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Muslim women build bridges through an interfaith book club

Tazeen Ahmad relating the story of the birth of the interfaith book group
Tazeen Ahmad relating the story of the birth of the interfaith book group
Don Berkemeyer

It all started with a simple letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which among many was read by Tazeen Ahmad, of Potomac, Maryland. The letter was written by Bob Hirshon, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. Hirshon, through his letter, delivered an important message to his readers- need for religious tolerance in America. But he also shared with his readers a step that was already taken by a minority Muslim sect, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The day after September 11, 2001, Imam Shamshad reached out to Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay of the UUCSS and presented her with a copy of the Qur’an for their new scripture library. Rev. Maclay and Imam Shamshad became friends and colleagues and the congregations visited each others’ places of worship over the course of time.

Islamophobia was gaining peak in the US but it was the proposed burning of the Qur’an by a hitherto unknown pastor of a tiny church, Terry Jones, on the 9th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, which created such an uproar that it was declared to be a security threat to the US. It was under these circumstances that Tazeen Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, decided to reach out to Rev. Maclay.

“In addition to seeing Bob’s letter to the Post I also got a video link to the service in which Liz talked about the importance of religious understanding and tolerance and I was deeply moved,” Ahmad said. “After seeing it I knew that I wanted to reach out and contact her. I wasn’t sure at the time where it would lead and I am so grateful that I did,” she further added.

Ahmad and Rev. Maclay met with each other several times over the course of a year in order to get to know each other better- perhaps to dispel some of the misconceptions about Islam and Muslims which were prevalent in the minds of Americans post 9/11. But the real goal of these meetings was to find a way to get the women of UUCSS and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to come together with the hope of creating a meaningful relationship. A meeting date was set and the women of the two communities gathered at Rev. Maclay’s home in September, 2012. It was in her living room, over coffee and pastries that it was decided that a book club would be an excellent way to come together on a regular basis and develop strong friendships and even build a sort of sisterhood.

This fledgling friendship was recognized at a very special service held at the UUCSS on Sunday, March 23. The members of the book club came together to share their stories of what the group means to them. It was an opportunity for the congregation to learn how peace building and healing can take place through small steps such as the one taken by the women of UUCSS and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

Book groups are for those who have a passion for reading. But it’s more than just a passion. It’s meant for those who not only read but for those who hunger to have a discussion about what they read. Some, like Barbara Eyman, wasn’t really looking for another book club to join because she already belonged to one for more than 25 years. Yet she was drawn to the idea the moment she met the others at the first meeting.

“I have not made it to every meeting. I have not finished every book. But I have grown richer from getting to better know this amazing group of women – Muslim and UU alike. Books are the vehicle but just the vehicle. Through them, we share our own stories, our own lives, our likes, dislikes, hopes and fears,” Eyman shared.

The group has been meeting once a month on a weeknight. Despite their busy schedules the women have been anxious to get together and share not only their opinions on what they read but connect the stories with some of their own personal experiences.

“These book discussions have become a platform for revelations of past experiences and personal perspectives on hardship, triumph, injustice and prejudice. Our circle has become a safe place for each voice, without judgment or question, and that is a rare blessing we share,” said Ruqaiya Asad.

Esther McBride is also in agreement with Asad. She too feels that the book group allows her to share some deep personal experiences.

“Some of us, both UUs and Muslims, have lived through very dangerous times, life-threatening situations, or members of our families have. To have the opportunity to share our stories, to forge deeper understandings of who we are as women and as human beings has been such a great joy for me. It’s enhanced my life immeasurably,” McBride remarked.

The service was simple but beautiful and powerful. Everyone felt the energy of love and respect flowing through the congregation. Reflecting on this feeling, Atiya Malik of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said, “I hope and pray that our hearts and minds come closer together as time goes on, and that we learn to understand the beliefs of one another while appreciating our differences, and not letting them get in our way of loving each other.”

The service concluded with the benediction in which Rev. Maclay said, “The power of relationship, of faith, is profound, even against the most ugly of human brokenness: ignorance, prejudice and fear. We have felt it. We have lived it. This is a story of hope and a reminder that there is truly always something we can do. And that even a small act can have important consequences. Amen.”

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