Hailey Woldt, a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., went on a 10-week, eight-country, trip as an assistant to Islam scholar Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, who was gathering research for his upcoming book, “Islam in the Age of Globalization.”
As they traveled through Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, Woldt used her status as a young American to promote dialogue and friendship with Muslims in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East. Here she chronicles her journey and the lessons she has learned for Beliefnet.
Sitting in Indonesia as we near the end of our tour of the Muslim world, I’m reminded of the poem “Ulysses,” which my favorite professor read to me two months back to explain the nature of an epic journey in search of truth. The poem speaks of an “untraveled world whose margin fades forever …” Back then when I was beginning this life-changing experience, I foolishly thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for every margin I was to encounter.
This trip really began in Washington, D.C., as a student in Prof. Akbar Ahmed’s “Clash or Dialogue of Civilizations” class at American University. He had inspired me to reach out and understand the Muslim world as a necessary step toward peace and understanding. I began to do research for his project, and then he offered me the chance of a lifetime: A spot on his research team traveling through the Muslim world for his project.
I jumped at the chance before I thought about finding funds, time, and consent from my parents. But I knew this was the chance to expand my horizons and challenge my inner strength.
My parents objected on the basis of safety, of course. A young American girl in the Muslim world? Then they objected on the basis of my college career. But I was firm, and I promised to pay for the trip myself.
Now here I am at the last stage of our exhausting but exhilarating journey, with two parents proud of me at home and a world of inconceivable adventures under my belt. I have many stories to tell--things that I cannot myself believe I have experienced.
Perhaps my greatest test and most important lesson came during our stay in India, when we traveled to Deoband. Deoband is the center for conservative Islamic thinking, dating back to the nineteenth century when it led the jihad against the British. Today that perspective--and Deoband's university--are flourishing despite the “war on terror” and globalization.
Prof. Akbar Ahmed and author Hailey Woldt in Deoband
Prof. Ahmed assured us that there was no danger in traveling there for research, but our Deoband tour guide, who was a leading Indian-Muslim radical, began our four-hour journey by describing his latest, best-selling book, “Jihad and Terrorism.” I asked him about the nature of the book, and he then looked away to describe his thesis, as it is custom in his orthodox tradition not to look directly at a woman.
He said that it was a justification of the usually un-Islamic fighting tactics such as those used by Osama bin Laden and other terrorists in response to what he called “American barbarism.” He argued that because America’s tactics against his people--like those seen in Abu Ghraib--were so horrific, “freedom fighters” could use extraordinary measures to combat them.
This was an unsettling conversation.
But I settled in for a long journey to Deoband, passing through villages many miles from India’s capital of New Delhi and finally bumping along a rough road to our destination. We were received by the head cleric himself upon our arrival and were immediately escorted to the front of the mosque for Prof. Ahmed’s speech. I sat in the front, in the place of honor rarely given to a woman, much less a foreign, non-Muslim woman. My head was respectfully covered in a white veil, and I avoided eye contact with the hundred or so boys facing us from the audience.
They all sat enraptured throughout the speeches. The cleric began a severe-sounding introduction in Urdu, periodically pointing a discouraging finger toward Frankie Martin--the other student accompanying Prof. Ahmed on this trip--and me. The students stood up as they asked questions of Prof. Ahmed, mostly about Iraq, Afghanistan, President Bush, and “Amerika”--the only identifiable words to me. However, they were not hostile or out of order; they sat calmly and respectfully throughout the answers.
The professor spoke of dialogue, of reaching out, of his friendships with other religious leaders, like Bishop John Chane of the National Cathedral in Washington and Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation. He said these were extraordinary Americans who want to reach out to Muslims, just when Muslims think all Americans are against Islam. His answers really seemed to affect the young Muslims at Deoband.
The speeches were over, and we had made it through unscathed. In a flurry of Urdu we were invited to the cleric’s home for lunch. We came into the courtyard of his home, and I was escorted to the ladies’ section. I met his three young granddaughters, ages 15, 13, and 7. I asked all three in English what they wanted to be when they grew up, and they answered ambitiously: doctor, journalist, and civil servant. We had a nice chat and then I came into the men’s quarters for a fantastic lunch served with warm smiles from the family.
As we left their home we took some pictures as a group, and the girls asked when I was going to come back to Deoband. The youngest motioned for me to lean down and surprised me by giving me a kiss on the cheek. We finally left trailed by waves and smiles.
Our team took a tour of the university at Deoband. The facilities were well-established and advanced, with a computer science department, thousands of books, and hundreds of students. I was surprised by the organization and pervasive sense of discipline there. It was not really the amateurish madrassa [Islamic religious school] that I had envisioned.
We passed by a classroom filled with 500 students in white robes and white caps with their heads down reading the Qur’an and then entered the English class where we distributed our questionnaires for our study. The students quietly filled them out--without any cries for blood as I had been expecting that morning on the ride in. As we left the class, they asked us for words of wisdom to be written on the board. I wrote something to try to help bring the United States and the Muslim world together in peace:
“Learning and education are the most important things for world peace. Let us all continue to work for peace with all. Salaam alaykum.”
Salaam alaykum is the Arabic phrase for “peace be with you,” their standard greeting, which unexpectedly gave rise to shouts of delight and friendship. We parted as friends--two Americans, a Muslim professor, and students of the most conservative madrassa in India.
I had survived what I thought was going to be a frightful day in Deoband by capitalizing on human connections and mutual respect rather than hiding behind security guards or armies. I bumped along the road home as a traveler who had not just seen the margin but continued beyond it. I learned that the most important thing was “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” when it comes to peace and understanding.
The experience of that day was truly revealed when a week later, the same radical author who had accompanied us to Deoband introduced Prof. Ahmed at a madrassa in New Delhi as the model not only for Muslims, but for all religions because of his dedication to dialogue and peace.
That same man who had written “Jihad and Terrorism” decided to translate Prof. Ahmed’s most recent book on dialogue himself. That same man who had called for the death of Americans now desired understanding between civilizations and wanted to extend that sentiment. It was like changing the rotation of the earth in terms of ideas. Through compassion and dialogue our team managed the impossible.
This truly was a margin I could not have seen in Washington at the start of my journey. I had gained, in the words of Tennyson, “knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”