Monday, February 27, 2012

Abraham's Tent

I wrote this essay about 6 years ago, my last semester in college. I wrote it for the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, a very prestigious essay contest, and it made it into the top 50 essays. Which, considering there were over 3,000 submissions was pretty good, even if it didn't win. I later won 2nd place in a BYU Studies essay contest for it and had it published there. I really had a "fire in my bones" to get this written and it took a little piece of my soul to do it. Today I read this post and I felt prompted to share my experience. I wish this message could be shouted from the tops of the house tops (or at least the UN) because we live in a world that SO needs it.


A Rabbi asked a man how he could tell when the night was over and a new day had begun. The man replied, “When you look into the East and can distinguish a sheep from a goat, then you know the night is over and the day has begun.” The man then asked the Rabbi how he could tell that the night was over and the day had begun. The Rabbi thought for awhile and said, “When you look into the East and see the face of a woman and can say ‘she is my sister,’ and when you can look into the East and see the face of man and say, ‘he is my brother,’ then you know that the light of a new day has come. 1

The light of a new day is dawning. I know because I can see it. The light isn’t strong yet but I am beginning to feel its warmth and I as I look toward the East I can see the face of my sister. Her name is Noor.

It may seem strange to claim Noor as my sister; we certainly don’t share any of the qualities that normal sisters would share. She is Arab; I am American. She is Muslim; I am Mormon. She speaks Arabic; I speak English. She wears the hijab; I wear the garments of my faith. She’s never eaten waffles; I’d never tasted falafel. Yet none of those differences matter because we can see that we are children of the same family. We can see that we share the same father, Adam, the same mother, Eve, that we share a belief in one God who created man from a single soul and scattered him across the world. We can see that we share the traditions of the prophets and that we both share respect for God’s word. Most of all we can see that our roots are the same. Even though I am from a Judeo-Christian background and she from a Muslim, we share a common heritage. We both claim an inheritance from the tent of Abraham.

Yet when Noor and I look at the world we have inherited, all we can see is fear, hatred and violence. What has happened to us? If we were one in the beginning, why can’t we be so now? Shall the children of Abraham always hate each other? Or will we find the story of reconciliation, the story of peace?

****

For the last two years I have been working for a professor at my university doing research on the effectiveness of peace education. My assignment was to find all the peace education programs in the world and to see which programs were the most effective in creating long-term peaceful world views. Over the course of nine months, I read nearly 300 scholarly articles on peace; analyzed over 1,000 websites on multicultural education, peace, conflict resolution, and non-violence education; and read more than three dozen books on international peace and education. What I found was discouraging. Not one of the peace education programs or articles could provide significant evidence that their method of peace education was effective in creating long-term peace based on mutual respect, understanding and love. In fact, most of the programs didn’t even try to create this type of peace and only focused on creating participants who could coexist and tolerate one another. And none of them mentioned God. I had been researching to find answers, hoping to find an example to follow, to find a story of reconciliation and hope for the future. But I didn’t find one.

So, last summer I went searching for an answer. I signed up for a volunteer program to Amman, Jordan with the public health school at my university. My plan was both to work with a local organization to provide breastfeeding resources for Iraqi refugee women living in Amman, and to learn more about Islam and the Middle East. But that summer Amman was in chaos. Three weeks after I arrived in Jordan, an Israeli solider was abducted by Hezbollah. Before anyone knew what had happened, Lebanon was in ruins. Each day the news was full of stories of Israeli attacks against Lebanon, targeting Hezbollah but destroying far more. Within days Amman’s already full streets were flooded with millions of refugees from Lebanon, many of whom had lost homes, businesses and loved ones to Israeli bombs. Amman was a city alive with fear and anger. Almost every day there were anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations on the college campuses and in the streets. God’s name was shouted as a justification for revenge and retaliation. Yet there were some who were quietly pleading to God, trying to understand the violence and the hatred. I could see that they were just as confused about the nature and justice of God as I was.

****

I saw the fear in Noor’s eyes when she turned to me and asked, “Do you like Condoleezza Rice?”

I was surprised by the question and gave her a blank stare.

You know Condoleezza Rice, your Secretary of State, do you like her?” she persisted.

I paused for a moment, pulled back my hair, and said, “Honestly, Noor I can’t say that I’ve ever given her much thought. But I guess I like her, why?”

Because I think Condoleezza Rice is the devil and that she deserves to burn in Hell!”

In all the time I had known her I hadn’t heard her so much as raise her voice. To hear pure, unadulterated hatred and anger in her voice scared me.

