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Laughter, Trust, and Love

A few weeks ago, Bolton Street Synagogue, a Reform Jewish congregation where I serve as rabbi, and St. Matthew Catholic Church gathered together for an interfaith event. On that Sunday afternoon, over 30 people entered the church’s meeting hall and found seats set up in two concentric circles. Over the next hour and a half, we spent lots of time facing each other in one-on-one conversation, as we studied, listened, and shared. Many entered as strangers, but left feeling strengthened in the relationship with fellow parishioners and those from a different faith tradition.

As the event ended, Pat Jones, a lay leader at St. Matthew Catholic Church and partner in this project asked the group, “Should we do this again?” She was answered with resounding applause. I’d like to take some time to reflect upon that applause. What made this event a success? What caused a rabbi, a priest, Jewish and Catholic lay leaders, and so many others to leave the church hall feeling uplifted after a short time together?


After our event was over, our planning group found some time to gather and reflect upon the event. One thing we kept coming back to was laughter. We believed that this was one of the main ingredients that helped this event succeed. From our early planning sessions, we were often laughing and joking with each other. All of us have good senses of humor (Elaine Crawford, Father Joe Muth, Pat Jones, Marc Wernick, Lauren Kelleher, and myself as well). I think we often fed off each other with a pun or a joke! It might not seem to be the epitome of interfaith dialogue, but I believe the laughter and joking in our planning sessions helped break down barriers and allowed for a common connection that helped us get to know one another.

In addition, Marc Wernick of Bolton Street Synagogue came up with a wonderful ice breaker for our event called “Spiritual Speed Dating.” As I shared above, we began our gathering seated in two concentric circles. We faced one another and spoke face-to-face. The questions asked were not easy. “What do you pray for?” is an example. But, in each case there was a little bit of laughter, smiles, and joking. I firmly believe that this helped each of us to become comfortable with one another, to become better listeners, and to dig deeper into our personal spiritual story.


Interreligious dialogue and interfaith gatherings are not always easy to plan or easy to attend. There can be many pitfalls to planning such an endeavor: food, timing, prayer, egalitarianism, unease, and mistrust to name a few! Yet, in our case none of these pitfalls seemed to come to fruition. I believe that this was true because of the trusting relationship that we built over time.

First, Bolton Street Synagogue and St. Matthew Catholic Church already knew of each other and had already built a relationship. The two congregations are both members of the community organizing initiative BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and have been involved in various social justice projects, including the Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition as well as the Faith Communities of Baltimore in Pride. In addition, our clergy (myself as well as Father Joe Muth) knew and respected each other. These opportunities provided us with a foundation to begin our work.

In addition, we were able to meet and to get to know each other during our time in the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship (CLF). I commend CLF Program Director Alisha Tatem and the leadership at ICJS for putting the interfaith events towards the tail end of our fellowship. This allowed the six of us from Bolton Street Synagogue and St. Matthew Catholic Church to get to know each other, to study together, to learn from each other, and to begin to build a trusting relationship. It was through these moments that we were able to begin to plan this wonderful event.


We decided that our program would focus on the theme of love. Throughout the event, we studied three texts: a Jewish text from Midrash Rabbah, a Christian text from 1 Corinthians, and a text from both of our traditions from the Book of Ruth. Each of these texts focused on a different aspect of love.

I believe that by focusing our time together on love, we were able to help strengthen relationships amongst our participants. Sometimes in an interreligious dialogue, we think that we must focus on the “big” issues of the day: prayer, theology, ritual, and practice. These topics are often hard in just a singular religious gathering and even more challenging in an interfaith context. We might question God, feel anger at our religious leaders, struggle with religious beliefs or practices, which makes interfaith dialogue more difficult. By focusing on love, we addressed a universal feeling that wasn’t innately “religious.” All of us have loved and have been loved albeit in different ways. We know that feeling and what it means. It became a wonderful entree into our discussion.

Next Steps

So, what’s next? We’re not sure yet, but we know that we have a wonderful foundation built upon laughter, trust, and love! We hope to partner together on Afghan refugee resettlement and to continue our interfaith dialogue and conversations. The path is long and there will hopefully be many forks ahead, but I’m looking forward to the journey!

The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.

