By Maha Elgenaidi
I recently attended and spoke at one of Pacifica Institute’s interfaith iftars, held at a major synagogue in the Bay Area that opened its doors to celebrate with Muslims the month of Ramadan. The event was packed, as these events usually are, with congregants both from the synagogue and neighboring churches and from mosques.
My table conversation, like the others, I am sure, was filled with questions about Islam that I hope I answered to the satisfaction of the guests. Based on the feedback I received from the guests at my table and others who came by to speak with me, people were grateful for learning more about Islam and Muslims, appreciated our sharing of ourselves, and left committed to continuing to work towards peace and harmony in our communities while fighting all forms of bigotry, including that which results from Islamophobia.
In return, and I know I speak for many Muslims, I am eternally grateful to the Jewish communities in America that have consistently opened their doors for the last several years now to host such events in their synagogues, one of their most important and sacred Jewish institutions.
Jewish communities and organizations have also consistently spoken out against Islamophobia as they have against bigoted policies calling for banning Syrian refugees or Muslims from entering the United States. Their courage to speak out has given much comfort to American Muslims, showing them that they’re not alone in their fight against the onslaught of bigotry and hatred by politicians and religious leadership that often goes unchallenged and unrepudiated except for those few voices that do speak out.
I am also grateful for the many churches and other Christian institutions, as well as interfaith councils, who have reached out to Muslims to host similar interfaith events or who have attended mosque open houses that have now become regular events during Ramadan and throughout the year.
I remain proud of my American Muslim community for its resilience, courage, openness and ability to adapt, change and improve constantly in its response to growing Islamophobia. I have never in my experience seen such rapid change and growth in such a short span of time — between 9/11/2001 and the present — by any minority community that is under siege as the American Muslim community is.
It’s truly something to be proud of and to be studied and recorded for others to emulate. But it couldn’t have happened without the support and encouragement of our interfaith allies.
Once this idea that Muslims are foreign to America is put to rest, I look forward to the time when American Muslims will regularly reciprocate by inviting Jews and Christians to mosques to learn about Christianity and Judaism and to understand better the traditions, practices and values of our neighbors.
I know many Muslims believe that they already know those other religions, since Islam comes after them in chronology of revelation. I too thought the same thing until I had the opportunity to actually read the Gospels and parts of the Torah.
Reading the four Gospels increased my faith in Jesus, whom Muslims believe was a prophet of God, born miraculously by God breathing life into his virginal mother Mary, and who will return to lead an army against the anti-Christ and live out the remainder of his life. The Gospels expand on the stories about Jesus in the Quran, rounding out his character and making me appreciate the unique relationship Christians have with Jesus.
Reading parts of the Torah helped me understand and appreciate how much it overlaps with Quranic stories about the prophets, particularly Noah, Abraham and Moses, and how it illuminates the sources of Jewish law and its development over the centuries.
In fact, reading the scriptures of religions outside our own is very much like learning another language or visiting a country to learn about other people. Sacred texts are the languages of religious people.
This experience and understanding led my organization to create a new program that invited both the Jewish and Muslim communities to read each other’s texts and reenact some of the shared story of Exodus, the name of one of the books of the Torah and also the most frequently related narrative in the Quran.
The program is called Halaqa-Seder, the Exodus Story from Muslim and Jewish Perspectives. Three very successful events have been held so far over the last two years, attended by several hundred Muslims and Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It’s important to point out that reading Jewish and Christian Scriptures deepened my understanding of both Jews and Christians but didn’t make me convert to their religions. In fact it deepened my own faith in Islam and made me even more appreciative of our common origins and values.
The Quran teaches us that “You were created as different nations and tribes that you may know one another” (49:13), and that is why I look forward to the days ahead when my co-religionists will live out that verse by inviting people of other religions to mosques to learn about other faiths while exploring their scriptures to deepen our own faith, build mutual respect and stronger bonds among all people, and work towards building peace that benefits the communities in which we all live.
Maha Elgenaidi is the CEO of Islamic Networks Group, a nonprofit organization based in San Jose, California with affiliates around the country that are dedicated to education about Islam and other religions and interfaith engagement. She has an MA in religious studies from Stanford University and a BA in political science and economics.