Monday, 6 June 2016

A Muslim Ex-Christian On Interfaith Relations Between Christians and Muslims - Maeve


This is the first piece in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. There will be articles posted every day throughout the month of Ramadan written by contributors from diverse faiths and none. 

I am a white transgender Muslim woman, but this was not always so.  I discovered spirituality via Roman Catholicism. Years later I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity before shyly picking up an English translation of the Qur’an and taking it to the cash register on a whim. Though I am by no means an Islamic scholar and my religious observances are often minimalist, I have some direct experience in trying to reconcile Christians with Islamic theology and spirituality.

As a Welsh-American white Muslim, I am not really “marked” as a Muslim culturally. I do not dress modestly by mainstream Islamic standards.  My diet is not always halal and I do not make much of a fuss over it (though I avoid pork and alcohol).  I hold the view that religion is adaptable, that Islam’s essence is in its Five Pillars and Six Articles of Faith, its rites and spirituality and the revelation of the Qur’an, not in any specific cultural representation.  In short, you can be a Welsh Muslim the same way you can be an Arab Christian: in your own way and your own language.  My unwillingness to be “Arabized” for my faith means that no one would ever assume me to be a Muslim just looking at me.  Suffice it to say that I am something of a “stealth Muslimah.”

I surprise many people when they discover that I am a Muslim.  I find myself an ambassador of the religion to many of the white Christian folks in my community.  I also work in churches as a musician and encounter them in religious contexts every week, singing their prayers and hymns with them, chanting their liturgies, hearing their sermons.

I am seen by some (including my own family) as a cultural apostate despite my commitment to live fully within my Western values and Welsh-American identity as a Muslim.  Religion is as much a part of culture as it is a system of understanding the Divine, so interfaith discussions are often inter-cultural discussions.  The questions I receive are often accusatory, but I do not experience much bigotry. Islamophobia is, after all, often more racially motivated than anything else, so I am often immune to it even when detractors are aware of my identity as a Muslim.  I am perhaps shamed for being a Muslim rather than hated for it, but this puts me in a unique position to discuss Islam with Christians, especially considering that I also studied Christian theology academically.

In my own informal interfaith work I have found that religious identity politics are a never-never land of idealized (or ideally demonized) versions of groups of people that often have little to do with religious praxis and spirituality themselves. I also find that my own transgender identity politics cause people to question my motives, especially when I detail my personal experiences of being ostracized within the Church.  As such my advice for any Muslim or Christian trying to discuss faith is to begin with discussing themselves and not their religions. It is important for people to get to know each other so that their examples of what is a Christian or a Muslim are real people and not caricatures or religious idealizations. I myself am proof that white, Western European Muslims can exist, that transgender Muslims can exist, that Muslims that do not speak Arabic most certainly exist (all over the world!), that Muslims that have jobs within Christian religious organizations exist, and that Muslim goth models even exist (guilty as charged).

We tend to have pre-conceived notions about other faith traditions because often our religious leaders use the members of other religions as examples of what not to do.  Embrace tawhīd, and don’t be like the Christians with their false theology.  Recognize Jesus Christ’s divinity, and don’t be like the Muslims with their false theology.  We walk into conversations with the biases of our own religious traditions and the belief that the other side is simply a worse version of ourselves, spiritually misguided. In interfaith conversations remember this: if you want to understand Christianity, ask a Christian, not an imam or Islamic scholar!  Likewise, a priest with a master’s degree in pastoral theology might be a well-educated religious leader among Christians, but he may not know the first thing about Islam.

In order to have a conversation you need to understand what Christians believe and cultivate genuine curiosity and intellectual charity.  An Islamic interpretation of the Trinity might firmly label it shirk (polytheism), but no Christian considers herself a polytheist: Credo in Unum Deum, “I believe in One God…” states the Nicene Creed.  And Muslims do not worship a pagan lunar deity despite conspiracy theories I have heard directly from the mouths of Christian pastors. Not only will you find no Muslim confessing such a belief herself, but any Muslim can point to passages in the Qur’an that recognize Allah as the God of Abraham, the same God worshiped in Judaism and Christianity.

In interfaith conversations we cannot create straw men of other faiths only to tear them down using our own theologies and doctrines. Agree to disagree, but understand what it is you disagree with spiritually from the other tradition. Avoid interfaith conversations with people who are unwilling to do this and who spend more time telling you what you believe instead of listening to you discuss your spirituality.

It may seem like a cliché, but understanding each other is an important first step. The second step is agreeing not to try to get others to renounce their faiths in favor of your own. If you listen to a Christian explain for thirty minutes the theology of the Incarnation (i.e., Christ’s dual divinity and humanity in Christian theology), do not answer it with a condemnation.  Instead of reciting ayat from the Qur’an to argue that the Incarnation is wrong, explain Islam’s treatment of the person of Jesus. Interfaith dialogue should not be religious debate, but an exercise in mutual understanding. It should be about education, not proselytizing.

It is best to focus on similarities, not differences. What are the mutual goals that Christians and Muslims share? What are mutual activities in which Christians and Muslims can engage without controversy or disagreements? What are shared values? You may even find that your spiritual traditions are similar, that Eastern Orthodox theosis sounds remarkably like the attainment of ihsan in Islam, that Christian hesychastic prayer is similar to dhikr, and so forth. In making the other faith relatable to your own in some way it will begin to sound more like a different way of doing things rather than a different thing altogether. It is interesting how a Catholic and Protestant can share mutual respect, but neither will respect a Muslim that in some ways may be more similar to themselves than their Christian counterparts. We can change our paradigms of thinking when we consider these things.

We must dispel the notion that people from other religious traditions are “the enemy” of our own, that simply sharing a space with them or walking a path with them is an affront to our own faiths and a danger to our own souls. We must work to dispel the notion that we have an absolute spiritual truth to peddle and that intolerance is somehow a mercy to a disbelieving people. When I was excommunicated as a Christian (i.e., forbidden from partaking in Christian sacramental life) for being a trans woman, I was told that it was for my own good, and that this would encourage me to repent and come back into the fold. Clearly this does not work because I became a Muslim.

We cannot exile each other with the assumption that it will “fix” us, that the other will come around and see our version of the Truth (with a capital T).  Tolerance means accepting another’s right to their theology and praxis even when it fundamentally conflicts in some way with your own.  Togetherness means finding common ground despite differences, not forcing conformity just because it is simpler than less troublesome than plurality. Understanding a faith means knowing its adherents. The best interfaith work we can do is simply to know each other as people and not necessarily as Christians and Muslims. We need to be humanized.

Finally, be inspired by each other to do what is just and good instead of dwelling on the fear and hatred that we encounter in our own communities.  Let it compel you to goodness, mercy, and compassion. We may not agree on how we are supposed to worship God and conceive on the Divine, but we can always agree to pursue justice and righteousness despite the difference of our ways.
“…For each among you We have appointed a law and a way.
And had God willed, He would have made you one community,
but [He willed otherwise], that He might try you in that
which He has given you.  So vie with one another in good deeds.
Unto God shall be your return altogether, and He will inform you
of that wherein you differ.”


Surah al-Mā’idah 48


Maeve is a student, musician, and Muslim trans woman exploring her spirituality. You can follow her at @mvsicology.

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