What Islam is Not

“I may disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

I have avoided the topic of religion as the sole focus of a blog post thus far because it hasn’t seemed quite relevant. My work, the Pulaar culture that dominates life here, and daily reflections have been my mainstay for the simple reason that they consume most of my thoughts. The politics that go with seriously discussing religion have seemed out of place. However, the recent attacks in Paris, namely the murders at the Charlie Hebdo office, have permeated even my small village in Senegal and have brought about the topic of Islam until they seem one in the same. Yet those attacks were not about Islam, they were about fear and hate. They hold no representation of the religion and culture I’ve come to know in the past 16 months. Islam, as it has been demonstrated to me, is a religion of love.

I have not studied the Koran and cannot comment on its teachings firsthand; my knowledge of Islam comes from living and working among people who are devoted practitioners of their faith. It is a faith, like any other, that is interpreted differently by every individual and so is subject to our own human failings and errors. Despite these, however, it is not a faith that condones the murder of 17 people who hold different beliefs and speak openly about them.

In my village, religion is the backbone of society and has the most influence over how things are done. As a result, I’m often asked if I’m Muslim. When I answer that I was raised Christian an argument usually ensues about the need for me to switch to Islam, but it’s always done in jest and leads to a good dialogue about the differences in our faiths. Mostly, people tell me Christians don’t pray enough (due to their five scheduled prayer times each day and additional meditations before and after, I can’t argue the opposite). They also usually request that I learn the prayers they say. These are always done in Arabic and despite my best efforts, any attempt at memorizing them falls embarrassingly short. I understand the basic meanings though, what they ask for, what they hope for, and what they’re thankful for: their own health, the health of their family, the things they already have that they consider blessings, a new day, prosperity, and peace. Peace, jam, the first word I learned in Pulaar and the most used one as well.

The Muslims I live and work with believe in sharing everything; what is mine is also yours, no matter who you are or what you believe. This extends to everything from a place to sleep to food to eat. They say the Koran teaches them to take care of each other. I see this in my host family each and every day. When the boys who study the Koran come to ask for food, we give it out of our own lunch bowl. If a family who recently lost everything they own to a fire is in need of something, we gather it from our own meager possessions and give it happily. If immigrant men come through our village looking for a place to sleep and a hot meal, we make space for them on our own floors and invite them in. All of this my host family does, even though they have barely enough for their own 40 plus family members, for friends and strangers alike because they say their God teaches we should take care of each other and share in whatever wealth we might have. This is the Islam I know to be true.

The few men in my village who have radios and speak French asked me about the attacks in Paris. While I myself do not agree with some of the material published by Charlie Hebdo, there are no words to describe the depths of wrong for the attack on them. “Allah does not agree,” the men say, “life is a blessing.” I tell them I know this and so does the rest of the world. But in these times that is not always true. Fear and hate have grown out of the abhorrent and cowardly acts of the growing extremism across the world. When not only innocent bystanders in a supermarket but also people exercising their right to free speech are killed in the name of Islam it is an attempt to silence those discussions and questions that cause us to reflect and improve upon our society. It is barbaric and wrong. It is a misrepresentation of a faith that teaches love for all and of the people who practice it.

Yo’Allah hokku jam. God give you peace.


3 thoughts on “What Islam is Not

  1. Tremendous post, I nominate you for Ambasador to Senegal! Thanks for all you are doing for humanity and having met your family and many villagers it is such an obvious truth.

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