Grande Mosque, Cordoba. Credit: The Red List
Reading this blog over the past month has been inspiring, enlightening, and striking. Our stories are different, Quranour locations diverse, our faith/belief journeys evolving, our life stages developing, yet we all share something key. The theme of community which so many have emphasized, and the idea of drawing strength and resilience from the diversity of our communities and families, has powerfully affected my Ramadan this year.
If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.
Going into Ramadan, I was thinking a lot about a 9th century incident that took place in Al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia), involving a group known as the “Martyrs of Cordoba”. We read a brief account in a graduate course on Medieval Iberia. Young Christians began “martyring” themselves by blaspheming and committing offensive acts against Islam in the presence of the Sultan or officials. The period sources on the “martyrs” comes from a Christian perspective and describe how upon their deaths, miraculous events would occur, such as doves alighting on the bodies, bodies walking on water, beautiful smells filling the air, etc. I wanted to learn more but unfortunately there were no sources from a Muslim perspective (few remain from this period). I was troubled why young Christian men and women living in a Muslim society that permitted and tolerated Christians and Jews openly practicing their religions would suddenly commit violent and offensive acts against Islam with the express aim of bringing about their own deaths and becoming martyrs. “Aren’t these just terrorists?” I asked in class. But why?
In another source, I discovered the smoking gun. Apparently these young people mainly came from mixed families – one Muslim parent, one Christian. They were interfaith. But they lacked community – they didn’t belong to a church or to a mosque. And they certainly didn’t have any interfaith community. They were vulnerable and searching. Eventually they fell under the influence of a circle of charismatic, radical priests who coached them and inculcated the idea that becoming a martyr was the way to please God (with the priests’ larger aim of creating social unrest and bringing down the Caliphate). Each martyr inspired the next. The martyrs of Cordoba didn’t have the Internet in the 9th century, but it sure seems like ISIS took a lesson from them.
The fact that these young people came from interfaith families, lacking community, seemed to lead directly to their propensity to be radicalized and become violent. Today, being “interfaith”, although common, can still carry a stigma, and being a devout religious person can get you called a fundamentalist, a fanatic. Religion remains a scapegoat for struggle.
Religions, and religious people, are blamed for conflicts around the world. But religion is but a part of a complex web of interconnected factors, from inequality to culture to colonialism. The positive role that religion plays in peace-building is undeniable. And that global good comes from communities of believers, and those who support them, working together to end ignorance, discrimination, and violence.
World religions offer powerful frameworks for global social change. Catholicism and Islam, for example, both contain “liberation theologies” to end oppression, empower the poor and disenfranchised, and achieve radical equality—without the use of violence.
I saw this will to fight injustice through a divine consciousness at iftars, and in everyday life, this Ramadan. I heard the Israeli ambassador, only the second Israeli ambassador to Washington to hold an iftar, pledge to continue this crucial tradition to build friendships with the Muslim community. I sat with Muslim and Jewish sisters in a Muslim sister’s home and discussed all the things that unite us – prayers, fasting, our kid’s shared names, work and relationship challenges. I helped friends put on an interfaith community iftar attended by Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, humanists, and others that had everyone buzzing with energy and conversation while eating vegan food on picnic blankets. I had quiet moments with family, internal moments of peace, the elation seeing my son love his first time at “Camp Ramadan” with Muslim kids from many different family backgrounds. (I got an Eid lantern, a minaret bookmark, and many great songs and stories out of that one).
So I feel pretty spiritually empowered against stories of “religious ugliness” after this month. But, there are still polls in the Huffington Post about how unfavorably Americans view Islam. Our vulnerable young people remain and war is afflicting millions. What can we do in our small ways? To start: Tell these stories like the ones on Interfaith Ramadan. Build these friendships. Change the story students will read about us in sources 1000 years in the future. Imagine “Interfaith Ramadan 3015”….
Use your own storytelling abilities
To end this tale
In a way that will most
Uplift your heart.
~Hafiz, The Difference Between
Melody Fox Ahmed works on and thinks about interfaith, intercultural, and interesting stories in Washington, DC and wherever she’s able to travel (she’s never been to Italy, though!) She is the Assistant Director for Programs at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. She received her B.A. from Vanderbilt University and her M.A. in International History from Georgetown University. She is a member of the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium organized by Intersections International. Her multifaith, multicultural family background informs and strengthens her commitment to interfaith dialogue and research and writing on interfaith issues. She is thrilled to write for Interfaith Ramadan for the first time this year. Follow her @melodyfoxahmed.