By Sayed-Hassan Akhlaq, Contributor published at The Huffington Post. Reblogged on Scholarly Islam.
“I needed an affordable place to live, but I found much more — faith, hope and friendship at a Catholic seminary.”
I am both Imam and philosopher but over the course of the last few years my life and faith has been greatly influenced. I lived more than four years in a fully Christian context, a seminary belonging to the Society of Saint Joseph, better known as the Josephites. The Josephites have a special charism and mission, that to the African-American community. It was a real awakening for me to share their life and vision. We did many things together: lived together in the same house; ate together daily; shared our stories; and talked about issues that are normally avoided at family gatherings, namely politics and religion. We prayed together and celebrated Ash Wednesday and the time of Lent. There was mutual respect for the forms and times of fasting, both for Lent and Ramadan. We shared jokes and laughed together. The fathers and brothers came to our Mosque and Islamic congregation and Muslims came to the seminary. Finally, together we watched the vitriol and hate which came through the Media, politicians, and Muslims terrorists. It was an extraordinary experience with many discoveries. It lead to the exploration of different topics that we had in common. The different views illuminated the beauty of the other’s tradition rather than all of our own failures.
Finding a Place to Stay The first time I stayed at Saint Joseph’s Seminary was in 2009 when I went to a five-week seminar in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Catholic University of America. It was an academic stay. In 2012 I wanted to stay there again because the seminary is close to my office at the CUA. When I inquired I found that there was a new person in charge of the seminary. He did not know me. The new person in charge was Bishop Emeritus John Ricard, SSJ. He asked me how long I wanted to stay. I told him I was unsure. He then asked: “Who was the rector at the seminary when you stayed here before?” I told him I could not remember. The next question was, “who do you know here?” I mentioned Brother Thomson. The bishop replied that he had passed away last year. I thought I was doomed because I didn’t know anyone currently living at St. Joseph’s. Suddenly, Brother Louis Tomaso entered Bishop’s office. “Hi Sayed” he said. I hesitantly replied, “Hi. Do you remember me?” Brother Tomaso opened the door for me. The bishop knew that I was familiar with the spirit and rules of the house. He agreed to give me a room. I should add that it was a small bedroom which shared a communal bathroom with everyone else on the floor. It is similar to an old-fashion boarding house. I was asking to join the community. It was therefore important for the good of the community that I be trustworthy, honest, and abide by the rules of the house. The bishop wanted someone to vouch for me because he was opening his home, the place where his fellow priests and brothers and seminarians lived, prayed, worshiped, and ate together. I stayed with them for more than four years. I went to their prayers and observed their ordination rituals. I celebrated with them on New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and Super-Bowl Sunday. I became part of the family.
He boiled eggs each night of Ramadan and put them in the refrigerator with a sign saying they belonged to Sayed. This food was beyond the regularly prepared food left for all residents of the seminary. It really showed me the high respect and love of a Christian brother to help a Muslim imam to enjoy this special time.
Ramadan I knew Ramadan was approaching, the time for Muslims to fast and I did not know how my fast would fit into the community at the house. Before I even asked, Brother Louis, the House Master, found me and asked me about Ramadan. He asked when Ramadan would begin and what I would do for Suhoor, the early morning meal Muslims consume before fasting for the rest of the day. I showed him the calendar and assured him that I would take care of myself. But he was eager to help me and asked me what I would like to eat. After examining many options, we agreed that he would boil some eggs for my Suhoor. He boiled eggs each night of Ramadan and put them in the refrigerator with a sign saying they belonged to Sayed. This food was beyond the regularly prepared food left for all residents of the seminary. It really showed me the high respect and love of a Christian brother to help a Muslim imam to enjoy this special time.
