By Orissa Arend

Orissa Arend and her husband Richard Saxer recently visited Turkey with a group of friends who are interested in dialogue with people who are Muslim. Orissa’s article describes her initial interest in learning more about Islam and some of the things that touched her heart from the trip.

I first became curious about Islam after the 9/11 attacks. The Friday after that awful Tuesday I wrapped myself in scarves, took a Jewish friend with me, and headed for the large mosque near the airport. Police were guarding the place, and I fielded my share of questions, but when I got in, this is what I heard Dr. Hasan Krad, the Imam of Masjid Abu-Bakr Al-Siddiq Mosque say: “We Muslims strongly condemn these vicious, cowardly, and inhumane terrorist attacks. Terrorism is not compatible with the teaching or spirit of Islam. . .We oppose violence because violence only produces violence.”

I had a feeling that stereotypes about Muslims were getting ready to proliferate, that collective fear would seek a new target, that witch hunts would ensue. I wanted to play my small part in heading this off. But I realized that given my level of ignorance about Islam (which was just about total), I could hardly be an effective warrior in a quest for truth. So I did some reading, went to lectures on Islam, and twice went back to the mosque. My fears about the new oppression materialized. Our country institutionalized that oppression and used our fears as an excuse to go to war. Eventually,  we accepted it all as the new norm. But, alas, my zeal for learning about Islam abated and I went on to other projects.

It wasn’t until Mother Phoebe Roaf, associate priest at Trinity Episcopal Church and the first African American woman ordained priest in our diocese, initiated a Christian/Muslim dialogue group between our church and the Atlas Center, that my interest in Islam got renewed. The Atlas Foundation is a non-profit organization established in New Orleans in April 2002 by members of the Turkish American community, along with some local volunteers, to advance mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation among people from diverse backgrounds.

Our dinners, movie nights, and table discussions took my education to a whole new and very personal level. We prayed together, visited each others’ homes, and felt free to ask questions about anything and everything. Here is some of what I learned: Muslims believe that there is no God but God (Allah) and Muhammad is his Prophet. Since Islam has no sacraments, no baptism, you have only to make this confession in front of a witness to become a Muslim. Islam is a religion of lay people without a priesthood. All members enjoy equal religious status.

Muslims do not believe in original sin or see human nature as fallen. The Koran talks about Adam disobeying God and being exiled from the Garden of Eden, but his descendants (us) are identical in nature to him. Abortion is strictly forbidden after the fetus is a living being, which most Muslim scholars consider to be 120 days. Observant Muslims perform ritual prayer five times a day, fast during the daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, attend ceremonies at the mosque on Fridays, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca if they can. Muslim and Christian rules for social interaction are pretty much the same: don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t covet, don’t commit adultery, don’t worship false gods, honor your parents, take care of the poor, and love each other.

But the Christian Trinity doesn’t make sense to Muslims. God is so unlike his creatures, they believe, that he can’t be their father. And Jesus being his son – that concept is too god-like for a Muslim. They recognize Jesus as a major prophet, and his mother Mary is the only woman in the Koran mentioned by name. The Holy Spirit, I’m guessing, is as incomprehensible to Muslims as it is to many Christians. Yet  for me, a few of of the 99 most beautiful Muslim names of God describe the Spirit: #99 the Infinitely Patient; #70 the Advancer; #44 the Responder; #6 the Guardian; #55 the Protector; #91 the Useful; #94 the Guide; and so forth.

Almsgiving is a percentage based on net worth, not income, and given not to the mosque or any religious administrator, but directly to your favorite charity or your poor neighbor. It’s best given in secret. For Muslims, the supreme gift of God is the Koran, Word made book; for Christians it is Christ, Word made flesh.

Fethulla Gulen is an influential Turkish Muslim spiritual leader, now living in the U.S., who shatters stereotypes by teaching and living a moderate way of Islam. He has met with the Pope, with prominent Israeli rabbis, and with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. The large worldwide movement which he inspires, called Hizmet (meaning volunteer service), supports scientific inquiry and combines secular education with ethics and character development. It has set up many schools and universities, many forms of media, health care, relief, and businesses. In sync with Sufi thought, Gulen sees greed as the real enemy of peace and harmony. He notes that it often puts on the mask of religion, ethnicity, or ideology as its justification. The Hizmet movement promotes person-to-person dialogue and underwrites 10-day intercultural trips to Turkey for this purpose. I recently had the great privilege of participating in one.

