Ten Things I Love About Islam

I spent three formative years living in Senegal, a stable democratic country that is more than 90% Muslim. I emerged with a deep appreciation of Islam, and I believe my experiences as an interfaith child helped me to be open to forming these positive impressions. My friend Surabhi commented on my blog post “Ten Things I Love About Christianity” that there are probably ten things we love about each religion we come to know. So I was inspired to write a personal and somewhat random list for the third of the three Abrahamic faiths.

  1. Ethnic Inclusivity. Muslims don’t think of themselves as a tribe. Indonesia, Mali, Jordan—three Muslim countries, three different races. I am inspired by Malcolm X’s 1964 “Letter from Mecca,” in which he begins to overcome his own antipathy to white people when he sees Muslims of all colors praying together
  2. Humility in Worship. When we lived in Dakar, our apartment balcony looked out on a street that was filled each Friday with the faithful bowed down in prayer. Businessmen in European suits and embroidered African robes, and the lowliest street sweepers in rags, all would roll out their mats side by side in the street and kneel down together.
  3. The Sound of the Muezzin. President Obama remarked on the evocative sound of the call to prayer. We used to spend weekends on the Senegalese island of Goree, where our friend Harriet had a house with a rooftop terrace covered with Mauritanian leather pillows. We would lounge up there, drinking tea right under the megaphone on the mosque next door. Each time the call went out across the island, it moved and thrilled me.
  4. Islamic Design. In Islam, the prohibition against making figurative art evolved into gorgeous calligraphy, and murals and tiles in intricate patterns tied to the rich history of Arab geometry, algebra and astronomy.
  5. Islamic Architecture. I remember the silhouette of a splendid minaret against a huge orange moon rising from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Dakar. And the ancient mud mosques of Djenne, in Mali, are worth the endless bus ride from Bamako. Magnificent, like dip-drop castles by way of Gaudi, each spire topped by an ostrich egg.
  6. Sufi Dancing. I’m a sucker for a circle dance. For all my half-Jewish ambivalence about Israel, I adore Israeli dancing, and Greek dancing too. The Sufi zikr, ecstatic chanting and dancing, has developed a tremendous following in the United States and Europe. Some Westerners seek to divorce Sufism from Islam, and to avoid the Muslim label. I like to credit Islam with giving birth to a practice that has such universal appeal.
  7. Senegalese Music. The Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal have inspired music appreciated around the world. I groove to the Muslim references in songs by Toure Kunda, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and anything by the deeply spiritual Cheikh Lo.
  8. Rumi. The ever-popular thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, widely appreciated for his ecumenical philosophy, was nonetheless a devout Muslim.
  9. Hagar. Mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and thus the matriarch of Islam, Hagar was exiled in the desert, but survived and prevailed. Israeli peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East now cite her as inspiration. Charlotte Gordon’s fascinating new book revolves around Hagar’s central role in the founding of the three Abrahamic faiths.
  10. Jesus the Prophet. I’m not the first to realize that the Muslim view of Jesus–that he was one in a line of prophets descended from Abraham–could actually fit into my Jewish (or at least Jewish/Christian) world view. As an interfaith child, I look for these opportunities for a personal “meeting of the three faiths.”

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

Finding Interfaith Spirituality

Labyrinth at Lama, photo Sue Katz MillerI subscribe to the theory that spirituality is primarily a neurochemical response to music, dance, beauty, and sense of community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I seek out the rush of spirituality, and have found it in synagogues, churches, nature, and concert halls. I have felt that rush in a crowd of people transported by the live music of Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, Regina Spektor.

Clearly, I’m not alone. All mystic traditions make use of these same elements to inspire spirituality, and the fact that these elements are common across the lines of dogma and theology, across even the boundaries of monotheism, polytheism and atheism, confirms my interfaith perspective. The Chasids, the mystics of Judaism, know the power of dancing and chanting, as do the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. The Jewish Renewal movement is reclaiming this power, uncoupling it from the orthodoxy of Chasidism and merging it with a more progressive framework.

Many recent studies have tracked the shift by Americans away from religion, even as they seek and experience more spirituality. Other studies have implied that it is spirituality, not religion, that breeds happiness.

As an interfaith child, I have had profound spiritual moments in the dim stained-glass light of Chartres Cathedral, while listening to Bach’s Easter Oratorio at the Peabody Conservatory, while dancing and chanting a Shlomo Carlebach song with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and while dancing and chanting a Sufi zikr in the thin air of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains in a sacred grove at the Lama Foundation.

My interfaith children have deep grounding in the specific traditions of Judaism and Christianity bequeathed to them by ancestors. So you could say that they have “permission” to access the swell of emotion invoked by singing Handel’s Messiah in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church at Christmas. And they have “permission” to feel the primal call of the shofar penetrate their souls. But as interfaith children primed to seek out the spiritual, their comfort zone expands far beyond these two inherited traditions. My 12-year-old son has gone on more than one Buddhist retreat. My artist daughter feeds her soul on the ephemeral outdoor sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy. Deep is good. Tradition is good. But for our family, more is also better. We want as much singing, dancing, beauty and community as we can fit into our lives. We seek out these experiences wherever and whenever we can find them.