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A Personal Pilgrimage
Mar 1, 2008

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.” These words, spoken by George Bernard Shaw, didn’t phase me as I walked into my World History class my sophomore year at Dulles High School in Sugar Land, Texas. My cocky teacher, Mr. Henderson, practically yelled these words at us, as if we were already in trouble. “We are ignorant,” he shouted. I was turned off by the words. I didn’t care what he had to say. Little did I know…

“China Air Flight 0815, now boarding.” I sat in an unfamiliar airport in Beijing, China, waiting to board my plane. I had been in Beijing for three days and was headed to Urumqi in northwest China. Until now, I hadn’t been afraid. In fact, I had been strangely fearless. At the age of 15, I was ready to take on the world on my first overseas adventure. Well, at least I had been fearless until the night before the flight. The leader of our group had gathered us all in the hotel for a debriefing of our day. Before we left, he told us that the flight we were going to take the next day was one that many Muslim people would be taking as well. We needed to be aware of whom we would be flying with and be prepared to be respectful of our Muslim neighbors.

In utter honesty, this scared me. I thought back to all the pictures I had seen on the television during the months since September 11, 2001. I had sat on my couch looking at pictures of men in turbans, and I had been frightened. I remember thinking I was glad I was nowhere near them. September 11 had been a blur for me: church prayer services, classroom discussions and continuous news reports on the television. For a fifteen-year-old in comfortable America, I did not feel the full impact of the events that Tuesday morning. For some reason I was detached and distant from the whole ordeal and busied myself instead with the handsome football player in my theater class. To top it all off, the next month I lost a good friend to suicide. The last thing I was thinking about was people halfway around the world. And now, all of a sudden, here I was, with history staring me in the face. It was then and only then that the words of Mr. Henderson’s quotation from Shaw hit me. I had been ignorant. I had been “incapable of learning from experience.” As I sat in the busy airport that sunny day, the images from the news programs were suddenly alive. I found myself in the midst of the very world that I had thought was so far away.

Granted, nothing happened on the plane that day. I boarded the plane, sat down in my assigned seat, plugged in my earphones and, before I knew it, I was in Urumqi. Nothing eventful had happened. Yes, there were Muslim men with turbans and long black beards. But they were friendly; one had even smiled at us. This was my first of many encounters with Muslim people.

Once in the Xinjiang province, I was immediately intrigued with the culture I came into contact with. Though Urumqi does have Han Chinese, the majority of the city’s population is Muslim Uyghur. The Uyghur people of northwest China welcomed us into their city, and I soon felt at home there. During my first evening there as I was surrounded by dancing, music, delicious fruits and sweet, sweet smiles; I knew that I had embarked on what was to be a personal pilgrimage through the Muslim culture.

Returning home from China, I took a special topics course at Houston Baptist University, called Introduction to Islam. It was then that I encountered the key beliefs of Islam. Through my studies, I was able to better understand those I had grown to love.

By far, the most memorable experience in my class was an interview that I conducted with a Muslim student. I had told Elif that she could recognize me by the pink tennis shoes I would be wearing, and she told me I could look for a woman wearing a head covering. As I approached her at our meeting place at the University of Houston, I can admit I was a bit apprehensive. Little did I know that the assignment I was about to complete was really giving me deep insight into the heart and life of a passionate Muslim woman.

A literature and sociology student, Elif is very independent and holds deep convictions. When asked her views on the roles of husbands and wives in marriage, she admits that she is a bit of a feminist. There were times when she saw women in her native Turkey who were not being treated the way that they deserved, or according to what they were worth. “I am lucky, I am,” she says as she thinks about her husband and their balanced relationship. When she saw women being mistreated in Turkey, she wondered what made men act like that. “Men are proud of being men,” she says, but she wonders why. Was it culture that made them that way, or religion?

To help her better understand this, she read about the Prophet and his wives. According to Muslim teachings, Muhammad was deeply committed to and loved his first wife Khadija. And though he had more wives later, he was not hurtful to any of them. Instead, he was helpful, even doing things like washing the dishes. Some of his later wives were women that he took into his home to protect because they had children but no husband. Muhammad was supportive of women, not oppressive.

From reading this, Elif decided that men were not justified by religion in their actions. With her strong convictions about the roles of men and women, she herself had some reservations about being married. She clearly laid out her ideas to her husband before they were married. She did not want to marry a man who simply wanted to marry a veiling, practicing Muslim. She wanted to marry a man who wanted to marry her for who she was, as an individual. Her husband is very respectful and a very good listener.