Every time she comes on TV she is talking about things she does not understand,” she continued. “She says we need a ‘new Middle East,’ but we don’t want a ‘new Middle East.’ We just want to be respected and understood. Arabs and Muslims, we are not bad people. But America, she doesn’t listen, she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t know who we are.”

I just stared at her pain-filled eyes and didn’t say anything. I realized that what she had said was true; America and Islam don’t understand each other. I’d only been in the Middle East for six weeks, but already I could see that the root of the violence and fear went deep. The problem didn’t just go back to Lebanon, the Iraq War, the Seven Days’ War, or even to 1948 when Israel was recognized as a nation despite the silent screams of the Palestinians. The root of the fear and hate went back to the ancient story, back to Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Isaac. We were still stuck reenacting an ancient story of violence and hate, a story where one brother always triumphs while the other wanders homeless in the wilderness. I saw that these problems would take a lot more than a little democracy and a Band-Aid to fix.

****

The sky was growing dark as the last strains of the evening call to prayer echoed through the open window. I sat uncomfortably at my desk trying to stay focused, but my eyes kept straying to where Mervat was praying. Her veiled head was pressed to the floor and holy words flowed from her lips. Only a few minutes earlier, she had washed herself, hung her head out the window to orient herself to Mecca, and laid her small mat on the floor. As she began the prayers that she had said five times a day every day of her life, my thoughts turned to my own prayers offered to God in faith each morning and night. I wore no veil. I knew no holy words from the Quran. We both believed that there was just one God. And if we both prayed to the same God, whose words did He hear and whose prayers did He answer?

Mervat was different from any believer I had met. In Islam she had found a devotion and love of God that I respected, admired and even envied. I am a faithful Mormon. I have been taught to keep high moral standards. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t swear. I dress modestly. I believe that sex should be saved for marriage. I pray every morning and evening. Throughout my youth these behaviors set me apart from my American peers, and I had anticipated that my religious beliefs would set me apart in Jordan as well. During my first days in the Middle East, however, I felt like a prostitute among nuns. By my standards I was dressing modestly, and by American standards I was even stuffy and conservative. Yet compared to Muslim women, who covered their arms and their legs, veiled their hair and wore little or no make up, I was revealing, provocative and ostentatious. I felt confused and a little betrayed. I wondered, should it have been Sarah who was cast out rather than Hagar? Certainly Hagar’s posterity, among whom I was living, led good lives. Their submission to God and kindness toward humanity was as natural to them as breathing. I began to question a God who would choose me over them.

****

In search of answers I turned to the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. In the Hebrew Bible I found that although Ishmael, Hagar’s son, was Abraham’s firstborn, he was not the child of promise. Instead it was Sarah’s son who became the heir to Abraham’s covenant, while Ishmael was forced to wander in the desert (Genesis 17-18). Yet the story in the Quran claims that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was the child of promise (Sura 19:54). Therefore God’s promises were meant for Ishmael’s descendants, not Isaac’s.

So, which story is true? Or more importantly, why does God appear to play favorites? Certainly such favoritism, as interpreted by Muslims and Christians, has resulted in bloodshed rather than kinship. Why would a Father God be a respecter of persons, creating an endless cycle of vengeance by choosing one daughter and her son over another?

If God has a chosen people, if He differentiates between the prayers of a Muslim and the prayers of a Christian, then wouldn’t it mean that He is a “respecter of persons”? That He is an unjust and changeable God, one who finds a sadistic pleasure in blessing one people and cursing another? Wouldn’t it mean that there must only be one religion, one people that have the whole of God’s words, and one people with His Truth? Yet my whole soul cries out against such an idea. How is faith possible in a God that is a respecter of persons? Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Mormon Church, said:

in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation... men should have an idea that He is no respecter of persons… because if he were a respecter of persons, they could not tell what their privileges were, nor how far they were authorized to exercise faith in Him, or whether they were authorized to do it at all, but all must be confusion... God is no respecter of persons, and every man in every nation has an equal privilege.2

I cannot believe in a God that is a respecter of persons. Nor can I believe that He has chosen one people, that He only gives truth and guidance to one people, that He only hears the prayers of one people. I believe that while He requires people to earn His blessings by obedience and faith, He does not make them compete for them. If that were the case there would be no hope for peace. There would only be room for fear, the fear that someone else’s faith would cancel out yours, the fear that if someone else was right, then you must be wrong, and the fear that if someone else appeared to be blessed, then God must be cursing you.

