Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 14, 2012

Islam

This past week, on Thursday evening, I had a most remarkable experience.  Allow me to provide some background information.  I serve as co-chair of the Trialogue of Mobile, Alabama, a grassroots group of folks mostly of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) who gather four times annually for face-to-face conversation about our beliefs.  We’ve been doing this nearly three years now, with our first event bringing in 160+ members of the community; turnout continues to be high and participation is energetic.

Meetings normally take place on the campus where I am employed as an associate professor, at Spring Hill College.  In April we had our first organized gathering at a synagogue, Ahavas Chesed.  This past week we visited Mobile Masjid of al-Islam.  (For those who may not know it, as I didn’t know until Thursday, “masjid” is a derivative from Arabic while “mosque” is derived from French.)  These events were outstanding, and well attended.  Both congregations (the Jewish and Muslim) were profoundly hospitable in their welcome.  I simply cannot express the sense of honor and gratitude that wells up within me as I consider the kindness and warmth of these two congregations throwing open their doors and hearts to the visitors associated with Trialogue.

Both communities are remarkable, but one in particular stands in bright contrast to the cultural difficulties, ideological battles, and extremist violence in which it is enveloped.  Obviously, I’m referring to Islam.

Personally, this was my third visit to Mobile Masjid of a-Islam, and I have some news to share with you.  If you want to meet a sincere, welcoming, and inclusve group of Muslims, you need to make a visit for yourself.  If you want to know where the Muslims are who condemn all forms of violence and terrorism, you need to drop by the masjid on Duval Street in Mobile.  If you want to meet devout men and women who would probably more willingly suffer themselves than inflict suffering upon others, you should spend some time in their midst.  If you wish to know patriotic Muslims who love their country, including some of whom are honorably discharged from the United States military, stop by the Mobile Masjid of al-Islam.

Forgive me if I’m starting to sound like some sort of religious advertisement.  That’s not my point.  It’s not my intention to idealize this Muslim community.  But I do want to celebrate what I’ve discovered there, and what I’ve found among Muslim friends not only from al-Islam, but from other Muslim groups in the larger Mobile area.

As an autonomous Islamic organization, the congregations of al-Islam are composed predominantly of men and women of African ancestry.  But their message is inclusive and universal, which I perceive to be a product of their own internal struggles as a community.  I believe that their experience is indicative of the Islam that will eventually emerge as predominant in North America and in Western Europe:  respectful of differences, comfortable in the midst of religious diversity, and productive in its ways of supporting the community and providing political leaders.

As the imam of Mobile Masjid of al-Islam pointed out the other night, he and his congregants are often frustrated by what they see in the news media.  When broadcasters in the US want to talk about Islam, they too often find a radical Muslim immigrant on the American street who speaks with a heavy accent and who is angry about our national politics.  Yet there are thousands of native-born American Muslims who love their country, support its democratic values, and who would never force their own religious convictions upon their neighbors.

He quoted a favorite verse of mine from the Qur’an.  In the 49th surah (chapter) we are told by God that we have been created into nations and tribes not to despise one another, but that we may know and understand each other.

Of course, quoting such a passage from the Qur’an doesn’t remove from Islamic history the wrongs of the past anymore than quoting Jesus on the virtues of love removes the painful past of Christianity.  But it does suggest a new starting point.  Combined with the blessings of interreligious friendship and genuine mutual understanding, it challenges us to build a new relationship of trust where neither side wants victory over the other.

Those of us who are not Muslim would do well to heed this message.  Islam is not going to disappear.  Like all organized religious communities, it has a mixed past of triumphs, tragedies, peace, and violence.  Those realities continue to play out on the global stage.  We can continue in our ignorance and condemn all Muslims and all Islamic history, or we can look closer to gain a more accurate view.  We can neither change the past nor predict the future, but we can embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters who desire to live in harmony with us and who respect our own religious convictions.

If you doubt me, spend some time at the masjid on Duval Street.

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