This is the seventh piece in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan.
Photo credit: Greta
"Tah-fadhali! Tah-fadhali! Please, please, this one is for you. Do you like sugar?"
These were the gracious words I heard all too often during my time living in the West Bank. Also known as Israel, also known as the occupied territories, also known as the Holy Land, but what I like to call Palestine, or home, for short.
On that particularly warm September afternoon I was listening to these kind words in a bit of a daze, stirred by some confusion. I was being offered tea by the religious studies professor at an open Al-Quds university campus, located in Jenin, Palestine. Jenin is a historic and wounded city located just a mere 30 minutes south of Christ's hometown of Nazareth. At the time I was teaching English and Arts classes in different schools in the northern West Bank and this particular class was upper-level English for the college professors. To get to this Al-Quds campus required a series of buses and taxis that totaled almost two hours in wait and travel time. When I finally arrived for class I was told that I wouldn't even be teaching that afternoon. The students were protesting and it would be safer to have conversation in the headmaster's office. So I sat with the principal, admittedly uncomfortably, I didn’t know much about what was going on but I did know that I wasn't particularly welcomed that day. The students were shouting, "Allah! Allah! the Supreme One!" ... "The name of Islam will not be harmed by hateful Americans!"
A few days earlier a short film called the "Innocence of Muslims" was released on YouTube from the United States. The video was, I think, intended to be funny. "Funny" by means of insulting, blasphemously insulting, the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace be upon Him. In addition to degrading many other traditions and cultures associated with Islam.
"Sugar? Yes? or No?"
"Uhhh, schwei, shukran" I said, feeling totally out-of-it.
Here I was, an American girl sitting at a college located in a fractured country and nearly demolished city, the occupation of Palestine is of course largely supported by American dollars funding the oppression and extermination of the Palestinians' livelihood. Yet, even so, on this particularly heightened afternoon, I was still so graciously offered tea and safety. While hundreds and hundreds of these professors' students are gathered and loudly chanting outside, "America will see their end! Islam will prevail!”
As I sit quietly and the tea is served, I notice how delighted and curious the professors are to finally talk to me, outside of their mandatory English class.
"Do you believe in God?" Asks Dr. Awad, the college’s headmaster.
"Absolutely.” I say confidently.
"No, no, no. There is only one God, and His name is Allah." Replies Professor Jarar, the religious teacher.
Dr. Awad interjects, "Ah, but God and Allah are the same, Mahmoud, God is the English name of Allah."
"The Christian God and the God of Islam are not understood the same. There is the God and the Spirit and Jesus for Christians, but just Allah for Muslims, One God…” Continued Professor Jarar.
Wow. "Here we go", I thought, "Diving right into the deep stuff, I hope I don't say something offensive." The three of us chatted for a good hour about the opinionated subjects of religion and politics.
Photo credit: Greta
I was raised in the Unification Church, or, what many would refer to as "the Moonie Cult". I found corruption and hypocrisy embedded in the speech and actions of the church leaders early on. Yet I couldn't bring myself to admit the corruption until I was the age of 22. One thing however, that the church gave me, was a Love of God. A love for God that was far higher than the love of the church. My prayers to Him were to find Truth, His truth. The Truth. There is only one truth after all! So why were people so opinionated about that matter? Wasn't it obvious that we are all wrong? I felt disunity, self-glorification, and estrangement in more than the church, but in corporate greed, in land greed, and even wars, wars that theoretically were defending God's name. None of this added up.
Fast forward to September 2012, a few weeks after the founder of the Unification church, Sun Myung Moon, passes away and just two months before another series of attacks on the Gaza Strip begin. I am living in the mecca of religion, Jerusalem, and making many new friends. Many of which are devoutly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. I am saying prayers with all these friends, and having spiritual conversations with them, and slowly arriving to two parallel realizations:
One. The ego of man has distorted, manipulated, and poisoned the teachings of religion. So far has religion been tainted, that it is inaccurate to even associate "religion" with Religion.
“If religion proves to be the source of hatred, enmity and contention, if it becomes the cause of warfare and strife and influences men to kill each other, its absence is preferable. For that which is productive of hatred amongst the people is rejected by God, and that which establishes fellowship is beloved and sanctioned by Him. Religion and divine teachings are like unto a remedy. A remedy must produce the condition of health.”
- Bahá'i Writings
Two. We are all created from the same single source. One source. One Beloved, All-Encompassing, All-Loving, All-Merciful Source.
“Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.”
- Bahá'i Writings
What God is in a name, or as a he, or a she, or a being, or an energy, is not my place to claim. God is Unknowable. And the people that claim to speak for God are people to be weary of.
But I do claim to believe that this Being, this God, loves us and loves all of us, even if we will never fully comprehend Him. And, He loves us so much that every so often a Divine Teacher of His comes to help mankind understand, a little bit more, what man’s true nature is.
Photo Credit: Greta
The heat of the demonstration at the college was beginning to settle down and it was safe for me to head back to Nablus. I remember some of the closing thoughts to our conversation:
"Ah I believe you, you are right, to love Allah is to love all people. American people are not bad, they are good, sometimes very good! But the American government still has so much to learn.”
"Our Prophet, Muhammad, tells us that we are brothers to the Christians and the Jews, we study in the Quran, our holy book, the stories of Abraham and Joseph."
"You bring us hope. Palestine is free and peaceful in our hearts. We know this by our community. We know how to respect one another here and we hope that one day we feel the same respect with our American brothers too."
It hurts me so much to think of the people in my country to have malicious hate to an entire people that I have first handedly witnessed to be some of the kindest, most generous, most respectful people I have ever met. Interfaith work is not easy. You have to be neutral, listen, gain trust, sometimes step backwards. One needs to be vulnerable. There is hurt. And confusion. And pride. But when there is a willingness to understand, and even make mistakes, these interfaith conversations are some of the sweetest spaces to make true friends, and come to new spiritual understandings outside of our usual scriptures.
If you Google "Oneness of God all religions" or "Oneness of Religion" the first number of results will reference the Bahá'i Faith. Which centers around the Revelation of the Bahá'u'lláh. He writes and proclaims, that in this day, all the religions agree, all the nations are One, and God is the creator of one unified mankind. This profound Revelation is world embracing and recognizes the fundamental truths of all God's Messengers. Becoming acquainted with the Bahá'i faith has widened my eyes and opened my heart to truly see our commonality before dwelling on our minor differences. We are are all listening to the same melody, just played with a different instrument.
"Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same. Their unity is absolute. God, the Creator, saith: There is no distinction whatsoever among the Bearers of My Message. They all have but one purpose; their secret is the same secret. To prefer one in honor to another, to exalt certain ones above the rest, is in no wise to be permitted. Every true Prophet hath regarded His Message as fundamentally the same as the Revelation of every other Prophet gone before Him."
Before setting off on my personal Interfaith travels, I asked the question, “Why are we so disunited?” What I find out, by following my seeker heart, is that we are simply misunderstanding each other and our personal true nature. And that is why I write today, on this most lovely blog Sarah has created for the world. Through Interfaith conversation, our stories, our backgrounds, our open minds and pure hearts, heal the wounds where mankind has had its shortcomings. And we discover the beauty, the awe, the Love, words cannot explain, the miracle, of all of us living together on this One planet, with this One human family, granted to us, by our One Creator.
Greta is a member and believer of the Bahá’i Faith. She is active in her home community of Asheville, North Carolina mentoring and creating friendship spaces for young girls of color. She is passionate about honest storytelling and positive media design through grassroots engagement, dialogue and emerging web technologies. Follow her on her instagram @gretskys.