The great irony is that neither Christianity nor Islam professes belief in a God that is a respecter of persons or who is changeable and unjust. The Quran says:

Those who believe (the Muslim) and those who are Jews, Christians and Sabeans—all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (Sura 2:62)

(Such has been) the course of Allah with respect to those who have gone before; and you shall not find any change in the course of Allah. (Sura 33.62)

In the New Testament Peter expresses a similar belief when he says:

Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. (Acts 10: 34-35)

Yet despite these statements of God’s love for all His creations, the children of Abraham still cling to prejudice and ancient stories that cause violence and competition. Abraham’s children fear that they are competing for God’s blessing. This competition provides no room for cooperation, no way to find common ground and no hope for peace. It just creates fear.

****

The tensions between the West and Islam are increasing. The divide between those who side with the West’s liberal emphasis on personal freedom, democracy and consumerism and those siding with Islam’s fundamental emphasis on community and religion is growing rapidly. A clash of civilizations seems imminent and hopes for understanding and peace seem unlikely. It seems that the West and Islam have narrowed their consciousness and closed off their ability to hear and communicate with each other. Both are unwilling to find common ground. They struggle for dominance and assert that one road to truth is the only road to truth.

The world has become so secularized that is seems like there is no space for religious conversation, no room for the people of the world to talk freely and openly about their beliefs, values, histories, fears and hopes. It is not individual Americans or Muslims who are fundamentalist and violent, but rather the political and social structures by which they are bound. Noor explained this simply to me when she said, “You know, we really do love Americans, the culture, the people. What we hate is America’s politics.” Could the anger and fear that we feel as Muslims and Americans come from a feeling of being trapped by politics, social structures and leaders that do not allow room for understanding, for cooperation, or for peace? Why must we veil our language, talking about human rights, peace and global governance, but avoiding talking about the topic which has the most potential to bring us together, our belief in one God?

****

Nidal looked at me with intense eyes and handed me a Quran, “I am giving this to you so that you will know that we, Muslims and Christians, do not have to hate each other. We are very similar and I want you to read that,” he said pointing to the Quran, “so you can find Truth—that we are the same.”

For the last hour Nidal and I had been talking about religion, about his beliefs as a Muslim, about Muhammad and about Jesus Christ. At first I had been scared of Nidal, intimidated by his passion and zeal for Islam but as we talked, the fear melted away and I found that we shared many of the same beliefs. By being a good Muslim, Nidal taught me how to be a better Christian.

Remember,” Nidal had instructed me, “you must go home to America and tell your family what you have learned. Christians must respect Muslims and Muslims must respect Christians if we are to achieve harmony in our world.”

****

It is an exciting time to be alive, an exciting time to be young. The world is on the move. The old systems that once governed our interactions with each other are becoming archaic and irrelevant in a world that is quickly becoming globalized, interdependent and dynamic. The possibilities for peace, understanding and international cooperation presented by this globalization are phenomenal, yet so are the possibilities for war, fundamentalism and hatred. Globalization is a pendulum that swings both ways, with the possibility to drive us apart and widen ancient divides, or to bring us together and heal ancient wounds. We must be prepared to find common ground in spiritual stories in order to create lasting peace, based on respect and understanding and not just tolerance and coexistence. Alwi Shihab, the Presidential advisor and special envoy to the Middle East for Indonesia said,

Religious tolerance is not enough. Tolerance does not always lead to true social peace and harmony. Tolerance is to learn to live with something even when you think it is wrong and evil. Tolerance is a grudging willingness to put up with something you hate and wish would go away.3

Young people, like Noor and I, are the architects of the future generation. It will be our challenge to move the world beyond religious tolerance, beyond fundamentalism. We must remember and celebrate our common roots—that we are children of the same God. We must seek for a modern-day tent of Abraham, a tent with four sides opened toward all the corners of the Earth, where there is no feud between Hagar and Sarah and no “chosen” between Ishmael and Isaac; a world in which there is space for inter-religious conversations, room for the religions of the world to freely and openly talk about their shared beliefs, values, histories, fears and goals. We must be willing to listen to people’s stories, to let go of our bipolar constructions of the world and to find the truth in the beliefs of others. We cannot be so afraid that someone else’s God will make our God irrelevant, that we leave Him out of our social and political conversations.

The Book of Mormon prophet, Nephi, testified of such a world when he said,

Thou fool… Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men…and I bring forth my word unto all the children of men, yea, even upon the whole earth? ...Wherefore I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another? And it shall come to pass that my people… shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions; and my word shall also be gathered in one. (2 Nephi 29:6-8, 14)

To gain peace we must realize that no one has a monopoly on truth. Truth is like a great puzzle whose pieces have been scattered across the world to all nations, cultures and religions. Together we have more parts than we had alone. When we try to understand our piece of the puzzle as a piece that fits into a great whole, we begin to get a vision of what the completed puzzle must look like. This knowledge should excite us and fill us with love for all the other millions of other people who hold the other pieces. Gathered together we will gain more pieces of God’s truth and better come to understand our place and purpose in the world.