On that trip, many things touched my heart. I’ll describe a few:

* One night a Turkish family invited the 10 of us to dinner on a lovely balcony overlooking the city of Kayseri at sunset – many courses of delicious, fresh, local food. The grandfather showed us his vegetable garden of meticulously tended tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. Eleven-year-old Ilknur had made a sign for the entrance:  “Welcome to the Turkey.” Four or five children from toddlers on up romped happily inside the sumptuous house. I was delighted to be seated next to Ilknur and allowed her to practice her English. She proudly read “perfect” and “beautiful” from the stickers I pulled out of my bag. But when I handed her the whole sheet of stickers, her large brown eyes grew wider and she explained in Turkish that I should save them for another child. She made it sound like an absolutely natural 11-year-old reaction. I asked myself, where have we Americans gone wrong in not steering our children away from greed?

* One tiny Koran in the Sufi museum was beautifully written in silver on black pages so it could be read by the reflected light of the moon.

* Our modern white rooms with balcony and glass overlooking the hills of Istanbul allowed music and singing to waft skyward to us from the streets below. One evening we saw a wedding party. The call to prayer boomed from the loudspeaker on the minaret across the street around 10:30 at night and 4:30 in the morning. Announcing that prayer was much more important than sleep. What with jet lag, excitement, and a physically strenuous day, I didn’t always agree. We had the run of the place – a well-stocked kitchen, breakfast area, and two communal sitting places. Downstairs there was a summer school for girls from such countries as Senegal and Mozambique. All of this thanks to a Hizmet benefactor.

* An aside about Africa where Hizmet is active: A century ago, Muslims and Christians were a small minority in Africa. Most people practiced traditional African religions. Today almost 90 percent of Africa is either Muslim or Christian. North Africa is heavily Muslim and southern Africa is mostly Christian. It is the only continent in the world with a roughly equal division of the two largest religions in the world: 48 percent of Africa’s one billion inhabitants are Christian, 41 percent Muslim and 11 percent are other, according to the Pew Research Center.

* Although Turkey is 98 percent Muslim, the Turkish government is secular, sometimes overbearingly so. For instance, you can lose your job for wearing a head scarf in a government workplace. The Turkish legal system does not have a death penalty. The government pays the salaries of Imams (heads of mosques). The Catholic priest on our tour, Father Gene, said, “If you want to destroy religion, let the state pay the clergy as they do in Turkey and in Europe. That way, religions don’t compete and they are accountable to the government and not the people.”

* Prayer: Our guide, the extremely competent, patient, and fun-loving Emrah, prayed five times a day, performing ablutions (a ritual bath) first. I thought I would give that a try since I had been practicing my centering prayer twice daily before I left home. Though I failed miserably in that discipline, it did gain me access to the prayer rooms of the newspaper, the schools, the TV stations, and various other places we visited. I came away convinced that I could be more productive, more centered, and more loving if I spent time that way instead of in constant engagement with the world. The architecture helped and so did a more or less constant awareness of where to put clean feet and dirty shoes.

My favorite place of prayer was Mary’s house near Ephesus where St. John is said to have taken Mary after the crucifixion. It was excavated on the instruction of a disabled German nun who had visions in the 19th century about where people should dig. The house was so small, so comforting, so personal, so perfectly nestled in a garden on a hill.

The challenge faced by Islam today is: how can the technology, which has allowed the scientific and industrial rise of the West, be adopted while preserving the distinctive values of the Muslim heritage? In response to that challenge, Turkey is trying to figure out how to become a true democracy and the Hizmet movement is putting into practice the good works, the spiritual essence, and morality of Islam as it has unfolded over the last 14 centuries.

Orissa Arend is a mediator and psychotherapist in New Orleans. She is author of “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.” You can reach her at arendsaxer@bellsouth.net.


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