Two Religions - One God (or My Souvenir from Egypt)
While I live in a city that has the fourth-largest Muslim population in the U.S., I have never had a Muslim friend or acquaintance. Until recently, my exposure to the Muslim faith has consisted primarily in media coverage of violence and repression perpetuated by radical Islamic extremists. When this is all the exposure there is to a world religion, one might wonder if there is something inherently wrong with the religion itself.
I know this is as unjust as the notion that Catholicism equates to sex abuse. Just as Catholics are sickened by these actions, most Muslims abhor acts perpetuated by individuals and groups who cloak their violence within the folds of the Muslim faith. On a recent trip to Egypt, I met many Muslims.
One in particular – Nancy a tour guide in Alexandria - had a profound impact upon me. As fluent in English as she is in the Greco-Roman history of her native city, she is also a practicing Muslim who covers her hair with a hijab.
Once Nancy knew that I took my religion seriously, a friendship budded between us. We both believe in the One God, and as Nancy explained, the hijab she wears is for her a sign of her faith.
It occurred to me that, for Nancy, the hijab is similar to the cross a Christian woman might wear as a symbol of her faith.
When I remarked that I envied the idea of not having to deal with my hair all day, Nancy assured me that underneath the hijabs, there was plenty of colored and highlighted hair, it just comes out at home.
My eyes were opened to the fashion parade passing by in the larger cities of Egypt. Lovely silk scarves tied in a variety of ways, along with women in full make-up, pants, skirts, and blouses.
When we asked Nancy to alter our tour to visit a mosque and a Coptic Christian church, she added a suggestion of her own. As a tour guide, she was familiar with Coptic churches, but not the Roman Catholic church and, while anyone can enter a mosque in Alexandria, due to security reasons, Muslims are not allowed in Christian churches unless accompanied by a Christian. Nancy suggested that we go to a mosque where she could answer my questions, and then go to the Roman Catholic church where I could answer hers.
It was time for mid-day prayer when we reached Abu al-Abbas Mosque in central Alexandria. My husband used the men’s entrance.
Nancy and I used the women’s entrance. The atmosphere was peaceful, and I felt surprisingly comfortable. We sat against the back wall and chatted quietly. A stack of well used copies of the Holy Koran lined the wall next to us. Women who were unable to kneel sat in plastic chairs close to the wooden screen that divided the women’s and men’s sections.
Then the Imam began to chant the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. The tones reverberated throughout the mosque like Gregorian chant echoing through a cathedral. Nancy whispered a translation into my ear. “God is Great. There is no god except the One God. Muhammad is the messenger of God. My eyes filled with tears at this pronouncement of faith – as simple and clear as “Abba, Father,” or “Here, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Our next stop was St. Catherine Roman Catholic Cathedral.
Nancy had heard of confessionals and wanted to see one. Earlier she had mentioned that Muslims wash their face and hands before prayer. I suggested that confession was similar in that Catholics do not want to receive the Eucharist if we feel unclean on the inside.
Her eyes caught two mosaics. The first depicted five small loaves of bread and two fish. The second depicted a grain of wheat and a chalice of wine. Nancy had heard about the bread and the wine, but why the fish? I found myself telling the story of the feeding of the 5,000 to a Muslim woman who was hearing it for the first time.
The enormity of the moment swept over me. Here I was, preaching the Good News in Alexandria, where Christianity goes back to 49 CE and St. Mark. I explained how Jesus fed the multitudes that day, and then turned to the second mosaic with the wheat and chalice and said that this is how he feeds the multitudes today.
Does seeing similarities between Nancy’s religion and mine mean that our two religions are basically the same? Clearly, not. While both are grounded in experiences of the sacred, they are as different as the cultures and histories that shaped them. The corker is that opening myself up to understanding the religion of Islam, ended up enriching my experience of my own religion.
Maya Angelou wrote, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” Nancy and I embraced when we left one another.
On our return home, our cab driver happened to be a Muslim from Bangladesh. We talked about the call to prayer and once again, he translated it for us. I miss hearing it ring out throughout the day, reminding everyone that it is time to pray.