Rabbi Andy Gordon is rabbi at the Bolton Street Synagogue, and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

A Deeper Understanding of the Common Ground

Having studied Comparative Religion as my major in undergraduate studies at George Washington University, I have always had a profound respect and appreciation for all religions, particularly the monotheistic faiths. However, I have never interacted with the other faiths as intimately as I have this last year through ICJS’s Congregational Leaders Fellowship. This experience has had an enormous impact on me as a Muslim, a student of religion, a citizen, an American, and a father.

This fellowship gave me the opportunity to really build bridges and meaningful relationships with fellow Jewish and Christian citizens. Through regular monthly virtual meetings, I got to hear firsthand views on common themes such as dignity, respect, spirituality, the Divine presence, and social justice; and how they fit into the various understandings of different faiths. This dialogue left a permanent imprint on my soul, and fostered a deeper understanding of the common ground that all three monotheistic traditions share with respect to the integrity of the human spirit, with man’s role as vicegerent on this Earth.

These relationships of community, brotherhood, sisterhood, and understanding are so central to develop given all the political, social, and racial turmoil that has plagued America in the last year or so. Through dialogue and mutual understanding, we come to realize the true value of religion, and the common themes of humanity, love, and dignity that permeate all religious traditions. This fellowship could not be more relevant than in the confusing times we find ourselves in.

Specifically, having had the chance to participate in a Jewish congregational activity was very instructive for me as a Muslim. I learned quickly how devoted the congregation was to their love of God. Just by listening and observing, I saw the outpouring of love they all showed to each other and me during the service. This was reminiscent of Islamic services that we offer at our congregation as part of the Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore.

I am also excited to be working with Chevrei Tzedek on a community outreach project serving food to the needy population of veterans at The Baltimore Station. This project has fostered a mutual understanding of love, respect, and community between two different congregations coming together for the sole purpose to serve others, which is such a central and pivotal dimension of all religious traditions. These bonds and ties have been created in the name of this fellowship, and for that, I am forever grateful.

I am most grateful for the relationships and friendships I have created through this fellowship, people I likely would not have ever met otherwise. I text and email with many in this fellowship, and I hope and pray these relationships develop and flourish in the future with many more meaningful collaborations where we can serve others and the communities we live in together. Creating a culture and environment of understanding, friendship, and fraternity is the true essence of this fellowship. Thank you ICJS for a memorable experience that I hope will grow for many years to come!

The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.

Dr. Omer Awan is an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a congregant of the Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore, and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

The Building Blocks to Economic Justice

Interacting and engaging with peers and colleagues from other faiths has opened my eyes to a few issues. I realized that prejudice and bias exist not only towards Muslims, but also other groups. In many situations it manifests its ugly face as an outcome of unintentional ignorance and cultural baggage, influenced by media and societal stereotypes, and less commonly by evil agendas.

I also recognized that many leaders from all three faiths recognize and understand the economic values and principles of their faiths, and believe that they bring positive impact to society. However, as leaders in society we collectively fail to voice our opinions in everyday business discussions and non-faith settings. We have all accepted that discussing faith in the workplace and in public settings is not seen as appropriate or politically correct. Basing professional opinions on faith-based principles has become considered by society as unscientific, inappropriate, and irrelevant.

Joining the discussions and work sessions with participants of the Justice Leaders Fellowship allows one to be more courageous and bold in referencing the scriptures and divine revelation by the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, without hesitation. Divine revelation has been brought down to mankind as mercy and compassion to guide human beings to the ideal and optimum lifestyle a person and global society can experience.

As humans dismiss the economic and social justice principles sent by the Creator, and attempt to substitute man-made replacements, we continue to experience new problems. These new problems force us to attempt to mend them, introducing more man-made imperfections. Take as an example the U.S. tax code and compare it to the Islamic system of Zakat, obligatory giving that is one of the five pillars of Islam, or the Jewish tzedakah, charitable giving that is rooted in social justice. The tax code is much less effective, less fair, and miniscule in impact compared to the divine solutions.

As leaders of non-profit organizations we are in a unique position where, with confidence, we can propose solutions to the crises we have in our society, backed by scripture, and the teachings and lifestyles of the prophets and messengers.

As a society we have confined the impact and value of faith to the four walls of our institutions and hearts of our congregations. Leaders who believe in a faith must not shy from sharing their perspectives about solving problems in society based on divine solutions outlined to mankind in scripture. It is the obligation of every leader to share the divine economic solutions presented in the scriptures to promote social justice and fairness.

