February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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February 2016 Bar Bulletin

Islam and Catholicism: A Cross-Cultural Education

By Norma Linda Ureña


Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Seattle University, I was adopted by the Arab international students. Most of the students who adopted me were from Saudi Arabia. There were Ibrahim, Abbas, Fahad, Ali, Kamal, Alawi, Mohamed, Abdul, Jawad, Hasan and Abdul.

I was a 19-year-old sophomore of modest means discovering the world outside the rural town that I grew up in. My new family members were sponsored by ARAMCO. They received a generous stipend that covered their room, board, tuition, books and plenty to lead a comfortable life. I in turn relied on grants, loans, scholarships and my three work-study jobs. My father had recently been laid off from his job of 15-plus years. My mom made little more than minimum wage. I was on my own for my college expenses.

I’m not sure how I ended up blessed with their friendship. But blessed I was. We studied together. Most of them were married and had children. Their wives and children didn’t speak English. So, when I visited their homes, I had to learn Arabic to converse with their families. It was actually a funny sight I imagine; one lone woman sitting in the library surrounded by all these men. I studied political science; they were engineering students.

One friend in particular, Fahad, approached me one day. He asked me if I would consider teaching him about Catholicism. He was curious about the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam. I said yes, of course. He suggested that we do an exchange. I was intrigued. An exchange? He said yes. If I was willing to fast for Ramadan, he would fast for Lent.

He was also wanted to attend Easter Sunday mass at St. James Cathedral. He suggested I go to Jumaa (Friday afternoon) prayer at his mosque. Jumaa prayer is important to Muslims in the same way Sunday morning mass is important to Catholics. I was excited. Lent had just started.

I explained the rules of Lent. No snacking. No meat on Fridays. The practice of giving up one thing for the entire period of Lent. I had chosen chocolate that Lent. Fahad was amused. No snacking? Refrain from eating only one item? He could hardly wait until Ramadan.

He chose to give up smoking. He teased me about how easy Lent was. But I would often catch him smoking. He would apologize and say he had forgotten. It was a habit. He was still amused that meat was prohibited only on Fridays. I knew that Ramadan would be so much more difficult, but Lent was hard for different reasons.

Easter Sunday came. I was excited to share Easter Sunday traditions with him. I urged him to buy new clothes for himself, his wife and his son to wear to Easter Sunday mass. We went shopping together.

On Sunday we walked to St. James from Xavier Hall where I lived. He wore his new suit. I wore my new Easter dress, of course. I explained to him that he was not allowed to partake in certain rituals, but that if he followed me and mimicked me that no one would know he was not Catholic. I asked him to sit, stand, kneel and stand again on cue with me and the rest of the parishioners. When it was time for the sign of the cross, he misheard me direct him to say “Peace be with you” when a hand was extended to him. Instead of saying “Peace be with you,” to my horror he was saying “Nice to meet you.”

I cringed, but he was so happy to be participating that he was out of reach for me to correct him. He was greeting people two pews ahead of me. With a big grin he was shaking people’s hands, still letting them know it was “nice to meet” them. People looked at him confused, but probably out of politeness or shock no one corrected him. Finally he came back to our pew and sat down next to me.

Next was the taking of the host, the bread, the Body of Christ. I asked him to follow me. I knew he was prohibited from taking the bread, but I rationalized it in my 19-year-old head that God would understand because this was for the greater good. He was learning about Christianity. Catholicism. I was sure God would forgive me (and him). If God and Allah were the same that is.

I cupped my hands to receive the host, I placed the host in my mouth and I moved two steps to the right while I made the sign of the cross. I did this so I could watch Fahad take the host. Fahad did not wait for Archbishop Hunthausen to finish blessing the host. In fact, Fahad snatched it out of the Archbishop’s hand before the blessing was done. Fahad even told the Archbishop thank you as he placed the host in his mouth and started munching away. I was so embarrassed. I wanted to run. But the interesting part was when we left the cathedral. He had a million questions.

I had 40 days to get ready for Ramadan. Ramadan started on May 10. It was my turn to fast the Islamic way. From dawn until sunset it is prohibited to consume food or drink any beverages (including water). The first day I decided to chew gum to distract myself. Unfortunately, gum is prohibited as well.

My friends adjusted their sleep schedules so they would be awake at night and sleep during the day. I tried to maintain my regular schedule, but it was too much. The last meal of the day before dawn was at 3 a.m. Iftar, the breaking of the fast, came when the sun set around 9 p.m. Fahad and his family invited me to live with them during Ramadan to make it easier. I agreed; it would have been impossible to adhere to the strict rules of Ramadan otherwise.

After Ramadan, I went with Fahad’s wife and son to the Idriss Mosque in Northgate. I was doing very well repeating the Quran and following his wife’s lead when panic struck me. I heard my mother’s voice in my head telling me that Diosito was not going to be happy that I was praying in a mosque and in Arabic. I panicked. I started sweating. I began repeating the Hail Mary in Spanish just in case.

Afterward, after I had calmed down, Fahad and I sat down to discuss our questions. He wanted to know why Christians believe that God will always love and forgive us no matter what we do. That we Christians seem to rely too much on God’s forgiveness. He asked, if one expects forgiveness, does that not mean that one will do wrong with that expectation. He explained that in Islam, God’s forgiveness is not taken for granted. That is the main difference we found in our beliefs.

The similarities were numerous. One God. Jesus Christ. Yes, Muslims believe in Jesus Christ. But Muslims also believe that in addition to the prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Joseph, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, there was also Mohammed. Muslims believe in the Old Testament and the New Testament, but also believe in the Quran. Muslims believe that the teachings of Jesus Christ (and other prophets) must be followed. Muslims and Christians believe that God will be the ultimate judge. Both believe in hell. Both believe that our salvation will be based on our good deeds on Earth.

Good deeds buy you salvation. Not killing innocent people. Suicide bombers; 9/11 terrorists; San Bernardino; ISIS or ISIL; Taliban; Al Qaeda — these are terrorists. They don’t abide by the basic tenets of Islam. They kill innocent people.

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