Learning from Differences

This is a piece I wrote ten years ago, when I was still studying in Texas. I just thought it would still matter today.

When Katrine, a classmate in my Literary Scholarship class, emailed me and invited me to her book club to talk about Islam, the religion I have known since I was born, I asked myself, “Am I the right person for this, is my knowledge of it sufficient to make me a representative of the its greatness?” I am away from home, and the political situation of the world is not conducive, plus I would have to talk about Islam before an American audience. Would it not be too sensitive? However, I did not give it a second thought, so I said yes.

The book club discussion I was going to attend was scheduled to talk about a book written by Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. The book unfolds a journey of a truth seeker, one who has long been troubled by conflicts between groups that use religion to justify their actions. In a very interesting narrative style, the author, an American Jew (or a Jewish American), found the figure of Abraham (the Prophet Ibrahim Allaihissalam in Islam) as the unifying figure in the history of monotheistic traditions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The thought brought him back to his ancestral place, Jerusalem, which is considered a holy city by the three monotheistic religions. This is a place in which the religious life is colored with harmony and sentiment at the same time. In details, the book is quite troubling to me, and there are a number of points I cannot agree. However, the message is amazingly clear, that it is much better to reach agreement on the commonalities than to let conflicts go on due to the differences we have been arguing for so long.

I drowned myself in books on comparative religions and tried to make full use of the internet for almost a week. To get better prepared, I even carefully checked the Holy Qur’an to find the verses that tell about prophet Ibrahim, Musa (Moses), Isa (Jesus) and Muhammad. I called friends and relatives whom I consider more knowledgeable about the Qur’an, and I really anticipated to get some sensitive questions. But I finally decided to just “speak and act normally” and tried to do my best. So I went, armed with my Qur’an, the interpretation of the Qur’an in English, my praying mat, and praying gown. Katrine told me earlier that the members of the club had never seen what the Qur’an looked like and how a Muslim performed a prayer.

Never imagine that the forum I was about to attend would be an academic forum. It is “simply” a book club of about 35 women, although fewer really attended that afternoon. All of them belong to the high class of the society. Well, I just found out about this when Katrine and I reached the hostess’ residence in the southwestern part of Austin. I would not call it a house, but rather a mansion–Hollywood-like. It is located at side of a cliff, with a stunning view of a forest and luxurious houses, and a creek flowing down the valley. To be honest, I had never been in such a beautiful house before. One by one, the members arrived. They are beautiful ladies, casually yet classy dressed. (This reminded me of those celebrities we often see on TV). I smiled to myself as I looked at what I was wearing that afternoon. Compared to them, I looked so simple in a flowered blouse, a white veil, and black pants I often wore in class to teach, not to mention my sport shoes that did not match at all. Thank God I did not wear a T-shirt, otherwise I would have embarrassed myself.

Deep inside I asked myself. Who are these beautiful ladies? Through our conversation and discussion I began to know who they were. To borrow Katrine’s words, “they come from various walks of life.” I had a chance to speak with Joanne, who earned her PhD in American Studies from UT Austin. I sat next to a lady whose husband is an executive at IBM, and there are some who know President Bush’s family personally. This is really amazing. Don’t get it wrong though. They are very friendly and down-to-earth. Katrine, my classmate, is so friendly, and she drove all the way from Austin to San Marcos, and took me back home. I just knew also that she is a successful businesswoman, and her husband is an executive who takes care of Lake Austin management. I was actually surprised when we dropped by at her husband’s office at the side of Lake Austin. At that point, I was still in the stage of hoping to be able to see the lake. Pak Joko, the chairman of the English Department at Surabaya State University, where I teach, recommended this place before I left for the US, and he himself spent almost 2 years studying at UT. What about the other members? In general, I have to say I really felt comfortable among them. I could feel their sincerity as they were asking me about myself, my family and my beloved country, Indonesia.

The discussion finally started, and Katrine opened the talk and introduced me, and mentioned that Indonesia is a country with the biggest muslim population in the world (I was not really surprised to see that everybody was surprised). Then she invited everybody to ask and comment on the book. Guess what happened? In about an hour I was bombarded with various questions about Islam from the very basic things. There was huge curiosity about my belief in the Hereafter, how a prayer is performed, why there should be a separation between men and women in prayers, whether the Qur’an sets an obligation for Muslim women to wear veils, how we communicate with God, whether Islam believed in reincarnation. There were also questions concerning the book we were discussing, such as how Islam views Ibrahim, Musa, Jesus, and how Muslims believe that prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the seal of the prophets. Of course, I expected people to ask about terrorism and jihad from Islamic point of view.