It is practically not possible for a society to separate faith from state while expecting to produce perfect systems that provide social justice based on principles originating from divine revelation. At some point a collision will occur between the principle and the implementation, leading to a defective solution. For example, implementing interest rates on lending money will automatically lead to inflation and a poorer older generation by definition. This implementation conflicts with a social justice principle in all three faiths—honoring elders and appreciating them when they have completed their mission to society and are unable to earn a living.

As a Systems Engineer and Architect, I understand that systems behave based on their structures, and not the environment. The environment can cause changes to the structure, which would then affect how the system behaves. If we want to change behavior and foster/encourage/promote social and economic justice in Baltimore, we must change the structure of social and economic systems. Attempting to change the environment without correcting the structure will not yield the desired results, and will only lead to diluted impact, or delayed root cause mitigation.

So, what is the structure? It is the underlying architecture that supports wealth generation, distribution, and flow, built on sound principles, and embodied in a way that implements the principles without contradicting them. What is the environment? The policies and trends in society that could strengthen or erode the structure.

We can choose to ignore the absolute truth as revealed in the scripture and spend our lives going in circles attempting to discover a solution to a problem that already has a solution revealed thousands of years ago. Or we can choose to pause, learn, discover, and innovate. The ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship is taking the first steps toward the latter, bringing back the divine revelation into our practical everyday lives as leaders for a more pragmatic and pluralistic outcome.

Ayman Nassar is Founder and Chief Student Experience Officer at the Islamic Leadership Institute of America (ILIA), and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

The Tension of Religious Intolerance

I moved to Nigeria, my home country, immediately after I graduated from elementary school for my middle school years. My parents were unhappy with how quickly we were losing a sense of our Islamic language, and cultural identities.

Upon our arrival in Nigeria, my sister and I were enrolled in a prestigious, all-girls, Catholic missionary school, which is known for its high quality secular education, inclusive environment, and tolerance of other religions and Indigenous practices.

In fact, the school was run by a missionary for the sole purpose of empowering girls to think for themselves. My dad had always planned for us to attend this school for our secondary school education. The school promotes not only high academic excellence, but also it’s an enabling environment for young minds to grow and thrive as independent thinkers without the sacrifice of religious beliefs and cultural identities.

Based in the heart of the ancient city of Kano, which is a bastion of Islamic tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, St. Louis for the girls, and St. Thomas for the boys, produced brilliant young minds from northern Nigeria who grew up to become productive members of the society. However, northern Nigeria today is bedeviled by an international terrorist organization, Boko Haram, which promotes intolerance and anti-Islamic rhetoric across the Sahel. Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency and the government’s military response have killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced millions across the Lake Chad region, which straddles Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Boko Haram is responsible for the abduction of over 250 mostly Christian female students.

It’s mind boggling how a country with a nearly 50-50 distribution of Muslims and Christians has been unable to douse the tension of religious intolerance. The northern Nigeria of today, which appears to be highly intolerant of other faiths and cultures, is completely different from the one I experienced when I attended a Catholic missionary school almost 30 years ago.

ICJS Jewish scholar Ben Sax’s presentation on the dignity of work from the perspective of the Torah reminded me how similar the Torah, Bible and the Quran are, and confirmed why my educational experience in a Christian environment afforded me the mindset to approach Islam from a place of intellectual understanding and reasoning. The presentation, particularly the point made on the dignity of work, reminded me of one of the Divine principles of being a servant of Allah as mentioned in the Quran, “And that man shall have nothing but what he strives for.” (Q53:39)

My parents made a difficult decision to accept high quality education, despite coming from a preferred source, but still built on an authentic faith tradition with a proven track of producing erudite scholars and thinkers to avoid raising children who may grow up as intolerant followers of a tradition that they may not have a full understanding of. This reminds me of when we find ourselves in non-homogeneous environments and whether we make room for others or create barriers for others to benefit from the value of work.

As I reflect on the Justice Leaders Fellowship and how this relates to economic justice and equity, I wonder whether I personally wait for what I need or strive for my needs despite hidden and apparent roadblocks. I am grateful for this self-realization through the presentation.

