Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Learn to Speak the Language (an essay in religious tolerance)

(all photos credited to Gary)

As part of my son Gary's Islamic Humanities class at Brigham Young University (a private university, owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sometimes referred to as "Mormons"), he wrote this paper yesterday and asked if I'd proof read it. I found so much truth in what he had to say. It not only speaks of his journey towards understanding and respect for Muslims, but I think it could be applied to a much broader idea of tolerance for any religion, philosophy, or culture different from our own. Fear, I believe, is the root to all prejudice, bias, discrimination, or bigotry.

Last year while walking down Park City’s Main Street, I overheard a family talking in Arabic. When I chimed in to say hello and “Happy Ramadan”, they were a little shocked to hear a blond haired white boy speaking Arabic, but we proceeded to have a great conversation. They were visiting from Saudi Arabia and I felt that my conversation with them made their trip here a little more welcoming than it would have been otherwise.

If I hadn’t taken the time to gain fluency in the language of Arabic, that positive interaction I had with the Saudi family obviously never would have occurred. The language I overheard would have seemed bizarre and out of place. Similarly, those who encounter Islam without taking the time to develop a “fluency” in the proverbial language of the religion may be turned off by how strange some of its characteristics might seem. Those who make no effort to develop an understanding will prevent themselves from enjoying the wonderful experiences and lessons that Islam can offer.

As I compare my recent trip to the Khadeeja Islamic Center with the first time I visited a mosque, I can see how far I’ve come in my understanding of Islam. After living in the Middle East, I gained a cultural context and deep appreciation for Islam and its believers. This enabled me to enjoy this visit without distractions of fear and uncertainty. I experienced the value of what was beneath; the wonderful sense of brotherhood and love among the worshipers and the edifying message of the sermon which was quite applicable even in my own belief system.

The first time I ever went to a mosque was during my first semester at BYU as I was starting my Arabic studies. I had taken a Religion of Islam course in high school, but still approached the faith with heavy skepticism, unable to separate it from some serious political baggage in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Second Intifada. The idea of going to Friday prayer was fascinating and exciting to me, but I didn’t know how to interact with Muslims in a wholehearted way without feeling like I was giving complete tacit consent to an anti-America, anti-Israel, Hamas-sympathizing ideology.

This discomfort made me feel quite torn as I observed the prayer service. I was so intrigued and interested yet very critical of this way of worship. The tones of the Qur’anic recitations came over me with an eerie vibe and the drone-like unison of what seemed like haunting ameens during salat were discomforting. My familiarity with worship services was cut from a very different cloth and in contrast these rows and rows of chanting, prostrating, robe and turban-clad men seemed rather cult-like.

Looking back I realize that I wasn’t necessarily trying to interpret their faith and ways of worship negatively. I simply did not have the cultural literacy and context that I needed to be able to appreciate the Islamic take on spirituality in positive light. Without the materials to draw parallels to my own worldview, my first visit to a mosque was like trying to make sense of a foreign language. It was bizarre, incomprehensible, and frustrating. However, despite my inability to understand the experience and the uneasy feeling that it brought, something left me loving it and wanting more.

During the course of my study abroad in Jordan a few months after that first mosque visit, I gained a great deal of the cultural literacy that I had been missing. Rather than looking to American media and politicians as a source of information on Islam, I went to Muslims themselves. I awoke to their prayer call, ate in their homes, partook of their hospitality, danced to their music, listened to their religious and political convictions, observed their charity, and developed a taste for their art. I was able to experience Muslims in their element.

Just as learning the Arabic language opened doors for great relations with Arabs, my increased cultural awareness of the Islamic worldview gave me a beautiful context which put to rest all the uneasiness that came up in my first mosque visit. My recent trip to the Khadeeja Islamic Center was my first time back in a mosque since returning from Jordan and also my first time attending a salat service since that first semester at BYU. It was delightful how much the familiarity with and appreciation for the religious culture and community removed the obstacles that made the initial visit such a strange and unfamiliar journey. This time, without having to navigate through the uncertainty, I was able to fully experience what was at the heart of the mosque’s Friday prayer.

