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By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.
This speech was delivered on November 15th, 2014, for a gathering of over one hundred Christian, Muslim, and Jewish women who came together at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos for a discussion of the book “The Faith Club” by Suzanne Oliver, Ranya Idliby, and Priscilla Warner. Many organizations were represented, including ING, Congregation Shir Hadash, Bait ul Baseer Mosque in Milpitas, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Los Gatos, and the Los Gatos Presbyterian Church. This was the third annual Women’s Interfaith Dialogue event centered around meeting and talking through issues of life and faith. The event also marked the seventh annual “Weekend of Twinning”, which brings together people of faith to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations.
Salam alaikum/Shalom alaikhem/Greetings of peace.
Welcome to all of you to another Women’s Dialogue, which has become an annual event between Muslim and Jewish women in the South Bay. This year we have included the third Abrahamic faith to reflect on lessons from the book The Faith Club, so a special welcome to our Christian sisters.
Reflecting on some of the themes of these gatherings, I think it is significant that we as women are taking the time and initiative to engage with one another when there are so many ways that society and other groups are trying to push us apart.
As we look at the world today, we find that violence and conflict are daily headlines throughout much of the world. As we read about stories of refugees, and the homelessness, poverty, and hunger experienced by the victims of these conflicts, our hearts go out to them, and yet we sometimes feel helpless to stop the endless cycle of violence and destruction.
But we can take heart in the power of the individual to work for positive change in small ways at home and in our spheres of influence. Just like the women who started the Faith Club, never dreaming that one day it would become groundbreaking work on interfaith conversation and cooperation, we never know when an idea, project, or vision might take off and spark a movement.
In the world of interfaith engagement and dialogue, a world that ING has been promoting for the last 22 years, accomplishments are measured in small, local steps to bring people of faith together for the good of society and the world. Once in a while a major step makes all the little steps worthwhile and help to further the cause in a public way.
Just this week, two such steps took place.
The first event was the Third Catholic-Muslim Forum which was held in Rome last week, with the theme “Working Together to Serve Others”. Three particular issues were dealt with in papers from both sides: working together to serve young people, enhancing our interreligious dialogue, and service to society.
Among the many points the participants agreed on were the importance of the culture of interreligious dialogue for deepening mutual understanding; the necessity of coming together, as at this meeting, to overcome prejudice, distortions, suspicions, and inappropriate generalizations, all of which damage the peaceful relationships we all seek; and the insistence that dialogue among religions should lead to action. The participants encouraged all people of faith to multiply opportunities for encounter and cooperation on joint projects for the common good.
The second major interfaith event occurred just yesterday, when for the first time in its history the Washington National Cathedral welcomed the American Muslim community into its house of worship for a Friday prayer service.
The significance of this moment in our nation’s interfaith history lies in the fact that the National Cathedral was designated by Congress as the “National House of Prayer.” This historic event symbolizes our faithfulness as Americans and our ability to unite as one.
As the South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool said during the sermon at the cathedral, “The more bridges that are built, the less room there is for fear and prejudice between us.”
In many of our faith traditions, the best way to repel misunderstanding is to do good together, to pray together and to find common ground together. The Qur’an inspires its readers to do just that when in chapter 41, verse 34 , God says, “And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel by that which is better; and thereupon the one between whom and you is enmity becomes a devoted friend.”
We know that there are many who do not look favorably on such events, and who, due to fear, ignorance, or other motivations, seek to divide and separate people of different faiths. But, as the Muslim holy book instructs its followers, engaging with other faith communities with fairness and respect is a means, not only to get to know our neighbor–an important Islamic duty–but also to draw closer to God through acts of righteousness; in chapter 42, verse 15 of the Qur’an, God tells us, “So then give the call, and be upright as you have been commanded, not following the wishes of the disrupters. And say, ‘I believe in any scripture that God has revealed. And I have been commanded to treat you all fairly. God is our Lord, and your Lord too. We are responsible for our acts, and you are responsible for your acts.” Let there be no argument between us. God will unite us, and the journey for all is to God.’”
Indeed the Qur’an describes our religious diversity and pluralism as part of God’s divine plan: God says in chapter 5, verse 48 of the Qur’an, “For each of them, We have established a law, and a revealed way. And if God wished, God would have made you a single nation; but the intent is to test you in what God has given you. So let your goals be everything good. Your destiny, everyone, is to God, Who will tell you about that wherein you differed.”
Further, the Quran emphasizes that the different faith communities should compete, not in power or wealth, but in doing good works: In chapter 2, verse 148, God tells us, “…For every community faces a direction of its own, of which God is the focal point. Compete, therefore, with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself: for, verily, God has the power to will anything.”
So today let us gather to learn about each other, sharing our commonalities while celebrating our differences. For, as the oft-quoted verse in the Qur’an states, our differences are nothing more than a reason to engage with one another: God tells us (49:13), “O humankind, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into races and tribes for you to get to know each other. The noblest of you in the sight of God are those of you who are most
conscientious. And God is all-knowing, fully aware.”
It is with that spirit that I invite you to enjoy your time together, sharing and learning from each other.