Moreover, as a practicing Muslim, ICJS Muslim scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan’s presentation transformed my relationship with salah, the compulsory daily prayer. The illustration of salah being a key to access the Owner of everything regardless of one’s socio-economic status is a powerful reminder that Allah, the Creator, doesn’t look at what’s on the outside. Rather, it is only our deeds that matter. If the Creator doesn’t place a barrier between us and Himself, then why should I place a barrier for others to access what is required to live a dignified life? My understanding of justice and equity has been transformed through the teachings of scripture, and I am grateful for this experience.

Jamila Fagge is Media Consultant and Communications Strategist at First SouSou, LLC, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Tear Down Walls, Build Bridges

As-salamu alaykum “Peace be upon you” a greeting which so many are attacked & persecuted for using. Although its meaning is so heavy that once said the person saying is declaring he or she will not cause any physical or verbal harm to the other. Hati Mohemmed Daoud Nabi, 71, offered a similar peace offering, ‘hello brother, welcome,’ to his attacker just moments before he was shot dead, along with 49 others in Christchurch, New Zealand. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (We belong to God and to God we shall return).

I woke with a heavy heart to this tragic news that is happening far too often in places of worship. A Mosque, a Church, a Synagogue, a Temple, and any other places of worship should not be a place where you fear for your life. Rather, these are places where you build community, memories, and rejoice life.

In a time when divisiveness, hate, and bigotry have taken shelter in the highest places in government around the world. I strongly believe interfaith partnerships, alliances and collaborations are much needed. We must tear down walls and build bridges with people of all faiths and backgrounds. We must seek to understand and learn of the differences, cause only then will we be able to see the vast similarities.

Challenge yourself! If you haven’t been to a different place of worship other your own, please visit and learn more about another faith. The Prophet Muhammad said, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”

I have seen members of all faith backgrounds being compassionate and empathetic to the tragic massacre which occurred, from New Zealand’s Prime Minister opening parliament session with “As-salamu alaykum” to members of all faiths coming out in large numbers to mosques to offer solidarity and protection while their fellow Muslim Brothers and Sisters offer prayer.

That same Friday I myself, just as I do every Friday, attended Salat al-Jumah (Friday Prayers), where interfaith leaders came together to offer prayers for the victims and their families. I must admit, I was for a moment a little more alert than usual, trying to scope out anything or if I notice anyone out of the usual. Then I quickly stopped as I realized that is exactly what the terrorists want, they want us to be scared and they want us to be isolated and against one another. But no that is not what Islam teaches us. Islam teaches us to be kind to one another regardless of which faith you are and what we are all a part of one Ummah (community).

Often times Imams before starting prayer will say “Pray as this is your last prayer.” I started to think about this more and more. As our brothers and sisters in Christchurch were preparing for their last prayer. I pray that Allah “Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala,” Glory to Him, the Exalted, accept their good deeds and intentions and grant them The Highest Gardens of the Paradise and make it easy for their families and the community at large. We are all hurting and God Willingly we won’t forget.

We won’t forget; Atta Elayyan, Mucad Ibrahim, Sayyad Milne, Lilik Abdul Hamid, Areeb Ahmed, Tariq Omar, Shahid Suhail, Syed Jahandad Ali, Haroon Mahmood, Farhaj Ahsan, Maheboob Khokhar, Muhammad Haziq Mohd-Tarmizi, Asif Vora, Ramiz Vora, Ansi Alibava, Ozair Kadir, Haji Daoud al-Nabi, Ali Elmadani, Husna Ahmad, Naeem Rashid, Talha Naeem, Amjad Hamid, Kamel Darwish, Linda Armstrong, Mohammed Imran Khan, Mohamad Moosid Mohamedhosen, Hamza Mustafa, Khaled Mustafa, Junaid Ismail, Abdelfattah Qasem, Ashraf Ali, Ashraf Ali Razat, Mathullah Safi, Hussein Al-Umari, Musa Vali Suleman Patel, Ashraf al-Masri, Hussein Moustafa, Mounir Soliman, Zeeshan Raza, Ghulam Hussain, Karam Bibi, Abdukadir Elmi, Mohsin Al Harbi, Osama Adnan Youssef Kwaik, Mojammel Hoq, Mohammed Omar Faruk, Muhammed Abdusi Samad, Muse Nur Awale, Ahmed Gamaluddin Abdel-Ghany, Zakaria Bhuiya.

I urge you all to take a few moments to read this NYT article and learn more about these amazing individuals whose lives were stolen from them. They live on through us and our work in making this world a better place so events like this don’t happen again.

