Imam Abdul-Malik Ryan is a founding member and past president of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. He holds a bachelor’s in African-American Studies from DePaul University and is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center. Imam Ryan has been working as an attorney for children in Chicago’s foster care system for more than 10 years, and serves as Muslim chaplain at DePaul University. He has also been actively involved in Iftar in the Synagogue, an annual event of JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative.
By Imam Abdul-Malik Ryan
Are human beings basically all the same? Are we different? Are our differences merely superficial and unimportant or are they real and significant? If they are significant, what do they mean? What is their origin and what are we supposed to do when faced with difference, should we ignore it? Should we celebrate it? Should we fight about it?
The Qur’an’s answer to this question is pretty clear. In the 49th Surah (chapter) of the Qur’an, God says “O Humanity! We have created you from a male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.” The ayah (verse) starts by telling us that all humans do indeed share the same origin and are literally part of the same human family.
Arab tribal culture valued the knowledge of genealogy precisely because these shared connections facilitated cooperation between people and could facilitate ways to see conflict in a different light. It is in this context that the Qur’an stresses that all of humanity is Bani Adam (the children of Adam) and you can bond with whomever you meet on the basis of our common grandfather and our family relationship.
But after mentioning our close connection, the verse mentions that it was God who made us into different peoples and tribes. So the diversity among human beings, the presence of different ethnic groups, different communities, even the presence of people following different religions, is not an accident of history or something purely devised by human beings. In fact it is part of God’s plan. We have been made into these different groups for a purpose “li ta’aarafoo,” in order that you may get to know one another.
The mission statement of the Jewish Muslim Community Building Initiative says that it “promotes education and understanding between the Jewish and Muslim communities…” This is how we get to know one another.
Building community is a tremendous aspiration in all cases. Community is not a photo op, nor is it something that can happen overnight, or simply because different organizations agree to it.
Real community requires sincerity; it requires persistence and patience; it requires the tremendous courage of ordinary people to go beyond their comfort zone, to give of their free time and to open their hearts to truly getting to know people who may seem quite different from them, who they may have been taught to see as someone they are not supposed to get along with, even though they do not even know them.
All of the wonderful people who have participated in JMCBI have been engaging in this beautiful process of getting to know one another for the last 10 years.
We have given our weekends and have braved snowstorms and sweltering heat to come out and sit with people who were previously strangers in coffee shops talking about millennia old religious texts and their relevance to contemporary public issues such as gambling, healthcare, housing, youth activism, human rights and ethical food practices.
We have gained appreciation for the richness of both Jewish and Muslim traditions, for the tremendous commonalities between our traditions, as well as for the great diversity within each of our traditions and each of our communities.
We have broken down stereotypes that each group may sometimes have about the other, or that people who relate to religion in different ways may have about each other.
Even though we as Jews and Muslims treasure our texts, we do not live by texts alone. JMCBI has sponsored Cafe Finjan, where we get to know each other through artistic expression. We have come together annually for Iftar in the Synagogue, joining together as Muslims observed the fasting of Ramadan and Jews celebrated Sukkot.
Our youth have collaborated in putting together video projects through which they learned about each other’s traditions and shared experiences of being religiously different in a society in which Christians are the majority.
What happens after we get to know each other? Is that it?
JMCBI’s mission states that it “addresses local and domestic issues affecting our communities and the broader society based on our shared interests and commitment to social justice.” The great prophetic tradition in which Jews and Muslims both aspire to walk could not be more clear about this.
Once we get to know each other, once we come to appreciate and care about each other, this should, and indeed must motivate us to work for change to benefit all of those around us.
One of the greatest tragedies that occurs when people are divided based on ignorance, fear, or prejudice is that we fail to work together to make our shared community a better place.
Once we get to know one another, we can truly work together to be a powerful prophetic voice for social justice. We can speak against all forms of bigotry and discrimination, we can reclaim housing for people who need it, we can stand alongside immigrants seeking a better life, or workers seeking decent wages and working conditions.
We can do all of this together as a community, full of the true care and concern for all of the human family that only comes when we truly know one another.