Interfaith spirituality: Listen to God, hear the other

As a devout Muslim woman who is founded in Islamic education, I feel pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a spiritual experience just by listening to non-Muslim faith experiences. Often, interfaith participants say that one of the benefits of interfaith dialog is a strengthening of one’s own faith. This is true for me; not only my own faith increases when I am speaking about Islam but when I hear other people describe their own spiritual experiences as well.

Last week I surge in spirituality during an event that I attended for the second year. The Multicultural Alliance’s annual Interfaith Retreat for Seminarians is a program prepared by MCA Texas to gather seminarian students and faculty from the three faith traditions, Judaism/Christianity/Islam, for four days of dialog, learning, and compassion. This year’s theme was “Tell Me a Story” where students and faculty from eleven seminaries in Texas, California, Connecticut and Maryland listened to presentations from resource scholars who shared about what telling stories meant in each of the three faith traditions.

After each presentation the group of seminarians dispersed in pre-assigned smaller groups of five to six where they spent time discussing their reflections on the topic. Through these meetings, several people expressed deep personal experiences of faith that evoked echoes of awe throughout the room. Personally, I felt visions of God and His blessings upon His creation as I listened to each story and reinforced my own faith and hope in a better future. As a Christian woman described how her daughter one day surprised her by speaking eloquently about issues of faith, I thought about my own daughter who currently does not show any interest in religious devotion and wondered: “Could she one day grow up from the seed I had planted and surprise me by an indulgence into leaps of faith?” I also listened to a another woman’s story with her husband who was not rooted in faith, yet he was the main spiritual support system in her career as a chaplain and seminarian. She and I had lengthy discussions about how our husbands have been the major tools that God used in order to facilitate our religious missions by making them generate energy, power, and aspiration into our spirits.

Some insightful talks inspired me as a guide of how I may react if put in a similar situation in the future, of how to deal with calamity and life’s trials, or of how to deal with any kind of loss. The young Rabbi’s story of how he was hit by a truck four months before his wedding and how he meanwhile spent his time with pain and temporary disability while tending to an herb indoor garden was mesmerizing. Each one of us has at some point faced hardship and struggled with putting things on hold until one was able to get oneself together. The Rabbi’s experience is a reminder that sometimes you cannot wait for the storm to pass but you need to learn how to dance in the rain. Pain and loss are parts of life but life doesn’t stop at their doorsteps. A Christian woman who lost her husband recently was another example of how life must go on because the Giver of this life is alive. She is attending her first seminary semester and looks forward in a pastoral future despite her severe personal loss. These are examples that I personally value when I wake up every morning from now on, whether the morning is shiny or gloomy.

I shared personal stories and experiences of hope, love and peace that I felt God bestowed upon me during my journey in religious studies. I was surprised that my stories touched the hearts of the Jewish and Christian participants who found them inspiring. I received a lot of confirmation and thumbs up, encouraging me to keep going forward. All this came from people who were total strangers but who in four days became very close. So close that I realized that what they gave me could not have been given by many people who exist in my personal life and shared my Muslim faith. They gave me the spiritual and intellectual support that only people who study religion know about. Living in a secular world with a strong faith is not always easy. People don’t understand why I am keeping up with religious dietary restrictions or prayer or practices. Friends wonder why I seem so distant and unwilling to sacrifice my study time to keep a high profiled social lifestyle. Some family members complain that I don’t spend enough time with them or that I don’t give them enough attention…

Interfaith dialogs are like a savings account: the more you put in them the more you will end up with. And if you sincerely bring God to these conversations you will discover God in new ways. Very few people realize this theology of interfaith but for those of us who know it we can’t live without it. It is our support system. This seminarian retreat has become my spiritual treat and refuge thanks to my Jewish, Christian and Muslim interlocutors who gift me with finding God by listening to their stories.