Salman Zaman is Development Coordinator at Islamic Relief USA, and a  member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Do Say Something

“O, believers! Stand firm for Allah and bear witness to the truth. Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to righteousness. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what you do.” (Surah 5:8)

For me, teaching young people requires God’s calling and covering. It is God’s covering that got me through each day and made way for me to connect with my students and their families. I absolutely love teaching. Though I do not recall, my parents have shared with me since I was a young child, I declared I would be a teacher. And so, it is my chosen profession to be a teacher. For nearly 15 years I taught both middle and high school-aged students. To be chosen by God to develop the thinking and skills of young people is a blessing not to be taken lightly. God is entrusting me with one of God’s most precious and vulnerable populations. Indeed, it takes a village to nurture a child mentally, physically, and emotionally. With everything in me, I gave my best to my students. I withhold nothing. Everything God gave me, I gave them with joy. Understand that it was never lost on me that I was serving to the glory of God, never. I cannot do the job of a teacher without the presence and covering of God — period.

So imagine how jarring it felt to my soul to often be told by parents, “Don’t say nothing to my child.” What do you mean, “Don’t say nothing to my child”? They meant Ms. Shalimar, you can teach my child American history or whatever it is you teach, but with regards to correcting my child’s behavior, keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself. I found this implausible. How did they expect me to teach with one hand behind my back, so to speak?

Teaching is not only the subject matter, but it is also relationship building with students and their families; building trust one for the other, and co-developing the students’ character and integrity.

Unfortunately, it is my belief that parents, families, and students see and experience some teachers and/or school systems the same way as they do policing and other systems of oppression. That is a system that imposes its rules, conditions, and opinions and implies, that they know best and know more. This leaves parents and families feeling and or believing they are inferior. The paradigm in these systems of oppression is that the students, families, and communities are innately bad people and dysfunctional. They are too often questioned, not trusted to do the right thing, treated like a suspect of a crime, and stripped of their human dignity. Anything said to them to their child or about them is believed to come from a position of superiority and is felt as dehumanizing, ugly, and crude. At some point teachers and the system of education at large became a place where families, parents, and communities felt disrespected, like outsiders instead of trusted and supported insiders and loved.

How do I get to justice in my classroom and school when I am told, “Don’t say nothing to my child?” Not saying anything to my students is not an action I am willing to take. Not doing it!

I am a teacher. I teach the whole child. I will do what it takes to gain the trust and respect of my students and their families. I will show them that I am a part of a system that uplifts them, supports them, and believes that together we can do good things on behalf of young people.

Without fear or hesitation, over the years I have informed my students, colleagues, and families that God called me to teach, and God is my boss. It is my duty as a believer to speak the truth and be about justice. For me to keep my opinions, thoughts, and beliefs to myself is to be disobedient to God’s will. It is also a contradiction to the village mindset of Black communities. When we say nothing more harm than good is done. When we say nothing we perpetuate the disposition of the bystander. When we say nothing we empower wrong. When we say nothing we have given up on one another. When we say nothing we give away our right to peace and faith in the moral good. Hence, “Don’t say nothing to my child” allows for the building of another infrastructure that destroys hope for relationship and the presence of God’s will to sustain us and keep us.

My saying something to your child is a condition of love and justice. Looking the other way and saying nothing is not an option for me who believes that God called me to the profession of teaching; therefore, will hold me accountable for every good and bad thing I do. May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon us all.

Shalimar Douglass is the owner of Uplift, and a  member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Sending the Best

“Wow we haven’t seen each other since we were kids,” I said looking at a picture in their hallway as I left a brief meeting with long-time friends of my family and the Mom & Dad of one of my childhood friends.

We are all part of a multi-generational community of Muslims here in Baltimore which is itself one of many loosely affiliated Muslim communities across the country having an interwoven history of, and shared experiences as, African Americans in the USA.

As I walked out through the front door, I smiled, feeling good about the exchange with this couple of 41 years.

“Please give Jaleel the greetings for me,” I said to his Mom.

“Definitely,” she said.

“And likewise please give the greetings to your Mom & Dad from us!”. “You got it!” I said. “As- Salaamu Alaykum,… see you soon.”

“Wa Alaykum As Salaam Muhammad!” they said as I jumped in my vehicle.