He supported Elif and encouraged her to continue in those strong convictions. He was even the one who influenced her to go back to school to get her masters degree. She warned him that if she did this, she would not be able to be at home all the time, helping out with food and meals. And he said to her, “You don’t have to be like everyone else.” This impressed Elif, and she is grateful for her respectful husband. She says they enjoy cooking together; he often prepares the salad, while she prepares the main course (because she is the better cook!).

“The idea of prayer is gorgeous- I need prayer,” she told me. When asked about prayer and her relationship with God, she was passionate and excited about her beliefs. Elif says that prayer is a way that she can feel close to God. He is always close to her, but when she prays, she can feel his closeness more. Time in prayer with God is the “ultimate closeness.” Prayers serve as a reminder to think about God. She says that as humans we are prone to forget God, and so the Muslim tradition of praying five times a day is helpful, in that it constantly brings you back to focusing on God. She said prayers usually begin: “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate…” And she reminded me that He is not just merciful to Muslims, but to everyone. “He loves everyone equally.”

I feel my words do not do justice to Elif. I was inspired by her passion, strong beliefs, firm convictions, and honesty. She was passionate about everything she talked to me about. From Russian literature, to passing on the love of books, to the role of women in marriages, to prayer and fasting, she was utterly honest and approachable. Though she introduced herself to me as someone who was unsure of what she thought about some things, I found her solid, grounded and strongly convicted about the things she believes. I found it a joy to get to talk with her and hear about her life and personal journey.

Another stop along my exploration of Islam was reading the philosophy of the writer, preacher and educationist M. Fethullah Gulen. My first impressions of this man are very positive. I feel his ideas aim to bridge gaps between cultures and religions, destroying hostility and bringing peace in their midst. While I do not uphold everything he believes I do sincerely believe that anyone can learn from Gulen. When I met with Elif, she talked to me of the influence Gulen had had on her. She talked of how he highlighted the importance of contemplation and gratitude. My generation seems to be filled with mindless video gamers, not deep and passionate thinkers. We need to be cognizant of what is going on around us, exercising our minds to analyze and seek understanding. Also, I completely agree that we need to be more thankful. Especially in the American culture, we are so coddled by all our belongings; we think we are self-sufficient, forgetting that our very existence is something for which we should be thankful for to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, says that perhaps it is because we are not grateful for the little things in life that God does not entrust us with the big things. Being intentionally thankful is a lesson I learned from Gulen. May we all live lives of gratitude.

Also of utmost importance are Gulen’s thoughts on education. Fundamental in his discussion on education is the home. He declares that “the home is vital to the raising of a healthy generation…for souls without truth and knowledge are fields in which evil thoughts are cultivated and grown.” So often today the home is viewed as a place of conflict; why is this? I’m grateful that I have grown up in a home where love was lavished on and instilled in me. But unfortunately, I don’t think this is the norm. Instead of the home being a place where peace is destroyed, peace should start in the home.

Gulen also makes a distinction between educators and teachers: “Education is different from teaching. Most people can teach, but only a very few can educate.” He also states: “Teachers should know how to find a way into the student’s heart and leave indelible imprints upon his or her mind.” I have been lucky enough to have a few educational experiences like this. On occasion I have had teachers, or should I say educators, who cared so much about me that they were able not only to help me gain factual knowledge, but to grow as a person as well. One of these educators told my class a story of one of his former professors. This old professor pondered the difference between teaching the grammar of a language to people and teaching people the language.

The difference is subtle, but the implications are profound! One system of education stresses the information that needs to be processed, while the other highlights the individuals whose lives will be changed and edified as they grow in not only knowledge, but also character! This is the ideal for which every education system should strive. And in a culture that is usually stereotyped as being oppressive to women, Gulen writes, “Although it is fundamental that girls be brought up to be delicate like flowers and mild and affectionate educators of children, due attention must be given to making them inflexible defenders of truth. Otherwise, we shall have transformed them into poor, impotent beings for the sake of delicacy and mildness. We must not forget that female lions are still lions.” His recognition of the place and position of women is of utmost importance in this day and age, and serves to empower Islamic women.

Being immersed in the Muslim culture in Urumqi, China was a blessing. I’ve never felt more welcomed in my life. My new friend Elif was a doorway into the world and culture of Islam. I so appreciated her walking me through the world of Islam. Gulen’s writings, as a peace movement within the Islamic context, can make a huge impact on the world as a whole. This young American Christian woman is grateful for a pilgrimage through the Islamic culture.