My Afternoon with a Shiite Muslim

“Fear always springs from ignorance.”
~  Emerson ~

“Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.”
~  Tsun Tzu ~

“Don’t flaunt your ignorance!”
~ My Father ~


At the risk of acting against my father’s advice, I must admit that I have a fear of Muslims. Not a fear… an anxiety… Not an anxiety… a, umm, it’s more like, I don’t know. That’s it! I don’t know. I do not know much about Muslims and the Islamic faith. I am ignorant of almost everything having to do with their faith and culture.

I do know that there are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. That’s billion – with a B. I know that most of them (by a 3-1 margin) live in Asia-Pacific countries and not the Middle East, as everyone seems to think. I also know that a certain number of them would like to kill me and my fellow Americans. That’s about what I know.

My ignorance has produced my fear/anxiety/uneasiness, etc., so I decided to do something about that.

There is a group of men that I know, made up mostly of current or former Catholic priests, Christian theologians, etc. These men, now well into their seventies, reunite each year to discuss the great issues of life. These are incredibly learned men, experienced and faithful. Their age and experience affords them a shorthand conversational style and knowing accountability reserved for those who have known each other longer than most of us have been alive. These men cannot BS each other. They’ve simply known each other way too long.

I heard that this year, among other topics at their reunion, they were interested in learning more about Islam. They were inviting a representative from the Islamic Center of America to spend the afternoon with them – teaching them about his faith and engaging in a lively exchange of questions and answers. When I learned of their agenda, I asked if I might attend. Remarkably, they agreed.

The timing of this interfaith get-together was not lost on anyone in the room. Bin Laden had just been found and eliminated days ago. There was a renewed sense of patriotism in the room, a quiet pride, like a group of University of Michigan alumni grinning about their win over Ohio State. “We knew we’d beat ‘em… eventually.” Into this room a man must come and explain to us why his religion was a peaceful one and really is not to blame for all of us having to take our shoes off before boarding a plane. He had a pretty tough job.

To say that he did well would be an understatement. This man spoke eloquently and directly. He was perfect, explaining all of the pillars of his faith, the rites of prayer and fasting and pilgrimage. He talked about the relationship between Judeo-Christian beliefs and Islam. Then he talked about the elephant in the room. He said there are differences between what the faith tells Muslims to do and what individual cultures dictate. He couldn’t understand where Saudi Arabia got it’s notions about women, or al-Qaeda dreamed up the 72 virgin bit… “Certainly not from the Qur’an”, he told us. This made some sense. Certainly there are cultural differences within Christianity that dictate whether or not a woman covers her head in church, or whether you can eat meat on Fridays, etc. These are not found in the Bible, yet they have become “part of the faith”.

He told us how his religion has it’s share of nut-jobs, as all religions do. ”It’s just our time in the barrel, I guess…,” he said. Indeed. He said he understood why so many Americans tend to lump all Muslims together. It’s human nature. Imagine being a Muslim or Jew being slaughtered (and cannibalized!) after fighting side by side during the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099, then someone tells you what a peaceful religion Christianity is… We all have our “time in the barrel.”

However, today is today and The Crusades were a thousand years ago (and 9/11 was ten years ago). While we can never forget these horrific moments in our shared history, if we are to be men and women of faith we are called to forgive, and forgiveness begins with understanding.

I heard a great deal from my new Shiite friend. I certainly disagree with some of what he has to say, and although I am not going to be converting to Islam, I do have the beginnings of an understanding of it. He invited me down to his mosque (the largest in North America) to witness evening prayers and to read the chapter in the Qur’an about Mary the blessed virgin. I invited him to appear on our (Christian) radio talk show. We both said, “Yes,” to each other. It’s a start. I realize that there are massive differences between us. Cultural, philosophical, spiritual… It seems to me we have a choice. We can fear these differences or we can try to understand them, and even, from time to time, celebrate them.

I am not naive.

But I am hopeful.

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One thought on “My Afternoon with a Shiite Muslim

  1. New experiences are ALWAYS good….maybe not on immediate face value, but good ultimately nonetheless.