“I found something beautiful about the way my Muslim brothers and sisters understood Deen as a way of life”
I count it as a blessing to have spent six years studying at two universities in India: two years at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) (for a Master’s in Islamic Studies), and then, later, four years at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) (for my doctoral studies in Islamic Studies). I was 34 when I graduated from the AMU, and 44 when I gained my Ph.D. degree from JMI.
Paul Jackson, a Jesuit priest, scholar of Sufism and my spiritual and academic guide,was of the definite opinion that any genuine knowledge of Islam and experience of Muslims happens in the context of living among Muslims and engaging in regular friendly contacts and exchanges with them. And so, he suggested that I pursue my initial studies in Islam by doing an MA in Islamic Studies at Aligarh. He explained to me that while studying with Muslims, I would come to recognize and appreciate how religion is an important part of their lives. He said further: “You will find among your co-students many who make sincere efforts to adhere to the demands of their faith. Their lives will reflect that their religion is their source of meaning and consolation”. His words proved to be a guiding light for me to enter into the lives of many Muslim friends, both in AMU and in JMI.
Being a student in these universities gave me a great opportunity to come close to some Muslim friends with whom I could have a sort of ‘faith-sharing’, talking from the heart about life, about challenges, about joys and sorrows. There were no debates, there were no arguments, but simply sharing with one another over a meal, over a cup of tea at the university, and the like.
Through these sharing’s, something that I observed which I found very enriching was that many of them gave, in different ways, great importance to what is called Deen. At first, I thought that Deen is ‘religion’, as the term is conventionally understood, and that it is mainly about dogmas and social customs. I wondered why these friends gave so much importance to such things. But then I grew to realize that Deen is something much deeper. Deen for my Muslim friends, I came to learn, is a God-oriented way of life for human beings. A human person has to live in a particular way while on Earth in order to prepare themselves for when they appear before God on the Day of Judgment. I recognised that for them, Deen means to live in obedience to the will of God through following a specific way, which comprises beliefs, habits, behaviour, actions, and character. I learnt that the foundation of these matters is derived from what they believed is God’s guidance given to the Prophet Muhammad.
I found something beautiful about the way they understood Deen as a way of life derived from guidance from God as lived out by the Prophet. It was a way of life rooted in taqwa. Taqwa is an Arabic term that is translated variously as ‘God-consciousness’, ‘piety’, ‘dutifulness’, or ‘righteousness’. According to the teachings of Islam, affirming the Oneness of God and sincerely worshiping God will take one to God-Consciousness.
I discerned three concentric circles in the God-oriented way of life of some of my Muslim friends:
Their first concentric circle was their own personal life. In both the universities I studied at, some of them made efforts to live in a God-conscious way, and this was something incredibly special for me. How did they try to live in God-consciousness? Not by simply ritually praying or doing other such things. Somehow, their whole life was centred on God, sort of moving around God, moving towards God. So, for instance, when they excused themselves to go for prayer, they would do this in a gentle way, not in a flashy manner or to show off. Before I got into an engagement with my Muslim friends, as an outside observer, the prayer seemed to me very mechanical, but that view changed very much after I personally interacted with them. In their personal life, the way they appeared was as very much at ease with themselves, exuding simplicity and joy. I felt that in their personal life, the five times prayer was very inspiring.
The second concentric circle was how they made efforts to obey God’s will in their family life. I learnt from them about some of their practices in this sphere, such as on the occasion of birth, marriage and death.
The third circle was how they observed festivals and how they shared their joy with others—not only with fellow Muslims but with others, too.
So, I was impressed by all these things, on all these three levels.
Reflecting, as a Christian, on all this, I somehow feel connected with my Muslim friends, and do not feel that I am an outsider. Rather, I feel I am a participant, a brother. And as a participant, when I seek to accompany them, I feel greatly enriched! From the God-conscious lifestyle of many of my Muslim sisters and brothers I think my Christian sisters and brothers and can discover something beautiful. I feel my Christian sisters and brothers can deepen their faith in the light of the faith of our Muslim sisters and brothers. Ultimately, it is an exercise to grow in God-consciousness as creatures of the One God of all.