My search for common ground

September 17, 2015 13:40

He thinks I'm going to hell, my friend and Quran teacher, Muhammad Akram Nadwi. Not because he thinks I'm a bad person. Not for my love of crimson lipstick and Prosecco. Nor for the sexual escapades of my youth-- though I've spared him having to hear about them. The reason he believes I'm hell-bound is because I have not accepted that Muhammad is God's final messenger, the last in a prophetic line sketched out in the Quran, which includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

The Sheikh - as I call him, in deference to his status as an Islamic scholar- - speaks frequently of hell. I've heard him parse Quranic verses speaking of its flames, of the chains and manacles worn by its inhabitants. But he is the kindest of men, and so when I called him to ask what the Afterlife would hold for me, he delivered his fire-and-brimstone message in the gentlest manner imaginable.

"When I stand on the Day of Judgment," he said, "and I am asked whether I had warned the people about the Fires of Hell, I want to be able to say that I had. Those who are my friends, like you, I should certainly try to save them." After all, would I not do the same for him, "if there was something in this country that would cause me pain, wouldn't you warn me?"

I'd known the Sheikh for nearly a quarter-of-a-century, ever since we were colleagues on a research project at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Back then, he was 27 years old, a village boy from India, brilliant enough to be the star of his madrassa and, in turn, to be sent to work with a think-tank in Oxford. If I was not quite the first American he'd ever met, I was probably the first self-proclaimed feminist, and certainly the first Jew.

A few years after 9/11, watching the violence done in his name as a Muslim, and mine as an American, I asked him whether he would teach me the Quran. Having been raised a secular humanist by a lapsed Quaker father, and a mother whose Jewishness resided in a smattering of Yiddish and dim memories of Hebrew school, I'd never studied a scripture before. But what interested me more than the Quran itself was the chance to immerse myself in the Sheikh's world-view. As a journalist who'd specialised in writing about Muslim cultures, I'd interviewed Taliban commanders, Yemeni tribesmen, Sufi rock stars, and Pakistani jihadis. But I wanted to go beyond sound-bites, to try to truly understand my friend's views on everything from God to jihad, from parenting to sex.

In a search for common ground, I wanted to pace out the contours of where our views converged and diverged. Luckily, he let me. As saddened as I was that it is only Muslim extremists, never quiet scholars, who seem to get news coverage, he agreed to letting me trail him round, following him to his ancestral home in his Indian village, to lectures at mosques and Oxbridge auditoriums, to see him off on pilgrimage to Mecca, and to meet him for lessons at cafés and kebab shops.

Our year was a radical exercise in the lost art of listening. To sit and talk with someone with different views was to engage in an activity as old as the Acropolis and as quaint as whittling. Tech enthusiasts love to tell us we live in the great age of communication, with the internet allowing us unprecedented access to global conversations.

But this great global shrinkage has also had the paradoxical effect of creating gated communities of the mind. We surf to sites that mirror our own ideas, predilections and interests. Twitter and RSS feeds screen out the Other surprisingly effectively, allowing us to hang with people just like us, both literal and pixelated.

I can see why tech echo-chambers prove so popular: some of the most exhilarating days the Sheikh and I shared were those on which we found our views aligned. When he talked about his discovery of an all-but-hidden tradition of Islamic women scholars -- some 9,000 of them, since the days of the Prophet Muhammad --- I saw a man committed to women's empowerment. When he'd talk about the importance of letting his six daughters make their own mistakes, and come to their own conclusions, I saw a parent who, like me, tried to guide but not dictate. And when young, hot-blooded students would ask him his views on Sharia law or Islamist politics, he'd respond by asking: "You want an Islamic state? Look at Pakistan! Look at Saudi Arabia! All the people there, they want to come here!"

To be sure, there were days when the project palled. I could rarely concentrate all the way through eight-hour talks on the Quran -- even with breaks for lunch and prayer-times. (The Sheikh knew that I wasn't alone in this, and would pepper his lectures with jokes or bits of Persian poetry.) Harder still were the days we dealt with issues we vehemently disagreed on: my heart sank during our discussion of homosexuality, which he acknowledged as something that exists, but couldn't condone. He calmly accepted polygamy, and until two of his most brilliant students argued until he changed his mind, he refused to denounce child marriage.

As difficult as I found some discussions, my respect and affection for the Sheikh only grew. Towards the end of our lessons, both our mothers died unexpectedly and within days of one another. Together, we mourned, each in our own way. The Sheikh greeted news of his mother's death with the phrase Muslims traditionally use to greet such news: "We belong to God, and to God we return." I flew home to St Louis, finding comfort in saying the Kaddish at the service: "In seeking peace and understanding for ourselves, we promise our own understanding to bring peace to all we meet." The Sheikh may think I'm going to hell, but I know of no better peace than searching for understanding.

September 17, 2015 13:40

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