Becoming a Peacemaker in Grad School

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.

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7 thoughts on “Becoming a Peacemaker in Grad School

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for talking about what “fundamentalism” really means! I am a firm believer in Confucius’ maxim that the rectification of the world begins with the rectification of names, and it saddens me so much when we use the terms “fundamentalist” and “extremist” to mean “violent” and “intolerant”, as though we were conceding that homophobia is in some way “fundamental” to Christianity or that suicide bombings show a total (literally, extreme) commitment to Islamic teaching. As you say, being committed all the way to the fundamentals of any of our religions will mean acting out of humility and compassion. I don’t live in peace with my neighbors because I’m toning down my religion and living it less completely; I live in peace with them because I’m trying to live my faith to its extreme, most especially in its fundamentals!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Race! I have to admit that up until the moment I read Appleby, I, too, had not been distinguishing between the different terms. He was able to verbalize the distinction in a way that renewed a sense of commitment to my faith that was active and engaged. I think that only other committed Peacemakers can ultimately dismantle the violent Extremist, by like you said living our faith to its extreme, especially in its fundamentals!

  2. I greatly appreciate this approach to understanding who the Peacemaker is and how one can, and perhaps should, engage with interfaith work. I think all too often religious adherents get overly caught up in their particular exclusive eschatology and miss the other parts of their Scriptures that call for grace for the religious other. Thus unity in doctrine becomes more important than solidarity in the human experience. Ambivalence of the Sacred sounds like an important work–I’ll be adding it to my book list immediately!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anthony. You are right – religious adherents do get overly caught up in their exclusive eschatologies, but I believe much more is demanded from us. I know that I am not living up to the fullness of my faith and religion if doctrine is my only concern. Faith that is put into practice is ultimately what I believe God wants from us. I hope you enjoy ‘Ambivalence of the Sacred’ as much as I did. It’s been over a decade since I read it. It would probably do me much good to read it again!

  3. I appreciate your expression and openness about navigating faith in graduate studies of religion. I grew up in a very conservative Christian environment that does not accept or allow for the possibility of dialogue with people who are perceived as different. In this way, graduate school was a stretching experience for me. Although I always considered myself a welcoming person, I had no idea what it took to expand myself–my self-conception, my worldview–in order to create space for difference. I agree with you; the interfaith space is rich and deep. When religious studies makes me question my faith, interfaith camaraderie restores my hope and lends an appreciation for my own faith. In my opinion, this reviving of faith, amid peoples of other faiths, makes the peacemaking fundamentalist possible.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Hannah! I totally understand where you’re coming from. Difference was seen as something threatening when I was growing up. Whenever I asked “Why?” I was always told, “That’s what our elders taught us and we never questioned them!” And that was pertaining to matters within Islam! So when I was exposed to such questioning during grad school, it was almost shocking to me. But I do think my faith has become stronger, because now I know that it can withstand criticism. I’m glad to know you had a similar experience with interfaith! 🙂

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