This article first appeared in the print version of the March 2017 edition of “Premier Magazine” and also on their online database: https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2017/March-2017/Becoming-best-friends-with-a-Muslim-demolished-my-prejudices-about-Islam
I recently had the incredible privilege of being commissioned to write an article for the Premier Magazine out of the London, UK on Muslim-Christian relations. This is a powerfully meaningful experience for me not only because I have personal ties with the UK (having lived in a year in Scotland and thus acquiring many good friends), but also because I was specifically asked to write about my friendship with an amazing young woman named, Karima. Karima is the type of person that everyone would love to be friends with. She is bubbly, funny, and out-going, always ready for an adventure. But she is also deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking. She gives all that she has to better this world for so many people and has taught me that doing small things with great love doesn’t just stem from our religious upbringing, but from the very fact that we are human. There is so much I could say about Karima who was willing enough that I write this article about her, but why not just read the article itself to get a better picture of this fantastic woman who has taught me not only what being a Muslim is like, but how deep an inter-religious friendship can truly go if only we open our hearts and minds long enough to the possibility.
Just a few weeks ago, President Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States of America. Given that the US is one of the major superpowers of the Western World, this means that his decisions and actions greatly affect many of us on a global scale. One example of this would be Trump’s recent ban of Muslim immigrants. His attitude is symbolic of many in North America who have a skewed worldview of all that Islam entails because of extremist groups like ISIS. Many individuals around the globe have engaged in so-called anti-terrorist measures which look strangely like Islamaphobia under the guise of ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of the citizens of their country. In a way, I can completely understand this. It is difficult to form a personal connection with this sometimes “strange” religion when you don’t know anyone from this particular group. It is easy to give into media pressure and stereotypes when you don’t have a face to connect with a name. However, I once made a Muslim friend and she has turned any fear or suspicion I currently had into a beautiful life-giving friendship. The account below retells this very story:
The clock struck midnight at the group home where I was a live-in caregiver, and believe it or not, I was down in the basement doing my nightly prayers. Of all the things I could be asking the Almighty for, I was praying for a friend and I had a very specific idea in my mind of what that friend would be like. I wanted someone I could talk to about deep matters and things that really made a difference. Casual coffee buddies are great, but I was hoping for some profound intellectual discussion. Meanwhile, upstairs I heard some rattling around. There was a relief support worker filling in because one of our clients was not feeling well. I was curious, “who was this person and what was she all about?” I quickly said “Amen” and ran up the stairs to greet her. Standing right in front of me was this tan-skinned Indian woman with a bright smile. Instantly I recognized her from a few months back when we had been paired up at a staff retreat. We had gotten along well right from the start, but then never seen each other again. Suddenly, this same woman was in my kitchen making herself a sandwich.
“Oh hey, Deborah!” Karima enthusiastically greeted me. We made our obligatory small talk, before Karima jumped right in with a few specific questions about my religious affiliation. I unashamedly told her I was a Christian and studying to be a religious minister. At this Karima’s eyes lit right up. “Oh, wow! So cool! I would totally come to your church and hear a sermon if you were ever preaching one!” I felt honoured, but realized, I also hardly knew anything about this young woman who was paying me such high compliments.
“And what about you?” I asked. “Do you attend a worship service anywhere?”
“Actually, I’m a Muslim.” She cheerfully responded back. “And yes, I go to the Mosque and participate in a Muslim youth choir.”
I quickly glanced at her, trying to mask my curiosity. After all, didn’t all Muslim women wear the hijab?
“Oh wow. I’ve never actually had much of a discussion with a Muslim before.” I finally responded, at a loss of what else to say.
“Don’t worry” she replied. “I also don’t know many people studying to be pastors.”
That was the end of our brief conversation. We sat ourselves down in front of a large bowl of ice cream (which we later discovered was our shared guilty pleasure) and indulged while talking about the weather, politics, and our favourite sports teams.
A few days later, Karima was back at our house again. This time armed with even more questions. As the days went on, we began to open up and talk about everything, but there was a topic that kept resurfacing – religion. Although this is such a difficult topic for many, it was one we were never afraid to touch or dissect.
Eventually, some of the other staff members and I decided to form a Bible Study group. Karima surprised us all when she poignantly asked “may I join?” I was shocked. I thought only Christians joined groups like that, but Karima taught me that isn’t necessarily the case. She came regularly, engaged in the Scriptures, asked questions, and wrestled with the texts alongside the rest of us. Finally, she boldly announced, “you know, this group is great, but what would make it even more exciting would be to have a Holy Book study.” And that spawned a whole list of other questions concerning our shared characters of Adam, Moses, Noah, Jesus, and Mary and their role in both the Qur’an and the Bible.
Eventually, my co-worker and I started talking quite a bit about our involvement in our local churches. I finally was asked to preach at one, and Karima surprised me by saying “I’m definitely coming!” She showed up at a few young adult’s gatherings and spoke of how much she enjoyed the discussions and hearing everyone’s own interpretations and what the words were saying to them. Then one day, I brought home a book from church on Muslim and Christian dialogue and she instantly picked it up, leafed through it, and said she would love to discuss all these points further with me.
