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Muslims Come in Different Shapes and Sizes, Too

Jane Coon, 2017

The Congregational church in my New England home town was pretty austere. No crucifix, no saints, no stained glass windows. In nearby Dover, an old mill town, there was a Catholic church for the Irish and another one for the Italians, plus a smaller Orthodox church for Greeks. Stained glass windows and saints were a big item in those churches. Hoping to cure her failing eyesight, my old Latin teacher even made the pilgrimage all the way to Lourdes in France. These days, I suppose, Mexican immigrants are drawn more to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Theologically, we are all over the map. From the pulpit in my Congregational church, our minister read from the Bible, but we didnʼt take it literally. My fundamentalist Baptist friends, on the other hand, never doubted that the world was created in seven days. Christian Scientists read Mary Baker Eddy while Episcopalians stuck with the Book of Common Prayer. A colleague gave my father The Book of Mormon, which Dad read but wasnʼt tempted to convert. In college I joined a Quaker project one summer and participated in a Quaker silent meeting. A born-again friend attended church where congregants were speaking in tongues. And, lest we forget, the Ku Klux Klan, burned crosses in a misbegotten use of Christian symbolism.

We Christians do come in many shapes and sizes. A Muslim might be confused trying to figure out Christianity in America.

Americans, however, tend to think of Islam as a monolithic faith with veiled women and a propensity for violence. But what do we know about Islam and how it is actually practiced from Indonesia to Morocco?

Quite some time ago I lived for two years in Karachi, Pakistan, a Muslim country. My job focused on Pakistanʼs turbulent politics, but my curiosity encompassed the religious scene. At first, my introduction to Islam was rather hit and miss. Shortly after my arrival, a Pakistani business man invited me for tea. His three, cheerful wives together acted as hostesses. But more important than my surprise introduction to polygamy was the knowledge gained from them about Muslim sects in Pakistan. My host was an Ismaili, a Shia and follower of the Aga Khan. They were a small but important segment of the business community in Karachi and later I was able to attend the coronation of the new Aga Khan. Over time I got to know other Muslim sects, rather like our denominations, including Memons, Khojas and Bohras--both Sunni and Shia.

The Sunni-Shia rift in Islam became apparent on the 10th day of moharrum. I watched a Shia procession wend its way through the center of the city, marking the death of their martyr Husayn at Karbala in what is now Iraq. My Pakistani friends compared the schism to the Protestant/Catholic split in Europe.

Muslim friends in Karachi invited me to family celebrations at Eid--the big holiday following Ramadan, the month of fasting. Children paraded their new clothes and everyone enjoyed a great feast. It was a little like Christmas except the main dish was fat-tailed sheep--a delicacy I never quite took to. On another occasion I joined some women friends one afternoon who were studying verses from the Koran before having tea and a good gossip session. Reminded me of the Bible study groups in my home town. I later attended a qawwali, a performance of Sufi devotional music. The strictest Muslim sects abjure all music but not the devotees of qawwali. And public recitations of Urdu and Persian religious poetry attracted several thousand fans, a little like a Christian revival.

One weekend with a Pakistani friend I visited the shrine of a thirteenth century Muslim sufi saint in Sehwan, a village a hundred miles north of Karachi. The saint, Shah Qalandar, was revered by both Sunnis and Shias and also by many Hindus. At the tomb my friend and I sat quietly in an atmosphere permeated by incense and the throb of drums. Throngs of devotees circumambulated the tomb; women sat deep in prayer; a man was quietly reading the Koran; several dancers moved rhythmically in a darkened corner and occasionally one would go into a trance. For some pilgrims sufi Islam provides a mystical path to union with the divine. For others, the pilgrimage to Shah Qalandar’s tomb has more practical objectives-- cure for an ill child, blessing for an arranged marriage; aid in getting a job, or help in school examinations.

Similar maybe to Lourdes or Guadalope?

In Pakistan I learned that Muslims, like Christians, come in many, many shapes and sizes.

Islam, of course, has its Puritanical adherents and its fanatics. A few months ago, to my horror, the New York Times reported that one of them detonated a suicide bomb killing 90 people at the shrine of Shah Qalandar I had visited. Too often we forget that Muslims are the biggest victims of terrorism.