I, Thou, Us: An Odyssey of a Muslim Seminarian

A number of people have asked me about my reasons for studying at a seminary. There is always the implicit recognition of my unique vista of being a Muslim student at a Christian seminary. I have finally decided to write something down about my journey i.e., how a practicing Muslim ended up studying Christian Theology at the Lutheran Seminary. The following essay is a modified version of the essay that I wrote as part of the Faith Statement as part of my application for admission to Luther Seminary. I am thankful to Pastor Kate for patiently listening to my semi-coherent outpourings like these. I have always felt comfortable talking to her about questions of significance. Hopefully she did not always think that I was that annoying kid that shows up unannounced every so often.

“…and nearest among them in love to the believers (Muslims) will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (Qur’an 5:82)

The Jewish Theologian Martin Buber observed that people are defined by their relationships with others. Believers of almost all religions would say that the most fundamental relationship that one has is one’s relationship with God. While they may disagree on God, believers and non-believers would agree that our relationships with one another make us who we are. In other words this is how the I is constructed. However with the I comes ‘us’ but for there to be an ‘us’ there ought to be ‘them’, the proverbial ‘other.’ The problem with the ‘other’ is that in general people tend to ascribe all positive values and actions to one’s own group and negative values and associations to others. I have observed this phenomenon among Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists etc where a people is otherized and written off. Indeed one of the biggest challenges in life is to live peacefully with the other, where the other is not merely an individual but a people. This challenge is nowhere more pronounced than with respect to the religious other. The famous Orientalist Bernard Lewis notes that most of the medieval polemics involving Christians and Muslims usually involved comparing the theory of one religion with the practice of the other religion. The same practice continues to the present day and, Muslims and Christians are not the only ones who are guilty of this mental crime. Just as it is easier to be a saint in a cave than to be a saint amongst people, it is also much easier to be a saint amongst people who are like oneself than to be a saint amongst people who are different from oneself. This was the problem that set me to the current route.

It was once thought that the greater connectivity afforded by the information age will translate into greater understanding amongst people but such an understanding never materialized. People are too busy to spend time and effort to understand one another with the result that each one of us walks around with tunnel vision. For most of us, we think that the landscape of our weltanschauung is a well-groomed gated-community but in really it is a self-centered intellectual ghetto whether it is ethnic, religious, philosophical or even scientific. The intellectual ghettos of the mind breed ignorance which in turn breeds prejudice. The final stop of this train is more often than not hatred. Secondly when people are exposed to only one way of life i.e., their way of life then they are more likely to think that theirs is the only mode of being and there is something fundamentally wrong with anyone who cannot see that that is the case. I have seen this numerous times in so many communities and traditions. These are the pitfalls that I want to avoid for myself and for others. That is why I think it is important for people from one tradition to understand the perspective of people from other traditions. Thus the question that I have set out to address is “What does it mean to be a Christian?” while being firmly grounded in my own tradition. It affords me a vantage point to defend Christians and see them as brethren without having to agree with them. One person who helped me greatly understand this concept is Scott Alexander who is a Catholic priest and the director of Islamic Studies at the Catholic Theological Seminary in Chicago. Scott has done an excellent job in trying to understand Islam from the inside while still being true to his faith. My effort is to emulate Scott but do it as a Muslim and in the opposite direction.

Faith and religion are multi-dimensional concepts which are tied to many things that are core signifiers in the lives of people in general: meaning of life, a sense of community and belonging, coping mechanism etc. These questions are important regardless of the ontological reality of truth claims made by specific religions. A core component that binds many of these aspects together is religion as lived experience and part of my journey in faith has been this quest to understand what this lived experience is, not just for me but what does it mean for other people who come from different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, non-theists etc. In short this amounts to not denying the lived realities of other people without agreeing with them or compromising one’s principles. The effervescence of bewildering varieties of human faiths and sects is a manifestation of God’s will in history. That does not mean that all of these are correct. One only has to acknowledge that others have these views and their lives revolve around these views. Disparaging them will not get one anywhere.  I should add that one does not have to be a perennialist or universalist to hold this viewpoint. All that is required is that one recognizes that the differences between people exist and will continue to exist; one should just make peace with this point. This point is well illustrated in the following verse of the Qur’an “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.” Qur’an 49:13

