When I was a child, my father would take my brother and I to different places of worship for afternoon visits. I can remember days when I was as young as 4 going to the beach and ending up at the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette, spending countless hours wandering the beautiful rose gardens and craning my neck up at the incredibly elaborate dome ceiling. The gardens seemed a colorful utopia to a small child, yet the temple sanctuary commanded a sort of respect that I had only experienced in Musjids every Friday of my short life. While my father didn’t know much about the faith at the time (perhaps he knows more now), he did his best to sit us down and tell us what they believed and draw comparisons to our faith (Islam).
Over the years he would take us to churches, hindu temples, and mosques across the state. He would show us each faith in as much detail as he could, comparing each to the version of similar stories we believed from our faith. One visit struck me as the most informative – one afternoon we found ourselves headed to a local Mandir (Hindu Temple). It took years to build the temple with each piece of Italian Marble being hand carved and imported from India. The massive designs on blocks of ivory carved with intricate openwork and statues and busts of various holy figures loomed invitingly overhead as we walked through each room of the temple we were allowed. In the basement of this temple was an exhibit on Understanding Hinduism – complete with names, faces, and dates of important events alongside illustrations and stories of legends long passed. My father walked us through this exhibit reading to us what this faith was and how this temple had come to be. I remember thinking “How strange this is.. How different this is from my faith…” And as if he could read my mind, my father said to me as he always did, that no matter how different this faith was from ours, it was what they believed in – and that alone, deserved respect. They had their God, and we had ours. They had their stories and prophets and versions of stories, and we would always have ours. But what was important to remember was that no matter what they believed, they were people just the same as you and I.
It’s been many years since I’ve been to any holy place with my father, but the lessons he taught me are something that have stuck with me through adulthood. Through many faith changes and explorations, through many times of doubt, his lesson that each individual’s spiritual journey was different and to be respected has guided my life to the fullest. When the time is right, and my husband and I have children, I have every intention of taking them to every holy place I can. I have every intention of having their grandfather teach them about Islam and visiting mosques, temples, and churches with them.
I have had many colleagues and even close relations balk at the idea of taking their children to places of worship other than their own. It seems the common theme is the (mis)understanding that they would be allowing their children to take part in the faith’s practices and rituals. But even when pointing out that you would do nothing but sit in the back and watch, it makes folks uneasy when you are in the presence of another faith’s version of God. And the overwhelming question is, why?
The simple answer, is fear. As a human race, we fear the unknown. We fear what will happen if we don’t meet our spouses expectations, as children we fear adulthood, as understanding individuals we fear death. We fear the things we cannot explain and the things we have no knowledge of. But as we see so often these days, fear can have terrible consequences, some violent and some as simple as good men turning a cheek to ignore the injustices around them.
Growing up with my father, I was given the opportunity to gain an incredible wealth of knowledge. Knowledge of the people around me, knowledge of what else existed in the world, and knowledge of how to find the common denominator between many people. I’d like to think I’m a pretty well rounded and tolerant individual, and that being said my only conclusion is that knowledge itself has lead me to this point in my life. Learning about faith as a whole while exploring each type of faith as a branch connected to the larger picture has allowed me to see that not only is there nothing to fear from the unknown, but that the unknown is within reach if only you extend your arm to grasp it.
Spiritual education instilled in me as a child has lead me to further spiritual education as an adult. I have struggled with my faith since I was 11, moving away from Islam and slowly finding my way to Christianity. While doubt will always find its way into the minds of the faithful, it is comforting to me to know that spiritual education has always been and remains my safety net. When Islam no longer felt right, education came in the form of my middle school best friend taking me to church with her. As I grew older and faith became more important to me, education came in the traditional sense as I poured over every faith based book I could find. And as an adult, education comes much more easily in the form of free online classes about faith.
So many folks these days choose to ignore education in a spiritual sense because they believe it conflicts with their current beliefs. I would challenge you to reconsider: learning about the faith of your friends, neighbors, and perhaps even family members can strengthen your own faith while allowing you a glimpse into the world of your colleague. Converting is vastly different than simply understanding their faith and bidding them a happy holiday whatever it may be. Frankly, that’s just being a good person! It would be no different than you inviting your Pagan friend to Christmas dinner – they may not believe in Jesus, but they understand the significance of your holiday and wish to share in your joy while respectfully maintaining their belief system.
Learning about faith as a whole and individually by each religion strikes an important message into the minds of those who study: we are all of one human race, and in essence brothers and sisters on this planet. It is never too late to gain an understanding of your fellow human being and connect with your neighbors of all backgrounds. Why wait any longer?