November 7, 2012

A Muslim among Christians…

I grow up in Germany as a child of Kurdish Muslim immigrants from Turkey. Therefore, religious pluralism has never been a distance reality to engage with. In fact, that very personal and challenging experience finally led me to the decision to pursue Christian-Muslim relations from an academic perspective. I realized that many misperceptions and stereotypes exist and persist, especially after the tragic events of 9/11, and that it was crucial to guide Muslims and non-Muslims in the process of engaging with each other. Throughout my life, I had the privilege to meet people from various religious and cultural backgrounds and as a result deepen my own Muslim faith.

I embraced these encounters. Coming out of your comfort zone, meeting people belonging to a faith tradition other than your own meant first and foremost to step into a dialogue with your own self. Why are you Muslim? Why do you pray five times a day? Why do you fast? What does Islam say about gender roles? What is the shari’a and why do you wear a headscarf? Questions like these are continuously raised and they bring me to a deeper understanding of my own faith and hopefully make me grow into the believer I am supposed to be. The Qur’an puts it quite beautifully by saying, “O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another. Surely, the most honored among you, in the sight of God, is the one who is best in conduct. God is the All-Knowing, the Most Aware.”(Q 49:13). In the process of “coming to know one another” you eventually get to know yourself better.

I remember fondly how a friend from the Seminary joined me for a religious gathering in Turkey while she was visiting. For the first time ever, she experienced what it feels like to be a Christian among a majority group of Muslims. The group welcomed this opportunity of meeting a future priest by asking various questions of theological and practical nature. I witnessed how she valued the transformative value in the interaction, and was willing to tackle the (admittedly immense) challenges of negotiating religious differences.

Engaging with a person from a different faith background does not only yield benefits for one’s own spiritual growth. It also helps to guide congregations in dealing with the complex religious diversity in this world which is often met in our own neighborhoods or workplaces. Approximately five million American Muslims live in this country and there is a big chance that our co-worker, our neighbor, our children’s friends can be Muslim.

I suggest that we as religious leaders should introduce our congregations to this plurality and ideally join hands in working against an increasingly ego-centric world. Muslims and Christians together make up almost half of the world’s population. A greater understanding on both sides will reveal commonalities but also undeniable differences.

Once we demystify the “religious Other” or talk about these differences, it will be easier to establish a relationship of mutual trust and work together for the common good. As The Rev. Joel C. Daniels put it, if you believe to have the solution for various human issues in hand, you will be comfortable with an uncomfortable dialectic. In that theological context, allowing religious people to speak in their own voices is not only wise, but a theological imperative.

During my time at the Seminary, I look forward to many more conversations inside and outside the classroom so that we can altogether expand our horizons and be enriched by each other’s views. It is my deep conviction that this microcosmic three-fold dialogue – with the own self, the own faith community and with members of other faith traditions – will eventually lead us to deal with issues on a more global scale and increase the balance and harmony in creation.

Zeyneb Sayilgan
Luce Visiting Scholar