The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

Islam: Things I learned from Azam Hussain

Andrew Sheppe, History Department Chair

I am going to talk about a few lessons I learned from a friend of mine, Muhammad Azam Hussein. Some of these lessons are about Islam. Some are broader. At the end, I might subject you to some thoughts of my own about tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Azam Hussein is my age. He was born and raised in Suburban Chicago. His parents’ families are from Hyderabad, India, and Azam grew up with strong ties to Chicago’s Muslim community. I met Azam in 2002 when we were both studying abroad in Cairo. We were 21 years old at the time. We bonded quickly over some shared interests of the nerdier type: Lord of the Rings, the board game Risk, and, most importantly, the Simpsons. At that point, we could both converse almost exclusively in Simpsons quotations.

There were times, during long bus-rides or late nights in the dorm, when I felt as though Azam and I had shared the same childhood. If I was raised by Gandalf and C. Montgomery Burns, and every reference to Pelennor Fields or the Quickie Mart landed on sympathetic ears, then surely we were both products of our shared culture.

That sense of familiarity made it easier for me to learn from Azam during those other times; those times when it seemed as though we must have been raised on different planets. I am going to tell you about three of those times, and then we will see if we can’t find some wisdom somewhere.

My first lesson: The Jesus Joke

About a month into the term, several of us were sitting around avoiding homework and talking about nothing at all. We started telling jokes. I had recently heard one that appealed to my somewhat irreverent sense of humor, so I shared it with the group. It was a joke about Jesus. It was not a joke that I will tell in chapel. In fact, because of what happened next, it is likely that I will never tell it again.

There I was, laughing at my own punch-line. Laughing hard, I think. And then I looked up. Azam had stood up. He looked right at me, no sign of a smile on his face, told me I was being disrespectful, and left the room.

I was flabbergasted. No part of the interaction made sense to me. First of all, Azam and I had always enjoyed laughing together. He wasn’t humorless. He was a riot. Second, you can’t offend 21-year olds. Offense, sensitivity, indignation, umbradge? These are tools of self-serious old people. I had never seen someone my age react like that. And wait, it isn’t as though I had made a Muhammad joke. I knew better than that. I was the one who came through an Episcopal boarding school and a Catholic university. Wasn’t Jesus mine to mock?

As soon as I got over the shock, I got really sad. I don’t make friends often, and I had just lost one for the sake of one raunchy punch-line. I was lucky though. Azam did not stay offended long, and by the next morning, he was sitting with me to explain his reaction. First of all, Jesus is pretty important in Islam. In fact, the Qur’an has more verses about his mother, Mary, than all four gospels combined. Second, in Azam’s world, God, the prophets, and faith were not the subject of jokes.

This was hard for me to really grasp. I mock everything. That is what I have instead of a personality. I’m not the only one who tells religion jokes. Mel Brooks made a career out of it, and he did it in order to combat prejudice. Some of the priests at Georgetown couldn’t start a class without a Catholic joke. Why was this off limits to Azam. The answer lies in Azam’s belief, in his faith.

He knows about the creator and governor of the universe, and the messages that the creator has sent to mankind. To mock such things would be an act of supreme ingratitude on our part. It wouldn’t threaten God’s power, but it would show Him that we have no appreciation for his creation.

This was an important lesson about Islam, which goes to great lengths to avoid raising anything to the level of God. The worst sin in Islam is called Shirk. Shirk is sometimes translated as “associationism,” but since that word means nothing to us, we will take a minute to investigate it.

Shirk is the act of comparing things to God. It is Islam’s first line of defense against polytheism. Nothing is ever “like God” or “half-way” to God. Some of the stricter interpretations of Islam use the principle of Shirk to prohibit shrines built to honor holy men. Nothing can be worshiped except God. At some points in Islam’s history, the same principle has been used to prohibit figurative art like painting and sculpture. Painting a person is like mimicking God’s creative abilities, and therefore it is Shirk. Shirk can be interpreted many ways, so there are plenty of shrines and artistic images in the Islamic world.

Just as ordinary things can never be raised toward holy status, holy things can never be reduced to ordinary status, let alone punch-line status. That is what I did with my Jesus joke. I tried to pull something holy down into my world. This was a good view into Islam for a young Mr. Sheppe, but the more I thought about it, the more I took it as a lesson about religion in general. Azam’s seriousness on this subject made the religious leaders of my youth seem somehow trifling. Azam was a believer, and that required the ability to be totally serious. His seriousness lent weight to his views. 

Lesson Two: The Mosque visit.