For me Faith is intertwined with the human condition; it is the recognition of the goodness inherent in all people but it is also the recognition of the capacity of people to harm each other and themselves. This capacity to harm others and ourselves applies to us not just as individuals but also as a people. Thus one of the most important tasks that befalls upon us as believers and non-believers is this recognition that our community can also go wrong, that we as a people are not upholding the spirit of humanity that we claim to hold dear. While one can cultivate humility within oneself, the question that one has to ask oneself is, can one also cultivate humility towards and for one own community. This recognition is crucial because I strongly urge as people of various traditions including my own who are concerned by the well-being of humanity that we should recognize that within our respective traditions there are strong currents of exclusivity which have as much right to claim their legitimacy as part of our traditions as the more ecumenical traditions have such a right. By exclusivity I do not mean exclusivity in one’s theory of salvation but in one’s assigning humanity to others. Not only do we have to live with these counter currents but we also need to learn how to manage such currents. The paradox of universality vs. exclusivity is especially prominent for the two major Abrahamic religions which claim a universal mission while at the same time also divide the world into believers and non-believers. That is part of my journey of faith – overcoming the tendency to otherize and recognize one’s own distinctiveness and the distinctiveness of the other. If one has seen the other live a moral life and be concerned about the world as oneself is then one can recognize that while it is our faiths that separate us into different categories these categories of difference are still categories of people. The recognition that we are brothers and sisters in humanity is elusive because our parochialism comes in the way of limiting the size of the circle which defines us vs. them. Someone once said to me that no matter how we draw this circle, God will always find ways to enlarge this circle to include people that we did not include. This is something that I want to overcome over the course of my stay at Luther. Erwin Markham puts this philosophy well in the following verses:

He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

I reckon that is easy to make claims about brotherhood and humanity but it is much difficult to live them. Thus I have asked myself repeatedly, have I ever tried to live this maxim? This brings me back to the question that I set out to address in this essay- why study in a seminary. The aim is thus to understand a particular branch of Christianity as a lived experience. When I started the program believed that it would help me become a better person and a better Muslim. The time that I have spent at the seminary has indeed made me more conscious of the humanness of other people, and that indeed is the message of Islam. This point is beautifully summarized by Ali the cousin of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “Every man is your brother. He is either your brother in faith or your brother in humanity.” To be someone’s brother means that one has some idea about what it means to walk in their shoes. I believe that the path to finding this brotherhood is the path to peace. This is what I aspire to do and why I am at Luther. One has to overcome oneself to find peace, the road to peace of the inner and outer variety comes from within; I am usually reminded of the following verse from the Bible, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

What I have said previously is applicable to not just Muslims or Christians but to the myriad arrays of belief systems, religions, sects and sub-sects. Given the history and belief distributions of the world, it also implies that most of us are likely wrong in our beliefs. As a consequence we may never agree on our theologies but my hope is that we will make an effort to understand one another; that even when we find things in other traditions which we do not make sense to us, we will not write off other people as stupid or lacking in intelligence – the highway to violence is paved with lanes of dehumanization. I do not hold illusions that my efforts will make many positive changes in the world but what I do hope is that even if it can make one person whether it is Muslim, Christian or otherwise to look at the other differently then I would consider my effort to be successful. At the end of the day it is the effort that matters and that is how we will be judged. Success is only through God. If at the very least we reach out to each other as people then we have would have achieved something great. The reality of opposition to our efforts would be secondary and dare I say even the ultimate success of our efforts would be secondary. The following saying of Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), sums up my philosophy quite well, “Be like the flower that gives its scent even to the hand that crushes it.”

Ludwig Feuerbach observed that Theology is Anthropology. On one hand I acknowledge that this statement encompasses oceans of insights but simultaneously I acknowledge that it does not necessarily imply the non-existence of the transcendent. It is the recognition that every person, no matters how fundamentally different they are from us, are holy at some fundamental level. This is the meaning of imago dei, this is the message of Jesus (peace be upon him) and the message of Muhammad (peace be upon him). I do not think that what I am doing at the Seminary is novel or unique. It is the continuation of a long tradition of Muslim thinkers studying other traditions with an open mind, with figures like Al-Beruni, Liu Zhi, Mirza Mazhar etc. One of my favorite verses from the New Testament which summarizes many of efforts and goals not just at Lutheran Seminary but in general and what faith means is the following: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” – Luke 17:21

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2 responses to “I, Thou, Us: An Odyssey of a Muslim Seminarian

  1. Pingback: I, Thou, Us: An Odyssey of a Muslim Seminarian « Being The Change·

  2. Pingback: I, Thou, Us: An Odyssey of a Muslim Seminarian | Voices of Reasoning·

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