down? That couldn’t go well. Wouldn’t this put observant Muslim athletes at a disadvantage?
What a terrific angle to pursue for my sports blog! Unfortunately, I knew very little about Islam or the Muslim observance of Ramadan, but I knew someone who did. An old high school friend, Zarina, whose family emigrated to the US from Pakistan and whom I knew to follow Islam, was kind enough to welcome my questions. She walked me through her practice of Ramadan, what it meant to her and what it meant for her practice of faith. (Just as an aside: World Cup soccer players actually found fasting from food and water (and other prohibited activities) to be strengthening rather than depleting in their competition! Here is my article in case you’re curious.
This conversation became a touchstone for our friendship as we renewed connection socially, and otherwise via text, email and Facebook. It’s amazing how telling Facebook posts can be, right? Zarina’s mother suffered from ALS, so Zarina took the ice bucket challenge, completed the 5K Walk to Defeat ALS and shared information about the cause. One day she posted a picture of her mother who had recently passed. It was captioned: “Today would have been my late mother’s 80th birthday. I miss her every day. She would have been horrified at what is happening in the world.”
That got my attention. I had been watching the news, reading the papers and shaking my head, but pretty much tip-toeing my way above the fray. What was it like to be an immigrant and a Muslim in the USA of today? I knew someone who could tell me.
In September, I emailed Zarina. “Dear friend, you have been on my mind. Your comment about your mom resonates deeply. I just can’t believe where our nation is. It frightens, abhors and befuddles me. Somewhere, the conversation needs to begin. Most misunderstandings come from ignorance; I admit my ignorance. Can you help me understand?”
She replied, “Thank you so much for reaching out. I have my own interpretation of this, but I’d like to get my dad’s take on it as well, and share both with you.”
And so began a series of triangulated email exchanges of the most honest and generous sort. I know that if I had posed these questions online, posted them on Facebook or spoken them from pulpit or podium, I would have gotten spit at, censored, shouted down or worse. Zarina and her Dad honored me in answering what I asked.
“I’m glad you’re starting this dialogue,” Zarina wrote.
We proceeded to tackle jihad, Bin Laden, violence, hatred, treatment of women, and even verses of the Quran addressing violence and killing. We discussed worship, holy texts and “the Book” Christians know as the Bible, along with prophets, Moses, Jesus, even the “European Crusades” and extremism like Nazism and the KKK. Yep, all of this in reasoned and God-honoring email conversation. Zarina’s father – whom I have not seen in decades – was so gentle in his responses. Each time his answer contrasted or took issue with my understanding, he began his response with “your friend says this, but …”
What a means of grace: where there are differences, first remember this is a friend asking.
This conversation actually got me thinking about how others might misunderstand the scriptures I consider holy if taken piecemeal or out of context. It allowed me to consider more deeply how others might perceive the behaviors of some Christians which may send a wrong message. It had me wondering… if anyone were to look down from above, how they would know who was Muslim, Christian or Jew?
Could I be distinguished by my worship, my profession, my practice? If we sing … they will know we are Christians by our love.… how does love act?
I think love asks. And then it waits for an answer. Evil is an opportunist and will take full advantage of ignorance. Unfortunately, our social media may blind us to this. But perhaps what we are seeing now overtly are the biases that have been brewing under the surface all along. Now that they’ve been made plain, we have the opportunity to acknowledge and address them. I confess I did not believe their extent. Now, I cannot deny it. That means I have a responsibility to take action. Fortunately, I have friends who can help.
Zarina and I met for lunch a few weeks after this email exchange. She invited me to join her for a rally in the nearby community square where representatives from law enforcement, the county schools, community organizations and every major faith tradition would gather to speak. Together we stood in the frigid late November air, but the warmth of the sun and the stirring of the spirit felt very welcome.
Zarina forwarded this wonderful article, Meet My Friend Saj, A True American about her father, Dr. Sajjad H. Durrani, which appeared in a the Montgomery County paper shortly after our get-together. She told me she chose not to share it on Facebook for fear of the comments it might receive.