As our friendship has grown over the years, so has our faith. One of the biggest blessings to me is that we both went into the friendship with an unspoken agreement that we were not out to “convert” the other person. At first, this provided some tension for many, myself included, think the Christian faith is about evangelizing and making disciples. It’s about convincing others of their need to follow a Saviour and trying to prove that Jesus is the only One who can fit that title. But as the weeks progressed, I began to see it as so much more. I began to wrestle with my own questions, fears, and doubts. I would bring them to Karima and she would bring me hers. We’d talk about the wonderful things we love in our religion, and the things that cause division and hurt. We’d talk about how our religion has potential to do so much good and yet how unfortunately some people take it to the extreme and it doesn’t end up portraying the real love and service that are at the heart of what we both believe. I’ve always loved that I can be myself with Karima and that whenever we are together, we have a shared understanding that although we are so different, we can still have a firm foundation built on trust and mutual respect.
But it hasn’t always been easy. In every religion there are “touchy” subjects and massive differences of opinion. It can be hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share your core convictions what you believe and why. It can be confusing to navigate a cross-cultural and cross-religious experience and I have had to learn, sometimes slowly and painfully, not to make any assumptions. One example is when I asked Karima if she would like to attend a Christmas party with me. “Sure, I love Christmas!” She replied, to which, once again, I was slightly puzzled. So, we got into my car, drove about 2 hours outside the city, and went to a Christian camp where they were having a banquet dinner. They served ham, which in Canada is a quite popular dish. I discretely asked my friend if there was another alternative and without any hesitation she produced a plate of chicken. So that was one problem solved. But then, there was the message which was highly evangelical. The whole time I was sitting on my hands thinking “oh man, what did I get myself into?” I want Karima to feel safe and valued with me. I was not out there to try to convert her or change her views and yet, that could easily have been interpreted as what was happening here.
Well, the service ended, we sang some songs, and then we got back into my car and drove home. “So that was a very nice evening.” Karima concluded before I even had the courage to open my mouth and ask her about it. “I loved that young girl’s sharing about her faith. That was really touching.” I was waiting for the “BUT.” It never came. Instead Karima said, “You know I do have some questions.” Here I braced myself unsure of what was coming next or even if I was prepared to answer. She asked me some completely obscure question about the evening that I have since forgotten, but it certainly wasn’t anything about Jesus. Thinking I was safe, she then followed it by saying, “You know, this evening has made me quite curious. I now want to read the Qur’an and find out what exactly Muslims believe about Jesus.” That was over two years ago. We haven’t talked much about that Christmas party since, but we most certainly have talked about who Jesus is, what He is about, why He came to earth, and why He had to die.
Having a Muslim friend has truly taught me so much. It’s taught me to appreciate the beauty in the vast diversity we see in Western Culture. It’s taught me not to stereotype, and it’s ultimately taught me that we have more similarities than differences. Being with someone of a different religion in such a close-knit friendship has enabled me to see the world around me and my own faith in a fresh new way. It’s helped me articulate more of what I believe and ultimately enabled me to be a better Christian. When I first met Karima, I just assumed that someone of a different religion didn’t care about mine, but I’ve learned that’s not the case – sometimes our best conversations happen with those who are profoundly different than we are and yet at the centre – the exact same.
You may be wondering now, how does my evangelistic understanding fit into a cross-religious friendship? Well, I certainly still believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation and today, as a children’s pastor, I teach my kids to tell all their friends about God’s love. Having a Muslim friend does not make me feel any differently about reaching the world for God’s glory, but it has changed my approach on how I do this. Whereas, previously I may have engaged in the stereotypical “Southern Baptist fire-and-brimstone message” I now seek to share my passion from Scripture through my words and actions. I want my lifestyle to reflect a Gospel of peace and love, and nowhere do I feel more energized doing this than when I am sitting on the back porch with a can of soda in hand, talking to a close Muslim friend. Because to me, the Gospel no longer embodies a rigid, straight-cut way to live, but rather an all-encompassing ideal that accepts everyone regardless of their background. I pray for Karima daily. I hope that she accomplishes all that she sets out to do. I hope that her life will also be a witness to many about the transformation inner-peace and assurance can bring to one’s soul. I hope she never loses her curiosity or gets lost in her quest to question religion and what makes it so valuable for so many. But I also have learned to live in this dance – this inclusive embrace where friendship is more valued than simply being right.
In 2014, I made a very close non-Christian friend. A beautiful Muslim woman, deeply spiritual, and full of compassion for others. We spent our days eating snacks, discussing our religions, and debating some of the intense happenings in our world. Even though most of my other friends were Christian, there was something special and unique about this young woman. Her vigour and passion for life, topped with her desire to love and serve others, instantly directed me to some of the deepest longings of her heart. This woman has a name and she has a title. Her name is Karima and I am honoured to call her my best friend.
This article was published in the March edition of Premier Magazine, London, UK. It is an adapted and extended version of a previous blog “5 Things Having a Muslim friend taught me” which you can access here: http://www.stateofformation.org/2015/05/5-things-having-a-muslim-friend-taught-me/