Encounters with Islam: Part I

May 24, 2013
Isaac Friesen and Wanda Wall-Bergen |

Living in a Muslim country has been an amazing experience. The Islamic world had long-fascinated me as something so strange and different from my own context. I would often wonder, 'What is Islam?' Now over two years into our stay in Egypt the question fascinates me as much as ever.

Many of our friends, students and neighbours are Muslims, and they have shown us a most beautiful face of Islam. Yet the things we have seen and heard have not always been easy. Ultimately we have been surprised, disappointed, tested and ultimately gratified in our interaction with Muslims and Islam time and time again.

The average North American’s engagement with Islam is mostly limited to mass media. Powerhouses like CNN, The Economist, BBC, the NYT, and Fox News tell similar narratives, with Islam appearing in a context of terrorism and war. Muslims are often portrayed as hateful and backward. Sometimes I even brave the comments section for readers, to which I can only shake my head.

Interest and profit-driven news outlets provide a woefully short and destructive depiction of Islam. Living in Egypt has opened our eyes to so many aspects of this great world religion. More often than not we encounter Islam as an incredibly positive force. The following is a small selection some of our more telling encounters with Islam.

During our first month in Egypt I was often on guard for taxi drivers and vendors trying to overcharge us. One day we took an early morning cab to the downtown Cairo train station. The taxi was metered, and since the roads were still empty the rate jumped far quicker than I had ever seen. Naturally this is how the meter works. Only when we arrived at the downtown station, my foggy morning head was convinced the driver was trying to rip us off. I scolded him in my broken Arabic and told him I would only pay a portion of the total.

The man protested vigorously, but my mind was already settled. As I was getting out of the car he made a final effort to convince me of his honesty. “Ana Muslim (I am Muslim),” he pronounced. Unmoved, I got out of the car. “Ana Muslim” he yelled again as I was walking away.

The man's declaration of his faith was his final and definitive proof of his sincerity. Of course, he was being honest- a fact I only realized minutes later. I hurried back to where he had dropped us off but he was already gone. To this day I dream of meeting him again so I can apologize and repay my debt.

These days North Americans’ exposure to Arabic is limited to the cries of Syrian rebels. One might even come to associate the Takbir (Allahu Akbar) and the Shahada (There is no god but God) with violence. I hope it goes without saying how misleading this coverage is. Muslim expressions are almost always used in the opposite way.

A striking example of this is found in the audio of the 2013 Luxor hot air balloon crash footage. The accident was captured on camera from a second balloon, where Egyptian workers watch in horror as the extent of the tragedy becomes clear. What they utter over and over is a breathless Shahada.

Their statement of belief is a submission of complete deference and an appeal to God for compassion. And regardless of CNN footage, it is almost always the Merciful and Compassionate One Muslims pray to when they contact Allah.

Many Westerners see the Middle East as a scary warzone. And in isolated places in space and time the region can certainly be dangerous. But 2007 Iraq and 2013 Syria are the exception, not the rule. The average Middle Eastern city is much safer than one would imagine.

Over the past two years we have travelled extensively both within Egypt and the region as a whole. Never have I felt in real danger because of people- thugs, criminals or 'terrorists'. During a recent visit to Amman we enjoyed a late night stroll through the downtown. With Kanefeh in hand I smiled to Wanda and said “I love how safe the Middle East is.” It was only a few steps later when I realized how ironic my words would have sounded to some.

Indeed human society is the foundation of safety and security in the Middle East. Pervading ethics of respect, honour, and hospitality can be found in countries from Morocco to Iran. And it should be no secret that each of these diverse societies developed under the umbrella of Islamic civilization.

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