Since moving to my town I’ve seen many women I assumed were Muslim – at the library, Chick-Fil-A and the grocery store – but I’ve never spoken with them except maybe to say, “excuse me” in line.
I’d long forgotten anything I’d learned about Islam in history class and while I was very certain that it made no sense to be afraid of the ladies I saw picking up milk at the store or dropping their kids off at the soccer fields, I felt insecure because they dressed and acted differently.
While there are significant differences between Muslims and Catholics – most notably that Muslims do not acknowledge Jesus as God – the Church proclaimed in the Second Vatican Council that it “regards with esteem the Muslims,” stating that they “adore the one God… they also honor Mary… and value the moral life and worship of God through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” The Church encourages us to “work sincerely for mutual understanding” (Nostra Aetate #3).
In light of these shared values, I felt compelled to better understand this group in my community, but stopping a woman with a covered head in the cereal aisle and saying, “excuse me, could you take a second to sincerely work for mutual understanding with me?” seemed awkward. However, I was given an opportunity to begin a conversation when I met Azka and some of her friends at a class offered in our community.
Striking up a conversation, Azka and her friends were so open and friendly I immediately felt at ease asking them rather blunt questions about what I had heard- and didn’t understand- about Islam. In our own way, we’ve been working for the “mutual understanding” the Church encourages us to seek, and while we may dress differently, it’s been eye opening to realize what we share. We’ve met for coffee a few times to to talk about both our differences and what we have in common. Curious? Here are just a few things we’ve discussed:
Me: I’ve learned from our conversations that Islam means “submission”. What does that mean, exactly?
Azka: It means submission to the will of God – what God has in store for us, how God wants us to act in the world.
Me: Seeking God’s will- that’s something that’s very important to Catholics, too. How do you do that?
Azka: I will follow the Quran, the commandments and the guidelines for how Muslims should live. How many times I should pray, how to eat, how I treat others, how I raise my children – I look to the Quran for guidance and the Hadith, which is a collection of oral traditions, to guide me. For example, I have a little boy who is five years old. He’s very bright and inquisitive. I want to raise him as a good Muslim, and I look to the Hadith and how the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him)* acted with his grandchildren to know what and how to teach my son.
Me: Some believers are uncomfortable with the honor Catholic Christians give to Mary, the mother of Jesus. I was surprised to learn that Mary is also honored by Muslims.
Azka: Mary is one of only two females mentioned by name in the Quran. Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus (may God be pleased with Him)*. The nineteenth chapter of the Quran outlines that an angel – Gabriel – appeared to Mary and told her she would have a son, although she had never been with a man. The angel told her not to worry, the baby will speak on your behalf and God will take care of you. We consider Mary a model of faith.
Me: One of the first things I noticed about you and the other women from your community is that you pray very regularly – even excusing yourself from an activity when it’s time to pray. Prayer is such an important part of my relationship with God as a Catholic, what role does prayer play in your life?
Azka: Prayer is essential. It reminds you that you are Muslim and that you are specifically praying to please God. We pray five times a day and there are specific prayers offered at each of these times. This prayer is made up of reciting a specific part of the Quran in Arabic, followed by a conversation with God where you can say whatever you’d like to Him in your own language. It could be asking for help, thanking Him- anything. Each part has different postures that include bowing, standing up, laying prostrate.
Me: I’ve seen Muslims praying in a park before, is it intimidating to take these postures of prayer in public?
Azka: It depends on personal preference. Some people don’t mind and will pray anywhere, others may try to find a place that’s out of the way. Fitting rooms are a great place to find privacy when you’re running errands and it’s time to pray!
Me: We met during the season of Lent, and in talking with you about fasting and how we practice giving up food or other things we enjoy, I learned that these types of sacrifices are also very important to followers of Islam.
Azka: Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are three of the five things you must do to be Muslim (the other two things are a declaration of faith and a pilgrimage to Mecca). We are obliged to fast (if we are physically able) during the month of Ramadan once we reach puberty, but children will try to join the fast when they are younger because it seems so festive. I remember the first time I fasted all day, I must have been 8 or 9 and I had attempted the day before but my younger sister brought candy and I couldn’t resist. The next day I made it and everyone was happy for me and I was so excited.
Me: I remember doing something similar after I gave up chocolate for Lent one year and someone gave me M&M’s!
Azka: Fasting is a commandment, but we realize that it also helps us connect with others – it gives us a kinship with those who live in poverty. When you have to go about your daily responsibilities hungry, it helps you think of others who are not as fortunate. The other advantage to fasting that when you remove eating, it gives you more time to pray. It empties time and gives you extra hours to pray and study the Quran.
Basic charity that is required is a tithe of 2.5 percent of your wealth given to those who in need, but beyond this there is also voluntary charity – and this is not just monetary. It could be time, personal effort, being kind. Even those who are poor can be charitable in this way.
One of my favorite chapters of the Quran, 107, “The Small Kindnesses” states, ‘Have you seen him who belies the rewards and punishments of the Hereafter? He it is who drives away the orphan and does not urge giving away the food to the poor. Then woe to the praying ones, who are careless of their Prayer, who do good to be seen and withhold small kindnesses.” How can you believe in the day of judgement and call yourself a Muslim and refuse kindness to your friends?
Me: One of the first things I noticed about you and other women from the Mosque is that you cover your head. Why?
Azka: Covering – or Hijab – is the practice of women who have reached puberty covering their head, covering to their wrists and ankles and their neck in front of men. I do it because it’s a commandment, mentioned in the Quran, and because I want to be modest. We cover in front of men with whom there could be a possibility of attraction- so we don’t cover in front of our spouses, fathers, brothers or sons. Hijab isn’t just about covering though, it embodies the way you are – an overall modesty.
I – and many others – also wear the hijab to be identified as Muslim. It’s an expression of my faith.
Me: What does it feel like to wear Hijab in the United States right now?
Azka: It feels like a very American thing to do – to be able to express your belief and submission to God in public and be able to wear what you want. At the same time, it feels a little bit like having a target on your back – I’m identifiable to someone who doesn’t like Muslims and might want to be mean.
Me: Have you ever felt targeted in this way?
Azka: I have not had anything bad happen to me. I have had disapproving looks, but no one has said anything negative to me. In fact, I cannot count the number of times people have said very nice and encouraging things to me, it makes me very happy and proud of this community.
Me: Before I met you and the other women in your community, I was really intimidated by Muslims because I didn’t know anything about your faith and you dressed differently. However, after our conversations I’ve realized that while we dress and worship differently, we have a lot in common – much more than I realized – and I value our friendship and the opportunity to continue to ask you questions about things I don’t understand. How do you think others can build these relationships?
Azka: I think if Muslims and Christians learn more about the common threads in their faith traditions – in particular by getting to know each other in person, with open minds and without judgement, they can improve their relationships. We live by the same values of honesty, kindness and charity. Simply meeting and engaging with Muslims with an open heart will help improve relationships. A way teens can do this is by befriending Muslims they see in their school or find service projects that can be done together.
Me: Talking to you I’ve learned so much about how much we both care about justice, morality, religious liberty and care for the poor. How do you think we can we all better support and respect each other?
Azka: A simple way would be to not ridicule practices that seem different or strange and to stand up for anyone you see being harassed or bullied. Most importantly, when people are engaging in anti-Muslim conversations and saying things that you know to be untrue, speak up and educate others about what we have in common.
*Note: when speaking of the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus, and other prophets, Muslims always add the phrase “peace be upon him” (even in written correspondence!). When speaking of the companions of the prophets, they add the phrase “may God be pleased with him.”