I’m on the steering committee for the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston’s Women’s Gathering events. These events are pretty much what they sound like – gatherings where women of different faiths get together for dinner and discussion of selected topics. Each one is hosted by a different house of worship.When I got involved with this event, about a year or so ago, I had a lot of trepidation because I hadn’t really done any one-on-one formal activities with people from other faiths – I had mostly been involved with open houses held at our mosque which consisted primarily of one-sided talks where we explained Islam to our guests.
The first women’s gathering I went to was held at a Jain temple. During one of the first planning meetings, representatives from the temple took a minute to explain their religion to us. Jains, they told us, worship idols. That gave me pause, to say the least, as Islam strictly forbids worshipping anything except Allah – and of course worshipping a statue or picture is completely prohibited. How would I get along with women whose faith was essentially the antithesis of what I believe in? Precisely what worried me was nebulous – was I afraid their polytheism would rub off on me, that they would dilute my monotheism? Did it seem impossible for people of such different faiths to get along? I think part of it had to do with a convert’s zeal – I am so devoted to the idea of “tawheed” – the oneness of God – that it was difficult for me to think of non-monotheistic worshippers as people I could find a way to deal with – to accept? Perhaps even to tolerate?
Compounding my concern was the question raised by some of my fellow Muslims about the propriety of going to a house of worship other than Jews’ or Christians’. To be sure I was doing the right thing, I got opinions from both a well-respected Sheikh and the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, which both indicated that it was permissible if it was for a good reason (such as da’wah) and as long as a Muslim didn’t participate in any non-Muslim worship activities.The gathering at the Jain temple went well. There were displays in the entryway explaining the basics of Jain belief. A member of the congregation provided a yoga presentation, inviting the guests to join in with her (I did not). A group of young girls did a traditional dance in intricate costumes. Two knowledgeable women then discussed the basics of Jain theology and read some scriptures, and then there was a question and answer session.
There were only three or four Muslim women there, including me. During the Q&A, one of them asked, “Are your holy books revealed?” I understood her question but it struck me as oddly challenging. Based on their content and their history, the Jain scriptures clearly were not among those revealed to God according to Islamic belief. So asking if the book of Jainism was a revealed book was like asking if an apple was an orange. They are so different there was no way to answer their question. Different deities, different means of receiving the scriptures, different practices, etc.
And then it struck me that an interfaith activity requires willingness to accept that even though you believe that an apple is the only fruit worth eating, there are oranges in this world and some people will always eat oranges and reject apples, no matter how delicious you describe apples’ taste. And you have the right to expect that others will allow you to pass up their fruit and not be offended. As a guest at an interfaith function I had to accept that Jains do not believe in God, nor holy books, nor holy messengers, nor anything I believed in. But it was not the place or time for me to challenge them. I was doing da’wah just by being there.
After dinner, the bell rang for the Jain prayer, and most of the guests went into the prayer hall to watch the Jains worship their idols. I politely declined and left. I got in my car and realized that my belief in tawheed was intact and I was still a believing Muslim – learning about Jainism hadn’t hurt me at all. And then I realized that that was all I had done – learned. The Jains were eager to share their beliefs and had planned a program designed to do that – which is exactly what we Muslims do at our open houses. We simply want others to understand us. So did they.
I left the event feeling having learned something beyond the “let’s all live in peace” rhetoric. As believers we are like apples and oranges, but as people we are the same. We don’t have to be best friends; we just have to be good neighbors.
OK, now the plug: The Islamic Society of Greater Houston will be hosting the next gathering, tentatively scheduled for the evening of April 12 insha Allah, so any Houston-area female readers – of any faith – are welcome to attend. Click here for more details.