Friendly Fathers Nearly every weekday there was a time to sit around the dinner table and talk with the fathers. We had very fruitful conversations along with fun discussions. Time and again I learned about Christian doctrine, traditions, practices, and concerns and, in turn, I told them about Islam. We spoke about hierarchy and egalitarianism in Islam and Christianity examining Catholicism and Protestantism, Sunni and Shia Islam. Moreover, we told jokes about clergymen and, even popes. I joined them in their prayers before and after supper: I either kept my hands in the Islamic way of prayer or I mixed both Christian and Islamic forms. After one meal I offered the Islamic prayer for thanking God for food. I read to them the verse of the Quran reciting Jesus’ way of prayer after supper:
“Jesus, son of Mary, said: O Allah, Lord of us! Send down for us a table spread with food from heaven, that it may be a feast for us, for the first of us and for the last of us, and a sign from Thee. Give us sustenance, for Thou art the Best of Sustainers” (The Quran, 5:114).
Merciful Sisters There is a wing attached to the seminary’s kitchen where several religious sisters reside. Their religious order works with seminaries providing meals for priests and seminarians and cleaning the chapel and sacred vessels. They cooked the meals we ate at the seminary. The nuns are dedicated and delightful. They knew that I had restrictions in my diet: the foods I ate had to be Halal, I had to abstain from pork and all foods containing pork, and I could not imbibe alcohol. They put up with all that fuss and, we were and still are close friends. Once Sister Mary, the head of the community of sisters, told me in jest, “Sayed, why you are not eating pork? God created it and does not prohibit it.” I replied: “The Pope is coming to DC and you are going to meet him. Please ask him for a written permission note for me, that will guarantee that as a Muslim, I can eat pork and still be practicing Muslim.” Sister Mary promised me to bring the permission! Sister Regina, moved far away but still we are friends on social media and exchange messages. Their devotion, sincerity and conversations always reminded me of female students at Madrasas — the common devotion, sincerity, and holiness. The sisters always made sure that there was food that I could eat which did not conflict with the rules of Halal. Additionally, the priests, seminarians, and residents made sure I knew which foods contained pork before I put any on my plate. They all knew the restrictions of the Muslim diet and made sure that I did not break those rules. They thought the Pope would agree, thus no permission note!
Diverse Atmosphere I was not the only non-seminarian at the seminary. They were also a number of other residents of various professions. There were professors who worked at the various universities in the area. Among them were scholars of Politics, Theology, Economics, and Spanish. There were also physicians who worked at the hospital across the street. I never saw lay people living in Islamic Madrasas. This mix of people rewarded and enriched both the seminarians and the lay people. It broadened the education of the seminarians. It was a great way to bridge gaps and undo presuppositions and prejudices.
They are so many stories to share and several lessons to learn. However, I would like to confess this experience opened new horizons in faith and wisdom. If Christians and Muslims approach each other as fellow followers of God they will live together peacefully and enrich each other’s lives. Such co-existence will eliminate ignorance of the other, will build better communities, help each other spiritually and religiously, and spread peace. There are many things that Muslims can learn from Christians. The Quran clearly states,
“And you will certainly find the nearest in friendship to those who believe [Muslims] [to be] those who say: We are Christians; this is because there are priests and monks among them and because they do not behave proudly.” (The Quran, 5:82)
Also, there are many things which Christians can learn from Muslims. They are explicitly encouraged to not be satisfied with their spiritual achievements,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew, 5:3)
Yes, they can learn more about Jesus and Muhammad and thus improve their own religious accomplishments if they look through a different lens, one that is unfamiliar. If the true nature of being religious is to celebrate God’s love and blessings everywhere, should not Muslims and Christians worship, adore, and celebrate God with and through each other?
We live in an age of every expanding information; however, knowledge of the other is not sufficient. We need to love each other. It is not enough to know about God, we must know God Himself. Similarly, it is not enough to know about each other, but we must have true relationships we each other based on charity, respect, and love of God. I would like to finish my essay with a piece of wisdom of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, “People hate what they do not know.”
I needed an affordable place to live, but I found much more — faith, hope and friendship at a Catholic seminary.