The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew—Three Women Search for Understanding

By Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner

Simon & Schuster, 308 pp, $25.00

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Faith Club

How three mothers—a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew—confronted their fears and differences to understand more about each other’s religions.

By Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner

Meet the Faith Club. We’re three mothers from three faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—who got together to write a picture book for our children that would highlight the connections between our religions. But no sooner had we started talking about our beliefs and how to explain them to our children than our differences led to misunderstandings. Our project nearly fell apart.

We realized that before we could talk about what united us we had to confront what divided us in matters of faith, God, and religion. We had to reveal our own worst fears, prejudices, and stereotypes.

So we made a commitment to meet regularly. We talked in our living rooms over cups of jasmine tea and bars of dark chocolate. No question was deemed inappropriate, no matter how rude or politically incorrect. We taped our conversations and kept journals as we discussed everything from jihad to Jesus, heaven to holy texts. Somewhere along the way, our moments of conflict, frustration, and anger gave way to new understanding and great respect.

Now we invite you into our Faith Club to eavesdrop on our conversations. Come into our living rooms and share our life-altering experience. Perhaps when you’re finished, you will want to have a faith club of your own.


* * *

Ranya:
My daughter came home from school and asked me a simple question: "Do we celebrate Hanukah or Christmas?" Her friends at school wanted to know. I wasn't sure how to respond. I worried that the reality of 9/11 had made it unworkable for my children to be both Muslims and American. Would their sense of belonging be compromised? Would they as Americans feel burdened by their religion and heritage? As a concerned parent I created a challenge for myself: If I was unable to give my children clear and good reasons why they should remain Muslims, other than out of pure ancestral loyalty, I would not ask them to remain true to Islam, a religion that had come to seem to me to be more of a burden than a privilege in America.

* * *

Suzanne:
I walked into our first meeting, my stiff new notebook in hand, ready to share stories of religious inspiration. I was comfortable in my own religion, having made a difficult decision to leave the Catholic Church of my parents for the relative liberalism of the Episcopal Church. After twelve years in Catholic schools, I was finally going to get an inter-faith education. That education, however, proved not to be as neatly packaged as I had anticipated. It came with the messiness and complications of the real lives and different perspectives of three women with very different relationships to their religions.

* * *

Priscilla:
I'd never interacted so intimately with a Muslim woman, I kept thinking as I listened to Ranya speak about her concerns. This was going to be an interesting meeting. The air felt charged. Partly because I didn't know these women and we were getting into personal issues, partly because I didn't know, as a Jew, what political direction a conversation with a Palestinian woman might take. But the air was primarily charged because I was in a room with two substantial, intelligent women who felt an urgent need to connect and produce something meaningful out of that connection.


* * *

Priscilla: So Muslims all over the world begin and end their prayers wishing peace for Jews and Christians? We're actually in your prayers?
Ranya: Absolutely. In fact, it's not coincidental that Muhammad ascended from Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
Priscilla: What do you mean?

* * *

Ranya:
Muslims, I explained, believe Muhammad to be the last of a series of 25 messengers and prophets, starting with Adam and including Moses and Jesus, who were sent by God to guide people to the right path. Muslims believe that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which means peaceful surrender to the will of God, are three forms of one religion, which was the religion of the prophet Abraham.

Priscilla: Isn't that blasphemy, Ranya, to say that Islam is just a different version of Judaism and Christianity?
Ranya: No. Not to me. Muslims are required to believe in the Gospels and the Torah. Your God is the Muslim God, too.

* * *

Suzanne:

“Tell me more about Muhammad,” I said to Ranya. “What was his mission?”

"He was a reformer," Ranya replied. "He came to fix what had gone wrong in Judaism and Christianity."

“Wrong?” As I heard this I felt reflexively defensive. Sure, Christianity’s had its share of problems. But were they bad enough to require God to summon another prophet? Hadn’t God played his trump card with Jesus?


