The month of April marks many of the celebrations associated with Passover and Easter, but for me this year, the period was a celebration of something else! It was a celebration of the universalism, the openness and the generosity with which a synagogue and a church welcomed me into their worship services and learning circles.
It was at Temple Emanuel, a Reformed synagogue, where Dr. Barbara Landau arranged for me to share my views on Islam and women. In return I was glad to learn from Rabbi Debra Landsberg about the position of women in Judaism. The exuberance of the audience was unmistakable when a variety of questions poured in from all ends of the room on the place of polygamy in our contemporary world, the veiling of Muslim women and issues such as divorce, the custody of children and alimony.
I found myself among friends who were eager to see a better world unfold for the millions of Muslim women who suffer from disease, malnutrition and sometimes unfortunately, the worst kinds of oppression. The outpouring of sympathy from Jewish women for their Muslim sisters many miles away was both heartwarming and overwhelming.
But perhaps the crowning moment of my month-long odyssey into interfaith discourse came when I proudly recited the azaan or call to prayer for a Christian audience, at Father Allan Budzin's St. Patrick's Anglican Church. Eagerly the children, ranging in age from 3 -12 years, lined up at the altar, not to sing a hymn, but to simulate the Muslim prayer for their parents and loved ones. Verses of the Koran were read at that service along with passages from the Bible. The sermon was delivered by me, a Muslim, to an audience that was Anglican.
Yet, this was not an attempt at a melding of faith traditions into a single syncretistic faith, indistinguishable from any other, combining elements of all..
Rather, this was an effort to understand one another, a desire to reach out, to embrace our common humanity, to foster peace and goodwill, and to demonstrate humility in acknowledging the validity of the other.
In the words of one of the congregants, well-known Rev. David Burns, we were only teaching each other to be human, "to be Canadian", for "Canadians stand for peace and justice".
I wondered though about how peace and justice could be achieved and sustained in societies that have become increasingly diverse and fragmented, especially with the arrival of new immigrants bringing their cultural and religious baggage into Canada.
The key in my view, is in developing a keen understanding of the differences. Though there is much talk about focusing on commonalities to bring peoples of different faiths together, it is only by understanding the differences-- why they exist and what purpose they might serve, that we are able to develop a genuine respect for each other's beliefs. After all, it is not commonalities, but differences that cause friction. Again, the objective is not to impose one's religious views on others, or to convert the rest of the world to our own religious ideal, but to acknowledge the rights of people to hold various opinions and to articulate the many diverse understandings of God in a manner most suited to their particular cultural ethos and temperaments.
The kind of universalism I experienced at Temple Emanuel and St. Patrick's Anglican is a hopeful sign of the growing thirst for peace and understanding. Needless to say, it is sorely needed in our embattled world. And it is up to the masses, where movements and ideologies must eventually take root, to carry the banner of peace and tolerance forward, despite the many differences that exist within our societies.
[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]