My journey with Islam as a Catholic woman

It’s not every day that you hear a proclamation of a “theological state of emergency.” Yet that is precisely the term employed by theologian Mary Hunt in her December 14 Religion Dispatches article calling for “theological first responders,” that is, “scholars and activists…to step forward in concrete, educational ways” in light of recent political rhetoric about Muslims. The words that follow are my modest attempt answer Hunt’s call for “strong and constructive countermeasures” and in union with the Women in Theology statement on anti-Muslim sentiment, out of my own experience as a Catholic woman enriched and blessed by dialogue with Muslims.

For several years, I was part of a Muslim-Christian women’s group in Central Virginia. We are Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, and Episcopalians as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims, from the United States, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Bosnia, Nigeria, Germany and Luxembourg.

We met monthly for two hours, initially with a focus on building friendships. Though we would sometimes invite a guest speaker, generally a Muslim member and Christian member would speak on a topic from her own perspective. Some topics we explored were Mary/Maryam, creation, concern for the poor, the binding of Isaac/akedah, fasting, patriarchy, prayer and pilgrimage/hajj. We didn’t get into potentially divisive topics until we had spent many hours building relationships over cups of tea and plates of cookies.

In addition, we celebrated and broke bread together. We shared the iftar meal during Ramadan – feasting on fattoush and lentil soup. We attended an evening of Las Posadas with the Spanish-speaking Catholic community – feasting on tamales and arroz con gandules.

Since both faith traditions emphasize concern for the poor and vulnerable, we did service together. We spent Saturday afternoons creating a quilt that was presented to the pediatrics department of hospital in Turkey by a member during an interfaith delegation. We served a meal together at a homeless shelter and attended congregation-based community organizing meetings. After we had been meeting for several years, we hosted a “know your neighbor, love your neighbor” evening with the goal of sharing some of the fruits of our community-building.

MC quilt with members

Group members presenting the quilt

correct MC quilt label

English and Arabic dedication of our quilt (photo credit: Judy Sayed)

I’ll let the testimonies of two group members speak for themselves.

“Being a part of such an amazing group of women has really enriched my life. We all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences and views but we all share an open-mindedness and a passion for listening and learning that….this group gives me so much hope because it is a movement towards that change we desperately need, a movement towards appreciating and respecting our differences while working together to achieve shared goals.” – a Christian member

“Because of the colonial mindset, at first I had the fear that everyone would try to convert me, but the more we are together, the less I have that fear. We share so many values, and the spiritual connection is the same.” – a Muslim member

Christians, Jews, and Muslims share similar practices and common Abrahamic roots. Without minimizing significant differences in beliefs, we sought to explore honestly places where our faith traditions converged and diverged. These conversations often led us to see familiar stories in new ways as we sought to look at them through the eyes of the other tradition. Reflecting on the various names/images for God found in the Christian Scriptures and the 99 names for God in Islam was a rich and challenging exercise. Knowing that God/Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God) is infinitely beyond our capacity to describe in finite human words, how have the respective traditions layered images and words on top of one another to communicate something of that mystery?

Another insight shared by a Christian member after our discussion of Mary/Maryam: “In Catholicism, we have so many names for Mary, but I was struck when a Muslim woman told me that one of the most common titles for Mary is Islam is that of ‘prophet’ and that Mary is considered to be in the line of prophets which includes Abraham, Jesus and Mohammad. Thinking of Mary not only as ‘Mother of God’ or ‘Blessed Virgin’ but also as a prophet was a real shift for me.”

Our conversations also led to debunking stereotypes for both Muslim and Christian members. One Muslim member shared, “I never thought I’d see Christians who take their faith so seriously. I had a stereotype that church was just a club where people got together socially – I still thought that even though I’ve lived in the United States for so many years. These meetings have opened the window to meet Christians who share some of the same practices and values, with the same depth of commitment.”

For me personally, participation in the women’s group was only one aspect of engaging deeply with the Islamic tradition over a period of several years. I began studying Arabic, purchased a good English translation of the Koran, devoured books of Sufi poetry, took a course in Islam at the University of Virginia, read everything I could get my hands on about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations, and even traveled to Morocco where I visited mosques and heard the call to prayer five times a day.

My academic study and personal relationships led me to create a narrative about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations that is infinitely more nuanced than the oversimplified, fear-based portrayals we are all too often peddled by pundits and politicians. I was deeply encouraged to learn about the years of cultural flourishing and interfaith engagement during the Caliphate of Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain. The 1219 encounter between St Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malek al-Kamil in the midst of the Fifth Crusade is another hopeful example from the past. There is a history of not just co-existence but collaboration between Muslims and Christians (and Jews); there is fertile ground for learning and dialogue. There are also hard truths to be faced – and mistakes to be learned from – about violence, intolerance, and fundamentalism present in the history of both traditions.

st francis and the sultan

St Francis of Assisi and the Sultan

It was on an airplane from Richmond to Boston that I realized how deeply I had been impacted internally though my years of engagement with Islam. While I’m not a nervous flyer, I was startled by the unexpected turbulence that hit shortly landing at Logan Airport. The plane lurched and rocked, and flight attendants gripped seat backs and wobbled precariously in the aisles. The turbulence worsened and I heard several gasps from nearby passengers.

 

La ilaha ilallah are the opening words of the Shahada (Muslim proclamation of faith). The Arabic words mean: “there is no God but God.” I had heard my Muslim sisters recite these words, seen them inscribed in beautiful calligraphy in mosques, and heard them repeated as dhikr, mantra-like, by Sufis.

Steeling myself against the bumps and dips, these were the words that rose up from somewhere deep and unexpected inside of me. I took a deep breath in, silently reciting: la illaha il allah. And exhaled: la illaha il allah. This carried on for the fifteen turbulent remaining minutes, until the plane landed at Logan and relieved passengers applauded.

It is said there are no atheists in foxholes: in life-or-death moments, our true spiritual colors are revealed. Safely on the ground and waiting at baggage claim, I felt a pang of guilt. Did this make me a bad Christian? Shouldn’t I have found consolation in the words of a psalm or traditional Catholic prayer? After all, I was on my way to study New Testament and ecclesiology!

Yet the shahada’s monotheistic statement of God’s oneness is just as Catholic as it is Islamic. Grace comes as God offers it, not as we would dictate. The grace offered to me during the tense moments of that flight came in the form of an Islamic spiritual practice. This revealed how my heart and soul – not just my mind – had been touched through my years of engagement with Islam. Something in my internal landscape had changed. Engaging deeply with the beliefs, practices, sacred text, and history of Islam alongside Muslims has altered my spiritual fingerprint. For this I am grateful to God. I believe am a better Catholic for it.

A Muslim woman in our group sent us a thank you email after we had gathered for a celebration. I share her words as a benediction for each of us who deeply engage with our own and other religious traditions for the sake of peace with justice in our world.

Alhamdulillah, this was a precious evening, and one that I will treasure and relate over and over to my friends and family. May God bless us, and may He allow our work together to radiate like a thousand suns the world over, until our earth is filled with spaces like those we shared this blessed evening, inshallah.”

Wendy L Wareham photography

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

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