This is a standard parting of ways where I’m from, a standard expression of care, a byproduct of community life in action. But I wonder sometimes if we as a community are really harnessing the full value embedded in the religious symbols and scriptural language that we encounter and use frequently.

If I asked Jaleel’s mom & dad to “Tell Jaleel I said Hi!” is it the same as asking them to “Tell Jaleel I say As Salaamu Alaykum!”? Is that the same as asking them to “Tell him I send the greetings!”?

I get the sense sometimes that people use these terms and language interchangeably, and as I thought about it more I figured this would be a good topic for the ICJS Imagining Justice in Baltimore crew to discuss. So I’m looking forward to comments and conversation at our next get together everyone!

To send greetings to a friend through an intermediary will probably inspire some joy, and further the friendship; however, to wish a person, not currently in your presence, the best you can wish for them, while reminding them to continue to position themselves to be their best self is uniquely inspiring in my opinion. The Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faith traditions all utilize a language and a concept of a higher peace, a peace based in faith.

My understanding is that this is a multilayered peace rooted in a belief (which itself should be based in scriptural understanding and clear logic) that the individual’s perspective, thinking, and actions are aligned with what the Creator prefers for the human perspective, for human thinking, and for human actions.

This belief (I believe) comforts the soul and the sensitivities with the assurance that as aspects of the world inevitably agitate the believer, those perceived challenges are really opportunities for the believer to assess and respond with the proper moral perspective of the circumstances and the best ethical thinking and rationale. The correct perspective and thinking process should produce consistent behavior that furthers the value that the Creator wants for everything and everyone created. Believers are in my opinion, training their minds, bodies, and sensitivities to respond to the stimuli of human life in a manner that furthers the best of human thinking and the best of human behavior in the world, even if they are not conscious of this general development process happening in them, or of the larger development happening in the human species that they are contributing to.

Consciously choosing to respond with the best of one’s self, even when some ramifications of that response may be painful, harmful, or otherwise undesirable, is (I believe) the human exercise that develops and reinforces said sense of peace. To wish this peace on someone else is to wish them a supreme sense of contentment and satisfaction that is itself rooted in a demonstrated success at responding to stimuli from this creation we are all immersed in. No other criteria determine the level of peace attained other than the criteria of human choice in this natural world.

To wish this “best” type of peace, or phrased differently, this highest level of peace attainable on another human being is, in my opinion, why it is said that, “There are many greetings, and As-Salaamu-Alaykum is the best of greetings.”

Greeting another human being with a wish or stated desire that they attain the highest level of satisfaction, is to me, a beautiful concept that I believe is many times lost among many Muslims and others in our mundane, repetitive mouthing of “As Salaamu Alaykum” and the standard response of “Wa Alaykum As Salaam.”

I believe a refresher on the core relevance of this unique concept of peace may guide and assist many human beings in their ongoing search for greater understanding and contentment and peace.

As I left the home of my childhood friend and asked his mom to relay ‘the Greetings’ to him that day, I just hoped he would get the message and be refreshed in his thinking about our friendship. Maybe he would get the message and reminisce, maybe he’d smile and get back to his work, or maybe he’d hear the words and their higher meaning would register with his soul and thus guide his perspective as he carried out his work.

So to all my fellow believers from the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faith traditions, all my ICJS fellows, old buddies and new friends alike, it’s been a great experience, I want to wish you a happy 2019 and may the highest level of peace be your way.

Muhammad Najeeullah is Coordinator of Open Works Mobile, Founder of FullBlast STEAM, and a  member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Muslim and Navigating the Holidays

It’s that time of year, the “Holiday Season” when Muslims get really awkward. There are three types of Holiday Season Muslims, those who do not celebrate but are happy to accept holiday wishes from others, grinches who are genuinely offended that your holiday cheer is being spewed all over them “Bah!! No cheer for me!”, and those who celebrate Christmas. Growing up, our family was somewhere between the first and last.

My family didn’t celebrate Christmas per se. There was no holly or mistletoe and definitely no tree in the house. However, we’d pull up to the mall loudly blasting Christmas carols and sit in the car belting out lyrics until the song ended. And at home, we would binge watch Christmas movies during the break, drink eggnog and eat cookies that my aunt and uncle gave out to every family member. We were dazzled by the beauty of the lights and enjoyed the general feeling of goodwill that accompanies the season. Every year my mother would drive us to experience the Miracle on 34th St. in Hampden, and we’d just revel in it all. I’ve carried that tradition on with my own children as well.

However, with Santa, my parents were plain speakers. They didn’t sugarcoat things to ease or soften the blow. Santa, according to my parents, was a bold-faced lie told to children by none other than their own parents. My father would say, “Imagine that, a person works so hard to provide gifts for their children and they give the credit to some mythical character. That’s just crazy!” But, if I’m honest, I wanted desperately to believe in Santa. I loved all things fantasy, even now my favorite genre is sci-fi or speculative fiction. So, as a child, I stayed up late sitting in front of our faux fireplace and waited. I really hoped that somehow, Santa would come through that fake brick and leave me a gift. Reliving that while writing makes me feel a little sad. The sadness of knowing as a child that this little bit of fairy magic wasn’t for me brings back that particular longing for the fantastic. I wonder if my children are feeling that now.

Recently, my children have been asking to celebrate Christmas. My oldest, in particular, is very articulately making a case for it. “We don’t have to celebrate Christmas.” she says “We can just decorate, and get a tree. Christmas is all about being with your family. What’s wrong with that?”. She asks every day. She doesn’t understand the reasoning — it’s just not our holiday. That’s not enough for her, and she’s right, I need to have an actual reason. My middle child joins in the fray, picking up where the oldest left off and making her case. I understand them, who wouldn’t want to celebrate Christmas? In a fistfight with Hanukkah and Eid tag-teaming together, American Christmas would knock out both. It’s so big, bold, and ubiquitous. But in this melting pot of interfaith multiculturalism, how much is too much?

At what point does one’s own identity become blurred when melting into the pot? Will I recognize us once we’re done melting? Also, to what end? If we celebrate Christmas now because come on, who are we kidding, getting a tree is celebrating Christmas, is Easter next? How would relenting and celebrating Christmas teach my children who are already very different than the societal norm, that it’s ok to be who they are, that they don’t need to conform and take on someone else’s norms and values, that we have our own? I want them to revel in their difference, to bask in their glorious beautiful uniqueness. I want them to know that who they are is ok. But then I think, what’s the big deal, it’s just a tree.

Siddeeqah Sharif Fichman is a Social Justice Advocate at NLife, and a  member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Kindness to Neighbors

My participation in the ICJS Teaching Fellowship has opened many spiritual doors and provided a variety of deep and important life experiences that surely make me a more open-minded person and understanding educator. I now realize that coming into this program that I was bankrupt in the religious sense, having left the Christian church for the second time about five years ago after questioning church leadership. I had reached an understanding that all religions were ‘different paths up the same mountain’, and experienced enough self-accomplishment to adopt an attitude of ‘don’t preach to me on mountaintops.’ I was removed from religion and taught religions only in the historical sense as static and isolated in a Modern World History class in a public school in Baltimore. Much has changed over the course of the past four months.

It was in December that pluralism truly ‘hit home.’ Not knowing what his reaction would be, I had recently explained my participation in this program to my next-door-neighbor and asked about the potential for a visit with him to his place of worship. It took six weeks of preparation, but we finally settled on a visit to the Maryum Islamic Center on the 28th, which was a date of significance to him as his mother had passed away exactly one year prior. He explained that on Friday afternoons there is a weekly call to prayer and reading of the prophets known as a Sunna. He graciously offered to drive my colleague and I to and from the ceremony and to answer any questions that we might have both before and after the event.

Before the worship ceremony began, we were introduced to the imam and seated in an area in the back of the center where we could observe yet not be in the way. The call to prayer began in Arabic, but later the scriptures were explained in English. The message shared from the Quran was one from Allah to all of mankind, both nonbelievers and believers. To nonbelievers, it was explained that each of us is a part of the creation and not the creator and a reminder that all that is given to us is temporary. For the believers, the message shared was that all parts of life are a part of worship, and that man should surrender and live righteously. The service ended with prayers as the group kneeled, chanting and bowing in perfect unison. We then were greeted cordially by many members of the community who seemed genuinely pleased to welcome us as visitors, and given delectable food platters to take home. Never were we made to feel unwelcome or out of place, and consequently, we felt at peace and at home in a religious setting that was unfamiliar.

