Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Minarets, mercy, and me

We arrived in Bangladesh early in the morning, while it was still dark. We walked out of the airport into impossibly thick, hazy air; we hopped into taxis whose drivers we could not understand, en route to a hotel we didn╩╝t know how to find; as first light broke we breathed in burning trash and listened as the call to prayer rang out in the streets.

I was nineteen, and it was intoxicatingly beautiful and frightening and new, all at once.

Photo by Carleton Browne

My knowledge of Islam was minimal. I had been taught in Sunday school and at camp and wherever else it came up that Christianity was unique in this: it is a religion of grace and mercy. We are a people who believe in a forgiving God; we do not earn God’s love or salvation by our own merit but receive it by grace. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Humanism—all of these religions attempt to curry favor with God or earn paradise by human deeds.

For a while I bought the argument, which was supposed to be a kind of assurance, showing that our religion was unique among all global religions and that therefore its story held some extra weight. For mercy in time of failure, Christianity was the only place to turn.


Two weeks in, we girls were sitting in our translator Jamila’s room, discussing poverty or henna or peanut butter, I don’t remember. The muezzin’s voice rang out, and Jamila turned to us. “Will you mind if I pray?” We shook our heads and quietly chatted on as she insisted we did not need to leave.

She rolled out a mat and knelt, her forehead pressed to the ground; then she up on her heels; she knelt again, prostrated again; up and down as she spoke under her breath. The late afternoon sun snuck through the window slats and bathed her shalwar kameez in gold. It was like a dance.

I saw in her prayer something that went beyond duty and ritual, touched love. I saw in her prayer belief in a God of mercy.

Every evening, after our research in the village, we sat around a coffee table on the humid second floor of the hostel and pretended to have wise observations on village poverty and community development. Dawoud spoke as a professor, not as a person of faith, but it was so evident how his faith informed his view of development. How his compassion for the poor, for the women, for the sick came from the compassion of God.

I woke up morning after morning to the muezzin’s call and couldn’t shake the feeling: Islam too was a faith of mercy, compassion, grace.


In the Qu’ran, the most commonly used names for God are “The Compassionate” and “The Merciful.” Muhammad is reported to have said, “Not one of you will enter paradise by your deeds alone…not even me, unless God covers me with his grace and mercy.”

It’s possible that exposure to this side of Islam was one more chink in the wall of my childhood faith that was to crumble around me later that year. I can’t say it was a conscious part of my doubts and questions; I also can’t say it was irrelevant to see another religion so reverently and lovingly practiced.

There was really only one brick that couldn’t be torn down, for me, that stood through my questions, stood past the sense of loss, stood past the many discarded apologetics. That cornerstone was Jesus—his life and death and resurrection.

Maybe Jesus is enough. Rather than try to justify my faith because it is unique, or insist on it because it is tolerant, or prove it against other worldviews, maybe it is enough simply to say I still believe in the compelling God revealed in Jesus—a God who loves and loves to the point of death, a God who seeks downward mobility, a God whose power is in vulnerability, whose life is through death, whose character is paradox and beauty and justice and transformation and solidarity and joy.

Though I found beauty in the practices of my Muslim friends—though I have found logic in the approaches of my agnostic friends—though I have begun to envy the rich rituals of Judaism—though I have been challenged by the ideas of Native American spirituality—I will forever belong to Christianity for one reason: Jesus.

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