An hour was just too short to satisfy everybody, but I tried my best to explain the basic concept of Islam, the Five Pillars of Islam and the Six Beliefs. It was not that easy to explain when it comes to religious differences, but I just thought I had to be frank and honest. For example, Jesus is considered one of Islam’s greatest prophets, but he is not the Son of God. He is just a Messenger of God, just like the other prophets. Also, Muslims believe that it was Ismail, not Isaac, who was sacrificed by prophet Ibrahim. There was also a troubling question: “If I die tomorrow as a non-muslim, will I go to hell?” Hmm, that was tough. I told them that Islam requires not only faith in the Oneness of God, but also the implementation of the faith in everyday lives. We should pray, observe fasting, and maintain good relationship with other people. Or, let’s say that as a Muslim, I believe that Islam is the true path, and the rest of us would see their religion that way too. However, only God can judge whether somebody would go to heaven or hell, and no single person could judge others’ deeds. As a human being, we have an obligation to really seek the truth and follow it steadfastly. That way only can we find peace and hope for eternal happiness in the Afterlife. A lady sitting next to me said, ”Gee, that’s scary to talk about death.” Well, it is just so natural to think of death as a frightening moment. All I can say is that, in relation to the topic of the day, prophet Ibrahim has taught us to submit totally to God and to be willing to sacrifice what we have for God’s cause. As the grandchildren of Ibrahim, we should follow his teaching, and the Qur’an itself says that God commanded prophet Muhammad to teach us to follow the teachings of prophet Ibrahim. This is much better than quarrelling about who was sacrificed, Isaac or Ismail?

Concerning the five-time prayers or shalat, some comments were brought up. “So you don’t get to rest?,” “it is really a good way of teaching about discipline,” “can Muslims leave shalat?,” “do you perform those prayers too?,” and “are there Muslims who do not pray?” Those were common questions, and I totally understand. Even in lectures given in mosques, the ulama (muslim scholars) keep reminding people never to leave shalat. I was even asked to show them an example of shalat performance, what to say during the prayer. I showed them the Qur’an and read the translation of the opening chapter of the Qur’an, Sura Al-Fatihah. When I was performing the prayer, I had to wear my praying gown (mukena), and this invited a question, “do men also wear mukena to pray?,” “if not, why?” At this point too, I was very touched when a lady, who apparently studies the Bible a lot, and whose babysitter is a muslim, said that being close to God and keeping our remembrance of God every day will really bring peace to our life.

Islam, jihad, and terrorism? Why were there people who committed suicide bombing and used religion for justification? This is a question that has been frequently brought up since the 9/11 attack. Yet, this is the world we are living now, and many of us still have problems understanding it. Neither do I. I never intended to take side, and reminded them of the Crusades that took place with more or less the same reason. I personally believe that jihad does not necessarily mean killing others to defend our faith. I happened to bring a book called A brief and illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam. This simple book mentions that Islam condemns terrorism, and those involved in it will be punished in the Afterlife for having killed innocent people, because they have violated Islamic law. I was not sure whether my answer satisfied everybody present in the discussion, but I just tried to make a point that jihad actually means we attempt to spread the message of Islam peacefully and never force others in matters of religion. Chapter two of the Qur’an, Sura Al-Baqarah: 256 mentions that there should be no compulsion in religion. I specifically said this when somebody asked me about the existence of missionaries in Islam.

Our interesting dialog was not a dialog on theology. Somehow, everybody had already anticipated that differences in religious concepts would appear (Unfortunately, we did not have a representative of Judaism). After the discussion was over, some stayed a little longer and continued the discussion. A lady told me about the concept of God in Christianity, and asked whether the Qur’an was written by people just as the Bible was written by some apostles. She found it interesting to know that there is only one Qur’an written in Arabic, revealed by God to Muhammad. The content has remained the same for 14 centuries, since the time it was revealed, and it is the Muslim’s obligation to understand the meaning.

I totally understand that our dialog is nothing compared to those interfaith dialogs conducted by scholars of different religions in the aftermath of 9/11. However, I was glad to know that those present in the discussion felt that they gained more understanding of Islam. I felt their sincerity to accept the fact that, indeed, there are differences. Their enthusiasm has taught me that understanding can be gained through our efforts to know about the differences.

When everybody thanked me, I was really touched. They should have known that I was the one who had to thank them. I was really grateful to have been given such a wonderful opportunity to share ideas with them. As I looked back to my country, I was reminded of our way of life, or rather, my way of life, how we have taken so many things for granted. Have we ever asked ourselves whether we really seek the truth from the main source, our Holy Qur’an? I don’t think so. After all, everybody knows how to pray, and even our non-Muslim neighbors are familiar the adzan, the call to prayer sent from a nearby mosque five times a day. Or, have we grown insensitive and not realized that difference could actually be discussed? We have not really talked about differences, have we, because we tend to avoid conflict? When I can no longer hear the adzan from a nearby mosque, when people begin to give me a lot of “whys” about Islam, I realized that I really have to look inside myself before I can make people understand what I believe.

I am not a public figure. I am just a struggling graduate student, still trying hard to manage my soul and mind. I may not represent the majority of Muslims in my country, and maybe, my new friends I just met in the discussion are not really the representatives of America. But, at least, we have learned to listen to each other, ask each other, and hopefully can understand each other better. The fact that there are differences actually has taught us: we agree to disagree. What a beautiful earth it will be if only differences can bring us close together. Does everybody feel the same way too?


San Marcos, TX; January 9, 2003

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