Interfaith Ramadan: Jewish and Christian Meets Muslim

Beads I collected in Senegal, Mauritania and Mali.      Photo: Susan Katz Miller
Beads collected in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Benin. Photo: Susan Katz Miller

One of the great joys of writing Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family has been the opportunity to develop relationships with interfaith activists who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, and more. While acknowledging our differences, we tend to share a belief that love can prevail over hate, and that life is richer and fuller with all of us in conversation, and working together.

My personal response to the continuing religious violence in the world is to transcend boundaries with love. As someone with a Jewish (and interfaith) identity, I seek out the progressive and feminist Muslim community in particular, mainly through the miracle of Twitter. Some of my favorite Muslim interfaith activists on Twitter include @ImtheQ, @MuslimahMontage, @MelodyFoxAhmed, @HindMakki, @NajeebaSyeed, @HiddenHeartFilm, @ChrisMusForum, @IslamicChaplain, @PearlBLawrence, @Ingrid Mattson, @EbooPatel, and @SaritaAgerman.

This is the month of Ramadan, and many of these interfaith activists have created great projects (including #RamadanReads and @TheBigIftar) to complement the introspection and community-building of this period of fasting. Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman), is a preacher’s kid and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim” and writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” For Ramadan, she publishes an entire month’s worth of reflections from Muslims, and everyone else, on Ramadan, in a project called #InterfaithRamadan, and then tweets it out under @InterfaithRam.

Sarah had noticed some of my blog posts on my positive experiences with Islam (perhaps here, here, or here), and invited me to write a piece for #InterfaithRamadan this year. I started with a scene from my book, and then had a new epiphany about how growing up in an interfaith family prepared me to encounter those with other religions. (UPDATE: Sarah’s blog is gone from the internet, but my post is preserved here).

Interfaith Ramadan: Jewish and Christian Meets Muslim

I moved to Dakar, Senegal, just three days after getting married in 1987. When our plane landed on the other side of the Atlantic, I stepped into a new role as a Jewish girl from an interfaith family, married to a Protestant working for a Catholic organization, in a predominantly Muslim country.

Growing up in a small New England town, everyone I knew seemed to fall neatly into one of two religious boxes labeled Christian (the religious majority) or Jewish (the tiny religious minority). But on a deeper level, as the child of an interfaith marriage, this strict binary always felt forced. I knew that the religious world, and my own identity, had to be more complex.

In Senegal, I was immersed in a rich, interfaith mix. Many Senegalese ethnic groups celebrate indigenous African religious traditions predating the 11th century arrival of Islam in Senegal, often alongside or intertwined with Sufi Islam or Catholicism. My background as an interfaith child, absorbing two different religious systems from birth, gave me a framework for thinking about religious pluralism and fueled my desire to understand Senegalese religious practice. And I believe it predisposed me to embrace the interwoven religions of Senegal, as intricate and elaborate as the geometric patterns of West African textiles.

For those three years in the late 1980s, I was the only American journalist living in Senegal, covering everything from the conflict between Senegal and Mauritania, to a locust invasion, to cultural pieces for The New York Times. Few Senegalese I encountered had ever met a Jew: some had never heard of Judaism. I was proud to represent my people, explaining Jewish beliefs and culture to new friends, and to curious shopkeepers and taxi-drivers. I felt welcomed–as an American, as a Jew, as a person–in the Senegalese spirit of teranga (hospitality) wherever I went. But I had few opportunities to practice Judaism with any sort of community.

Instead, we were immersed in a vibrant interfaith world created through waves of conquest and colonialism, and the fusion of cultures. The President at the time, Abdou Diouf, was a Muslim married to a Catholic. In front of our apartment, around the corner from a mosque and across from a Protestant church, every Friday the street filled with faithful Muslims in prayer. We participated in the wedding of a white American friend from a Christian background to a Muslim Senegalese woman. And in the far south of the country, the Casamance, we attended traditional Jola ceremonies.

