Our Muslim neighbors: A Christian reminiscence
Worship Allah, and ascribe no partners to Him, and be good to the parents, and the relatives, and the orphans, and the poor, and the neighbor next door, and the distant neighbor, and the close associate, and the traveler, and your servants. Allah does not love the arrogant showoff. (Qur’an, 4:36)
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (New Testament, Matthew 22:37–39)
When my teenage daughter was much younger (three or four years old, as I recall) a local Islamic Center in Nashville, TN, had an “open house,” where they invited their neighbors, Muslim or non-Muslim to visit, share a meal, and learn more about Islam. I thought it would be a good idea for my daughter to experience a culture different from our own, and so we decided to attend.
I remember, the first thing that struck me was how friendly everyone was. The women who were greeting visitors immediately taught my daughter the traditional Arabic greeting: assalamu alaikum. Explaining that it meant “peace be upon you,” we instantly found the greeting familiar. After all, as a music director in a Methodist church, we pass the peace each Sunday during our worship, saying, “Peace be with you.” This was familiar, comforting language.
We were then shown around the masjid, as someone explained what Muslim worship was like. They explained about washing before prayer, and talked about how important prayer was in Islam. My daughter took everything in, as I smiled at how welcome we were made to feel. And then the meal…oh, the meal!
I don’t remember exactly what we had to eat, and I would be hard pressed to even describe it. But it was all delicious! Home cooked with a variety of fabulous spices. And again, the idea of a potluck is very familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time in churches. Whether it’s falafel or pimiento cheese, people of faith seem to enjoy each other’s company the most when there’s good food to be shared with friendly company.
As the meal began to draw to a close, the young imam talked to us about how Islam was perceived in the American media, and comparing it to the truth of Islam as a religion that stressed prayer, peace, almsgiving, pilgrimage, the reading of holy scripture…many of these things seemed even more important to our Muslim friends than they were to those of us who had grown up in the Christian church. He spoke of how jihad was a spiritual struggle, and of how misinterpreted the term often was among non-Muslim Americans. He chuckled as he explained that the term “infidel” was a very unusual thing to place in the mouths of Muslims, who looked at their Jewish and Christian neighbors as brother, People of the Book. I remember thinking how intelligent and articulate he sounded. And I smiled…again and again.
As we put our shoes back on, and headed out the door hand-in-hand with my little girl, this Nashville neighborhood seemed a little different, a little more diverse. Among the coffee shops, the boutiques, and the BBQ joints, was this house of faith. And the residents of that house had welcomed us with open arms, and the world seemed like a little smaller, friendlier place.