* * *

Priscilla:
When Suzanne pressed me once again on what in my background made me react to her retelling of the crucifixion, I finally exploded. “We’re outnumbered!” I cried out. “That’s the point I’ve been trying to make all this time! It’s very hard to be a minority!” I looked directly at Suzanne. “I envy you the luxury of knowing that millions and millions of people, the majority of the world you live in, agree with you on the very fundamental beliefs that govern most of your decisions.”

* * *

Suzanne:
I remembered the time in the fall of 2001 when our church renovation meant that our Sunday services were relocated to a hospitable Jewish synagogue nearby. Honestly, I never got used to my children proudly crying out as we passed 76th Street and Park Avenue, "Mommy! There's our temple!" At first I hushed them. "Why, Mom?" they asked. I couldn't tell them the truth. I couldn't say, "People will think we're Jewish."

* * *


Priscilla: Every time I see Jesus up on a cross, suffering and bloody, I avert my eyes. When I checked into a hotel room in Italy once and there was a crucifix over the bed, I took it down.
Suzanne: You did?
Priscilla: Yes. I didn’t want a dead man who meant nothing to me hanging over my head. It’s disturbing!
Ranya: Jesus meant nothing to you, Priscilla? I doubt that. He must have meant something if you went to the trouble of taking down that cross!

* * *

Suzanne:
“Priscilla, I’m getting the impression that you think of me as someone who follows her religion blindly,” I began. Priscilla barely had a chance to speak before I was at her again. All of my suppressed emotion bubbled to the surface as I attacked Priscilla for what I believed was her prejudice again churchgoing Christians.

Ranya tried to join the argument, but Priscilla shut her down, saying, “We’re not talking about you right now! We are at a salient point in the Judeo-Christian conflict.”

“But I feel excluded from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Why isn’t it the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition?” Ranya persisted.

“Let’s talk about that later,” Priscilla and I answered. Then we turned back toward each other to continue our argument.


* * *

Ranya:

That was the last straw for me. Talk about being banished! I had been sitting there, patiently struggling to make my voice heard, as Suzanne and Priscilla went at it in their so- called "salient moment" of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Forget Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, I thought to myself. I could not even get my stereotypes recognized!

“There were no Muslim stereotypes? You’re kidding!” I exclaimed in exasperation.

But Priscilla was nonplussed. “I think you are hypersensitive to your own stereotype. Some would say you are a self-hating Muslim. People sometimes accuse me of being a self-hating Jew because if you are at all critical of the stereotype of your own religion, you’re accused of being self-hating.”
“I strongly disagree,” I said. “To be critical of a stereotype or aware of it is not to be self-hating.”

Even well-meaning, nice people continue to say to me, "But you don't look Muslim!" Most of the time we Muslims simply laugh it off. It is harder, though, when your children are involved.

Suzanne: Remember when I invited you to join our book club discussion on the Middle East, Ranya?
Ranya: Yes.
Suzanne: I never told you that the Jewish woman who was scheduled to host that evening bowed out after she heard you were coming.
Ranya: What do you mean? You’ve got to be kidding!

* * *

Priscilla: Ranya, I know that you’ve said the Muslim God is a universal God, the same God as the Jewish God, the Christian God. But when I go out into the world I find that people don’t really believe that... What do I say to people who cite suicide bombers as proof that Islam is a violent religion spread through war?
Ranya: Nowhere in the Quran does it say, kill, and you shall be rewarded. Dying in the name of religion is not unique to Islam. Christianity is full of examples of people who were martyred in the name of their religion. Some of those people, in fact, are considered saints. The Tamils in Sri Lanka blow themselves up for their cause. Buddhist monks burn themselves up in protest of war. But we all should recognize that when religion is used as a rationale for aggression, a tactic of war or to justify a promise of land, then it is politicized religion. It becomes a human ideology that has nothing to do with Godly values. That doesn’t excuse all this craziness, but it is not anything particular or exclusive to Islam.

* * *

Priscilla:

“I wish I believed in God,” I said out loud for the first time. Nobody in my family had ever talked about God. Not my father, my mother, my sister or my brother. In twenty years of marriage, I’d had only one three-minute conversation with my husband about God.

