I had such hopes for the first week of 2011. The firecrackers from this year’s global celebrations are still getting play on the local news channel, and along with them are horrific scenes of the recent bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt that killed over 20 people and injured close to 100, the continuing week-long violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, the attack on a Catholic Church in Iraq that killed 58 people and the assassination of Governor Taseer of the Punjab province in Pakistan, killed for his role in championing the rights of Aasia Bibi, a Christian convert facing execution for blasphemy.

Generally, the world is not off to a great start, and more specifically, Muslims have a lot of bridge building to do.

In university, I sat with the Chaplain, a Buddhist nun, a Hindu scholar, a Baha’i practitioner, the local Rabbi, and a First Nations representative on an interfaith council. Our main task was to provide resources for religiously observant students, and to make sure that professors or university policies accommodated students who needed to opt out of classes when they conflicted with religious beliefs or observant holy days. We were also on rotations to offer the religious prayer at Convocation ceremonies, memorials and to provide appropriate opportunities for interfaith dialogue.

This university, like many, had historical traditions, pomp and circumstance built upon Christian foundations. Instead of wiping away these traditions, and to help accommodate the growing diversity of its students, the university opted instead to help promote a pluralistic, religious culture.

Working closely with these religious leaders gave me access to events, extra-religious services, places of worship and knowledge that I may not have otherwise been exposed to. I began seeing more and more broad stroke similarities between our religious traditions, and more specific similarities with Christianity.

While Muslims follow the revelation of the prophet Muhammad, and believe in all of the Abrahamic prophets, Jesus holds a seriously high place in Islam:

  • According to Islamic eschatology, Jesus is sitting now on the right hand of God, alive, waiting for the Second Coming, when he will face the Antichrist and bring about the Day of Judgment and Resurrection.
  • We believe in his virgin birth.
  • We don’t believe that he died on the cross, but rather that he ascended to heaven before his capture, and a trusted companion took his place (some argue it was Judas).
  • In many of the prophetic traditions, Jesus is referred to as “the Word” and “the Christ.”
  • The Qur’an retells most of the Biblical narrative, including: the creation story, Moses, Abraham, David and Goliath and John the Baptist to name a few.  Apocryphal narratives are also retold, such as when Jesus created a bird out of clay and brought it to life, as found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Muslims believe in miracles, in angels, daemons and Satan, in all of the Archangels, that faith is nothing without good works, and in the Gospels and Psalms. Christians are supposed to have a protected status in Islam and the Prophet taught that Christians are our siblings and should be protected and respected. He even married a Coptic Christian from Alexandria and found refuge with the Christian king of Abyssinia when the early Muslims were facing persecution.

Even though there’s a lot of material here for dialogue, there are still historical conflicts, contemporary misunderstandings, stereotypes and misinterpretations to work through. Being on the council was a positive experience, and while some of the representatives felt that they were largely respected, they also saw themselves regarded as other, exotic, unnecessary, tolerated, a cultural display or simply irrelevant at a secular institution. As an identifiable Muslim, I sometimes even felt that my placement at a memorial service was offensive.

In 2001, when I stood to give a prayer at the 9/11 memorial, I spent most of my time at the podium giving examples of how Islam was a religion of peace, abhorred violence against the innocent and respected all religions. It was a sensitive time where my very presence in a room or on the street would cause people to stare, question me, accuse me, spit on me and rage at me. Over two thousand people listened — and whether they appreciated, questioned, accused or raged at my presence, at least I spoke out against the atrocities, attempted to offer solace and cried that these acts have no place in my religion.

Over the past few days there has been an outpouring of Muslim support to Christians. Muslims are offering to be human shields in Egypt and the Netherlands for the Coptic Christmas celebrations later this week. And yesterday, Muslims and Copts gathered at the Islamic Al-Azhar University in a rally of solidarity.

The Islamic Society of North America is asking Muslims to double their efforts to promote religious harmony and the right of people everywhere to worship free from fear and violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement saying that it is immoral and contrary to Islamic principles and teachings to threaten people based on their religion. Muslim organizations are reaching out to Christian leaders, offering assistance, condolences and future hope that working together will promote protection and harmony between Muslims and Christians. And while writing this post I received an e-mail asking for donations to help support the families affected by the bombing in Egypt, signing off with:

To all our Christian friends and neighbors in Alexandria, Egypt, we LOVE you, we care about you and suffer for your pain.

More Muslims need to speak out and speak out often. Finding sources of dialogue is one place to start, but there has to be a concerted effort to develop acceptance of people’s humanity. The year may have had a horribly shaky start, but I am still hopeful that we will all seek out positive opportunities for dialogue and solidarity, and not have to wait for disaster before reaching out to others.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings