Multifaith Work as Urgent, Deeply Meaningful and Complicated

A Response to Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer’s “Multifaith Relations: Four Decades of an Evolving Field”

In her essay, “Multifaith Relations: Four Decades of an Evolving Field,” Nancy Fuchs Kreimer highlights three characteristics of the work of interreligious engagement: It is “urgent, deeply meaningful and, in that overused but perfectly apt word, complicated.” In dialogue with Nancy and drawing insights from the response to Nancy’s piece by Jennifer Peace, Ph.D., I reflect on the field of interfaith studies and multifaith work from my vantage point as a Muslim scholar and educator. My words are an appeal for us to continue, collectively, venturing out of our silos of homogeneity.

This work is urgent.

In the Qur’anic story of the creation of humankind, God says to the angels, “I am placing a vicegerent on the earth,” and the angels respond, “Will you set in it one who will work corruption in it and shed blood, while we glorify and praise you and deem you most holy?” (Q 2:30). As the angels in this account could predict, we human beings have definitely demonstrated our problem with spilling blood, spreading corruption, and in general, creating havoc upon the earth. We are undoubtedly plagued by tribalism and self-interested disregard for the welfare of other beings. We too often find ourselves in a state of jahliyya, the Qur’anic word for ignorant chauvinism. Even sources of guidance that are intended for uplift and realization of our human potential are regularly retooled to be instruments of oppression and division. Enter, O multifaith work!

As Nancy points out, the “teaching of contempt,” whether through religious philosophies or other mechanisms for establishing group allegiance, is an issue that transcends any single religion or epoch. The urgency in multifaith studies and interfaith work, as Jenny details, entails building up goodwill across lines of difference such that our differences in creed, color and custom are not as readily exploitable. In some cases, this means working to ensure that relations across lines of difference remain strong; in other cases, we find ourselves in crisis mode because of systemic abuses, breakdowns of communication and simple belligerence.

In a society aspiring to be democratic, and especially a polity that is, in its self-concept, not built upon ethnic-nationalism or religious identity, but rather on principles — establishing justice, insuring tranquility, promoting general welfare and so forth — we need to foster robust networks of relations between people across the very lines of identity that might otherwise be the source of our demise. Our mutual welfare is at stake.

In order to live together, to thrive together, to survive together, we need to learn one another’s frameworks for meaning-making. The phenomenon that we commonly, and somewhat inadequately, refer to as “religion” is fundamentally about these frameworks for living and finding purpose. To articulate a shared purpose — one that can command allegiance beyond appeals to tribal identity — we need shared language. And language is much more than the pronunciation of intelligible sounds; it is fundamentally communication that not only includes, but transcends words.

This work is deeply meaningful.

As Nancy and Jenny highlight, this work is fundamentally relational and reflective. The work is the dispelling of hate and ignorance in ourselves to arrive at the capacity for loving relationship. The work also requires us, more frequently than is perhaps convenient, to redress past wrongs, including the systemic failings that may only tangentially involve us as individuals. The work necessitates admitting our shortcomings and blunders. Accepting this work is a pledge to hold ourselves accountable and to invite others to help hold us accountable for our words, for our deeds and for our feelings of complacency.

Alongside building trust, healing is one of its intended outcomes. We are “healing divides,” we are healing the self, the spirit, the intellect, the body and more from various traumas and harmful proclivities. Are we helping to move the metaphorical needle in dispelling toxic hatred and manufactured phobias? Are we forming a discourse of belonging that offers more than “tolerance” as the end goal? In whom can we place our trust, and are we trustworthy? On an existential level, this is the heart of the matter.

Like Nancy, I am attracted to the vision that interfaith work is not ultimately about agenda-bartering or theological dispute. What draws me is the opportunity to learn and to share the spiritual wisdoms and “technologies” that help me show up as the person I aspire to be. But as Nancy rightfully points out, we cannot overlook how this form of spiritual journeying is itself a luxury steeped in socioeconomic privilege — fun retreats, trips abroad, time to devote to having coffee with someone and thinking of it as “civic work”; this is wonderful, sincere and maybe a bit on the bourgeois side. We may have feminized and religiously diversified this field of multifaith encounter, but we certainly have not taken down other barriers of entry. What would it take to radically open up opportunities for engagement, or at the very lease to better recognize within “Multifaith Studies” places where such encounter has long happened without such elaborate fanfare?

Multifaith study and activism, as Nancy and Jenny point out, are about both breadth and depth. On the one hand, multifaith engagement offers the promise of rich cultural appreciation and the possibility to marvel at the breadth of human expression. Other types of multifaith encounters elicit meditation on how to make sense of the experiences that unite us, how we handle grief and mourning, for instance. We can appreciate each other as “models of faithful living,” as Nancy so aptly describes.

I happen to be a convert to Islam, but for me, multifaith engagement is not about proselytization. I do not want to convince other people to think like I do — I want to know what helps them lead thoughtful, reflective lives grounded in joy, filled with integrity and proffering support when circumstances become difficult. I want to find others who share my passions for reflective thinking. Multifaith engagement is about gaining and spreading exposure and literacy. At the individual level, this exposure can open up a new life-philosophy that subsequently guides or provides a spiritual teaching or practice that offers a meaningful framework for navigating life’s complexities.

