I was recently at a talk at Yale, where the Chaplain’s Office hosted a tea for me with students. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak to a rising generation of young folks who are interested in religion, and inter-faith interaction in particular. They wanted to know what I got out of the work and why I thought it was important. Some heavy questions that cannot easily be answered over tea. I did share the “I-Thou” relationship as a starting point, and talked about how this resonates with Muslim thought. Then I told them some stories. One is a story I have told in other venues, and one came to me after I left. The second is more of an intra-faith learning moment, but I think exemplifies some of the things I value in learning from an/other.
By the time I got to college, I was not on speaking terms with God. In fact, God inhabited a world shared by hobbits: wonderful story, but it had a time and place. The point of being an adult, and the point of human progress, was to view the world rationally, and that meant no space for religion. When I was in college and (re)discovering religion and faith, it was because of an Introduction to Islam course that I thought would be an easy “A.” My instructor was of Syrian descent and a former Jesuit priest. He showed that religion is not irrational, but follows different logics, and he taught me that the diversity that I had lived with for so long had meaning. It was the beginning of a larger conversation with myself, but that could not have happened had I stayed with the familiar voices I was so accustomed to hearing. And this lesson was not a challenge to my beliefs, but an un-archiving of what I knew, but had buried.
Also in college, when I was slightly older, but still not terribly thoughtful – full of the intellectual vanity a young man at an Ivy League school feels entitled to – I heard Ustad Warith Deen Muhammad speak. It was in a large lecture hall, and I asked a question. I don’t remember what now. I did not see him has as a particularly holy man, but as someone who needed to acknowledge my Islam. I was self-righteous and right. He was righteous and he met me with righteousness. He could have easily humbled me, but he did not. He responded with humility. One of the most difficult lessons I learned is that humility is not a sign of being humiliated; humility is a sign of power. And the manner of his response hit me. Again, I don’t remember the words, but I remember the snot being knocked out of me, my conceptions of blessedness challenged, and never feeling I was put down or humiliated.
Several years later, a friend invited Ustad Muhammad to Harvard, where we were in graduate school. He was more frail, but now I recognized the power that his humility projected. He manifested the trust that had been given him, and that was in his humbleness. I was more open to learning what his manner could teach me. The setting was still large, but more intimate. When he spoke of struggle, it was in an all-encompassing sense: to better ourselves, to better our relationship with the Divine, and to better our communities. And our struggles were not private possessions that only we had access to; rather, our struggles were shared and needed to be worked through together. The “our” he spoke of was not a limited “our,” but an open and inclusive “our.” What he had built, he built for us, including me.
In these interactions, I was moved beyond the small worlds I had imagined for myself. To paraphrase a hadith qudsi, an extra-Quranic Divine utterance, God says the Divine is as the believer imagines God to be. A limited world meant a limited God. By being open to the potential others had, I discovered the potential I had, and the potential for what God, and religion, could achieve. Islam doesn’t speak, Muslims do, and were I to throw the religion away, only rats would be running around with the wrapper of Islam. I was blessed to meet some amazing people, who were different from me, and who helped hold the mirror up to who I was.
So my advice to those students was to be curious and be willing to learn. You never know where change will come come from. And the struggle continues.