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Istanbul has always been described as the crossroads of the East and West. Walking around Istanbul is like stepping into old world Europe, complete with ancient Roman ruins, cobblestones, and crumbling stone edifices. The only difference is that, unlike in Europe, everywhere you turn in Istanbul, you’re bound to see the characteristic domes and minarets of mosques. It is also virtually impossible to miss the reverberation of the azan (call to prayer) five times a day — at daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk, and early evening — anywhere you may be in Istanbul.

The mosques themselves look pretty nondescript and uninteresting from the outside — drab, cold, and grey. Just take a look at this mosque that’s just a few steps away from the Misir Çarşisi (Egyptian Market) — the Yeni Camii or New Mosque.

It doesn’t look like much but the sign indicating its age will pique anyone’s curiousity.

Walk into the courtyard and you’ll see this ablution fountain. (NB: Muslims purify themselves before prayers by washing their hands, faces, and feet.)

As you cross the threshold and enter the mosque, suddenly you feel as though you’ve stepped into Aladdin’s time — lush and thick wall-to-wall carpeting, lamps suspended from the ceiling, and the typical designs associated with Moorish architecture.

But wait! What is this? Stained glass windows! They’re just like the ones that you’d expect to find in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Except that these have Arabic words like Allah (Arabic for ‘God’) instead of depictions of Christian saints and angels.

Here is a short video that I took of the interior of the Yeni Camii, just to give you all a feel of the atmosphere inside.

My visit to Yeni Camii reminded me once more not to judge a book by its cover.

(P.S. I’ve written this post end-2010 right after a trip to Istanbul but completely forgot about it until I stumbled upon it as I was browsing around my hard drive for some other files.)

Ramadhan is finally over so you amble towards your officemate’s desk and ask her out to lunch. She looks up at you and apologises, “Sorry, I puasa lah.” (I’m sorry, but I’m fasting.)

What gives?! Ramadhan’s over. So why is she still fasting?

It’s something that the Malays call puasa enam, i.e. fasting for six days anytime within the month of Shawwal (the month that comes after Ramadhan**). It is said that if a Muslim fasts for the whole month of Ramadhan and follows it with six days fasting within the month of Shawwal, it is as if they fasted the entire year. It is a recommended — but not compulsory — practice.

So now you know why your colleague is fasting. Now go buy her some cookies or cupcakes to eat when she breaks her fast at sunset later 😉

**’Ramadhan’ is actually the name of a month in the Islamic calendar. And because the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadhan can fall on any month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. The other months are: Muḥarram, Ṣafar, Rabīʿ al-Awwal, Rabīʿ ath-Thānī, Jumādā al-Ūlā, Jumādā al-Ākhira, Rajab, Shaʿbān, Ramaḍān, Shawwāl, Dhū al-Qiʿda, Dhū al-Ḥijja.

cross-and-crescent

©iStockphoto.com/Karen Moller

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 prophetChristians 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 ‘oppressed’?]

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 the Qur’an.

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 offer.

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)