Building BridgesWhat kind of an impression do Christians leave with someone from another religion? A revealing interview gives insight into what it looks like from the other side.
Dijla Al-Rekabit is a young woman, graduating in Linguistics and Sociology from the University of Calgary, who spent six years of her adolescence in a refugee camp near the Iraqi border following the 1991 Gulf War before emigrating to Canada with her parents and siblings.
I … "tolerate" certain types of actions … from one group but reject them from the other.
As a Muslim woman do you have many Christian friends in Canada?
Yes, in fact I have more Christian friends than Muslim friends in Canada. This can be explained in two ways: First, when we came to Canada, we lived in a Christian neighbourhood in Calgary and we had established good relationships with those neighbours. The second factor is when I started going to the university the majority of the people I went to classes with shared the same interests.
Do you relate differently to Christian friends compared to Muslim friends?
My first thought when reading the question was that I don't. However, when considering the question more closely, I've realized that I do relate to them differently. For example, I appreciate, accept, respect, and "tolerate" certain types of actions, attitudes and characteristics for one group but reject it for the other. To be clear, knowing that they have different culture and to some extent different religion, I have no problem listening to a Christian friend talking about the fun they had at the bar, commenting on pre-marital sex experiences, wearing clothes that expose much of their bodies … etc., but if I were to hear the same thing from a Muslim friend, I would tend to be very judgmental and I may cease to respect that person for I share a similar culture and religion with them and I know that these actions would pose violations to the religion. Over the years, I've become aware of how important it is to have friends. But to me what makes someone a friend is their ability to make a difference, to be there for moral and ethical support and to appreciate their communities, families and respect and recognize the presence of God. However, there are times when I choose to step out of some people's lives if I realize that these values are not expressed.
How do you respond if someone tries to convert you to the Christian faith?
There have been few occasions of this type. My answer to those attempts has always been the same "You can always tell me how wonderful any religion is including Islam. You can also convince me that God truly exists in some religions but not in others, but you can never teach me how to experience the presence of God. I believe that I will continue to perceive, experience, and relate to God the same way when being Muslim, Christian or Jew." In fact, being a Muslim, I already believe in and recognize the existence of both Christianity and Judaism and incorporate them in my faith and this is a very crucial thing in Islam. If I decide to deny the validity of either religion I wouldn't be a follower of the Islamic faith and this is clearly stated in the Qura'an.
Have you tried to convince people to become Muslim?
We do not generally try to convert others. There were three occasions when three individuals (guys) approached me and asked me to help them convert to Islam. When I asked for the reason, the answer was that they liked me and would like to be with me, but knowing that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim, they decided to change their religion. I would have no problem assisting those people to convert to my faith, but I refused their suits. I asked each if he would still be interested in continuing with the faith of Islam if I decided not to marry him even after he converted to my faith. Each answered "Why would I convert; I'm interested in you; not in the religion … "
What are the main similarities between Islam and Christianity?
I believe that our two religions have much in common:
1. they worship the same God; who Muslims refer to as Allah;
2. they both believe in many of the same prophets including Abraham, the founding father;
3. they share the same story of creation;
4. they have a specific day that's considered to be holy for attending either the church or the mosque;
5. they value our humanity, care for the disadvantaged, personal morality and high ethical standards.
In Iraq we had a number of Christian friends and, with a shared culture, the similarities between the two groups are even more obvious than those in Canada.
Where do those similarities come from?
In the Qura'an, there is a great deal of reference of those similarities. Also, early on when Islam started, in Arabia, the prophet, as a way of protection, advised his follower to escape Arabia and seek refuge in Al-Habbasha, which is part of Africa. Al-Habbasha at that time was ruled by a Christian King. When the followers of the new religion arrived in that place, the king asked them, "Why did Muhammed send you to me?" They replied, "Because you are Christian; your belief in God obligates you to protect us." Muhammed said "Go to Al-Habbasha for there is a king from the people of the Book, who treats no one with injustice." After the king asked those followers some questions about the new religion in Arabia, using his cross-cane he drew a line between him and the followers and said, "I swear to God if there is any difference between our religion and yours it would be no more significant than this line."
What are the main differences?
Today both groups have deviated a lot from the view of the King of Habbasha, and instead of focusing on the area beyond the defining line between the two groups where the similarities reside, our attention is so much drawn on the line itself and we see nothing but it. Being a Muslim, I see the major differences between the two religions as follows:
Some Christians have deviated from considering the Bible to be their way of life …
1. Christians consider Jesus to be Son of God; whereas Muslims consider Him to be a prophet from God just like previous prophets, and Muhammed.
2. Some Christians believe that Jesus sacrificed His life for the people, and that He was crucified. Muslims don't believe that He was crucified but that He was raised to the upper world and He shall return prior to the Judgment day. He and the Mandi, a Muslim figure, will descended from God again to make the world a better place and fill it with peace and justice.
3. Some Christians have deviated from considering the Bible to be their way of life into making following the teachings of God and His prophets as a personal choice or a commodity to be consumed or not and so have some Muslims.
However, sometimes Muslims or Christians fail to differentiate between legitimate differences and reinforced stereotypes. I had a very powerful experience with that back in 1999 in school. In one of my classes the professor had some issues with Muslims and he not only started passing those negative comments, but also he encouraged certain hidden prejudices within some people to surface and be alive, including:
1. Muslims marry their first cousin resulting in handicapped children.
2. Muslim women aren't allowed to leave their houses, vote, or get education.
3. Muslims are asked to fast for 30 days because people in Arabia before the arrival of Islam used to be fat and dirty. They were asked to wash their faces, hands, and feet before praying and they were asked to fast to get rid of the extra weight.
4. Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four women.
5. If you don't like the way we do it in Canada, "get the hell out of here."
These comments and many others were passed on in a well-recognized educational institution illustrating ignorance and prejudice. Freedom of speech didn't apply to me at that time for I had just finished my E.S.L classes. When I tried to give any explanation to those comments the class started laughing or chose to be silent, "I simply laugh because you don't speak good English" said a classmate.
How I reacted to that situation is something that's still alive in my memory, I left the class, and I shut the door behind me saying, "I hate Christians. I hate whites." As a result of that I stopped having contact with my Christian friends at that time, and I also stopped going to school for about a year. Even when I went back, I attended my classes irregularly. I never allowed myself to be working on class projects with any of the Christian or white students. I also tried to convince myself that everyone is like those people. But with time I realized that I myself had deviated from the sacred way of Allah and of King Al-Habbasha, I realized what happened was nothing but a bad experience.
… we must focus on what's … our common heritage and common humanity.
How can we overcome the differences?
As I said, don't focus at the differentiating line. Instead, we must focus on what's beyond that — our common heritage and common humanity. Also, allow ourselves to be affected by the views of others just as much as we'd like to affect them with our own views. Allow ourselves to experience their way of life, concerns, and challenges as much as we'd like them to experience our way.
Is peace possible between the Islamic and the Christian worlds?
This question has answered itself a long time ago with a definite "yes" response. I've seen it in Iraq before, where Christians and Muslims lived in peace. Also look at Palestine where it is amazing how the two religions continued to coexist side by side with each other over time.
Dr. David Swann is Literary Editor of FOCUS Magazine. He lives and works in Calgary as a public health specialist in southern Alberta.
Originally published in Focus, October 2004.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 Christianity.ca.