Foreword: I wrote the first draft of this post many months ago
and have been editing and re-editing it several times. With the recent
Norway shooting incident — in which fingers instantly pointed at ‘Muslim
terrorists’ as the perpetrators, only to find out that it was a blonde
Scandinavian afterall — now is a good time as any to finally publish
this post in its entirety.
To quote the first paragraph of an article entitled Norway: Muslims and metaphors from Al-Jazeera’s website:
“The frightful mass murder in
Norway on July 22, 2011 and the instant, knee-jerk reaction of a number
of leading European and American news organisations – including the BBC,
The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the
Washington Post and a wide range of television and radio stations,
website, blogs, etc. – to assume and in fact globally to publicise their
assumption that the heinous crime was perpetrated by Muslim terrorists
(before a single fact was officially known or announced about the
suspect or suspects) has once again invoked the largely repressed
memories of the Oklahoma Bombing of 1995, in which yet another white,
blonde, terrorist had gone on a rampage murdering hundreds of people and
injuring even more and terrorising an entire nation – and when again
the same racist disposition went on a rampage accusing Muslims before
the terrorist turned out to be a blue-blooded, blonde, Christian
fundamentalist, American named Timothy James McVeigh.”
Too long have Muslims been identified with evil. Now, I must speak my piece.
I was born in southern Philippines, in the large island mass known as
Mindanao, frequently portrayed in the media as ‘Muslim Mindanao’ or
‘war-torn Mindanao’, a term that always had me puzzled because I’ve had
the most normal childhood I can ever think of.
I was raised a devout Catholic, spending the first six years of my
early education in an all-girls school run by Dominican Sisters of St.
Catherine of Siena, then later on getting my degree at the Jesuit
priest-run Ateneo de Manila University where Theology classes were
required for everyone irregardless of degree or concentration. My father
was a seminarian, i.e. he studied for priesthood, but found that it
wasn’t his calling and decided to marry my mother. I have an aunt who
has been a Carmelite nun since she was 16 years old; it’s the only life she has ever known.
Growing up as a Catholic surrounded by Catholic relatives and
friends, I had a classic case of fear of the unknown — I was afraid of
Muslims because I knew so little about them and whatever little I did
know were mostly stereotypes prevalent in mass media. Even the mere sound of the Muslims greeting each other with ‘Assalamu ‘alaykum‘
(“peace be upon you”) gave me such a dread even though I was very
comfortable with the Jewish ‘shalom’, which is actually a short form of ‘Shalom aleichem‘
which means the exact same thing, i.e. “peace be upon you”. I thought
of Muslims as violent, scary, uneducated, unhygienic people…until
I became friends with Muslims who were intelligent, highly educated,
hygienic, and well-respected in society, thereby debunking every myth I
previously believed in.
Since 1993, I’ve been living in Malaysia, a country whose population is predominantly Muslim but nowhere near what most people think Muslims are. The women here are not draped in black from head to toe but love to dress up in full colour
instead. In fact, many Muslim women here do not cover their hair. I’m
often asked why some women cover up and some don’t. And I always answer:
In the same way, some Christians go to church and some don’t. It’s all a
matter of knowledge, interpretation, belief, and choice. For that’s
what sets humans from animals, right? Freedom of choice.
But I digress. As I said, Malaysia is predominantly Muslim but life
in KL is just like life in any other urban city in the world. There are
parties, weddings, concerts, sports competitions. There are cinemas,
bars, discos. Pork and liquor — strictly prohibited for Muslims — are
available in supermarkets and hypermarkets, except that they are
segregated in the ‘Non-Halal‘ (“not allowed”) section. But, of
course, there are mosques everywhere and the call to prayer blasts out
of loudspeakers five times a day. Life slows down for one whole month
every year during the fasting month of Ramadhan. And it is a crime for
two unmarried Muslims of the opposite sex to be in close proximity with
each other, e.g. being alone together in a house or a hotel room, a
sensationalized topic referred to as ‘khalwat‘ in the Malay language.
Some people might say Islam is a religion with very strict rules; I
say it’s a religion with clearly defined boundaries. Unlike, say,
Catholicism, which prohibits sex before marriage but does not specify
the limits for other forms of physical intimacy between unmarried
couples. Where is the boundary? Holding hands? Kissing? Hugging?
So what’s my point actually? Simple. It’s this: Life, as I have lived it in Malaysia for the past 17 years, has shown me that Muslims are just like any other human being
in any other corner of the world who have the same needs, hopes, and
aspirations as everyone else — love, family, happiness and contentment.
