Thursday, August 30, 2012

Catholic Nuns and Islam: Get in the Habit

My pal, Sister Annelle*, sent me an absurdly large book on Islam awhile ago. I questioned her dropping the dough to send an 8-pound book halfway across the world, but it has since proven fairly useful. 

The first line of this encyclopedia reads, “One can wonder whether in all the human sciences there is a greater need for a reference work than for this one in hand.” This turned me off right away. Pretty lofty opinion of a book, I’d say. But, as it goes on further, I found it has a point: “The world, especially the Western world towards which this encyclopedia is primarily directed, desperately needs to understand Islam better.” It further quotes a reporter, Meg Greenfield:

 “We are heading into an expansion of the American relationship with that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam…no part of the world is more important to our own well-being at the moment – and probably for the foreseeable future…[and] no part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us.” 


We Don't Know Much 
Generally speaking, I'd say most Americans don't know much about Islam. Me included. 

Some time ago, I finished up "Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester. While an enjoyable read, he implies that the increase of madrasahs is a sign that Indonesia could be veering toward a dangerous path. I found myself immediately questioning, "Hmm. Why does he infer that madrasahs are bad?" 

I never would have asked this question two years ago. 

Words like madrasah, pesantren, Mecca evoke something. Less than 1% of Americans are Muslim.** Our exposure is limited. I had a couple of Muslim friends when I was younger, but you don't really get down to the nitty-gritty of, you know, the Koran and Hajj and all that when you're fifteen. I just knew my friend had to borrow leggings and a long-sleeve shirt to wear while swimming in our pool.

After reading Winchester's passage while my host ibu prayed maghrib in the next room, I realized, "Wait a sec, I teach in a madrasah." And most of my students live in a pesantren. I'm not sure I necessarily see the cause for concern as I once might have. Perhaps it's more important to take note of what teachings are on the rise in these new schools.

Most Americans may hear the word "madrasah" and think it's a place where everyone is planning the next big jihad. In my neck of the woods, my madrasah is sometimes reminiscent of Catholic high school. Instead of nuns and altar boys, there are jilbabs and about a hundred student members of the school's Red Cross. Still plenty of praying though. And religion classes. And uniforms. 

I love my school. The teachers, along with the students they teach, are a family, and they openly welcomed me to be a part of that. From where I sit, it seems the teachers at my school are just trying to give our kids a little confidence and some kind of direction to stay on the straight and narrow. Curiously, in both my Catholic high school and my madrasah, this includes not allowing boys' hair to touch their shirt collar. 

All Muslims Are Not the Same
The above seems like a pretty silly statement. Yet, when I recently went home to visit America, on my first day back I was asked to break down, "What are Muslims like?" I immediately chuckled at this notion. 

Only to be put in my place later. 

After living in the world's largest Muslim country for a year and a half, I have certainly gained a better understanding of the world's second largest religion. However, I still know very little, and after only a few brief experiences at home, I realized that, despite all I've learned, I'm still guilty of that same sort of thinking. Sometimes, I take what I see in my village, and I naively think that translates across the board.

Buka Puasa, or Iftar in America 
For example, I attended an iftar, or breaking of the daily Ramadhan fast at a university in New York with a friend (for a review of what Ramadhan's about, check out last year's post here =>Top 5 Things I Didn't Know About the Holy Month of Ramadhan). 

I watched fellow New Yorkers perform the prayer movements following the call to maghrib. As I expected, it was familiar. It felt like home. My Javanese home. Aside from the plethora of metal-studded belts, designer jeans, and the wider variety of skin tones, that is. 

But then, I was struck by all that was different.
  • Why aren't women wearing the prayer shawl they wear in Indonesia? 
  • Why aren't they doing the same placement of feet in the prayer motion that my ibu strictly coached me on when I practiced to follow Eid (Idul Fitri) prayers? 
  • Why do some women not wear the hijab (jilbabs) at all? 
  • And, hold, up - breaking fast can include make-your-own tacos?! 
As people patiently answered my questions and educated me about the different Islamic schools of law, cultural influences, and personal preferences, I was internally comprehending what I assumed I already understood. "Oh, so you mean there is a wide spectrum of interpretations of Islam?"

And these were merely physical things. I was barely skimming the surface of attire and taco toppings here.
A week later, I put in a full day of fasting*** during my backyard farewell party. After that, I hit the local, hometown mosque for another iftar - totally unannounced and wholeheartedly welcomed. 

With a nun. 

My aunt, Sister Tesa, also wanted to check it out. As usual, she instantly Tesa-hoot-laughed her way into everyone's hearts, and through her schmoozing, she also discovered the iftar buffet had been carted all the way from near her home in Queens. 

Aside from the obvious switch of being escorted to a Muslim event by a woman of the cloth, this iftar had a totally different feel from the first. With a larger Indian and Pakistani community, this mosque down the street from my parents' house furthered my remedial education on just how widely culture colors Islam. 

Tesa also found a new place in her hood to pick up some Pakistani grub. 


So Where To?
I know we all can’t take off and live for two years in a Muslim country (although, I highly recommend it, should you get the chance). Even if you could, we’ve established here that I still don’t really know what I’m talking about.

But, maybe it's a good idea to take a step back once in awhile and own up to the fact that we don't know as much as maybe we think we do. Maybe before anything else, we could take a sec and make a valid attempt to understand how varied we all really are - and how nuanced things very quickly get - even within those groups who wear one brand of religion or another (stay tuned for exciting post entitled Big News! We Are All, Indeed, Different).

Let’s ask some questions. Let's widen our scope. Let’s make a new friend. 

Let’s do it over tacos. 

These nuns sure seem to have the right idea. 

I understand that my small patch of life here isn’t the way it is for Muslims in America - or in all Muslim countries - or even parts of this Muslim country (unfortunate current events in Madura duly noted) - but here are some of my favorite Muslims in my little corner of the world.

This pic was brought back by popular demand
*General take is that marriage is half of the calling of Islam, and fearing Allah is the other. When I've discussed about nuns or priests with friends in my Muslim community, it is always seen as a pretty wacky notion - to not get married and remain celibate. We do have Indonesian Catholic nuns and priests here, though. 

Special note here that Sr. Annelle, a PhD and Associate Prof. of Sociology & Behavioral Medicine at St. John's University, is also the only American nun I know to send anyone anywhere special Eid packages two years in a row. Thanks again, Annelle! 

**I mentioned this before, but the largest Muslim American population is currently found in the Dearborn, Michigan area.

***Originally, when I went home, I had grandiose plans of fasting during my two-week stay to experience what Ramadhan is like for an American Muslim. I reconsidered this experiment for various reasons - the most convincing of which was the easy access to Eggo waffles and Entenmann’s Fudge cakes.

My only full day of fasting in America followed two weeks of grossly gorging myself on foods I had not eaten in over a year. After this, my body probably needed a full day of not eating. While abstaining from food and drink for this one day, I did muster the energy to have a catch, play some Baggo, make a whirlpool, and hoard/stash away party foods for after sundown

Sacrifice at its best.