Footpaths Of A Stranger, By Sajida Mohammed
Like many Nigerian Secondary School graduates, I had fallen into the typical career narrative; to study Law in university for one who graduates from the Arts, or Medicine for one who graduates from the Sciences. For me, I had settled for Mass Communication, because, well; Law was for the smart Art students.
Luckily, life took me back to the United Kingdom where one has to go through college before applying for University. I thank God for those two extra years in between Secondary School and University. Within that time, I was deciding if I should study Islamic Law, English and Law, Comparative Religious Laws, Creative writing and Religious studies (among others) then I ended up, as a choice within choices, with Abrahamic Religions.
When I am writing personal statements for something interfaith related, I say that my interest in interfaith conversations began when I changed my Secondary School. The first school was a Muslim School, the second was mixed-faith; primarily Christians and Muslims and, believe it or not, two Jews.
In the Muslim School, one of the extra-curricular courses we attended in the Senior Classes was popularly known as T.T.C: Train the Trainers Course. I won’t go into the details, but in essence, we were taught the irrationality of Christianity and the supremacy of Islam. With this in mind, when I went to my new school, I was armed with Biblical ammo; firing it everywhere to show the Christian students how their religion made no sense. We were not deep then, so I often won these debates. And I felt proud too. Despite this, we were all friends; living together in a boarding house, sharing everything.
As I watched the Christians invoke God just as much as I did, or even more, a nagging question began to form; if I believe in Islam so much, and they believe in Christianity so much; who is right?
Fast forward to college and that looming decision of what to study for the next three years of my life. For someone who was once described by a teacher as NFA (No Future Ambition) – this was hard. But I chose, and through God’s guidance, I chose well.
A lot of the criticism I received from this choice was from outside my nuclear family, and often the questions that I would be asked were two;
2) What can you do with that?!
(These, by the way, are questions I still get, having graduated 3 years ago) My answer is usually this;
1) Abrahamic Religions – Study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
2) I can teach or go into interfaith work or work as a consultant for organizations.
If those two questions were buttons and you pressed them that’s what you would hear as the response. But the real response was more ambiguous. What I would have loved to respond with would have required more time for me to explain. I chose Abrahamic Religions out of interest – I had no career goals at the time (NFA remember?) Those who asked these questions never asked, ‘what do you want to do with that?’ Even though at the time I probably would have answered with a smile and a, ‘I don’t know’.
Because I really didn’t know.
It would take many years before I could articulate a certain feeling I got every time someone asked me these things; a first degree does not have to be in line with your career at all. In my understanding, a first degree should not be so specialized or professional; because we are young when we jump into these things. A first degree should offer you some insight into the diversity, the dynamics, and the variety that this world has to offer. Medicine and Law are a part of this diversity, but the mistake we make in Nigeria is to make them the only two worth studying.
My university education was a transformative process. It opened my mind and my heart to so much.
And it was also comforting to know that I wasn’t the only student who was getting those rather patronizing and inferiority inducing, what-can-you-do-with-that’s. We once asked a lecturer what to say to those people who often imply through their questions that what we are studying is not important, and he replied – ‘tell them that you are going to change the world.’
I understand today what he meant all those years ago.
I recently participated in a beautiful, soul cleansing, challenging, intellect wrenching course: People and faith on the move; migration in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For three weeks, I spent time with Jews, Christians, and Muslims from all over the world, of different traditions and backgrounds: Calvinist, Shi’a, Orthodox, Catholic, Liberal, Sunni, Lutheran, Secular, Pentecostal, Anglican – you name it. And in that short amount of time we did so much as a group and learnt so much as individuals.
How can I describe the feeling of welcoming Shabbat as the sun sets, turning towards Jerusalem, over-looking somewhere in France from a Château in Switzerland? Listening to the rhythmic sounds of a Kenyan choir in a Catholic Church in Geneva, sharing a fantastic lunch at a Mosque sitting beside Junita from Indonesia who didn’t like the meat and felt guilty for wasting it; ‘Tell Muhammad I’m sorry’ she says. The amusement that comes with discussing texts from the Tanakh, the Christian Bible, and the Qur’an with people who don’t even believe in God – forcing us as people of faith to look at our texts from different perspectives. I am romanticizing, and I digress, but these moments were so special, profound– and not irrelevant.
When we were engaged in our discussions; we spoke about God and religion and faith and ourselves, but often we spoke about the problems of the world and the issues in our own contexts. We had to think, as people of faith, about how we should understand these issues and how we can potentially address them.
A study of religions is not a study of doctrines and dogma, dos and don’ts or frameworks that regulate a certain group of people. Far from it: A study of religions is in essence a study of life. And this is why, when Damian said that we will change the world, he was not wrong in his assertion.
A study of religions is a study of sociology, anthropology, ecology, theology, philosophy, science, history, art, literature, architecture, music, dance, metaphysics, geography, gender studies, biology – a study of human-kind, of spirits and angels, of the unknown. Its interdisciplinary nature is what makes it so difficult, fascinating, challenging, and important.
A study of religions will not save the life of a dying person, will not fix a car, will not sentence the guilty to jail, will not explain the devaluation of currency, will not fly a plane – what it can do however, is go underneath all of these and show you how it gives them meaning. How it shapes, not exclusively, the mind and motivation of the one that will save a life, of the one who can fix your car, the one who can explain the economy. How it shapes, not exclusively, the morality and ethics of the person who has the authority to send you to jail. How it emboldens the courage of the one who will fly a plane.
While people in the so-called West continue to grapple with the separation of ‘church and state’ – those of us here, in The Mother Land are steeped in religious values and we are not ashamed of it. Domes, Crosses, and places of worship everywhere you go. Traffic continues to frustrate everyone on Fridays and Sundays. We welcome Christmas and we welcome Eid with the brightest of colors, the most vibrant patterns, rhythmic music, and packed congregations in Churches and in Mosques.
What drives all of this?
It is okay to ask questions, but it makes the difference how you ask.
If you, as a Muslim, go to a Christian to ask them to explain the Trinity – and you go all high and mighty, sure of your salvation – you are not asking a question, you are mocking an important part of someone’s faith. We should not have to spend time in conversion battles; our Sacred Texts and traditions are steeped with enough lyrical prowess to work either for or against us. It is better to focus on conversation and discussion. Not argument, not debate – for these two already imply a winner and a loser. The question of Christianity and Islam is not one of right or wrong – this will get us nowhere.
Let us learn to be responsive, not defensive. To engage, not enrage. To harbor good opinions about one another. To listen actively and attentively. Interreligious dialogue is not telling us to believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not telling us to believe in Muhammad as a Prophet of God. It is not telling us to believe in the 613 Mitzvot. It is teaching us, simply, to understand.
During the three week course I mentioned previously, Father Lawrence (one of the staff) told us that if any of us complete the course having become weaker in our faith – they have failed. If any of us complete the course having converted to one of the other faiths – they have failed. And it brought back so clearly my three years at university.
Through the Abrahamic Religions I learnt about myself. I was forced to challenge myself, forced to unravel the workings of my mind and thread them anew. Again, Damian was right – I changed the world, my world – and it made all the difference.
And just for the record, the next time someone asks me, ‘Abraham-what?! What can you do with that?!’ I will gladly share with them the link to this post.