BISHOP ROBERT C. WRIGHT AND SOUMAYA KHALIFA FIRST MET ON NOVEMBER 14, 2015, THE NIGHT AFTER THE PARIS TERRORIST ATTACKS.
As the founder of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta (ISB), an organization that provides information and education about Muslim faith and culture, Khalifa had invited him to attend the organization’s annual gala. And in the wake of the attacks, she asked if he’d be willing to say a few words at the event. That night, as Bishop Wright says, he and an imam were “able to offer prayers from our various traditions for the same thing and to the same God for peace and reconciliation.”
In the same spirit, Wright and Khalifa sat down with Pathways to discuss what interfaith understanding means to them and the common ground that connects us all.
Below are excerpts from their discussion.
PATHWAYS Soumaya, can you give us a brief primer on Islam?
SOUMAYA KHALIFA So, in terms of what people don’t know about Islam… it’s a monotheistic religion. It is an Abrahamic tradition. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. In Georgia, there are about 125,000 people. In Atlanta, 100,000. And Muslims are very, very diverse in terms of culture, in terms of languages, in terms of socioeconomic class.
BISHOP ROBERT C. WRIGHT Indeed.
KHALIFA And in terms of their belief system, Muslims believe in the one God, and the Arabic word for God is Allah. And Christian Arabs also call God Allah. They believe in the many prophets that came to humanity, starting from Prophet Adam all the way to Prophet Muhammad. May peace be upon them all. They believe in the Holy Books; they believe in the Day of Judgment. And so this is really central to their belief system because they believe that everything that a person does, and their intentions, kind of paves their way whether they go to heaven or hell.
They also practice their faith with what we call the Five Pillars. And that includes: [Faith in the one God, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad], the five daily prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, giving to the poor and doing pilgrimage [to Mecca] once in their lifetime.
PATHWAYS What does it mean for you to be an Egyptian-American and Muslim in the United States right now?
KHALIFA Wow. To be a Muslim in America right now is a very interesting time. It’s also a very challenging time, given our current environment that we live in. It’s also scary because people who have had misunderstandings, who have hate, now it’s open season. It’s okay to bring those feelings out and to act upon them. So, it’s very troubling, but at the same time, I look at it as opportunities. Opportunity to be out there and opportunity to educate and opportunity to build bridges of understanding, and it’s all about person to person. It’s about building relationships; it’s about finding out what’s in common; it’s about working together to make our communities better. So yes, it’s troubling, yes — all kinds of red flags come up — but it’s also, I feel it’s a great opportunity to work and make the world better.
PATHWAYS Can you talk a little bit about what Christianity and Islam have in common?
BISHOP I think first and foremost what we have in common is a patriarch. We are children of Abraham. We have the embodiment of the promise that Abraham, because of God’s blessings on his life, would have children as many as the sand at the seashore, as many as the stars in the sky. And so, we start off related. So we share a Scripture, we share a Holy Book, we share words which give us revelation to truth. We share a common humanity. I think we share a wonderful notion of God giving regular people words and visions and gifts so that we can positively impact humanity. We share all of that. I think we share a commitment to prayer, knowing that God cares about our thoughts, our pains and our aspirations. We share the belief that we should gather for prayer, that there’s something that’s important about being shoulder to shoulder with other people. So we share our big God who is available to [all] of us and delights in having children assembled around worship. We have in common the desire to share the story, the wondrous deeds of God, with the next generation. We share works generous and charitable works in the world. We share a season of the year when we have to think about our overgrown lives and have to deny ourselves in the various forms we didn’t deny ourselves so we can focus on the main thing, which is our shared humanity and the goodness of God. We share geography. We share a land where a lot of our common stories took place. And so, I think we share a lot. I think [it’s] important to be reminded of how much we share.
KHALIFA I want to add that the Muslim scholars came out several years ago and had a document, it’s called “The Common Word” and that was addressed to Christians all over the world. And they talked about the love of God and the love of neighbor. And that is a common word between Muslims and Christians. And when we really dig deep into that, that is the essence of it — how do we worship the one God? How do we honor him, and how do we, as human beings, [be] good to our neighbors? Before we can be good to our neighbors, we have to be good to ourselves.
BISHOP But I think it’s fair to talk about the difference. I think in the Christian tradition, we obviously talk in terms of Jesus being of the same essence as of God, son of God. And I think that in some people’s minds, in terms of hierarchy, God can have no peer. And so I understand the argument for that. And I think that is something that it’s fine to have theological and doctrinal conversations about, but I think it’s a terrible tragedy and a great irony that we would do violence to one another over that. And so I think the conversation needs to continue about what the essence is and how does that touch the ground in us... . What’s real is this neighborliness that is articulated both in the Quran as well as in Scripture. Jesus talked in terms of neighborliness, and that is the reality. And all of this other stuff we’re having a hard time trying to prop up, that’s the fairytale.
PATHWAYS Bishop, if or when people come to you with misconceptions or fear about Muslims, how would you respond to them?
BISHOP I think the most striking thing I can do is to remind people that one or two abusers of the faith do not make the faith up, do not speak for the entire faith — I think that’s the first thing we have to think about. I think we have to remember that Jesus was actually not a Christian. I’d like to remind people — there are some jarring realities that I think that we don’t reflect on. I like to tell people that Jesus was not a Christian, was not from Georgia and didn’t speak English, which is news to some people. And so, I want to say, if you’re going to be a person of faith from the Holy Book tradition, you already should be understanding that this notion of a worldview is what shapes us to begin with, and that we’re doing some real violence to our traditions if we make them all small narrow. But specifically [in regard] to Islam, I try to remind people to get to know something of Islam… . I think we don’t know much about the pillars and how close that is to the best of our Christian tradition or the Jewish tradition. I think we just don’t know much about it. I think we look with suspicion to faraway lands and the way people pray in different languages and the way they pray at different times of day. So [respect and trust for one another] sort of begins to chip away from the suspicion.
PATHWAYS Are there any passages from the Bible or the Quran that you feel speak to this conversation?
KHALIFA There’s one for me. So in terms of the interfaith work and getting to know each other, there’s… a couple of beautiful verses from the Quran… . ‘People, we created you all from a single man and a single woman. And named you into nations and tribes so that you shall get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most aware of him. God is all-knowing, all-aware.’ So that, to me, is my moral compass, in a sense, for the work that I do — which is for the Islamic Speakers Bureau. It is going out there and meeting people who are different than me. Religiously or whatever way. And really finding the common ground that we all share and how do we take that and move the needle with it, for our community.
BISHOP The Scripture that [comes to mind] — when I think about the necessity, the gift of the conversation like we’re having now — is first from Genesis, from our creation, is that when God made the male and female, you can really stop there. So before we had religions, you know, we came from the common source, as you have said [Soumaya]. And that predates the ways in which we try to understand reality. And so therefore, that is reality. That’s the mother and the father of all reality. We come from the same source. And, certainly, that’s got to be at least implicit, that there’s got to be some sort of expectation of understanding and familial love.