(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Religion

Those of you who know me well are probably surprised this post hasn't happened yet.  Well, wait no more.  Here comes Elise's religion-nerd posting.  Before I get into that, however, a brief update on life here.  Things in Aleppo are pretty calm and I've been being careful and safe, so don't worry about me.  We're spending the rest of spring break in Aleppo, which means I made a very fun but probably not financially smart gift-shopping trip yesterday.  I've gotten pretty good at haggling, although that makes it sound like I'm being annoying (possibly because it sounds like "nagging").  In reality, though, the way it works here is that I walk up, admire merchandise, surprise the shopkeeper by being able to speak Arabic, and then make friends with said shopkeeper.  I get a little off for speaking Arabic, a little off for being a student at the local university, a little off for being nice, a little off if the gift is for a "good cause" (a family member or a house of God), a little off if they have a friend in the US...etc.  It's fun being a novelty and incredibly and always welcomed.

While I can't speak to the ideas of all Syrians and while, as in any country, there is a diversity of viewpoints, I've heard the following from enough people that I think it's pretty standard here: "The important thing about religion is how you treat each other."  Variants include: "...and God takes care of the rest", "...and that's why the Christians are our brothers", and "..and that's why Syrians look forward while Saudis and Iranians are backward-looking."  This evening, after I was introduced by a Syrian hallmate to his family friend as a student of religion, the family friend asked me what the difference was between Christianity and Islam.  In my barely-adequate Arabic, I started going into the role of the Prophet Muhammad and differing views of Jesus.  Turns out the family friend has a master's degree in Islamic shari'a, and he proceeded to give me the same talk as so many others: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as all "heavenly" religions-- the People of the Book-- and the important thing for all three is how you treat other humans.  It's a refreshing perspective.

On this issue, I often feel closer to the Syrians than to the other Americans in the program.  For anyone who doesn't know, I am a Christian who identifies both as religious and as spiritual; few of the other Americans would do so.  This is an issue which arose in literature class once when we discussed the Arabic word "maktoob" (lit.: "written"), meaning something that is preordained or meant to be.  Many of the students seemed to have a hard time believing that modern, generally rational people could also believe in God.  Likewise, the phrase "insha'allah" means for many students just "hopefully."  For most Syrians, though, its literal meaning, "if God wishes/wills", is the important one.  For the highly secular-minded American liberal-arts college student, God has nothing to do with whether our plane will take on in May.  On Ash Wednesday, I couldn't find a church at which to attend services; I burned paper on the stove to make my own ashes and smeared a cross on my forehead.  I told the Syrians that it was for a religious holiday, and that was pretty much that.  Doing weird things for religious reasons is pretty a3dii here.

I don't mean to rag on the Americans too much; perhaps I've been spoiled by the active Methodist group at my university and the wonderful teachers in the department of religion and philosophy.  My religious-person hat would like it if people were a bit more understanding, but it is my academia-of-religion hat that is most concerned.  While it's great to know things like the five pillars of Islam or the names of the books of the Gospel, what is more useful to understand religions is empathy and acceptance of religion as important.  Especially in studying Syrian society, an appreciation of the role of religion is vital.  Additionally, regardless of one's own personal beliefs, one cannot get a realistic and fair idea of Syrian society if one is convinced that religion is an archaic hold-over from medieval times.  Neither of the two major religions in the country-- Islam and Christianity-- is necessarily a burden on individuals nor a mark of backwardness.  Both are important and dynamic forces in everyday life and underlie every decision made by people throughout the country. 

I guess this is just frustrating for me because I am interested already in religion, and so know its importance in society.  To add onto that, I have put a good deal of effort into identifying and dividing my two afore-mentioned hats (religious convictions and academic learning).  I'd kind of like the same from other people; if you are not religious, wonderful.  Fine.  Don't be religious.  But identify and then suspend your own convictions or lack thereof when learning about other people's.


  1. Great post. I myself am spiritual, but not religious. I do my best to not judge someone who is religious, since I have felt judged on this topic many a time. I hate when people assume that because I'm not a fan of organized religion (in general, of course), that I don't believe in G*d or love G*d. When "they" assume that I can't be a moral, ethical, good person because of that.

    That said, I have to remind myself that just because someone is religion doesn't mean that they are judging me. It doesn't mean they are close-minded to anything but their own beliefs. Its easy for me to do that with people on an individual/personal level, when I know them. A little harder when its as a group, or someone new who might come off a little rough.

    In any case, I agree with all sentiments in this, and I think its great of you to put it out there.

  2. A really thoughtful post, Elise--I am glad to know that you are safe, well, and getting better at haggling. I appreciate your attention to what distinguishes a uniquely Syrian way of being Muslim, as opposed to the Saudi way or, worse, the way that some Americans might imagine what it means to be Muslim. Safe travels!