In Dakar, a bustling center of commerce, and a crossroads of black African, Arab and European cultures, I appreciated how the Muslim obligation to give to the poor created human connections in the midst of harsh urban realities. The streets of Dakar drew the poorest of the poor, many with bodies compromised by leprosy or polio. But because of the tradition of giving alms, the people who begged formed an integral and respected part of society, and we developed relationships with the regulars on the sidewalks of our neighborhood. In her tragicomic novel The Beggar’s Strike, Senegalese writer Aminata Sow Fall depicted the social disruption that occurs when the beggars refuse to accept alms. (The novel was turned into a 2000 film, Battu, by Malian filmmaker Cheikh Oumar Sissoko).

In Dakar, the rhythm of Muslim prayer also softened the frenetic urban hustle. When the muezzins called from minarets across the city, everything slowed to a moment out of time: a stillness to remind us that we were living on the edge of the Sahel and ultimately the Sahara–a region of Sufis stretching from Dakar to Timbuktu and beyond. And those of us from Christian and Jewish and traditional African religious backgrounds would pause as well, out of respect, but also relishing that stop-time reflection.

At Ramadan, this effect, of contemplation, of submitting to the heat and grandeur of Africa, was drawn out for an entire month. During the day, abstaining from food and water, many Senegalese returned to the customs of village life, putting work aside, sitting in the shade of mango trees together, waiting for the cool of sunset. And after the iftar meal to break the fast, nothing tasted better than attaya: tiny glasses of sweet and astringent green gunpowder tea, poured with ceremony from a daring height to achieve the right foam.

I miss living in a Ramadan culture. And I miss the simultaneously sweet and bitter taste of those shot glasses of hot tea on a hot African night. I miss it so much that once, years later, on a one-hour stopover in the Dakar airport on the way from Washington to a conference in Cameroon, I dashed into the airport and found a Senegalese customs official with a tea tray, and begged for a glass of attaya. And of course, in the spirit of teranga, he shared his tea with me.

I have had the good luck to live on three continents, building an identity from many strands of both heritage and experience. Even though my Dakar years were long ago now, I still feel the impulse to say “inshallah” when I speak of the future, “alhamdoulillah” when I speak of the past. And in the present, I celebrate projects such as #interfaithramadan, and The Big Iftar in the UK, as opportunities to realize all that can be positive about our complex religious world.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

“…Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, Will Be Able to Join Hands…”

January Snow

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr‘s birthday this year, I found myself standing with hundreds of other interfaith family members, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Leading us in song, their arms wrapped around each other, stood a trio of extraordinary spiritual leaders: a rabbi who met Dr. King and has spent a lifetime devoted to interfaith dialogue and social justice, a white minister born into a Southern Baptist family who now practices mindfulness and serves interfaith families, and an African-American woman who is a powerful Catholic gospel song leader.

Rabbi Harold White, Reverend Julia Jarvis, and Catholic cantor Thomascena Nelson lead our celebration this year. And the good news is that communities across America now create such interfaith gatherings to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King. This year, the synagogue I was born into, Temple Israel in Boston, formally invited a local imam to speak for the first time in its history, and I felt a surge of hope.

But for interfaith families, the words of Dr. King speak to us on a whole different level–an intimate level. My community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, includes over 100 families who not only hold hands once a year, but have married across religious boundaries and live an interfaith reality. Many of us also married across the traditional lines of race, culture, class, nationality, or sexual orientation. In our diversity we represent truly radical unity, a unity we experience day in and day out, throughout the year.

Singing with my interfaith family, I look out and see a dad raised Jewish and a dad raised Christian holding hands with their biracial daughter, who knows all the words to both the Christian and Jewish blessings. I see children adopted from Latin America and Asia, as well as intercultural interfaith families with parents rooted in those regions. I see an African-American Christian dad and a white Jewish mom lead an interfaith responsive reading, holding their squirming toddler.

I see a dream made real. Together, we form a community in which no individual is a guest, everyone can partake, nobody is excluded, and no parent must give up or minimize their own beliefs or practices or culture in order to join us. We are Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Humanists and Buddhists holding hands, forming families, and celebrating together. We have reached a time and place when we can be who we are as families, together in joy.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley

Zealot

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.

Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.

As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”

Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.

One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.

Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”

Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Mourning Andrew Pochter: Bridge-Builder from a Christian and Jewish Interfaith Family

Olive Branch, photo Martha Katz

            The tragic death of 21-year-old college student Andrew Pochter, killed during protests in Egypt last Friday, hit close to home for more than one reason. Pochter was from the Maryland suburbs of DC, and attended schools in the same school system as my college-aged daughter. But also, like me, he was the child of a Christian mother and a Jewish father. I believe Pochter displayed the positive hallmarks of that interfaith heritage: he devoted his life to building metaphorical bridges. He had the desire and ability to immerse himself in the experience of the “other.” According to friends and family, he had extraordinary empathy, a drive to transcend boundaries, and a gift for seeing connections.

            Pochter had studied Arabic while living in Morocco, and had intended to acquire additional Arabic dialects in Egypt and Jordan. On a Facebook memorial page, his family writes of Pochter’s plans to live and work in the Middle East “in the pursuit of peace and understanding.”

            Meanwhile, I am shaking my head as I watch a familiar process of media confusion over his religious identity unfold. Do they label him Jewish? Christian? Here is how Kenyon College, where Pochter would have been a junior in the fall, described his religious journey: “Raised a Christian, he was reared in a home with both Christian and Jewish parents, said his mother, Elizabeth Pochter, and he had become interested in his Jewish heritage.” It did not surprise me at all to learn that Pochter was a religious studies major, or that he had become a leader in Kenyon’s Hillel House. In reporting on children raised in interfaith families for my upcoming book, I noted a tendency for interfaith children to explore and study religion at the university level.

            In some Jewish media, Pochter is now being described as Jewish, with no reference to his interfaith family. At the same time, the all-too familiar bullying comments immediately cropped up in the comment sections, denying that a patrilineal Jew can be Jewish, or opining that if he was Jewish he should have been studying Hebrew, not Arabic.

            Meanwhile, one New York Times article declined to characterize the complexity of Pochter’s religious identity, by avoiding describing him as either Jewish or Christian, or from an interfaith family. On Twitter, one writer found the fact that the paper of record “doesn’t mention he was Jewish” to be “odd.”

          I don’t find it odd. Perhaps the New York Times did not want to reduce Pochter’s complexity to a single religious label of “Jewish” when he is no longer here to declare or describe his own identity. The identity of people from interfaith families can be fluid, flexible, multi-layered, vibrant. Sadly, we will never learn where Andrew Pochter’s journey might have taken him, geographically and spiritually. What we know is that he was not afraid to reach across the divides between religions, between countries, between people. May his memory be for a blessing, and inspire us all to work harder for peace and reconciliation around the world.

My Easter with Christians, Jews and Muslims

Easter Bonnet

We celebrated Easter this year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.

Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.

In addition to the Lord of the Dance and older traditional Easter hymns, we sang Bob Marley’s One Love. Then, we had a pancake breakfast that included matzoh brei (matzoh fried in eggs) for those of us who aren’t eating leavening until the end of Passover. This type of radical culinary inclusion is the norm in an interfaith families community. And it is part of what makes this community so comfortable, and so precious, for me.

After our Easter morning with Christians and Jews, I made a quick change out of my pastel dress and Easter bonnet and into a bold print Senegalese outfit, in order to join a community of Catholics and Muslims for our second Easter event of the day, a gathering of the local Catholic Senegalese association. We had the great fortune to be invited to this event by two Senegalese-American friends, one Catholic and one Muslim, who are cousins from an interfaith family, and who know that my husband and I crave Senegalese food and company ever since our years in Dakar. Intermarriage between Muslims and Catholics is not uncommon in Senegal. In fact, both of the Muslim Presidents of Senegal I interviewed as a journalist (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) had Catholic wives.

What struck me at this Easter feast, and touched me deeply, was the way the Catholics made sure to accommodate the dietary restrictions of Muslim family members and friends. All of the main dishes featured mutton or chicken, rather than ham, and the one dish with pork in it was carefully labelled. Our Muslim friend reminded us how people of all religions in Senegal share another local culinary tradition on Good Friday: ngalax, a dessert made from peanut butter, vanilla, sugar, and the fruit of the baobab tree, served with raisins over millet couscous. Typically, Catholics make the dish on Good Friday and deliver it to neighbors, friends and family of all religions, just as Muslims in Senegal share the mutton from the Tabaski (or Eid al-Adha) feast with neighbors of all religions.