Later in the semester, Azam and some others invited me to join them at a Friday prayer service. We went to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, which is grand and beautiful and 650 years old. I had studied the mosque in a history class, so I was excited to see it in action. The experience was unlike anything I had seen or felt before, and I always remember it when I think about Islam.

A few hundred men stood in lines facing Mecca. At intervals understood to everyone else there, we kneeled, stood up, kneeled again and then bowed down to touch our heads to the ground. I have never felt such a strong sense of humility mixed with brotherhood. The bowing was particularly powerful. It forced me to acknowledge that I was not in control or central. I was subservient. It is hard to feel proud or self-important with your forehead on the ground.  I don’t pray much, but, on that day, I actually couldn’t help myself. I felt small and I thanked God. It was a genuine spiritual experience, and I would recommend it to anyone.

In addition to the forced humility, I was astounded by the sense of equality. We were all subservient to God, but we were all equal to each other. The shared actions and prayers made us all the same for a moment. Distinctions of class, or race, or national origin were utterly irrelevant. We were all in this together. Like Christianity, and the Baha’i faith that Dr. Higgins and Baiano shared with us, Islam seeks unity. It wants everyone on board for the final triumph. It does not want distinctions among mankind, and it doesn’t even have margins for marginalizing. I haven’t felt that unity since, and I always give Islam credit when I think back on that mosque visit. A day may come when we forsake those bonds of fellowship, but it wasn’t that day.

The most peculiar thing about the mosque visit seemed much smaller at the time. To get into the large, well lit, central area of the Sultan Hassan Mosque, you have to travel down some dark, stone medieval corridors. On the way in, I noticed that Azam was bobbing his head and smiling. Rather than disturb the moment, I waited until later in the day to ask him why. “Oh, I love that hallway,” said Azam. “I always feel like I am about to break out onto the field of a stadium. I get so psyched to get in there. I always hear pre-game pump-up music in my head.”

How many of you were so excited for chapel this morning that you heard pump-up music playing in your head on the way in? My friend Azam was not performing a weekly duty imposed by any external force. He could barely contain his enthusiasm for the project of communing with God and his fellow man. It made him hear the base-line from a Jock Jams track. He danced his way into his worship. It was totally joyous for him. His faith demanded serious reverence, but it offered exaltation.

Lesson three: God demands constant attention.

My third lesson began with a simple observation. Almost all parents of teenagers want the same things for their kids. They want their kids to be respectful and kind. They want their kids to be thoughtful and deliberate about education. They want their kids to stay sober and reasonably chaste and avoid risky behaviors that can lead to unnecessary pain and suffering. Your parents want this, or something a lot like it. Some of your more ambitious parents may even hope that you will make some positive contribution to the world some day. I will want these things for my own teenagers in time.

When I looked out at my classmates in Cairo, I was struck by an obvious dichotomy. There were many American Muslim kids, and, as far as I could tell, they had all spent the last decade as sober, chaste, thoughtful, courteous, kind people. Many of them made real contributions to their communities. Then there were the rest of us. The non-Muslim Americans had, almost universally, spent the last decade systematically disappointing their parents on each of those criteria.  It is almost as though we had all been handed the same list of high-risk teenaged activities: drinking, cigarettes, drugs, driving too fast, Metallica concerts, walk-backs etc. Half had read it as a list of warnings but the other half had interpreted it some sort of shopping list.

I wasn’t surprised that Azam never joined me at the bar, but I was surprised at how thoroughly he avoided misbehavior. He was a charming, good looking, funny guy, and everyone liked to be around him, but when he was talking to young women, not matter how charming he was being, he averted his eyes to avoid unintentionally objectifying them. He actually found something else to look at whenever a girl was sitting with us.

Most of these records are permanently sealed, because I have no interest in describing myriad failed attempts at the elusive walk-back, but I will acknowledge that, as a teenager, I was tempted to try anything that was forbidden. Why was Azam out praying and behaving himself while I was scheming? Why is some kid out there praying and behaving right now while some of you are checking your own mental shopping lists?

So I asked him. “Azam. Presumably our parents had many of the same goals for us. How come your parents’ program worked. Haven’t you ever wanted to have a beer or a BLT or stare at an attractive classmate?”

“I believe in God,” said Azam. He wasn’t being haughty, but he thought the answer was obvious.

“Right. I get that, but so do a lot of people, and there are plenty of sins committed by people who believe in God.”

“We don’t believe at the moment when we sin.” he said.