On the way home, my neighbor graciously shared some of his personal religious experiences. He had been born and raised Muslim, attended Catholic school and bible studies in adolescence, and finally married a Hindu wife. His devotion led him to attend the mosque almost daily, and his open-mindedness enabled him to understand that his wife and children must follow their own religious paths. When we told him how much we appreciated being welcomed, he explained that for him and others to do anything different would have been un-Islamic. And when he spoke the words peace and blessings be upon you, it was spoken to and from the heart.

What struck me in my visit to the mosque, as well as in the other religious experiences that I have enjoyed throughout the course of this program, is the vibrancy of modern spiritual and cultural practices all around us. I have come to a greater appreciation of religions as much more than isolated sets of static beliefs, but rather as living and diverse communities with common depth and kindheartedness. Clearly, the practice of kindness to neighbors is one both shared across religious groups and to be shared as we embrace religious pluralism. For that notion is sure to impact me daily as I continue my journey as a teacher, father, and ‘neighbor’ to all.

Jason Mabee is a Social Studies Teacher at Forest Park High School. Mabee was a member of the 2018-19 ICJS Teachers Fellowship.

Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Teacher Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. 


Standing Firmly for Justice

O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” Surah An Nisa 4: 135

This holy scripture has always stuck with me ever since I could remember. It outlined the significance and application of social justice to everyone starting from oneself and it doesn’t stop regardless of blood tie or socioeconomic tie. It is fair and balanced to everyone under the eyes of God. For me, this scripture also displayed how faith and justice can go hand in hand. This is very near and dear to me as I hold both Faith and Justice as the same. My religious voice has been present in my advocacy work, professional life, and in the public square having worked at two faith-based organizations and very closely with faith-based partners. Believe me when I tell you that there is no off switch. My religious voice is my voice.

Having worked in the civil rights department at the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, I have heard from the community first hand on the violations and attacks on their religious rights and freedoms. I would oftentimes host Know Your Rights workshops where I would engage with the community. Not only did I feel empowered, but I believe the community at large also did as sometimes they may not be aware of some of the religious rights and freedoms we have in this country. After knowing about these rights they can feel more safe and proud of practicing their faith, something that so many around the world have to seek refuge for fear of persecution. Many stories that I have heard firsthand as I was also blessed with the opportunity to work with recently resettled refugees in Baltimore. I ran a mentorship program where community members can mentor a refugee family for six months. I loved this experience as I not only got to work and connect with families from all over the world but got to tell volunteers how to get involved. I believe that so many people would like to get involved but just don’t know how. Through my time at the resettlement agency, I would partner with the faith-based community on this project.

Having attended various religious services, what I have observed is that all the major faiths have vast similarities whether we are talking about providing refuge or food and shelter to the poor and needy. I believe too often we as a society focus on the differences instead of the similarities. We must come together and speak up for the oppressed and for the people who do not have a voice in this world as they are often marginalized and forgotten. I am frustrated when I hear people misinterpreting or cutting and pasting scripture out of context in the pubic square. However, I always give people the benefit of doubt as they may not know that what they are saying is actually incorrect. This is why I believe interfaith dialogue is so important. Once people hear and see firsthand that people of other faiths are just normal people but practice differently than them, but still choose to reject, it is no longer ignorance but bigotry. We are living in a moment in time where bigotry has been emboldened and embraced by members of our own government. It is our responsibility to correct those who misinterpret and misunderstand.

Open dialogue is the key to achieving understanding. The ICJS Imagining Justice in Baltimore series is a great outlet for dialogue. The fellowship has been a great experience for me where I not only got the opportunity to meet other community leaders and hear some of their stories but also have to opportunity to study and grow together with them. We used scriptural text to analyze the Department of Justice report on the investigation of the Baltimore city police department. Having a wide background of fellows and personal experiences made the conversations very interesting. Reading our sacred texts together equipped us for understanding a secular text like the DOJ report. Ultimately circling back to the question we started with, how should Baltimore Muslims, Christians, and Jews respond to the injustices and inequities in our community? ICJS highlights the continuous importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. Will you stand firmly for justice with us?

More subtly, religious institutions can obscure our natural relationship to our own inherent wisdom. They allow us to shortcut our own hard work of discovery and evolution. They feed us pre-determined “truths” and placate our concerns by giving us an easier path. We can feel virtuous simply by showing up and doing what we’re told.

Salman Zaman is Development Coordinator with Islamic Relief USA, and a  member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.