Words to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation

12 Nov

Words to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation:

On the Occasion of the Inter-Religious Family Dinner: November 11, 2017

I am so pleased to be here tonight representing my diverse faith community, and within it, the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Thank for this outreach to our community. It is a very kind gesture that will remain long in our hearts.

This occasion is ripe for reflecting on one of my favorite verses from the Qur’an, the text which Muslims believe God revealed through the Angel Gabriel.

O humankind! We have created you from a single male and female, and made you into tribes and families so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest, most honorable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness, and reverence for God. Surely God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

O humankind! It says. Not O Muslims! O humankind. It addresses everyone on earth, not only the community of Muslims. I am being addressed along with all of the members of my human family.

We are connected by origin, by membership in the human race. Connection is a vital ingredient in a meaningful and pleasurable life. The need to connect socially is powerful. Our emotional and even our physical health depends on the quality of our human connections. In languages around the word we use the language of pain to identify social pain. So, we say, “He broke my heart.” Or “She hurt my feelings.” We are biologically “wired” to connect. I believe we limit well-being if we limit our connections to people who look like us and worship like us. We have the freedom to expand our connections to all of humankind!

Then the verse says: “created you from a single male and female,” which is our common ancestry in Adam and Even. Our Jewish sisters and brothers may refer to the Misnah, Sanhedrin 4:5 which states, “Furthermore, the first person was created alone for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.”

When we view our individual selves on a continuum dating back to our first mother and father, the idea of racism, is dumb, even laughable. Thinking people will arrive at the rational conclusion that there is no pure race, no better people, no real hierarchy in the human family, beside the ones that we fabricate in our imaginations.  And this is intentional, because we come from one origin, one mother and one father.

So, there is no hierarchy. We are all the same, right? But no, we have evolved in a way that we are very different. We have differences and those differences are the inspiration for hatred, blood-shed and community-inflicted trauma. We niche out privileges based on color, class, culture, beliefs. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler, so much more peaceful if we were all exactly the same, if there wasn’t this overwhelming variety within us? It’s chaos, isn’t it? Why within our human family is there intentionally so much variety? What’s the point?!

This is a question that my eight-year-old son decided to ask me a few weeks ago, before my morning coffee. While I was all blurry-eyed, he asked:

“Why can’t we all just be the same. Why didn’t Allah create us all to be alike? It would be so much easier.”

He is a minority in a secular public school. Even though it is secular, in reality the special art projects and extended holidays cater to the cultural identities of Christian Americans. At school, our children make Christmas ornaments, Easter-themed spring decor, Valentine Day Cards, etc… Never Jewish dreidals or Ramadan Lanterns.  In fact, when a Jewish friend and I recently teamed up to point out this obvious fact, another PTA mom responded that it is important to celebrate the “prevailing cultures” holidays.

So, on Christmas ornament making day, my Jewish friend asked me to take her children for the day to play together. It happened to be a Friday and she gladly gave permission for her children to attend our Friday services in the Mosque. Two weeks before our daughters attended a youth group program in a synagogue where my daughter enjoyed an up close and personal reading of the Torah scroll and heard a beautiful recitation of it. We have to arrange these opportunities for our children, so that they will have an appreciation for their unique identities even if they are not celebrated by the “prevailing culture” as the mom phrased it.

In each instance, both at the synagogue and the mosque, our children were completely absorbed, looks of innocent fascination on them. They were totally in the moment, completely connected to the moment, to the people welcoming them, showing them: this is how we worship, this is what we say, this is how we sound, this is how we begin and how we end. The children were encountering and connecting to people. Connection.  The hearth of physical and emotional well-being.

We cannot truly know each other unless there is some mystery, some questions and discovery between us. We are species who, when living in a natural state are deeply curious, and able to be completely absorbed into the moment of discovery.

But then, how to convey that idea in simpler words to my child, in a way that he would accept my answer?

So, I said: “Well, Laith, I want you to imagine a world in which everyone is the same: same religion, same color, same culture, same language, all same. Same, same, same. If you want, close your eyes and imagine that kind of world.”

He paused.

“What is that world like, Laith? Do you want to live in that world?”

“No, he said, very determined. That world is boring. I don’t want to live there.”

“Then, aren’t we fortunate that God did not create us to live in such a boring world, that we have different foods and we can learn each other’s languages, and beliefs, admire each other’s clothes. That we get to know each other. That we get to connect through getting to know each other?”

“Yes! We’re lucky.” He smiled.

The third part of that verse I mentioned at the beginning: the noblest, most honorable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness, and reverence for God. In other words, do good deeds. Actions speak louder than words.

It aligns with the Babylonian Talmud Gitten 61a: “Our Rabbis taught, ‘Give sustenance to the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of the Jews. Visit the sick of the non-Jews along with the sick of the Jews. Bury the dead of the non-Jews along with the dead of the Jews – Because of the ways of peace.”

In other words, we are all in this together. We all have shared interests. And right now, in America, we are at a heightened awareness of the need to celebrate our shared interests as religious minorities in our country.

Since last year’s election and even before, during the campaign, hate crimes and hate speech against Jews and Muslims skyrocketed.

We are witnessing a sharp rise in Nazi symbols, this year the White House intentionally omitted mention of Jewish victims in the President’s Holocaust Remembrance Day message. On the very same day, Trump issued a ban on refugees and anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries. Wearing a public symbol of the Jewish or Muslim faith, for example, my hijab or a Jewish man’s kippa, makes one a walking target for hundreds of organized hate groups, operating and gaining legitimacy.

Jews and Muslims are coming together to do good like never before. This year dozens of rabbis were arrested outside of Trump Towers while protesting the ban against Muslim refugees, and Muslims raised $100,000 to restore Jewish cemeteries which were destroyed by vandals in the wake of the hateful political rhetoric which brought Trump to an electoral election win.

We are sharing our common interests as citizens who are religious minorities in America and we are doing an even bigger job of making America arrive at a “more perfect Union.” We are always perfecting it. And it has always fallen on minorities to do the heavy lifting of advancing the human and civil rights, which are embodied in our Bill of Rights. Through our adherence to our respective religious texts and our consequent fellowship with one another we are making the ideals of our Nation’s founding, live and breathe instead of sleep as lofty words in a museum.

On behalf of my Muslim community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Thank you for this invitation. Thank you for this uniting gesture. We are sisters and brothers to one another, in common ancestry and purpose.

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3 Responses to “Words to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation”

  1. Masuma Virji November 12, 2017 at 4:05 pm #

    “We cannot truly know each other unless there is some mystery, some questions and discovery between us. We are species who, when living in a natural state are deeply curious, and able to be completely absorbed into the moment of discovery.” ❤️❤️❤️

  2. Pam November 12, 2017 at 10:43 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful speech. I too am actively engaged in interfaith work here in NJ. One of the most important is co-leading a chapter of the Sisterhood of Salam Shalom, for which we just had the national women’s conference at Drew University. It is more important than ever that we as women of faith come together to vanquish the loud and ugly voices of division and fascism.

    • CollardGreenMuslim November 12, 2017 at 10:47 pm #

      Thank you for these kind words. Interfaith work is highly rewarding and enriching. I would like to attend that conference one day. You are correct! Now, “(i)t is more important than ever.” Best wishes on more success with bringing hearts together in your community.

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