Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
When I entered my graduate degree program in the Fall of 2013, I had no idea I would be entering the world of interfaith. I was intent on getting my Ph.D. in Islamic Studies – and this Master’s degree was just a stepping stone to that goal.
Almost immediately however, I started to feel that perhaps I had made the wrong decision. Did I really understand what studying Religion in the Academy meant? No. But I was soon to find out.
In many of my classes, I was forced to confront the apparent lack of rationality of my religious faith – I am Muslim – and those of other faiths, as well. I remember reading Paul Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil for my “Introduction to the Study of Religion” class and thinking I was the only one among my classmates who had no idea what was going on. The “symbol gives rise to thought” was the premise of Ricoeur’s work.
I’m still not sure what that means today.
Luckily, during the first week of class, I decided to visit the Graduate School Orientation Fair. I walked around aimlessly for a bit, but then noticed a purple (my favorite colour!) table-cover that caught my attention. “The Office of Spiritual Life, what is that?” I thought. I went over and picked a flyer advertising the Spiritual Life Council. Feeling that my faith was being questioned in a way I had no defense for, I thought perhaps the Spiritual Life Office would be the place where I could find refuge with like-minded individuals.
When I joined the first SLC meeting a few weeks later, I immediately found out that it wasn’t quite the kumbaya gathering I was hoping for. There were a couple of students who had no faith at all – some of whom were quite critical of religion. But the one thing we all shared was an interest in religion’s influence in the world and the recognition that for better or for worse, secularism would most likely never replace religion entirely.
Over the course of the year, I made friendships with students from across campus – graduate and undergraduate – across religions – from Buddhist to Jewish – and across faith levels – from Orthodox to no faith at all. More than just these bragging rights, I learned you can never judge a person based on their faith or apparent lack of it.
While I always doubted my place in my classes, I never doubted my place at Spiritual Life. The wonderful people at SLO – staff and students – empowered me to be okay with who I am and my unique interests. Through my involvement with Spiritual Life, I went on retreats, took part in interfaith discussions – I even started my own interfaith group called My Body & Soul – and started singing again, this time for interfaith services. I got the chance to see that I could make a positive impact in the world by being just the way I am. That was empowering.
With multiple religious forces competing with one another, I am humbly reminded by what R. Scott Appleby wrote in Ambivalence of the Sacred – this was the book that inspired me to first get into Religious Studies and what keeps me interested in interfaith work to this day. As I wrote in my statement of purpose in 2012: “The premise of Ambivalence of the Sacred is that all sacred texts come with a degree of ambiguity. Our interpretations of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an are not free from human bias […] A fundamentalist [is one who is] committed to renewing the fundamental truths of his/her religious tradition. Although we only hear of the Extremist in the news, there is another type of fundamentalist: The Peacemaker. While the Extremist picks and chooses verses from sacred texts to give credence to his/her personal and/or political motivations, the Peacemaker approaches the core message of the entire text, with mutual coexistence as the sole agenda. To me, this shatters the notion that respecting the historical religious traditions and being an active member of society is impossible.”
Through my involvement with interfaith, I have learned that our collective experiences do matter. Though currently out of school, I still see myself as an aspiring Peacemaker today. Emboldened by the experiences I have had in learning from others completely different from myself, I am proud to proclaim my belief that religion can be an enriching and empowering force in our lives. What we need is to use it for the good. That is what is incumbent upon us all who consider ourselves a part of the interfaith community. I still have much to learn – about myself and the world – and interfaith is the way forward for me.