On the theory that maybe we should strike up conversations with our Muslim neighbors and not matches for burning their Qurans, Jonathan Elliot in New Zealand found a Muslim to have lunch with this past month, and recounts how he did this, and what he learned from the experience. First, he says, he had to find someone in New Zealand who knows somebody who actually is Muslim (since he, personally, didn’t know any). His friend Sarah fit the bill:
Sarah is an atheist, with Muslim and Hindu parents who decided not to push either faith on her. Her mother is a “liberal” Muslim, so Sarah also has a lot of knowledge about Islam. When she told me her friend is Bangladeshi, I expected someone with a foreign accent. I was surprised to meet a second-generation Kiwi, intelligent, articulate and funny, working in a respected profession in the city. Funny— we don’t think of Muslims with a sense of humour, do we?
So Sarah the atheist, Jonathan the agnostic, and Fariha the Muslim went to lunch. Out of this encounter Jonathan learned eight things:
- “I understood from what was said that both women are part of a smaller Shi’ite sect. For me, I associate Shiite with Iran, it’s weird to find people from the Asian subcontinent who identify as Shiite, which we discussed. Fariha referred to “the fundamentalists”, indicating that she felt some distance between her faith and the extremists.”
- “I found out I can go to the mosque, as a non muslim.”
- “I can’t go to Mecca, even as a tourist, although Sarah was unsure about that. ‘How would they know?'”
- “Sarah said she’s been told there’s no such thing as a non-practicing Muslim, so you either are or aren’t. Hence, she is not a Muslim. However Fariha disagreed, saying there’s a bit of leeway, for example Fariha does not always pray five times a day.”
- “I mentioned I’d read a book by a woman of Pakistani descent which says Arab Muslims tend to look down on non-Arab Muslims. Fariha said she thought that was ‘probably the case’. She also could understand it ‘to some degree’ as ‘the Quran was first given to Arabs’, and socio-politically most servants and menial workers in Saudi are foreigners.”
- “We talked about head-coverings, and she said it ‘isn’t in the Quran’, but in the Hadith. She doesn’t wear a head-covering.”
- “They agreed there is a lot of discussion and disagreement within Islam on some topics. Fariha said she was ‘speaking for herself, personally, not for the whole of Islam’. She said Imams (Mullahs) are ‘not like priests’, there is much more ability to disagree, it’s much more equal, which I didn’t know.”
- “We briefly discussed Sufism, and Fariha said she thinks Islam is a bit more about the group experience, than about “personal spirituality”, although that is there too.”
Jonathan’s experience tracks my own meal with some Muslims this past month (as well as my visit to a mosque and interview with an imam): the experience is primarily educational, not really a no-holds barred debate. Like Jonathan (and most Westerners), I’m so ignorant of Islam that just getting the foundations and sensibility of the religion in clear view requires education. I think that most Westerners who reach out to Muslims in their community will find themselves on this same steep learning curve.
And what has stayed with Jonathan after his lunch?:
One thing that has stayed with me is that when I think about Islam, I am thinking about a person— an intelligent, attractive neighbour whose humanity I want to support. I think this alone makes the experience worthwhile, to personalise beliefs into people rather than ‘other’.
Education and the discovery of another individual’s shared humanity. Not bad for an afternoon.
Might you try it as well?