I often use the Passover dish of charoset as a metaphor for my interfaith family: a mix of nuts, fruits, spices and wine, with flavors melding over time. Now I have a sweet new metaphor: the nuts and fruits and grain of ngalax, bonding interfaith families, neighborhoods, and countries.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Alif the Unseen: An Interfaith Protagonist

Alif the Unseen

One of my favorite books of the past year, Alif The Unseen (Grove Press, 2012), is a rip-snorting adventure tale of computer hackers and mythical genies set in an imagined Arab Spring, infused with a critique of the binary and an embrace of bothness. American author G. Willow Wilson previously wrote a graphic novel set in Cairo as well as a book about her own conversion to Islam while living in Egypt. She builds her latest story around characters who bridge worlds: two religions, two cultures, two classes, reality and fantasy, the seen and the unseen, the sacred and the profane, the digital and the analog, the love of computers and the love of books.

Alif, a shaggy young hacktivist and the eponymous hero, was born to an Arab Muslim father and an Indian mother who converted from Hinduism to Islam. Converts, expatriates, and interfaith children all share the experience of defending our identities when society attempts to label us in ways that cause cognitive dissonance. Wilson depicts this conflict, while at the same time celebrating the benefits of religious and cultural flux.

Neighbors taunt that Alif’s mother is “still secretly a Hindu.” Alif believes his father considers him “a problematic son with dark-skinned pagan blood in his lineage, the product of a union unsanctioned by his grandparents…” A friend, when angered, says, “…I could bash your half-Arab nose right in.” Such challenges will sound familiar to those of us in multicultural and multifaith families.

But at the same time, Wilson portrays the positive side of complex identity: the creative outside-the-box thinking, wry comic insider-outsider perspective, and empathy for the other. Alif’s crew of allies includes a half-man-half-beast jinn, a blond American convert to Islam, and a prince masquerading as a pauper. At the apex of a dizzying plot in which they battle dark political forces, crash computers, and flee through metaphysical time-zones, a friendly sheikh comments “…something fundamental has change about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention.”

Like Yann Martel’s much denser novel Life of Pi, Alif the Unseen is a global coming-of-age adventure tale with philosophical and religious themes. But this cyberpunk thriller, brimming with action and snappy dialogue, is a much quicker read.

Wilson portrays both Islam and the Middle East with affection as part of a 21st-century in which we are all recombining, defying dualism, traveling as a joyously motley crew into the future together. Those of us with complex identities (which, soon, will be all of us) will see ourselves reflected in Wilson’s genre-defying and very contemporary book. I plan to pass it on immediately to my two interfaith teenagers.

Supporting Muslim and Christian Couples (And the Rest of Us)

Rainbow in the Waves, photo Susan Katz Miller

Recently, support for interfaith families of all kinds took a giant step forward when the London-based Christian Muslim Forum released an excellent new publication: “When Two Faiths Meet: Marriage, Family and Pastoral Care.” These guidelines for clergy were released at an event at the venerable Westminster Abbey no less, and attended by supportive ministers and imams.

Longtime UK independent interfaith family support groups (the Inter Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group) helped to produce the guidelines. Neither of these groups represents a single religion: they are grassroots networks of interfaith couples and families. This collaboration between an interfaith dialogue group, clergy from more than one religion, and interfaith families strikes me as important. Too often, high-level interfaith dialogue has avoided the subject of interfaith families as too controversial, rather than supporting interfaith families and even drawing on their experiences with communication across religious divides.

The new document includes case studies of Muslim and Christian couples and families, and ten “Ethical Principles for Ministers, Imams, and other faith leaders” on how to best provide pastoral care to interfaith couples. The report points out that neither ministers nor imams “are being trained to respond to the increasing numbers” of interfaith couples.

The guidelines include the importance of ensuring that “individuals are not forced or pressurized to convert in order to marry.” Conversions made under pressure “may cause resentment in the long term” a “risk which may also apply in the case of enforced decisions about the faith identification of future children,” the guidelines state. This is brave language, and applies equally, in my experience, to Jewish and Christian, or Hindu and Muslim, or any other interfaith couples.

The report notes that the children of interfaith families “often report that their connection to two heritages is important to their sense of identity” and that they “are not confused by knowing both faiths or learning differences.”

