My Jewish Studies Professor Restored my Faith in Islam:
Between the ages of three and fifteen, I grew up in Egypt, which is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. Arabic is the main language of the land. My exposure to diversity was limited. Egypt has a Christian minority, whom I never considered anything other than Egyptian. I never really paid attention to religious differences. As most Egyptians of my generation and older ones would tell you, we both celebrated each other’s holidays. My only other exposure to diversity was through tourism, but in that group, everyone was lumped together as a generic “tourist”. I don’t remember ever trying to label any of those countless tourist groups.
Does that mean I didn’t know that others different from myself existed?
No, it doesn’t. Thanks to classes in world history, geography classes, and my mother’s ever-ready shibshib (flip flop- chanclas), I had the history and map of the world memorized. I knew about the world at large before I was able to set a foot out of my neighborhood by myself.
I was never taught to hate anyone or anything, and I really mean it. As 1980’s children in Egypt, we were never taught to hold any grudges against any race, religion, sex, etc. I never thought of myself as being better than anyone else.
Fast forward to mid-1990: I moved back to New York. Drums, please.
New York City is another big city like Cairo. It is just as busy and as loud as Cairo. Though of the two, I think it is Cairo that deserves the title of “the city that never sleeps”. I am serious too; that city never sleeps.
Considering that I left New York at the young age of three, I didn’t suffer much of a cultural shock upon my return. However, I was very shy and my conversational skills were very poor. I stuck to my own kind for the first year until I broke out of the shell.
I will fast forward a bit. A year later, I dated a Russian girl from Brooklyn, who was also Jewish. I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t thinking about the differences. I am sure she wasn’t either. However, it was her family who expressed discomfort with the situation at first, but they learned to accept our loving union.
I had been exposed to people from a diversity of places prior to that, but never in something as close and personal as a romantic relationship.
In New York, we all make friends from all over the world along the way, but we never really learn enough about their cultures, religions, and customs until we become very involved with them.
Thankfully, I had myself a great girl. We discussed our similarities—and there were many—rather than our differences. We learned a great deal about each other.
I will fast forward once again to my senior year in high school. At that point, I was a social butterfly, I knew everyone. I founded a social club with my best friend and we called it the International Club. The aim of the club was to bridge gaps, and to offer a place for students to learn about one another. Up to that point, my exposure to diversity was enlightening and educational.
However, such enlightening experiences did not last for long; I was exposed to the very ugly and alienating side of diversity. People tend to stick to their own kind—the clan mentality—it rules over us some way or another. I was introduced to new terms: the chosen ones, the saved ones, others, us, them.
I retreated a bit. I didn’t know how to deal with any of it. I looked for answers within my own backyard and I didn’t find any that made total sense to me.
According to some Imams, friends and family members I consulted with, Muslims are the saved ones. We are God’s favorites; we are going to heaven and those who don’t are doomed. Ok, so I believed that for a bit.
But, how about all the other great people in the world who do so much good? How about Michael Jackson? How about Nelson Mandela? How about Mother Teresa? How about Plato? How about Che Guevara? How about Albert Einstein?
Yes, I was concerned about the afterlife and wellbeing of Michael Jackson, his writings were my inspiration to write—if you have not read his book, dancing the dream, you should. I couldn’t fathom the idea of someone like MJ, and many others like him, who did so much good for the world burning in hell.
Wait, what if Hitler had confessed his sins to a priest? Would he have been forgiven?
I began my quest.
The journey started with stepping out of my own comfort zone once again and diving into the diverse world of New York. During that time, I began reading as many books about the histories of different religions, and I was also letting go of everything I learned growing up.
I took Jewish studies courses, I took psychology of religion courses, and many more. Theology became my new obsession—I needed to find the answers to my questions. However, it seemed that everyone believed the same thing; everyone believed their own religion to be the only path to righteousness. Every religious institution had a monopoly over God; every religious institution had the only key to the pearly gates.
Does God have a favorite race?
Does God have a favorite place?
Does God have a favorite bloodline?
Does God have a favorite nationality?
Does God have a favorite gender?
Does God have a favorite language?
The simple answer to these questions was a flat-out HELL NO. I grew up believing that God is the most merciful, just, loving, most generous, most wise, most forgiving, most gentle. I refused to believe that God suffered from the same kind of favoritism that plagues us humans.
I was slowly cleansing myself. I got rid of any elitist ways of thinking.
“What name would you give a religion if you had to make up one?” My Jewish Studies professor once asked us. We all answered, and I don’t remember any of them. However, his answer was the one that stuck with me most throughout the years. “Islam,” he said. “It means to surrender, to submit. And that is what each and every religion asks us to do.”
Like many Muslims, I had always believed that the word Islam derived from “salam,” the word for peace in Arabic. I was wrong. Most Arabic words are derived from a three-letter (trilateral) root. The root of both words was the same, “peace,” and “surrender”. It was a moment of enlightenment. I knew the language of the Quran, but I didn’t know the true meaning of its words.
It was a Bruce Almighty kind of moment. The answer was right there in front of me the whole time and I didn’t see it. It hit me like a truck.
Great, Islam is the word that can encompass and describe all religions, but that wasn’t what the Imam said. It wasn’t what any of my Muslim friends were saying. Yes, most Muslims would tell you, we believe in all the prophets and the holy books, but that was only limited to two religions. The history of the world is full of religions that still exist until this day. How about those people? How about the ones who are not “people of the book”?
I did my own research; I did a lot of reading and I reached the conclusion that all religions are one. Religions are like us. We were once infants, but we grow and we tend to become more complex with age and with our experiences, and so do religions.
Since they have been around, the message underlying all religions has always been the same, and the objective has always been the same: to believe and to surrender. I don’t think any religion asked its followers to do more than that. All that other mumbo jumbo is the creation of religious institutions and politicians to maintain control over people. You are the same person today as you were at birth, you are not someone else.
Look closely, you will find traces of all religions in every religion. You will find traces of Zoroastrianism in Judaism; you will find traces of Buddhism in Christianity; you will find traces of all in Islam.
We may call God different names; we may pray to God differently, but I guarantee you, when you close your eyes and picture God, we are all picturing the same God, we are praying to the same God.
I surrender to your will.