An aspect of the trip I was able to most appreciate was the warm sense of community and brotherhood at the mosque. Perhaps this was more apparent to me because this time I felt more a part of that community rather than an outsider observing a closed group. My favorite example of this warmth was found in an old African man. He had a wide smile, lively eyes, and a whole lot of pep in his elderly step. As everyone was gathering for prayer, he went around row by row offering each and every brother a dab from a sweet smelling roll-on perfume stick. This gesture was much more informal than ritualistic. The cheer with which he did this small service brought an uplifting feeling of kindness and welcoming. There was a joy in gathering together in religious activity to worship God. This is something that I admire about the Islamic community and feel is unfortunately fading in general American culture. I was impressed with a sense of coming together under God in an act loving communion with both neighbor and Diety.

On a more theological level, something that I was able to benefit from during this visit on a much greater level compared to my first visit was the khutba or sermon. During my first visit I had all but shut out everything the imam was saying, but this time I not only drew many parallels to my own faith, but also truly benefited from the imam’s words and received edification to my devotion to God. The imam spoke on developing a stronger commitment to mosque and prayer attendance. He placed heavy focus on the blessings and protections that come from committed devotion to following God’s will in the face of inconvenience, specifically in observance of prayer.

As the imam spoke about the great benefits and growth that come in doing hard things in submission to God, I couldn’t help but smile because this very theme has been pivotal in my own spiritual development over the past year. As I have redoubled my commitment to prayer, there have been countless times when the small sacrifice to kneel for ten minutes before bed in spite of exhaustion has yielded great blessings. The khutba’s topic brought to mind President Eyring’s priesthood session address of last October’s General Conference on stretching oneself beyond normal capacity in priesthood service to our Father in Heaven. I was glad I was able to look past the message’s strange container of a Saudi in robes and a shemagh going back and forth between broken English and Arabic and find the truth and relevance in the message itself. These Muslims are God’s children trying, as I am, to lead better lives and become more like Him.

My experience at the mosque this time around served as an indicator for the great developments that I have made in my relationship with Islam since beginning my studies at BYU. I now feel, in a way, part of the Islamic community and would much sooner be inclined to defend it and its members than to question and criticize it as would have been the case three years ago. The previously unfamiliar smells, sounds, clothing, and language of my visit to the mosque had now become nostalgic reminders of a place and people that I love and miss, rather than being barriers that distracted from the goodness of the experience.

As I talk with family and friends about Islam, I ask them to try to give Islam a second chance as I have. If at first it feels uncomfortable, approach Islam as you would approach learning a new language. Realize its comprehension requires study, experience, a willingness to learn, and development over time. Just as fluency is better obtained by constant conversation with native speakers rather than foreign speakers, the best understanding of Islam will come through interactions with Muslims and their culture rather than outside commentators. My choice to take this path has led me to an increased love for all of God’s children and has opened doors to profound cultural and religious enrichment in my life as my respect and admiration for Islam has deepened.


  1. What an interesting series of thoughts and thoroughness of education--well done, Gary (and family)!

  2. Emily, I'm a "anonymous" follow of your blog who stumbled upon your writings some months ago. I come back because of the spirit I find there, YOUR spirit. I'm uplifted, educated, and inspired by your thoughts and experiences. I'm sorry that some are so hasty in their assumptions and presume things that they oughtn't. I'm sorry that your feelings have been hurt. I have four sons, and I would be thrilled if they all had characteristics like Gary's. His essay reflects tremendous personal growth and an ability to love beyond a stigma. We should all be working to develop such is the very essence of Christianity. He will be a marvelous SHOULD be a proud mama!

  3. Beautiful. I admire his dedication and desire to understand another culture. There is so much beauty and truth in the world. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Loved the pictures and agree that the Islam religion is quite different from our "social norm". Educating ourselves would be a great asset.

  5. your son's words are very moving, you must be so proud of him.
    be proud of yourself also for the post you wrote which follows this one, i admire you for it.

    warmest wishes

    your blog is very beautiful

  6. The essay was beautifully written. Had "Oh, my! Anonymous" really read the entire thing I'm sure she (?) would have understood the meaning and grasped the truth in it. -"Just as fluency is better obtained by constant conversation with native speakers rather than foreign speakers, the best understanding of Islam will come through interactions with Muslims and their culture rather than outside commentators."- Perfect... And BTW, it goes both ways... I thank God is was your son who interacted with the Saudi family and not "Anonymous". He is a great ambassador of what is is (or should be) to be an American and Christian... Thanks for sharing.