For the first edition of the brand new series called “Interfaith Fridays,” the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson moderated a series of questions with American Muslims and interfaith activists Khalid and Sabeeha Rehman at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 30, in the Hall of Philosophy. Together, the Rehmans discussed their views of the Islamic faith, as well as how they strive to move the Muslim community in an interfaith direction.
Khalid and Sabeeha Rehman have been speaking at the Institution since 2012 but have been public advocates for their religion for more than 20 years. After retiring from his career as an oncologist, Khalid Rehman became a board member of the Muslim Majlis of Staten Island and founder of the Pakistani Cultural Association of Staten Island. Sabeeha Rehman, a former healthcare executive, is a board member of the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee and the author of Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim.
What follows is an abridged version of the Rehmans’ conversation. Their remarks have been condensed for clarity.
From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here in Chautauqua or in the world?
Khalid: “I think there is tremendous need for interfaith dialogue and interfaith conversations. We need it here in America, particularly since the election, since there has been a political divide. There has been talk about Muslim registry, Muslim ban and so forth, so there is tremendous need to share what Islam is. We also need to promote it to Europe because of the current circumstances of asylum seekers and socioeconomic conditions. There is an increase in hatred and bigotry and racism, so we need to get this message out to them. More importantly, I think we need to get this (interfaith) message to all of the Muslim countries. They need this because there is persecution of the minority and I think once we know the other, the fear of the other goes away. I think that by understanding each other and understanding the faiths, we bring our communities together. We become each others’ ambassadors. If you have seen or met a Muslim, your opinion about them changes. It is an antidote, I think, to extremism, an antidote to fear. It strengthens you and me. It strengthens the moderates of every community. We all have moderates in our community. We all have extremists in our community. So, by sharing this information with each other, we strengthen the moderates so that they can then challenge and deal with the extremists.”
Questions two and three are two sides of the same coin (about) when you come to the metaphorical interfaith table: What gifts do you bring as Muslims to that table? And what gifts do you suspect other traditions have that you benefit from?
Khalid: “Islam is a continuation of the Abrahamic religion. We believe in all the prophets and in the same books. So it’s the continuation of the same message, the same God. So, we consider that Islam really brings reinforcement to the values, the values that have been attributed to the prophets (for) so long — the core values, which are all the same, we all share them.”
Sabeeha: “In terms of what gifts other faith traditions bring, in the Christian faith, I like the practice of saying grace before dinner. I think that’s just beautiful to hold hands and sit around the table and thank God for his blessings. And I love Christmas. The festivities, the lights, the spirit of joy is just a beautiful time of the year. In the Jewish faith, I think it is such a sensible idea to stop one day and just rest on the day of Sabbath. I also think that the practice of reading the Torah once a year from beginning to end is really great. From the Hindu faith, I love the music of the temples, the colors, the lights — and then there is yoga. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is just such a good practice to decompress, clear your head and make a connection to your creator.”
Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion?
Khalid: “When speaking to Muslims or Muslim countries, the concept that Islam is the only truth is not prevalent except in the very conservative groups who think they are “holier than thou.” Other than that, I think that, generally speaking, we have to believe in all we proceeded from. To us, we are not unique, and we are not different, and we are not any better, we’re just a continuation. So, no, I don’t consider Islam as (the) one true religion.”
Do you have extremist practitioners of Islam? And if so, what does that do to your heart as a moderate practitioner of Islam, and what effect has it had on you in the world that these extremists are exaggerating, or perhaps even violating things that are salient to you?
Sabeeha: “There are extremists. We all know who they are, whether that’s ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaida, and from the perspective of mainstream Muslims, they don’t speak for other Muslims. They don’t uphold the values of Islam, and their tactics of violence and extortion and kidnapping is entirely a violation of our principles.”
Khalid: “Every time something like this happens in the name of Islam, we — the moderates — cringe. We feel that we are set back. After 9/11, we were in fear. Muslims went into hiding. Women stopped using head covers, people changed their names. They didn’t want to be recognized as Muslim because of the fear. There was “boo-ing” in the schools. Children in the schools are bullied because they are painted with the same brush as the extremists. It is a dangerous thing for us every time it happens. It also energizes those “Islamophobes.” Every time something happens they are in media, once again, painting the whole Muslim community with the same brush. It’s really unfortunate.”
Sabeeha: “It has also led to many misconceptions. For example, the term “jihad.” People have presented that word as a “holy war.” There is nothing holy about war. The term jihad means “the inner struggle, the struggle of overcoming temptations and making a better person out of you.” It is about establishing social justice. The message of jihad is to respond and fight back in self-defense. You can fight back if you have been attacked. But God said in the Quran that he does not like the aggressive. If you have been driven out of your home, then yes, fight back. But, if you have been offered a peace offering, always take that.”