About Dina Malki

I am a Muslim American who has lived in the same zip code for almost 23 years. That being said, I travel nationally and internationally very frequently as I am pursuing my interest in interfaith relations. I am currently pursuing a Masters degree from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. My specialty is in Islamic Studies and Christian Muslim Relations. My thesis is about the theological narrative and the image of Ishmael in Judaism and Christianity. I teach through continuing education programs classes on Islam at TCU in Texas. I speak and present Islam in different places and events, like at churches and synaguogues, seminars, conferences and interfaith retreats. I am also a writer who focuses on Islam in America. I have covered Islam in Dallas at the examiner.com for three years. I am a contributing scholar at the Stateofformation.org. My passion is religion which I believe is a source and tool of compassion. I respect religious tradition in Islam, but I also value academic scholarship in the field. My interpretation of Islam is one that supports peace, tolerance, and co-existence among people. I have a special interest in the legacy of women in Islam. Yes! You read right, women in Islam have a legacy. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised when you read my thoughts on paper. Grayson and I met at the Hartford Seminary during a workshop on religious diversity. We found that we shared in common our interests in the field of Christian-Muslim relations. Hence, we decided to build a bridge of communication that connects Christendom and Islamdom in America. Our hope is that our conversations will educate and inspire our readers.

4 thoughts on “Interfaith spirituality: Listen to God, hear the other

  1. Dina, in reading your post, my thoughts go back to the very first class about Islam that I took in Georgetown’s master’s program. It was taught by a devout Jesuit Catholic who was just amazingly knowledgeable about Islam and quite passionate about it as well. I found it hard to understand how one could be of one faith and feel passionately about another faith when the basic beliefs of the two faiths do not coincide.

    After class one evening, I asked him how he reconciled the beliefs of the two faiths when, obviously as a Christian, he did not believe everything that Islam teaches. He said it should not be one’s goal to reconcile beliefs. There will be differences in beliefs – that is part of the beauty of faith diversity. He further instructed me that, first, one has to be very grounded in their own faith to venture into any field that deals with relationships between faith groups. If one is not grounded in their own faith, they bring nothing to the table. Secondly, he believed that he learned just as much about spirituality studying Islam as he does practicing his Catholic faith.

    This is what I find fascinating about interfaith dialog. I do believe that I can learn quite a bit interacting with members of other faith groups. I cannot put God in the small box that is my particular understanding of spirituality. Spirituality is as diverse as mankind is and I believe we learn from that diversity by reaching out beyond the faith “box” that we are in.

  2. You are right, Grayson. Only people who are grounded in their own faith can participate in interfaith. What does tell us about the majority of people who unfortunately don’t engage? I can speak about Muslims and I truly believe that most Muslims around the world suffer from religious illiteracy. Knowing how to pray and fast and dress “Muslim” does not necessarily mean they are following the ethical teachings of religion and the model of Prophet Muhammad. In order to fight religious extremism and encourage interfaith coexistence, I think faith communities need to learn the religion first (the proper way).

    1. That brings up a very interesting point to me. I have always wondered about the lack of a “pope” in the evangelical Christian church as well as among Muslims. I know that, among evangelicals, there are a wide variety of beliefs that are not always grounded well in scripture. Yet, there is no authority among evangelicals to discount these beliefs. I am curious if the same holds true in Islam.

      1. It is the same in Islam. There is no leading authority that all 1.5 billion Muslims follow, like in the case of the Pope and the Catholics. However, diversity in religious opinions and evaluations is considered to be mercy for Muslims. A Muslim can have a question about a religious practice and s/he can consent generally four different opinion schools in Suni Islam for example. Sometimes all four schools agree on one rulings but most often they differ. In that case, carrying out the obligation of the ruling doesn’t become a burden upon the Muslim (this is helpful in case of hard religious rulings that people can really not afford to do.)

        As for Muslim practices not grounded in scripture, this one too is common in Islamic culture. Some practices and beliefs were born out of cultural habits and over time they became mistaken for religious beliefs. Muslim legal scholars have developed a methodology that brings all issues back to the roots of scripture. Qur’an is the first and foremost source of legislature. Then the Hadith comes with a lot of weight. Then the consensus of the scholars and methods of analogy.

        Some Muslim clerics have misinterpreted the works of the scholars and scripture and have followed rulings that are not situated in scripture, thus not situated in traditional Islam. Out of such instances comes religious extremism.

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