I’ve done a lot of interfaith work in my life. Well how could I not, my whole life has been interfaith. My father was a Methodist minister, my mother was Baptist, I grew up in the Black neighborhood separate from but surrounded by a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Schools were not closed for High holidays but then there’d only be a half dozen of us per class. When I left home at 14 I lived with families of different faiths: Jewish, Unitarian Universalists, Catholic and atheist. Questions of ultimate concern always interested me and as soon as I got to college I actively pursued the answers given to these from faith systems outside my own.
Eventually I came to live in a Buddhist ashram and practice according to the prescripts. In the fall of 1972, I was embraced by Islam. The trace of every faith I had ever adhered to still lingers, so seeing the big picture is no longer an abstraction. Now my own family is celebrating both racial and religious diversity. Most of my children still practice as Muslims but at least one daughter practices Christianity now. My grandchildren have Jewish, Rasta, Muslim, White, Black, and Native American grandparents. All three boys are blue eyed and two of them are blond. I cannot imagine a world without this diversity.
I took part in a Sukkot celebration at a local synagogue. I didn’t know that was where I was going, I was following my daughter to attend a sufi dhikr. Sukkot is one of three major Jewish holidays after Rush Hashanah and Yom Kippur and is celebrated for a week in late fall. It of course, includes the dwelling, after which it takes its name: a loose structure open to the sky, commemorating the kinds of dwellings the Jews had when banished to wander the desert for 40 years. All meals are taken there, with family and community, and of course special prayers, like invoking the light and peace, are recited. Last night there was also guitar music and songs.
After a few stories and a few songs, we broke bread together and the giblet of wine was passed. Being pretty strict about my Islamic prohibition on alcohol, I had to pass on the wine. When I declined the cup, I was asked to pass it on for others, but no one wanted to take it after me and I said, well it looks like I’m trying to get people to drink when I am prohibited. We had a laugh about that: picture a veiled Muslim woman offering wine. Although the dhikr did in fact follow the eating of the meal, I had long sense departed.
I attended with a visiting representative from Egypt. We were excited at first to take her to her first dhikr. In Egypt dhikr is mostly the territory of the men and in the mosque or open spaces. I’ve attended some in private homes for women, but she had not had an occasion to attend. Although nothing offensive was said or done, it was not a comfortable setting for my young friend.
When you enter into the scared space of another there can be little expectation than the events that unfold will be relative to the religion of the place. There are also attempts to be inclusive, depending upon the circumstance. My first time in a Catholic church as a teenager was marked mostly by being told I could not partake of the Eucharist because I was not Catholic. Celebrating Christmas eve with a friend, both she and her husband are Baptist ministers, she walked us through all the steps even offering an alternative for the implication of the body of Christ in the bread and his blood in the drink, but I had only one concern on my mind, is wine or grape juice? Even with the verbalized alternatives, I would have to pass on the wine. Celebrating the sukkot also meant, “entering into Israel”. It didn’t help that the woman making the offering said that entering Israel was entering the heart, because for an Egyptian, the modern day politics cannot erase the marred history carrying the name of Israel. It’s like seeing the swastika on the Buddhist temples in Malaysia. I had to remind myself that before Hitler took the same symbol and reversed it, it was used by indigenous peoples and Buddhists as a positive sign, affirming the presence of the sacred in all four directions.
Religion and religious practices have a context. If you are not aware of those contexts, there is also the possibility of cross-references. Some of those cross-references might be offensive to others. There’s no way around it. I am not trying to recommend that within one faith one should not participate fully in the fashion appropriate for the faith. I don’t think watering down your worship helps either your regular worshippers or any visitors in a multifaith context. But this did make me think about the phenomenon of interfaith as it is being promoted these days.
First of all, this is not an idea promoted by the oppressed to invite others to celebrate their faith. It is something those, already in power or with privilege, extend to make an opening or orchestrate a collective. This means, those who do get invitations are usually at a disadvantage. If nothing else, it could be from the mere organizational stand point. If we are told we will listen to a Jewish, Muslim Christian, Buddhist prayer at this or that juncture, we are told this. We do not get to say, here is where or how we would pray, or give an invocation.
The topics discussed are the ones determined to be important by the organizing bodies. The disempowered are invitees. They get to accept the terms or decline the entire invitation. This power imbalance does not mean I don’t think it is a good idea, I just think we have a long way to go with making it work towards a more plural world in terms of religions. For one thing, I have grown tired of the dialogue model. How long are we going to compare apples and oranges even in the form of mixed salad, before we move forward to the model of faith in action?
If a community needs flood relief of sanitation ditches, it matters less what the particulars of your faith are if you say you are motivated by your faith to construct what is needed. Then the distinctions between your faiths are truly less significant than putting that faith into action. There are certain problems in our time, which will never be ended by one person, one faith or even one nation-state. For these problems we must galvanize the process ethical approach. We make what ever contributions we can towards the long term goals of eradication, not towards an immediate end of the problem: like environmental changes or nuclear disarmament.
According to Jewish tradition, in the Messianic era, Sukkot will be a universal festival and all nations will make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there. As I prepare for my own pilgrimage, I am reminded. This is a personal act, for my own spiritual station. I should then also reflect on the possibilities of the universal. How can any one ritual be both inclusive and specific? Maybe it is only from the perspective of the one’s performing it.
May all our worship be both specific to our own faith choices and inclusive of those whose faith is not only very different from our own, but also of those with no faith at all.
written by amina wadud in 2010