We started with Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, and Yunus. We ended with falafel, tzatziki, a casserole, and lots of pita bread. The folks in our Qur’an study group finally felt comfortable enough with one another to share a meal after our learning session.
We’ve been meeting every Sunday evening since January. About half the group is Muslim. The other half is Western/Christian (but on the more progressive end of Christianity, I would say). About half of us are women. The group changes a bit every week, depending on who is able to attend, so we usually begin by stating our names and why we are there. Most of the Muslim women in the group say they are attending because they would like to learn more about the actual Qur’an. They say they are quite familiar with Islamic prayers and Muslim culture, but they want to learn more about the text itself. Most of the Christians attend because they want to learn something…anything…about the Qur’an, Islam, Muslim life in the U.S., or Muslim life around the world. The group’s facilitators choose a passage from the Qur’an to share. It is read first in Arabic and then in English. Afterward, they offer their views on what the verses mean and how they fit into Islamic teachings.
Initially, our sessions focused on Muhammad’s early revelations, so we read some of the shorter, chronologically-earlier surahs near the end of the Qur’an. After that, we moved on to the creation of humans. The middle school kids at Jubilee church in Asheville had discussed creation stories in various faith traditions earlier in the year, so it was exciting to watch the Christian adults finally recognize the many similarities between the creation stories in the two traditions. We also had an interesting discussion about the jinn and angels. Angels, of course, are mentioned throughout the Bible. The jinn really are not, although there are some interesting exceptions to that.
Lately, we have moved into discussions about the prophets. This has been particularly fun for me. I am quite familiar with the stories of the prophets from the Bible, and I’ve read an English translation of Qisas al-Anbiya from the Islamic tradition. Although the prophets are often the same (e.g, Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa, and Jonah/Yunus), the stories differ in their details. This is perhaps most obvious for the story of Abraham and his son, Ishmael, by Hagar. There are also some general differences in the way prophets are viewed. In the Biblical tradition, the prophets are known to act in ways that appear quite human-like, perhaps even “sinful.” For example, in the Bible, Noah is found drunk is his tent (Genesis 9:18-25). In the Islamic tradition, the prophets never knowingly sin, so Nuh is never portrayed as being inebriated.
Last Sunday, we broke with our habit of rushing home for dinner with family to break bread with one another. We had a potluck dinner after our study session, and everyone shared their best middle-eastern fare. The beauty of the meal lay in the fact that we talked about anything and everything but the Qur’an. We heard about one woman’s son who is currently visiting his brother in Egypt. We heard about a recent talk given at a peace conference by one of the group’s facilitators. And one woman shared her thoughts on a recent Sufi reading/musical performance she attended at a local teahouse. In short, the potluck was yet another step in getting to know one another.
Our Qur’an discussions will continue, but maybe now we’ll feel just a bit more comfortable when sharing our thoughts and feelings. During the first few sessions, only the facilitators spoke. Most of the Westerners in the group had never even seen a Qur’an and didn’t understand why some people in the group were constantly saying “peace be upon him.” Now, everyone shares their translations and their reflections on the passages. Our questions have become more open-ended and require more complex answers. The dialogue sometimes gets emotional and edgy, which means it’s also getting more profound and thought-provoking. Interestingly, the tension almost never falls along stereotypical “party lines.” The Westerners do not necessarily agree with one another; nor do the Muslims.
Instead, we simply struggle together. We struggle to understand when religious disagreements matter and when they don’t. We struggle to distinguish propaganda from truth. We strive to separate individuals from their governments. We make every effort to listen with compassion and avoid knee-jerk reactions. And we come to the circle in a spirit of unity and love.
Our efforts are hardly earth-shattering. We’re a small group of individuals meeting in a very small city at the base of the mountains in western North Carolina. We’re not attempting to solve the world’s problems, and we’re not attempting to achieve world peace. We’re simply a gaggle of folks interested enough in one another to spend a couple of hours together on Sunday evenings – to share our thoughts, our food, and some of our beliefs – which is really what interfaith interactions are truly about. To be sure, we’re not global news, but hopefully, we’re changing things in some small way in our little corner of creation.
[This blog was originally posted at Christian Muslim Forum on 5/21/2014 as Prophets and Potluck.]