I won’t keep pretending that I can recreate this conversation verbatim, but I think I can explain Azam’s point. If a person actually believed in an all-knowing God, whose will was the definition of good, then that person could never perceive a good that was counter to God’s will. Every time you make a decision that contradicts the divine plan, you are really saying, in that moment, that there is no divine plan, and thus no God. All sin is atheism. In Azam’s Islam, little things really were big things. When he sinned, it wasn’t harmless.

He thought about God not just on Fridays or when he read Qur’an or when he prayed. He tried to think about God in everything he did. Islam is not one of his interests, it is more like the lense through which he viewed everything. He avoided beer and BLTs and staring at classmates because that was God’s plan, not his parents’ plan. My parents had never presented me with God’s plan, and they couldn’t quite carry the day on their own authority.

Those are my three lessons from Azam.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. There isn’t much we can say that applies to all of them. That is one of the reasons that I have chosen to talk about a Muslim, rather than Islam in general,  but if we have a sense of a religion that teaches reverence and appreciation, promotes the unity of mankind and personal humility, and impacts every decision in the believer’s life, then we are a bit closer to understanding Azam and many people who share his beliefs.

Now the big question: What is the goal? Of this or any chapel talk that touches on religion. Understanding? Love? Tolerance? Mutual respect? A diverse tapestry of equally true faith journeys? Here is my answer. Understanding, yes. Love? If possible. Tolerance, definitely. Respect, maybe, but maybe not. Diverse tapestry of equal truths? Certainly not.

I would like to explain that last bit. If Azam taught me anything, it is that his faith is not meant to be compartmentalized. It is absolute. It is Truth with a capital T. Truth does not mix well with other ideas. Truth diluted is no truth at all. Azam believes in a God who created and governs the universe with infinite knowledge and infinite power. I do not believe in that God. I like learning about what Azam believes, so there is the understanding. I love Azam as a person, so there is the love, but do I respect his belief in God? How could I, if I don’t believe in God? Does he respect my atheism? Of course not. How could he? I deny that which is most important to him. I respect Azam as a father, and as a doctor, and as a scholar, and as someone who appreciates the “Trillion Dollar Bill” episode from the Simpsons. I respect every person’s right to their own beliefs, but none of that is really respect for religion, which I find quite difficult.

Respect for antithetical truths is impossible. Jesus can’t be both the son of God and not. Muhammad can’t be both the “Seal of the Prophets” and not. Beer and bacon are either sinful or not. Having any sense of Truth precludes real respect for another sense of Truth. You can’t make a tapestry of truths.

There is a whiff of something unsavory in this view. I am saying that my view of the world is True, and that means that many of your views are not. I love a few Muslims, and I have learned from Islam, but unless I am willing to accept it as true, am I really respecting it? The important property here is not respect, but tolerance.

I disagree with the Christians in the room right now about the shape of reality, but neither I nor they will resort to violence to press the point. This is tolerance. Father Weymouth gave me the microphone this morning to talk about Islam. That is tolerance. I disagree with Azam about humankind’s relationship with the universe, but neither of us ever considered forcing the other to learn the Truth. This is tolerance.

Tolerance implies some mild superiority. “I am right, but you can exist too.” Tolerant Christians teach tolerance, perhaps because they see Jesus as tolerant, but they do not view non-Christians as having equal access to Truth. Tolerant Muslims teach tolerance, perhaps because the Qur’an makes specific provisions for how to treat and protect non-Muslims, but they do not think that “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews, are adequately honoring God. We infidels have it easy. Only an atheist can celebrate religions as equals, and it is only the equality of dismissal. We can tolerate all religious people as quaint holdovers with beautiful, if wholly mythological traditions. We can even love them. There is nothing about being wrong that makes you unlovable. Intolerant people of any stripe are moving from mild superiority to condescension, and then hatred and eventually violence, and they are generally intolerable.

My worldview is mostly doubt-based, leaving little room for faith. I see no grand purpose for humanity. We seem to be a temporary, in fact short-lived, experiment within the equally temporary experiment of life on earth. No cosmic force celebrated our arrival. No cosmic force will mourn our passing.

I will probably not teach my children that they were made in God’s image. I won’t teach them to pray five times a day. I won’t teach them that their sins are forgiven because of a man who died long ago. I won’t teach them that because their maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother came from a particular town in Poland they must have a special relationship with the creator. From me, Oliver and Parker will probably learn skepticism. If, somehow, they end up like Azam, full of faith, charity, hope, humor and a deliberate desire to do good, I will count them lucky.