This past year I’ve been studying to become an interfaith minister as a way of expanding my work as a Spiritual Chick in the world. The coursework includes studying all the major religions, including Islam, which I must admit I’ve never had a passion to study. And while I’ve always been fascinated by religion and have known Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Catholics and Protestants, I’ve never really known a Muslim---until now.
Mohammad moved to New York City from Syria with his family a few months after school started. He’s a triplet and he’s almost six years old. Mohammad was one of the students in my daughter’s kindergarten class and I had the opportunity to see him at recess on Mondays, at the class weekly recital on Friday mornings, and every day at the end of school when the kids all sat on the rug and sang songs and played instruments with Julie, their teacher.
At first, Mohammad couldn’t speak any English. A ball of energy, he expressed himself by running around the room exuberantly, using his hands to communicate. He made friends quickly, as most five year olds do, and soon everyone was cheering him on at recital as he recited the alphabet (skipping the letters q, r and s and a few others), the numbers, and began to learn to read.
I really got to know him toward the end of the year when he became interested in the recorder. He played the instrument like a whistle and the sound that came out of it was loud, sharp and annoying. One day, I called him over and showed him how to make a better sound. With Julie’s help, Mohammad began to make nicer and nicer sounds, which inspired her to teach all the kids how to play recorder. Most schools don’t teach the recorder until second or third grade, but before long many of the kids were playing "Hot Cross Buns," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" like professionals.
But Mohammad and a few other kids were having problems with the fingerings. I felt badly for him because he was the one who had inspired this musical adventure, but his little fingers couldn’t keep up. Then two days before the end of the school year, Mohammad asked me if he could play for me. His dark eyes were glistening and his trademark smile---a heart melting, irresistible ear-to-ear grin---was splashed across his face. He used his right hand, not the left like everyone else, to play three different notes, all perfect. And then he started improvising with the three different sounds and he created his own song. He was so proud and so was I. It’s one thing to play a melody someone else has written but it’s another thing entirely to have the courage to create your own music from your heart.
Way back in 610 CE the Prophet Mohammad displayed the same kind of courage as my kindergarten friend. While meditating overnight in a cave near Mecca, Mohammad had a vision of the angel Gabriel and heard the words, "Mohammad you are the Messenger of God." A few years later, he began preaching his new religion, Islam, which means "submission to the Will of God." Mohammad believed in only one God and that Abraham, Moses and Jesus were also messengers of God and great prophets. Like those who came before him, Mohammad came up against great opposition. But he ultimately prevailed and is now regarded by some as the most influential man in history as a result of his vast accomplishments not only as a Prophet, but also as a political leader and the first unifier of the Arab peoples. Like all visionaries, Mohammad was ahead of his time. He advanced the status of women; encouraged the development of science; was dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and literacy; and emphasized ethics, morality and social justice. He was quite a remarkable, person, by any standard.
Clearly, I had met my Mohammad for a reason. We Americans, even open-minded, progressive, interfaith-oriented ones like myself, have no clue what Islam is. We blame current events on a religion, and ignore our own role in the creation process. We marginalize the Islamic world by seeing Muslims as the "other" and give ourselves permission to be smug, superior and critical, as if we’re all not blessed with the same access to wisdom and suffering from the same human frailties. All religions have blood on their hands. It’s time to stop casting stones and start embracing all our spiritual sisters and brothers so that we can create a better world.
Islam may play the notes in a different order than Judaism and Christianity, but that’s what makes it beautiful. If there’s only One God, then all paths lead to Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem. All paths lead home.
Copyright © 2004, 2016 K. Weissman & T. Coyne