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My Journey to Interfaith Engagement

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If we genuinely want to move beyond polarization, we must connect on a human level with one another
I was born in 1950, and I am originally from Bangladesh. Presently, I live in Seattle, USA, where I have been since the late 1980s. My work is basically two-fold: I am a Muslim Imam, and I am also an interfaith activist.
I received my initial Islamic education from my parents. They were my most precious teachers. I come from a family with a lineage of Islamic healers and teachers; my paternal grandfather spent close to 20 years at the large seminary in Deoband, in northern India. He also studied with several mystics and was a Sufi Muslim at heart. The teaching I received is rooted in traditional Islam and infused with the love of Islamic mysticism.
My father opted to join the diplomatic service rather than becoming a healer and teacher in the family tradition. Among his many postings, he was stationed in Iran and Turkey. There, in my formative years, I became familiar with the 13th-century sage Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. My spiritual teachers in those two countries taught me the Quran, coupled with the poetry of Maulana Rumi. Rumi’s poetic verses are graced with an inner heart knowledge of the scripture. So, my Islamic education was provided mainly by my parents, my grandfather, my teachers, and poets and sages like Rumi.
Because of my background, I was eager to pursue a career where I could share the teachings of Islamic spirituality from an early age. The insights and practices of Islamic mysticism are essentially about developing an inner spaciousness by transforming the ego and opening up the heart.
I became passionate about interfaith community building and promoting peace and understanding among adherents of different religions. Even in my teenage years, the idea of interreligious understanding and harmony fascinated me. Perhaps this was because my wise parents encouraged their children to attend and participate in the worship services of different religions. Repeatedly, they pointed out to us universal verses in the Quran that celebrate diversity. As a teenager, being enthralled then by the now-celebrated and often quoted verse in the Quran about the cosmic design of God, Who created diversity among human beings so that we could come to know the other on a human level. (Qur’an 49:13) Another verse from the Quran says that God deliberately created diversity among religions so that we might compete in doing righteous deeds(Qur’an 5:48). The idea of being engaged in a career where I practice and share Islamic spiritual teachings always resonated with me. Of equal interest to me was the dream of fostering and living in an interfaith community where we engaged in dialogue, friendship, and social activism.
I struggled with how to make all of this a career and a calling. But when my parents passed away in 1990, something shifted inside me. Through prayers, spiritual practice, and family and friends’ help, I found the courage to embark on making my aspiration a reality. With some initial trepidation, I devoted myself full time to teaching classes on personal development in my house. I had no idea how many people would attend. To my utter surprise, a good number of people started attending and, even more, amazing to me, they were eager to continue with further study and learning.
By God’s Grace, an interfaith community emerged from the ongoing classes, and deep bonds of friendship developed between members from various religions. We started getting involved in interfaith activities in Seattle by creating ongoing classes, workshops, and retreats and engaging in social justice and earth care projects. Congregation members graciously opened their homes for our myriad activities. Some had large houses that accommodated our growing numbers. In seven years, we grew in numbers, and at one point, we peaked at 700 members! Even the large houses could no longer hold our expanding community. We prayed and prayed for a place to manifest.
Amazingly, in 1998, through a very remarkable set of circumstances (for us, it was a miracle), an aging group that owned the oldest church in Seattle and was aware of our interfaith work approached us with an incredible offer. They would gift us the church building, on one condition—that if we could not manage it—we would not sell it but give it away to another group. So, in 1998, we came into possession of this beautiful, small building which is also a historical site. Grateful and exhilarated beyond belief, we re-named it the Interfaith Community Sanctuary.
I am the Muslim Imam and, with a colleague, co-founder, of this unique house of worship. In this place, we aspire to foster a living, breathing, interfaith community. Our community is deeply involved with interfaith events and activism in Seattle and is allied with many interfaith organizations and houses of worship. We have four associate ministers from different traditions, including Buddhism and the Native American tradition. Interfaith Community Sanctuary is extraordinarily busy, with classes, workshops, retreats, regular Sunday services, and Friday Islamic prayers. In 2020, Interfaith Community Sanctuary was honored by being one of the winners in an international competition annually sponsored by King Abdullah of Jordan and the United Nations.
When the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001, I met a Jewish rabbi and a Christian pastor, and we started working together. In the process of advocating for interfaith understanding and harmony, we became very good friends. Little did we realize that our abiding friendship would evolve into an alliance called ‘Interfaith Amigos’ (amigo means ‘friend’ in Spanish). We would receive invitations to speak at universities, seminaries, religious and spiritual centres, and present at conferences all over America. Together, we talk about the message of spiritual inclusivity. We model the critical need to create bonds of an enduring friendship between people of different religious traditions, cultures, and backgrounds. We emphasize that the message is simple, but the work is challenging. If we genuinely want to move beyond polarization, we must connect on a human level with one another. To accomplish our goal, we must simultaneously do the inner work of becoming more developed human beings and overcoming our conditioned biases. This work requires dedication, sincerity, patience, and persistence.
So, today I have two areas of work: one, as a Muslim Imam at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary, and the other, as the third member of the Interfaith Amigos.

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