(This story first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)
“What do we who are not Muslims really know about what Muslims believe?”
This was the question that inspired the Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison to invite Imam Syed Soharwardy to participate in an Imam-in-Residence program at St. Martin’s Anglican Church in Calgary, where she serves as rector. Soharwardy, who follows the Sufi tradition of Islam, chairs the Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Assembly and is the founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada.
The residency program, which took place October 17 to 19, was an opportunity for Anglicans and Muslims to learn about each other’s faiths and practices and to engage in dialogue about their differences and similarities. They gathered for a service at the Al Madinah Calgary Islamic Assembly, listened to lectures on the “Qu’ran and Its Different Interpretations” and on “Islamic Shariah and Muslims in the Western World: Issues, Limitations, and Enforcement,” then gathered for a closing service at St. Martin’s Church.
This is the second time that Brubaker Garrison has invited a leader from a different religious community to share with her congregation. She organized a similar program in 2012 with Reform Rabbi Maurice Harris of Eugene, Oregon, and after seeing how successful it was she decided to continue the project.
Brubaker Garrison was excited to work with an imam because she wanted to foster a deeper conversation about Islam. “Calgary is a cosmopolitan city,” she said, noting its large and vibrant Muslim population, “so [Islam] is not something completely alien or foreign…[but] my sense is we often know just a little bit.” (According to the 2011 census data, there are 25,920 Muslims living in Calgary.)
Brubaker Garrison met Soharwardy through Bob Innes, a parishioner, who had worked with the imam at the Calgary-based research network FaithLink, which collaborated with religious communities to help them deal with domestic violence.
In many ways, Soharwardy is an ideal conversation partner. He has extensive experience working with people of other religious backgrounds, and has for years been a prominent voice calling for people of all faiths to work together in denouncing and preventing violence. In 2008, he travelled on foot from Halifax to Victoria as a part of the Multi-Faith Walk Against Violence. And Soharwardy knows about that of which he speaks-in September he reported being assaulted by a woman in a car who struck him repeatedly while shouting ethnic slurs before driving off when he started to dial 911.
For Brubaker Garrison, combatting the negative stereotypes about Muslims that lead to this sort of violence is an important part of the residency program.
“We can’t vilify a whole people or a whole religion…It’s so much more complex than that,” she said. “Let’s be willing to [educate ourselves] and not fall for a simplistic or generalized answer that may make us feel like we’re better or we’re the good guys or we’re in the right-because that will blind us to who we are and to what we might have to learn and do differently in this geopolitical context.”
But the dialogue has gone both ways, and Soharwardy’s community has also learned much through the experience. Although many Canadian Christians might assume that living in a society with such visible Christian roots would give Muslims a greater knowledge about Christianity, Soharwardy noted that, “There are many Muslim people who have never been in their entire life inside a church. They have never had the opportunity to see what a church looks like from the inside.” For Soharwardy, it is important to work from the grass roots in getting Christians and Muslims to talk to each other about what they believe. As he put it, “I just do not sit down myself-I take people with me so they can break down those silos that surround them.”
Zaheera Tariq, who teaches at the Al Madinah Islamic Centre and has been participating in interfaith dialogue for 13 years, affirmed the importance of that aspect of the residency. “We get together, we have a dialogue, we sit together and we eat, and it’s really great. Our kids learn a lot.”
When asked what is next for the residency program, Brubaker Garrison sounded optimistic. “In two years I’m hoping to do either Hindu or Sikh, and then…there are so many: Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Daoism-there are at least four or six other places it could go. I think it will just depend on who I can find and who would be available and willing to come.”