****

On my last night in Jordan, Noor and I sat eating dessert on the balcony of a cafĂ© overlooking the city of Amman. I looked out across the city and saw Jordan’s flag flying across the sky and I realized that this land, this people, this way of life had come to mean so much more to me than I ever thought it could; it felt like home, it felt like family.

There were tears in our eyes when we said goodbye that night. Standing in the middle of the darkened street we stared at each other, trying to fill our eyes with memories. Something beautiful and sacred had happened between us the last few weeks and neither of us knew how to name it. My eyes filled with tears and they spilled freely down my cheeks. Noor saw the unspoken words in my eyes and she put her arm around my shoulders, pressed her white veiled head next to mine and whispered in my ear, “Do not be afraid. This is not goodbye. It is not the end. You are my sister in America, and when you come back to Jordan, you must stay at my house.”

As the taxi drove away I realized that Noor was right. Tonight was not the end; it was the beginning. It was the beginning of a gathering, the gathering of the family of Abraham and their stories. Our friendship is evidence of the children of Abraham returning home to his tent. Yet they will not come as Jew, Christian or Muslim, but rather as brothers and sisters. For Noor and I such a gathering has already occurred. We are sisters, the daughters of Ishmael and Isaac. We know each other, each other’s stories, fears and hopes. We have dried each other’s tears. We have laughed together and worked beside one another. The ancient feud is over, Sarah and Hagar may once again live in peace. I have seen the face of my sister, I have learned her name and now I see that the night is past and the light of a new day is beginning to dawn.

Sources:

1 Shimon Perez, during conversation with Gordon B. Hinckley.

2 Joseph Smith. Lectures on Faith. Published 1834.

3 Alwi Shihab. Building Bridges to Harmony through Understanding. Forum Address. Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. 10 October 2006.

12 comments:

  1. Well. I am speechless.

    "the gathering of the family of Abraham" - this. yes, this.

    You are a beautiful, inspired woman.

    I hope everyone in the world could read this. Especially every person who professes to be Christian, and every person who professes to be Muslim.

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  2. One of the reasons why I follow your blog is because you are an American Christian who recognizes the beauty of Islam. My understanding and experience with Islam is limited, but the more I come to know the more I see similarities and I find myself defending Muslims often. This post was beautiful and hopeful.

    I was thinking along similar veins just yesterday, and I thought you might appreciate this quote I posted on my blog from Howard W. Hunter.

    http://pipersperspective.blogspot.com/2012/02/from-all-are-alike-unto-god-by.html

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  3. Beautiful and so much more constructed and thought out than my simple post.
    Love this: " Together we have more parts than we had alone."

    thanks for sharing this.

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  4. Beautiful. Wonderful. Inspired.

    When that day happens, when Christ comes and all of Abraham's children unit it will be a day of weeping and rejoicing.

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  5. Nice. The more women learn to step up with grace and intelligence in matters of every stripe, the sooner the world will be prepared for its Savior to return. There is no spectre of ignorance that will not fade before a confident woman who humbly testifies of truth. Keep on.

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  6. Wow, this was beautiful! I was so caught up in it that I couldn't hear my boys playing super-heroes and running around until I'd read the entire post. I've long had a love for Muslim people; I had friends of that faith in high school as well as at BYU. I've struggled to defend them when I've heard unfair things spoken of them. Thank you so much for this post! I hope you don't mind, but I will share this on my facebook and hope many of my friends will read this and feel that kinship, too.

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  7. Wow. Your words are so beautiful. I read the memoir of a Muslim woman a couple of years ago that really opened my eyes to how similar we are. Your post echoed so many of the thoughts I had when I read that book.

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  8. Such an interesting and well- written essay. I really enjoyed reading it. Just tonight I was preparing for a RS lesson on "covenants" (using elder Nelson's talk from the oct 2011 conference) and read gen 17-18 in the old testament. I had forgotten the story of Sarai and Hagar. How interesting to read about how Ishmael did receive a portion of the abrahamic covenant yet it was through Sarai that " all the nations of the earth are blessed.". It makes me want to understand more of why one would be blessed "more" than the other. Is it a blessing or more just a responsibility?

    Thank you again heather for sharing your writings.

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  9. It is through Sarah (Sarai) that we get Christ. All nations are blessed through Christ's atonement.

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  10. I love the image of a grand reunion in Abraham's tent. Beautiful.

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  11. Wonderful essay. The link between peoples of faith will help create peace.

    Thanks for posting this.

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