Last winter I did what I always try to do when I am home in Toronto at Christmastime--attend the Christmas Eve service at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church. The Christmas decorations always look beautiful, and it’s a delight to reconnect with other parishioners I haven’t seen in months. I particularly love the music in my church, and since I know most of the carols by heart, I can give my hymnal to someone else.
This is an experience shared by millions of Christians in North America. What makes my story different is that I am not a Christian, but a practicing Muslim.
How did an observant Muslim end up a regular worshipper in a Christian church? Looking back, many factors and people--from childhood friends to my wife--brought me to this place.
I am a Canadian Muslim who teaches theology in a Jesuit university in Los Angeles. While some people may find that unusual, I feel right at home in a Catholic university. I was born in a Catholic missionary hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, my only formal connection to the Catholic Church. I grew up in Toronto, which at the time that I moved there with my family in 1970 was still very Protestant. Many of my friends, however, were Italian, Polish and Portuguese Catholics--working-class kids whose parents worked with mine on assembly lines. From them I learned about Christianity.
In return, they were curious about my own faith. They didn’t know much about Islam, and the only person they could identify as a Muslim was Muhammad Ali, the world-famous boxer. My friends couldn’t distinguish my Islam from the Hinduism and Sikhism of other friends and lumped us all together as “Indian.” However, they knew that I didn’t eat pork, causing some friends to think that I must also be Jewish.
I was observant growing up, though we didn’t eat halal (Muslim kosher) meat because it was difficult for my parents to obtain. Also, there was no mosque close to us, so we often only attended congregational prayers on the two Eids (the Muslims holidays to mark the end of the month of fasting, and the sacrifice of Abraham at the end of the Hajj). While I was content in my faith, I didn’t really get a chance to learn about it until I took courses on Islam at my university.
However, I learned about Christianity in elementary school. I was part of that generation that said the Lord’s Prayer during opening exercises, acted in the Christmas (not “holiday”) pageant, and learned Christmas carols in music class. To this day, I am a source of amusement to Christian friends, since I often know more verses to the usual carols than they do.
At the University of Toronto, I learned more formally about Islam and Christianity, graduating with a Ph.D. from the Centre for the Study of Religion. It was at the university that I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife, Shannon. She was a member of the largest Protestant church in Canada. We were married in 1989 in a service that incorporated Christian and Muslim traditions.
Over the years, my Christian wife helped me become a better Muslim. While she discovered how to make a difference with her life within a Christian framework, she helped me to find my own answers within a Muslim framework. Both of our faiths called us to work for justice and to help end oppression. Shannon was involved in the peace movement and worked with abused women, while I worked on issues of hunger and homelessness. Together, we could tackle some of the serious problems of modern urban life.
When Shannon died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in 1992, I was devastated. On the fourth anniversary of her death, I had no idea what to do with myself. It happened to be a Sunday, so I ended up going to the church that Shannon sometimes attended in Toronto, Trinity–St. Paul’s United Church.
Of course, these people had no knowledge of Shannon, and I had never met any of them prior to that day’s service. It was just one of those magical moments, accidents of history and geography that religious people call “grace.”
Moved by this experience, I started visiting the church whenever possible. There is something there that satisfies a deep spiritual need in me. Some of that is the music. While the Muslim world is rich in music, there is no music as part of the formal prayer service. It was through the music in the church that I could understand Christian teachings at a deeper level.
I was also impressed with the church as a center for social justice and the leadership of women in the church. While I’ve been blessed to have strong Muslim women as role models, I’d like to hear them more often in local mosques, where the imams are all male.
In 2004, I asked the ministers to think about a way for me to formalize my relationship to the church. I did not want to convert, but neither did I want to be simply an occasional visitor. Since membership in the United Church is by congregation, they came up with the category of “adherent.” In March 2004, I was welcomed into the church in a formal ceremony, and was honored to give the sermon, which I titled, “In Thanks for the Ministry of Women.”
I am able to successfully reconcile the two faiths. I attend jumah prayers at the mosque closest to Loyola Marymount University, observe the dietary laws, give to charity, and fast during the month of Ramadan. I not only live out my own Islam, but am privileged to be able to teach about it in a university setting.
And I have also been fortunate to be blessed with another partner, Joan, who I met a few years ago at an interfaith event at her church, the First United Methodist Church of North Hollywood. A Christian, Joan fasts with me during Ramadan in solidarity and to help her rediscover her own received traditions of fasting.
Both Muslim and Christian friends have been supportive. Being an adherent of a Christian church has given me a deeper appreciation of Christianity, allowing me to talk about it with sensitivity to Muslim friends. In turn, being a Muslim has allowed me to explain my Islam for Christian friends.
This Christmas, I am back in Toronto visiting my family. I’ll join them for Friday prayers at their mosque. But I’ll also join my Christian friends on Christmas Eve.