Maybe, I realized as I spoke, all that was about to change. After the attacks of 9/11, I’d been afraid God didn’t exist. Now, with my sister sick, I wished with all my heart that I could believe in God. Maybe Suzanne and Ranya would show me how.

Ranya: For me, whenever I need affirmation of my faith, I look around…to the stars, the moon above…
Suzanne: And that’s where you find proof of God?
Ranya: I get goosebumps and tears when I hear recitations of that part of the Quran that says “And those who say nay or deny, ask them to look around them, do they not see God…” Islam seeks to provide evidence in the wonder of nature. It’s not simply faith in your heart. The Islamic way is: Question, consider, think, reflect and you should come out a believer.

* * *

Priscilla:

One rainy morning, I went alone to the Vancouver Museum of Art to see an exhibit of paintings by the great Canadian artist Emily Carr, who had spent most of her life in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. On the wall of one room, a plaque described the era in which her work was completed, amid the chaos of two World Wars and the Great Depression. “The papers are full of horrible horrors,” wrote Emily Carr. “And the earth is so lovely.”
The earth is indeed lovely, I realized. Including New York City.

And so I decided to take a leap of faith. Life is, after all, a series of leaps of faith. Falling in love and believing that I will grow old with my husband is a leap. Losing a parent and believing I will recover is a leap. Giving birth to children and letting go as they grow, hoping they will lead safe, happy lives is a leap. Living in a world of chaos, believing good will prevail over evil, is a leap.
Maybe I could hold God’s hand as I leaped.


* * *

Ranya:

“I try as much as I can to bring God into my life throughout the day. But, at the end of the day, I believe in a forgiving God, a benevolent God, not one who says ‘Hey, you forgot that one prayer!’” I explained. “The other night I was lying in bed with my son and, as we do every night, we were saying a prayer of thanks. He said ‘Thank you God for the good food, nice house, lovely parents and thank you God that I am not a nosepicker.’ I believe that’s prayer. I believe in a God with a sense of humor who doesn’t mind if I incorporate him into my life naturally.
Every night before I go to bed, I go to Leia and Taymor’s room and listen to their rhythmic slumbered breath as I kiss them. I pray that I will be able to hold on to the memory of their beauty as children, to remember the smell and warmth of their breath, the squishiness and softness of their flesh and then I thank God for giving me that memory. I pray that their personal journeys are blessed and fortunate, endowed with all the goodness and innocence that children believe must be their unalienable birthright.


* * *

Suzanne: I’ve been struggling with my faith since our conversation last week.
Priscilla: Why?
Suzanne: After all our discussions about death, heaven, Jesus, and salvation I’m not sure I agree with the Christian theology on all these issues.
Ranya: It sounds like you want to redefine your faith in a more open-minded way.
Suzanne: To define it period. I would not have been called to do that if I hadn’t wanted to share the Good News with you two. I’ve gotten great joy from Christianity, but now I need to understand what parts of the Christian faith are most important to me.
Priscilla: You started off as a steadfast believer, Suzanne. You led me down this whole path, so please don’t let me down now! You were the light at the end of my tunnel!
Suzanne: My God hasn’t changed. But maybe my doctrine has.

 

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Ranya Idliby was raised in Dubai and McLean, Va. She holds a bachelor of science from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and earned her MS in international relations from the London School of Economics. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Suzanne Oliver was raised in Kansas City, Mo., and has worked as a writer and editor at Forbes and Financial World magazines. She graduated from Texas Christian University and lives in New York City and Jaffrey Center, N.H., with her husband and three children.

Priscilla Warner grew up in Providence, R.I., where she began her interfaith education at a Hebrew day school and then a Quaker high school. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she worked as an art director at various advertising agencies in Boston and New York. She lives with her family in a suburb of New York City.

Excerpted from The Faith Club by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner. Copyright 2006, Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner. Reprinted by permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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