There is, at the same time, limits to these exchanges. Like Nancy, I am not personally so nourished by “New Age soup” (but there are those who are); my preferred mode of engagement is, like hers, through the ethical lens of character cultivation. In this modality, we can appreciate where our ethical frameworks converge, and strive to understand how and why they differ. We discover each other as people in the fullness of our experiences—people for whom our religious identity is just one important vector of what makes us feel alive. And as Jenny points out, the sharing of practices is rich and meaningful, but as we learn from and are inspired by one another, we must be careful not to appropriate a derived practice without also appreciating its origin and full expression. Let us remember that yoga is a Hindu philosophy, Jesus was a Jewish preacher and Rumi a scholar of the Qur’an.

This work is complicated.

The work is messy and intersectional. Nancy and Jenny point out why we are not reducible to our religious identity, nor can one individual be taken to be a representative for a vast and complicated collective. I am racially white, American-born and a convert; I am also proof that one can study Islam full-time for more than a decade and still regularly discover new ways that Muslims express religiosity, interpret texts and embody Muslim identity. Although I find it hard to imagine a time when Nancy was not surrounded by Muslim friends, one particular insight leapt off her written page: “If you know one Muslim you know … one Muslim.”

On a similar note, while we gain traction as an intellectual and grassroots movement, Nancy and Jenny are right in that we have made insufficient progress on diversifying many spaces. I find myself regularly stepping up as woman and stepping back as a white person. Opening up spaces at the metaphorical table often means that someone has to move back. Building a bigger table is not always the right model for real inclusion because the table gets overcrowded; the token minorities are then left to swim in a sea of white, where they are unable to inhabit the full range of their being because it would be, in those situations, potentially unintelligible to the dominant culture in the room.

We must radically shift the enterprise as a whole to surrender agency to people of color who too often find the subtle hegemony of mostly white spaces exhausting, not uplifting. We must have conversations on hegemony, colonialism, racism and ethno-nationalism. And we must do this while also curating language and spaces that are not so ideologically progressive-leaning that they become unappealing to religious or political conservatives. We are in this together.

Multifaith work is training. Being in relationships across philosophical and ideological differences, particularly when it is able to move beyond tokenization, helps us learn to disagree agreeably, that is, with everyone’s fundamental dignity still intact. This is a skill we ideally take into other facets of our lives, from our family relations, to our collaborative work lives, to our intra-faith encounters. For instance, my foray into Muslim chaplaincy in a very internally diverse community of Muslims was eased immensely by my prior experiences co-directing an institute for multifaith engagement. Some of the same facilitation techniques and ways of “holding space,” as we say in chaplaincy parlance, work with all kinds of awkward encounters across communal difference.

As a Muslim, my core religious text self-consciously engages in conversations on religious diversity and belonging, sometimes in a very direct manner. My spiritual guide, in the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, engaged in interreligious diplomacy as a statesman. His later marriages gave him an “interfaith family”; the early Muslim community, when it faced extreme persecution was sheltered by “interfaith allies”; yet, in the early community, there were also periods of conflict around faith and political lines. I can look to that period in Islamic history, as well as subsequent periods, to see how Muslims have navigated both victimization and privilege. I look toward my tradition and find rich teachings on personal and collective responsibility. And I want to garner what wisdom and inspiration can be gained from studying other traditions and moments in history, too.

Come out of the silos of homogeneity.

Nancy and Jenny call attention to the remarkable growth of multifaith initiatives, spurred on by a hunger to connect and be nourished by the foresight of foundations and private philanthropy. And the question on any grant writer’s mind is about assessing impact. How do we measure lives touched, organizations built, greetings of peace exchanged? We must continue selling the mission beyond the current buyers, beyond the choir. In the same way marketing can make me feel like I am lacking something essential if I do not have in my possession the latest shoes, let’s say. If I only have friends and acquaintances of the same cultural and religious background as me — from within my silo of homogeneity — am I missing out on a deeper encounter with all life has to offer?

Multifaith engagement paves the way for shared language, shared knowing. In that Qur’anic story, when God creates the human prototype — yes, the one that will subsequently work corruption and shed blood — God commands the angels to prostrate to that creature. It turns out that God has given the human being a special capacity for knowledge that even the angels do not have. The capacity to know is what animates us as a species. Multifaith engagement is the work of promoting knowledge. Like learning a new language, multifaith engagement demands patience and a willingness to be in unfamiliar settings in order to stretch intellectually, socially, spiritually.

It is an urgent, deeply meaningful and complicated project of seeing human dignity, but also seeing the less agreeable aspects of our collective experience, such as poverty, structural racism and stubborn intransigence in the face of a hospitable welcome. It is about striving together to be genuinely good, sincere, kind people, bringing all the resources of our traditions and our beings to bear on that project.

I recall Nancy saying on more than one occasion: “Some people collect fine wines — I collect compassionate, interesting people.” Nancy, I am deeply honored to be in your collection.

Celene Ibrahim, Ph.D. is the author of Women and Gender in the Qur’an (available for pre-order from Oxford University Press, 2020) and the editor of One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2019), an anthology exploring  interreligious engagement as a way to overcome anti-Muslim prejudices.

Dr. Ibrahim is currently a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Groton School, where she offers courses in comparative religion, ethics and women’s studies. She previously served as the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University (2014–19), and as Islamic Studies Scholar-in-Residence at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School (2014–17), where she co-directed a nationally recognized program on interfaith studies.

She holds a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations, and a master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, from Brandeis University; a master of divinity degree (MDiv) from Harvard Divinity School; and a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Studies with highest honors from Princeton University.

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