The same holds true for Muslims whom I’ve met in my travels to
countries like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei,
Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and Netherlands.
Having lived in both a Christian and a Muslim environment for
prolonged periods of time, I’ve seen both sides of the coin and know
both sides very well. I’ve also had the opportunity to study to some extent both Christianity and Islam, both the Bible and the Qur’an. I emphasise ‘to some extent‘
here because I am no expert and make no claims to have the final say on
these matters. But what I do know for sure is this: even though
Christianity and Islam are very different at the core — whereas Christians believe Jesus is the begotten Son of God, to Muslims, he is Isa, the prophet — Christians and Muslims have so much more in common than most people realise it.
Let’s start with Mary (Arabic: Maryam). She was a virgin who gave
birth to a boy named Jesus (Arabic: Isa). Forget about the Arabic names
just for once and the story sounds exactly like what all Christians are
taught from childhood, right? I was also astounded the first time I
found out that an entire chapter in the Qur’an is named after her.
[NB: On a side note, have you ever wondered why the Virgin Mary
has always been portrayed throughout the centuries in paintings,
sculptures, and illustrations wearing a veil of some sort? Nuns wear
them, as well. But when Muslim women wear them, they’re called
Then there’s Moses (Arabic: Musa), who was put inside a basket when
he was a baby in order to avoid being slaughtered by the Pharaoh’s men,
grew up in the Pharaoh’s household, found out about his prophethood
through a burning bush, liberated the Israelites from the Pharaoh,
parted the Red Sea. Again, the accounts are the same both the Bible and
There’s Joseph (Arabic: Yusuf), whose brothers were envious of him,
who was sold off as a slave, thrown to the dungeon, but whose life
changed due to his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream about seven
years of plenty and seven years of famine. Again, the accounts are the
same both in the Bible and the Qur’an. And like Maryam, there is an
entire chapter in the Qur’an named after Yusuf. Reading that particular chapter in English with all the names in English would give any Christian an eerie sense of deja vu.
Oh, and the first man and woman? They’re Adam and Eve, too, except
that they’re referred to in the Qur’an by their Arabic names as Adam and
Hawa. They were both expelled from the garden of Eden (Arabic: Adn).
And they had sons named Cain and Abel (Arabic: Habil and Qabil).
[NB: The Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic language. Despite
having been translated into various languages, the Arabic script remains
the same. Hence, when Muslims state the names of prophets, the Arabic
names are used.]
As a matter of fact, all the major prophets named in the Qur’an are
the same prophets mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible: Noah
(Arabic: Nuh), who also built a wooden ark, as instructed by God;
Abraham (Arabic: Ibrahim); Jacob (Arabic: Yaqub); Isaac (Arabic: Ishaq),
son of Sara; Ishmael (Arabic: Ismail), son of Hajar; Lot (Arabic: Lut),
whose wife was destroyed with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah
(although the Qur’an is more specific about the reason for their
destruction: homosexuality); Elijah (Arabic: Ilyas); Elisha (Arabic:
Ilyasa); Job (Arabic: Ayyub), whose faith was tested by God with various
calamities and diseases; Jonah (Arabic: Yunus), who was swallowed alive
by a whale.
The similarities are not limited to the prophets. Angel Gabriel,
Jibreel in Arabic, is also mentioned in the Qur’an. Just as he announced
glad tidings of a baby to Mary in the Bible, so did he as narrated in
the Qur’an. [NB: According to Islamic teachings, it was Jibreel who was instrumental in revealing the Qur’an to Muhammad.]
And as Wikipedia cleverly points out, despite the Ten Commandments
not being explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an, there are verses in the
Qur’an that are substantially the same as the Ten Commandments that have been revealed by God to Moses, as mentioned in the Bible.
Sometimes my knowledge of the Bible and of the Qur’an get all mixed
up and I need to check every now and then which book mentioned which
detail. It’s like they’re two pieces of the same puzzle, offering
information and evidence that shed more light on what the other has to
Why can’t we all just focus on our similarities instead of our differences? Why can’t we all just get along?! As the Dalai Lama succinctly summed it up in Twitter on the 18th of September:
Perhaps the most
significant obstruction to inter-religious harmony is a lack of
appreciation of the value of others’ faith traditions.
(Sat Sep 18 17:47:32 2010 via web)