Seeing my own positive reality as an interfaith child and an interfaith parent reflected in a report produced with the help of clergy from more than one religion, I feel a tremendous sense of affirmation, of being understood. I can only hope that here in the US we will take inspiration from this collaboration, and these new guidelines. In the meantime, we all benefit from the ability to get a free download of the guidelines from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim

At a recent preview screening of the new film Life of Pi by director Ang Lee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, I was relieved to discover that the film preserves  a key theme of the book: multiple religious belonging. The filmmakers have transformed a rather dense and philosophical read into a rollicking 3D adventure tale, focused on the survival of a young man and a tiger in a lifeboat on the high seas. But the film very clearly depicts the protagonist Piscine (“Pi”) Patel as claiming not one, not two, but three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.

The venerable Interfaith Alliance sponsored the screening, which gives me hope that advocates for interfaith dialogue are beginning to feel more comfortable engaging with the idea that people can and do claim more than one religion. Some of us who who feel connected to more than one faith come from interfaith families. I envision a day when interfaith activists will actively include the perspectives of interfaith families in the interfaith conversation. And with Life of Pi in theaters, I look forward to a lively conversation about how claiming more than one religion fits into the push for respectful religious pluralism.

In the book, the clergy of all three religions challenge Pi’s right to multiple religious belonging:

The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”

In the film version, it is Pi’s father who insists that his son must choose one religion, while his mother points out that he is still young, and has time to choose a path. And yet, at the end of his adventures, despite wisdom and experience, a middle-aged Pi still defines himself as Hindu, Catholic and Muslim.

The example of Pi challenges the assertion that dual-faith or multiple-faith adherence is simply immature, or a temporary state. For those of us in interfaith families celebrating both family religions, this debate is all too familiar. Often, we are told that interfaith children “must” choose one religion eventually. And yet, some interfaith children insist in adulthood on maintaining connections to both religions, having grown accustomed to the benefits of claiming both.

While many religious institutions find the blurring of boundaries threatening, academic theologians have been discussing both the challenges and opportunities of multiple religious belonging for some time. They acknowledge that religious double-belonging has been the norm through much of history in many parts of the world, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In Europe and America–areas dominated by the more exclusivist Abrahamic religions–claiming more than one religion has been less common. But as religious flux and fluidity (and intermarriage) rise with globalization, dual-faith adherence inevitably rises as well.

In the introduction to the book Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “…widespread consciousness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but of how many religions she or he might belong to.”

But interfaith families claiming two religions are not simply inspired by a consciousness of religious pluralism: they are living this pluralism on an intimate daily basis. Rather than choosing religions as in a cafeteria, interfaith children raised with both religions are are growing up celebrating the dual faiths already present around the family dinner table.

Some interfaith children raised with two religions choose a single faith identity in adulthood. And some, like Pi Patel, will insist on claiming dual or multiple religions, even in maturity. I am glad that the movie version of Life of Pi is bringing this theological discussion to the big screen. I hope that it will bring together interfaith activists doing the important work of trying to calm the seas of religious misunderstanding, with those of us who insist on riding the waves of more than one religion.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Saint Francis: Interfaith Peacemaker

Though the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the season of All Saints and All Souls go by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.

Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic, and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker .

On the morning of our celebration, a simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me, contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a saint.

As patron saint of animals and the environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.

The life of Saint Francis has inspired many popular works of music and art.  Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan. My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini (or The Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking crow.

While many people associate Saint Francis with nature, not as many know the story of his voyage to the Muslim world as a peacemaker. At our gathering, an interfaith father raised Catholic told the story of the journey of Saint Francis in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, to seek out the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Two books devoted to this story came out in the wake of 9/11: The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by journalist Peter Moses, and Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter by religious historian John Tolan.

Apparently, Francis and the Sultan developed deep respect for each other during days of intense dialogue in the midst of war. The Sultan treated Francis as a guest rather than an enemy. And Francis arrived home urging Christians to take inspiration from Muslims, and live peacefully beside them.

