The place to begin is to develop friendships. We should develop friendships with our Muslim neighbors, colleagues, and co-workers. Friendships help us build understanding and trust. Deep and abiding friendships erase the boundary between “us” and “them” on the personal level and create favorable conditions for learning about the world that lies beyond the world of our own identity. Friendships open up a wonderful opportunity. They make it possible to learn about another religion in the presence of its practitioners – people whom we have learned to love and respect.
Many of us have come to appreciate the importance of interfaith dialogue. The most effective dialogue takes place when there is mutual trust and respect between the dialogue partners. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn about Islam (and other religions) by engaging in interfaith dialogue over many years. The result has been most gratifying, as I have grown in understanding and appreciation of others. I have also grown in understanding myself.
So what have I learned from my association with Muslims? I’ve had confirmed, first of all, what is obvious – that Muslims are like any other group of people. They have hopes and dreams for themselves and their families that are shared by the rest of us. I’ve learned that they yearn to be understood and respected as valued members of the human family. I’ve learned that Muslims are wonderful assets to our community and state.
Second, I’ve learned to appreciate an other way of viewing the world. The alternative vision that Islam provides an important antidote to the tendency to think that one’s own worldview is the only worldview that exists. Not so! Encountering our Muslim neighbors keeps me from thinking that my religion is the only way. It keeps me aware of the importance of being open to others. For how can we love our neighbors as ourselves unless we are open to them and value their presence among us? Finally, I have learned the value of discipline. Muslims have taught me that if they can pray five times a day and fast throughout the season of Ramadan, then I should be able to take up one of the disciplines in my own religion and practice it diligently for at least a season. Their discipline never ceases to challenge and inspire me.
In sum, I have learned from my Muslim friends valuable lessons that, if put into practice, will make me a better practitioner of my own religion. I’ve learned that when we work together in mutual appreciation and respect we open ourselves to receive the rich benefits, the blessings, of our religiously diverse society.
- Carl D. Evans
University of South Carolina Department of Religious Studies