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.
We live in a world where new and improved is always better than old and decrepit. Of course. New has the benefit of advanced methods, complete research, and dedicated study applied liberally over all that has come before it. Old, well that was just a starting point. Those were the blocks we stood in to give us leverage when the race began.
One of the things that new has ushered in is statistical…accuracy. We can fact check, provide proof, cite our sources, justify our positions. We can qualify, and oh boy, can we quantify! We know exactly how many people would vote thus and so, believe this and that, trust him or her. We know. We are new and improved people. We are reasonable.
So, it’s a bit alarming to read in the morning paper that “Recent polls show that 29 percent of Americans and nearly 45 percent of Republicans say he (President Obama) is a Muslim.”
How do we say this? We tell a pollster who reports it, I guess. Do we know this when we say it? Have we asked Mr. Obama about his faith? Have we read deeply concerning his opinions, positions, actions and responses? This would seem reasonable before we say anything.
What we report in the media is, perhaps, what we believe to be true. Given what we think we know, this is what we conclude. Perhaps those numbers reflect what people believe about President Obama, but that doesn’t make it so. (The article actually goes on to debunk this belief.) Just because we think it, doesn’t make it so. Any more than thinking I am President makes that so.
If we think we can do make something true, right, happen, reasonable, or real, just because we think it, we are mistaken. That isn’t ours; that’s God’s. God thinking something actually does make it so. When we think something, we move in its direction, but we’d do well not to presume that our thinking it actuates it. That would presume we are God, which has very grave consequences, indeed.
Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal preacher that a friend has me reading, writes concerning what she calls the battle of the billboards. “Upon entering the Lincoln Tunnel you stare at a billboard showing a Nativity scene and the words ‘You know it’s a myth.’ When you come out of the tunnel you see a billboard with a Nativity scene and the words ‘You know it’s real.'”
She goes on, “The atheist billboard says, “This season, celebrate reason.” I revere reason as much as the atheists do—up to a point. But what faith knows is that although reason is a gift, it is not a god. Reason cannot explain everything. Certainly it cannot explain the purposes and promises of God.”
Our believing, remembering, repeating or tallying does not make something so. But setting our minds on the things of God may bring them nearer.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)
When God remembers His mercy, He is not calling it again to mind. He is taking action on our behalf. As Rutledge puts it, “God’s mercy is not static. It goes forth from God as a promise already becoming a reality.”
We can pray to be like-minded. That’s as old and original as it gets.