At our celebration, we sang the Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint Francis. The prayer (whether or not Francis had anything to do with writing it) has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love this version by a rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning about his life.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Muslim and Christian: The Legend of the “Torre de la Minyona”

This week, I attempted to take a break from writing my book on interfaith identity, in order to celebrate my daugher’s graduation from high school on a family trip to Spain. But I cannot help myself now from seeing the world through my interfaith lens. Everywhere I go, I see the evidence that around the globe, and throughout history, people fall in love across the lines of race and religion and tribe. As long as we treat these love stories as transgressive and problematic, they will remain transgressive and problematic. When we accept them as natural, as sources of creativity and inspiration, as good for humanity, we will come closer to achieving that reality.

Less than two hours north of Barcelona,we stayed in a lovely hotel constructed from a medieval castle on a hilltop overlooking the town of  Cardona. Thousands of castles dot the Spanish landscape, in part because of the long history of conquest and reconquest on the shifting frontline between the Christian and Muslim world. I knew of the long history of Judaism prior to the Inquisition in Spain, and of the co-existence of the three Abrahamic religions in al-Andalus in the south of the country. The religious harmony in ancient Andalusia is often romanticized, held up as a model for interfaith trialogue and peace-building of the sort that has three separate and distinct religions interact while retaining clear boundaries. But in recounting this history, very rarely does anyone mention what happened when Christians and Muslims and Jews actually fell in love with each other in medieval Spain. And yet, when people live and work side by side, love stories are inevitable.

The Cardona castle overlooks a Roman-era salt mine which provided the wealth to build the garrison and ramparts and towers over many centuries. Wilfred the Hairy began the castle construction in 886 CE. (Orson Welles chose this castle as the main setting for his Shakespearean film “The Chimes of Midnight.”) The most celebrated and iconic section of the castle is the cylindrical 11th century “Torre de la Minyona” or Maiden’s Tower. I climbed the  tower, looking mainly for a view through a bright cloudless sky over the Catalonion countryside. But after stopping to read the historical plaque about the tower, the rolling landscape took on a strange and gloomy cast.

“…in the very early days of the castle, Adelaida, the lovely daughter of the count, fell in love with a Muslim jailor from a neighboring town. Despite the fact that the young man planned to convert to Christianity, the maiden’s parents sentenced her to be locked up in the tower, where she was attended only by a mute maid. Tradition tells that the suitor even built a cross using stones from the river to demonstrate how fervently he embraced his new faith. However, the lords would not give in and the young girl’s health deteriorated from her suffering. She died in captivity.”

The curators of the castle point out that this tale is legend, not history, and that the origins of the story are “lost in the mists of time.” Over the centuries, many versions of the tale have circulated in Catalonia. Some say the lover was a prince named Abdullah, and that the forbidden love affair caused a protracted war between the Christians and Moors. In this version, Adelaida draws a cross with the blood of her own fingers before dying to prove that she has never renounced her Christianity. Others say Adelaida’s brothers imprisoned her, in part because she converted to Islam. It is said that her father relented on his deathbed and called for her release, but that Adelaida died just before he arrived, or at the moment she was freed. Many believe that her ghost now haunts the castle, as does a ghost of Abdullah, who rides up to the castle every evening at the hour when the lovers first met.

Haunted parapets, star-crossed lovers, religious passion. I am sure these ingredients help to engage the tourists who come to stay at the castle, and I plead guilty to being one of them. But for me, the Legend of the Tower of the Maiden of Cardona serves as a  poignant reminder of the stubborn, ongoing resistance to interfaith love. In the 21st century, interfaith couples still face family members who attempt to sabotage their relationships, religious communities that expect outrageous proof of fidelity from those who dare to intermarry, and states ready to do battle over religious difference.

I cannot help musing about how the history of Cardona might have been different if Adelaida and Abdullah had been united. In one version of the tale, the storyteller has Abdullah describe this vision to Adelaida: “I say we hope for the future together, a sunny future that will allow children with brown skin and blue eyes to run through this castle, enjoying the scenery of this homeland, as seen from this tower. I pray that you have faith, please.”

I would like to think we are closer to the time when Abdullah’s vision can become a reality. I have faith that creating interfaith families will help to build peace and understanding on the most intimate level, with global repurcussions. Inspired by Abdullah and Adelaida, let us break free from our towers of isolation, make love not war, and help to make the 21st century a time of unprecedented harmony.

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