BY DR. SAID AHMED-ZAID
A few weeks ago, I was invited to the College of Idaho to witness the inauguration of the first ever interfaith room in one of the dormitories.
Prior to the actual inauguration of this space, I sat on a panel with five other representatives from the Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian and Mormon faiths. All panelists shared turns and offered their individual answers to the following questions collected from students across campus:
Is there a difference between religion and faith and, if such exists, is the distinction between the two important? What is, according to you, the most misunderstood aspect of your religion? What are the origins of religious laws, in your particular religion, and to what extent are they relevant in today’s world? What does your religion say about life after death? Is religion something that humans created in order to deal with their fear of the unknown? If not, why was it created? If you were to describe your religion in five words, what would those be?
I am briefly summarizing my answers to the first two questions below. Regarding the first question, I explained that, in general, a religion like Islam is recognized by its outward practices known as the five pillars of Islam. They are the declaration of faith, the five daily prayers, the mandatory alms-giving, the fast of the month of Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. On the other hand, faith is that part of religion which deals with the inward belief of the unseen. For example, there are six articles of faith in Islam: the belief in God, his angels, his scriptures, his messengers, the Day of Judgment, and all of God’s decrees and preordainments that must come to pass.
As to the second question, I replied that a major misunderstanding of Islam starts with Allah, the very name of the deity in Islam. I remarked that Allah is simply the translation of the word God from Arabic. Arab Christians in the Middle East often use the word Allah when they refer to God in Arabic. This word can be seen engraved on the walls of churches in the Middle East. Yet, many Westerners think of Allah as a different god. I argued that human logic dictates that, if there is only one god in each of the monotheistic religions, then it must be the same one.
Instead of continuing on with the rest of my answers to the above questions, I would like to switch topics and describe how much I learned in this setting from the other panelists as well. For example, I truly appreciated the discourse of the Buddhist representative on the nature of impermanence and change, which are undeniable truths in our existence.
As I was listening to her explanations, I found myself translating what she was saying into similar concepts from my faith tradition. For example, my tradition stresses that change is inevitable and that humans will be tested with new life situations including fear, hunger, and loss of wealth or life. The changes for the good are called blessings whereas changes for the bad are called trials. Just like Buddhism, my faith offers practical answers to these questions. For example, in times of blessings, one should remember to be thankful and to think of others less fortunate. In times of trial, one should remember to be patient and to learn to accept the change.
My hope for this interfaith room is to become a quiet place where students of different faiths can pray, meditate, or find some solace during the trying moments in their life. This room could also become a safe place where students learn to explore and appreciate the similarities and differences among their religions. Ultimately, this room can help them grow and become better human beings, respecting all others and their beliefs without being forced to compromise their own belief systems. It is my sincere hope that the student organizers will continue to organize more panel sessions similar to the one I attended.
I also hope that this younger generation learns to respect each other’s beliefs and find that they can be enriched by the diversity of knowledge that is provided by each major religion. Through similar interfaith rooms, more tolerance will spread through our colleges and beyond.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.